2013
06.11

10-Transit Segou-Mother and Senu_576x768SYNOPSIS:  ON MY WAY INTO THE “BUSH”.  THE WORST BUS RIDE EVER! 

I split up yesterday’s blog into two thinking that all I could add for the day would be a line:  Transit from Bamako to Segou. Uneventful and non-memorable.  Far from it!

This will rank among the wildest bus rides in my life and so it gets its full entry.  But be warned:  This is about nothing but a bus ride.  The day started harmless enough:  A thunderstorm lasting several hours during the night had cleared the air and poured tons of water onto Bamako.   The air around 6 AM was wonderful; fresh and almost cool.   It took only a couple of hours for the sun to turn this into an unbearable greenhouse effect, but by then I had checked out of the hotel and was on my way to the Bittar Bus station in Bamako in one of the many cheap taxis readily available.

The bus was scheduled for an 11 AM departure but I took the 30-minute late arrival as nothing to be concerned about.   What worried me more were the about 10 unrepaired and broken buses which lined the bus terminal with flat tires, unhinged doors, and broken windows.  This did not inspire confidence into the Bittar Company which my guide book ranked as among the respectable ones in the country.  But OK, I will overlook those wrecks, too.

Loading the about 50 people into the bus with all their luggage took more than 30 minutes.  A guy wrote seemingly random numbers with a huge blue felt pen marker directly on people’s luggage and the presumably same long number on your ticket – your key to the right claim.  Most people had packed who knows what into huge bundles wrapped in plastic.   But mind you, I have a rather new suitcase and really did not want a big number permanently marking it.  I begged him to use one of the dark plastic parts and write the number small enough…  Frankly, you could hardly see the number, but that’s why I have a luggage tag and this was a joke, anyhow.

We settled in and with all these delays started off 1 hour late.  On the outside of the bus it said “air-conditioned” – but judging by the age of the vehicle and the wear and tear I did not expect that feature to function and settled in for a hot, smelly, and humid 3 hour ride.   Just like in the market, the fumes were already collecting.  I had an aisle seat in the second row next to a young woman.   I had room for my leg in the aisle and the added benefit that the little bit of a breeze coming while in motion from the only open window next to the driver, would reach my row.  I figured I would make the best out of it and snooze.

Forget snoozing!  We obviously had a hot-tempered bus driver who honked pointlessly but continuously at traffic.  I have been in town for a whole day in Bamako, but this is not a “honking culture”.   There are countries where honking is part of the required traffic behavior – not Mali.  He was just an angry driver and that did not bode well for this trip.  I figured it was time again to invoke St. Christopher

We drove less than 30 minutes to the next village when bad turned to worse:   The bus was full, yet about another 20 people were piling in, luggage included.   Now the aisles and the spaces next to the driver and all the way down to the doors were filling up. People sat on top of their luggage and more luggage was piled up on people sitting.   A young couple entered with a baby.  Their aisle positions left them with no room and so I offered to take the baby, a beautiful little boy of probably 6 months.   I could have gotten it worse!  Little Senu and I actually had a good time together; he reminded me of what my own grandson Tillman would soon be like:  For the longest time he just stared at this new and unusual face.  He was particularly fascinated by my glasses and spent endless time attempting to grab them. Other than that, he was quiet and content on my lap for several hours; quite remarkable.

In front of me sat an older gentleman who had already drawn my attention when he boarded the bus at the original terminal when he immediately requested the front aisle seat.  He simply chased away the young man who sat there in loud and rude way.  I don’t understand a word of either Bambara or French, but his body language was clearly nasty and demanding.  But it must have been his age or apparent rank that got him what he wanted.  A box came with him. 

One of the newly-boarding guys stuck in the aisle also had a box and put it on top of the old man’s box to sit on.  But that old man simply pushed it off and when the young man protested and tried to grab his falling box, the old man punched him in the face!  A full-blown fist fight now broke out between the two and the man behind me joined in to restrain the young man.   All of this as we were driving already!  Baby on my lap, I ducked down into safety!  It was all over within a minute, but jeez!  Is that how you act among civilized people who happened to be thrown together into a pretty unbearable condition?!

For some reason the bus driver pretended not to notice, but then something else happened.  Somehow one of the bus assistants seemed to have raised a question about payment of one of the guests now stuck in the aisle on the bus.  The bus driver called on him now and argument started between them.  The driver’s voice got louder and angrier and shouting went back and forth until the driver simply slammed his brakes, throwing all of us out of balance, drove into a little alley and turned the bus around!  He was not going to continue until he had  verified the legitimacy of this person.   We had been on the road for a good 15 minutes since that last village.  All the way back we went.   And yes, that person had paid…  Another 45 minutes lost.  We all shook our heads.  But as you well know, whoever is in the driver’s seat has the power.   At least, the driver minded his business after this and vented his anger strictly by honking. 

A few more times we stopped to let people off.  Nobody was let on after this.   But each time we stopped, luggage had to be pushed and shoved through all the people or balanced over everyone’s head.  Vendors always rushed to the bus door and shouted out their wares.  Money and orders were passed from the back of the bus – they were even more crowded there and completely removed from even the little bit of air there was and I have no idea how they survived this – and the circus went on.

I kept checking my watch and we were nearing the 3 hour mark.   I added 45 more minutes and when we came to a stop, I thought we had reached the destination.  No.  We had reached the half-way point!  This was break time…  What was advertised as a 3 hour bus ride in my guide book and at the bus terminal turned into a 6.5 hour ride!   For the second half I simply had to resign myself to my fate.   I did not even check my watch anymore.   At least my baby was quiet and my neighbor had a fan with which she fanned both of us occasionally.   It was pretty quiet, except for several cranky children, until a conversation in the back of the bus between a man and a woman got louder and louder.   The woman started talking faster and faster and her voice went up by about an octave.   Heads were turning; people were chiming in and before you know it that woman attacked a guy across the aisle.  I had my head turned as well and saw her clawing his face!  Several people now tried to restrain the woman – again, all the while we were driving a pretty rough road!  After she was under control it took many more minutes before she would finally shut up.   She kept going and going.  I wish I had any idea what that was all about, but nobody spoke English.

The bus driver just kept going on the only partially finished road, slaloming around huge potholes, bypassing unfinished work areas and passing vehicles in dare-devil maneuvers, accompanied by constant honking.  Now my baby got cranky too. But thankfully the mother by now had more space in the aisle and could nurse him and I had my seat again to myself.  My dress was soaking wet from just holding the baby as both of our bodies were steaming. 

I was dreaming of the days of riding the bus in Iran, where an impeccably dressed bus assistant offered us cookies and sweets, where a movie was shown, where the air conditioning worked and the roads were smooth…  Sweet memories.

I did not get a single photograph of the beautiful scenery we came through.   There was lush greenery everywhere.  The rainy season is slowly moving in and it shows.  Many fruit-tree orchards and cultivated shrubs flanked the road; some newly plowed fields and some quaint looking villages with square flat-roofed mud brick homes and bread ovens everywhere.  The day was overcast and “cool”.  That meant, only about 30 degrees Celsius out there (90 Fahrenheit).   It could have been 40!

Just before we reached Segou, there was a police checkpoint.   Everyone had to show ID, clearly a measure to prevent any bad guys from coming in this way but also the point that would be attacked if any bad guys were on the bus.  But the trouble in Mali had not reached this part of the country in the past and unlikely will in the future.  As we entered Segou, I immediately felt that I would like it here.   It’s a city, but it has a lot of village character.   It is located directly next to the Niger and my hotel is actually overlooking the river.  I will stay here for a couple of days at least.   The good thing is that I am in no hurry!

Good night.