BUMBLING AROUND AFRICA
RAMSHACKLE BUSH TAXIS; PICKPOCKETS; HITCH-HIKING IN DESERT; HEAT EXHAUSTION;
NUTS – OR WHAT?
scary, stuffed and always late.
Oh, and sometimes hilarious. That pretty much sums up public transportation in Africa. After telling our transport and other
logistical woes to family and friends, we polled them - with these results:
percent are "jealous to the bone" and wish
they'd been with us
percent are worried about our sanity
95 percent are convinced we're nuts, and wouldn't want
any part of our experience – though they’re happy to read about our
the 99-percenters to further enjoy our suffering, we offer these
tales about bumbling through Africa.
the Muslim ticket man at the Dar Es
Salaam (Tanzania) train
Sorry, you can't stay in the four-person compartment with your wife. It's
against the law for males and females to share a train compartment. Men
must berth with men, and women with women.
we've been married 44 years!
Ticket man: Well
then, you can have visiting rights.
kidding, I can see her now and then? Wait - what if I buy
the entire compartment?
Then you can do anything you want. You can even invite other people to
himself): Geez, you'd think we were planning an
orgy or something!
So we clickity-clacked 48 hours across Tanzania and into
Zambia in a tiny, four-person compartment - leaving the door open by day to
chat with visitors who popped in, curious about the only Westerners on
the 15-car passenger train. We had a relaxed ride, except for
a tense 20 minutes with two Zambian immigration officials who came on
board near the frontier.
We couldn't believe we'd done it again! For the fourth time in our
travels we'd failed to get exit stamps on leaving a country. Arrrrrgh!
Late at night two
officials came into our compartment, examined our passports and grimly lectured
us on not having Tanzanian exit stamps. We fully expected to be evicted
into the darkness. Fortunately, a friendly young African woman
named Betty Mwanza came to our rescue,
explaining to the officials that no one had alerted us - in English at
least - to get off the train at immigration. Realizing just
how clueless we were, they let us into Zambia without stamps - or bribes. Whew!
Betty came back to
chat with us the next morning. She was returning from buying jeans in Tanzania to re-sell in Zambia, using
the profits from her small-scale importing business to pay for classes in
accounting. Before we left the train, Betty invited us to dinner at her home,
which she hinted was a poor one. For an account of that dinner, see "REAL" AFRICA
The train trip was
uncomfortable for another reason: we were totally broke and existed for two
days on a bag of mangoes, tangerines, bananas and cashews we'd
brought with us. Another "Rookie Mistake."
Trying to be savvy travelers, we'd used up our Tanzanian money before boarding
the train and hadn't gotten any Zambian money in advance - figuring the
exchange rate would be better after we arrived and planning to use U.S. dollars
in the meantime, as has been possible on other international
trains. But when the train was in Tanzania
the dining car staff would accept only shillings and as soon as we
passed into Zambia
they'd accept only kwachas. Our dollars were
worthless. We were "starved" (that overused word takes on new meaning
in famine-prone Africa) when we finally arrived in Lusaka, where we gorged on Western
comfort food: salad, barbecued ribs, fries and beer.
We got off the
train in Kapiri Mposhi (Zambia) and piled - literally - into a
small bus for the three-hour ride to Lusaka.
The passengers sat with their backpacks, suitcases, bags and bundles piled
in their laps. Then the conductor pulled down the aisle seats and filled
them with more people and their packages. Now we
were shoulder-to-shoulder, window-to-window and the door was closed. More luggage was passed
in through a window and piled against the only door. Finally two more
passengers climbed in through the window and lay down on the
luggage stacked near the driver. We'd been packed like a tin of
Minivan taxis are
as crowded as that bus. A minivan that would carry seven people in the U.S. is modified in Africa
to include an extra row of seats in the way-back, an extra seat in
each row, plus the conductor's tiny jump-seat next to the sliding door.
These taxi-vans leave only when full - which means up to 15
people with butts jammed together and knees scraping chins. Once we rode
for an hour in a van with 22 people in it. Despite the heat, unless we
could grab an open window and defend it with clenched fists and bared teeth,
the windows usually were closed tight by the other passengers. (During a stop,
Joan chatted with a vendor, below, while the other passengers were out buying
lunch.) This van was atypically fairly good; the road was typically not.
We told some South
Africans about our sardine transport experiences, and they topped us with
this newspaper story:
Police pulled over
a 14-passenger van going from Cape Town to Swaziland. Out piled 42 people, two goats, and three chickens. The
driver had been using only the hand-brake, because the brake pedal had been
taken out to make space for more passengers - and he had been driving with a
vice-clamp on the steering column, because the steering wheel had been removed!
roads weren't clogged with cars but with animals. The most startling
near-collision was with a family of giraffes on the highway between Nairobi and Arusha. As our bus swerved to avoid them, the gangly
creatures turned one section at a time - first head and neck followed by body
and finally the lumbering legs - just like mechanical Star Wars creatures. Yet,
they seemed so graceful. Below, we'd stopped for a large troop of nonchalant
baboons on a road in Tanzania.
for Joan twice in one day in Lusaka (Zambia). She
was about to cross the busy main street at noon when a group of young men
surrounded her and one groped her shirt pocket. She pushed his hand away with a
forceful "Stop that!" And he did. A few hours later,
another pickpocket's hand felt for her other breast pocket. "Stop
that!" And he did. She thinks they were trying to get money, but Lou told
her to have a more positive outlook: the men weren't after her money
- her girlish figure had inflamed their passions!
FAWLTY TOWERS AND OTHER PADS
We stayed in an
amazing array of campgrounds, pensions, B&Bs,
hotels and safari lodges ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. We shared
the campgrounds with elephants, hippos, baboons, monkeys and hyenas. We had
trouble sleeping one night because monkeys were running back and forth across
the cabin's tin roof. Fawlty Towers
in Livingston (Zambia) was
the best value - only $20 for a double - accommodation we found in Africa. Yes, Lou was almost electrocuted in the "fawlty" shower and they did lose our laundry for a
day, but the place was packed with interesting travelers and the pool area was
cool. Sadly, John Cleese (aka
Basil Fawlty) wasn't at the reception desk.
LOU’S KALAHARI GYM
transportation ran out when we reached the Kalahari Desert (Botswana), so we
hitch-hiked across it and into Namibia - at one point walking along the
deserted highway for a couple of miles wearing 40 pounds apiece
in our backpacks and carrying half a bottle of water between us.
"Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun." And the (wilted) Roses.
hitch-hiking in the town of Ghanzi next to a
middle-aged African woman who spoke no English. Joan and she gave the local signal to the few cars that passed. The three of us
got a ride in the same car together and were let out at the
same highway junction. With no more rides in sight, Lou pulled out his
portable gym - some rubber tubing - wrapped it around a nearby stop
sign and began exercising his back. His bizarre behavior fascinated the
woman, so Lou handed her the tubing and pantomimed how to use it. The
three of us had a good laugh after her training session. Finally, a pick-up
truck came by and we all tumbled into the back.
After a longish
wait, the two of us caught our fifth ride of the day - this
one from the border all the way into Windhoek,
hitch-hiked 200 miles in less than a day - impressing several young Windhoek locals, who said
hitch-hiking that deserted stretch of road usually takes TWO days. Yay for the geezers!
After a bizarre
day in Abomey (Benin)
with a high priest of Voodoo, we caught a bush taxi back to Cotonou.
This was the most hair-raising ride we've ever taken. (Well, except for that
horrific boat ride with drug smugglers on the Amazon.... and the scary flight
in the bucket-of-bolts Uzbekistan Airways plane..... and riding
through insane traffic in Ho Chi Minh City in a pedicab with our unprotected legs stuck out in front....
and.... well, actually we've had a lot of traumatic transport!)
to the shared bush taxi.
It was more shared than we expected. These small taxis leave when full - the
driver plus two passengers in the front and four passengers in the rear. After
we climbed in, two men jammed themselves into the front passenger
seat, then a large woman got in back with us
and pulled her seven-year-old son onto her
lap. Lou figured the back bench was now full, but Joan knew the woman
probably had paid only for a single place, and asked Lou if we couldn't
buy the extra seat to be more comfortable on the three-hour
trip. Hoping we wouldn't have to pay an extra SIX DOLLARS, he
whispered back, "Let's wait and see what happens."
This is what
happened: two minutes later the taxi stopped to pick up a man and then it was
too late to buy the remaining space. The man climbed in and settled himself on
top of Lou. Squashed in a hot taxi with five people in the back seat - and no
seat belts - Joan told herself that Lou deserved to be sat on.
Lou's right foot
went to sleep in the first ten minutes; his left foot followed an hour later.
Joan was paralyzed from the waist down. (Trying to make the best of things, Lou
pointed out that the paralysis considerably reduced the pain. This comment was not
well-received.) Sitting on the side of on-coming traffic, Joan spent
the trip expecting to die any second, as the driver played "chicken"
with cars and trucks rushing toward us on the narrow road. Supposedly there
were two lanes - but with no painted stripes, ragged asphalt edges, no
shoulders and cavernous pot-holes which drivers in both directions
slalomed around while passing each other, the whole concept of
"lanes" was theoretical in the extreme.
We survived the
trip. And so - after awhile - did our marriage.
Most bush taxis
are 25-year-old, rattletrap Peugeots with few remains of the original
exhaust system. We have been in dozens of them in West
Africa, and have yet to find one with a functioning muffler and
pipe. So we sat in cars filled with seeping exhaust for hours at a time.
In Cotonou (Benin), the
zillions of zemidjans are worse. These
motorbike-taxis are the principal means of transport. We'd wave
down a couple of the yellow-shirted motorbikers,
offer the standard "quatre cent pour
les deux," hop on behind, and away
we'd go. The moto-taxis congregate in packs
of up to 50 at red lights; at the change to green we'd swarm away -
smothered in a dark whoosh of exhaust.
In most cities and
villages in West Africa there are a half-dozen “gas stations” per block –
curbside tables with gas in whisky bottles and large amber jugs lined up like
pumpkins at Halloween.
police provide the best "protection" that money can buy. Crossing Togo, the taxi
driver had to stop every 15 minutes, march dutifully to a police
officer relaxing under a tree and plant a coin in his
palm. Heading into Ghana, we
shared a taxi with a man who was importing a bundle of fabric. Every
few minutes the driver stopped at a customs shack, the importer
got out, showed his papers and planted an "informal tariff" (the
equivalent of US$1-5) in the customs official's palm.
On the other hand,
we had paid formal tariffs - although it took awhile for us to go through the
various West African immigration posts as officials carefully examined the
$20 Togo, $20 Benin, and $50 Ghana visas that had taken us several
hours to obtain in three embassies. Meanwhile, locals streamed past without
passports. They merely dropped "informal visas" in the form of 1000
CFA ($2)notes into an immigration official's
Police and other
officials in Third World countries seldom
receive a decent salary, but are expected to live off informal bribes. As a
result, multi-tiered pricing is common: Westerners pay one price, locals another, and locals-who-look-as-if-they-have-anything pay
some amount in between.
finally went around the bend. He staggered back to our Ouagadougou hotel room with a FIFTEEN DOLLAR
six-pack of imported Evian water - as well as EIGHT DOLLARS worth of cashews and
a big container of salt! Whatever happened to "Lou's Tightwad Law of
Travel"? (The Less You Spend the Closer You Come to the Reason You Came)
He was afraid he
was about to lose his travel buddy, because Joan was talking of flying back to California a month
early. For several days she'd had muscle cramps, headaches, nausea, fatigue and generally felt yucky. Maybe she'd finally
reached her limit of long-term Third World
travel. (Burkina Faso was
the 11th African country we'd visited in the past 13 weeks - with Mali and Senegal still ahead.) But when Lou
began having the same symptoms, we realized the problem was physical. We
looked up the symptoms in the Lonely Planet guidebook and found we were
suffering from heat exhaustion. (West Africa is a LOT hotter and more humid
than East and Southern Africa - especially
during the rainy season.) Lonely Planet advised us to drink more water and
increase our intake of salt. So Lou rushed out to make his expensive purchases
and - Voila! In a matter of hours we both felt 200% better; in
fact, we felt so good we went shopping at an African
artifacts gallery and bought three masks. (Poor Shanna. What will she do when she inherits all this
bizarre stuff some day?)
After trekking through Dogon
country in Mali, we arrived
back the city of Mopti
on a Friday night not only BROKE but IN DEBT to our guide Ogo! We'd spent all our dollars and local money
and were all
out of traveler's checks. Even worse, there are no ATMs in Mopti
and the banks were closed so we couldn't get a cash advance on our Visa
Ogo loaned us enough
money to buy bus tickets to Bamako, Mali's capital. Saying our goodbyes, we
promised to send what we owed via Western Union. The only bus we could find had
no air-conditioning and no open windows except the driver's. It was 95 degrees
inside with 95% humidity. The only creatures worse off were the claustrophobic
sheep baa-ing down in the baggage compartment. Anyway, we sweated profusely and
- fearing we might not make it between the only two toilet breaks during the
10.5 (not seven) hour trip - didn't drink water. So we ended up with heat
We arrived in Bamako
at dusk and ended up at the wrong hotel, where the nice man at the
desk gave us enough money for dinner.
The next day we
spent our last three dollars on a taxi - riding around until we found the only ATM open on Sunday. Hooray!
We could eat! On Monday morning we sent money back to our trusting and patient
This money snafu was another “Rookie Mistake.” Knowing in advance that Africa has far fewer
ATMs than other Third World areas, we should have brought more travelers’
The final week of
our four months in Africa was spent in Senegal - both of us with bad
cases of flu and Lou nursing a broken big toe. Just before we flew home from Dakar, Lou’s flu took a
turn for the worse and it looked as if he might have malaria. A high fever led to delirium and swearing. (Below he's
feverish in his insecticide-impregnated silk sleep sack in a cheap Dakar hotel, which turned
out to be a "joy hotel" that rented by the hour.) Lou was too sick to
fly, so we missed our flight home. Finally, we went to a clinic, where the only
English-speaking physician was an ob-gyn. (Lou proudly refers to him as “my
gynecologist.”) A blood test proved Lou didn’t have malaria - and he didn’t
even have to put his feet in the stirrups!
Africa is a
tough area for independent travel. The elevation is low and the heat,
humidity and insects are oppressive. Except for English-speaking Ghana, the
language of the countries we visited is French (an added challenge for us),
public transport is terrible and the hustling of travelers
aggressive. It was much more difficult bumbling along in West Africa than
in the parts of East and Southern Africa
we'd visited during the previous 11 weeks. It was good to come back to the
comforts of the U.S.A.
and Lou Rose firstname.lastname@example.org