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I leave my house for work and get called over by two village women awaiting their chance to do business with the chief. The first smiles...

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Transportation Tuesdays: Public Transport

Getting around in Lesotho without a personal car is surprisingly easy…if you have a lot of patience and even more time. Public transportation—in the form of large vans and small buses-goes almost everywhere, but the taxis make frequent stops, will not leave a population locale unless full, tend to cram as many people and supplies in as possible, and blast music at deafening volumes. Over the next month or so, I will be sharing a series of posts called Transportation Tuesday, which will highlight different aspects of transportation in Lesotho.

A PCV's worst nightmare: nearly empty taxis in a nearly
empty taxi rank. Not going home for hours!
Transportation is a huge part of the Peace Corps life and something I have been remiss about
sharing. Yet, each one of us has to adapt to a dramatically different style of getting around when we arrive in country...and each one of us ends up with hilarious stories of troubled travel.

I have struggled with how to fully explain the transportation I face on a daily basis. Fellow PCV Katie Rizzo included it in a game she entitled So You Think You Can Live Like Me. In the game, she outlined different aspects of every day Lesotho life and created a way for the typical American to test it out for themselves. When it came to transportation, her instructions challenged readers to carpool to work, preferably in a rundown 15-passenger van. Whatever number the carpool vehicle can comfortably and legally fit, add a few extra people. Be sure to fit at least one person who remains standing to open and close the door and yell at people on the street to get in. Once moving, blast music in a another language and do not open any windows.

Although when isolated from Lesotho, Katie's game sounds crazy, it is the simplest way to express the shock of transitioning to the public transport here. When she wrote about her visit to Lesotho, it was one of my sister Kathy's first comments acknowledged the dramatic different between finding and taking public transportation in Lesotho and everywhere else she has been: "This Adventure had me blindly following my sister deeper into the city and through a few alleys to avoid the taxi drivers and pick up a Venture taxi instead.  This Adventure had me cuddled with the trunk door of an SUV sitting on a jump seat with my luggage piled on my lap next to a man who cracked open a beer while trying to change his SIM card.  This Adventure had me overwhelmed." Even now, she reflects back on that first ride with comments about how surreal it was to cross the border into Lesotho, walk down a dusty alley and climb into the back of an ancient SUV-type vehicle. She remembers piling her luggage on her lap and baking before realizing that the hatchback door next to her did not latch effectively and if she leaned gently against it, she could get a bit of fresher air to breathe.

My fellow PCV Catie Wheat recently wrote a great blog outlining public transportation in Lesotho. Rather than reinventing the wheel (pun intended), she is letting me report the majority of it here. But, I encourage you to check out I would walk 500 miles, but wait here's a taxi for the bits that really make it Catie's story and her great photos!

Lesotho is a small country. But public transportation and dirt roads can make it seem a lot bigger.

Running along this road are 4 main types of public transportation:
  • Kombi: a van that seats around 15 people plus a driver and a conductor*. Usually very beat up and always cramped, especially if someone brought their box of chickens.
  • Sprinter: a van /mini bus. Has more headroom than a kombi. Usally seats between 15 and 22 people along woth the driver and conducter. These have more standing room and conducter take advantage by filling that up too. It’s illegal to have people standing on sprinters but conducters find ways around it like hiding people behind bags at traffic stops.
  • Bus: just what you think it is. A big bus filled with people. Usally for people going longer distances. Sometimes there are metal racks on top to carry excess luggage.
  • 4+1: What you would call a cab in the states. 4 passengers plus 1 driver. 4+1s are restricted to travel around a certain town and cost around R6.50 per person.
Taxis (any public transport) stop often to let people off and let people on. They will stop whether or not the person at the side of the road is making any indication of wanting to get on which results in a long game of will they/ won’t they.

Taxis also stop in towns and wait to fill up before they leave again. The wait can be hours long.

Also most people on taxis don’t like the windows open. In 100 degree weather smushed up again each other, people think the breeze from the open window will get them sick when in reality it will help prevent it. If you are lucky enough to control a window people will ask you to close it. I just lean into the wind like a dog, pretending I can’t hear them.

*A conductor sits/stands in the passenger area, collects money, calls at stops, and yells at everyone they pass hoping that will convince them to get on.

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