Ain’t Nothin’ Like It: 24 Hours of African Public Transport
During the fall of my junior year in college, I joined the ranks of the thousands of other college students who leave behind their home country and study abroad. Instead of flying to one of the classic choices of London or Paris, Prague or Madrid, however, I elected to travel a little further south; to Cape Town, South Africa. After the swift passage of several months, school and studies and tests were over, and my four best friends and I felt the need to be as far away from our still calculating grades as possible. We had all allotted extra time for traveling post academia, and figured as long as we were in the staggering realm of sub-Saharan Africa with almost a month to spare, we wanted to see as much as we possibly could. There were many tried and true adventures that occurred during that month; near-citizen arrests at Victoria Falls, virtual fitness hikes through the Okavango Delta, and driving through much of Zimbabwe with a back seat loaded with three large drums of gasoline (while the driver puffed away merrily on his cigarette, mind you). Nonetheless, the memory of trying to get back home to Cape Town is seared most deeply into my brain.
By the day of departure, the longer-than-it seemed thirty days of backpacking found our party slightly fractured, with desires and demands splitting our ways, changing directions. Tired, smelly, and mostly broke, I decided that it was my turn to head back home, too. I was in Blantyre, Malawi, and discovered a bus that made a straight shot for Johannesburg, South Africa, where I already had a return flight to Cape Town. The drawback, however (overland travel in Africa almost always includes a drawback), was the fact that this particular bus trip was listed in my guidebook as lasting approximately thirty hours! I found myself wondering if there was anything I’d done or taken part in- not including breathing, swallowing, and other actions my brain wisely does not allow me to control manually – that equaled the length of the bus ride I was about to take. Nevertheless, I did my homework, finding out as much as I could about this marathon bus-capade. I talked to numerous fellow travelers who guaranteed the bus was legit; hostel owners who claimed I probably wouldn’t sustain too many casualties, either to self or to pack; and when securing a visa for transit through Mozambique, city officials who were fairly sure no such bus existed. Truly, something magical shimmered in my future.
My last traveling buddy was staying in Malawi for a few more days, and he was gracious enough to come down to the bus depot (dusty former gas station) to see me off early on that Saturday morning. The bus was scheduled to pull out at 9 a.m. Two hours later, we hugged and parted ways… Not because the bus was leaving, but because it was getting a bit hot under the summer sun, and my friend was kind of tired. After an additional two hours, at roughly 1 p.m., the bus finally staggered to life, like your drunken uncle being woken up at the family Christmas party to weave his way home, and eased onto the road. We were trundling away from Blantyre, out of Malawi. Thanks to our amazingly long delay, that bus trip transformed from a simply long, arduous marathon for my bottom, and into a horribly interesting road trip.
The way was fairly easy going for the first few hours. Our route took us through an outlying, northwestern corner of Mozambique, and at the border crossing I bought a couple hardboiled eggs from some local kids. I took pride in my infantile haggling skills, despite the large, Cheshire grins the kids gave me as I handed over some Malawian kwacha, a sure sign that I could have bought the chicken with the amount of cash I’d just forked over. We reboarded the bus, and as we bumped along pot-holed roads and highways, I admired the scrubby, hard, beautiful scenery rolling past my window seat, my head beginning a predictable loll. I should have known, of course, that one full-proof way to inject drama into a Hollywood thriller, an anniversary date with your girlfriend, or a skajillion hour bus ride across multiple sub-Saharan African countries, you need only do one thing: fall asleep. Madness always blooms while the protagonist is sleeping.
I woke up to the frantic scurry that would accompany every opening of the bus door that signaled a departure. We were at the Zimbabwe border, with only five minutes to spare before it closed for the day. I joined the milling throng attempting to shove passports into the faces of the three border patrol workers, avoiding the older women’s sharp elbows, casually tossing my own innocent shoulder bump or hip thump every now and again. I reached the front of the group fairly quickly, and handed over the only non-Malawian passport in the room. Now, I should mention that my guidebook, always so helpful up to that point, had been suspiciously quiet about whether one needed a visa simply to travel through Zimbabwe, but I had been assured by several savvy folk that this wasn’t necessary. Furthermore, if anyone gave me a problem, a few American dollars or South African rand could smooth out the wrinkles. So, I handed over my passport. A stern but not unfriendly woman riffled through it, and stated, “Transit visa will be forty six US dollars please.”
Jaw drops, eyes bulge. Immediate and intense furrowing of my brow is juxtaposed with an incredulous Clint Eastwood glare that emanates from my very soul. I started gesturing manically, proclaiming all the ‘truths’ I’d been told:
“I’m just transiting! I won’t be in this country for more than 5 hours! I bought a tourist visa two weeks ago for only $25!”
Apparently this woman never saw Dirty Harry; that punk felt lucky. Taking all my ranting in stride, she strode around the counter, pointed to a yellowing, ancient piece of paper, and read, “US and British visitors = $46.” I feel fairly certain a Cecil Rhodes contemporary tacked that curling, scraggly notice to the wall more than a hundred years earlier, but it didn’t matter. I owed her $46, 460 rand, 23 pounds, or the equivalent in blood. Upon further inspection, I did find 100 Malawian kwacha in my wallet. Which, after some quick currency conversion math, I valued at roughly $3.00. As I scurried outside to ask the bus driver for a loan, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering just how much cash I could get for an involuntary blood donation.
After calmly (i.e. tears almost leaking out of my eyes) explaining the situation to the not-all-that-kind looking, immense bus-driver, I asked him if I could borrow the needed amount in rand, promising to repay him at the first stop in South Africa where I could find an ATM. I made this promise on tenuous ground, however, as I wasn’t even sure if there was that much funding present in my bank account. My hesitation seemed to ripple across my face, as boulder-man pulled out a fat wad of hundred Rand notes, counted out five them, and rumbled, “First town in South Africa.” I reentered the building, paid the same woman, and scowled as she filled out my overpriced visa, a shadow of a grin ghosting the corners of her mouth. To date, this remains the most expensive, stressful visa in my passport.
The rest of the bus ride passed without much fanfare. Worth mentioning is our pit stop in Harare at 10:00 p.m. that evening. I was somewhat apprehensive that my appearance most readily suggested American or Brit, neither of whose heads of state was saying anything nice about Zim’s man in power. Moreover, as a red haired, terribly pale American, I stuck out like a, well, in the absence of a more illustrative comparison, like the only white dude chillin’ out in downtown Harare on a Saturday night.
I spent that rest stop eating my Nando’s chicken sandwich in solitude, silently chain-smoking (Nando’s – excellent chicken sandwiches, pitas, and more!)
Also memorable was the melee that erupted when we reached the South African border. According to routine, I threw myself into the fray that was our attempt to reach the entrance. The South African border official who emerged – a stately, calm looking black man – gave the Malawian residents a look of deepest contempt, then turned his eyes on me, and seeing my American passport clenched in my sweaty fist, sunk into a look of clear disappointment. It was as if my being from America, a land of full of beautiful lines and those versed in the protocol of line standing from near infancy, surely I should have known better, provided a proper example. I was crushed.
Soon after we pulled into the town of Pietersburg, where I found an ATM, and for the love of all things, I had enough money to repay our driver, extending the length of my life by a solid three hours. Continuing southwards, we pulled into Johannesburg around 7 o’clock that night, and I found a fairly cheap, only relatively sketchy cab to the airport. I trudged into the departure terminal, and was shocked to see red and green Christmas decorations adorning much of the airport, and hear Christmas carols merrily spilling forth from the speakers. All I’d known for the past month was traveling, dust, and African summer heat, enough to keep me unconscious not only of what month it was, but of the very day of the week! I marveled at my brain’s lightning quick recognition of the familiar colors and melodies surrounding me, but even more incredulous was that without such familiar cues, I did not know the calendar had progressed a good week into December. Suddenly, I drifted into a pensive mood, and boarded my final flight to Cape Town.
After the plane landed and taxied into the terminal, I called my local cabbie, who saved me from a night sleeping in the airport, and dropped me off at the front gate of my quiet, dark house. I slipped around the back of the house, unlocked the door to my side apartment, and walked a couple steps inside, only to hear a muffled voice urgently whisper,
“The guy who sleeps in this room!” I demanded, “Who are you?”
“Mm, wha, Helen said you wouldn’t be back until Friday,” Muffler muffled.
“Ah… Ok… So who are you?”
“I’m her nephew.”
I shifted my feet in a bizarre mixture of awkwardness and irritation, and said, “Oh. Oh I see. Well, I’ll just sleep in the other apartment… Umm, Goodnight…”
More than slightly annoyed, but given this trip’s character, not the least bit surprised, I wandered over to the back door of the adjoining apartment to see if any of my housemates were there. The door was locked tight, and no one answered my frequent, increasingly desperate knocking. Peering skyward for help, I noticed that the bathroom window was cracked. While I haven’t been too religious for some time, I found myself confronted with a door that was shut, and presented with an open window.
I climbed up the sturdy house drain-pipe, scrambled through the window, and found that one housemate was indeed still in town. She was trembling under her covers due to the pounding on her door, not to mention hearing someone break into her apartment through her bathroom window. After her heart rate subsided to non-threatening levels, we talked about the past couple weeks and our respective jaunts.
“So, how was your trip, how’d everything go?” I mused.
“Well, for the most part, everything was fine, but we had a hellava time getting back here! But what about you? You just got back! How was your trip home?”
I opened my mouth a couple times, started to launch into the tale, then sighed,
“Bah, it was fine.”