Two to Tanga

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Thursday, May 3, 2007

Today I am making a 'business trip' to the title town of the Tanga region. I've never had a job that involves much travel, so it is a tiny bit exciting, even though Tanga is only a two-hour bus ride from Pangani. The purpose of the trip is to deliver training on the basics of business - profit/loss, capital, reinvesting, stock-taking - to three people associated with the Tanga AIDS Working Group (TAWG).

The bus to Tanga is an elderly and decrepit, rickety old rust bucket. The steel interior has been painted in that pale blue that makes it look like a military vehicle.  Years of jolting journeys along the Tanga-Pangani route have caused many of the rivets to come loose and with them the luggage racks above the seats.  Several seated passengers look likely to cop a loose luggage rack and its contents right in the head at any minute.  The seats are no better off.  Most have had a chunk of the leather covering ripped off and tufts of the foam innards are spewing out.  One seat has even lost its binding from the metal base, rendering it pretty much useless.  To prolong its life, a rope has been attached from the back of the seat to the luggage rack above, itself fighting a battle with gravity. 

As we are waiting for hte bus to leave, more and more stuff is loaded on to the roof.  A large barrow is wheeled up and three men begin unloading the solid sacks of rice with "50kg" stamped on the front.  Two of the men balance a sack on the head of the third man, who nearly buckles under the weight.  Imagine a small adult balancing on your head and that's the sort of weight this guy is dealing with.  He walks carefully to the side of the bus and then, amazingly, begins to climb the ladder to the roof.  He is using both hands to climb the rungs to the huge sack is only supported by his neck muscles.  Once he reaches the top he flicks his head forward to drop the sack and climbs down again, only for his friends to load him up again.

The bus leaves Pangani an hour late because the ferry is broken and the regular one cannot cross the river. It finally lurches off for about five minutes before stopping to squeeze in some more people and their chickens or bundles of firewood. The road to Tanga is unpaved and would make for a bouncy ride for even the best off-road 4X4. When the vehicle is an ancient wreck with holes in the floor through which you can see the road, and is stuffed with people and cargo, it is bouncy, slow and uncomfortable.

Half way to Tanga the bus, inevitably, gets a flat tire so we are sat in the stifling heat for an extra half hour while a few guys change the tire at a speed best described as leisurely. We were supposed to arrive in Tanga at 8.30am for our 10 o'clock meeting at the hospital but it is 10.30 when we arrive with a clunk in Tanga.

Waiting for us at the hospital is Dominic Chuwa of TAWG, a somewhat crusty middle-aged doctor who feels that MondoChallenge should have donated more than it did to this project. He can't meet us now anyway so we have to postpone until midday. When we do get underway we are joined by Mama Ussi, the Community Volunteer. It goes quite well, with Mama Ussi in particular, a thin older lady without the higher education and excellent English of the two other trainees, picking up everything.

So it's 2pm, we've been on the go since 6am and achieved about two hours of training. Mission accomplished, it's time to turn around and go home again. There is a shortage of buses on the Tanga-Pangani route today because of the ferry problems and the 3pm doesn't show up until about 3.30. When it does appear from around the corner, there is a riot-like swarm of people who charge at it. Not to get in, mind you, as the doors are locked, but to throw bags or other personal effects through the window on to the seats, thereby reserving them. I am as confused as a nun at a rave, not knowing whether to follow the crowd towards the moving bus or to wait patiently for it to stop. Fortunately Mr Iddy is a past master at this sort of carry-on. He expertly zones in on a window and slides his satchel in like a basketball completing a breakaway slam dunk shot.

Part two is to actually get on the bus. Those people who had not opted for the moving-bus-bag-drop manoeuvre are banking on getting into the bus early enough to claim an unreserved seat. As the doors open, two wiry guys start wrestling to be first on, blocking each other and holding everyone up - a bit stupid really as both of them are pretty much certain of getting seats. This delay causes an even stronger force from the scrum behind. The two guys get in and then more people start forcing their way towards the door, with plenty of shouting and shrieking for effect. I still don't know what the hell's going on so I decide to do it the African way and I begin to elbow and barge my way forward.

I can feel sweaty and muscular bodies on all sides of me, people who really want to sit down for the two-hour journey. I realise that I too must have the burning desire to sit, I must be willing to put in the hard yards now in return for comfort later. No pain, no gain, right? So, with renewed vigour, urged on by this bulging black mass of humanity, I inch forward, deftly positioning a shoulder here or a foot there to leverage myself one space closer to the door. When strength is required, I push; when agility is needed, I twist; and when a stern word to a cheeky interloper is called for, I issue it with conviction.

These people have years of experience with 'African queuing but my steely resolve gets me to the door in good time. As I lift my leg for the first step, I spot another leg reaching for the same step. My competitive instinct, roused into a frenzy by this mad brouhaha, is to twist my body to the right, thus blocking my rival. But then I notice that the vicious competitor is actually a little old lady, albeit one with a look of fierce determination in her eye and every intention of fighting to the death for the last remaining seat, should it come to that. My every-man-for-himself survivalist spirit eases off a little and is replaced by a tiny bit of compassion. I move my leg and gesture for the lady to go ahead, even giving her a little smile as I do so. She flashes me back a contemptuous glare that says "yeah, that's right - don't mess with grandma" and barges onto the bus, whacking me with her suitcase as she goes past. I needn't have rushed, as Mr Iddy was already seated, bravely reserving my seat from any would-be usurpers.

The bus gets full, so full that standing passengers have to lean on top of the seated ones. I have a blubbery fellow with super-strong BO bent over my seat, using the seat in front of me for support, thus positioning his moist armpit right in front of my nose. The shaking of the bus ensures that there is a constant airflow from armpit to nose. Although progress is gradual and uncomfortable, I comfort myself in the knowledge that we are, slowly but surely, getting closer to Pangani.

Our 6pm dinner reservation is getting closer and I daydream of the freshly caught fish that I eat every night as part of a romantic moonlit dinner with Jane. Just as my daydream gets to the bit where I bite into a succulent piece of fish meat, the most sickly, metallic grinding noise comes from the underside of the bus. The driver stops the bus, then accelerates again, causing the same noise. He tries one more time, same noise, pauses and then shuts down the engine. The passengers issue a collective groan - they know what this means - and they start to file out of the bus. One middle-aged man says loudly in English, "every time I catch this focking bus, it breaks down." The diagnosis is swift from the crowd standing around outside. "Ah, shit," the middle-aged man translates helpfully, "it's the focking axle".

So, it's 10 to 6, we're eighty people who want to get home stopped in the middle of nowhere, 20 kilometres from Pangani staring at a bus with a busted axle on a road that no one ever drives down. We wait, and wait, and wait. Some people start to walk the long road to Pangani, including Mr Potty-mouth: "fock this, I'm focking walking!"

About half an hour later, a daladala (minivan) comes tootling around the corner. It has seats for 13 but there are 70-odd people who need to get on it. You do the maths. So it's on again for young and old, hauling ass for this daladala as it pulls over 50 metres up the road. Mr Iddy shows a great turn of pace for a 40 year-old and again grabs us two seats with his trusty satchel. There are plenty of disappointed passengers, the slow and elderly mainly, who do not make it in time but there is no sympathy here. At least 35 people are somehow attached to the 13-seater when it slowly gets moving.

Thoughts of my lonely Jane looking at her watch in worry and of my perfectly-cooked fish sitting on a plate saying "eat me" again enter my head. A standing passenger vomits on some seated ones but everyone is so cramped that they cannot move or clean it up. A few minutes later he does it again, with some Swahili sound effects along the lines of "Oh, God, kill me now". He manages one more painful puke before we reach Pangani at around 7.30pm. A thirteen hour day, including eight hours of travelling. Mr Iddy looks completely unfazed, as if this is just an average day at the office, which maybe it is. "So", he says as we pile out of the daladala, "we'll do it again on Sunday, yes?"
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