June-October 2005



Smelly, 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:


    1 percent are "jealous to the bone" and wish they'd been with us

    4 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



To allow the 99-percenters to further enjoy our suffering, we offer these tales about bumbling through Africa.




Lou's conversation the Muslim ticket man at the Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania) train station:


Ticket man:  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.

Lou:  But we've been married 44 years!

Ticket man:  Well then, you can have visiting rights.

Lou:  No kidding, I can see her now and then? Wait - what if I buy the entire compartment?

Ticket man:  Then you can do anything you want. You can even invite other people to join you.

Lou (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.


Oh, no! 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 sardines!


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 SwazilandOut 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!




Sometimes the 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.





Pickpockets went 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!






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.






Public 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.


We started 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, Namibia. We'd 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!)


Back 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.






West African 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 palm.


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.




Lou (loony?) 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 credit card.


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 exhaustion again!


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 guide in Mopti.


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’ checks. Sigh.




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!






West 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.





Joan and Lou Rose      joanandlou@ramblingroses.net