Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Well, It’s about time for another Epic – one within the massive epic of my being here and for that matter within the ultimate epic of what is my life. This epic is such largely in part because of the rigorous transport that, believe it or not, I choose to get on. My voyage was extremely exhausting at times (really throughout its entirety): I was sore and bruised – sore on my tailbone from a hell-bent for speed bus on an incredibly bumpy dirt stretch of road and bruised on my left shoulder from the vibrating window of said bus which I was crammed up against. I ran out of money and was sleep deprived: sleeping more than a couple of times in towns well short of my destination – quite literally on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere far from anywhere due to the treat of bandits. I even got my precious, not the $5 knockoffs, Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses smashed in leaving me with a black-eye and picking tiny shards of glass out of my eye socket with a delicately held Q-tip.

So how’s that intro? Sounds like fun eh? It was - most of the time… all in all I had a great February, if not one incredibly jam packed with comings and goings (both coming to me and me going to them). However, now, as I write this, sitting here back in Segou, I am quite glad to be home. I have gotten in a bit of moving around and am eager to spend some quality time here at my site trying to get some work done. If you have ever been to a developing country, Africa especially - West Africa specifically, and have taken ground transportation to get around you’ll know a little bit what I mean when I say I’m ready to stay in one place for a while. Counting it all up, I spent over 132 hours on some sort of four-wheeled vehicle (not to suggest that they maintained this four wheel status at all times) in the month of February. That is over five and a half days of sitting (or not always sitting) on transport, which took me from here in central West Africa all the way west to the coast of Senegal and back through Segou east to Ouagadougoug, the capital of Burkina-Faso.

Let me indulge you for a moment, if I may, on a little comparison so that you might try and relate to what an experience on West African transport might be like by comparing a modern airline service to what you might end up on here when traveling terrestrially. Please remember of course, that whatever I describe here could always be worse and quite often is – I am just going to relate my own observations from my personal experience thus far. ‘Transport’ as it is referred to here includes all means of getting around:
Starting at the top of the ‘transport’ food chain with the lofty (and most unusual and unrealistic) airplane,
A chartered car (what most Americans and Europeans use in addition to the next option),
A chartered tour bus,
A public bus with a/c (which are rumored to exist but have not yet personally nor have anyone I know actually experienced),
A regular public bus (these ranging from the high end to include windows that actually open or have seats with real cushions to the low end of non-opening windows and seats harder than rocks),
‘Mobilies’ (essentially re-fitted large vans crammed with as many seats imaginable - then add another row and a few extra seats to each row – seats, none of which, are ever actually as wide as your hips forcing you to invariably sit somewhat sideways and needing to alternate the row of passengers sitting a little bit forward and back (like what you need to do when stuffing four people in the back of a barely three person back seat of a car),
‘Bachés’ (pronounced with a long “a” sound - which are just small pickup trucks with parallel benches in the back and are usually covered with a metal cage where the baggage is piled),
Taxis (ranging from fairly nice Mercedes to ones so bad you wouldn’t want to sneeze for fear the car would fall apart like in a cartoon),
‘Sept-place’ (sept, referring the French number seven – yup you guessed it, they sit seven people in an old station wagon type car. These can sometimes be preferred since they usually only do put just seven people inside.),
‘Tuk-tuks’ (not as common but the same sort found around Asia. A moto is outfitted with a small cab on the back that they somehow manage to cram up to six people in),
A moto (as volunteers, we’re not allowed to ride these (and I never have), but worth mentioning since the majority of locals use them to get around,
A bicycle (we were all given one during training and is what I use every day to get around the city and to and from work),
A donkey or horse drawn cart (the latter being the more preferred method but of course the least common. Donkey carts are seen everywhere and is the means by which pretty much everyone transports anything and everything around – if not being piled onto a mobilie over a greater distance which is not to suggest that donkey carts are not used over large distances. They are and in fact; and some volunteers use them as the only way to get 20+ kilometers out to their villages).
Lastly, but certainly not least, are your good ole two feet, which get a lot more use than one might expect.

And I digress. Back to the comparison of an airplane and the public bus… on an airplane you can go to the bathroom when you want. Sure transport here may stop every three or four hours just long enough for you to run off and go but then – where to go? You have to find a negen (Malian outhouse which you also have to pay to use) or just end up squatting behind a tree or ducking behind a wall – if there even are any. Don’t like airplane food? At least you get something – you even get free drink service and can get water anytime you want. Here, you try to carry as much water as you think you’ll need for your journey but you inevitably end up buying some while stopped at one of the frequent gendarme checkpoints (always left hoping that it is from a robinet/facet or at least a pump and dreading the possibility that you just bought untreated well water). Then again, you’re also trying to drink as little as possible and gradually becoming dehydrated since you don’t know when the next time you’ll get a chance to pee and don’t want to run into that issue. The food available is equivalent to, oh say, the peanut service with about as much variety too.

Oh, and of course, gendarme stops. These can sometimes account for half your travel time if not more. When you ride on a well-known bus company they are, usually but not necessarily, less painful and time consuming. However, since taking one of those companies is only possibly for the largest destinations like regional capitals and then not even always what you end up on (even though you bought your ticket from the known company only to be sold to a no-name bus since they didn’t have any buses going to your destination and neglected to tell you so when you bought your ticket). The stops are short if your driver is somehow a friend with the gendarme either through a genuine personal acquaintance or of a financially less honorable sort. On an airplane you don’t get stopped every time you cross state, county, or city lines (both entering or exiting) and get asked for ID and if all your papers are in order. Nor are your bags checked at each border either.

Airplane seats are incredibly comfortable compared to African buses. You truly have leg room on airplanes – here, while the bus may have originally been somewhat normal and comparable with regard to seat spacing, it was since gutted and refitted to cram in at least a few more rows. Additionally, the devices that once allowed the seats to recline have been taken off to prevent such comfort. Not only all that, while you may be unfortunate enough to get stuck in the back of the plane in one of those seats that don’t recline – be thankful that you even have a back to lean against. Here, when all the regular seats are full, you can end up paying the same price for a stool in the middle of the isle if not some other somewhat solid something to sit on such as a water jug or even someone else’s luggage. Then of course there are the overhead compartments where you can actually stick your luggage of a decent size on an airplane. On a bus, first you’re unlikely to fit anything bigger than a thin briefcase and need to put everything else in the isle. Second, you also have to worry about those things crammed up there falling down on your head from the bumpy dirt road.

Oh and turbulence? You’re right there isn’t anything quite like the feeling you get when the plane looses a lot of altitude and you feel your gut is in your throat. To counter, however, neither is the feeling you get when you’re driving in the other lane roaring towards oncoming traffic with another vehicle beside you and you see your life flash before you eyes (i.e. no where to go but step on the gas and pray you get back into your lane in time). Turbulence is nothing compared to a continuous washboard dirt road or the constant jarring from an un-maintained, pothole ridden, hardly considered once paved, road (the stretch between Kayes and Dakar, Senegal comes to mind). Turbulence doesn’t give you a bruised arm from being shoved up against your window or such a sore tailbone that it hurts to sit for days after.

Windows on airplanes don’t open and that is a good thing. In their place, you have a little vent that you can control the flow and the direction of the air. Often there are only a few windows that open on any given bus and even then they’re often closed since people prefer to be swelteringly hot than have a little wind in their face. On top of that, even if the windows are closed you’re still going to get inundated with dust from the dirt road and need to wear either a bandanna or turban around over your mouth. You don’t normally get on an airplane with a white shirt only to get off with a red one. Buses are nothing like the air-conditioned sanitary dust free environment of an airplane (oh and if you get cold, you can always ask a flight attendant for a warm blanket).

Airplanes get delayed, sure. Buses are always delayed. If you leave an hour after you’re scheduled time, that is a good thing. Sometimes you don’t even have a set time – you’re told “after prayer.” But which prayer? The one around 2pm or 6pm? And how soon after? You don’t know so end up arriving a little before the first one and end up sitting around until an hour after the second - leaving six hours after you got there. I know you’re thinking: you’ve sometimes had to wait on the tarmac for hours waiting for the plane to take off - but trust me - those sometimes are rare. And… you had the ability to get a cold drink, go to the bathroom, turn on or off you ventilation, listen to the radio by plugging into your armrest and possibly even watch a little movie or TV all from a comfortable seat with leg room.

Ok, that will be enough for now of my description of ‘transport.’ I know I have portrayed it in a somewhat negative light and most experiences are anything but positive. Nevertheless, there is value gained in riding terrestrial transportation around Africa. For one, you actually get a tangible sense for where you are and how far you’ve actually gone to get somewhere. You get an understanding and connection with the landscape and people that you would have otherwise been unable to attain. The getting your hands dirty sense of what a culture is like viewed through a bus window driving through their streets is considerably better than that gained from the bird’s-eye-view of an airplane. (Not to suggest it is sufficient to say you “know” a place by simply driving though it. Nothing is more valuable and can replace actually stopping, living, and talking with the people of the culture to gain a true personal experience). In the end, it has always been said, half the experience is getting there rather than arriving there. And you do get there, wherever “there” may be.

I’ll end this here and will hopefully have a posting soon about the Festival sur le Niger here in Segou, WAIST in Dakar, Senegal and FESPACO in Ouagadougoug, Burkina-Faso.

1 comment:

Britne said...

Go ahead Yuri, get it all out! Sounds like you had one hell of a trip though (most of which I had to read about on Kathy's blog)

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