Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Khumbi Ride

Warning: This will be long

I've pondered upon the best way to approach writing about my trip to Africa and my mind always comes back to the khumbis.  The what?! The debilitated,  cramped, time-consuming public transportation of Swaziland.  I remarked to Mia at one point, that we should calculate the percentage of my trip spent in one of these mini-buses. While we never got around to it, rest assured, it was a significant portion. Don't get me wrong, I loved riding in khumbis.

Swaziland is not big.  It's half of the size of Kyushu, four times the size of Nagasaki prefecture, and not even 1.5 times the size of Los Angeles county- remember this is an entire country. I didn't have the chance to venture into the southern half, but I saw my fair share of the north through the windows of khumbis.

Public transportation in Swaziland is like none I've experienced before and I actually didn't really get it when it was first explained to me (and I'm still no expert). There are a few options, but I'll start out with the most straightforward.

The bus rank. In Mia's hut, I saw an indiscernible picture drawn by her 6-year old brother, Nsika, that said "bus rank." I assumed the words were as non-sensible as the drawing. In hindsight though, it was actually a pretty good drawing and labeled correctly.  Depending on where you are the bus rank can be a very intimidating mad-house or a quite parking lot with some ladies selling goods.  It's just a bus stop, pretty much.  Khumbis are 16-seat, privately-owned (but for public use) minibuses. Each has a set origin and destination, often painted onto the van. You find the khumbi going to (or at least in the direction of) your desired location and grab a seat. Here's the sticky part, the khumbi doesn't leave until it's full. If you're the first person on, you could be waiting for a long time. My first trip, we spent longer waiting to leave, than it took to get to where we were going; 48 minutes for a 20ish minute ride.

So, I said it doesn't leave until it's full, and I meant full. Every seat filled and usually every nook and cranny crammed with stuff. I saw jugs shoved under seats, eggs, live chickens, huge bags of maize meal, children. Children are no exception. If they don't take up a seat, they ride for free, so babies and kids sit on laps or stand between seats.  Don't even ask about seat belts...

Apparently, you're supposed to get a ticket on the khumbi. I don't think we got one the first 4 or 5 rides, but no mind, we still paid and we made it. Every khumbi has a driver and a "conductor," a guy that takes the money, (gives tickets) and tells people where to sit. I was really proud of myself when Mia and I were separated on one of my last khumbi rides and I paid for myself.  It's cheap, by the way. Less than two bucks for a 40+ minute ride.  (If you're on the side of the road and a khumbi going in your direction has already let someone off so has some extra seats is going by, you can wave them down and jump in from there, as well. )

The doors don't always close, the windows don't always open, but don't worry, the music will always be pumping. Almost every khumbi had a new stereo and the drivers just blasted their favorite tunes throughout the Swazi countryside.  This is the closest I'll get to a good time to mention that many of the khumbi have a name- like a ship has a name. Some of them were pretty funny, like "Cup of Dreams."

So why did I like khumbi so much? Other than seeing the Swazi countryside, I saw the country people-side. There were so many interactions in, on, or around the khumbi that made it so memorable. What I learned on khumbis:

Swaziland has diverse, beautiful scenery: When I left the airport in Johannesburg, I saw what I pretty much expected of African terrain: flat and grassy. But the closer we got to Swaziland I saw a whole different world. Vast rolling hills, tall trees, lush vegetation. Granted it was rainy season so there was a lot of new growth. Later on in the trip, I saw the flat fields of maize and sugar cane. Apparently in the south, the terrain is even more different.

Swazis are friendly: Probably the story I've told the most thus far, occurred at my first bus rank. I'd been with Mia for maybe 45 minutes and we are standing in line for a specific khumbi and Mia starts chatting away in siSwati with this make (pronounced ma-ge, means "mother" or "woman old enough to be a mother"). I thought it was so weird that Mia happened to know this lady, even though we were no where near her community. They were laughing and joking. "Must be old friends," I thought. Nope, just some lady standing in the same line?! I was shocked at the time, but over the next week I realized that it really is just how the Swazis are: super friendly (and talkative). Everyone I met in Mia's community made me feel like one of the family instantly. It was weird and so different from Japan. In Japan everyone is very polite, and I realized that this can make them seem cold and standoffish.

People watch out for each other: Okay, this was neither in Swaziland nor on a khumbi, but it's related. As we crossed the border to Mozambique, we were a little worried about getting to the bus rank from the border gate, but we were taken under the wing by this nice Swazi woman. The trick to getting to the bus rank is to catch a ride on the back of a pick-up that makes trips back and forth from the gate to the rank. The back of this specific pick-up was run by one tough 13 year old boy, who was trying to charge us for 3 people, the third being our big bag full of camping stuff. So this woman got in this huge argument, just for us. Other passengers piped in in our favor as well, but in the end we still had to pay.
Again in Moz, but this time it was a khumbi, heading back to the border from Maputo- our big red camping bag was again the star of the story. This time, it was in the back of the khumbi, no problem except that the driver and conductor were talking about it, wondering whose it was, but only speaking in Portuguese! We had no clue! So this nice passenger, decided to ask us in English, just in case. What a pal! Things like this happened all the time. Anywhere from a simple translation like that to guiding me to a more direct khumbi and then helping me carry all of our stuff from one khumbi to another while Mia was out doing something else.

You can eat on the go: While it wasn't as bad as Maputo, there was quite a bit of trash on the ground around Swaziland, which made me sad.  A lot of the litter, however, was maize cobs and mango peels, which is not so bad. It seemed that in every community you could find someone selling grilled maize and mangos (I think it's mango season). Unlike in Japan, eating on the go is fine here. Once you're done with the maize, just chuck the cob out the window of the khumbi. This was really hard for me to do that, especially on the right side, I was scared it would hit another car. Everyone else, including Mia, were seasoned pros.
Another favorite story involves eating maize in a khumbi. We were sitting in the back row and there was a big gogo (grandmother) between Mia and me. I was just picking at some leftover maize I had and the gogo saw it and asked me if it was maize. I took that as, "Can I have a couple kernels?" so I offered some. She readily accepted and took a few. A couple minutes later, she mentions the maize again, but this time, she takes the cob, breaks it in half and hands one half back to me, keeping the other for herself. I really didn't mind, it was just funny. We proceeded to throw the cobs out the window.

Swazis like their picture taken: Maybe it's because not many people have cameras, but so many Swazi people asked me to take their pictures. It was nice for me because I got some pictures of everyday people, but I still don't understand their logic, they're never going to see the photos. Another odd part of this is that when they want their photo taken, they yell out "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" Again, counter intuitive.

Personal space is not a concept: I'm sure you've seen pictures or videos of Tokyo trains in the morning during rush hour, packed like sardines.  Swaziland has this too on buses and sometimes khumbis. Especially in Mozambique, where we didn't ride any khumbis within Maputo (thank goodness). There, we saw khumbis packed until butts are hanging out of windows. The buses  got pretty crowded too. We got on one early in the morning near the start of the line so it wasn't very full. By the time we got to our destination, an hour later, every seat was filled and every inch of aisle space was packed with people. Getting out was not easy, especially with a big backpack and that darn camping bag. I had to carry my backpack over the heads of seated passengers or it wasn't going to make it out with me!

TIA: This Is Africa. TIA is an acronym often used by volunteers. My biggest TIA moment was riding in a bus on the way to Hlane Royal National Park. We were just riding along looking out the window when all of the sudden there were 8 giraffe just hanging out on the side of the road. Wild giraffe! Hanging out on the side of the road! I was beyond excited. Moments later we also saw some impala and vultures!
Speaking of animals, I saw a ton. At Hlane, I went on 3 game drives (2 sunrise, 1 sunset). We saw rhinos, giraffe, impala, nyala, crocodiles, vultures, other big birds, warthogs, elephants (I got really close to some), hippos, a monitor lizard and some beautiful small birds. There is a lion section at Hlane as well, but unfortunately we didn't see any. The night we arrived they saw some lions feeding, but we'd opted not to do the sunset drive because lions are usually seen in the morning (oops!). The next two days however, the lions were nowhere to be seen. We saw their footprints and their leftover food, but no lions. It's especially hard during the rainy season because the grass is tall, there's plenty of watering holes and it's really hot (around 40C!) so the lions just lay around in the shade. Mia and I spent the daytime doing the same thing as the animals, just sitting by the watering hole watching as animals came and went. It was SO cool.
Another TIA moment happened at night when we were in the fenced off camping area, just roasting some marshmallows, when we heard a lion roar! It was awesome, but also terrifying because in the dark we could also make out forms of animals running INSIDE the camping area. Could it be that unimaginable situation like Jurassic Park when the predators get loose and cause havoc?  Were we doomed to be lion food? When we heard the safari truck fire up and head out into the wild, it didn't help. "No! They're INSIDE!" we said to each other.  We were pretty scared, especially because the lights of the truck showed the silhouette of an animal crouching near our tent, so we couldn't even take refuge. We sought out the help of our neighbors who were in the buildings so hadn't heard a thing, but they came with us back to our site, with a flashlight, probably thinking we were crazy. We realized that there were, indeed, animals next to our tent, but only impala- no lions. Mia and I are positive they were chased away from where ever they had been by a lion. I don't think lions can actually get out of their area though.

It's a small world: It's amazing that one second I was thinking "Man, this is a different world," then the next I ran into someone from Oxy. That's right. After lugging our stuff and that damn camping bag all over Swaziland and Mozambique, we were finally headed to our last stop before we got to ditch the bag. We got off a khumbi and hitched a ride on the back of a pick-up, but then had a 2+ kilometer walk ahead of us, down a straight, boring road. A car pulled over and this nice young couple, who happened to be going to the same hostel (there really wasn't anything else down the road), offered to give us lift. Turns out the woman is an '03 Oxy grad who worked there until '09, before she moved to South Africa. She was just in Swaziland for the holidays. Since she was there until '09, that means we were on campus together for 3 years! But wait, it gets weirder. Her roommate of 4 years (that alone is rare), visited her the year before and they went to the same hostel for new years as Mia and I were on our way to! Crazy!

My two weeks in Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia were amazing. This is just a
sample of my experiences and stories, but if I try to write them all down, you may never see it.  I recorded pretty much every waking moment in a journal, so as never to forget my experience.

It's hard to portray how I felt being there. It made me feel happy and sad, surprised and impressed, worried but hopeful. Just like every place, Swaziland has it's problems, probably more than it's fair share. While I know the volunteers can't solve these problems for the country on a whole, I was really impressed and amazed at the difference that Mia alone was making in her community on a personal level. I could tell that many many people's lives were changed by her being there.

Sorry it took so long to post this. I hope you enjoyed it. Don't forget to check out my photos:
Maputo, Mozambique
Omuran-chan is a doll of the mascot of my town. I took her around Africa and not only showed her to kids there, I took pictures of her to show to my students. Seeing Omuran-chan in the photos really engaged my students more. They loved it! But were a little upset that I ended up trading her for a bag in Zambia on my last day. But hey, now she lives in Africa!

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