Monday, August 30, 2010

Bush Taxi's and Moto's - Oh My!

There is always going to be a story ready to be told about bush taxis and motos. I can see that now. I have a story for every single time I’ve taken one so far. But this story will just be a general description of the state of the art of riding in or on a Bush Taxi or moto. We’ll save the happenings for another day.

I wait by the side of the road in Tcheckpo for a bush taxi to slow down and pick me up. Many will pass me by because they are already full and on their way. I can usually tell when they are going to pass me by, because I can spot heads and body parts hanging out the windows. That usually means they are full..when you actually see heads or arms or legs. I generally don’t have to wait more than thirty minutes. Before I get in the taxi, I pray to God, Allah, Buddha, Ron L. Hubbard, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and all my dead relatives, and then I take a deep breath and make the sign of the cross, hoping that I’ve covered all my bases. I go through that same ritual when I get on the back of a moto.

In a bush taxi, I hope for a seat by a window, for oxygen supply and to help suppress the unusual odors you encounter. I also hope I don’t get a seat by any of the doors. There are no locks on the doors, and they really don’t seem to shut all that well. If I do happen to get a seat by the door, I try very hard not to be leaning against it. I maneuver one arm up on the seat in front of me, and hold on….just in case that door would open. I am alert at all times and take whatever precautions I can. Today was a banner day. I got to ride in the front seat, with just the driver and one other passenger. That was a first. I’ve always coveted the front seat, but had never been given that honor until today. I will spend the rest of my bush taxi riding days hoping for the front seat.

Bush Taxis are gutted vans. I can’t tell what make they used to be, but I noticed today I was in what used to be a KIA van…I’ve thought others looked like Toyota vans. It’s difficult to know because they’ve been altered so much. They are gutted and then fitted with two to three chair benches facing forward and one more narrow bench that faces the passengers. There are two employees for each bush taxi. The driver and the Bush Taxi Runner. The Bush Taxi Runner sits on the narrow bench that faces the customers. Usually there are customers sitting on that bench as well. I’ve been a passenger in a bush taxi that carried up to twenty-two people. This number included a couple small children. Impossible you say!! Oh contrare! I know there was also at least one rooster in this particular taxi. I did not see it, but I could hear it. Usually there are from twelve to fifteen people at least, and usually there is cargo. Huge sacks of grain, or furniture, or who knows what. The van is loaded down. Men, women and children all carrying a sack or two of something. It’s also amazing what they can carry on a moto. Huge sacks plus two or three people. When I bought my generator, I was on the back and my 50 pound generator balanced between my drivers knees for the forty minute trip.

There are informal bush taxi and moto stations in Lome and Tesvie. When leaving from Tesvie, one road goes towards Tcheckpo, Ahepe and Tagebow, and one road goes towards Lome. In the other towns, you just stand anywhere you want along the main road, and when a bush taxi approaches, you just wave. They will either wave at you as they pass by because they are already full, or they will stop and pick you up. When you walk by the informal station in Tesvie and Lome, several moto drivers and/or taxi runners will ask you where you are going, and if you need a moto or bush taxi. The moto’s cost more because they are faster and you don’t have to wait as long. You have to wait until the bush taxi is almost full before departing. They will usually depart with a little room left and pick up people who are waiting all along the way. I’ve never seen a bush taxi depart that isn’t almost filled to capacity.

There are little stands along the roads that sell liter bottles of gasoline mixed with a little oil. They use plastic funnels to put the gas in the tanks. There are no gas stations…none that I’ve seen anyway. These little stands are the gas stations. On a moto ride this weekend, the moto tire needed some air in it. The driver stopped at this little gas stand, and the gas stand operator pulled out a manual bicycle tire pump that they used to fill the moto tire up. Just pumped it by hand.

The Bush Taxi Runner sits in the seat that faces the customers. It is usually a young boy, maybe 14 to 16 years old. Once the taxi departs the Taxi Runners job is to hang his head out the window and solicit riders along the road, until the taxi is full. When they pick you up on the road the bush taxi just comes to a rolling stop if possible, and allows you just enough time jump in. The taxi has usually already started on its way while the taxi runner is hopping in and closing the sliding door of the moving vehicle. The taxi runner always carries a little purse. He is the money collector. He waits until about five minutes from you arrive to your destination and then requests the fare.

It is an interesting system. I think they have the business down to a science, as far as efficiency. It’s evident they have figured out it is a numbers game, as in most businesses. There is always a sense of urgency in the bush taxis and on the motos. Everything is done quickly. Tires are changed quickly, gas is put in the vehicles quickly, passengers are picked up and let out quickly. They know they have to have at least so many people on every trip, and they have to make so many trips per day to make a profit. The Taxi Runner is very important and needs to be aggressive for them to meet their numbers and their timeline. The Taxi Driver needs to drive very fast so that he can make a certain number of trips per day. Because of the rutted roads there are many flat and blown tires. The taxi driver and runner can change a tire in a matter of minutes. It’s very impressive.

The way Bush Taxis and motos dodge the ruts and holes is impressive. I think I’ve decided there is a rhythm and a real skill, and yes, I’d have to say even a gracefulness in how the better drivers of bush taxis and motos maneuver the roads. They will often swerve to the wrong side of the road to avert a rut. You think at times that they are defying gravity. They both honk their horns a lot…warning people to either get out of the way, or to the fact that they will be passing the vehicle in front of them. In both the bush taxi and as a passenger on the moto, I spend a lot of time with a grimaced wild eyed…ready to jump out of or off of…. look on my face. I’ve slashed the thin leather on the taxi seats, and I think I saw blood on the back of the shirt of the moto driver one day….from my fingernails!!

You meet some interesting people in a bush taxi. Many are curious about me, but a lot of people just ignore the fact that there is one white person in the van. There will be more stories about bush taxis and motos. There is a story to be told every time.


  1. I was an older volunteer in Togo between 2002 and 2005 after being evacuated from Cote d'Ivoire several months after completely my training there. My service began in Vogan and was completed in Kara after I extended for a third year. Older volunteers can provide a unique contribution to the Peace Corps and for me what I received in return was some of the most memorable experiences of my life. I wish you all the best for the next two years and remember to stay young.

  2. Hi Teresa,
    Tony Rizzo's cousin Nancy here. I was reading your blog and laughed uncontrollably after I read, "Before I get in the taxi, I pray to God, Allah, Buddha, Ron L. Hubbard, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and all my dead relatives, and then I take a deep breath and make the sign of the cross, hoping that I’ve covered all my bases." I must remember this next time I find myself in peril. I am so happy to see that you are able to keep your sense of humor given the circumstances. I'll keep reading!