HARARE, Zimbabwe — Time does not equal distance does not equal time in Africa. When someone says, “I’ll see you just now” or “We’ll be there in five minutes”, what they really mean is, “Later.” Usually, much later.
So when I was faced with a 291-kilometer (180-mile) bus journey from the Great Zimbabwe ruins in Masvingo to Zimbabwe’s frayed capital, Harare, I transported myself into zen mode. Only the gods knew how long this journey was going to take. But, according to everyone I had asked: “It’s 3 to 4 hours on a big comfortable bus.”
Clearly, I surmised, they had not actually made this journey before. Rather, they had learned that myth through oral traditions much like Linda, my amiable 23-year-old Great Zimbabwe guide, told me that the king of Great Zimbabwe had “200 wives…or maybe it was 20.”
To kick things off, the front desk man at the Great Zimbabwe Hotel instructed the taxi driver to drop me at a bus pick up point for South Africa. Nope. Wrong direction, I said as we reached a dusty, barren parking lot, and we climbed back in the car. To the center of Masvingo we drove, the sleepy driver making uncertain turns here and there, till we came upon a rugby scrum of busses and droves of people, about half of them passengers, the other half hawkers of mostly food sundries, and yet (impossibly) another half of spectators watching the disorderly order unfold itself.
My bag was thrust under a bus, but before I could board, I spied another bus that looked more appealing. As I grabbed my bag, “This bus is leaving. That one is not going yet,” the packer belted out. I would realize about an hour later that his words may have been the only true words I heard all day. I settled, somewhat comfortably, into the front seat of the bus, a full view of the scrum at my feet, ready to roll.
“When are we leaving?” I asked the driver after some time. “In 5 – 10 minutes.” Right, “later,” I thought. He was waiting to fill the bus, the usual system here. Forget the idea of a schedule in Africa. But certainly the bus was full by now, I thought. So many people had clambered aboard, I was sure they must have been falling out the back door.
Finally, nearly an hour after I turned up at this zone of chaos, the bus jerked forward. Yeah! Then, infuriatingly, it stopped 10 meters later for another 15 minutes. Then movement again. At last, pot-holed pavement rolling beneath the wheels. Only 3 to 4 hours to go, no, don’t think about that, I reminded myself. Let time and all bodily functions go into hibernation, and awake blissfully from this hypnosis when I get there, if I get there.
Ten minutes later, the bus, now on the outskirts of town, pulled off the road behind another shabbier bus, something like an old school bus. I felt like Elaine in the scene from Seinfeld when she was on the packed stopping-and-starting subway with the lights going on and off. Like her, I was screaming inside my head, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuck!” The conductor barked out something in the local language and everyone, but me, stood up and started to scramble off the bus. “We don’t have enough people to send two busses,” the conductor told me. “Mother fuuuuuuu….!” So I scrambled too.
“But this bus is 95% full,” I thought. “And I’m comfortable here.” I was yanked from front seat and my zen-like mode into another bus. It was green. I like green, I thought. But mostly I was concerned my bag might disappear. Nope, there it is, now strapped to the roof of the new bus. I feared being cornered in the depths of the rear of the bus. Nope, I found a seat in the center next to a matronly woman dressed all in white. She had two cell phones.
As everyone re-settled in, I was actually impressed by the respect they seemed to have for one another. There was no pushing, no screaming, no cause for contemptuous words. Then, curiously, a woman with a cloth bag squeezed down the aisle on which was printed in English and Hebrew (yes! Hebrew!), “Jerusalem”.
Thou shalt arrive in Harare, safe and sound, I surmised. A Jew and a Jewish bag on the bus — we are NOT breaking down. Not today. We will not be stranded. But I was glad the lady next to me had not one, but two phones just in case. Or was that an inauspicious sign? I was confused.
So, the real journey finally started nearly two hours after I left the hotel. Now, after 10 a.m., Great Zimbabwe was getting smaller, Harare growing bigger.
The journey itself was mostly uneventful and, in all fairness, really not so unbearable. Most importantly, the driver was neither speeding nor overtaking carelessly. The bus was full, but not packed. No one smoked. No one made disturbances. No one threw garbage on the floor nor out the window. As we stopped to pick up and drop off passengers, everyone was calm and helpful to those in need of assistance. There was a spirit of community on that bus and I was quite impressed by it. I was, as one may imagine, the only white face in the crowd, and clearly I was not a local white face. But no one gave me a second look. I was merely a passenger. I was one of them for the duration of this journey. All anyone cared about was arriving, safely, and soon.
And so on and on and on we went, stopping in dusty towns strung out along the route. The occasional huckster boarded to sell something no one wanted such as cooking spoons, pencils, or gospel. They had to compete with bleating African rhythms from the always too loud radio. I’d really like to know who decided the whistle is an instrument. I’d like to remind them that it’s an instrument used for giving a signal, usually of distress, sometimes of instruction, but never as music.
I tried to drown it all out with my iPod, but all I could hear was a medley of purveyors, lyrics I could not understand, and Melissa Etheridge, Coldplay, and U2. When I saw red — of my depleting iPod battery — I thought, “Noooooooooo! Don’t die on me before Harare!”
Some six hours down the road, the bus pulled up at a rest stop.
A rest stop?!!! Now?! “Mother fuuuuuuuu….” But we have, what?, another 30 minutes to go? Let’s finish this thing! “The driver gets a free meal here,” someone said. So I climbed off the bus with my two carry-on bags and found the semblance of a toilet. Relieved, I stretched my legs, took a few photos of the bus, and 20 minutes later, we were on the road again. But not for long.
The bus suddenly pulled over. Everyone was craning their necks and leaning into the aisle to see what was going on. “We have a fuel leak,” the conductor announced. “We have to drain the tank.”
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck! echoed inside my head. And a collective sigh that sounded like “oy vey” resonated inside the bus. We were about 10 kilometers or 10 minutes from our destination.
I rang (on my own cell phone, no need for the matron) Nigel, the guy I was going to be staying with for my three nights in Harare.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Somewhere between Hell and Going-Out-Of-My-Mind,” I retorted. Our leak plugged, we piled back in the bus and, at long last, we arrived at a petrol station on the outskirts of Mbane Market, described something as the mother-of-all mazes of disorderly markets filled with thieves. Two ladies on the bus told me not to go there. I thought that was sweet.
“But I have to go there. My friend is meeting me,” I explained. Their eyes sank.
It was just after 4 p.m. I fell out of the bus exhausted, exhilarated, and relieved to see my bag being lowered off the roof. I met Nigel, two white men shaking hands, then I banged my head as I climbed into his pickup truck.
Mother fuuuuuuuuuuuuuu! It felt so good!
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