Never take the same bus through an international border in Africa.
Take one bus to the border then pick up a different bus on the other side. If not, you’ll learn the hard way.
You’ll be forced out of bed long before dawn to take an overpriced taxi through the dark, dirty streets of Harare to the bus terminal. Bus terminals are always in the dirtiest parts town so you can savour the sights and smells until the bus fills up sufficiently for the driver to depart.
Buses in Africa work on the adage ‘There’s always room for more’, so you could wait 30 minutes or, in this case, three hours, in the bustling, dirty, smelly terminal.
Fight your way to the ticket counter, pack on your back and day pack firmly clutched. Keep fighting and jostling until you finally make it to the counter, only to be told you must buy your ticket on the bus.
At least you’ll be in no doubt as to which bus is yours, as the touts scream;
“Lusaka standing, Lusaka standing, Lusaka, Lusaka, Lusakaaaaaaa!!!” until they have attracted the requisite number of passengers.
If you do arrive 3 hours before eventual departure, you can choose your seat – window or aisle, but don’t expect in-flight entertainment, at least not with a screen.
When the decrepit old bus finally lurches away from the terminal, you’ll get to know the locals as you’re squeezed between them and their bags, sacks of maize, live animals and live children, one of whom may even end up on your lap for some or all of the journey.
African kids are amazing to watch on arduous, long distance bus trips. They do nothing. They don’t squirm, they don’t complain, they don’t beg for entertainment or lollies or drinks. They sit dead still, staring out the window or staring at the white man whose seat, or lap, they now occupy. After staring for a while they may overcome their fear and start to stroke the hair on your limbs; because it’s hair and because it’s white.
After overcoming the novelty of nursing a bemused child, boredom and discomfort set in.
Boredom for an over-stimulated western mind.
Discomfort from riding a vehicle built for functionality. Not speed. Not comfort, not efficiency or luxury. Function. Designed to arrive at a destination ‘soon’ or ‘anytime from now’, because everywhere in Africa is ‘not far’.
Wait for your gluts to go numb, then your legs, then you lower back, upper back, neck…
Sit back and endure being squashed into an old, uncomfortable, dirty, smelly, stiflingly hot bus crawling along what remains of a once paved highway.
Don’t dare open a window. For locals, stifling heat is preferable to a mouthful of dust. Windows are only opened to dispose of rubbish.
Stay hydrated but don’t expect a bathroom on board or designated comfort stops. Just praise any deity you know when the bus finally stops at the behest of the annoying young local guy who has spent the entire journey so far drinking a cheap local brew and telling everyone how he read that eating bananas would suppress his urge to pee during the entire trip.
“But it’s not working!” he bellows.
When the driver eventually tires of his aggressive entreaties, follow him. Politely throw the kid from your lap, leap over bags and people and livestock and anything else between you and the door.
When you find a tree, or nothing, to hide behind, thank profusely said deity and enjoy the momentary relief.
Also thank the fact that you’re the only white man on the bus and that the driver will notice if you’re missing when he is forced to depart by the insistent, impatient locals. Then resume your seat, take back the child and endure the bumps and bruises on the corrugated, pot-holed, dirt road on the way to the border.
You’re not even halfway there.
When you arrive at the Chirundu border post, stay seated while your bus inches its way through the long convoy of vehicles hooting and fighting like dodgem cars for the last few patches of dirt masquerading as a car park.
Haul your creaking limbs from the bus.
Find your pack. A helpful local has already hauled or thrown it from the roof, in return for a fee. Bargain for the fee and be assertive; it’s Africa.
Find a bathroom to wash off the coke your neighbour spilt on you hours ago. Actually don’t, the toilet’s disgusting. Find a tap.
Fend off more helpful locals offering to exchange money for a “…special price for you my friend”, but don’t ignore them. You need the cash. Bargain for a good rate. You won’t get it, just get close. Check your notes. Find the 1000 Zambian Kwacha note, or notes, slipped in among the 10000 notes before you cross the border, although by now the transgressor has made his exit.
All the while, watch your belongings. The sheer chaos of a border post is a haven for opportunistic thieves with no genuine job prospects who thrive on chances to separate a privileged white man from his belongings. Hopefully, the preceding two months in Africa have taught you how to retain your possessions.
Now walk. Head down. Determined but not desperate. Ignore everyone. No one is your ‘special friend’. Ignore your new title, ‘Smith’, ‘Johnson’, ‘George Bush’.
Fight your way to another counter and wait at immigration.
Ignore the money changers, the touts, the food sellers, the heat, the dust, the filth, the stench, the aching limbs and headache.
Wear enclosed shoes.
Bring a pen. You won’t find one at the counter. Fill out the forms.
Greet the immigration official. Present your passport. Stamp. Easy.
Wait for the remaining 80 or so passengers to re-board the bus to continue into Zambia.
This is when you’ll learn why you never take the same bus through an international border in Africa.
Avoid asking the bleedingly obvious question;
‘How can it take a bus so long to travel one kilometre?’
Hop off again, and remember that it’s even harder to enter a country than it is to leave one.
Stand in one line with your fellow passengers.
Stand in one line with your fellow passengers, on the other side of the road. Obey.
Arrive at immigration. Greet the immigration official.
Present your passport then remind the fat official that at that moment in time you don’t need a visa to enter Zambia. Remind him again and again, no matter how many times he requests a ‘special fee’. You know you don’t need one. Stay calm and be assertive, enjoying the death stares you can feel boring into your back from the impatient locals who also want to pass through the border some time today.
Wait for the fat official to give in and stamp your passport. The most corrupt ones are always fat.
Refrain from telling him what you really think when he says;
“Ah, yes sir. I think maybe you are correct. It is not necessary to have a visa. But, next time, please clearly explain your purpose for visiting Zambia and please behave with respect and manners. This is very important in Zambia.”
Wait for the locals to declare their belongings at customs, including the 50 chairs that shared the roof space with your pack and can only enter Zambia upon the receipt of a fax and more paperwork and the obligatory heated negotiations between the owner of the chairs and the official.
Be prepared to empty your pack for a customs inspection and try to avoid despoiling the clothes you painstakingly hand washed just days ago. If you can’t, bad luck. It’s Africa.
Welcome to Zambia.
Now you wait. You wait for the chairs and bags and maize and live animals and live kids to all pass through immigration and customs and to re-board the bus.
Your bag must go back on top. But don’t worry. Edwin is here to help.
In one swift move he’ll relieve you of your bag and secure it on the roof. For a fee.
Don’t look for a price list; a summary of charges or accepted rates. There’s no app to help you here. Negotiate.
Edwin will. While he chats to you, finds out where you’re from, what you do and that you follow Liverpool and Not ManU, because Edwin knows something you don’t.
Your bus is not going anywhere for a long, long time. Long enough for you to become ‘besties’, for him to invite you to dine with him and the family he works so hard to support , next time you’re in Chirundu.
Long enough to demand an exorbitant amount of Kwacha for the simple act of securing your backpack.
(Despite all appearances, all items stowed in the overhead compartments rarely move during the journey).
See, Edwin’s familiar with this currency but you, on your first visit to the country, are not. To you, the notes are just a series of endless zeros.
So Edwin will patiently chat to you while you sit and wait. He will join you on the seat and make it clear that you would not be too forward if you were to purchase for him a morsel of food that is being conveniently offered through the bus window. No, not too forward at all.
Finally, Edwin will leave once he is satisfied with the amount of kwacha he has managed to extract from you. You will feel cheated, but 15 minutes later very relieved when you see Edwin bash someone to a bloodied mess during an argument.
Pray you gave him enough.
Thank your favourite deity when the bus finally departs for Lusaka, then curse it again when you stop 30 minutes later as a result of a major road blockage. Panic and dread the thought when your fellow passengers start muttering;
“…sleep here tonight…”
No, no, no, no, please. Just get this journey over with.
Once the road is finally cleared and darkness descends you can relax in the comfort of a now ice cold bus whose windows won’t close properly and which lacks functioning head lights.
Relax in the knowledge that only two hours remain to Lusaka. Well, two hours without the compulsory police checks which seem to serve no other purpose than to extract bribes or slow motorists.
Finally, finally you will pull into the bus terminal in Lusaka – so many hours later you don’t bother counting.
Then, you can deal with big city touts and hustlers with even more street smarts than Edwin, who will work in tandem with the few taxi drivers at the terminal to lower your bag, for a fee, protect you from touts, for a fee, find you a taxi, for a fee and place your bag, with utmost care into the taxi – for a fee.
By now you probably don’t care how many zeros appear on the notes you hand to them, nor to the taxi driver who seems most content when he finally drops you at your hostel.
Finally a place with a shower and a welcome bed, right under some snoring backpacker with really bad foot odour.
Images: Simon Blake