Monday, April 1, 2013

Riding the Bus – Why Me?

On April 27th, I boarded a bus to travel from Bouake, Cote d'Ivoire to Zegou, Mali. I had been told that the trip should take from 6-8 hours.

At the suggestion of friends, I bought my ticket the day before and arrived at the station a half hour before the scheduled departure of 8:30 am. Being the only “Toobab” (white guy) in the station, I was quickly called out by a man, who I can only describe as the “Conductor.” He was wearing jeans and I Cote d'Ivoire jersy, but despite the lack of uniform this guy made made everything happen. He showed me wear to wait and when it came time to load the bus got my two bags loaded in safe spot. If anyone had questions they went to him and got it sorted out quickly.

Around 9:15, they started loading people onto the bus by calling out the names of each passenger according to the seat number they had purchased. My name is a little hard to pronounce in French so they called something like this, “Ace Jrui.” When I took my assigned seat, #33, in the middle of the bus, they moved me up to “first class.” By first class I mean the front of the bus where I could at least stretch out my legs and get some breeze to help cool things down.

We were under way by 9:45. For the next 2 hours we moved along consistently all be it slowly, stopping only once to let people out and for the engine to cool. As we came into Niakara and stopped at a security check point, the driver couldn't get the bus into first or second gear. He managed to get the bus moving again using 3rd, but when we stopped for “lunch” they tried to work out the problem. At every stop of the bus, vendors swarm to sell water, bananas, peanuts, cakes, fruit, and all sorts of “fast food.” For about 500 CFA ($1), I bought peanuts and bananas, which I shared with my seat mate.

Around 1 pm, we started down the road again, but the engine was still having trouble in 1st and 2nd gear. We stopped once again, when steam started pouring out from under one of the passengers seats, where apparently the radiator cap had come loose. After refilling the radiator, we moved on. At 4 pm we pulled into Ferke, a trip which usually takes about 5 hours by car.
Once we were underway again, I called my friends in Mali who were going to pick me up and updated them on the situation. They let me know that because the bandits in their area had recently been very active, it wasn't safe for them to be traveling at night so if I arrived after dark, a Malian friend of theirs had offered to come pick me up. They also said that it should take 2 about hours to get from Ferke to Zegoua.

The bus continued to struggle along, stopping twice over the next 2 hours to refill the radiator or mend something. Around 6 pm we pulled over again in Nielle. As I got out with everyone to stretch my legs, I looked under the bus and could see oil pouring out of the engine. Not dripping, but pouring. For the next hour the driver, the mechanic that was traveling with us, and several other people worked on the engine. The driver told me that they had called ahead to Zeguoa to send them the part that they needed and once they found it would send it down to us.

With no estimate on how long that might take, I bought dinner. After finishing my spaghetti sandwich, I settled down to wait with everyone else. I talked with a lady from northern Mali, about the war and how it had affected life there. I chatted with a Senegalese guy who was on a tour of West Africa and had come from Nigeria to Ghana to Abidjan and was heading to Senegal.

Around 9:30 pm, I noticed that people were unloading the luggage from the bus. I asked the driver about this and he told me that the bus company was sending a new bus down. A half hour later the bus arrived, and everyone set to packing the bus. I got my luggage in and then helped a older lady load boxes of what I think were batteries under her seat.

With everything loaded and all the people in their new places on the bus, I again had been able to snag a prime spot in the front, the new driver got in and made an announcement. I don't know what he said, because he didn't speak in French, but one of the local African trade languages. Assuming it was just an explanation for the delay or instruction for the boarder, I settled in for the rest of the journey. As soon as we got back on the main road though, we turned left off of the road and started into the center of Nielle. I turned to the guy next to me and asked, “Umm, Where are we going?” He didn't speak very good french, but was able to get some else to explain that the main road was closed ahead because of bandits. We would be spending the night in Nielle and then continue on the rest of the way in the morning. It was at this point I found out that Nielle is 25 kilometers from Zegoua.

The bus stopped next to a couple of trucks which were parked in the center of town and every one started spreading out for the night. I asked around about a possible hotel or some place to stay, and the lady who I help load her boxes onto the bus said that there weren't any hotels in town but I could just sleep on the porch of the mosque along with everyone else. So I did. Or at least I tried to. Sleeping on a dirty concrete floor with mosquitos biting you and waking up every time some walks by doesn't really lead to deep sleep. It wasn't until the next morning that I fully realized what sleeping in a Mosque meant. At 4:45 am, I was woken up by the call to prayer. I've grown used to hearing this call made in the distance from somewhere, but this morning I heard it right next to my ear.

Eventually, everyone woke up and after getting some breakfast from a local coffee shop (think wooden lemonade stand with a coffee machine) we headed down the road. Less than 15 minutes later we were at the Cote d'Ivoire Mali border. There are 4 stops in this 2 kilometer section, 2 customs offices and 2 immigration offices. One each for leaving Cote d' Ivoire and entering Mali. At each stop, we gave our documents to an officer who depending on our type of visa pointed us to a different line. Because I was one of the only passport carriers my line was pretty short and got through all stops quickly and easily.

At the final stop, Mali customs, I asked the driver to get my bags out from under the bus since this was my stop. After digging them out from one of the inside compartments, I carried my bags over to an official who looked them over and quickly waved me on.

I met my friends who were waiting for me and we got into their car. I had made it to Zegou and my bus trip had come to an end. It was 10:30 am April 28th. The bus trip which was supposed to take 6-8 hours had taken 27 hours.

Through out the course of this trip a question kept rising to my mind. “Why me? God, Why is this happening to me? Out of all the people in the world you picked me? Why are you making this happen to me? Why do you keep giving me stuff like this?” (You might want to re-read that, but this time replace the sarcasm and bitterness with genuine gratitude.)

God continues to give me amazing experiences and the grace to see things His way, to see events that might be considered problems or errors as gifts. I mean really how many people can say the've slept in a mosque?

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