Tanzania’s Dala-Dalas

I should have known better than to attempt my first daladala ride after dancing until 4:30 a.m. But the local moonshine, konyagi, still clouded my head and impaired my decision-making.
I knocked on American compatriots’ hotel room door. They had a shuttle to catch in five minutes; I was tagging along for the free ride to Kili Airport, where I would they make my way (hopefully on the coattails of someone else’s free shuttle) to Arusha. The boys had stayed at La Liga–“Moshi’s #1 Night Club”–thought I’d tried to persuade them to leave with me at 4:30. One of them opened the door: “We have company,” he said. I surveyed the premises: deodorants and toothpaste, towels and boxers littered every inch of floorspace. Steam clouded out from the running shower. High-pitched giggles came from each of the twin beds, where two naked African girls pulled sheets up to their breasts.
My friend shook his head and looked at me: “Dude, we gotta get out of here.” His glassy bloodshot eyes looked helpless. He was right; by my watch, they had four minutes to catch their shuttle. Though, in East Africa, one could be up to two hours late and still be on time. This was known as “African time,” and one could never be sure on which time zone appointments were scheduled.
After paying the “tribal girls” (as one of the boys put it) in deodorant and “anything else that smelled nice,” the boys and I took a taxi to the shuttle. Which didn’t exist. Or perhaps it was because we were 45 minutes late, though we were still well within East African time. The boys, desperate to make their flight, ran to another taxi and tossed in their bags.
“Did you ask a price?” I called after them, aware now of the heat and my headache.
“We don’t have time to barter,” one said, and as usual, I knew they’d be ripped off. Damn Americans. I couldn’t afford their rock-and-roll lifestyle.
“Get in,” they called.
“Gonna take a bus,” I decided out loud, vaguely aware of the fact that I had no water, snacks or common sense to see me through a bus ride.
And it was common sense I lacked–or adventure I craved–when I got to the bus stand.
I remembered reading Lonely Planet’s advice: “It’s pricier but safer and more comfortable to take one of the Arusha-Nairobi shuttles.”
So I walked, stumbled, rather, to the station with the intention of finding the recommended bus. But the daladala found me first. At at 3,000 shillings, it was an offer my budget-minded brain couldn’t refuse.
The daladala’s motor was running and it was headed out of the station. I saw this as luck, as I knew that the vans waited until they were full to leave, which could sometimes take hours. The bus and I were hot to trot. The guy at the sliding door hopped off, grabbed my pack from my back and took it somewhere. I hoped I would see it again. I looked inside the “bus,” about the size of a Suburban. It held–according to seat space and I’m sure, manufacturer’s warranty, OSHA and the Department of Health and Safety–twenty-four people. But at least thirty cramped inside. My pack had already been loaded, I assumed, and I had no choice but to hop on, flattening myself like a pancake against the other four standing bodies. My ass, still hanging out of the door, guaranteed that it wouldn’t shut. The guy in charge jumped on, too, into some unseen cranny of space, his back against the crowd, his face, jutting out into the street with my ass.
We began our hour’s journey.
I had enough wits about me, under someone’s onion-y armpit and with another’s knee splitting my crotch, to take my few shillings and cell phone out of my pocket and tuck them in my bra. At least this way, if someone got my goods, I’d at least get a good boob squeeze. The woman whose two nearly-grown children perched on her lap laughed at me, then followed up with a wink.
Five minutes into our journey, by back began to ache from my candy cane hunch. The door guy next to me leaned outside, whistling and shouting at people on the street: “Arusha, Arusha,” trying to gather more bodies despite our already close quarters. He used his hand to hit the side of the van, signaling the driver to pull over. Luckily, at the next stop, two people got out and three got in. Though the math worked against me, the pause allowed me to hop off and get back in so my head, not my ass, faced out. My brain and sanity needed fresh air.
I looked up for something to use as an oh-shit handle as the van lurched over a speed bump. The only thing to grab onto was a tin metal strip going over my head. The van careened around a corner, thecentripetal force pushing the herd of standing bodies towards me, and me, further out the door. I needed something else to hold on to. I looked up, desperate to find something–someone–to white knuckle. And then I saw the sticker above my head: “This car is protected by the blood of Jesus Christ.”
Well then. Who needs an oh-shit handle?
With my new-found liquid amulet, I concentrated on inhaling fresh air. The countryside smelled of cut grass and rain. Dead cornstalks stoodsentinel along the road. Women wrapped in tangerine, mauve, celery, cerulean, aubergine walked down the road, babies slung across their backs, baskets of bananas balanced on their heads.
To my dismay, at the next stop, two people left, which meant that I had to crane my head inside and stare out the shattered window pane. Twenty-eight people and no circulating air.
The door guy bounced coins in his hand, signaling time to pay up. He collected from the back to the front, which meant I stood, crouched, really, directly in his path.
No matter, though; he worked around me as a vine does a tree trunk. His wide stance meant his waist pressed into my butt, all in the name of business, of course, and as he collected money, his arms circled around my neck, right hand extracting change from his left, his brown arms so close to me that I could have bit him–and I considered it.
Now, I’m a sucker for personal space, but instead of feeling threatened, I felt exhilarated. This, I assure you, had nothing to do with the fact that I had approximately six men touching some part of my body. Despite the headache, the parched Serengeti of my mouth, the very intimate quarters, I reeled in the fact that I was doing it, traveling just like the locals in Tanzania. With asses in faces and out doors, and, as I would later find out, chickens and vomit at the feet, as the only muzungu on the bus, I felt bold and brave.
As the bus traveled to Arusha, it emptied, affording me a seat. My pack had been securely stored in the trunk of the van and the door guy, after getting so well acquainted with me, even hoisted it to my shoulders. Really, someone should have told Lonely Planet, there is nothing to worry about. After all, my daladala had been protected by the blood of Jesus Christ. I don’t know why I ever worried.


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