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.
Posted in: My Driver Project


# Sammy
Thursday, September 24, 2015 9:02 AM
I guess you're right. My co-worker has been to Eastern Europe and he said the road there were terrible but drivers didn't drive too fast, it was pretty safe.
# alexsam
Wednesday, November 4, 2015 7:18 AM
Public buses and private transport are totally different in private vehicle you can go any time anywhere as compared to public buses first you have to wait when it comes many passengers try to get into the bus and driver drives slowly due to this reaching late, but this time more services are available, they charge a little more, you can go anywhere on time.

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About the Authors

Bobby Gondola
Debra Bokur

Globe Tripper
At Grand Central Station when she was 9 years old, Debra Bokur decided that a different train from the one her parents were boarding looked as though it might be going someplace more interesting, so she took that one instead. She still loves trains, and has since traveled the world as an award-winning journalist, magazine editor and filmmaker. A member of the Society of American Travel Writers, Debra contributes regularly to Global Traveler Magazine, and serves as the magazine website’s daily feature writer.

Debra is a contributing author to Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001). She holds degrees in both Theater and English Literature, and has been the poetry editor of the nationally acclaimed literary journal Many Mountains Moving since 2002. She has also been the travel editor at national publications including Healing Lifestyles & Spas Magazine, American Cowboy Magazine, and Fit Yoga Magazine, and has been a frequent guest on Wine Country Network’s national radio program discussing the topic of international travel.

Debra once lived a double life training horses professionally in the disciplines of dressage and three-day eventing while serving as an editor and writer at several equestrian-themed publications. Her current favorite places to wander are Iceland, Switzerland, the U.K., Israel and Italy. In her new blog, Globe Tripper, Debra will bring us along on her adventures.

Bobby Gondola
Bobby Gondola

World Wanderings
Bobby Gondola serves as Director of Operations & Development at Year Up, a nationally recognized workforce development and higher education program for urban young adults. He leads both the internal operations and external relations. Previously, he was Director of External Relations at Opus 118 Harlem School of Music in New York City, the Harlem-based violin program made famous by Meryl Streep in Music of the Heart. He also worked as a community development consultant in the townships of Cape Town, South Africa.  

Bobby earned a B.A. in painting and politics from Salve Regina University and studied abroad in Rome, Italy. He also holds an M.P.P. in Political Advocacy and Leadership from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where he was a Public Service Fellow. Bobby lives in Providence, Rhode Island and serves on theWaterFire Providence Board, College Leadership Rhode Island Program Committee, and the Providence Public School Board. He has traveled to all continents, except Antarctica and Australia, which he’ll get to. Eventually.

Aaron Shapiro
Aaron Shapiro

My Driver Project
Aaron Shapiro is a 2011 alumnus of University of Maryland, College Park, where he received a B.S. in Global Health and completed a minor in International Development and Conflict Management. After graduating, he joined the Global Health Corps as a program manager for Gardens for Health International in Kigali, Rwanda. Aaron has interned for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Food Security, the Social Justice Coalition in Cape Town, South Africa, and volunteered at St. Lucia Hospice and Orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania. Aaron has also traveled in Congo, Burundi, Uganda, and Zambia. He is currently working in Washington, D.C. and applying to medical school.

Photo of Natalia Jaffee
Natalia Jaffee

Traffic Lights are Optional in Hanoi
Natalia Jaffee is a 10th grade student at the United Nations International School of Hanoi. She grew up in Potomac, MD and attended Cold Spring Elementary School and Cabin John Middle School. While visiting Maryland in the summer of 2011, she interned at ASIRT and published a personal account of the road situations in Vietnam. Natalia enjoys traveling and has traveled throughout East Asia. In her free time, she enjoys running, playing soccer, cooking, and reading.

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Laura Blanar

From A to B Safely: A Transportation Travel Blog
Laura Blanar traveled through Asia, Africa and Oceania with her husband, Adam, for 14 months. Prior to her travels, she worked at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as a research scientist, and in injury and violence at PAHO/WHO as a contractor. Laura holds a Masters of Health Science from the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, with a specialization in health systems, and also obtained the B.A. in public health from the Johns Hopkins University. She has been published in several professional journals relating to injury and public health. In September 2011, Laura entered a PhD program at the University of Washington in public health, with a focus on injury. When not traveling, Laura enjoys running, wood carving and reading non-fiction and mystery books.