Ten years ago, we invited a young woman from Tanzania to come to our home for Thanksgiving. Emma was in her first year at Dartmouth College, just up the road from us. She was tough and smart and funny, but untraveled. America was all new to her – and a little scary. Karen and I had been Peace Corps volunteers in Africa long ago and understood culture shock, so we welcomed her into our family as an extra daughter.
Emma spent her holidays with us, first as a Dartmouth student, then later while studying at Columbia University. We met her parents for the first time when Emma graduated from medical school last May. "If you are ever out our way, you must come visit," said her mother, Rebeka. Her father echoed the invitation. I never imagined I would be able to accept.
Then last fall, an American friend who had retired in Nairobi, Kenya, e-mailed an invitation: Would I like to come see the game parks this winter? Since he had a house and a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the cost of a visit would be reasonable. So I agreed to go.
When I got to Nairobi, I learned that we would need to wait for a week before we could go on safari. I had planned to stay nearly a month in Kenya, but did not relish wasting a week in a modern city the size of Boston. So I e-mailed Emma's parents in Mwanza, Tanzania, to see if I could visit. The response was immediate: Come today!
I went to the local travel agency to inquire about flying from Nairobi to Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. The cost for a round trip ticket was $430 – too much for my budget. But Emma's parents had told me about the Akamba bus, which they said was cheap and reliable. Get on at 9 p.m. and ride all night, traveling more than 310 miles to Mwanza in about 12 hours.
I called the bus station and was told the cost was equivalent to $21 one way. But, I was warned, the bus fills up, so if I wanted a seat I should come down and buy a ticket that afternoon. And no, they did not accept credit cards or phone reservations. I traveled downtown, stood in line for 20 minutes, and got one of the three remaining seats of the 51 on the bus.
Communications in Africa have improved immeasurably since my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s. I went to a communication cafe – they are everywhere – and for $2 I was able to phone Emma's mother. "I'm coming on the Akamba bus," I shouted, trying to be heard despite a bad connection.
"We'll meet you when you get here!" she promised.
The Akamba bus station has seats for about 100 waiting passengers, and most seats were full when I arrived an hour before departure. Dueling televisions were placed at either end of the hall, each on a different station. And they were loud. I read, wrote in my journal, and watched the waiting passengers.
Everyone else sat with eyes glued to the screen, with the exception of one elderly woman who was dressed for Nairobi's cold nights in a winter parka, a light-blue rayon dress, head scarf, and bright red sneakers.
The bus left 3-1/2 hours late, at 12:30 a.m. Like many others, I worried that if I were inside the station, I might miss the bus. So I paced the sidewalk and rested against sacks of grain stacked on it.
It seemed to me that there were a lot of people waiting for the bus to Mwanza, and I wondered if they had oversold the capacity. When it finally arrived, I was one of the first on board, looking for my assigned seat, No. 41. Ultimately there was much discussion over who would get the last few seats, so my fears may have been well founded.
I had expected to travel on something like a Greyhound bus. "Very modern, very comfortable," I had been told by Emma's parents. The bus was modern looking, but basic. The seats didn't adjust and there was no air conditioning, although my window did open. Unlike American coaches, this one had no chemical toilet in the back. It came with seat belts, and given the roads and the skills of our driver, most of us wore them.
We began by traveling on main roads that were paved, or had once been. Large potholes caused the bus to thump, bump, and sway. By morning, we had traveled less than 100 miles. This was not going to be a fast trip.
There were numerous checkpoints run by guys with AK-47s. And, of course, we stopped to pick up and drop off passengers.
The other passengers were kind to me. They pointed out, or even lead me to, toilets at rest stops. They warned me when the bus was ready to leave. They lent me their cellphones when it became obvious that we would be arriving late – and then later – so that I could call Emma's parents.
The woman sitting in front of me, with a toddler and a 4-year-old, wore a New York Yankees baseball cap – with the insignia sewed on sideways. A man behind me wore a priest'srobe that was pink and had five wooden crosses on chains around his neck, although he assured me he was neither a priest nor a Catholic.
Food was available at every stop: bananas (4 cents a bunch), roast peanuts (a penny for a small bag), and flat breads called chapattis, hot off roadside griddles.
When we stopped for a lunch break in Bunda, Tanzania, I bought roast meat and fried potatoes for the equivalent of 80 cents, and felt well fed. Bottled water was for sale everywhere, a liter for less than 50 cents.
I saw no elephants or lions from the bus but did see baboons perched on electrical transmission towers, watching traffic as if it were TV, and antelopes bounding across open plains.
As we approached Mwanza, huge rounded boulders bigger than the houses were common, stacked up as if placed by giants in some arcane game.
I finally got to Mwanza 19 hours after arriving at the Nairobi bus station, dusty and tired, but elated to see Emma's parents there, waiting for me. And when we reached their home there was a sign on the front door: "Karibu, Henry." Welcome, it said in Swahili, and they meant it.