Saturday, November 12, 2005

Africa Wins Again

I’d been to Arusha before. Twice. It’s fine, but I didn’t really need to go back. But I also didn’t need to arrive in one of the worst parts of Nairobi—the bus area—at night.

Nairobi had treated me well enough in 2001, once my fresh-faced tourist look had worn off. Back in Zambia, I’d speculated aloud as to whether Nairobi’s legendary crime rate was hype or reality. Huw, the rugby coach from the UK, had set me straight.

Huw had met up with two other men in the backpackers he’d been staying in. They’d decided to go for dinner, and they’d walk. After all, what thief would dare approach three largish men? (Rugby coaches are not known for being scrawny.)

Right outside the hostel’s front door, a thief had run up and grabbed one of the men’s shirt pockets. The thief had kept running, tearing the pocket off and carrying it with him.

There had been nothing in the front pocket. Nevertheless, the group of three had reversed course and eaten in the hotel. Nairobi is serious business.

I could, of course, have stayed on the bus and forged onward to Kampala. But that would turn the bus ride into an 18-hour epic, which I was not in the mood for post-29-hour Lusaka-to-Dar-marathon. Instead, my strategy was to disembark in Arusha, stay one night, then catch the 8:30 a.m. tourist shuttle to Nairobi. It’s door-to-door service, they’d book the Parkside Hotel for me, and I’d be in Nairobi in time for lunch.

From Dar to Arusha, I was treated to my second screening of Anaconda this week, courtesy Scandinavian Express. And I came down with a sniffly head-cold. Nairobi was again put on hold as I spent a day sleeping in the Arusha Naaz Hotel.

My strategy didn’t exactly work out. What did Charles from my 2001 Dragoman trip used to say? AWA. Africa wins again.

The friendly booking agent didn’t bother to book my shuttle or my hotel. The shuttle never showed up, so I asked the front desk clerk at Arusha Naaz hotel where the minibus dala-dala taxis were. She looked horrified on my behalf.

Fortunately, the owner was listening and he was more agreeable. He whisked me into the hotel’s car and instructed the driver to take me to the shared Peugeots. Ten minutes later, I was on the way to the border. I sat next to a 9-year-old boy on his way to boarding school. Behind us were three Maasai, one businessman, and three large women. One of the Maasai—the one wearing a safari vest under his checked red-and-black blanket—was a real cutup and his running commentary kept the passengers laughing. Unfortunately, I cannot understand Swahili and all I understood was “Tanzania” and “Nairobi.”

We stopped only once for two Maasai to pee by the side of the road. We caught up to the shuttles and reached the borders with them. I’d paid 350 Tanzanian shillings for the Tanzania side of the trip, then had to pay 300 Kenyan shillings on the other side to continue on in a Peugeot with no Maasai. Total cost for a shuttle trip? $20. Total cost for me doing it on public transport? $7. Comfort level? Similar. And I bet the tourists on the shuttles did not have their own Maasai on board.

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