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Shawnda: Where stoplights and lanes are optional

August 2, 2011

My first experiences in Botswana were those dealing with transportation.  It was our first ride out of the airport and we were on the left side of the road, going what seemed to be 80mph, and in a combi.  I was already anxious of finally arriving in Africa, and the lack of a speed limit or traffic regulations didn’t ease my worries.  A Zebras game had just ended at the stadium, and the streets were congested with blue and white fans, combis, taxis, and what seemed to be an unusual amount of Audi’s.  While trying to enjoy the scenery, all I could think about was how I wanted to slam on the breaks or steer the combi to safety.  Only 20 minutes through and I am about 98% sure we got in an accident.  We either hit the car in front of us or a traffic cone, but the driver seemed completely unfazed by it; TIA. 

After a less than positive start to driving in BW, we were then thrown on the combis to fend for ourselves at about 10 at night our second day.  Cramped into the back of the van, fumbling for pula, and unable to distinguish anything familiar in the dark, we were all terrified.  Luckily we made it to the Oasis Motel unharmed, but I think each of us were somewhat traumatized by the experience.

I can describe my many terrible taxi experiences, but they all boil down to about the same blueprint:

Taxi is not licensed. Taxi overcharges us. Taxi bottoms out on every speed bump (and if you were not already aware, there are probably 10 times as many speed bumps as people). Taxi man hits on us. Taxi almost hits pedestrians, animals, or other cars. Taxi follows up to two traffic laws out of about 50. 

Our trip to Serowe was not exactly a luxury tour either.  Our bus there was so full there were people standing in the aisles and sitting two to a seat.  You can imagine how hot it got.  Roughly 5 hours with no opened windows and only short blasts of “air” that lasted for literally 1 second every 7 minutes; we counted. The bus driver was a tease in every sense of the word.  To make it even better, I had two kids behind me hitting my head and pulling my hair for at least half of the trip; I don’t think I’ve ever so strongly considered pushing a kid off a bus.  The way back may sound like an interesting ride…but it was miserable at best.  5:30am, we were picked up outside of our cabins in safari trucks.  Most of us were underdressed, assuming we would make the 20km trip to the bus station in combis.  Nope.  We drove in the back of the safari trucks on the highway, about 20 minutes in below freezing weather and harsh wind.  By the end we were either in tears or complete shock. Safari trucks have slightly lost their appeal. 

My experience in an ambulance wasn’t much better, and was illegal in every sense of the word.  On one of the clinic days, Lizzy and I decided to observe home based care in Gaborone.  One of the male nurses arranged for us to be driven to the facility and told us to call when we needed a ride back.  Now, you would assume that if we drove a regular car there, we would drive the same back.  False.  We were picked up in an ambulance at peak traffic time.  With the three of us in the front seat, the driver attempted to dodge traffic by driving on the median to get into the left turn lane.  Well, sticking out in clear sight was a traffic sign…we assumed that he would have seen it like any other person on that road.  Yet another falsity.  He blew straight through the sign, taking off one of his side mirrors, scraping the passenger door, and taking out a side window…not to mention completely destroying the sign.  How can we not help but think it was our fault?  Clearly ambulances aren’t supposed to chauffer lekoa around Gabarone…but either way, we were indirectly blamed for the incident.   By the end of our time in the clinics, said ambulance was still MIA. 

But, my friends, the crème de la crème of transportation woes is our trip to and from Victoria Falls; never again.  The way there was sleepless, cramped, cold, and just odd.  We took an 11 hour bus ride to Kasane, Botswana which was both cramped and uncomfortably cold.  It began with a prayer for our safety…somehow not as comforting as it sounds.  We made several pee stops, but in the most remote areas with about 3 small bushes to do your business behind.  Our privacy was soon thrown out the window and traded for bathroom breaks.  2am and maybe 20 minutes of sleep, and we were stopped in the middle of nowhere to get off the bus.  Considering everyone was half awake, there was little explanation in what we were doing.  We had to walk through a puddle of chemicals, which we now know is for treating foot in mouth disease, thinking it was some spiritual adventure.  When we got off the bus we realized we weren’t even in Kasane, where our hotel was arranged to pick us up.  Luckily we got everything sorted out, and our trip across the Zimbabwe border was quick and simple.

The way back, however, is one that I hope no one will have to go through.  We went to the Falls with several alternatives to get back, but unsure of which to take.  We decided to take a train from Vic Falls to Bolowayo, Zimbabwe which is near the Botswana border.  Apparently we were the talk of the town, and everyone was gossiping about the crazy white girls taking a local train.  If only we knew this ahead of time.  The train first lost its appeal at first glance; but I kept “don’t judge a book by its cover” in mind.  That was thrown out as soon as we boarded.  The bathroom was a bowl with a hole in the bottom that emptied onto the tracks.  The emergency doors, despite their warnings to remain locked at all times, did not close, and freely swung open when the train was moving.  Let’s say going to the bathroom was a danger in itself.  The bedroom was not necessarily in sync with my expectations. 

About a 10ft x 10ft square, it had two ‘couches’ that each folded out into three layered beds with maybe 2 feet in between.  Confined doesn’t even begin to explain it.  Within our first minutes in the car, we managed to find several bugs…which soon led to plenty more; I was on bug patrol for the remainder of the ride. The train stopped at least 20 times, and went maybe 30 mph maximum.  The windows were frosted before the end of the night, and even if I were comfortable, the freezing cold kept me from getting anywhere near sleep.  I spent the night at the farthest edge of the bed, trying to avoid touching the wall where any potential bugs could be.  I managed to wrap myself in every layer of clothing I brought, yet still that was not anywhere near the amount I needed.  Getting off that train was the second biggest relief of the trip.  However, we soon realized we were stranded in Zimbabwe with no sense of direction.  Luckily, a local man opted to help us find a bus ride back, which turned out to be one of our most difficult tasks of the trip.

The 7 of us piled into his small car and drove around the town to each separate bus station hoping to find one going into Botswana.  No such luck.  Not only did most people not understand us, most places were not even fully running.  After an hour of driving around, we finally decided to take a combi to the border, walk across, and get a combi from there to Francistown.  The combi to the Botswana border was sketchy to say the least.  As we were driving away, our chauffer was trying to grab and stop the driver…we still don’t know why. You can imagine the kind of picture that burnt in our minds.  Luckily we made it to the Botswana border unharmed; the biggest relief of the trip. Touching Botswana soil, then having it cleaned off of our shoes three more times on the way back, was a luxury.  We arrived at the Francistown bus rink just minutes before the last bus to Gaborone was leaving.  The ride back was spent sleeping from exhaustion or trying to silence our minds from thinking about how badly we had to use the restroom.  Either way, we were on our way to Gabs finally.  We took the first taxi we could find at 10:30pm when we arrived to the station, and ended up piling into a minivan for only P30.  Peace.

The rest of my time in Botswana was relatively silent regarding transportation.  I always expect some kind of complication in the process, but that’s Africa for you.  

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