Forget restful lie-ins and air-conditioned car rides. Sometimes, I think travel needs a little bit of stress, too!
The journey from Southeast Zanzibar to the northern tip is about 100 km. By car or taxi, accounting for poor road conditions, checkpoints (bribe collection points) and wayward goats, the ride might take you two hours. If you opt to take a dala dala (public bus), however, you’re looking at two bus rides of one and a half to two hours each, with a 30 minute wait for each one.
Four hours. Three and a half if you’re lucky.
Each dala dala is filled to capacity, with six passengers squeezed into each row of four seats—bundles and baskets included. One locates the bus by standing at the correct street corner, waiting idly for a minimum of 15 minutes, and then scrambling to shove through the doors of the vehicle when it appears and two dozen aggressive passengers materialize beside it.
Zanzibar is not at all unique. As my partner and I have moved from one place to the next in East Africa, each journey has followed a similar trajectory. In between moves, I settle into the easy tranquility of one coastal town or another, and quickly forget the sweaty mess of a day that brought me there.
Comfortably ensconced in suitably tropical isolation, I then feel a decided aversion to the unpleasant harassment and disorder of that other part of travel.
Thinking back on “that other part,” I recall the sweat trickling down my spine as I sat wedged between two ample-sized women in the back row of a bus, the weight of my purse on my thighs an added layer of heat. I remember the stillness of the air on a coach bus waiting for traffic to clear, the noise of speakers just above my head, the inescapable midday sun as I waited on a lonely road, and the coating of grime that covered my skin by the time I reached my destination.
And that was all in a few hours!
If you’re thinking that sounds sweaty, and chaotic and stressful and not particularly enjoyable, you’re right. But I think maybe that’s the point.
At times, getting back on the road—the sudden return to chaos, stares, noise and confusion—seems horribly jarring. I contemplate another day of bus journeys, sweat-soaked clothing and dirt-covered hair with reluctance. I am loathe to invite back the arguments and anxiety that naturally accompany reams of buses, unfamiliar routes and missed stops.
In the moments where I find myself standing on a muddy track, rain-soaked and grumpy, or sitting in a café in a strange town, wondering how I got there—and why—I consider how much nicer it might be to just go on shorter trips, make plans, take taxis, treat myself to restaurant meals and forget buses and disorder and hassle…
But, if I left “that other part” out of the equation, where would the challenge be?
Stress has always, always been an inconsequential—yet paradoxically fundamental—footnote to my travels.
Bumbling through Italy with my family, utterly lost. Wandering the streets of Istanbul with my best friend, utterly lost. Scouring Kolkata for a guest house alone, utterly lost.
Anxiously running to catch trains, bartering for taxis, tuk tuks, motorcycles, often walking instead in stubborn frustration. Searching for addresses, waiting for rides or fruitlessly seeking a quiet corner to regroup—stress and adrenaline saturating my blood.
None of it is fun, and most of it gets pushed to the sidelines of rose-toned memories of grand voyages and adventures past. But it is all part of Travel with a capital “T.” (The “Travel” to which I have sacrificed so much energy, money and time, in the hopes of receiving its gifts.)
Stress means I am stretching the limits of my comfort zone, crossing boundaries and pushing myself to be both stronger and more pliant. No, I don’t like it, and sometimes I allow it to get the best of me, but I think it probably should be a (manageable, forgettable) part of travel.
If travel isn’t just a little stressful at times, and all-out infuriating at others, then what is it?
Because if it’s too easy, then it isn’t challenging. And if it isn’t challenging, then I’m not learning or growing as much as I could.
I’ll take sweat, stress and anxious searching over stagnation any day.
Now, where’s my bus?
Author: Toby Israel
Editor: Renee Jahnke
Photo: Courtesy of Author