Lesson Learned · Life · The Bustache · VW Bus · Zambia

A Bad Bus Abroad. – Part I

Steve and I went to Zambia this past spring. We truly had a trip of a lifetime. We visited Victoria Falls. We saw lions, giraffes, leopards and elephants. We met fabulous people and learned about another culture. We ate great food and, um, interesting food. We would go back in a heartbeat.

But we had one experience that we would much rather not relive. And, it saddens me to say, revolves around a minibus.

If you have ever been to Africa, you might have noticed that the “preferred” method of transportation are mini-vans (and by “preferred” I mean “most common.” I doubt this is how most people would prefer to travel). When I studied abroad in Ghana, they called them “trotros.” I like this term because it conjures up the kind of image that most accurately represents them. They are usually stripped down to the metal with two extra bench seats added for maximum capacity and are at least 15 years-old. And they are everywhere.

They look like this:

or this:

or this:

And you can board them by going to the bus station. Which can be large and confusing:

Or small and confusing:

It was towards the end of our trip, and Steve and I were going to make one more trek before heading back to the States. We wanted to canoe down the Lower-Zambezi river, and we had 3-days to make it happen.

Short of paying $400 for a flight or personal taxi, the only way to get to this destination was by minibus. After six-months in Ghana, I felt well prepared for this kind of journey. I had taken a hundred trotros all over that country without much thought.

We were leaving from Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Our hostel host told us 4-5 buses left the Market bus-depot for Churindu (biggest village in the Lower Zambezi) daily. We figured we could take our time in the morning and leave on an early afternoon bus.  Perfect.

We ended up getting to the station at 9:45a on Saturday morning. We were immediately bombarded with people asking us where we were going and offering us advice on how to get there. We were overwhelmed, but we managed to find a minibus whose driver insisted he’d get us where we needed to go.

Lusaka Market Bus Depot. So many buses!

We approached the bus, and it was empty. We asked the driver when it would leave.

He said, “When it is full.”

“How long with that be?” Steve inquired.

“30 minutes.”

OK, we thought. We can wait 30-minutes. With that, we shoved our backpacks behind the last bench of the bus and climbed in to wait.

Backpacks in Bus. It's looking pretty full already!

We waited. And waited. And waited.

This was taken after 2 hours of waiting. (Note: I have strengths, but video-taping is not one of them. Sorry for the shoddy/bumpy/Blair Witch-esqe camera work.)

You might ask why we were willing to wait for 1 1/2 hours longer than we were told. Well, first, we kinda knew when our driver estimated 30 minutes, it wouldn’t actually be 30 minutes. We had been in Zambia long enough to realize “African Time” does not correspond with “American Time.” Time is really more of a “give or take 2+hours” kind of thing.

Second, we, like everyone else, really didn’t have any other choice.

So we waited some more. Passengers kept boarding, and we kept thinking, it must be full now. But we still didn’t depart.

This video was taken after 3 hours of waiting:

Then we began to get cranky. We played the, “What do you want to do? No, what do YOU want to do?” Game. We waited for the other person to make the first move. We went back and forth, back and forth, and we finally killed another hour. After 4 hours of waiting it looked like the bus was finally full.

By “full,” I mean, dangerously packed with 23 adults and their luggage, 3 children, and 2 chickens. Imagine Bustache (or any VW Bus of your choice) filled with that much “stuff.” I’ll give you a minute to contemplate…

Yeah. Not fun.

It was SO not fun that Steve and I started panicking as they started to close the sliding door. At this moment we realized what it felt like to be in a full bus, and we didn’t like it all. We were in the 3rd row (out of five rows, including the drivers bench) along with three other adults (meaning a total of five!). We were on the inside (furthest from the door). We had baggage under our feet, on our laps and no open window. If we were at all claustrophobic, it would have been our worst nightmare.

“We need to get out of here.” I said.

Steve nodded in agreement.  The Lower-Zambezi was not worth risking our lives.  We were determined to get off this trotro.  So we hatched a plan.

Stay tuned for Part II, and find out what we did next! (spoiler alert our plan failed…)

Have you ever  had the pleasure in riding in a “trotro” abroad or at home?

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8 thoughts on “A Bad Bus Abroad. – Part I

  1. I’ve ridden some shady public transportation in Thailand before. I’m not sure if I could sit that cramped in, I would probably get that ‘chew off your arm to get away’ feeling. The destination sounds orth the sacrifice though.

  2. Yes! Steve just got back from Thailand, and said they had their own version of “trotros” there too! In our case, I’m not sure there was even enough room to chew our arms off… that would have involved being able to move your arm up to your head area. :-)

    But yes, I guess it was all worth it in the end!

  3. I hate waiting. I would have left after an hour (probably before that)…although I guess in a foreign country you might not have many options, or like you said, no other choice. And I really hate being crammed into a small place that I can’t get out of…sounds like the ultimate hell on earth!

    1. My Steve hates waiting too! But the “no choice” thing kind of forced the issue. It was more scary than uncomfortable. I just kept imagining what would happen if we got in an accident… But we lived to tell the story, so I guess that’s something!

  4. Ugh. I am so claustrophobic that I started crying while waiting in line to go on a mine tour in Wales. Ended up leaving before the tour started! In Thailand I never shared a benchseat with more than two other people…it was worth the price. I’ll remove Zambia from my bucket list. Thanks for the warning! ;)

    1. Ha! Yes. This was not an experience for the claustrophobic for sure. But, Michelle, don’t take Zambia off your list just yet! We were their for 3 weeks with no issue. It wasn’t until the last 3-days that we had a less than pleasurable ride. There is plenty to do and see with spacious transportation options. It was so worth it!

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