By Patricia Lee Sharpe
In Dar-es-Salaam or New York City, a ride on a ferry is an interlude of grace, assuming you dare to decommission your cell phone. You have put yourself in the hands of the captain, the vessel, the currents, the weather. For five minutes, a half hour, or more, you are not in charge, you are not responsible, you are free. And so you stand there, feeling the throb of the engines through the soles of your feet—or maybe you just give yourself to the the rocking of the boat, as a one-car ferry is pulled along by human muscle power. Sometimes this primitive kind of ferry is suspended precariously from a cable strung across a river. I crossed the Zanskar River in Ladakh that way. The horse power waited on the other side—real horses loaded with trekking gear.
I remember my thrice weekly rides on the ferry when I was teaching English composition at the St. John’s campus on Staten Island. Those crossings, after I’d wheeled my bike aboard, were always sweetened by the fact that I wasn’t pedaling, but the return trips were especially delicious. I’d managed to survive two more sessions with students who had no interest in logic, syntax or the classics of Western civilization. Yes, I was grateful for that job, which allowed me to live in the Village, but in love with it I was not. Meanwhile, the vision of lower Manhattan, hazy in the distance or loomingly close up, never failed to enchant me. Sixty compositions to read and grade? In sight of the magic kingdom, forgotten.
Weekends, when I was working in Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city, I explored Sumatra, whose coastal roads were constantly interrupted by hair-raising river crossings. These ferries, usually, were modest raft-like vessels, and they looked all too sinkable, either by too-heavy loads—e.g., lorries themselves overloaded, or, more likely, by unbalanced vehicle-placement. Capsizing fantasies weren’t the worst of it. Driving on and off was nightmarish: picture two planks, each about a foot wide, neither securely fastened to anything at either end. Add to that the fact that rivers flow, which means the ferry itself wasn’t exactly stationary. Crawling inch by inch
along those planks in low gear, I kept my car windows open, my theory being that I could wiggle free if I ended up under water. Still, there’s something to be said for such experiences. Prayer-saying terror turned into chest-swelling pride as my rear tires bumped off the planks and I drove away from the ferry slip. Slip—what a wonderful word for ruts leading to water’s edge.
The old ferry across the mighty Rufiji River in southern Tanzania is no longer in operation. It has been replaced by a bridge, which is not surprising. Traffic on the main road down the Eastern coast of
Africa has increased considerably. This is a good thing, by and large, for economic development.
Back when I was driving frequently to the Selous Game Reserve with Tanzanian friends, a fairly large, conventional-looking ferry shuttled back and forth across the Rufiji River. This ferry was a vital link on a major road. so a back- up vessel was always moored just up river, ready to go into service at any time. Unless it too was under repair. Both vessels were shamefully rusty on the outside. No one assumed that engine room preventive maintenance was any more assiduous.
Thus, at the Rufiji crossing, a mere hour’s wait was cause for celebration, and we usually had an ocean of time for people-watching—or amateur anthropology. A flat-chested old woman in a threadbare tee shirt with a kanga wrapped around her bony hips sells bananas from a basket she balances on her head. What’s her story? How about the boy with a basket strapped to the back of his bicycle? It’s full of chickens. Live chickens, squawking. We never bothered to pack a lunch when we were driving to the Selous. We could count on venders at the ferry landing to supply us with boiled or grilled corn on the cob, mangos, slices of fresh coconut, sesame brittle and sweet hot tea. Kababs, too. Sometimes.
My latest ferry ride, this past August, was also in Tanzania. We—that’s my grandson and I, crossed the harbor from the center of Dar-es-Salaam to the coastal road that would take us to an ocean-side resort, where the sand was fine and white, the slope of the beach was gradual, the undertow was minimal and the waves were splendid for body surfing, just as I remembered from the days when I and embassy colleagues would drive out of the city for an afternoon at the beach. This ferry line was also on a commuter route. Delays of two, even three hours were not impossible mornings and evenings, I was told. How Dar had changed! When I was posted there, the whole city didn’t hold enough cars to make a respectable traffic jam.
Fortunately, my grandson and I reached the ferry slip at midday. The ferry had just departed, and there were just a dozen vehicles ahead of us, including some large buses, but the incoming ferry was already on its way. Squinting across the harbor, I saw several dhows and some little fishing boats, too. Some things hadn’t changed.
I was glad for that wait, about 45 minutes, because it gave my grandson a glimpse of Tanzania outside the safari circuit. Human life. Not just the lions and elephants that can't help but fascinate a fourteen-year-old. He was too young for long lectures on sociology and politics, but sitting there in the van, waiting for the ferry, he saw Dar-es-Salaam on the move. Men in business suits, uniforms, sarongs. Young girls in jeans and short skirts. Matrons in the modes of the day. Women exhibiting various stages of Muslim modesty. Kids being whiney or charming. In short, a mishmash. An African version of a cosmopolitan city.
All the photos here were taken from the van as we waited in the middle of four lanes of vehicles for the ferry. The ferry ride, as usual, was pure pleasure.