It’s my last Friday in Tanzania. Storytime. I’m about to describe my worst ride in a three-wheeler or bajaj. Like in a good suspense movie it’s more about what didn’t happen. There was an air of danger throughout the entire length of my trip to the Julius Nyerere airport in Dar es Salaam. Anything could have happened.
You may ask why didn’t I take a proper driver or at least a taxi. Thing is, I needed to reach the airport on a Friday evening which is the worst day for traffic jams. My assumption was that a bajaj would be able to move where cars can’t.
In the beginning my bajaj driver used the sidewalk and scratched along concrete posts that had been erected to keep bajajes out. Some of them were felled with the reinforcing steel rods still attached. Now I understood why. The scratching sound really got under my skin. I was a bit tight from work.
The bajaj’s screaming horn scared away pedestrians just when we were attacked. A agile guy jumped in and sat on the bench beside me making funny noises. It took me a few seconds to realize he was just fooling around. We got rid of him and finally hit the road while my limbic system was trying to get back to normal. The movie “Express Kidnapping” had just started to play in my mind, where the bad guy blocks my exit, hurts me and then shakes me down for all my money and ATM passwords. I HAD to calm down.
Traffic was slow and yet we speeded past cars, buses and trucks, all on the bumpy shoulder of the road. Adrenaline rush. At one place we turned away from the road: my private movie continued. Then came another realization: refueling only. There must be method in having TZS 5000 worth of gasoline pumped each in the tank and in a canister. But I didn’t figure that one out. I was still trying to calm myself down. It didn’t help that a bus was parked nearby glorifying two thugs.
Approaching a clogged intersection the driver turned away from the intended direction. We went head on with some cars who also took a little detour through the parking lot and he spoke to them while moving closer. Again my exit was blocked and I was trapped. My movie was about to continue.
A couple of centimeter jobs, a few hops, a 180 degree curve and we were on the sidewalk again, ready to enter the blocked intersection on the wrong lane. It didn’t matter, a large truck was maneuvering forward and back to get around other cars. Which didn’t deter my driver from inching up to the very end of it. The intersection was now even more blocked and we were trapped. Other small vehicules opportunistically advanced into some remaining spaces. I could have stretched out my arms and touch at least two of them. Getting to the airport in time might be tricky.
For a few moments we remained wedged behind the truck when it predictably reversed again. We also tried to inch back, luckily the truck didn’t bump into us. We were ready to move forward again in the wake of the big truck. But when the release came we were beaten by a car that closed the gap. My driver somehow made his way beside the car and complained loudly. When another gap opened up he moved beside the truck in what would be considered a blind spot. Mercifully the truck remained on a predictable course and we scraped along the edge of the road once more, centimeters away from the truck.
When traffic stopped again, we turned left inside a township (what looked like a slum to me) where I felt quite exposed in the slow moving vehicle on a bumpy dirt track. I needed to know what this driver was up to. I needed to check our location. Fully aware that the last time I had done it in a similar environment, someone had snatched my smartphone. But I just had to know.
Soon we were back on the same road where we overtook a truck that got angry at us. My driver made a couple of gestures (the extended middle finger was not part of it) and drove on, only to be passed by the truck again before we were stopped by an intersection. Luckily no war broke out between the two. And I could finally see that we were heading towards the airport. So I tried to relax. I was still alive and had smartphone and my money.
By then my driver was worked up. As soon as we could, we moved again on the leftmost part of the road, past stopped buses where passengers were about to get out. No one was hit. Phew! Then a bus cut us off. My driver hit the brakes hard, then had a loud and lengthy conversation with the bus driver, while I was waiting to be brought to my destination.
He was furious by now. He narrowly missed a bicycle and stopped the last moment before hitting a standing car in front of us. Time to divert to the sidewalk again.
Instead of taking one and a half hours, we reached the airport after 35 minutes. Which is amazingly close to the 33 minutes Google map is suggesting. We had fueled up, spent time on a blocked intersection and had a lengthy discussion – all fit it. But the Friday night traffic and this mix of aggression and reckless driving along with my private fears had been a bit too much. And I found out I was at the wrong terminal. Terminals are separated by size of airplane, not by domestic and international.
I started to walk to the right terminal as I had plenty of time and finally managed to unwind during the peaceful next 20 minutes.
Turns out the location of FINCA office has a special breed of bajaj drivers. My colleague later commented “Oohh sorry, you took him at Mwembe Chai?”
(sketch by Sarah Markes)