I stare owl-eyed into the waiting dala dala as 27 faces stared back. The minivan—for though it has extra rows of seats compared to the soccer-mom-mobiles of the U.S., it’s still just a minivan—is bursting full and a chorus of mzungu echoes through the car as a flurry of shifting takes place. An older Tanzanian woman, the grandmother type, pats the space beside her—all three inches of it—and gestures for me to sit. And though I’m thin, three inches just isn’t going to cut it. With a confused gesture to my backside and those three inches, I try to tactfully indicate I will crouch-stand instead.
A hearty laugh erupts from her, echoed around the van as she exclaims in a thick East African accent: “You will fit. This is Africa.”
The conductor nudges me toward the seat, his sharp rap on the side of the car signaling to the driver to continue onward. Indecision hits for a second and the old woman pulls my hips into the space, but really onto her lap, and we bump and jostle down the road.
A bubble of laughter forms as I adjust my wedged limbs to drape my arm around the old woman, settling into a comfortable position for the 45 minute ride.
Full dark settles and a parade of small, street-side cookfires pass below the lower third of the window, the only view I have from my high perch in the minivan.
Slowly the dala dala empties a bit—including the kind woman who spoke some English—and as I gain a full window view I realize I have no idea if we passed my stop. The nondescript facades blend into the night.
I tap the handler and give him the only landmark I know near my hostel: “Arusha City Bar?”
I point, gesturing with a “which way” look on my face, trying to ascertain if the bar is behind us or ahead. Baffled, the handler let’s out a steam of Swahili. Seeing my confusion, the women in the dala dala take to my cause and I hear mzungu, the name for travelers of European descent, bounce around the van once again as they discuss my predicament.
Finally, they incredulously decide I mean the dive bar another two minutes up the road and they all clamor for my attention asking me why on earth I am going to a bar miles outside of the touristy city center. At least, that’s the gist of what I assume they asked me since it was all in Swahili and my only response was huge grin and affirmation that, yes, indeed I want to stop at Arusha City Bar.
At the bar, they enthusiastically eject me from the van and stare at me curiously, awaiting my next move. I turn away from the bar and gesture toward the narrow side road to my hostel, at which understanding dawns on everyone and the women send me spirited waves and their huge guffaws echo into the quiet night.
Just before I walk out of sight, I turn around once more to glance back at the minivan. They are still stopped, still waving, and all still riveted by the prospect of where in the world this crazy, friendly mzungu is going at this time of night. With a final thumbs up in their direction, I enter our compound. I can’t wipe the smile off my face.
It wasn’t a huge adventure. In fact, I just went into town to pay back the kind Canadian who lent me $50 at the border. But moments like these send bubbles of contentment to the surface to remind me why I travel. This wasn’t a moment on which many stake their travel dreams, but it was real.
As the kind woman told me at the beginning of the ride, this, this is Africa.