Longest bus ride…ever

Last week we took the longest bus ride in Botswana to date.  We traveled from our home in Mochudi all the way to Shakawe (near the Namibian border).  The bus from Mochudi to Gabs takes about one hour.  Then from Gabs to Maun takes more than 10 hours.  Finally, from Maun to Shakawe takes about six hours; for a one-way total of more than 17 hours on the bus, plus layovers.   Then we returned the same way.  Total time sitting on a bus for the entire trip: about 34 hours, it took us 3 days to get there, and 2 days to return.

The longest leg was from Gaborone to Maun, and took a little over ten hours.  Ten hours is a long time on an airplane in first class. Even longer on an airplane in coach.  On a bus in Botswana, in summertime, it is a lifetime.  Our itinerary was for us to spend the night in Maun and then resume our trip the following morning, 6 more hours on a bus to Shakawe.

In total we traveled about 2,000 Kilometers (approx 1,200 miles) and the total fare for the bus rides came to about 1,075 Pula for both of us.  That is equal to around $150.  This does not include the accommodations, dinners and cab rides at our layovers in Maun.

We were heading to Shakawe to meet up with six other Peace Corps Volunteers for a “language week”; during which we would study Setswana together with the help of a Peace Corps Language Facilitator named Paco.  Shakawe is the village where Peace Corps Volunteer Dinah S. lives.  She works for an NGO that was started by a fascinating woman named Willemien Le Roux who has a farm outside of town on the banks of the Okavanga Delta.  Willemien and her late husband, Braam Le Roux, have spent most of their lives trying to improve the lives of the San people of the Kalahari.  You can read a bit about their work by clicking HERE.  Willemien is the author of several books (see list here).  Willemien graciously had agreed to host us at her farm for the week.  We knew the travel would be grueling, and we hoped Shakawe would be worth the effort (it definitely was).

Traveling by bus in Botswana is hard, but predictable.  It is pretty much the same wherever you go in Botswana.  The buses are all in the same condition (worn out), and the people behave the same all over the country.   There is a rhythm and a sameness to it.  It goes like this.  When about to depart, travelers get on the bus and try to find seats.  Sometimes there are no seats left.  On our return, some unlucky travelers spent the 10 or so hours from Maun to Gabs, standing.  At the same time the passengers are climbing on the bus, other people get on carrying large containers or baskets with items to sell.  Items such as canned drinks, water, sweets, biscuits, chicken and chips dinners wrapped in paper already stained from the grease, magazines, peanuts, belts, wallets, even cologne.  These vendors in the aisles are in the way of travelers trying to find their seats, and as they try to squeeze by each other, hips and thighs are pressed firmly against the heads and shoulders of people in aisle seats. In Botswana there isn’t much respect for “personal space”.   This continues until the bus begins to move and the vendors scramble to make their final sales and get off.

We were fortunate to find seats every leg of the journey.  The longest leg of the trip was Gabs to Maun.  We had left Mochudi at 5:30 am on a bus which arrived around 6:30.  We then caught the 7:00 am bus to Maun.  My seat was very uncomfortable.  I did not have enough leg room, my knees pressed on the seat back in front of me.  The cushion was not even attached to the frame and fell off every time I got up.  The seat would not recline and so I was not able to sleep during the trip without my head nodding forward and jerking me awake.

The bus stops along the road at bus stops, and at “bus ranks” in the villages it passes through.  The villages have cool sounding names like Mahalapye or Serowe or Letlhakane.  As we pull into the “bus rank”, people on the bus start to rise to get off.  Outside the bus window you can see a crowd pressing around the door to get on as soon as the last one to get off steps out; and then they climb on along with the vendors; and there is more jockeying for space in the aisles.

Outside the windows at the bus rank you see little kiosks where people sell more of the things they are hawking on the buses. “Kiosks” is too nice of a word, they are shacks made of corrugated steel or just a wood framework with tarp. The wares are sitting on rough wood tables or on the floor.

Between these kiosks and our bus windows are vendors of a third type trying to sell directly through the windows to us.  They gesticulate wildly at first trying to get our attention, and business; then just stare at the windows.  Their faces are looking up at us, hopeful, expectant.  I shake my head “no”, but they stay, perhaps hoping I will change my mind?  Often while waiting for interest from a customer in a bus window they casually balance their bucket or container atop their head.

Women can walk effortlessly and gracefully while balancing things atop their heads, sometimes heavy things.  I have never seen a man do it.  Is that a cultural thing?   Are women’s heads flatter on top?  I have no idea.

So we continue on toward Maun.  There is no air conditioning and I am melting.  The back of my shirt is soaked with sweat.  There are patches of sweat visible on my pants legs where my arms were resting.  Most windows are closed, but a few are open and there is the sound of the wind blowing in those windows.   It is a hot 97 degrees (F) outside and the sun is especially hard on anyone sitting on the left side, the sunny side, of the bus, which I am (I made a bad choice).  There are ratty curtains on some of the windows but not on mine.

There are no bathrooms on the buses.  You have to hurry if you try to get off a bus and go to the bathroom while the bus is stopped at a village bus rank.  If you didn’t get to go to the bathroom while at a bus rank you have to seize any opportunity that presents itself.  For example, on the Maun-Shakawe leg of our trip we had to stop twice at checkpoints for hoof-and-mouth disease.  We had to get off the bus, walk by a checkpoint where they looked at our bags, cross over a barrier and get on the bus on the other side.  What this has to do with hoof-and-mouth disease (or anything else) I have no idea.  I only mention this because it was an opportunity to go to the bathroom, and men (and women) wandered off to the nearest tree or bush.  Men in Botswana are not shy, some just turn their backs to the bus and do their business.

Every so often the bus starts braking and the driver starts blowing the horn. If I lean out into the aisle and look forward through the driver’s windshield I can see what all the commotion is about, in the distance a donkey or cow or a herd of goats is in the road.  When the bus has passed the livestock in the road the speed picks up again.

I have some recorded video of tv shows I planned to watch on my Blackberry, but it is too loud on the bus to hear even with the ear buds in.  We pass the time watching the scenery, reading books and talking.

Most of Botswana is desert.  Much of the area we are passing through is flat as far as the eye can see with dry and brown bushes and small trees hanging on for dear life.

The sky in Botswana this time of year is big and beautiful.  Because my view is not obstructed by tall trees or hills I can see so much more of it.  Back in Atlanta, because there are so many trees you often have to look straight up to see the sky.  Here in Botswana, just look straight ahead.  Rainy season is almost upon us and there are a lot of clouds in the sky, which adds to its beauty.

Finally!  After over ten hours, we arrive in Maun.  Tish and I grab our backpacks and catch a ride to the apartment of a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Allison who lives in Maun with her two pet cats.  Tish and I were invited to stay overnight with Allison.  After finding Allison’s place and relaxing for an hour or two, we all left and joined the rest of our group at a place called Old Bridge Backpackers Lodge for dinner and drinks.  Our plans were to rendezvous with Dinah the next morning, pick up two turkeys Dinah had ordered for the Thanksgiving dinner we would have during the week.  Dinah would be in a car owned by her friend Liz, and could transport the turkeys and maybe some of us on to Shakawe in that vehicle.

From day one in the Peace Corps, we have learned that we have to be patient and flexible.  Plans change often and usually at the last minute.  Case in point: Dinah had car trouble and did not arrive in Maun until late the next day so we had to stay an extra day.  Also we were disappointed to find out that the turkeys had not arrived from Gabs.  It was bad enough that we would be having our first Thanksgiving without the family we left back in America, but we also would be having our first Thanksgiving without turkey on the menu.

Maun is at the southern edge of the Okavanga Delta. It is the jumping off place for many of the high-end safari camps inside the delta. Some of them charge as much as $1,000 per day per person. So there is money in Maun. The are more paved roads and stores than in most villages. There is an airport where Botswana Air flies in and out of from Gaborone.  Also from the same airport, small planes take off several times per day ferrying customers and supplies to safari camps.

Dinah, who has friends everywhere, knows a French guy who is living in Botswana working for one of the safari companies as a pilot of one of their airplanes. He was out of the country for a few weeks and we had permission to use his house that night.  Unfortunately he did not have water.  No one had water, the supply of water is very irregular in that part of Botswana.  It was brutally hot in Maun and, as we expected, the house was not air conditioned.  We cooked dinner in the house, also, which meant it was even hotter inside than it was outside.  Sleeping is really difficult when it is hot like that.  Sometimes when trying to sleep in the heat, we will wet a washrag or small towel and place it on our body.  As the water evaporates it cools us a little.  Unfortunately we could not do that because there was no water.  Another issue, when you don’t have water your toilet will not flush, but there was some emergency water in pitchers for that purpose.  All night I was wishing I was at Allison’s or at Old Bridge Backpackers.  We did sleep, but not well.

Day 3, we woke to the sound of running water, hooray, the water was back on.  We felt a lot better after washing up a little, and then we hoisted our backpacks and hiked to the bus rank and caught the bus headed to Shakawe.  We could have ridden in the back of Liz’s car but, believe it or not, the bus seemed the better option.  This was because  1) her car was not air conditioned;   2) we would be sharing the back seat with Liz’s two playful dogs; and  3) Liz suggested that we would need to pay her the same amount as the bus would cost us.   So bottom line, we figured if it would cost the same anyway, we would prefer the bus to sharing a small back seat with dogs.  The bus ride to Shakawe lasted six hours, but was uneventful.  We caught a break and the temperature was in the 80’s, and I was sitting on the shady side of the bus, so we survived.

The return trip six days later was the same, only backwards with the exception being that we only spent one night in Maun.  That night, we stayed at the Old Bridge Backpackers resort in a tent.  You have the option of camping with your own tent, renting their tent and bedrolls, or renting a small chalet.  We did not have a tent and elected to use their tent.  It cost 95 pula per person for a total of 190 Pula, which is about the same as $27.  The dome tents were already set up for us with bedrolls inside.  Unfortunately, I did not sleep at all that night.  The combination of noise from the bar, people talking loudly, a light strategically placed to shine directly in my eyes, and the heat made sleep impossible for me.  I did not sleep at all that night, and this made the ten-plus hour return trip from Maun to Gabs, even less fun.

So, the bus trips were long and arduous, but the week we spent in Shakawe at the home of Willemien Le Roux made it all worthwhile.  More on that later.

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