Using All of Oneself to Ride a Bus in Tanzania
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
by: Margot Schaal

Section: Art of Living

The guidebook had forewarned me that the twelve hour bus from Arusha to Mwanza via Singida was NOT a comfortable one. It was barely tolerable - the most outrageous travel on horrible roads. Arriving at 4:30 AM to my assigned seat at the window in the next to last row, skinny me, I couldn’t squish myself in front of a pole beside the aisle seat, so I climbed over the raw metal arm of the seat, behind the pole to enter the row. I was wet through to my skin before I jumped out of the soaked seat- rain I presume- paused in the next seat to ponder, then worked my way slowly around passengers getting on and baggage in the aisle to the front to inform the conductor that I could not sit there. He was midway through some other dilemma and upon finishing it, he led me to the back of the bus, where I was given the center right seat. It was dry, I could sit there. I nudged firmly to push the boy on my left off a portion of my little seat he had usurped. My neighbor on the right arrived; she was 25 and wide. To her right was a young man who seemed to avoid looking at me.

We departed in the dark at 5:00 AM, city activities on the verge of beginning. So far so good. The bus horn went off for ten seconds of melodic trumpeting, like a soprano elephant’s call. On the trip the horn was used to alert prospective travelers of our approach, but more often to warn bicyclists and pedestrians carrying goods on their heads to clear the way. As soon as we were out of town the bumps began. I held onto the pole in front of me with my left hand and the seat in front of me with my right hand. My left sacroiliac joint slipped out a bit. After the second huge jerk painfully smashed my internal organs together, I stood up.

It was clear that I must use all of myself to manage the day’s travel, including my Feldenkrais® training. My large neighbor laughed at me, getting other passengers to turn around and grin at the white person STANDING on the bus! I told her: I am old, I am taking care of myself, you shouldn’t laugh at me. The sympathetic young man who took the wet seat, declaring it wasn’t a problem, turned back and said I would get tired standing. I told him that after twelve hours we would all be tired. I knew it was the only way to protect my spine, joints and organs.

Eight and nine years ago, I suffered tremendous spinal pain due to injuries to the top and bottom of my spine after which I continued to work full time in a physically and emotionally demanding job. I did not give my body the rest it needed to heal. Consequently, the pain lasted years and now I must continue to be vigilant.

On the bus, I bounced and I swayed. When the bumps were greatest, my feet left the floor, sending me up into a jump and my neighbor into another fit of laughter. When we stopped for moments to let off passengers, I sat down on the seat briefly. After a couple hours, we stopped in the middle of nowhere for people to relieve themselves in the bushes. I sat and did leg and foot movements.

One woman put a plastic bag on her head; others had their hair in cloth wraps or under a cap. The rest of us conceded to the flying dust; my hair got darker, theirs got lighter. Half way through, on a brief stop in Singida, I cleaned my nose– mud came out.  

The wet seat turned out to be a blessing that got me to a new location where I could stand up. Even though it was at the back of the bus, where the movement was most extreme, it was also away from the coming and going traffic and buckets and bags of grain or whatever people stored in the aisles, where others sat on the baggage. It also gave me a vantage point for viewing the countryside. The large window was diffused with a greenish plastic on the top, an amber plastic in the middle and a space of plain glass at the bottom. The times when, maintaining my grip on the pole and seat in front of me, I bent down to peer out of the “clear” window for color reference and a different perspective, the girl next to me laughed. We saw a herd of zebras right next to the bus that didn’t even flinch as we passed. I said “beautiful” in English and Swahili. That seems to have been the moment of my finding commonality with the girl and the guy next to her.

To keep from banging into the exposed metal bus parts required a balance between moving with the prevailing forces, whether side-to-side or up and down, and keeping sufficient solidity of muscle and soft tissue, flexibility and tone.  

Throughout the ride, I simultaneously gave attention to my many parts and places. My left hand began to get sore. My thumb got over stretched, so I changed my grip, aligning my thumb with my fingers. I changed the grip of my right hand on the seat back in order to prevent it from cramping. I periodically switched to hold the pole with my right hand, twisting left instead of right.

I used driving skills, knowing the feeling of a vehicle increasing and decreasing speed, the quality of movements relative to the terrain and how to anticipate how the rear end of the vehicle would respond to what the front end passed first. I determined whether to flow or to brace for best support of myself.

My back was supported not only by my sitting bones, but also by my entire pelvis, hip joints, my knees, ankles joints and all the joints in my feet. The shocks went through all of me; my spine flowed with the motions, smoothing out the roughness of the rugged bus.

Riders were praying to Jesus.

Wildness, a greener dip – a crater.

We saw many different tree species. In the savannah, there were acacias dotting the plains. In a lower area, acacias grew closely, their canopies intertwined like a thicket. There was farmland with corn, sunflowers, and a patch of wheat. In some places, euphorbia grew tall. There was an occasional massive baobab, its trunk looking proportionally too large for the branches.
Hours into the journey, at a transfer town, I sat for five minutes. When the hawkers circulated around the bus, I bought plain cookies, peanuts and an orange through the window. A guy at the window translated prices, so we became friendly. Later, I bought a banana and water.

I bent down to look as we passed a large wetland – white flamingos! I had to hold on constantly; it was impossible to take pictures.

An escarpment that went on for a hundred miles.

When we came to a treacherous hill late in the afternoon, all trucks around us had stopped. One truck was disabled below and blocking the road. Another, trying to pass around it on the hillside, got stuck in the soft soil. Several people were trying to help the driver get out by putting stones under tires to act as blocks. Most passengers got out to stretch. It was good to be on terra firma again. I walked over a rise to pee. Finally, a truck in front of and below us maneuvered around to descend in reverse. It slowly hauled the stuck truck out and up the hill. Vehicles began to move. There were only a few curves on the hairpin wind down, but two large trucks had dumped over the side of the “road.” People there were figuring out what to do about their accidents.

In spite of a feeling that the trip would go on forever, my primary focus was staying in one piece.

Every joint was in movement. My entire nervous system was in constant preparation, like the study of self to know what happens in you before you make an action. The experience was applicable to hundreds of Awareness Through Movement® lessons, including the interaction of self with a given environment. No place for strain, prevention of pain. Fully present in each moment/movement. The ride was like a Functional Integration® session- I moved with the bus’s movements. I organized myself for the easiest POSSIBLE ride.

Fourteen hours later, we arrived at Shinyanga, where unbeknownst to me we were stopping for the night. I asked the boy next to me how many more hours to Mwanza and he told me in Swahili that we would get there tomorrow. No, no, I said. I went to the front of the bus and spoke with a middle aged man in English; he verified that the bus had stopped for the night. We had the option of renting a room or staying on the bus. It would depart at 5:00 AM. I thought it was 10:00 PM so I would just wait it out on the bus, but walking into town to buy water I found out it was two hours earlier, so I got a room, ate a meal and slept a bit. How deeply can you sleep when there is a TV on all night in the lobby outside your door? I learned that the answer is very deeply, if you are tired enough.

Much of the three-hour bus ride the next day was not as rough, so I was able to hold my two anchors from a sitting position. Once settled in my hotel in Mwanza I walked to town. I bought three 1-liter bottles of water. Stooping to pick them up, my back began to give out. I needed the flexibility that helped me survive the previous day’s most outrageous bus ride. I needed to do what a Tanzanian would do – get help from the nearest unoccupied youth. I waved to a boy across the street and asked him to carry the water for me to my hotel. He knew no English, but courteously joined me, stopping at a hardware store to get a friend to accompany us.

Dr. Feldenkrais said he was not interested in creating flexible bodies but flexible minds. I’ll take both, thank you.
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