East African boarders, overland. Tales of seedy characters, red-eyed border patrol, machine guns wasting in corners, dank corridors. Stories abound, we prepared for the worst, three borders in twenty hours, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.
“You will be here, at the station, 2:30? we,” the voice breaks, unclear. I step from the loud bar, “But the ticket says it leaves at 4:00…”
“Be here now at 2:00..” and the line goes silent. Guide books dissuade the overnight bus to Uganda, rutted roads, the midnight stop in Nairobi, banditry, precisely our reasoning to go along.
The station feels cramped, sweaty bodies too close, touching, waiting. Bus stations become flea markets as old shoes, recycled shirts, magazines, and local food (roasted corn cob, samosas, chapatis) make the rounds, “sista, want to buy water?” a boy asks, wriggling through the crowd.
Eventually the red Kampala Coach pulls up, faded signs of luxury past, the AC and foam cushions died out long ago, and the screen that once played movies is now a skipping nineteen hour Michael Jackson tribute, but the leg room is decent.
I watch from my window seat as sacks of potatoes, steel rods, planks of wood are tucked under the bus, money passes from pockets to greedy hands, there are no limits. The added weight tires the axel, smog chokes the tailpipe, we bid farewell to Tanzania.
New roads to Kenya are in progress. Miles of black men line the route swinging machetes, pick axes and shovels, I watch the sweat dripping off their bodies. Labor is cheap but at a cost, many of these men are merely boys. Tanzania’s public education ends early, about eleven years old, only those affording secondary school can continue. The same government that won’t provide them basic education is now hiring them on for cheap labor.
Two hours later razor-wire fences, guards and guns litter the landscape. Leaving the bus, we follow the crowd into a tired, dimly lit room, the young patrolman’s eyes glued to the match, Chelsea vs Manchester. He takes our passports, stamps them with a once over and waves us on. Incredulous, we cross the boarder.
Kenya side, immigration office – even less interested he takes fifteen dollars for a transit visa, eyes on the Manchester game, smiles and wishes a pleasant trip. What, where is the chaos, the danger, the unsavory characters?
I was reprimanded by a Kenyan Maasai woman for snapping pictures of Jay outside our bus, “You canNOT take pictures of us!”
She was bitter we didn’t buy any trinkets, the same 20 trinkets sold by all the street vendors.
“I’m taking pictures of my boyfriend!” but she berated me even as we pulled from the border.
I am asleep and cannot see the lips of steel with ugly upright razor teeth laid across the road, urging vehicles to halt. Six times into the night, lights flash and Michael Jackson music rips through the bus, jarring us from sleep. The police board, guns hanging off shoulders, patting bags in overhead bins, nodding at sleepy riders, but it’s always the same, they find nothing and we carry on.
Police blocks aren’t specific to Kenya, several weeks ago in Tanzania, they found reason to confiscate our driver, bus and luggage. Stranded, we all waited, a calm African wait. At some point you begin to trust the process, knowing if you wait long enough, order will be restored, African style.
Our packs have little metal locks. Common knowledge, razors slice through canvas and belongings go missing; but my reasoning behind the bolts, evidence, evidence of tampering, should we need to prove contraband was planted. Jay says I have an overactive imagination. Hours later, our bus returns, luggage untouched and without word we have a new driver.
Uganda at dawn was beautiful, the border uneventful. Through entangled jungle, hills of forest, lush canopies, a paradise. Jay turns the page, reading from Foden’s The Last King of Scotland, “I finally clambered into one of the old Peugeots. ‘A hotel in Kampala, please. Somewhere clean.'”
And that’s just where we were headed, into Kampala.