Howdy all, it is time for another post where I dissect and discuss the way we can get from destination to the next destination when we are travelling various countries on this earth on which we inhabit. And today I am talking about two types of transport that have a very similar feel, size and likeness to each other. One is common around the continent of Africa, the other is the standard if you travel around the ex-Soviet Union.
Marshrutka is the word that it took me years to learn and even longer to learn how to spell. But travel in the ex-Soviet States relies on these things, a sort of chunky mini-bus with a surly driver who never doesn’t have a cigarette in his mouth. The ‘bush-taxi’, or ‘tro-tro’ (in Ghana) is pretty much the same thing. Both leave from parks somewhere in town, often (especially in Central Asia) no where near the middle of town (easier to get in and out I guess), and often in both cases there are multiple parks and you need to go to the right one for your destination.
It’s only happened once or twice, but I read about it happening to others, they arrive at the park to find that it doesn’t service their destination. So you really need to check your information (often various guide books are wrong because there’s been changes since it was written). Then you have to find the right one when you do get to the park.
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, has quite an ordered park with bays and the like. But other places, such as Tbilisi, it’s all over the place and you have to translate the local language (often Cyrillic writing too, on in the case of Tbilisi, the confusing Georgian script) to find the one going where you are. Of course, if it’s a main city like Accra in Ghana for example, where I travelled to from Cape Coast, it’s a bit easier. But try a little town somewhere, and it can be very confusing.
You shout your destination and someone probably comes up to you and pulls you over to their vehicle. It’s pot luck now baby! Is there a vehicle ready to go? Or will you be the first one on? Because there ain’t no schedule! It’s fill up and then leave. Possibly with a quick petrol stop on the way out of town!
If you are last on you will probably get the worst seat, sometimes the one that flips down because it’s near the sliding door. But you won’t have to wait long. I remember in Dakar, Senegal being about the third on a bush taxi in the early afternoon for the 3-4 hour trip (that turned out to be five in the end) to St Louis. I waited hours and hours for it to leave (shared taxis are a better option FYI). So much so that boarded and paid just after lunch time, arrived at ONE AM. It was almost dark before we left.
Same on the border of Niger when crossing from Benin. Found a bush taxi that took forever to fill up. This is a more remote place though. I had already travelled half a day to get there. Left at dusk after hours of waiting got in to Niamey shortly after 130am. Horrible time to arrive anywhere, frankly.
And so, you want comfort? Then move along. Hire a whole taxi to yourself or something, because frankly, there is NO comfort to be had. Your best hope is probably to sit next to the driver in the front if you can. Maybe pay a little extra for the privilege because otherwise you are going to be squashed and pushed and cramped and banged. It’s not pleasant, suffice to say.
Thanks to the economics of this, and keep in mind that they wait until the thing is 100% full, they deck the marshrutka or bush taxi out for the maximum number of seats. And if they are full, don’t think they can’t squeeze an extra or two for good measure, they most certainly can!
Tall people – let me just say this. I am a mere 5’8”, right. And knee crunching for me was the norm. No freedom to move a little this way or that. My lower back seizes up after a while. It can be PURE HELL. If you are 6’ or more, I would offer this piece of advice re: bush taxis and marshrutkas. DON’T. Really. Extra money spent on your own taxi will probably be a lot. But it will be worth it too.
So right. I have spent the whole post being very negative. And so before finishing I do feel the need to say why you SHOULD take one of these two forms of death traps. Sorry I mean ‘transport’. And here are three for you.
Firstly, and most importantly, they are sometimes the only transport available. Or if you are abiding by a strict budget, the cheapest form available when a share taxi is more and a private taxi is probably four to five times the price of a share taxi (you can buy out the seats often – actually if you have 3 in a five seater, buying the final two seats out so you can leave and have more space is definitely worth it). But sometimes not even taxis ply the route you want through the Caucasus for example. So you have to. And hey, it’s not as fast as a taxi, and with the stops it might actually be quite slow, but usually, inshallah, you get to your destination.
Secondly, you might have fun! Listen to some local music and meet someone interesting on your journey. There are no guarantees, but you never know! I’ll bet people have met that special someone on the Batumi-Tbilisi route on many an occasion!
Thirdly – it’s a real ADVENTURE! And you feel like you’re travelling like a local, which is a buzz phrase these days, isn’t it? Sure it is, Andrew! The bouncing and bumping, the vehicle sickness (oh I’d forgotten about motion sickness!) all add up to fun and games, right! You can always pop your head phones on and become zen if you need too as well, right? Anyways, they still around faster than buses and in the regions they operate, trains as well. And they can wind through some of the world’s most stunning scenery – mountains etc.
So – here’s to these two adventuresome kinds of transport. Here’s to the places they go that others dare not! Ladies and Gentlemen, the Marshrutka and the Bush Taxi! May the Journey Never End!