There are 3 main ways to get around Zambia if you cannot drive, and Peace Corps doesn’t even allow us to think about driving.
First you can take a large, air-conditioned coach bus. This works well if you are trying to get from one large city to another and have plenty of money to spend on comfort, which rarely described the way a volunteer is traveling.
Second you can take a blue bus. These are privately owned and operated and don’t run on a set schedule or route. They will stop anywhere to pick up a new passenger, and will sit at a popular stop and wait until they are (over) full. They are relatively inexpensive, but are hot, crowded, slow, and frequently not in great repair.
Third you can hitchhike, which is inexpensive (or free), and really seems to be the Peace Corps Volunteer’s transport of choice. I should say here that Peace Corps “highly discourages” hitchhiking, but that every volunteer I’ve talked to hitches extensively, so I sure hope I don’t get in trouble for telling you all about it.
This week, for example, I had to go to Kabwe (about 60km) to get an extension on my visa. I rode my bike to a market on the main road and left it with a shopkeeper there. I stood by the road and waved my hand up and down (the hitchhiking signal here. A thumbs-up will just get smiles and thumbs-up in return).
The first car that stopped was a nice van driven by a gentleman from England. He was happy to take me as far as he was going, about halfway, for free. On the way we got to talking, and he told me that he was retired now, but had worked for 30 years for an international aid organization that evacuated people out of areas of conflict in Africa. So he had managed the logistics to get people out of Syria during the conflict and Rwanda during the genocide. He’d lived in more than 8 African countries, always during the times of most turmoil. Now he is living in rural Zambia and giving rides to poor volunteers headed to Kabwe.
We parted ways when he had to turn off the main road, but I was quickly picked up and rode the rest of the way in the back of a pickup truck with two soldiers in the Zambian Army. One was from Southern Province, and was thrilled that I spoke Tonga. He had 7 years left in a 20 year service, and was looking forward to retiring and becoming a soybean and fish farmer. We spent most of the ride talking about fishponds. The driver graciously dropped me off right at the door of the Immigrations office, and my journey to Kabwe was complete.
I spent a few hours in Kabwe, taking care of my visa and shopping for exotic things like whole wheat flour and spices other than salt. Then I headed to a gas station on the southern side of town and started my trip back. At this point it was getting late and the afternoon rain was starting to move in, so I was grateful when a woman driving a nice SUV stopped for me. She works for the Department of Education, and we discussed the trouble with getting teachers to work in the rural villages. Many, understandably don’t want to live and work with no electricity and no running water, so it is difficult to hire teachers for village schools. She said that the way to remedy the situation is to develop the rural areas so people are willing to teach there. Unfortunately, development is a slow process, and it will take time to get the schools fully staffed. So I guess I’d better get moving on those fishponds: that’s my contribution to development.
She dropped me off at my bike about an hour before dark, and I raced home to avoid 3 converging thunderstorms. I only got a few drops of rain on my ride, but about 5 minutes after I walked in my door the sky opened up and it started pouring.
So that was my trip to Kabwe, and I never would have met such interesting people riding a blue bus. I think as long as you are careful to choose the car and driver that look safe, rather than just the first ride that comes along, hitching can be an interesting way to travel here.
But perhaps I won’t tell my mother…