Rainbow Valley

Rainbow Valley

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Getting Around


We took a mini bus today to Limbe Market and from there caught a connector bus to Chichiri Mall in Blantyre. We loaded the backpack with an umbrella (as much for the sun as for the rain) and frozen water, and took the 15 minute walk to the bus stop. Our ice melted during that short walk.

Before we ever dared this mode of transportation to town, I’d been thinking how rude the bus riders and drivers are, beeping their horns as they drive down the road, calling out the window at us as we walked along. Noisemakers, a nuisance, I thought. Turns out the mini bus is a feat of fine transportation, with some rough spots to be worked on.

The driver drives with a focus we should all learn, while his co-pilot sidekick hops on and off, collects the fares, negotiates the fares, and closes the door. He gets a workout. On one mini bus I watched the sidekick work at every stop to keep the sliding door from slipping off its track and down the road. He was a well-muscled little man, with regular female fans at three different stops. Sweet.

The co-pilot spends much of the drive time hanging out the window calling to folk along the road to see if they want a ride. He instructs the driver how many seats are empty then the driver beeps the horn at people walking along the road, who can then signal yes or no if they want or do not want a drive. (Not so rude after all.) And … If enough folks on a bus want to go to a certain place it can be negotiated. Ten of us were driven all the way to the university door at an additional cost of 20 Kwatcha each, while one passenger received a refund of 50 Kwatcha to get off the bus early and walk an extra distance. Democracy on the bus lines in action.

I like to sit at the back of the mini bus. The seat feels most secure there (my experience so far) and there’s no one sitting behind me to want out at the next stop, meaning I don’t have to get up, get off the bus and let him out. Still, it can be crowded on the back seat. From the outside of the bus, you see only the four heads and part of the backs bouncing along down the road. Bums tending to be the widest body part, one should not base an opinion looking through the back window.

Bring only as much as you can carry and hold on your lap when squished with three other riders onto a bench seat. It is sweaty on the minibus in close quarters with fifteen people. They can fit twenty, though it isn’t legal, hence regular police checks. Filled seats make a profitable journey and give one the opportunity to get a whiff of some of the distinctive scents of Malawi, leading this introspective rider to wonder … Is it me? I believe the strong, leave-the-bus odours are not mine, being, in my opinion one of the ‘people of the lesser scents’. But who says that my scent isn’t as highly obvious as anyone else’s just because I think I smell OK?

There is usually a decent breeze coming in the open windows of the bus. I got a sunburn one day on my right arm, through the window, on a 15-minute ride, despite my trying, unsuccessfully, to make shade with my damp back pack. Back packs make your back sweaty; they can hold a lot of stuff quite securely leaving your hands free for pulling yourself into and off of a bus as the co-pilot yells, “Hurry. Faster. We can’t stop here.” Reminds me of my old curling skip.

People on the mini buses are consistently courteous, kind, and cheerful. There is often laughter. There are quiet, friendly conversations going on or people are silent, looking out the windows as I do, watching the road. It feels safe enough though the roads are rough. Pulling over to pick up and let off we sometimes drop down four inches to the shoulder of the road with a weight- shifting lean. I worried one day if I leaned hard against the door it would fall off and I’d be out, so ignoring my fear of the germs on surfaces I grasped the exposed seat frame (along with three other passengers’ hands) to hold myself upright. Note re next bus trip: carry handi-wipes in the back pack.

We’ve experienced frequent stops for gas, sometimes at a gas station, more often at the side of the road, where there are available 2-litre water bottles of fuel that with a short length of hose activated by suction from the co-pilot’s mouth can be siphoned into the tank. Generally the driver and his side-kick seem to have learned the principles of teamwork but once, when the co-pilot had spent considerable time packing four 25 Kg. bags of a passenger’s ground maize into the back of the bus, the driver decided: time to go. He got the bus moving; the co-pilot pounded on the back door to signal he hadn’t alighted the bus yet. The driver stopped, mumbling and ranting in Chichewa to the delight of the passengers. When the co-pilot did get on – finally – there was a discussion in their native tongue which dissolved into silence, broken by the chuckles of the passengers, which seemed to cause the two participants to see themselves reflected in the passengers’ reactions and they broke into hearty giggling. Malawian men giggle and it is truly infectious.

Stopped into the corner store and negotiated with the shopkeeper to deliver two 5-gallon jugs of water tomorrow morning to the flat. That saves us carrying water home from town. If it goes well we’ll make a deal with him for an on-going supply. He carries fresh-daily bread – wonderful. And he carries Sprite. And coke. There is a small market on this corner with vendors of bananas, fresh meat, tiny fish, tomatoes, avocado pears and more, as well as a tailor and shoe sales (used). Must take a photograph to give you a better idea.

Speaking of the blog photographs:

Remember to double-click on the photographs in this blog and they will get bigger. Learning every day. Thank you for your encouragement and comments and your emails. We do miss you.


  1. Just caught up with the beginning of April. Still thrilled, by the pictures and the descriptions of the people you meet and the adventures you're having. Thanks bunches for sharing.

    - b

  2. You have to love public transport that is run for the convenience of the passengers. Miss you too. CAA tonight - will think of you if we go to Johnny Eh's (formerly Mexicali Rosas)for a drink. Eileen
    P.S. to Lloyd. I am going to compile a list of "Thieving Taffy" Welshman jokes.