Tag Archives: Bus

trHotel Burundi

Do you know the line from the Eagles’ song “Hotel California”, which says, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”? Well, that’s what our last week has been like. Our objective is to get to Zambia, but we’re still working on it.

We decided to head south from Rwanda into the little traveled country of Burundi. Our bus trip took about eight hours, which once again had its usual set of adventures (we will tell you more about that later). We arrived at the bus stop at 7 AM for our 8 AM departure and we barely got seats together. We ended up sitting across the aisle from one another, with a fold down jump seat in between us, and our backpacks squished in between our legs and the seats ahead of us. The bus was completely full, with a person in every seat, and luggage stacked in every available space. This included the space in front of the only door, which was stacked high with suitcases and boxes.

The bus took us through the beautiful green hills of Rwanda. The roads were paved, and the driver drove at a reasonable speed, except for some of the downhill sections when it was raining. As is typical on East African bus journeys, the bus stopped frequently to drop off and pick up passengers. In the town of Butare, about eight more people boarded our already full bus. This involved a complicated ballet of removing all the luggage blocking the door, passing it out the window (with the passengers’ assistance), thereby allowing entry. People were squeezed into every available space. Our row of four seats held eight people, plus our backpacks, and another six pieces of luggage. Luckily, many of the other people were children.

Because they do not charge for children to accompany a parent, most women travel with at least two children and luggage, all of which try to occupy the same seat. Young babies are breastfed while an older sibling stands on top of the luggage between the mother’s legs. The children are amazingly well behaved, almost too passive, as they are crammed into the most contorted of positions. In many cases, we felt the need to lift a child’s head or remove the fabric covering its face for fear of injury, while the overburdened mother struggled with everything.

It is quite common for children to be placed into any available space, including on the laps of others. Patrick had a young boy sleeping up against him, and Diane had at least two different children on her lap. She was quite fine with this, until she realized that one little girl was covered with small bumps, which could have been scabies, chicken pox, or perhaps bed bug or flea bites. The same little girl then starting throwing up corn onto Diane.

We crossed the border into Burundi, made it to the capital city Bujumbura, and found cheap but reasonable lodgings in a Christian guest house over the Easter weekend. We began making our plans to continue our journey south, hoping to take a combination of two ferries down Lake Tanganyika to Zambia. Unfortunately, the first ferry, which was supposed to go to take us Kigoma Tanzania, hasn’t been running since the civil war ended last year. We confirmed this on Monday, after a failed trip to the port on Sunday afternoon.

We set out for the port with the only other travelers that we had met in Bujumbura, some newlyweds from Toronto who had been volunteering in Uganda for the past three months. Terence is a recently graduated medical doctor, and Natalie a social worker. It was raining heavily and very humid, and the small taxi had no defroster, requiring Terence to constantly wipe the inside of the windshield with a cloth so the driver could see. We made it to within a couple of blocks of the port, when the car began to fill with water from the flooded streets. We were sloshing around in the back seat, while the driver beached his car up on some high ground, and then sat there, saying nothing.

After about 20 minutes of sitting there in the foggy car, Patrick and Terence decided to try to wade to the port, which was visible in the distance. They made it to the port gates through the thigh deep water, feeling for each step, to avoid stepping into a hole or open sewer masked by the murky water. Patrick was thoroughly enjoying himself until they came across a huge syringe with uncovered needle that had washed up on the side of the road.

The port was closed, so they returned to the car, and then headed in the other direction to check for an escape route. The water was less deep that way, and they returned to convince the driver that he could make it back to town safely. Back at the guest house, we decided to pay the driver his agreed fare, even though he never really got us to our destination.

The following day, we went to the tourist office to enquire about a boat, and the head of the tourist office took us in his own car to the port, where we met with the port director. This gentleman has been the head of the tourist office in Bujumbura since 1991, when he returned after completing his master’s degree in tourism in Europe. The office has been open, but there have been no tourists for the last 18 years! The port director confirmed that there was no ferry but that we could perhaps go on a cargo ship. Like many of the buses we’ve experienced, cargo ships leave when they are full, and it isn’t possible to accurately predict when this might occur, so we abandoned our search for a boat, and pursued an overland option.

We arranged for a car for the next day to take us down the coast and through the mountains to the Tanzanian border. The driver was a young man named ‘Jamie’, who spoke French but no English, and did his best to make sure we were looked after. Over breakfast, he told us how his mother and relatives had been killed in the war, and how as a child he fled with his younger siblings into the forest, and then back and forth between neighbouring countries to avoid a similar fate.

Nearing the Burundian border, we stopped in the last town to get an exit stamp in our passports. Terence and Natalie hadn’t kept the receipt they were given upon entry to Burundi, which it turns out wasn’t actually a receipt, but the Burundian transit visa we had each purchased. Of course, no one had told us this. Luckily we found ours, and we received an exit stamp without incident. However, the obnoxious border guard took advantage of their predicament to elicit a bribe of about of $10 Canadian, but not before making them wait about thirty minutes, during which time he accepted bribes from a bunch of Africans, presumably for some other spurious reason. Jamie the driver literally got down on his knees to beg the immigration officer to accept the bribe and give them the required exit stamp.

When we reached the actual border about 18 kilometers further on, Jamie convinced the gate guard to let him continue with the car through the ‘no man’s land’ between the borders, on the condition that he provide the car registration to the guard to ensure that he would return. We made it to the remote Tanzanian border post, purchased transit visas, and then arranged follow-on transit to Kigoma. Of course, the only option was another bus!

This bus trip took about four hours, through beautiful rolling hills. It was accompanying by the usual cramped conditions, and the constant reorganizing of the bus at each stop to cram in the latest people and their belongings. On this trip, they included large bags of grain, a big set of speakers, and many boxes and bags. Once everyone is loaded, the bus begins to move, at which time the driver’s assistant begins to collect the fares. Because he can’t move from his cramped position, the money is passed forward and back by the passengers. There are no tickets or posted prices, so there is often loud negotiation between parties at opposite ends of the bus. On this trip, a young man who wasn’t willing to pay the requested fare was thrown off the bus along with his belongings (except one item which was held for ransom until he paid a small amount for the portion of the trip he had ridden.

When we reached a hill that was too steep, we would all get out to walk up the hill, so the bus could make it up. When the left front tire of the bus blew, we all got out again so they could change it. Seated ahead of us was a doctor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who told us that the driver had received a telephone call that a bus one hour ahead of us on the same road had been robbed by bandits. Diane heard this, and kept her cool, because the alternate to proceeding was to sit out on an open hill top with a flat tire and wait for the bandits to come to us!

We made it to Kigoma, and found cheap accommodations in the city. Perhaps too cheap though, because our room had a cockroach in the bathroom and another bar outside the bars on the window. Luckily the music only went until midnight, so Patrick and Terence drank beer in the bar until closing, telling their wives that they were guarding the bedroom windows from the other side.

The next morning we were woken before 8 AM by an immigration official with the hotel register who wanted to check our passports. After complying to his request, he then gave us a lecture about not showing our passports to anyone who doesn’t show his ID first, because there are conmen and thieves about.

We continued our search for transportation to Zambia. The next boat, which was supposed to leave on Wednesday, was now only running every second week, and this was the wrong week. The train was full for the next ten days. We were both frustrated, and Patrick decided that we needed to do something drastic, so we call the airport, and were told that there was a flight leaving for Dar es Salam within the hour. We got a cab, raced to a bank for money, then headed out to the airport in the middle of a rain storm. The road to the airport was unpaved, deeply rutted, muddy, and mostly underwater, but the taxi driver got us there in his Toyota Corolla. Unfortunately, there was only one seat left on the plane, so we headed back to town dejectedly. We walked to several hotels trying to find a decent one, as we were now facing a stay of at least two more days in Kigoma, and finally found something. Diane was close to breaking, but held in there. Once she had a room, a cold shower, and some lunch, she perked up again.

We did eventually fly out of Kigoma two days later, and asked our taxi driver there to stop at the train station so we could investigate trains back to the southwest of Tanzania (near Zambia). Trains leave twice a week, but luck was on our side this time. There was a train scheduled to depart immediately, actually it was overdue, and we could still get a first class compartment.

The 24 hour train ride to Mbeya was actually quite pleasant. It was loud and difficult to sleep, but the scenery was beautiful as we crossed the full width of Tanzania. There was food on board, which took forever to be prepared, but was edible, and there was beer, which could be cold if you timed it right. The latrines were basic but not disgusting, and we even took a cold shower out of a bare pipe sticking out of the bathroom wall. All in all, it was quite pleasant, and not a bad way to spend Diane’s birthday.

We arrived in Mbeya at about 4 PM, still with time left to celebrate Diane’s birthday. After finding a hotel, we headed for the best restaurant in town. Actually, it’s 20 kilometers out of town at a coffee plantation, but it was worth the drive. They had a lovely view at sunset, good food, and wine by the glass. This was the first time Diane had drunk wine in over two months, which is a new record. Of course, it’s had to find time to drink wine when you’re busy drinking beer! Unfortunately, we were too tired to stay for coffee, which Diane also hasn’t had (other than instant coffee) for over a month.

Anyhow, after a week of trying, we’re now within striking distance of Zambia. We’ll let you know how it goes.

P.S. We promise this will be the last bus story, unless something particularly heinous happens.

The Bus Trip

Today we rode the bus in Uganda. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.

We caught a shared minivan, known as a ‘matatu’, from our hotel on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to the area of town where the buses park. There are actual several matatu and bus parks located here, and all the surrounding streets are crammed with matatus and people squeezing between them. The sidewalks are either broken, or jammed with the merchandise of vendors that spills out of their shops, making the muddy streets the only alternative to move around.

We started our search for a bus at about 10:00 AM, walking around trying to find which of the fifteen bus companies spread over four lots had buses leaving for Kabale, and town in the southwest of Uganda near the Rwandan border. After getting lost more than once in the maze of streets, and walking away from one company that wanted too much money and appeared to have questionable looking buses, we finally found a bus at about 11:30.

Upon entering the bus park, we were immediately grabbed by a woman who was one of the many ‘brokers’ or ‘guides’ that work the area. Walking us the 50 feet from the entrance of the bus park to the door of the bus, where we bought our tickets, entitled her to a commission of 1000 Ugandan Shillings (USh), about 60 cents Canadian, from each of our ticket prices (15000 USh). Before purchasing our tickets, we asked when the bus would be leaving, and were told by the ticket seller who stands near the bus door, “45 minutes”.

We boarded the bus, which was nicely painted on the outside, but lacking in most other regards. Instead of the usual four seats in each row, divided by a center aisle, an extra seat had been added to each row (three on one side, a narrow aisle, and two on the other). The seats were covered in stiff plastic, which in theory could have allowed them to be cleaned. The seats closest to the aisle each had an arm rest that flipped up, allowing easier access from the aisle. The arm rests had long since lost all their fabric and padding, and were instead just bare metal bars with sharp edges. We squeeze our backpacks into the overhead racks, and started to wait.

The bus was sitting, along with about thirty other buses, in two rows in an open parking lot under the hot sun. The parking lot was of the smallest possible size that could hold that many buses, while still allowing the occasional departing or arriving bus to be shoe-horned in and out with twenty-point turns. Our bus had its engine idling, doing our part to add to the heat and fumes.

The interior of the bus was a toxic sauna. Very hot and stuffy, it smelled like a mixture of body odour and gasoline fumes and was at least 35 degrees Celsius. There were already a few other passengers sitting in the hot interior of the bus, some sleeping. We took turns sitting in the bus, to watch our belongings and secure our seats, while the other person stood outside to try to get relief from the heat. Although there was more air outside, the sunshine beating down made it more of a change than an improvement.

At one point, Patrick went in search of food, while Diane remained on the bus. The bus started to pull away, and Diane ran to the front of the bus trying to stop them from leaving. It turned out they were just re-positioning the bus. When they started to pull away again, Diane did the same, much to the amusement of the others on the bus. One of the other passengers reassured her that the bus wouldn’t be leaving any time soon.

After forty-five minutes of sweating, plus another 10 minutes for good measure, Patrick inquired with the ticket seller when the bus was leaving. He replied, “45 minutes from the last time I told you”. It soon became clear that the bus wasn’t leaving any time soon. After 90 minutes, and several information gathering discussions with other passengers, it became apparent that the bus would in fact be leaving as soon as all the seats had been sold. Since a refund was out of the question, and any other transportation option would presumably be the same, we sat and we waited some more.

After two hours, the bus was about half full and the temperature was climbing with the afternoon sun. African people are really tolerant of the heat, often wearing several layers of clothing when Diane and I are in shorts and t-shirts, but it was so hot in the bus that the men were taking their shirts off.

While we waited, we were provided with entertainment of a sort. Each new arrival to the bus was a source of small encouragement. Often they were pulled to the bus by one or more brokers, who then fought over the commission and sometimes the passenger, pulling them back and forth to demonstrate their ownership. The bus was filled with a steady stream of hawkers, coming on board to sell radios, flash lights, men’s and women’s shoes, picture frames, candy, and more. They squeezed down the narrow aisle with their wares, pushing past one another and the passengers. Some carried glass plates of food or soda in glass bottles, which you were expected to eat while they waited to collect the glassware. Another guy was selling medications; including de-wormer which it appeared was for human use.

After three hours, we were starting to wear down. Diane was leaning forward with her head on the back of the seat ahead, desperate for a hint of a breeze. By this point, our late departure time guaranteed we would be traveling at night in the mountains, on questionable roads, and arriving late in a small town with no accommodations booked.

Finally, after three and a half hours, the bus filled up and pulled away. We were the only white people on the bus. We thought that things were looking up, but they were only just beginning.

Despite being told that the bus would stop three times, there was only one bus stop, about one hour into our trip. The bus pulled over at a police checkpoint, and the men, plus two women in long skirts, got off to pee at the side of the road, in full view of the remaining passengers. Diane stayed on board.

Bus drivers in Africa have a reputation for traveling too fast. The narrow roads barely provide enough space for a bus to get by oncoming traffic, and at 70 miles an hour, the other vehicles flash by with less than twelve inches to spare. The roads have no shoulder, and often the driver needs to hang some wheels off the broken edge of the pavement, resulting in bone jarring bumps. The roads have a disproportionate amount of large vehicle traffic, perhaps because so few people have cars, so the buses are forever passing slower moving vehicles (usually long gasoline tankers), and often on blind corners and hilltops. There don’t appear to be any speed limits, so the speed is the maximum the driver can reasonably extract from his vehicle and the road conditions, plus twenty percent.

Our bus seemed to have a serious problem with its rear suspension. Every bump was transferred directly to the occupants. Large bumps were accompanied with a loud bang, as the cab of the bus smashed down onto the undercarriage. About one hour into our trip, we hit a bump so hard that the side window in the row behind us shattered, dropping large shards on the passengers. The assistant driver stood up at the front of the bus to see what had happened, then sat down again. The bus continued on.

As darkness approached, we hit a bump so hard that we actually launched out of our seats and into the air. Luckily, Patrick avoided being impaled on the metal armrest. At the back of the bus, some passengers had hit the ceiling, and one man was seriously injured. He cried out, and the passengers stood to see what had happened. People yelled for the driver to stop, but the bus continued on. The passengers were speaking loudly in Ugandan, and were obviously upset that nothing was being done. Diane feared a riot would break out. After much shouting, it took an off-duty Ugandan army member walking to the front of the bus to get it to stop. The assistant driver came to the rear of the bus to see what had happened, then returned to his seat. The bus continued on.

When we reached the next village, the bus stopped. The injured man was helped to the front of the bus, but collapsed twice in the aisle, in obvious pain. He was taken into a pharmacy, probably the closest thing the village had to a medical facility. While we waited, a Catholic nun who was seated near us stood and approached Diane. She asked if Diane was alright. Diane replied, “Yes”, and then asked if the nun was OK. She rubbed the crucifix around her neck and answered, “I’m praying”.

While we waited, villagers sold grilled meat on branches to the passengers through the windows of the bus. As darkness fell, the injured man was helped back to a seat near the front of the bus, trading his previous seat with some other brave soul. We continued through the dark, and into the mountains.

We arrived in Kabale at 11 PM, over twelve hours from the start of our journey, having completed what was supposed to be a six hour bus trip. Diane didn’t use a restroom for the entire period, which wasn’t a problem given how much we were sweating. We found a room at the fourth hotel we tried, which was good because there were only two others in town. Diane was already working on her strategy to convince the taxi driver to take us home and let us sleep on his floor.

Patrick’s Comment — Throughout this trip, Diane maintained a particularly positive attitude, coping with the heat and stress exceptionally well. She even joked along the way. I think she’s got this traveling thing figured out.