Another standard travel story

Note to readers: While staying at the Norman Bates Lodge here, Helen will not be downloading photos, as this would violate the otherwise generous terms of her Internet privileges. So, more photos, including of a blue and white minibus like the one she rode today as it jumped curbs, careened through dirt back roads and made other maneuvers to avoid police, will follow. (In the meantime, a photo of the back of one such bus is below, in Signs of Lusaka)

Lusaka, Zambia — I hope the concise version above doesn’t defeat the purpose of telling the unabridged version, because I have a need to relive the ride I had today.

Otherwise I wouldn’t do it at all. I recognize that the stock travel story about the crazy local public transportation has been told, enough times, and set in enough places, to have long lost any claim to being specific to one locale — no matter how long it took to get here.

But since this one turned out to be all about me, it seems special (to me).

Don’t take the minibuses, ever, the editor of the newspaper where I am stationed told me. He frowned with distaste, and as he had offered no other cautions, I took him seriously. “They are Hell’s Angels,” he added. I expected that I would take one and not mention it.

Then the woman I am buying a car from said this: “Yes the way they drive looks dangerous, but you think they know what they’re doing and it works out. But no, I’ve seen too many crushed on the side of the road. They don’t know what they’re doing and it doesn’t work out.”

I arranged to buy her car, and decided I really wouldn’t get on a bus ever. That was a few days ago, and she hasn’t turned over the car yet, and so today I got on the fourth minibus that honked its horn at me, swerved across a lane of traffic to stop for me, and from which a young man hung screaming at me to run faster to get on. I think I am very suggestible.

Since I already have violated my own rule about not telling the quaint public transportation travel story, I might as well add here how strange the whole cab bus thing here is for a native New Yorker. In New York, if you hear “Taxi!” it means someone is trying to hail a cab, while lines of them drive by already occupied, not interested in changing direction, or divining the fare not worth it switching on their off duty signs. If you hear more than one person yelling “Taxi” it means an argument likely will ensue if one cab ever pulls up. The way you get a bus is wait and wait and wait, until a line of them that have decided they have strength in numbers pull up. If you’re not at the stop when that happens, tough.

Here, where work and money are scarce, when you hear “Taxi” it is the driver trying to flag down a fare. And so many usually yell it at a time it is hard to pick one. If you want a bus, you walk down the street, and they pull over in front of you.

Today, traffic was thick on the two-and-a-half-lane street I was strutting and three had already passed me after honking their horns, finding they couldn’t wish other cars out of their way and wouldn’t risk being crushed by trucks behind them. Having three bus drivers decide against risking their lives and those of their passengers to force  a 50 cent ride on me raised the value of the fourth offer in my view.

I ran, to get on, because the guy was yelling at me to “Madam, Madam, hurry, hurry,” and I’m suggestible, and the bus swerved back onto the thoroughfare before my second leg was in the door. “Twenty-five” the guy said. I started fishing for the money (2,500 Kwacha) but found I couldn’t actually put my hand in my wallet because my wallet wasn’t in the same place long enough. Neither was anything else — loose seats slammed back and forth and passengers levitated and landed hard as the bus hurdled the curb, swung up the sidewalk scattering pedestrians and u-turned onto a deeply pitted dirt road. “Twenty-five,” the faretaker guy repeated. I said, “How about I give it to you if I get there alive.” He laughed, others laughed and the joyride continued, with the fare guy hanging his head out the side door and shouting instructions that I couldn’t understand but that included the word “Police” to the driver. “Do you know Bemba?” the man next to me asked, and when I shook my head explained the driver was fleeing from someone chasing him, possibly the police.

By now the back road detour appearred to have shaken the tail, so the driver pulled up behind the mall where several of us got off. I shook my head and rolled my eyes at two of the girls who got off with me, and they laughed — “You were the cause of the whole thing. It was because he cut someone off when he stopped to get you.”

Which made me feel very special.

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2 Responses

  1. Duh….I just now got “Helen Highwater” would that be your pen name?

  2. When I was in Kenya years ago, the minivans were called Matatus. There was so much freedom of speech in them, I remember an editorial titled “Stop gossiping in Matatus.”

    The Matatu conductors would see you by the road and start listing the places on their route that they guessed you might be going. They always knew.

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