Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Last one (in will be) standing

If you've never taken public transportation in Dar es Salaam then I don't know how to describe it to you. It involves lots of sweating, pushing, shoving, plotting, suqeezing, toxic exhaust, and street hawkers trying to sell you handkerchiefs or water or knives or magazines or cigarettes or towels or...well you get the point. It's the only time when your ELDERLY, PREGNANT, or DISABLED card is invalid.
While waiting for the bus you'd better offer your respectful greetings to the granny at the bus stop next to you, but when the bus pulls up its do or die. You and Granny will lock on to opposites side of the door frame, each of you with one foot on the first step. Your knees will jockey for position, your elbows will poke each other in the ear, slam each other's heads into the door frame. You'll bruise each other's hips trying to squeeze through the door at the same time. You might throw a slight elbow into granny's sternum. And when u manage to climb into the bus before Granny, you will quickly scurry into the last remaining seat and victoriously straighten out your trousers and arrange your briefcase in your lap. If you are strong enough you will avoid the struggle with Granny altogether and beat her to the seat by climbing up onto the bus's back tire and through the window.
Sometimes, when things get really dire (4:30 p.m. on a Friday or 6:55 a.m. on a Monday) pushing, squeezing, and elbowing pregnant ladies doesn't even get you a seat. Instead what you are fighting for is the last 1 ft x 1 ft x 5 ft space left in the bus. The prize of not having to wait the 10 minutes for the next bus.
And heaven forbid you're riding a popular bus to the end of line. Chances are you won't even make it off the bus before the impatient mob waiting at the station storms in through the main door, the windows, and even the driver's door. And let's hope you don't have a child or a package b/c even if you make it out anything not physically attached to your body will be lost in the struggle.
Desparate moms hand their children through the windows of the bus, into the laps of strangers and then work their way back to the main door to fight their way through the flurry of elbows, heads, bags, and buckets then struggle through the opening as the bus rocks violently side to side, helpless under the motion of the mob.
Personally, I don't think having a seat on the bus is worth the physical injury that usually comes with the requisite pushing and shoving so I usually stand back from the violent crowd and wait patiently until things settle a little. Then I admittedly squeeze past some grannies, press close to the person in front of me, and block the doorway as much as I can so that no one slides in front of me. Even though I still have to do my fair share of pushing and shoving, this is what passes for patience in comparison to the mob that throws punches and pushes each other off the bus steps. As a reward for my "patience" I get to stand up-- for 45 min to an hour, in a bus so crowded it feels like being a octuplet in your mom's womb at full term. Actually, scratch that, those octuplets probably have more space than I do. All of this in a non-air conditioned bus, with 3,000% humidity, in a completely stationary traffic jam, with someone's Grandpa breathing on your neck and someone's reeking armpit within 3 in. of your face. Fun, fun, fun. Not to mention the bus is a 30 year old stick shift, and the drivers are impatient daredevils who cut people off, tailgate, drive into oncoming traffic, and create lanes where they don't exist. Does this explain how I can pull muscles and break a sweat just trying to hold on for the ride?
And getting a seat is not much better. If you sit in the aisle seat, you get to have someone's butt/elbow/breast/handbag/briefcase either threatening to poke you in the eye or leaning directly onto your head. If you sitting in the window seat you get to be squished by the person sitting in the aisle seat as they try to escape the butt/elbow/breast/handbag/briefcase that is suffocating them. But hey, at least you get the window because you're really the only one can feel the breeze. If you sit in the back, good luck getting the conductor to hear you when you call out your stop. And if he hears you, good luck making your way up the aisle (a.k.a. birth canal) to get out the door. All of this presents the perfect environment to be pickpocketed or contract swine flu/cholera/TB which I why I usually rush to the nearest sink/tub for a bucket shower or arm scrub upon arriving at my destination.
For 4 months I put up with this every morning and evening thinking I had no alternative (taxis are too expensive for everyday, twice a day, use) until one day my commute buddy said "I think the Posta buses are running late today. Why don't we take the Kariakoo bus?" And that day my whole life changed. It was like to sky opened up and the angels began to sing.
Now I get a seat every morning, EVERY SINGLE MORNING. No one coughs in my ear, no grandmas press their saggy breasts into my back, no one rests their briefcase on my side or nuzzles my hip into their buttcrack. I reach my final destination without sweat stains, and still in a good mood. Why did it take my commute buddy sooooo long to mention this heaven of an alternate route? The Kariakoo bus had made a believer out of me. Yes, it cost a little more since the bus doesn't get as close to my office and I have to take another form of transportation to close the final distance. But I think an extra 2,000 shillings is worth the small bubble of personal space that almost lives up to American standards.