Intrepid Wander Woman Marie Javins discovers that travelling by bus in Africa doesn't get cheaper if you help push
Another sweltering day in Bamako. I was up early, even before the sweeper started whisking the leaves off the Sleeping Camel's patio with a bundle of sticks.
Whisk. Whisk. Whisk.
I'd sweet-talked Patrice, the barman, out of a Nescafé even though I was up too early for breakfast. I hate Nescafé but I hate mid-afternoon lack-of-caffeine headaches even more.
"Did you get your bus ticket yesterday?" Patrice had told me to go to Sogoniko, the bus terminal, to sort out my fare when I wasn't carrying luggage.
"No. It was hot and I was lazy. Lots of buses leave for Sevare and Mopti at 8. It shouldn't be too hard."
He shook his head slightly. Patrice didn't approve of my approach.
Ten minutes later, I stood alongside the road with my rucksack, waiting for a lift to the bus station. Today was Thursday, and my passport was in the Ghanaian embassy until Tuesday. I had a brief window of time to get out of Bamako and go sightseeing in Dogon Country.
A green van with no windows – the local bus – almost mowed me down as it stopped.
The conductor waved me on. I climbed in awkwardly, hitting my head as I tried to navigate with my luggage. We drove about ten minutes, stopping constantly to let passengers on or off. An older Malian man cautioned me as we neared the bus station.
"Go with Bittar Bus. There are many bad buses but Bittar is a good company."
The green van stopped. I got off and he handed my rucksack out to me. He pointed at a Bittar sign across the street and wagged his finger at me sternly.
"Bittar. Go there."
I nodded. I understood. I wasn't so sure though. People had recommended Gana Transport too, and that trip from the border in their swamp-bus had been hellish. Bill from Sleeping Camel had said it was the luck of the draw, just depending on which bus you got. He'd suggested I try African Safari Tours, which had the benefit of being closer to the lodge and had its own station. I'd been too lazy to try to find it yesterday, but I'd seen their sign from the green bus as we whizzed down the road to Sogoniko.
I crossed the street. Bus touts approached me.
"Sevare, Sevare!" The language of bus stations is the same throughout Africa. You yell out your destination and people lead you to the bus.
But wait…This was wrong. The tout was leading me AWAY from Bittar, past the other companies, to where the ticket offices were hovels and shacks.
I hesitated. He grabbed my arm and tugged.
"No, no. This is far enough."
"Just here," he pleaded, pulling me on.
He led me to the distant corner of the bus park. It was now 7:40, and I was getting a bad feeling about this. And it was scorching hot, of course. He directed me to a ticket window.
"No. I want a bus NOW." I marched off back towards the other end of the bus park. Now I was probably too late to get an eight o'clock departure.
"There is no eight bus." The tout had caught up to me. "This is the first bus."
Yeah, right. Ha.
I kept walking. He gave up.
Another tout grabbed me. "I know a nice bus that is leaving at nine. Air-con."
He led me back to the same ticket window. Really?
"Now the bus leaves at nine?"
The ticket seller wrote the number 9 on a piece of paper.
"Yes. It is that bus," he said, pointing. "Here, go and see it."
I went and looked at an orange German bus. It didn't look too bad.
I handed over my 8,000 CFA fare.
The tout took my bag to the bus. "Here, you can sit on the bus and wait. Look, you got the first seat."
Disaster, I thought. If I'd purchased the first seat, this bus wasn't going anywhere for a long, long time.
"Give me my money back! This bus is not leaving at nine. It's not air-conditioned either, is it?"
"Are you calling me a liar? This is a nice bus."
"This bus is not air-conditioned, the windows don't open, and it's not leaving at nine." I knew I'd been had.
"I am not a liar. Look, air-conditioning!" He flicked open a vent. Which meant… Nothing. The bus was off. All I could see was that a vent was on the bus.
I got off the orange bus, pushing aside the German-signed turnstile at the front that showed me this bus has once been urban transportation. I went straight to the ticket seller.
"I want my 8,000 CFA back."
The ticket seller stared at me impassively. ARGH. I am an idiot! Why didn't I listen to the old man? Why didn't I listen to Patrice? These people live here. They know a thing or two about buses in Mali.
8,000 CFA is more than $16. I couldn’t just walk away. Or could I? When was the bus leaving?
I went back onto the orange bus and sat down for a while. The maintenance crew – four young men in flip-flops and Obama t-shirts – came on and started doing stuff with wrenches.
"Where are you from? What's your name?"
I told them and then asked when the bus was leaving.
This was going to be a long day.
Sweating in the heat, I stared out the window of the bus. In front of me on the dirt road that served as main street in this part of the bus park, I could see touts throwing themselves onto approaching taxis in attempts to stop them so they could get the passengers onto their buses.
I was out of my depth here. I had assumed the touts would help as they did everywhere else I'd been in Africa. But touting here was highly competitive, and these guys were experts. As I watched, a passenger walked up with a bag of rice on his head. A tout grabbed the rice and ran away with it to a bus, the passenger chasing him and yelling after him.
I demanded my money back three times, once an hour. I was miserable waiting in the heat. I noticed that a nearby vendor was hawking antibiotics, so I did learn something today. Namely, that you can buy pharmaceuticals in bus parks in Mali.
Just before noon, a bus employee came on, picked up my luggage, and told me to follow him.
The orange bus pulled away and a different bus parked in its spot. This bus was older and more rundown. The bus employee climbed up into the bus, tossed my bag into seat 2, and installed me on seat 1.
And then the conductor called out names. People pushed onboard.
The man who was in seat 2 demanded I move my bag.
"Conductor! Mon baggage!" I motioned to him to put it under the bus. He told me to put it under my seat. A large rucksack? Under the seat? That wasn't even possible.
"No. Take it under."
The crowd was surging onto the bus. The man sat down in 2. I had the rucksack in my arms. I'd had enough.
"LET ME OFF THIS BUS. I AM LEAVING." What a nightmare. Why had I waited this long to throw away the $16?
The man in seat 2 didn't move. The crowd kept pushing on. I pushed back. I was getting off.
"LET ME OFF THIS *#$@ing BUS."
The driver, conductor, and man in seat 2 all yelled at me at once. Huh. So they did know English.
I sat down.
The bus finally took off after noon, me on it, not wanting to be on it, my backpack shoved under my feet, with me incapacitated by being overwhelmed.
We stopped ten minutes later, so everyone could get off the bus and buy water. Silly me, I'd bought my water at the bus station. What was I thinking? But this is the system. You leave Bamako, then ten minutes later you stop for water and snacks.
You also stop to pray, check your tyres, pay policemen at checkpoints, and for just about any possible reason. We stopped two-and-a-half-hours in for a flat tyre, then once a little later to get it repaired at a roadside tyre shack. The last time we stopped for prayers, the bus wouldn't start again.
The bus crew, passengers, and random passer-bys had to PUSH-START THE BUS. This bus was never making it to Sevare. I thought back to the border bus I'd taken that had been due in by midnight in Bamako and had limped in around nine the next morning.
I was utterly miserable in seat 1, which doesn't have leg-room even if my bag weren't shoved under my feet. The lack of opening windows mixed with 100-degree heat and sealed windows was sickening. When the guy next to me gently asked "Are you tired?" I nearly started crying.
"No… It's… A long day."
"You are a smart traveler. You can see our transportation problems this way. You see the real Africa."
Well, that was certainly true. But when we limped into Segou after five – about when we should have been in Sevare – I decided I'd seen enough real Africa for one day. Segou is only 150 miles from Bamako and I'd been trying to get here for ten hours. If I were a real African, I'd have sat for another eight or so hours to Sevare or Mopti, getting off the bus for flat tyres and prayer stops. But I learned a long time ago that as long as there are options, I will take the easier way out. I’m a wimp, a tourist, a mere dabbler in the world of bad buses and trains.
"This bus is not making it to Sevare. I am getting off." I don't think my seatmate believed me. He laughed.
"No, really. I am leaving. Tell them I left."
He laughed again.
Now I was glad that my bag wasn't under the bus. I tugged and pulled until my bag came loose from below the seat, and dragged it off the bus. I strapped on my rucksack, marched out of the buspark and to the road, where I hailed a taxi.
"Hotel, please. A nice one."
Marie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.
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