Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On the Bus

Needless to say, public transport operates a little differently here in Botswana. Overall, the buses here are quite good and generally reliable, but at times, it can become a frustrating, hot, and miserable affair. 

This past week, I had a meeting in Gaborone and I definitely did not look forward to the 5-6 hour trip each way. There are several reasons for my apprehension. First, the buses are cramped. The seats have plenty of legroom if you are 5'5", but not so much if you are tall. Also compounding this is that the seats are barely wide enough to fit a 13 year old girl, much less several large ladies. Secondly, there is no air conditioning. This wouldn't be as bad if there was not a cultural aversion to opening windows on the bus. People will refuse top open their windows, and even go so far as to reach over you to shut a window because they believe that moving air causes disease. 

I got to the bus rank in Gaborone to head back to Francistown. Buses generally leave every half hour to Francistown, with different bus companies "owning" a different time slot. The buses are first come first serve and you simply jump on, find an open seat, and sit down. The conductor comes along to collect money a half hour or so into the journey. 

As I approached the stall for the Francistown bus, I was encouraged to see a bus at the front with large orange stripes running down the sides, meaning it was a Mahube and Sons bus. The price for a bus ticket here is strictly regulated by the government and so there is very little incentive for bus companies to offer perks or comforts to their passengers. Mahube and Sons is a little different. While they do have their fair share of worn out, run down buses plying the roads, they do have one or two "luxury" buses with plush seats and air conditioning. 

I got on the bus and sighed in relief. I had lucked out and was on a luxury bus. Even better, it didn't look very full and it was due to depart in a few minutes. Buses here have five seats to a row; the left side of the bus has two and the right has three. This leaves someone sitting on the right taking a chance to get stuck in the dreaded middle seat. The bus was not full and so I took my chances, taking the aisle seat in the row of three. I said hello to a woman sitting by the window and hoped that no one else would come along and I would have an open seat next to me for the trip. 

The driver climbed into his seat and turned the engine on. After several revs of the engine and a few shrill blasts of the horn, we set out to Francistown. The middle seat was unoccupied and I smiled a little at my good fortune. 

My luck did not last very long. At the first major stop, several people got on the bus and a woman came to my row and motioned for me to move over. I tried standing up to let her sit in the middle, but she kept pushing my shoulder and motioning for me to move over. I had the open seat for a few hours and I didn't feel like fighting so I moved into the middle seat. Only then did I realize that the woman sitting by the window was quite large. So large in fact, that she took up a portion of the middle seat as well. I had to extend my arms out in front of me just to be able to sit back into my seat. 

Luckily, the woman sitting next to me was only going to a town about an hour up the road so I put my earphones in, turned up the music, and tried to relax a little. Besides, it would only be for an hour or so, right?

At the next stop, the woman sitting next to me got up and left and I slid immediately back over the aisle seat. A lot of people were getting off at this stop and I again harbored my irrational belief that maybe the bus would not fill up and I could again enjoy the middle seat. Those hope were quickly dashed and a long line of people boarded the bus and began frantically searching for seats. 

A woman came up to my row and pushed on my shoulder, motioning me to move over. I was not falling for this trick again and so I told her that she could sit in the middle. She shook her head and again nudged me towards the middle seat. I stood my ground and again motioned for her to sit in the middle seat. The conductor came swiftly behind the woman to see what was going on and quickly told me to move over and let the woman in. 

I begrudgingly moved over and assumed my sitting position with arms held awkwardly out in front of me. As if things could not get any worse, the driver shut off the air conditioning, which was grossly under performing to begin with. So here I was sandwiched between to fairly large women in a sweltering bus. I thought to myself that things could not possibly get worse. 

It was not long before I was proved wrong. The woman sitting in the aisle seat got up and switched seats with a young lady who was carrying a very small baby. Now I was between a large woman and a young lady with a cranky baby. Just great.

The mother quickly shoved her bag with all her baby stuff under my legs and then turned to console the baby. I didn't quite know how to react. Not only was I sitting on only 2/3 of my seat with my arms extended out in front of me, but I now had stuff under my feet. The baby was less than a year old and I tried very hard to be patient. I turned my music up a few notches while she got a bottle out to feed the baby. 

The bottle mercifully quieted the baby, but while he was eating, he kicked both legs in rapid succession right into me. I had to laugh at just how ridiculous my situation was as I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and wished for the bus ride to end. 

The baby quickly has his fill and the mother sat him up to burp him, which ended him kicking me. Out of the corner of my eye I see the mother recoil and lean back. I turned just in time to see the baby spit up all over himself and his mom. The smell of vomit instantly triggered my gag reflex and I fought the urge to dry heave. My eyes watered and I held my clenched fist firmly over my mouth, hoping to ride it out. 

The mother quickly cleans up the baby and the ride ends a tortuous 90 minutes later. When I got off the bus, I felt a little like Tim Robbin's character in the movie "Shawshank Redemption" after he escapes from prison through a sewage pipe. All I wanted was to change my clothes and take a bath. 

Maybe I should start sitting on the side of the bus with only two seats.