Traveling by road in Africa is dangerous. As my friend Ben told me, even in Lusaka, there are no trauma centers, and there is one emergency doctor in the capital (but he only works three days a week). Outside of Lusaka, it is even more perilous. If you get in an accident, the likelihood of a good outcome is small. We witnessed the aftermath of one accident between two vehicles in Chipata, and not only was emergency medical access a problem, the overcrowding of vehicles, disrepair of those vehicles, lack of seatbelt usage, and poor road maintenance are like perfect storms of disasters. Traveling by road is not a light choice — we try to choose the vehicles and drivers carefully (because, to add to the list, drinking and driving is common).
Needless to say, much of the travel *has* to occur via road. One of the interesting things observed while traveling by car is the “Zambia gear” of neutral when coasting. Literally – the drivers call it that — Zambia Gear. They shift into neutral when coasting to save gas (and apparently, it does!).
The most interesting road travel was from Petauke back to Lusaka. We were told three things about getting from Petauke to Lusaka: 1. the first bus comes at 6am and is the fastest, 2. don’t buy a ticket the day before, and 3. wait at the junction and the bus will stop. We heard these from multiple people in Petauke, so we prepared accordingly. We got up early on Tuesday, got to the junction at 530am, and found about 10 people there already. We bought a ticket for the big bus coming at 630am. And then we waited…
At 630am, the bus showed up. And it drove right by! We started getting anxious… A second bus showed up at 640am, and everyone piled around. It was the wrong company than our ticket was, so we watched. Of the now 40 people gathered, 2 were able to push their way on. This was not looking good. At 650am, another bus (our company) also drove right by… The thought of remaining in Petauke was unbearable (and this was combined with the fact that we had plane tickets for Livingstone the following morning from Lusaka!!).
At around 710am, a truck pulled up. And the masses started climbing in the truck bed. We were heartily encouraged to come along, but there was no way that I was riding in the back of a truck for four hours + (unsafe, uncomfortable, and just not a good idea). Then, a station wagon pulled up, and another group crowded around it. The guy who sold our ticket muscled and argued our way into this station wagon (why he pleaded our case, we will never know. Was it because we gave him a pen? Were the first to buy a ticket? He was going to make the most money off of us?)… After a few worried glances and quick conversations between Dustin and me, we got our luggage in and into the backseat.
There were five of us — the driver, and then four passengers. We all had comfortable seats and seatbelts in a well-functioning car. And we could stop when we wanted and didn’t need to pay extra. It was so much better than the bus! We found out from our fellow passenger that she had been trying to get back to Lusaka since Sunday (it was now Tuesday). All the buses were full because of the schools’ break, and we felt even luckier to be in our safe, comfortable station wagon!