The original time of departure on Saturday was 5:45am. Thankfully we got the message the night before that the bus wasn’t going to be able to get there that early—new departure time: 8am. Like good mzungu (white people) who are still figuring out when time is fluid and when time is strict, we arrived at 8am. The bus however didn’t arrive until 10am, because they had wanted to wait for a full bus of passengers to take to Shinyanga before starting their next job. Time isn’t money here. Money is money.
By 10:30am we were loaded up and on our way with five other teachers and the fifty Form 4 students that could afford the trip— the students were expected to pay the equivalent of $30 US dollars. The bus is not like buses in the U.S. with an aisle. Each aisle has a seat that folds up and down, so that five people can fit across comfortably. We fit six on each row. Everyone had packed lightly, but even still the bus was packed to the max. (Side note: we thought we had packed lightly, and we had for us, but Tanzanians take it to a whole other level, washing clothes to be re-worn again another day).
We were expecting the trip to take about 7 hours (2.5. to Mwanza, 3 to the Serengeti entrance, and maybe another 1.5 into the park). We made it to Mwanza in good time, but since we had left late and the Serengeti park gate closes at 4pm, we were still in a rush. Lunch consisted of a box of cookies per person, a soda, and a water bottle, because that is what Philemon (the Assistant Headmaster) could buy quickly from street vendors while the bus filled up on gas. Then we were on our way again. By God’s grace, we arrived at the gate at 3:58pm. Whew! Praise the Lord! It was only once we entered the gate that we began to realize our time estimation was way off. We were in a bus, not a Land Cruiser, which meant we were practically crawling over the bumpy roads of the Serengeti. Plus the Youth Hostel was in the center of the Serengeti, which by crawling bus was 7 hours away from the entrance.
Let me paint the picture for you: For those of you who are international travelers, imagine a 12.5 hour flight. Now, take away the leg room and imagine that you are sitting on a wheel, so your feet rest a foot off the floor and your thighs are at a 45 degree incline (this was Linda’s situation). For entertainment, you have Tanzanian music videos and a Tanzanian soap opera on one central TV, but only for the first 5.5 hours because for the next 7 hours it is too bumpy for technology. You get one bathroom break the entire time, which consists of doing your business in the middle of nowhere with a dozen others of your gender around you. There is no privacy in a time crunch. At one point during the trip, your group is attacked by a band of tsetse flies—the really bad ones that can cause Trypanosomiasis, aka sleeping sickness. Thus all the windows are closed, and you get to enjoy your own personal unventilated sauna with fifty teenagers. Getting (smelling) the picture? Good times ;-)
Yet, with all of those challenges, the students behaved beautifully! We didn’t hear any complaining. In fact, one of the students asked Linda if she was tired. She confessed yes and that her body was aching from hours of sitting in one position. The student then encouraged her, “You have to be strong.” We were amazed at the strength of the students and the teachers. During the travels there were some really special moments, such as the students breaking into an impromptu hymn-sing, seeing a band of lions sleeping on the road, and being led down the road for many kilometers by one particular zebra who liked running in the light of the bus. It wasn’t until we stopped the bus and turned off the lights for several minutes that the zebra went on his way.
We arrived at the youth hostel at 11:30pm. Given that it was so late, the students were sent to bed with some bread and butter for dinner. Accommodations included a large room with bunk beds for the boys and one for the girls, with boys’ and girls’ cement outhouses nearby.
The next morning everyone was up by 6:30am bathing, cleaning, and preparing meals. The youth hostel provided a place for coal fires and some large pots, but we had brought everything else with us. Since everyone had had very little food in the last day and a half, we made the first meal the main meal. The girls worked very hard preparing the cow meat and fish cooked in a tomato sauce, as well as a giant pot of rice. By noon, everyone had eaten, all the dishes were clean, and we were on our way to tour the Serengeti.
For many of the students, this trip was their first time to see any of these animals. There are no zoos in Tanzania. They were mesmerized! I think we enjoyed watching the students as much as we enjoyed watching the animals. Since most of them did not have cameras, Eric became the class photographer and students will be able to pay to have pictures printed. This opportunity got a little out-of-hand at some points, as we were mobbed by students wanting us to take their picture ;-) We did love their enthusiasm though.
We also stopped by the Serengeti tourism center. The students and teachers were placed into three groups as tour guides led them through the complex, teaching them about the animals and the environment. The center had bones of various kinds of animals, emblems of their footprints in cement, and descriptions of various animals and land conservation efforts. The guides were very knowledgeable, and the students asked them lots of questions. The center even had its own wildlife as dozens of hyraxes and mongooses scampered about. They were obviously very accustomed to visitors.
That evening we had some of the drama that one might expect out of a trip like this—items going missing, issues of appropriate boy/girl relations, trouble settling down after a big day, safety issues, etc. I see all you youth ministers out there nodding your heads in empathy. We got very little sleep that night. However, that night also held one of our most special memories as well. After dinner, Eric got out his guitar, and we led the group in song and devotions. We loved singing with the students, and we pray that throughout the trip they heard grace from us.
The next morning we were once again up with the sun, preparing some left over rice and tea for breakfast, and dealing with some remaining drama. By 10am we were packed up and on the road. We found a better road coming back which cut an hour and a half off our trip. Because the road was less known, the driver did have to stop and ask for directions once from a very accommodating “rastaman,” as the students termed him. Our new friend enjoyed the attention as the students with cameras took pictures of his dreadlocks. When we arrived at the Serengeti gate, we ran into a bit of trouble, because apparently they were supposed to charge extra for ex-patriots, even working ones. However, since the entrance gate hadn’t caught it, they let us go this once. Good to know for future reference.
We were so encouraged by what good time we were making that Philemon decided to stop and get a hot meal for everyone for lunch. It took over an hour to get chipsi mayai (fried eggs and potatoes) for everyone on the bus, but it was a nice treat. We ran into our biggest travel problems in Mwanza, where we got stuck in traffic that resembled a parking lot. Thus, the trip back actually took longer than the trip there. Thirteen hours later, at 11pm we finally arrived back at the school. We never ceased to be amazed by the energy of the students. While we looked and felt like something the cat dragged in, the students were as jubilant as ever. They cheered as we drove into the school and were already exchanging stories with their classmates as we headed home. We are thankful for their joy.