The Time I Took a 19-hour Bus Ride Across East Africa, Because Why Not.
My work visa in Tanzania was about to expire, and I needed to do a quick trip out of the country in order to renew it. I couldn’t be gone for too long, so it made sense to go somewhere nearby, like to one of the neighbouring countries, like… Kenya. Plus, I had a friend in Nairobi whom I haven’t seen in years, which also meant free accommodation...
Okay, Nairobi, Kenya it is.
I did a bit of research, and found out there were multiple ways to get to Nairobi. Flying in was ridiculously expensive, as the route was monopolized by one airline. Driving in wasn’t an option as I neither had an International Driver’s Licence nor a car to drive. Taking a bus though…
I decided to refer to the wisdom of a native Kenyan director in the company who made frequent trips back to Nairobi every other weekend to visit his family.
“Henry, should I take a flight or a bus to Nairobi?”
He said: “Don’t ever take the bus to Nairobi.”
I carefully thought about what he said, and came back to him the next day. “Henry,” I said happily, “I’m taking the bus to Nairobi!”
I even managed to convince my colleague, Jehan, to come along.
“It’ll be an adventure!” I said. “We’ll get to see the local villages, we’ll pass by Mount Kilimanjaro, we may even get to see wildlife! Giraffes! Elephants! Hyenas! It’ll be fun!” I said.
Maybe we'll see this!
Jehan was in charge of buying bus tickets, and she returned with two pieces of paper that declared: LUXURY COACH.
“Oooh,” I rubbed my hands excitedly, “I wonder if what kind of movies they'll show during the ride?”
Our ‘luxury coach’ was really a rickety bus with malfunctioning windows and cramped seats. Forget movies – you can’t watch a movie when there’s no TV – there wasn’t even air-conditioning or seatbelts. I should’ve known something was off when the ticket came with no assigned seating.
“Well,” we said to ourselves, “it’s just part of the adventure!”
It was a very long ride, and we saw a lot of things along the way.
Though I had visited various places around the world, it was only then that I realised that I had never actually traveled through a third-world country. All of my travels had been skewed towards the rich countries, the lands of plenty. And now, for the first time, I was being smacked in the face with poverty and scarcity no matter where I looked.
I thought about a lot of things during that ride.
Apparently in East Africa, there are no regulations that stipulate mandatory rests for the poor driver. The bus trundled along endlessly across the hot and dusty landscape.
We stopped once for lunch, though, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Both Jehan and I sighed in relief at finally being able to stretch our legs. We didn’t understand the Swahili that the bus conductor was yelling in, but we assumed it was the usual reminder to be back to the bus on time.
“How long do we have?” Jehan asked.
“I dunno, maybe half an hour.” I shrugged.
We went to the loo, we bought some food, we sat and chatted, like you do when at rest stops. Suddenly, the bus conductor was running towards us, yelling and gesticulating wildly. We still didn’t understand what he was saying, but we could tell it wasn’t good.
“Oh whooops, maybe we’re late.” We grabbed our things and dashed to the parking lot, but the bus was not there. The bus was gone!
“Wait, what, did the bus just drive off??” Being Malaysians, we've been late a ton of times, but we had never been left behind before!
The conductor had ran all the way onto the highway, and once again, waved his arms at us. We ran over to catch up with him, and looked down the long stretch of road. Sure enough, our bus was a few kilometres up ahead, waiting on the side of the road.
Evidently, everyone else had climbed back on board, and the bus had driven off a ways until somebody (bless them, whoever they are) realised that two seats were empty and alerted the bus conductor, who then had to run all the way back to the rest stop to retrieve the two stupid, clueless foreigners who were blissfully munching on their food, unaware that they were so close to being left in a deserted area with only the clothes on their back and not much else.
It turned out that, at least in Tanzania, when the bus stopped for lunch, you were supposed to dash out, buy food and dash back onto the bus as it continued on its way. You were supposed to do takeouts and eat on the bus. None of this leisurely stroll to the toilet, no sitting around, chomping on your meal and chatting idly about days past - it was go, go, go!
“Oh wow, we could have been left here in the middle of nowhere without our stuff!”
“And we don’t even know where we are, or speak the language!”
“We are not stepping off this bus ever again.”
We did have to step off the bus once more before we reached our destination – our passports needed to be stamped to cross the border between Tanzania and Kenya.
It was around 8 pm, it was oppressively dark, the place was crowded and everyone was tired. The American couple in front of us had to deal with bribery requests and were pissed. Nobody asked us to bribe them though – maybe we didn’t look rich enough.
We made sure to stick to the group and to be back on the bus like we were supposed to.
In my research, the drive between Dar es Salaam and Nairobi was supposed to take 14 hours. Ours took 19.
We left Dar es Salaam at 5 am, and arrived in Nairobi at midnight, aching and bruised from what seemed like a lifetime of sitting on a bouncing bus over 900 km of roads made of gravel.
We were exhausted, disoriented, and, as I would soon discover, missing a GoPro (that wasn't even mine to lose!) that had disappeared somewhere along the journey.
On the positive side, at least we were alive! Surely that counts.
Jehan turned to me. “Atiqah,” she said very firmly, “we’re most definitely taking a flight back to Dar es Salaam.”
And now you know never to trust me when I say: “It’ll be an adventure! It’ll be fun!”
PS: We did have a lot of fun in Nairobi, by the way. We just wouldn’t take the bus there ever again. I should’ve listened to Henry.
"Henry, should I ride a bike or a hippo to Kenya?"