The Ride: by Amy Vaninetti
I want to tell you about one of my favorite parts of traveling Africa, most would say that this would be their least favorite, but let me explain why I love it so much….
The locals in Africa travel from town to town via a Matatu because it is the cheapest way to travel. A Matatu is a 1980’s 12 seater van that they use as a travel bus. The seats are very small to where your knees hit the seat in front of you and your shoulders are rubbing up against the person beside you. There is very little ventilation, so on a 90+ degree day this can be quite a sweaty ride. They not only pack it full of people, but they pack it full of peoples stuff; under the seats, by the side panels, in the legroom area, anywhere they can find a free square foot. Very cozy to say the least.
You buy a seat in the van, and if you are the first person to board you get the best seat, but could be waiting 2 hours for 11 more people to hop on board. Once the van is to capacity you begin driving and the whole vehicle starts to rattle and shake. The locals call this an “African massage”. You bounce and shake as you hit the road full of dips and potholes. At first you feel like at any moment the van is just going to spontaneously combust, every steel piece of the vehicle falling apart as you roll out onto the open road. After about 10 min of this, you start to get used to it, and this is when I start to find the fun. Seeing it just like the Indiana Jones ride at Disney Land but without the snakes popping out at you. Instead there are people darting out in the middle of the street, as if they were playing a real life game of Frogger and they are the frog. There are cars swerving to try and pass each other coming inches away from hitting one another. There are no traffic lights, so it is a free for all and everyone is trying to get somewhere fast!
Yesterday I was in one of these Matatu’s as we drove 5 hours from Nairobi to Isiolo, where Mama Hope’s water projects are located. The conditions above may paint this drive as undesirable, but I just love it! I’m jolting back and fourth in a packed car with a funny old man, a mother with her small baby, and a bunch of middle aged African men, listening to bongo music, with pineapples under my feet, driving past small villages and road side fruit stands…. and then it hits me, this is Africa! This is what I love. The little imperfections, the closeness, and the lifestyle so real and raw and different from my own. Pulling over on the side of the road to hear the driver get out and announce “no brakes”… But never the less after some thumping around under the vehicle we’re back on the road again, driving with our flashers on the remainder of the way. I love it all, from the hawkers who bombard you at rest stops; shoving fruit, sodas and crackers in your face trying to get you to buy their goods… to the beautiful scenery that changes from lush rolling hills of banana trees and forest, to a desert full of shrubby trees and dirt as far as you can see.
Even though this ride is far from the comfort I get at home, with my butt asleep, my knees aching and hot as a sauna… Somehow I’m at peace; more so than I have ever been in the US. I’m relaxed and ready for every bump and shake this ride has to offer. Because its the ride that puts everything into perspective and in the end, soothes your soul. When everything is out of your control, and nothing is ideal, it is so freeing. This is what the ride is all about. Realizing… This is Africa, and it is beautiful! Some people say we’re insane for driving 5 hours in a Matatu with the locals, instead of chartering our own SUV, but I think they are the crazy ones because they’re missing out on the little experiences that make life so rich. It’s the ride… and I hope you all can take it some day.