When you last left us, Steve and I just hatched a plan to get us out of a nightmare mini-bus in Zambia.
“Can you pretend your sick?” Steve whispered.
I nodded my head, started breathing heavy, rocking my torso and holding my hand over my mouth. Steve called to the driver who was simultaneously pushing a 20 lbs bag on top of a woman and slamming the sliding door shut before it could roll out of the bus.
“She needs to get out off the bus. She’s going to be sick.” And he pointed at me.
I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand what the crazy white guy was saying, because he laughed, closed the door and got into the drivers seat. Steve and I looked at each other. We were in it for the long haul.
Here’s a video we took just after we departed. I think you can get a sense of our mood… (Why are the thumbnails of these videos the most unflattering stills ever? Quick! Click on the link below so my nostrils stop staring at you… :-)
I’d like to take some time to explain a few things that might be going through your head.
- We were not miserable because the bus was dirty or smelly or uncomfortable (I mean, come-on, some would argue that describes the Bustache!). We were honestly afraid for our lives. Riding like this is not safe, and thousands of Zambians die each year on the road because of these “pile-them-in” practices.
- The bus driver was not being greedy. Unfortunately, the amount he needs to raise for each trip in order to make a modest profit has to cover gas (expensive!), breakdowns (which WILL happen) and police check-point bribes. The last reason is the most troubling… The Zambian police are corrupt. When you give people power without money, they will find a way to get money too.
- Zambians travel like this all the time. We were the only people in the bus who seemed to think there was anything unusual/wrong about this situation. People had no problem with waiting for 4 hours before leaving or being smooshed next to sweaty bodies or holding another person’s child on their lap. While we were kind of shocked by this experience, this was nothing beyond the norm for the average Zambian.
- There is little to no government regulation of this industry. There are no safety inspections, business standards or best practices. People have to travel from one place to another and these buses are the only affordable option. There is no customer service rep you can complain to. No manager you lobby for improvements. No industry heads you can look to for leadership. This is the way it is, and it’s hard to figure out how it might change.
It was two and a half hours to Churindu. The good news – the road is paved most of the way. The few miles we had to travel on dirt roads were absolutely awful. At least we had pavement to spare our bums.
About 30 minutes from Churindu, we blew a tire. We don’t figure this out until the driver suddenly pulls over and orders us all out of the bus. 22 passengers stand on the side of the road and watch while our driver pulls out a spare tire from under 500 lbs of luggage and discovers he doesn’t have a lift.
I guess this is when we realized the Bus spirit is alive and well in Zambia too. Over the course of 25 minutes, no less than 4 other buses stopped to offer assistance whether it be labor, another tire, and yes, finally a lift. People laughed, patted each other on the back, shared stories and acted like old friends.
We were back on the road in 30 minutes, and as we got closer to our destination we also started dropping people off. Before we knew it, we were down 4 travelers, giving us all a little more room to breath.
But, as they say, Karma will get ya, because we were no less than 20 miles from Churindu, when our driver pulled over to pick up 3 more passengers who’s car had also suffered a flat. Oh, and we had to take their tire too. AND, one of the new passengers was a soldier with a semi-atomic (which he accidentally shoved into a woman’s face as he got into the bus… she was NOT happy about this).
C’est la vie.
We made it to Churindu by 5pm. May I just say, it was not the bustling village Lonely Planet made it out to be. It was more like a collection of shacks, and the ATM we had read about and counted on for taxi & pontoon fare, didn’t seem to be in working order.
We had to get to the pantoon before 6pm in order to cross the river. Again, the bus spirit must have kicked in because suddenly one of our fellow travelers became our guardian angel. Using our last remaining cash, he negotiated with one of his friends to drive us not only to the pontoon, but to our lodge – a good 16 miles away.
Finally, we made it to Kiambi & the Zambezi river. Was it worth it? Well, we lived to tell about it, so let’s go with, yes. I’ll let the pictures say the rest.
In case you want to relive the story I just told you with lots of hand gestures, awkward eye-contact, live footage and a frog, you can watch the video below:
P.S. Steve and I are now proud owners of a tree-frog named Kiambi. :-(D