Thursday, September 17, 2009

Passing by New Jerusalem Big Big Shoe Shine, Part Deux

**A reminder that the first half of the story is located one entry below**

The main struggle with living abroad is in the clash of cultures. The more you are around one the more it seeps into your unconscious mind and all the way down your spine until its in your bones. Your body reacts to it, initially with curious awe. Then upon realizing it’s not stopping, that it wants to get deep inside you, your body fights back. You get angry and upset. You demand your ‘rights’ that are no rights at all, only empty words that get you blank stares. Time is on its side. Your body only fights for so long before it passes your defenses and settles. This, as I see it, is the “travel cycle” (the emotions you go through whilst away from your home environment).
One part that most westerners fight with is the lack of control. We ask; when? How? Why? How much? For how long? Frequently, I find none of those issues resolved. As I sat on the bus I realized a few months ago I would have been put off by the mayhem we had just gone through, but at some point my mind accepted it as inevitable, almost normal (almost), and so I sat back. I let the bus toss me around while my mine wandered. Our helper/guardian angel, Molita, figured out a route for us to take as we hustled our way over to the bus. She wrote it down on a piece of paper, names of cities I’d never heard of, and told us the bus was heading to a city called Mpanda. So Mpanda it was!
I had no idea how long it would take or which stop along the way it was. I figured we would ride it as long as we were headed in the right direction.
About 10 hours later the bus pulled to a stop in a small, dirt station. It was, in fact, not Mpanda but a city called Sumbawanga. And once again we were met by someone who spoke enough English to tell us where we were and how to get to the next place we wanted to go (you’ll notice a pattern). The bus to Mpanda headed out the next morning we were told.
The look of a lost tourist to a taxi driver is like a shark smelling blood in the water. Drivers came up and motioned for our bags. The young man who helped us sorted out the nonsense and connected us with a guy that offered a fair price. Soon enough we communicated via hand motions and broken Swahili we needed a place to stay the night. The driver rattled off names of places to stay and I just said “the first one”. What a great choice!
We spent the night in a Catholic mission. Them Catholics know how to live it up! Well not really but it was very quaint. Well kept, clean rooms. Great food that didn’t give us hepatitis.
We spent the afternoon and the night exploring the town. I do love the east African culture. You can meander down the narrow walks in the colorful markets or just find a shady tree to sit and watch people watch you. And do they watch you! Outsiders rarely make it to such towns as Sumbawanga, little transit towns in between bigger towns with more important things going on. Such places remind me of the town my dad grew up in rural America: Life moves a bit slower and they cater to the needs of the passerby as best they know how. This means lots of small snack stands, lots of bars, street food, and a decent restaurant or two.
The people stare at you with an unabashed interest. They continue to stare at you, unblinking, even as you meet their gaze. It seems you could stare back forever without a word shared. When you walk on the street they look you up and down, not trying to hide it like we do in the West. You see them eye your fancy shoes or any interesting items you might have in your pockets. When their eyes finally rise back up they meet you again with that stare. The African stare I call it.
We indulged in our first beer in months. Taking in the afternoon sun, making casual conversation with the regulars at the small shack we stopped in. We killed time until dusk when we strolled easily back to the mission, helping push start a battered old pick up along the way.
After having nothing but an apple and orange for the previous few days we feasted like kings on the nuns home cooking. They do fried chicken right.
We started out early the next morning for our bus. We decided to stop at the ATM along the way just in case we needed extra cash. Little did we know that it was the last ATM we would access until Bujumbura.
The road to Mapanda wound through the mountains of a national park. Giraffe and elephant stared at the bus rumbling by. Northern Tanzania is gorgeous country, Lion King country, and the trip flew by. It helped me appreciate Tanzania. At the sacrifice of personal comfort we found ourselves swept up in a current of beautiful landscapes and memorable experiences. Not so long after that we rolled into Mapanda.
Mpanda continued the pattern of small transit towns in Tanzania: dusty roads winding between markets, houses, and guest houses. At the center of town a half finished Lutheran Cathedral interrupted the amoebic conglomerate of sagging shack-shops, massed together that was the city skyline.
Another one of our guardian angels met us just as we stepped off the bus; another lone English speaker able to guide us towards a guest house and relay the inevitable news that our travel plans would yet again change drastically. For three days this time. No buses or trains left for at least that long.
We checked into, what I was convinced at the time was, a quasi brothel. Long dark, concrete hall ways led us to our single bed room with a bucket shower that doubled as a toilet. At least the roaches were kind enough to scurry out of sight when we stepped in. The first night we barricaded the door with our luggage against the drunks outside.
The next day we took to the task of finding a way out of town. Walking by the so-African shacks with names like ‘New Jerusalem Big Big Shoe Shine’, ‘G Unit Haircutz’, and ‘Kalifornia’ we asked about trains and buses and anything else we could think of that would get us farther North. Each new possibility led to a dead end, but seek and ye shall find. And find we did.
We were able to connect with a young black market Chinese medicine dealer who spoke excellent English. Dr. Samuel Mpanda I called him, although he was not a doctor. We had heard that the UN made daily trips up to Kigoma, our intended destination, and took passengers for a small transit fee. On our way to the office Samuel intercepted us and struck up a conversation. We spent the day with him and treated him to dinner.
I found that Tanzanians will bend over backwards to help you out. For a fee (it’s a quirky, almost endearing trait, that puts a smile on your face. Then I realized: on the local level this is somewhat cute but on a national level probably rots the country from within with corruption. This further cemented in my head that bad governance is one of the greatest factors hindering development the world round). Working through Samuel and other friends we met on the street we found that the owner of our guest house heard of our plight and offered to take us all the way into Burundi for a fraction of what others offered us.
Thus began our Saga with Moussa. Moussa was the owner of our guest house (which after one day there, I realized it was no brothel and the staff endeared us). Moussa showed up in a small Suzuki SUV with his wife and child along for the ride. Problem: Our bags weighed more than his wife and child combined and took up three times the space. It was then I was reminded of the old joke “how many people can you fit in an African bus? One more!” And so we did. Moussa’s wife and child sat up front in the passenger seat while JJ and I worked our way amongst the bags stacked to the ceiling in the back.
Within two minutes JJ and I were praying as Moussa put the pedal to the floor and tried to make up time for starting out late. The little Suzuki bounced off ruts and bottomed out on rocks. But the car wouldn’t die. No matter how much Moussa pounded that thing and broke every rule in the book on how to drive off road, it would not die or puncture or fade. It was beyond natural—supernatural. No other way to explain how or why that little early 90s 4x4 didn’t leave us on the side of those lonesome roads.
Day turned to night; hills turned to mountains; and Swahili turned to Kirundi as we meandered our way towards the border. We stopped at one point along a ridge line. The air was surprising cool. We looked out over the horizon and the mountains disappeared into mist. Just beyond the haze lay Burundi. Quite a poetic beginning to my time in Burundi, I thought: I couldn’t see what lie ahead, it was a haze, unclear, but I knew that there were mountains to climb.
We pulled up to the border as they were closing the doors. Great we made it! Oh what’s that Moussa? You didn’t tell us you didn’t have a passport? And oh what else are you worried about? That they’ll find your pistol? For real.
Our driver had headed towards the border in full knowledge that he had no passport, and headed into a newly established post conflict zone with a concealed weapon. Somehow we passed through the gates with both issues being resolved. I was relieved that we wouldn’t have to spend the night in the shady border town on the Tanzanian side.
Driving through the gates we wound down a steep mountain side with pine forests, more resembling Switzerland than central Africa. The trees held a reassuring quiet and an eternal lightness that I wished would not end.
From the fairy tale forest we emerged and quickly parked at the concrete block of a checkpoint. I saw the gateman headed to lower the bar for the night as we walked into the office. In that office Moussa earned every penny we paid him. He sat and softened up the young man behind the desk, sitting there with a sly grin on his face, who knew he had us in a desperate situation. Moussa spoke no less than 3 languages in the twenty minute conversation he had with the border guard, and soon enough he had them all laughing easy.
When it seemed like we were in the clear, and all we had to do was pay, the TIA factor kicked in and our last remaining currency, that old hundred dollar bill, was laughably out of date. Moussa just looked at us. He dropped his hands to his sides and said we came all that way and you don’t even have money? I wanted to yell at him, yell at the border guard ‘of course we have money! You don’t even know why you don’t take ‘old’ bills! You frickin’ idiots!’ But that would have done me no good. After twelve hours in the hot car with little food I decided to keep my mouth shut. Thankfully, JJ found the situation more humorous than I and engaged the border guard enough through Moussa that they allowed us to pass through on the promise that we would find the nearest immigration office and try to work out the details there.
As it turned out the nearest town inland, about 30 kms, had no working ATM. Again, Moussa earned his weight in gold by finding us a room and negotiating with the manager that we could catch a ride into Bujumbura, find an ATM, and pay them the following day. At the guest house I borrowed a guys phone to call my boss in the country to see if he could help us out. I finally reached him after several desperate attempts. I quickly explained that we had no money and asked if he could drive up to get us the following or somehow get us money. Instantly, I heard him start laughing on the other end of the line. And then the phone went dead. Great, I thought.
After an awkward encounter with the town psycho posing as a police officer, trying to get in our room, we inhaled our remaining food, a pineapple, and slept through the night. Waking the next morning we found that no one had come to knock on our door as they said they would and the mini bus arranged for us to take into town had gone. But shortly after leaving the front door of the guest house to try and find another ride the van randomly showed up, unscrewed one of the bench seats inside and loaded our massive luggage on board.
I’m sure our mini bus ride into Bujumbura is on some video game. The speeds we reached going into the steep mountain curves defied physics (did you know that you don’t have to slow down going into curves, you can actually accelerate into them as a way of gaining speed? Fun things you learn in Africa). The minibus creaked and groaned against the centrifugal forces pulling against it, but somehow held together as we weaved around potholes and bikes loaded with goods bound for the market (side note: youtube “Burundi bikers” and you can find an amazing documentary on these guys that go up to 60mph without brakes getting their products to Bujumbura from the mountains).
The bus stopped at a number of police/military check points. Nervously, JJ and I either played ‘dumb tourist’ by giving the officers big smiles and thumbs up or just avoided eye contact all together. Anything to get around the fact that we had nearly made it to the capital city of the country without any visas in our passports. Our silent prayers worked a miracle as we never were asked for any ID or never had our large tempting bags searched.
We rolled out of the mountains and followed the coast into Bujumbura. The driver graciously helped me find a SIM card and dropped us off at a respectable looking hotel. I contacted my boss and shortly thereafter we sat waiting for our colleagues to pick us up.
JJ and I sat at a table in the hotel restaurant tired, wired, and slightly at a loss for words after a solid week of travel to get to Bujumbura. We had endured and survived countless hours on bumpy African busses. We made it with all our luggage, no money, and technically as illegal aliens in Burundi (crossing the border without visas). Along the way we met some strange, curious, and altogether helpful people, without whom, our journey would have taken much longer or had a much less cheery outcome. I will never forget it, and I will never take the convenience of modern transportation for granted again.
And that’s the story about how JJ and I saved Spring Break.
The End. Rakoze chana (thank you very much).