01.04.2009 - 14.04.2009
When I look back at Zambia in weeks or years time and i'm asked (or, more likely, i get very drunk and decide to share my “wisdom” with the world) what i remember most about Zambian public transport, I'm not sure what my response will be. Perhaps the glorious redemption of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, being imparted to you at great volume and with great passion by well-wishers who get on buses to preach before the start of virtually every journey, and by people who if only they would finish quickly and get off the s0dding bus would possibly enable it to leave only 30minutes late. It might be the wonderfully rickety railway service which sometimes works on a couple of routes, but can take you a week to travel 50km, more or which follows in a few episodes time.
Perhaps it will be the Zambian populations general time-keeping principles which means that an 8am bus might leave at 8.45am (unlikely), 10.20am, 11.57am, Thursday or not at all, depending on vague circumstances which will never be mentioned let alone understood. “Now” means at some point today. “Now Now” means maybe in the next hour if you are lucky. “Now, Now, Now”, shouted to a driver and with a knife to the guys throat whilst waving a 100usd bill, might mean you will leave in the next 20minutes but I wouldn't bet on it. For somebody like me who is used to delays of days and weeks (heck, i grew up on used to BRST – British Rail Sub-Standard Time) and is also not on any kind of schedule, it can be mildly frustrating and very hot, but no big deal. To Zambia's foreign residents and many other visitors it is an invitation to commit mass murder, or at least sob quietly or seethe publicly.
Potentially, it is the customer service. Asking the time of departure generally gives you the time they think you want to hear, and changes repeatedly depending on who you ask and why: The sheer uselessness, unhelpfulness (Which I doubt is a real word) and brilliant ineptitude of the average Zambian bus company employee is almost awe inspiring. All fares are negotiable, even those which really, really aren't. And for those uninitiated in similar places, arriving on foot (in particular) or by bus to somewhere like Lusaka's central bus station for the first time there is potential to have a coronary on the spot. By the time you have to walk there for the 3rd or 4th time, you almost seriously start considering whether to hire a private helicopter instead of using a humble coach.
Maybe I will remember fondly that minibuses are pleasantly full, but not stupidly so (A Toyota Hiace, the standard minibus of Zambia, would seat 10passengers in Europe and 15 - plus kids who don't count – in Zambia, but at least 20 in many other African and Asian countries and probably 35 in Cambodia excluding the dozen on the roof....) and leave when full. Which is no great problem on short and popular/city routes, but can easily be 3 or 4 hours+ to smaller outlying towns and areas.
Having said all that, I have a feeling that what I will remember most is the scenery, which is almost uniformly pleasant, with a few dodgy spots and highlights thrown in along the way. Zambia, at least at this time of the year is a lovely green country and at least on many routes, the roads are good enough that you can actually enjoy it. The only problem is that you routinely end up sometimes seeing too much of the more boring bits of th countryside up close and for longer periods than expected...
3 punctures – plus a punctured spare, and passing at least a half dozen puncture, crashed or overturned buses and trucks - on our first 2 bus journeys is all part of the experience. And after somehow surviving Namibia without a single puncture (which I am still stunned by), we were long overdue