Does trauma affect travel experiences? Does what you have gone through blur your perspective during a journey? Let me tell you a story.
The year was 2016, on one Friday evening around 10pm that I took a journey to Pagirinya Refugee Settlement. That was before the pangs of Covid19 destructed us with things like curfew and lockdowns.
Back then, one would jump on a bus at any time of day and cross to any part of East Africa with very limited hinderance. Borders were still open, people interacted freely and social distancing was but just a word in the dictionary.
By 10pm on a Friday evening, I was already at the Bus Park waiting excitedly for the bus to depart. Some people were taking departure pictures, others having supper, while others played off the tiredness of the long wait. The blue bus seats were rather well-spaced , and the bus was clean.
At midnight, the headlights of a large bus lit up the driveway resulting in sighs of relief and excited chatter. I settled for a seat close to the entrance, crossways from the driver. I had not used buses often before then, so I was taken aback by the driver’s rather professional salutation. When you are accustomed to interacting with rowdy drivers and conductors, courteous ones seem out-of-place. The stout, plump, fatherly man introduced himself; he has been driving buses for ages, for this company and he had just returned from a trip upcountry. The last piece of news was rather startling. How was he going to drive us across the map without a break?
The bus roared out of the gates of Namayiba Bus terminal, through Kawempe, all the way to Luweero District and beyond. For one who enjoys the quiet, the bus sounded like a local rally. The people at the back were booming music over and above our heads. They danced, laughed and ate. There were scents of fries and other delicacies wafting in the air. I thought this was a problem until two hours into the ride when the laughter dwindled and the bus went down in a hush. Occasionally, you could hear snores and shifts but they were negligible. I then craved for some sound other than the growling engine because my brain was playing unamusing games. The entire time, I had not noticed the driver’s weary façade. I tried to shut my eyes but the light from other cars would filter through them and before I knew it, I was wide awake. My brain reiterated 1000 ways to die in a bus until I could not catch my breath anymore.
Let me backtrack a bit for context. In 2015, we lost a high school teacher to a head-on collision accident in which he was reported to have been overspeeding. The gruesome details of how badly he was injured left me with a phobia for traveling in a speedy car and most especially at night. I thought that incident was trivial, but there I was, proving it wasn’t.
The offset of the anxiety in this particular journey was when my eyes caught a glimpse of the driver blinking a little slower than is the norm. Panic swept over me like a flood. I was shaking while everyone else slept away like babies. I envied them. How could they sleep when we were at the brink of a catastrophe? Why was my brain even having all these imaginations in the first place? I looked around to see if anyone else had seen him, but I was the only actress in this movie. I held tightly onto the metallic rod in front of me, breathed in and out ’til I stopped shaking. I calmed myself down enough to fall into sleep’s loving arms but he evaded me. I was alert now, more than ever. The bus seemed to pick up more speed as we went along the highways, overtook slower cars, and swerved through some lanes. I got a rush of blood like I imagine bungee jumpers get, only that I was stuck in one position.
My deplorable state of mind was paused as we approached Karuma dam located on River Nile in Kiryandongo District. The professional driver felt the need to slow his pace as he gave a brief history of the dam whose construction began in 2013 and is about 270km from Kampala. The sleepy travelers listened in and some, who had never crossed a bridge marveled at the turbulent waters. The rush of waters should have been breathtaking but something about the gushing sounds and the pitch darkness was unsettling. It was a relief to have a distraction but that was short-lived as the bus picked off from where it had stopped leaving me to rewind the horror.
The streaks of morning light as we approached the beautiful Arua town warmed my heart. I knew that whatever darkness lurked in the night had no hold on me then. I attempted to get a few minutes of sleep before we stopped over to refresh, to no avail. We reached Pagirinya Refugee Settlement at about 10am. It was a beautiful experience. Sometimes we hold the belief that life begins and ends in Kampala and her outskirts but there is life upcountry. The refugees were surprisingly happy. They were grateful for a shot at life away from the conflict in their home countries and they were living it out the best way they could.
The return journey, in the wee hours of Sunday that week was less dramatic. The conversations about our experiences kept my focus off the feelings of being in a parachute, speeding past the clouds, and gasping for breath. I reached my hostel at about 5am. I can’t explain, even to a physician what happened between 5am and 4pm that day because I had a sleep knockout that I can’t comprehend to date. And no – it wasn’t a coma.
Even with the laudable discussions on mental health, I still do not know whether those were anxiety attacks, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) signs, or just fear. What I am left wondering about though is, how many travelers and drivers suffer the same and how many have found coping mechanisms? Because I haven’t.