African Buses: Bail Outs, Bribes & Break Downs

On my last trip to Africa five years ago, I solo-ed it across the Kenya–Uganda border in one of the zanier journeys in my life. (Read the 3-part article called: How I met my African Mother, the Smuggler).

You’d think I would have learned my lesson. But no. A couple of weeks ago, I embarked on another solo bus trek across Zambia to Malawi. It was equally hairy.

One of my bus buddies!

The Bail Out

Things were actually going pretty well until I hit the Lusaka to Chipata leg of the trip (already my second full day on the bus). I sat next to a nice man named Amadeus (like the composer) who was returning to his home village to see his family during his school break.

Amadeus and I had a nice friendly chat. Unfortunately, he was a huge action movie buff and kept asking me questions about Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jean-Claude van Damme (who I was quick to point out wasn’t American).

He said he liked Americans because we were so direct. Actually, I think his exact words were: “That’s what I like about you white people – you just tell you like it is.” I thought he was rather frank himself.

Unfortunately, Amadeus got off before the main Chipata stop and missed the political mob that surrounded the bus and forced us to detour. In fact, it was the threat of political violence during upcoming elections that prompted me to leave Zambia in the first place.

We finally arrived at the dirt bus station and I looked for a shared taxi to the border. It should’ve cost me 20 Zambian kwatcha (about $4) to share a taxi with 4 others. But there were no others traveling to the border, so the taxi driver wanted to take me downtown to pick up others. We negotiated a single taxi fare for the equivalent of $8 and off we went in the direction of the border.

Except it wasn’t a single taxi ride. As we passed though main street, 4 young men joined me in the taxi. And although I was in the front seat, I was uneasy and bailed out of the moving car. They stopped and argued with me to get back in, while I threatened to cause a scene if they didn’t give me my bag out of the boot. (Actually we were already causing a scene.)

They gave in and handed me my bag (although I was prepared to leave it behind), and I walked a few blocks to a large supermarket, where I gave a taxi driver $10 for a single ride to the border.

My driver introduced himself as Israel and told me the name of his tribe. He then waited while the money changers at the border swarmed the car and escorted me directly into the immigration office with my bag. He was a prince!

The Bribe

I made it through Zambian immigration and headed to the Malawi side, where I was to catch another shared taxi to the town of Mchnji. But once again there was no one to share a taxi with. I was not in a good negotiating stand and paid one of the drivers their price—an exorbitant $35—to take me to my $9-a night hotel (which was lovely, all things considered).

The next morning I left for the Malawi capital of Lilongwe by standing in the middle of a dirt road and flagging down a mini van. I hopped in the first one, and settled in for the supposedly 1-hour ride.

About 2 hours into the drive, we were stopped by a police road block and asked to pay a fine (the equivalent of $18). Unfortunately, my mini van driver didn’t have the money, so we were told to wait by the side of the road for another hour, until we were eventually escorted to the police station. There we waited some more, until my driver was finally able to borrow the needed funds from a little girl. And we were off!

The Break-Down

A typically crowded matutu (min van)

Now the worst part of this –my third day straight day on a bus – was that this weird dude with a machete got into our van. He kind of freaked me out because he had some crazy eyes and was wearing an animal fur hat, in a Daniel Boone-like style. Except I think it was hyena fur. I later found it was the hat of a Zulu warrior. Did I mention he was carrying a machete?

So all 18 of us (maybe the bribe was $1 for each passenger?) continued down the road. The bus was moving slowly and finally in the 4th hour, it broke down. The three guys in the front seat got out to push. Which worked OK the first couple of times.

But then the bus wouldn’t budge. So they lifted the front seat off and started banging with a hammer until there was smoke. This bit of strong-arming apparently worked and we slowly chugged our way to the Lilongwe station, where once again I needed to catch a taxi to a hotel (any hotel — no reservations on my end).

Exhausted by this point, I marched past the taxi stand and jeers, lugging my bag with wheels through the mud. A few blocks down, I found a respectable hardware store and asked them to call me a cab – which they kindly did. I drove around for about an hour before I found a decent hotel for $10 a night, called the Golden Peacock.

Bus Stopped

Now I would like to tell you my transportation jinx ended there, but no. Within 2 days of arriving, Malawi was to have political protests in response to their elections the previous year. Consequently, my friends and family urged me to evacuate (along with all the country’s aid workers). So I did.

But this time I was smart! I booked a flight to Durban, South Africa to re-group for a few days. And paid nearly $1,000 cash for my one-way trip. A bus would’ve been 1/10 the cost. But I don’t think I could’ve survived another 3-4 days on the road and another border-crossing on foot. I gladly paid for the plane.

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This entry was posted on Monday, October 10th, 2011 and is filed under Africa.

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