posted on October 16, 2013 22:25
One of the most common concerns I hear when people head to a low-income country is about the public transportation. People warn against it. They hear that diplomats aren’t even allowed to use it. They hear that drivers drive insanely fast.
I personally love nothing more than a long public bus ride in a new country. This is one of those calculated risks that I readily take.
My first experience with public buses was in Tanzania (called “Daladalas” there). Arusha has an impressively extensive public bus system. You can get just about anywhere using a Daladala and the buses actually come around sufficiently frequently. The main way to know where the bus is going is to listen for what the “hollerer” (No one else calls them hollerers. I definitely just made that word up.) yells out the window. If you are lucky, some of the buses have color stripes on them that gave you a heads up as to their destination. And if you are even more lucky, the destination is written right there on the front of the van. It takes time to get to know routes, but it gets easier.
Cape Town similarly has “hollerers” yelling out the window (a bit more aggressively, though, if you ask me). They’ll look you directly in the eye and yell “WEINBERG” even though you are obviously walking in the opposite direction as if maybe you’d just have a change of heart and think, “you know what? I actually DO want to go to Weinberg today.”
As a first time traveler, I feel the most important thing is to at least get a ballpark of what your fair should be. As you walk out the door, just ask someone, “Hey, do you know about how much it’ll cost me to get from here to Nyabugogo?” Once you know prices well, totally stick up for yourself if you know what the exact price should be. But on that first trip, as long as you’re not getting cheated more than a dollar, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I’ve also had luck just asking the person next to me if I’m being told the correct fair and have had luck with strangers standing up for me.
Now that we’re done with the first-trip-tips, on to safety. Why, you might ask, do I love buses so much if they’re notoriously unsafe? First of all, everything is a calculated risk. Buses are likely the most used form of transportation in many of these countries. If a driver is driving too erratically, don’t be afraid to speak up. Chances are that you won’t be the only one. If you feel unsafe (as I’ve said before), get out and wait for the next one.
I have never personally experienced a road crash in a bus. I do know others who have. And one friend of mine lost a friend in a pretty terrible one. But as I reflect on that sentence, I have the same degree of separation from other modes of transportation. As you know, my most dangerous encounter on the roads was actually through a high-end private car hire. We’ve already established that road travel is inherently dangerous. But no one is ever going to advocate never leaving your house.
It’s a matter of proactively taking charge of your safety. I’ll take a bus in Tanzania and Rwanda in a heartbeat. Cape Town’s buses are exceptionally convenient, but there’s no chance I’d use one after dark. I’ll take one in Uganda too, but I know that it’s going to take me forever to get through Kampala’s rush hour traffic. I don’t think I’d hop into a bus by myself in Bujumbura, Burundi though, mostly because I don’t know the city nearly as well and there are some neighborhoods that I really don’t want to accidentally end up in.
If I need to get from point A to point B, I’m going to do it in a way that I can relax, watching the country’s beautiful scenery pass me by, saying hi to strangers, maybe holding a baby or two as a new mother settles into her seat. For me, buses are often the most enjoyable way to get to know a new country (and almost always the most cost effective).
So make sure to have an estimate of your travel cost before going, make sure you’re going in the correct direction so you don’t end up two hours down the wrong road, keep a keen eye on the driver and other passengers’ comfort during the drive, and enjoy the views.