The Lushoto-Dar journey is meant to take about 6 hours, but with stops all along the route, traffic jams, and crawling trucks before us that refuse to pull over, 8 hours seems to be the norm. Not that you’d want to overtake more on those winding roads: we see several overturned vehicles by the side of the road, on both the outward and return journeys. Each time, as the driver slows to pass, my fellow passengers rise out of their seats to stare out the window with a kind of fascinated, fatalistic horror.
There’s a lot of standing up and sitting down and moving around – above all when we reach the weighing station: those at the back are told to move further forward and everyone in the fold-down seats in the middle aisle has to shift. Once we’ve “proven” that our bus is light enough, everyone moves back again, and off we wobble over a bridge for which our bus may or may not be too heavy.
We’re the only mzungus on board. But the bus, both times, is more than full: maasai with mobile phones; young men reading English football results in their Swahili newspapers; a smartly-dressed soldier; someone reading aloud in Swahili from his bible; shy young women in bejewelled dresses and veils; maternal figures accompanied by one small child (where are all their other children today, I wonder?); an old woman who keeps stopping the bus to get off and pee. As well as the boys swarming to our windows at each village with oranges, plums, cashew nuts, crisps or sweetcorn, salesmen sometimes board the bus until the next stop, like the young, earnest-looking man who treats us to a very loud and apparently very detailed description of his aloe vera toothpaste and air freshener.
A bit of aloe vera would be an improvement on the heavy smell of sweat on board. It’s 30 degrees or more most of the way, with no air conditioning. Nor are the Africans aren’t keen on letting the draught from an open window blow in and ruin their hair. The rain brings some relief, but starts dripping onto your lap, and sitting by the open vents above the wheel leaves your legs flecked with mud. When we finally emerge into the sunblasted Dar es Salaam afternoon to retrieve our bags from the hold, we realise why the locals keep their belongings with them in the bus. Our backpacks are damp and smeared with black engine grease.
But at least they’re still there.
Then someone pulls out a live chicken that has been lying, feet tied together, loose in the hold, for goodness knows how many hours of bumpy, twisty road, and I realise that the seats up above are actually something of a luxury.