Thursday, November 25, 2010

I'm Not Fussy

I said before that there is always a story, every time you ride in a bush taxi, and there is…always.  I could write a story for almost every time I’ve been in one.   Like the time I was leaving Tesvie to come home to Tchekpo.  I’d been at the Bush Taxi station waiting for quite a while.  There’s always a man there ready to hail one down for me.  Most of them know me by now.  They call me Tchekpo, because they know by now that’s where I’m heading.  On this day, I saw a bush taxi a few yards away, and the man called me over, excited that he had found one so fast.  I was happy too.  However he did have a hesitant look on his face, like perhaps he knew what was inside.  He opened the sliding side door, and to my surprise, two goats were standing there, staring me in the eye.  There was a Togolese woman sitting in the front seat, and she said…”oh no yovo(white person)….no, no, no….you can’t ride with the goats," and she cackled.   First, I looked at him incredulously, and then I said, “no…I’m not gonna ride with the goats, I will wait for the next bush taxi.”  I was even a little insulted that this man thought that I would ride with goats.  I thought, do I look like someone who would be ok with riding in the same compartment as the goats?  (It had been a long, very hot day, so I let that thought pass.) I’m sure he would have received a nice little commission from the bush taxi driver for getting a passenger to ride with the goats.  But it would have to be the next sucker.

Or there was the time, the bush taxi runner was entertaining the rest of the passengers with his banter.  He was facing them.  The taxi was full.  I was riding in the front seat…in the middle with my legs straddling the gear shift.  He was speaking in broken French.  I knew he was talking about me, because I picked up a word here and there, and I heard the word American several times.  I turned around and looked at him.  He looked at me, and said, “Est-ce-que vous comprendre moi,” (Do you understand me?)  I said,”yes I do”…though I didn’t.  He said, “you do?, you understand what I’m saying”?  I said, “yes,” and laughed.  He laughed too but looked a little embarrassed, and then he said “I was just telling them that you aren’t fussy.  I see you riding in the bush taxis many times, and most Americans are fussy, but you aren’t.  You are ok.”  Ha…… I’m not at all sure that’s what he was saying, otherwise why would he have been embarrassed that I understood him, but I decided to take him at his word, and was pleased that #1 they were getting to know me, and that #2 that I had earned a reputation for not being a fussy American.  It pleased me.  I agree, I’m not fussy.  It doesn’t do any good to be fussy or to complain, and the people riding with you do seem to acknowledge and appreciate the fact that you don’t expect any extra considerations just because you are white.  I do pull the white card out occasionally when a bush taxi stops and I see there is a place in the front seat.  There might also be plenty of room in the back seats, but I will motion to the front seat with a pleading look.  The front seat is a coveted position.  You only have to share it with two other people (though I have seen them pack four in the front seat on occasion.)  The front seat can kind of be a double-edged sword though……It guarantees a ride with more comfort, but you know in the back of your mind you will be the first to die if the taxi crashes.  To me….it’s worth the risk.

BIRDS EYE VIEW of a partially filled bush taxi. 
When the woman in the middle saw this picture she said
Tres Jolie!!!  Very Pretty!
Just recently I rode from Tesvie to Tchekpo in a taxi full of people, about fifteen.  The back was stuffed full of big bags of fertilizer.  I smelled it as soon as they opened the door, and thought about waiting for the next one….but not wanting to be “fussy,” I crawled in.  I was in the back seat.  The fertilizer was right behind me.  The bags poking me in the head.  The smell was SO bad.  Never smelled anything like it, really.  I had purchased two loaves of bread before I left Tesvie, and I kept putting my nose in the bag with the bread to survive.  Some of the passengers laughed when they saw my method of coping.  There were flies (big ones) flying around all of us, all the way home.  When I got home the smell had permeated my clothing, and even my bra and hat.  I immediately took my clothes off and bathed.  I threw my clothes in a pile in my bedroom to be washed, and that night while laying in bed, I could smell it, as if I were still in the van.  The smell was in my nose for days.  Gawd!

So….keep in mind, I go to great lengths to not be “fussy” in the bush taxis.  Usually I greet the other passengers when I enter.  Occasionally I’ll strike up a conversation with someone, but on most days I put my earphones in my ears, and listen to music on my ipod until I reach my destination.   I simply go into a kind of comatose state of mind, try not to think of my cramped surroundings, the bumpy road, or the smell of the bush taxi.  I think everyone has their limits though, and I reached mine the last time I left Lome.

Swearing in party!! 
There were four of us leaving the Peace Corps Headquarters on this particular Sunday.  It was 2pm.  We were all going to Tesvie, though that was not our final destination.  In Tesvie we would get out of the bush taxi from Lome, and maybe wait a while for another one, or if we lucked out, there would be one just ready to depart that would take us to our individual villages.  When you leave Lome, you have to take a regular taxi to the bush taxi stand.  Because it’s cheaper when several people ride in the taxi, we had all decided to depart at the same time, and share the cost of the taxi.  We had been in Lome for the swearing in of a new group of volunteers.  Having partied the night before we were all tired and cranky.  It was an especially hot and humid day.  So hot, you could see the vapors and the steam rising from the sandy roads we walked on.  You could feel the heat of the sun burning the flesh on the back of your neck.  Hot.  We were all carrying our backpacks and heavy gear.  We hailed three different taxis before we got the price we knew we should get.  There is always, always a lot of disquitering (bartering) when you ride in the small taxis in town.  I personally don’t like to disquiter, so when I’m by myself I usually take at least the second counter offer, but these taxi drivers saw three tired young women and one tired old woman (that would be me) carrying a lot of baggage.  They thought we were probably desperate enough that they could persuade us to pay twice as much as we should.  The young women didn’t give an inch.  I was saving my energy, and let them do the work.  Finally on the fourth taxi we agreed on a price. 

Wading through the marche in a bush taxi
We got in the taxi, and were on our way to the bush taxi stand, and then to Tesvie.   Or so we thought.  I remember texting my friend from the taxi, telling him we had just taken off, and that I was hot and tired, and hoped for the front seat.   Well you get what you pay for…right?  So yes we got a good price for the taxi, but he didn’t take us to the bush taxi stand.  Instead he drove down some back alleys, and stopped in one of them where there were three men standing outside of a bush taxi, putting various items (cargo) in the van.  Various items being a car engine and large sacks of something.  Obviously the taxi driver was going to get a monetary kick-back for bringing customers to this bush taxi.  The men looked and acted nice enough.  They were smiling, and appeared very happy at their good fortune to have their bush taxi already partly filled before they even departed.   All the bush taxi’s are pretty horrible inside.  Hard seats, dirty, windows that don’t open.  This one was worse than most.  You just take what you get here, so we piled into the bush taxi.  I wondered what adventure awaited us.  I didn’t get the front seat.  I was in the back seat, in the back corner.  The window by me didn’t open.  Once we started I immediately noticed the lack of shock absorbers.  I just prayed for a quick trip.  My computer was in my backpack.  I held my heavy backpack on my hot lap, so that the computer would not be subjected to the bumpy ride.  There’s always a bright side.  Ok, so I’m in the back seat.  The advantage of the back seat is, it gets filled up first.  At least you don’t have to get in and out of the taxi while they readjust who is riding where every time they stop.  Getting in and out of the bush taxi with your backpack, and usually a bevy of other items, crouched down, and crawling over people is not easy.  I know within the first fifteen minutes what my ride is going to be like.  I know if I’m going to be sitting with chickens, or drunks, or preachers, some nice Togolese woman who offers me a bite of her bread, or a sick child.  I know, and I can prepare myself.  On this day, my consolation, even though I was in the back seat. was that I knew at least I would be riding in the same seat as three of the four women I had left with.  There would be no chickens, or drunks or in and out of the taxi to deal with.  I also had the added comfort of knowing I probably wouldn’t be the first to die, and might even survive a crash.  Who needs the front seat with those benefits!   Off we went. 

We had all taken this same trip often enough to be able to discern if we are at the very least, headed in the right direction….and we were not.  We talked and complained amongst ourselves, wondering where we were going, and how long the detour would take.  The Togolese men were chattering, and pleasantly laughing with each other, probably discussing the errands and the trip they were about to embark on.   We did ask them right away, where they were going.  “This isn’t the road to Tesvie,” we said.  They told us they needed to drop off the engine that was in the back of the van.  Well first they tried to tell us that the other roads were bad and they were taking a shortcut, but that didn’t fly, because this road was worse than any other we might have been on, so they fessed up and said they had a few errands to do.  First stop was the Togolese version of a machine shop.  The men got out of the van, then pulled the heavy engine out of the back.  They then acted like they were going to wait for it to be repaired.  We were there at least fifteen minutes, sweltering until the four of us started complaining rather loudly.    The men begrudgingly got back into the van and left the engine behind.  I think at this point they determined, we were going to be a handful.  We thought we were finally on our way.  Soon, we realized they were still going in the wrong direction.  They were headed towards the marche(city market) One big, chaotic mess, that I only go to if I have to.  The four of us again started complaining loudly.  “Where are you going?  This is not the way to Tesvie.”  They said they had to pick something up in the market, which was pretty much where we initially started the trip in the little taxi.  We were all complaining, and the men good-naturedly tried to ignore us, which wasn’t easy.   We were now in a very, very congested part of the marche.  Honking horns, people dodging cars, motos and bicycles, Street vendors selling their wares.  Women carrying things on their heads, people everywhere.   There is really no delineating line between the space for pedestrians to walk and cars to drive in the Marche.  They all meld together.   Total chaos.  It was an area of the marche I didn’t recognize.  The car traffic was going at a snails pace, if it was even going at all.  All of a sudden I reached my limit. There was no one thing that occurred.  It was simply a combination of everything.  Like a dam bursting,  I snapped.  I broke.  You might say I got real fussy.  I said, “Let me out of this van!”  I obviously was not thinking rationally.  All I knew is that I had to get out of that van.  The men tried to talk me out of it, but the women I was with instinctively knew that I would not be dissuaded.   They probably had each hit this wall themselves at one time or another in Togo.  Tamara, one of the women, told the drivers to stop, and let me out.  They did, but very reluctantly.  I heard later that after I got out, the PCV’s I was with wondered if they’d ever see me again, and they talked about how really nice it was knowing me.  You might think they should have tried harder to stop me, but really everyone is on their own in Togo.  They knew I had to do, what I had to do. 

So….I’m out of the van, but I feel no relief.  I’m still angry, and very hot, and thirsty, and when the van pulled away, I remembered I didn't have much money.  I had no idea where I was.  Stupid, I know, but as I said I was not thinking rationally.  At that point, I couldn’t even find my phone, and thought for sure I had lost it, when I was getting out of the van.  I started walking, or I should say maneuvering through the throngs of people, cars and bicycles, and watched the van slowly drive off.  The women also told me that a few minutes after I got out, the men were talking to each other in a very animated way, and stopped the van.  They seemed very concerned about me getting out, and didn’t know what to do, but they could really only go in one direction at that point.  There was no turning back, for me or for them.  It took me a few minutes to compose myself, (I was kind of throwing things around, left and right, mumbling under my breath, ignoring any onlookers.  You who know me well might recognize this scenario)  I decided to find another small taxi to take me to where I was supposed to be the first time.  I only had so much money, so I knew I would have to disquiter, which as I said I’m not good at.  I talked to three taxi drivers (best I could, with my French) and tried to get them to take me to the taxi stand.  After bartering for several minutes with each of them, they pretty much said…”no way….I’m not taking you” and turned their back on me…just went back to what they were doing.  I do believe that I might have had the attitude (or one might say fussiness) I described above.  My “attitude” did not inspire good will.  I determined if I was going to get help, I was going to have compose myself.  I did, and so-doing finally found a taxi driver who took pity on me.  He wasn’t going to drive me anywhere, but he listened to my sad story, and said I could just walk a few more blocks and catch a bush taxi.  He even got out of his taxi, and started to lead the way.  We walked a few blocks, and turned the corner.  He said, “See that white bush taxi way up there stuck in traffic?”  That taxi is going to Tesvie.  He walked with me all the way to the white bush taxi he was referencing.  By now, it had been an hour since I exited the first bush taxi.  As we approached the white bush taxi I noticed something curious.  I noticed the back of the head of a white woman in the rear window.  I squinted.  I thought to myself, NO, IT COUDN’T  BE!  But it was.  It was the exact same bush taxi I had gotten out of an hour earlier.  Still stuck in traffic, still carrying my friends.  I went to the front door of the taxi, and because life in Togo is so insane, everyone including me, and including the Togolese men  just started laughing hysterically.  Everyone in an instant could comprehend the insanity of the situation.  Tamara, one of the PCV’s….I think she laughed all the way home.  They did let me sit in the front seat this time.  After sitting in stalled traffic for about another half hour, we were finally on our way to Tesvie.  The bush taxi driver kept looking over at me and smiling and shaking his head.  The man in the middle said, “Togo is bad.”  I said, “No, no, Togo isn’t bad…today was bad, but Togo’s not bad.”  He seemed surprised, and smiled.

To all of you,  who after reading this, might be worried about my welfare, or my sanity.  I just want you to know that I will never, ever demand to get out of a bush taxi again, by myself, in some unknown swarming city or even on a country road.   In fact, wherever I am, and I start to reach my limit, or feel “fussy.”  I will remember this day, and I will go through my meditations, of praying to God, Allah, Buddha, Ron R. Hubbard, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and all my dead relatives, and ask them for patience.  Then I’ll make the sign of the cross.  I’ll put my in my earphones, close my eyes and not be fussy.


  1. This post was wonderful. I laughed so hard when you got back to your taxi! And I know who that last paragraph is for...

  2. I love the story. I was a PCV in -96-'98 one day on a trip from the Taxi stand to the neighborhood of the PC Office I got fed up and demanded that the taxi driver put me down. I got out in the middle of the city. I had all my bags - as this was my last trip to Lome and I was frustrated, sick, and hot. I saddled up to Al Donald's to enjoy a meal and cool off before walking the rest of the way to the PC office.