East Africa is worlds apart from South Africa, but strangely similar to parts of Central America, the Caribbean, or India. At times it seems I’ve been transported to Nicaragua; one-storey concrete homes are painted by Coca Cola and competing cell phone networks; rice and unidentifiable fried meat are staple; servitude is acceptable by hierarchical class distinctions reminiscent of the castes in India; and the chaos of road traffic and markets are just functioning in a different language by darker faces. Reggae music creates the atmosphere of a Caribbean night as it blares from every street corner from the moment the town stirs awake at 7 am until the party stops in the wee hours of the following morning.
The biggest difference is the people: everyone here is unbelievably friendly and smiley! People always greet you and ask how you are, shake hands for a little too long and hug with extra rigor. Ive given up any notion of a personal bubble, since private space is invaded by almost anyone who talks to me; some latch onto my arm, stand within a few milimetres of me, and talk directly into my ear so close to my face that I cant actually turn to face them while they talk to me without knocking foreheads. Its only unfortunate when they have bad breath or you really do want to turn to face them to remember what they look like and you just cant.
People are genuinely interested in helping you, and will do so without expecting any sort of payment. Im not sure if its pity or curiousity, but the sight of a muzungu girl makes them think theres no way I’ll make it without their help, so everyone wants to know where Im going, do I know any Swahili, do I have a friend waiting for me, or what am I looking for. Upon giving an answer, it becomes their sole goal to help me find what, where or who I need and translate any language, directions, or pricing confusion.
Women wear beautifully colourful clothing, with elaborate pattern stamps in bright colours that shine in contrast to their dark skin. They’re quite modest, covering most of their body and head in wraps of cloth, and Ive learned that showing arms is ok, but leg-baring shorts causes me quite a bit of grief. That’s especially unfortunate since its so hot and Im constantly sweating through my jeans, and a little embarrassing since Ive seen few people break a sweat even in the most intense mid-day heat.
Its hot and dry here, with luscious green vegetation and red-mud huts covering all the rural areas. The dirt roads are bright red, contrasted dramatically by the green palms and crop fields. All the soil and spit up dust are also blood red, and it seems to keep most peoples clothes a little earthy coloured no matter how clean they are. Parts of Uganda and all of Rwanda are rolling, forever continuing hills, and almost every square foot of arable land is still exploited through terraced agriculture practice. When dirivng along the winding roads, its hard not to get car sick or frightened by the cliff-dropping heights, but the beautiful symmetry of the perfectly groomed hillsides makes for a very geometric scenery to enjoy.
I’ve decided to bus my way around East Africa, mostly to save money, but also to avoid the high end tourism market catered to with chartered flights. Terrestrial travel lets you see so much more, take in a scenic drive for hours instead of staring at the tops of clouds for 45 minutes. Traveling by bus is also better for the mind and body – it gives you time to adjust the changes in altitude, temperature, humidity, and the brain has more time to process its surroundings and sensual bombardment.
On most buses its impossible to sleep, and if you do, people immediately worry “are you feeling sick?” Preoccupying your conscious mind for 3 or 6 hours can either lead you to some new friends or some crazy ideas. Bus travel is supposed to be fairly safe, but I often get snapped out of my daydreams by an abrupt road block, since police checks are regular and they’ve always got important questions to ask. I can never understand what goes on, but their dialogue interchange is usually stern, slow, and results in an exasperated bus driver raising his voice and gesturing his hands in way that means to me “whatever, sorry, Ive got nothing!” Maybe their asking for registration papers, maybe a bribe, maybe illegal drugs… I’m not sure.
The buses have been less than luxurious, mostly due to overcrowding, but also an unshakeable uneasiness from excessive speeding and bold overtaking driving habits. Im still the only non-east African on every bust Ive taken, and this could be a warning Im refusing to take notice of but I’ll keep believing I truly enjoy the excitement and entertainment of each ride. I’ve had half-dead chickens in a box beside me, a 10L jug of water splashing at my feet, and a 5 kg bag of flour explode ontop of me. Most buses have assigned seating, but the taxi cars and mini-buses usually have two people per seat and a few more standing in between or shoved in the trunk. I’ve had children refuse to sit beside me, even though women plop them on my lap when they’ve got too many to fit on their own. Im not sure if they’re afraid or too shy, but other children can’t get enough of me as they grip at my skin to make sure Im real.