The Anatomy of an African Bus Ride

I’ve mentioned bus travel in a few blog posts. After a particularly exhausting ride last night to Gulu, I thought I’d paint a picture of the important factors to consider that make or break your bus ride in Uganda. This will hopefully give people back home an accurate picture of a huge part of life here – public transport – and give those that have endured these ridiculous conditions a smile.

General tips:

  • Dehydrate yourself. You have a long journey ahead with 0-1 scheduled bathroom stops. When you travel with a friend, it’s ideal because you can leave your stuff on the bus and take turns visiting the “toilet.” I say “toilet” because it varies. Sometimes it’s a public restroom on the roadside offering individual private flush latrines. Sometimes it’s a shared open hall of pit latrines (like a trough). Sometimes it’s literally an open field on the side of the road where you all file off on a scheduled “short call,” or impromptu stop because you’ve begged the driver to pull over (it’s happened once only, okay…).
  • Wear loose clothing. It will be hot. You will likely be sweating incessantly.
  • ALWAYS BRING HEADPHONES. Even if your phone/iPod is dead, headphones-in-ears is a universal sign of you doing you.
  • Always keep your ticket easily reachable. It may never get checked. It may get checked six times.
  • Never leave your stuff on the bus. Ever. If possible, put all bags below your seat/in your lap. If it’s too big and going to cramp you uncomfortably, put it in the upper compartment opposite front of you so you can keep an eye on it.
  • Most buses don’t have a set time of departure, or if they do, they don’t always “keep time.” Get there an hour ahead to get a good seat, even if you’ve reserved it. Getting in a decently empty bus means you’ll be waiting in the bus park for up to several hours until it’s full.
  • Travel light.

Categories of Important Things to Note/Expect

Road

  • Condition of road: Mirram? Tarmac but heavily potholed? Dirt? Mud or billowing clouds of dust that will get you sick after inhaling it for several hours?
  • Roadworks: often, huge stretches of a road will be under contstruction which leads to 2-way roads being reduced to 1-way. There is no rhyme or reason for how long you will wait at a stop like this.
  • Police checks/border crossing
  • Jam (traffic)
  • Time of day: many roads in Uganda are considerably more dangerous at night. The forest you drive through from Kampala to Jinja is notoriously unsafe. Think getting robbed in a taxi at knifepoint… so plan accordingly.
  • Speed bumps: sometimes they are every 2 feet for 100 miles (so it feels)

Fellow Passengers

  • Babies. Most don’t wear diapers so tread lightly if the woman next to you asks you to hold the baby for a minute (yes I’ve been peed on).
  • Box of approximately 100 incessantly peeping chicks
  • Live grown chickens in your neighbor’s lap or floorboard
  • Huge mama with 50 wraps of fabric on her in 100F heat smushing up against you.
  • Men evangelizing to you/asking you 39482039 questions/asking for your number for entire duration of journey.
  • The shoppers. It’s common for people to shop alongside the road during journeys between towns/cities, as prices are better in more remote areas. By the end of a journey your neighbor may have accumulated 8 pineapples, a bag of charcoal, bananas, toilet paper, and consumed several sticks of muchomo (roasted street meat on a stick)

On-Board Entertainment/Snacks

  • Blaring explicit rap music
  • Locally produced music videos or soap operas
  • Extremely offensive standup comedy routines
  • Government propaganda about upcoming elections or past wars
  • Fellow passenger preaching up & down the aisles for 5+ hours
  • Favorite snacks offered on the roadside include: G-nuts (peanuts), Gonja (roasted plantain), chapatti (tortilla/naan hybrid), maize (roasted maize), Stoney (ginger soda if your stomach is disturbing you)

WINDOW

  • The window is hands down the most important factor in your bus or taxi journey.
  • Arriving at a time where you can select a window seat, WITH A FUNCTIONAL WINDOW, is crucial. You may get in physical altercations with other passengers over the smallest crack of the window. Be prepared to stand your ground. There are likely other non-Western passengers who appreciate the window being slightly open, and they will come to your defense if things get ugly. Even if they don’t come to your defense, too bad. It’s your window.
  • Also important, make sure it actually closes… I’ve been stuck in a rainstorm covering my window with a scarf and getting soaked with water/100 year old bus grease/dirt combo.
  • It’s also advisable to have a general understanding of basic geography and the direction in which you’re traveling/what time of day it is. Then, pick the side that will spend the least amount of time in the sun.

Bus/Driver 

  • If the bus is old or creaky, be prepared to have your literal brains rattled out. In all instances due to the road, heat, and travel in general, you will be tired after your journey. Add in your limited sips of water you allow yourself + rattly bus = you’ll feel like the bus ran over you the next day.
  • Also if you breakdown, literally only god knows how long it will be until you either get back on this bus after it’s fixed, the company sends another one, or you’ve secured another hitchhiked ride/bus.
  • Off-loading: Ugandans LOVE to travel with a LOT of stuff, and send it along the way, and often the bus is used as a courier service – meaning passengers send packages alone. Off-loading means expect unlimited stops of variously indefinite lengths, either to take off things, put on things, or add more people.
  • Anyone that has been on the road in Uganda or a similar place knows that it’s a very dangerous endeavor. Almost all journeys start with prayer for “journey mercies” and there are frequently accidents with multiple casualties. So, cross your fingers for a safe/competent driver and that no lorries (18 wheelers) are in the mood to play “chicken” with your bus today.

I think that about covers it. Any additions?

Writing from my divinely protected window seat after nearly 2 years of frequent UG bus journeys,

Lauren

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One thought on “The Anatomy of an African Bus Ride

  1. One of my most memorable bus experiences involves a long-winded, charismatic pastor. I had the window seat and was using a sweatshirt as a pillow, hoping to pass some time by sleeping. With all the bumps, swerves, and heat I wasn’t having much luck, but kept trying anyways. I didn’t pay much attention to the pastor as he loudly wandered up and down the aisle, but his sermon seemed disjointed and kind of wandered from topic to topic without much of an overarching theme. But at the very end he went off on a diatribe against demons who hide themselves among us in human form. He said that you can tell a demon spy from a human because when a demon hears the Word of God being preached it flees, leaving it’s body behind as if it’s sleeping. According to him we must be very careful, because there are many demons among us; he knows this because every time he boards a bus to preach he sees multiple demons leave their bodies behind.

    During the entire sermon the woman next to me had been offering up amens. When the pastor left I decided to have a little fun by sitting up and asking where we were and how long I’d been out. If you want to avoid awkward conversation with the stranger sitting next to you on a bus, convince them you are a demon. It works even better than headphones.

    Liked by 2 people

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