Driving to Freetown reminded me that there was a whole sub-region to explore. In September, I took three weeks off and traveled to Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso with Gunna. I saw Timbuktu, rode on a cargo boat down the Niger, went hiking in Dogon Country, but this post isn’t about any of those things, this post is about the most miserable bus in the world. It runs from Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire to Bamako, Mali. Miserably.
Why did we decide to take a bus from Abidjan to Bamako? There are two reasons. First, Gunna possesses a ridiculous, unwarranted fear of flying. No matter how many times I explained that it was the safest form of transport, she refused to believe me. On the flight from Monrovia to Abidjan she kept looking out the window and asking if I noticed all the changing engine noises. Really, it was a bit much. Second, we thought it would be interesting to travel overland from Abidjan on the coast and eventually make our way to Timbuktu in the desert. How often can you watch the landscape change from tropical jungle to desert from the window? The answer, if you’ve taken the most miserable bus in the world, is ‘once’.
Abidjan is a fantastic city, the Paris of West Africa they say. It more closely resembled Newark, but it was filled with tall buildings, lights, freeways, and fantastic French food. We were lucky enough to find a good taxi driver who agreed to cart us around town for the day and serve as our fixer for a flat fee. We told him that we wanted to take a bus to Bamako and he set off to the bus station. I have a decent sense of direction (coupled with a fear of flying that I try to attribute to other people), and was skeptical that the main bus station for Bamako, north of Abidjan, would be to the south of Abidjan. We pulled up at a shack surrounded by goats.
I don’t speak good French, but I will try to be as faithful as possible to what I believe the taxi driver was trying to say.
Here we have plopped at the station of the buses.
It was clear from the enthusiasm of the people hanging around the bus shack that this was not the bus station. Wild-eyed surprise that two people had shown up to inquire about their services. I had the contact number for the Carter Center country director, so I called her to see if she knew of a reliable bus company. She consulted with friends and informed us that Sama Transport in the north of the city (good start) was the best. We left the goat shack.
Sama Transport was unassuming, but appeared legitimate and had prominently displayed prices and departure times. Our taxi driver consulted with the person at the ticket counter.
These remarkable people would like to go to Bamako.
At what time would it please them to depart?
They would be most obliged if they could depart when the sun takes it place in the sky on the morrow.
It would be the pleasure of Sama Transport to realize this.
The bus would depart at 8am and we were asked to arrive at 7am for check-in. Fine. We arranged to have the driver pick us up at our hotel in the morning and then went about frivoling in Abidjan secure in the knowledge that at 8am the next day we would be heading to Mali. Or at least the border, we didn’t have visas.
We arrived at the bus station at 7am and no one was there. I could ramble here, but let’s just say that the bus left the station at 11:30am. Miserably delayed. The driver insisted that we sit directly behind him and that I could keep my backpack in front of me, and we took off.
Three police checkpoints later, the bus driver turned to me.
Le something something something backpack.
Something something something backpack.
Gunna, who speaks much better French than me, told me that they wanted to move my backpack. The bus was jammed. I lifted my backpack and passed it over my head to the person behind me. The backpack bus-surfed and went out of sight. I panicked.
Ask them where they are putting it!
They’re putting it down below.
I pressed my face to the glass window, trying to force an angle so I could see them place it in the storage space. I couldn’t. I was miserable. In my mind, I envisioned a fantastic scenario where my bag became a sacrifice to the police in order to ensure us speedy passage at subsequent checkpoints. As we sped through subsequent checkpoints, I cursed my envisioning.
The bus was loaded to the top and a gremlin had messed with the counterbalances and suspension or whatever keeps a bus from tilting over as it rounds corners. The slightest bend in the road would send the bus titling at an angle that defied gravity. While the rest of the bus remained nonchalant, Gunna and I would reach for something to hold on to. There was no sleeping on the bus. Occasionally, we came across a horrific accident and the bus would slow to a crawl, everyone would shake their heads and bemoan crazy drivers like the driver of the wreck who drove too fast, then the bus driver would hit the gas and we would careen around the next corner at an alarming speed.
We stopped in Yamoussoukro, the capital, but not really the capital since all the government buildings are in Abidjan, and Yamoussoukro only happens to be the birthplace of the first post independence president/despot. Check it out – he used his ‘personal money’ to build four lane highways, a four star hotel with an observation restaurant, and the world’s largest basilica. No one lives there.
While the bus was stopped and bus attendants reloaded luggage, I caught a glimpse of my bag and relaxed. After Yamoussoukro the bus stopped anywhere and everywhere for no apparent reason. People would buy fruit from the window and the bus driver would hop out and walk around. At no one point was the bus mobile for more than thirty minutes straight. It was miserable.
The trip was scheduled to take 24 hours, but at around midnight we consulted a map and performed accurate measurements with our fingers to work out that we were pretty close to Abidjan and not so close to Bamako. My legs cramped up, so I took advantage of every stop to stumble outside in a daze and stretch. At one point I realized how tired I was. This thought was immediately followed by the realization that after 18 hours on the bus, we had the same bus driver… Who was probably very tired as well.
Then it started raining and we noticed that the bus was actually speeding up, taking corners like an F-1 race car on a chicane. Was the driver trying to kill us? Instead of building a giant basilica, couldn’t the president have invested a little money in high school physics classes? Or a driver education program? I peered over the driver’s shoulder and discovered why he was going so fast: he had no windshield wipers. Now, we are in rainy season West Africa, it is literally a wall of water outside, and the driver is driving faster so that our speed forces the rain off of his windshield. I leaned over to Gunna and said over the noise of the pelting rain, “I don’t want to alarm you, but there are no windshield wipers.” Gunna was alarmed.
At 5am we came to the Malian border and Gunna and I were escorted off the bus to immigration. We woke up the officials, who fumbled through our passports. We had received no guarantees that we could receive a visa on arrival, in fact Iceland, where Gunna is from, specifically said that it was not possible for Icelanders to get visas on arrival. Fortunately, the officials were tired and we were not hassled. In no time we were back on the slowest, most miserable bus in the world.
At 9am we crawled into Sikasso and everyone was ordered off of the bus. Our direct bus was not so direct. We waited in the station for four hours until our new direct bus was ready. Now that we were used to random thirty minute stops every thirty minutes, this new bus ride was largely uneventful. Halfway to Bamako, a passenger across from us had an epileptic fit and the bus freaked out. One man got up decided that the cure was to hit the man. We told him to stop, and a another passenger positioned the passenger so that he wouldn’t hurt himself.
At 7pm we arrived in Bamako and promptly checked into the nicest hotel we could find, which happened to be hosting a gala event for the diplomatic community. I was surprised that they let us check in, but the staff was nice, and perhaps seeing our faces, gave us a discount on the best room I’ve ever stayed in. Sitting in the living room, enjoying room service and the view of the Niger from the window, I thought that the 35 hour bus journey was worth it. Then I came to my senses. Writing now two months later, most of the events glossy in hindsight, it was decidedly worth it.