I spent a couple of weeks away from Nairobi to explore some of the more remote areas of africa and the transport that goes through them. I travelled to the coast on a train. Then by buses and minibuses to Malawi. I actually met people along the way who said ‘what about rural transport’ when I told them of my interest in urban transport. And to some extent, I guess I have tried to focus on the complex, dense systems of transport that are part of city life, but at the expense of the challenges , beauty and community that are part of traveling around rural areas.
While in Australia, individual motorised transport is seen as a necessary part of rural life (and I guess one use of cars that I consider warranted), in Africa this is not an option for most of the rural population. Therefore they rely on public transport (mainly minibuses) and active transport such as walking and cycling. In rural environments where distances are long and populations are spread out, this can make transport a challenge for many. Hours of people’s days will be consumed to wait for minibuses to fill up (because in africa they are all about maximises the profit per trip made, no matter how much waiting this means), and other people will expend energy walking and cycling far to work or the shops, maybe carrying loads as well. I was also informed that the costs are higher than minibuses in the cities for the same distances.
But amongst all this hardship and expense, there was a definite sense of community and fun – more than I had seen in any city I have visited. In the middle of the night, two hours north of the border crossing from tanzania to malawi, I felt like I was in a rowdy crowded pub as I entered the minibus and managed to grab one of the last remained ‘seats’. Seats is in brackets because you are given a proportion of the space that was designed for one persons backside – if you are lucky you are sharing four seats between five people, but this is not considered economical by the driver. Headed for a place I thought I knew how to pronounce, this bus kept filling up until there were about fifty people on a bus designed for about twenty or so. I was the only white person amongst them and the only one that didn’t understand the kiswahilli banter that took place between the tout and one of the passengers. There was cheering and jeering, and sometimes I would start laughing just to fit in. The jist of the conversation was the passenger complaining about the number of people on the bus and demanding a ticket. The tout asked what name he should write and he was told to write ‘my husband’. This was considered very funny. East africa is the most homophobic place I’ve been to, so this joke would have been considered funnier with this in mind I guess. Anyway, apart from being homophobic, these rural folk were very welcoming to my straight little self, and while I found out the bus wasn’t going to where I wanted to go to, everyone was out to help. I ended up sleeping the night in a guest house with another girl who was also heading to kyela (in the same bed :P), before continuing my journey the next day.
People didn’t just talk amongst themselves, they also talked to me. Taking the opportunity to exercise their english and inflict their views of religion, family values and economy issues on me, I partook in a range of conversations. Of course there were marriage proposals too but there were also some interesting ideas and concerns that were raised. I enjoyed the company and the opportunity to feel a part of the community as people would tell me to come and visit them the next time I was in the area.
Personal space is not given much consideration in rural transport. I was thigh to thigh with many different bodies, sometimes with a slight overlap where necessary. This was not considered sensual or particularly uncomfortable, just part of life. On more than one occasion I also found myself with another ladies child on my lap. It was nice to know that people trusted a funny looking white girl with their progeny and I enjoyed the company (it may even have made me think more about having children myself – but don’t tell my mum this). While I did lose feeling in limbs form time to time, and performed interesting yoga moves to get in and out, overall I felt at peace in these minibuses. I did feel sorry for the guys who were constantly bent over, and I can imagine a certain hunch could develop in the genes of these africans.
I saw some beautiful country and witnessed which regions grow what crops. My traveling companions would tell me about the agriculture in the region, I would see it being grown and then as we pulled in to a bus stop, the windows would be ambushed by people with trays trying to sell you the produce from the area. It was nice to see all stages of the process from the bus. I would end up with kilos of bananas rather than the couple I wanted but it cost less than one banana in Australia so I wasn’t too worried and I could offer them around. On my long distance bus rides I also got to witness giraffes, impala, baboons and monkeys. It was kind of nice to not have to go on a safari and look for the animals but just get to see them by chance – like seeing cool street art rather than having to spend money and time to go to an art gallery.
Well now I’m back in the city – one more day til I leave kenya. I think my experience in rural africa has given me fresh eyes and attitude to the streets of nairobi. Yesterday I went and talked to matatu drivers, filmed along streets I’m usually scared to walk down and I even had a go at touting – ‘harumi, harumi – 60 shillings … bang bang on the minibus’ and I managed to fill up the bus fast :).
Yesterday started off as any other day … breakfast with a dash of yoga (my style of yoga is kinda more for the attention deficit amongst us so I’m not sure it is very yogic). Then I had the keys to the lock of my friends bicycle – and this meant it was cycling around nairobi time. And then suddenly my go pro started working again (my go pro saga has involved every permutation of turning buttons on and off, taking batteries and sim cards out, plugging it into the computer, reformatting and updating stuff – oh, and going on a go pro hunt through the shops of nairobi).
So, with a camera stuck on my head I headed out on the road, with my single speed, back pedal braking bicycle. And it was fun!!! I can’t believe how much joy riding a bicycle gives me. Because I’m not riding everyday I think I’m appreciating each ride a little more. I glided through intersections, trying not to stop because I hate starting when I have a fiddly back pedal brake to deal with (I don’t know how I’d cope on a fixie) and I spun my legs as fast as they could go. I had many smiles and workers on the side of the road were asking me to give them a lift. I felt as free as I have felt in nairobi. I went along random little roads until I thought I would be testing my backwardsI will go for another ride soon and make sure I show you some of the footage in my film.
Next, was a walk to the shops – this involves some dubious road crossings and walking on half constructed footpaths with fumes from buses seemingly designed to be directed straight at the pedestrians – this could be a deliberate attempt to make people want to get off the footpath and onto the buses. But I never feel alone on the street as there are always people walking somewhere nearby and there are often people gathered on corners – either boda boda drivers, people preaching to each other (btw preaching s forbidden on buses in kenya), and micro stalls – where a lady has a stock of 10 bananas, 20 tomatoes, a few avocados and maybe a giant mango.
So, after my walk fighting the buses, I found myself on one. I sat there in silence just observing the various buildings, trees and skies that were outside the window. I also noticed that everyone else was doing the same. In Kenya everyone is seated on the bus. It might be that you have to find ways to offset your shoulders and hips so that you can all fit on the seat (in a similar way you do when you put four people in the backseat of a car) but in one way or another you all have a seat. It is fun to watch everyone’s head bob up and down as you look across the tops of the seats – there is almost something tranquil about it. Perhaps the fact they are bobbing indicates the bus is moving and this is an exciting thing for a bus in the streets of nairobi which a jam packed full of traffic jams.
From bus to matatu – the major difference is that they are smaller in size and the guy hanging out the doorway is more intense in his search for passengers and the driver seems more intent on not fully stopping the vehicles for passengers to alight. It is all about walking/running at the same pace as the bus at the moment you get on or off the vehicle. Matatus are also more colourful and decorated and a bit quirkier in shape. But at the end of the day you just sit there on the chairs that have material which might have come from your grandparents old carpet and you bob up and down – some matatus have soft ceilings for those extra big bops of your head. They also have lots of stickings and signs with references to god and the fact he is in control and will take care of us – trying to provide comfort to passengers who aren’t too sure the driving is having any control.
So all these different ways of getting around was working my way up to a boda boda ride. This is a motor bike taxi, where you are sometimes given a reflective vest and an oversized helmet to provide you with fake security. Then you jump on the back of a bike and he takes you through the fastest and most interesting shortcuts possible as if you need to get to a bomb site to disarm the bomb and save the city. We went through puddles, up little mounds, along something of a footpath, through tiny gaps that put bike couriers to shame, and of course along a road that isn’t open yet so you have to pass through a petrol station and up and down ‘gutters’ to pass the various obstacles that are trying to stop the superhero style driver from getting where he needs to go. And then he stops at a random stall at a market and while I sit there wondering if he is going to dump me there, he is just doing some business before carrying on his way. I made it safely home. So that was almost a medley of transport in nairobi – I missed out on catching a taxi or being in a car.
People have been walking to some extent in every city I have visited. I always enjoy seeing people on the streets and it is nice to see them move along one foot in front of the other, in their own little rhythm. But until now I have never thought too much about how they walk and the beat, the bounce and the attitude that a walk can give to the street. From my taxi on the way to Nairobi I became captivated by the way the Kenyans were walking. They were making otherwise dull streets have movement and colour that almost made you want to dance yourself. It felt like a small step between the movement I was watching to a street party where everyone was getting into the groove.
Once I got out on the street myself I couldn’t help but hope that this walk was contagious and I was somehow walking with flare. Well, I definitely felt more fun and alive while I was walking. I tried to have a bit of attitude but then I just felt like I was kidding myself and I break out in an internal giggle that definitely portrays no style at all. While I don’t have much gangster or catwalk style about me, I thought my relatively large bum might make up for it, but I just feel ridiculous when I try. I am hoping that I am acquiring the walk gradually without thinking about it (like one might acquire and accent) and when I come back I will have a walk that will make people.
Yesterday I took a local up on an offer to go for a walk around a slum. This involved walking in all sorts of conditions, without footpaths, through dusty roads and paths, along a railway track which dictates the length of your stride and then across puddles that I tried to avoid contemplating the contents of. We walked constantly and I tried not to be tired but I felt like collapsing at the end of it. I just didn’t have the stamina of the kenyans (and we are at altitude). On my way I was stuck in a matatu in a traffic jam. A small voice in my head was saying that getting out and walking would be faster but then a much more dominant voice told me to sit where I was and enjoying slipping in and out of sleep as the bus lurched two metres forward and then sat idle for a few minutes.
Is the transport in india a cross between Vietnam and Kenya? What a ridiculous question to ask, but sometimes I think these things. Sometimes I am amongst the various wheeled objects on the road and I feel like I could be anywhere. People are pushing forward in one way or another, there is noise, vehicles, movement and bitumen. But maybe this is just me trying to reduce the beauty and culture of the road to something I don’t have to think about, because to be honest there is just too much to think about. Subtle difference are everywhere but some of them are so hard to explain and that’s why I’m going to have to try and show you in a film instead (and then perhaps you can explain them to me after) :P.
Beyond the physical appearance of the people, the vehicles and the streets, it is what is going on in people’s head that seems so diverse. In India I found a place where people seem to be in touch with how they are feeling and relating to their environment and community. This consciousness which I had only had glimpses of in other countries, was both beautiful and a little intense. While I did see some people have little realisations while I was asking them about how they felt on transport, for many it seemed to flow from them naturally, like it was something they had already thought about.
People would be considering the whole transport system as well. This happened both at a strategic level and a street level. Interviewees were keen to describe Pune’s transport, the changes that have happened and potential ideas for the future. The people of Pune were also willing to help others get out of ridiculous intersections, which were like a computer game that involved reversing multiple vehicles, putting steering wheels into full lock and directing traffic to come within a millimetre of others. People literally got out of their vehicles to solve the puzzle and get the traffic moving again. So people do think about other people on the road from time to time. It is not all a self-centred race to wherever they need to get to. In Hanoi and Qingdao I feel like these considerations of other people also happen but at a less conscious level.
But in every city I have visited there is definitely a lot of reflection that takes place on transport. When I asked what people think about while traveling around their city, people would often describe thoughts that go beyond the mundane. While in transit people have time and space to think and their environment, the dynamics and the community gives them inspiration to bring back memories, solve problems and perhaps dream or plan their future. Seeing people of different walks of life were reminders to think about family and friends that you might not give the time to. One girl told me that sometimes when she would see an old woman on the bus it would remind her to talk to her grandma more often. A motor bike rider in India said he preyed when he passed temples, while another told me she thought about the environment as she passed beautiful nature on her bike.
There is also the opportunity to clear the mind while traveling. The speed and intensity of riding a motor bike has allowed people to ‘breath’ after a stressful day at work. I guess the bus feels like a cocoon to others as they just let the world pass while they are protected and passive to it. I guess I am having the most distracted and distorted mind of everyone as I travel trying to understand and capture the experience of transport. However, I have to admit that I too feel my mind becoming free while I glide through traffic in one form or another.