To herself, Chelsi often thought that transport was thee quintessential aspect of life as a Peace Corps Volunteer that is most commonly forgotten about. In the village Chelsi primary form of transport was her bike, even to and from town. But most volunteers rely on some combination of mini-buses, buses, luxury buses, hitch-hike, shared taxis, personal taxis, cycling and walking to get where they needed to go. In this respect, Chelsi was lucky. Motorized vehicle transportation is unpredictable at best; you just never know what you’re going to get.
Chelsi stretched the best she could in her seat, for a luxury bus the seats were awfully narrow. Early morning light streamed through the cold glass of the widow. The bus was rolling to a stop and looking out she could see what resembles a bus station. Throngs of people were surrounding the bus, men in football jerseys were shouting ‘Taxi! Taxi!” at her through the window. Finally, she had boarded the bus the previous afternoon at 1 pm.
“Hey, I think we made it to Lilongwe,” she said over the back of her seat to her volunteer friend Rachel.
“What time is it?”
“Yeah, figure we really didn’t want to be arriving in the dark anyway.” The other passengers began to stir, collecting their things, feeding their babies. Chelsi double checked that everything she had brought with her was still in her bag before standing up.
She took a deep breath before pushing herself into the line of people packing the isle. Bus station were her least favorite place. They were filthy for one. Piles of garbage and food waste cluttered ground contributing to the rotten smell that was also a mix of diesel, exhaust and human sweat. Then, mostly because she was white, taxi drivers and bus conductors would shout at her common destinations for foreigners while grabbing at her bags and arms to pull her in the direction of their vehicle. Exhaling she squeezed between a middle aged man and a mother and baby.
“Madam! Taxi! Taxi!”
“No, No, I don’t need any help.” She pushed through the men using her arms as a buffer. She found a little bit of an open spot next the bus to wait for some from the bus company to start unloading bags.
“No, No thank you,” Rachel pushed her way through the crowd and joined her.
“Whenever I get off the bus I always think of Schrödinger’s cat.”
“You know,” Chelsi explained. “With our bags under the bus. You know you put them on the bus, but when it’s time to collect them, you just never know. Nobody know whether or not it will be there.” Though she didn’t know anyone personally that this had happed to yet, she knew it was not uncommon. Especially long distance bus, they were often carrying cargo and would make stops along the way loading and unloading goods. As things are being rearrange personal belongs could be left behind or taken. Or, better yet, some of the bus were just so old and jankety there cargo compartment could bust open on the road. Of course, the bus company bares no responsibility for personal belongings.
“You know. Before all the bags are unloaded our bags are in a semi-present state.”
Rachel laughed, “You’re funny, you can stay.” The doors of the cargo compartment were open and three or four bags in both Rachel’s and Chelsi’s bags were unloaded.
“We need to find a bus to Mzuzu,” Chelsi reminded Rachel as they situated their bags on their backs.
“Excuse me,” Rachel focused her attention on one of the men that had previously been nagging them for a ride. “We’re trying to find a bus to Mzuzu. Can you show us?”
“Ah madam, sure, sure. Come this way.” He walked off wearing a shoe on one foot and the other, slightly deformed, wrapped in a once white material. They followed him down a dirt alley with trashed piled up around over flowing dumpsters on one side and little shacks on the other. “Where are you going?”
“We are trying to go to Nkhata Bay.”
“Where are you going?” he asked again.
“NKHATA BAY.” Chelsi was glad Rachel had taken the lead on this one. The bus station already made her short of patience. They passed a public restroom that looked like the birthplace of new diseases before turning left around the little row of shacks. Before them was a slightly more organized looking line of buses, and immediately men from other buses started to swarm the two women.
“Where are you going? Where are you going?”
“Mommy! Mommy! Take me with you!” Some of the men at the back of the pack shouted. The man who was guiding them had been talking the whole time and now was using words the beat back some of the others.
They walked around several lines of buses and in a few circles before they stopped in front of a shack the said AXA BUS across the top. Chelsi remembered from the travel book that this was in fact the line they want but the door was still chained up. Rachel was trying to find out from the Malawian man when it would open, but to no avail.
“Maybe we should try and find an ATM while we wait for it to open. Where going to need Malawian Kwacha to pay for the ticket anyhow.”
“WHERE is there an ATM?” Rachel tried asking the man who was now mostly speaking in mumbled jabbers.
“I think I saw one before we turned down the line of buses, next to a gas station. Come on, let’s look.”
“Okay, OKAY, THANK YOU. No, you don’t need to follow us.” She turned more towards Chelsi. “I think he’s already drunk.”
“Or he’s just still drunk from the night before.”
By the time they returned from the ATM the AXA BUS ticketing shack was open.
“We need tickets to Mzuzu, how much?” Rachel asked.
“Where are you going?”
“We are trying to get to Nkhata Bay.”
“There is a bus that goes there, it should be coming.”
“Oh, there is a direct bus?!” Chelsi pulled up the map on her phone to look at the possible route. “What? Do you think that will be better?” She asked Rachel. “The direct route looks a little shorter about 4 hours instead of 4 hours and 20 minutes, and we wouldn’t have to change buses again.”
“How much to Nkhata Bay?”
“And to Mzuzu?”
Looking at the schedule board they could see there were a lot of buses leaving for Mzuzu, but “What time does the Nkhata Bay bus leave?”
“About 9 or 10”
“And that bus will be here soon?”
“What do you think?” Rachel asked as they circled up for their meeting.
“At a difference of 500 MK? I don’t know if we’d be able to get from Mzuzu to Nkhata Bay for less than that, so it would probably be cheaper. And maybe a little be shorter.”
“500 MK is like what? A dollar?”
“Yeah. And I think a fewer buses the better.”
“Okay, we need two tickets to Nkhata Bay.” They handed over the money and the ticket master handed back two little hand written tickets. They hauled their stuff into the waiting bay and sat on some cleaning looking, narrow planks of wood.
“I think this will be our best bet. And think if it does leave at 9 or 10 we’ll be there by lunch time.”
“You know the bus isn’t going to leave on time.” Rachel laughed. The fact of the matter is that in southern Africa there was no set departure time for any form of transportation. It simple left whenever it was full; whether you are on a 12 passenger mini-bus trying to get to work or 69 passenger long-distance luxury bus, it does not leave the station before there is one extra person than there is meant to be in every row.
The bus to Nkhata Bay arrived within the hour and two friend boarded the bus. Chelsi picked a window seat on the driver side to avoid the afternoon sun, just in case it took longer than expected. Rachel sat beside her. Chelsi touched the tips of her fingers to her forehead.
“Is there a bruise on my forehead? Because it kinda hurts.”
“I don’t see anything. Why would you have a bruise there?”
“From sleeping with my forehead on the back of the seat in front of me.”
They waited, speculating how the other group of travelers were doing. About 20 of their fellow volunteer that had arrived to the country with them were headed to the same destination for vacation. There had been discrepancies about what the best way to travel would be, as well as concerns about traveling in such a large group; so split up in to three factions. Chelsi and Rachel were the smallest group taking the route least like the other two.
Slowly, Slowly 48 seated and 20 standing passengers trickled on to the bus and at just about 9:30 the whole thing began to roll.
“All right! Just 4-ish more hours to go!” Rachel looked at her and giggled.
“I really have to pee.” Rachel said “I should have gone in Lilongwe.”
“Yeah, I haven’t peed since before we got on the bus in Lusaka.”
“What! Oh my god, are you serious?” Rachel thought about it for a second. “I guess you’re right, you didn’t pee with me on the Lilongwe bus.”
“I know. It hasn’t been too bad though. As long as I’m sitting, like I have been for the last…. 27 hours, it doesn’t feel too bad.”
“What time is it?”
“15 hours. We should have been there about two hours ago. So you know, right on time.”
“I wonder where we are.”
“If we can catch the name of a town we can probably look it up on my phone.”
Rachel turned to the woman sitting on her other side with a baby. “Excuse me, do you know OH Oh my god.” Chelsi looked over just in time see the woman vomit in a baby blanket. “Oh, she’s vomiting,” Rachel hurried through her backpack. Pushing the plastic grocery bag towards the woman and herself towards Chelsi, Rachel acknowledged it as some of the most graceful vomiting she had ever witnessed.
“Look there’s a sign. We’re in Nkhotakota.” Chelsi pulled up the town on her phone and mapped the rest of the distance to their destination. “My phone says just two and a half more hours. Maybe we’ll make it in before dark…”
The vomiting woman left the bus at the next big junction and it was still another four plus hours before the bus pulled up at its last stop, Nkhata Bay. Well past dark. Both Chelsi and Rachel were able to find a spot to pee when the bus was pulled over at a police check point. When they finally arrived at the resort they would be staying at for the next week the other 18 travelers were already there waiting to greet them. They had made it at around lunch time.
“All in all though, I was more than happy to pass the time with you,” Chelsi said to her friend as they followed the woman from reception through the dark to their rooms.