Friday, April 22, 2011

Travel by taxi (minibus)

This is my (Jeanette’s) first major trip where travel has been primarily by taxi/minibus/combi (different name depending on where you are, who you are talking to, and what you are reading).  Basically it’s how the locals travel cheaply, or rather, it’s how the black locals travel.  And us.  And two other white people that we’ve seen so far.  Apartied is not so long ago and white South Africans are still significantly wealthier than black South Africans and therefore have cars.

Most cities have a taxi rank or two where trips originate and terminate, but you can also pick them up on most roads, the catch being that you have to know where you are going and where the combi is going, neither of which we ever seem to have a firm grasp of.  We’ve gotten by fairly well by asking locals how to get to our next destination.  We’ve asked numerous hostel owners or managers, but as they are almost always white, they tend to have no idea whatsoever.  Other hostel staff has been very helpful though, as they actually use the combis.

Some taxi ranks are big, some small, some bustling with activity and people, some mellow, some are well-marked with the destination city, some completely devoid of any information.  Once the proper taxi has been located you get in and wait.  The taxis have 13-16 seats and leave when full.  Our wait times have varied from a few minutes to a few hours.  Our longest being 2 ½ hours for the taxi from Nelspruit, South Africa across the border to Mbabane, Swaziland.   While sitting and waiting in the taxi you are constantly approached by people coming to sell you things.  Some taxi ranks have fruit stands or take-aways you walk up to, but all of them have people walking around with various items to sell – candy, cold drinks, perfume, cell phone air time, cooked corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, fat cakes (fried dough), passport holders, etc.  Some vendors are pushier than others, and we’ve both gotten very good at avoiding eye contact and just reading our books.  We seem to get approached in particular, again most likely because we are white.  One guy even told us to just give him 10 Rand instead of buying something.   He was pretty persistent too, but we didn’t budge.

Other than the wait times and uncertainty about where we are going and where to get off, the only major hassle is our backpacks.  We did not pack as lightly as we would have liked but with this long of a trip through this many seasons with camping gear, our bags are big and the taxis are not built to accommodate luggage.  We often get looks of disgust from the other taxi patrons who have to deal with our bags taking up lots of room.   Some taxis have an empty space near the front where we can put them but many don’t.  The seats are quite cramped to have them on our laps, but it’s been done.  There is a little extra room in the first row of seats  but unfortunately these are always taken first and we’ve only  scored the good seats a few times.

As with most trips, the journey is the destination. Besides, Anne tells me that in Tanzania “full” isn’t when all of the seats are taken, it’s when you can’t possibly shove another person inside, so I have that to look forward to.

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