I couldn’t breathe. I was bent over at the waist, clutching my belly as if squeezing it harder would make it hurt less. When I was finally able to wipe some of the tears from my eyes, I glanced up, saw my five friends in very much the same positions, and recoiled back into fits of hysterical laughter.
It was about 2am, I guessed. We were standing on the bank of a highway, some four or five hours north of Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city and our starting point. Our overnight bus journey to the Chobe National Park, right up in the northern tip of the country, still had some five or so more hours to go. We waited in dim pools of light dripping out of the few struggling lampposts alongside the roadblock. Behind us, short, scraggly bushes extended for the little distance we could see before disappearing into total blackness. Some of our fellow passengers slinked away into the shadows. “Every bush in Africa is a toilet,” the driver had informed us as we’d lumbered sleepily and stupidly off the bus.
The bus ride had been an adventure from the start. In seats I had thought were meant for two, three of us squeezed in together after hammering our backpacks into the narrow ledge overhead. “Sleeping in a plane seat will be a piece of cake after this,” one friend observed.
The bus pulled out from the station and we shifted around fruitlessly on our bums, testing out whether a neighbor’s elbow in the ribs was more or less of a hindrance to comfort than sitting with our legs curled up and stuffed between our bodies and the seats in front. Just when my eyelids finally began to droop, fervently enthusiastic Gospel music burst out into the air. The driver had turned on the radio.
Drifting in and out of aggravating consciousness, I was vaguely aware of the first bus stop outside of Gaborone. Super-powered air conditioning pummeled the top of my head as I huddled my head into my knees against both the cold and the latest tune, one with bombastic trumpeting and no lyrics beyond “wake up, Suzy” repeated over and over. The dark shapes silently boarding the bus brought with them not backpacks or suitcases but an incomprehensible range of goods – bundles of thick blankets, stacks of frying pans, a packaged television set that required two men to carry it, and finally, tires. One thin man paraded up and down the aisle four times, on each occasion rolling a car tire from the front to the back. Was I dreaming? I wasn’t sure. I was still being relentlessly told to ‘wake up, Suzy,” when all I wanted to do was find a way to sleep.
The next time we stopped, the driver’s voice drew us all out of our uncomfortable dozes. “Everyone will please exit the bus momentarily.” No explanation. No instructions. We’d been warned, however. The road up to Chobe was apparently lined with roadblocks to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, a potentially devastating disease in Botswana where the economy relies heavily on cattle. This had to be one of those points.
Four of our group climbed off the bus, while the fifth and I delayed looking for his left shoe under the seats. “Sorry,” we mumbled to the passengers behind us, far too drowsy to remember the Setswana word. Still blinking our eyes open as we stepped off the bus, we made to move towards our friends and the small crowd of passengers gathering up ahead.
“WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!” A bewildered voice shattered the sleepy silence. A man in official uniform on our left had his shoulders shrugged up and arms thrown out towards us in disbelief. “You cannot just go there! Come here!” His arms dropped downwards to point at what appeared to be a dirty wet rag in a dirty wet pile of mud, encircled by short, dirty and wet planks of scraggly wood.
Eyes fixed on this curious puddle, we approached uncertainly. “Step,” the man ordered. Step where? My left shoe squelched down onto the soggy rag. Now what? “Other foot!” The man enunciated exasperatedly, as if sharing this information was costing him dearly. I stood there, jaw hanging open in confusion, gears in my groggy brain still slowly cranking up, until the man shouted, “well? Go now!”
Our four buddies up ahead were already in convulsions as we marched in shame towards the group awaiting us, most of whom were grinning their amusement at the night’s entertainment by clearly clueless foreigners.
One stocky man in particular was beaming like the Cheshire cat from Alice’s Wonderland. “What happened? Were the instructions not clear enough for you?” he teased before exploding into a cackle, knowing fully well that we had been given no instructions. And so it was that in the middle of the night in dusty rural Botswana some twenty Batswana and six American travelers stood on the side of the road gasping for breath between uncontrollable snorts and giggles while our bus trundled slowly through its own mega-size dirty puddle meant to cleanse the wheels of bacteria.
We were still chuckling when we boarded the bus again, but the chirpy voice gliding down from the speakers quickly reminded us that we had hours of discomfort ahead. “Wake up, Suzy. Waaaake up, Suuuuzy.”