African Road Trip

(It is my pleasure to introduce a new blogger.  Audrey Ward is our intern for ten months who has been here since August.  She is somewhere in limbo between graduate studies in comparative literature and medicine, and where better to pass such a limbo than in Burundi.  We're thankful for being willing to share her perspective.)

It sounds like an absurd story problem in math class: 14 sunburnt yet happy buzungu and 28 cans of Pringles are in a 15-passenger van whose fuel tank is only 1/8 full of diesel. They want to travel from Kigoma,Tanzania to Kibuye, Burundi after a camping trip with monkeys. 

If the visas are all in order, but it’s also New Year’s Eve, and 2 out of 3 filling stations will NOT have diesel fuel, then how many hours will it take for the buzungu to reach Kibuye? And how many cans of Pringles will be left over? (When calculating your answer, make sure to consider that Son Excellence the President of Burundi himself is alsocurrently on a road trip.)

I was blissfully unaware of the answer to this story problem as I popped a Dramamine for carsickness and crammed into the last row of the van. We stopped in the town of Kigoma to shop at the excitingly clean minimart with glorious products like cocoa mix and chips,stuffed ourselves back into the van with grocery bags on our laps, and headed towards the border.

We made it to the border pretty quickly, only a few hours, including the short stop by a Tanzanian policeman in an immaculately white suit who waved us on after a cheerful conversation.

To cross the Tanzanian/Burundian border by car, there is no one-stop international tollbooth gate or something, as I had imagined. Instead, the trip requires two separate stops, one on each side, to get visas checked twice and stamped for exiting and for (re-) entering. On theTanzanian side, we stopped at the office next to a Burundian refugee camp. The officials were fairly efficient, and we stepped across the road to buy a stalk of bananas and to exchange some money.

A little while later, we stopped at the Burundian border office. One guy passing by on foot peered in the windows of the van curiously while several of us cued up at the desk of the border official. A Tanzanian nun traveling on foot glanced at the long line and the stacks of passports obviously all in one group, and asked meekly if she could be allowed to go to the head of the line. We of course ushered her to the front. (It’s pretty bad form to be a missionary and snub a nun.)

After what felt like ages, there were just two people left in line: George Watts, with his family’s stack of passports, and me. The border office uses large hardbound books full of blank graphing paper to record information by hand. Just as the border official had finishedpainstakingly copying all of the information (country, name, passport number, occupation, visa number) from the second passport in his stack, she came to the end of the current page in her notebook.

Slowly, she turned the page.

She looked at the blank paper.

She took out a ruler from her desk.

She placed the ruler on the page and drew her pen down to create a column.

She removed the ruler and touched-up the line she drew with a few gentle strokes.

She continued this process until both of the open-faced pages had the correct number of columns.

She double-checked her work with the previous page.

For the sake of future efficiency (I suppose), she turned another page and drew all of those columns as well.

Finally, she reached out for the third passport as George and I breathed a sigh of relief. I have never felt more Western in my sense of time passing. Thankfully, she seemed to speed up a little bit as she took down the information for each passport, although she did look at my visa for several moments and then asked me if it was a visa, which was briefly concerning.

“What happened in there? Are you guys even legal or what??” John called when George and I finally made it back to the car with our passports.

We lurched back onto the road, and for the next hour everything went smoothly, despite another stop by a policeman who just wanted to chat (and hold Jess’s hand through the window for an awkward amount of time).

Then, we started looking for diesel, but the first few attempts yielded nothing but stares from pedestrians who stopped to watch us through the windows. We were only slightly concerned about the time we had left on the engine when the biggest delay in the road tripoccurred. Son Excellence.

In the middle of nowhere, with fields on either side, is an intersection with two main highways (they must have been main highways, because they were paved). All we had to do was turn left at the intersection and we would be only an hour and a half or so fromKibuye. But just as we approached the intersection, we noticed a police officer stopping all oncoming traffic from either direction.

“This can’t be a good sign,” someone muttered, and suspicions were confirmed when some official police and then military vehicles started to pass through the intersection on the road up ahead. We realized that it must be the entourage for some sort of important official.  After the kids got bored of counting the cars that passed after about 36 SUVs and military trucks with soldiers hanging out on the back, we realized that it must be the entourage for the MOST important official. The President had apparently been on a tour or doing a fieldcampaign in a province and was heading back to the capital. We spotted a black SUV with Burundian flags and thought it must be him, but ten minutes later after another barrage of military vehicles another identical SUV passed. When this had happened about five times, we had to hand it to the Burundian security force for not taking any chances. There were more than enough decoys.

Meanwhile, we had to turn off the AC in order to conserve fuel. It was a sunny day and we hadn’t climbed the mountains yet, so it was humid and HOT in that car. To make it worse, we couldn’t roll down all of the windows: word apparently spread to the neighborhood kids that a white van with a bunch of buzungu was stopped at the presidential parade. About a dozen kids and teenagers forgot all about the parade as they surrounded the windows, cupping their hands against the glass to peer in and occasionally tapping it or yelling at us to see if we would react. Sometimes we talked to them, to break up the boredom, but soon we felt too lethargic to say anything. Sweat trickled down our backs. Every time there was a pause in the passing military cars, our hopes would rise that the parade was over—only to be dashed again as yet another truck or SUV appeared.

I’m not entirely sure how long we stayed there, but it felt like at least 45 minutes. Finally, the policeman waved us on, and we escaped the crowd and rolled down the windows for the most refreshing breeze I’ve ever felt.

But we still had to find fuel. When we finally discovered a gas station with diesel, it was in a very crowded corner of the town and once more our van was surrounded with onlookers and even grown men who cupped their hands against the windows to stare at us. But the waitingpaid off, and finally we had a full fuel tank and set off on the final leg of the journey.

We arrived in Kibuye about 3 PM. In reality, the trip was only about an hour longer than we originally estimated—so as far as African travel goes, this was pretty successful.

In the end, the answers to the story problem are: five hours. And no Pringles remaining.

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