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How to Live Well on Marathon Bus Trips Through West Africa

bus travel in West Africa
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I am writing this on a bus in the United States. I am traveling to Washington, DC and eventually, Abidjan. This bus trip is the first leg of my trip. Some of the in-bus amenities include leather reclining seats, power outlets, wi-fi, on-board toilet and airconditioning.

Buses in West Africa are typically less generous. While there are a number of exceptions (for example, TCV in Burkina Faso and UTB in Cote d’Ivoire), many bus companies specializing in long-haul travel in West Africa have not gone out of their way to provide their passengers with a comfortable ride. Don’t worry, though. A little proactivity on your part, and you could have a quite enjoyable trip.

Harness the power of the turban

A turban is a long piece of thin fabric. It’s usually folded in half length-wise before you wrap it around your head. Fully outstretched, it can actually serve as a light blanket, which can come in handy on cool rainy season evenings. It’s also useful during the hot season, when the interior of the bus turns into a furnace.

Soak the turban in water and wrap it around your neck. You will feel like a king (or queen). Breathing in dust? Your turban is also a respirator. On the sunny side of the bus with no curtains on the window? Rig up your turban and take a nap. No single accessory can bring you as much relief, and you can buy them in almost any market. Doesn’t technically need to be a turban, either. Any long piece of light fabric will do.

Follow the leaders

There will be passengers on your bus that have made this trip before. Follow their lead. If you get out at a rest stop, and you see them make a beeline for the woman selling sandwiches of slow-cooked chicken, tomato, onion and a hot sauce that will lay waste to your esophagus, follow them. Her popularity with the veteran travelers suggests that the food is safe (hygienically prepared) and delicious.

Experienced travelers can also help you deal with bizarre checkpoints, find emergency toilets and understand the true timetable of the bus (you are not arriving in the 24 hours that the bus company quoted you at the station).

Eat, drink and be merry

If you focus on this getting from point A to B thing, you may be disappointed. Instead, treat the bus trip as an experience in itself (it will be one, whether you like it or not). Notice how complete strangers are yakking it up on the bus; how people are buying peanuts and bananas through the window, taking tea at village stops and digging into an omelet at a kiosk at 2am; and how the scary border guards and customs agents actually have a great sense of humor. You can get in on all of that. I often come away with a few phone numbers and emails of fellow passengers, and I still see some folks who I first met on a bus.

Choose your seat wisely

There are a few things I look for in a seat on a bus, starting with basic integrity. Is the seat in fact a seat? Is it functional? Will it support my weight? On some buses, these questions are unnecessary. On others, they are critical. I try to aim for a seat towards the back. In the event of a head-on collision, I at least want to give myself a chance. I will also take a look at the windows and see what kind of airflow I will have in a particular seat.

Then I consider the sun. If I’m traveling during the day, I want to avoid the sunny side of the bus as much as possible. Of course, you can choose the best seat on the bus, and things just may not work out.

Once, I picked a comfortable seat in good condition, towards the back, non-sunny side, and then a woman sat down next to me with five or six bushels of plantains. However, despite the near DVT from having my legs tangled up in 50 unripe plantains, the woman turned out to be a good seat companion.

Alright, take those 700 words and enjoy your next marathon bus trip. If you have any of your own tips, drop them in the comments below.

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