Riding on the dusty hot bus we look at each other and then anxiously out the window as we pass by shanty followed by a small row of shops painted in Airtel or Zamtel logos. Lu asks me: “Is this it? Is this it? I think we should get off…..” Our anxiety builds as the bus pulls up in a three stall bus stand. There the taxi drivers crowd the door, and people selling grilled chicken, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, soda and biscuits rap their hands on the bus making us jump. Then they start to sing like a british football hooligans. We have dread as we see this orchestra build, it adds to the effect of walking out the tunnel to the field. Actually this is totally normal for any stop but this doesn’t help with our main fear – we have absolutely no idea where we are.
With Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, or Zanzibar I think many people have a sort of rough idea where there are, or at least have heard of them. But when we mention places like Same, Babati, Iringa, Mpika, Mazabuka, Choma, or Kalomo most people have no idea where they are. Honestly we had no idea where they were until about a day before we got there. So as our bus goes on we just have to know where to get off since it’s not just the end of the line like when the bus gets to one of the large cities. But fortunately as a custom the driver never announces where we are! We see that we are in a place larger than the side of the road and there is a faded sign somewhere which says ‘Choma Tax Office’ so we risk it and jump into the crowd of sellers and taxi drivers. But this is where things differ from the big cities.
In the crowd people ask us ‘Taxi? Taxi? Taxi? Safari? Chicken?’, but we say no thank you no thank you as usual but the difference is the hassle stops, that’s it. In the big cities these crowds would follow us for blocks ‘trying to help’. In our first town, Same, we escaped the bus stand with no followers but then a man walking down the street said ‘Good morning, how are you’. To myself I was thinking, oh great – here we go, what’s this guy’s scam, but then he just walked past me. He just, walked past me. All he wanted was to say hello, how is that possible. I saw him again later and he asked if he could take us out for a drink. In London he would be an absolute nutter, but here he is a welcome sight.
Maybe it’s because we both grew up in places like Ann Arbor or Skofljica where when someone says ‘hello’ to you they genuinely mean it. Or maybe it’s just after living in a place like London then coming to the large cities of Africa you just assume life is all about the hassle or being hassled then escaping it before your destination. It’s wonderful that the small town reminds us why we are on a journey where we pick destinations on the go.
When we get off in a town we usually have figured out the layout of the town; where to shop, which day the market is on, and a good place to eat. It’s nice because have a feel within hours, then after that we can begin to meet people. Sometimes it’s just because we have eaten at the same place 3 times, or maybe because we got lost we end up in the supermarket talking to the manager for directions, or the Mama’s at our hostel are just so curious about us. Everyone is always genuine and just wants to know more about us, more about where we were from, and usually ‘Why on earth did you pick our small town to stay!??’
It’s in these small towns you get this humor and also get more of the sense of their cultural humor which is one of the best ways to get to know people even if you can’t really communicate. In Same we became esteemed guests at a charity and later at a St. Michaels celebtration and choir competition. They laughed that we could get lost in their small town. In Babati we laughed about polygamy or us not having polygamy. In Mazabuka we met Festus who worked at our lodge. We talked for a while just about everything; he can even talk more than Lu! In Choma we met a woman while we walked down a country road into the bush. I don’t know if she had ever seen two people of our complexion walking down this road before and she just started laughing and clapping her hands. She spoke no English and just said ‘Mazsha kawati na kutdfi za proble its hzftaanbflk’ (I have no idea what she said). But she was pointing down the road and laughing and marching and putting her hands as though she were carrying a backpack like us. What we think she said was something like ‘You just have your backpack on and you are just walking down the road, just like that! Amazing! I love it!’ Then she too walked off on her way to the market. Finally the children in all the small towns just want to say hello. They all wave and ask ‘how are you?’. They don’t ask for money or candy (except for one child who explicitly stated “I am asking you for money”). Then giggle, then laugh hysterically, and then run away when you talk back to them, or come over to touch your hand then run off because they can’t believe they just did that. The wonderful sense of humor for me comes from the ones who also try to do something different. When we were on our huge game-drive overlander driving through small towns the children would run to the street to wave and we would wave back. As we were driving through a rural area of Tanzania we were waving at all these kids, then one teenager in the background just gave us the finger with a huge smile on his face. He sees I am dying laughing at this and he laughs too then waves. Honestly this might have been one of my favorite moments, when everyone else is waving and going nuts at the muzungus, there is one clown who just gives us the finger. Oh and in case you were wondering there is no double meaning to ‘flipping the bird’, it means the same down here. You remember a place better when you are laughing with someone than just taking a photo of something you were supposed to take a photo of.
Still, at each stop it’s hard to remember this when I am on the bus pointing downward with my hands as I loudly ask a fellow passenger ‘Iringa!?’ ‘Iringa!?’. He shakes his head ‘No’, because I am pointing straight down he thinks I am asking if Iringa is on this bus, no of course not, it’s actually outside the window. Why didn’t this silly muzungu just point out the window, that’s where Iringa is.
I think the only way we have made it this far is because of the helpful people in Babati, the town before, who told us exactly how long a drive it is to Iringa. So this has to be Iringa.