When there isn’t room inside the bush taxi, people improvise. Image by Alison Griner.
Your first experience traveling in a country where bush taxis are a mode of transportation can seem overwhelming. You may find yourself wondering: Where’s the schedule? Can I get there from here? What IS a bush taxi?
Never fear. Below is a compilation of advice from American volunteers who have been living in West Africa for over a year. Along with our tips and a bit of your own trial and error, soon you’ll confidently be reaching rural places.
A bush taxi is usually a 15-seater van outfitted with a luggage roof rack. Don’t expect only 15 passengers if you’re traveling in many parts of West Africa, though!
The downside of taking a bush taxi is that it will be cramped, hot, and sometimes dangerous if overloaded on the top or not maintained well.
On the other hand, bush taxis are cheaper than taking a private bus company or a motorbike taxi (a “zed” in francophone countries), they run at all times of the day, and you can get off at any spot along the route.
Choosing A Bush Taxi
Towns usually have designated bush taxi stations. Look for an empty lot, gas station, or piece of road shoulder where vehicles congregate. Sometimes you can avoid the melee by hailing a taxi already en route, especially if you’re heading to a more heavily trafficked destination. Local street vendors can tell you the easiest way to reach your destination.
Pick a vehicle that’s already full of passengers. There is no fixed timetable for taxi departures. When a vehicle is full, it leaves. Sometimes drivers will leave places open for passengers spotted along the road.
When traveling later in the day, ensure the driver is sober. With all of that sitting around waiting for passengers, some drivers pass the time with drinks.
Claim your space. Use stuff as a barrier, and establish your boundaries early in the trip.
Get a window seat so you’re only crushed up against one person. In addition to more airflow, a window makes it easier to rest your head — if the road isn’t too bumpy.
Embrace the lack of personal space. It isn’t necessarily rude if someone’s leg is touching yours, it’s just a different cultural norm with respect to personal space, necessitated by the circumstances. It can help to daydream until you forget the physical discomfort. Look at the scenery, reflect on your trip, think about what a great journal entry or letter home this crazy adventure will make later.
If all else fails, buy two spots. When you aren’t feeling well or you you’re simply not up for being a sardine, pay for double the space, though be warned that your seatmates might still try to take their half out of the middle!
What to Pack for a Comfortable Ride
They are invaluable when your fellow passengers are likely to include a number of cranky babies and vociferous goats. Similarly, an MP3 player can help tune out the strife of road travel, but earplugs never need to be recharged.
Wear a skirt or dress rather than pants. There are few or no gas station bathrooms en route in West Africa – pit stops constitute a quick pull-over into the bushes, sometimes without many trees to hide behind. It is easier to cover your behind while peeing if you’re wearing a skirt or dress.
Speaking of which, bring hand sanitizer and some portions of toilet paper in a Ziploc baggie. It’s no secret that new food and foreign microbes can wreak havoc on the traveler’s stomach. Don’t get caught without these basic toiletries.
Is this packing light? Image by Kylan Allen-Grant.
Use a bandana or piece of pagne for a dust mask in harmattan, a curtain when you’re in blazing sun, and a sweat rag any old time; there is rarely such thing as air conditioning in a bush taxi.
Sharing food is a fun way to display goodwill toward seatmates — useful on long trips when you’ll need to take turns negotiating leg space. You don’t need to speak the same language, and there’s something universally heartwarming about sharing food. Plus, if someone offers first, you’ll have a way to reciprocate.
Know the correct price beforehand. Find out from a trusted local source, preferably in advance of arriving at the station and well out of earshot of the driver. Discuss the price with the driver before handing over your bags, and be firm.
Don’t pay extra for baggage! Trust me, the guy next to you just loaded six goats into the trunk without a surcharge. There’s no tax on big backpacks; don’t back down on this one.
Pay the driver directly at the end of the trip.
Congratulations! You just survived your first bush taxi ride.