Real Talk with Caitlin Plummer: Taking to the road in Tanzania

My Edmonds News is pleased to welcome our newest columnist, Meadowdale High School senior Caitlin Plummer. In her first column, Plummer writes about her family’s recent visit to Tanzania.

By Caitlin Plummer

On the 17th of July, my family left home in the dark morning with 11 pieces of luggage packed into the back of our minivan. The drive to the airport was the first leg of our two-day journey to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to visit my dad’s sister and her family for two weeks.

The freeway is a beautiful empty ride at 5 in the morning – and after all my journeys in Tanzania, it would be a beautiful ride at any time of day. My uncle, who has lived in Tanzania the majority of his life, was our chauffeur for the first part of the trip and an obvious master of the unspoken rules of African roads.

Here are a few pieces of wisdom I learned to survive the diverse terrains of Tanzania.

Make sure you know which lights to blatantly ignore. This is the most important rule of city driving, as the city is the only place you will find any traffic lights. For a good indication on what lights to disregard, look for an overwhelming pool of cars going opposite directions, all within 6 feet of one another. You may find yourself in this lovely intersection with another car’s headlights staring directly into your soul, but do not panic. Hesitation is what causes accidents. It’s just like a four-way stop – except there are no stop signs, no space to turn, and many more cars. Just wait your turn and nudge through the crowd, then give yourself a pat on the back and take a few deep breaths before it happens all again in a few minutes.

Speak English to all of the police officers. This is probably the easiest rule for us Americans to obey, because chances are not many of us know Swahili. The police are all incredibly helpful, because they check up on you even if you’re not speeding just to make sure everything is going well. They stand regally in their white uniforms on the side of the road and play a game where they take turns choosing random cars to pull over with the mere raise of their palm. Many are so kind as to look up one of the most obscure rules of the road and write you a ticket if your car does not meet par. But this is where their kindness stretches to a new level unworthy of American police officers – for a bribe of 5,000 shillings (about $3.16 U.S.) slipped gracefully under your license and registration, your 30,000 shilling ticket will be waived with an indifferent grimace that makes the heart warm. However, at this point speaking English becomes crucial, as my uncle knows firsthand. The police generally harass you less because they fear whom you know and therefore whom you could tell; plus, of course, if you look to be a real tourist, they generally leave you alone.

Embrace the infamous traffic jams by accepting that you are not the priority. This is another duty of the police officers, executed quite efficiently. They stand in the middle of intersections and direct traffic – but if you’re not going the way that they are focused on, make yourself comfortable. In the mornings, they courteously let all traffic moving out of the city wait while they regulate all cars entering the city. The most common road has two lanes, which should help ventilate some of the cars, but for some reason, one lane going one way doesn’t move particularly quickly.

On our journey to the national parks, we encountered many paved two-lane roads that were laced with trucks that were just not quite meeting our pace. So of course, the answer is to peer around the giant trucks with ease to gauge if anyone is close in the oncoming lane. If it seems not, you move into the other lane to overtake the lethargic trucks gracefully while your mother tenses up in the back seat. It saves plenty of time and stress, especially because most trucks understand their lackluster speed and will even signal to you when someone is coming and when it is safe to overtake them.

When traveling dirt roads, take a Dramamine, relax and pretend you’re Indiana Jones. The key to minimizing the bumpy ride is to go as fast as you can over the uneven dirt, resulting in a constant patter of little bounces instead of many very slow and powerful jolts. Many of these roads have some jagged rocks sticking out of them and steep dips where your car may bottom out. My family was actually blessed enough to be acknowledged by such a rock while on safari, in what appeared to be a tsetse fly zone. This rock graced us not only with the knowledge that our spare had no air in it, but that we didn’t have all of the parts needed to change a tire in our possession. Luckily, we weren’t far into the park, and some kind men stopped to lend us their spare so we could make it back to our hotel, where our spare was pumped up and ready.

Take advantage of the assorted modern methods of transportation. The taxis in Tanzania are not very different from those in America, except they are painted white and the drivers disregard how many people you are supposed to cram into one car. The buses are similar, packed comfortably to the brim with people that they safely stop to let out in the middle of the street rather than on the side of the road. They are all colorful, with names painted above the windshield that generally have to do with religion; I even saw one with a painting of Obama on the back.

Bajajis can carry up to three grown people in the back seat.

Then, not to be forgotten, there are bajajis – little three-wheeled motorized vehicles that can carry up to three grown people in the back seat. These cars are not only fun, but also incredibly safe as they are equipped with no seat belts or doors. The drivers, who sit by themselves in the front, won’t let a child sit on the outside edge of the bajaji… but if they’re sitting on your lap on the outside, it’s obviously much safer and all OK.

Look out your window. No, really – I’m not joking this time. I know it seems elementary and obvious, but out of all the hours I spent in a car during my trip, I was almost never bored. There is so much to see, from the varied scenery, to the animals, to the villages. Over our two-week trip, my family came to fall in love with the majestic and intimidating baobab tree, which became all the more impressive when we passed through a large valley completely covered in baobabs on all sides. In Zanzibar, we had to move around a herd of cows just hanging out in the road, bumbling along. Plus, baboons there are as common as squirrels are here. They’re everywhere – walking on the side of the road, climbing the trees, eating in the grass, carrying their babies on their backs or under their stomachs.

Children in Tanzania

But most importantly, watch the people. Return the happy children’s thumbs ups and waves. Scrutinize the elegant way the women balance huge jugs of water on their head. Notice the crowd around the sole pool table in the village, sheltered by a rickety tin roof and skinny wood supports.

Driving in Tanzania taught me not only that we are one of the few countries that drive on the right side of the road, but it taught me about the culture of the people. I will never forget the calmness with which each car maneuvered through the hectic intersections, or the large excited smiles of the children we passed in the villages. The psychedelic buses added to the beautiful colors already present in the surrounding African clothing.

Africa was the first new continent I’ve ever visited, so every experience was foreign and exhilarating to me, even the methods of driving. Now I know that wherever country I visit next, my eyes are going to be glued to the window to catch a glimpse into their cultures and their lives.

Caitlin Plummer, a senior at Meadowdale High School and co-editor of Meadowdale’s newspaper, The Maverick, enjoys writing about a broad range of topics that are on her mind. She was born in Lynnwood and lives there with her parents, her younger brother and her golden retriever, Cinnamon. Her future aspirations include earning a degree in journalism and writing for a major news source.

  1. Great insights on driving in another country, especially one that is less developed.

    I had similar impressions driving cars and riding in taxis and buses in South America in the Peace Corps.

  2. A delightful read! Caitlin is a talented writer. From an OLD Journalism major, and Edmonds Daybreaker Rotarian, I send a suggestion she apply for a Rotary scholarship next spring!

  3. Thanks Caitlin.Equally fun topics when visiting developing countries- shopping,dining out and bar hopping with the locals. Probably best to wait a few years till you try the last one. Look forward to you next article.

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