While sitting on the bus today on a quick trip up to Musanze, I thought I should explain in more detail what traveling around Rwanda entails. In general, there are two types of buses in this country: express buses and twegerane.
For shorter trips, the express buses and twegerane are more or less the same- a boxy white van, with 3 people in the front seat and 4 rows of seats in the back. Each row has one long bench with a small folding chair on the far right side that can be put up and down to let people on and off. There are racks on the top of the car for tying down bulky items like rolled-up mattresses, and there is some space in the back to squeeze in luggage, 30 pound bags of produce, jerry cans of banana beer, and even live animals.
Express buses are the nicer, more reliable buses, operated by a few different reputable companies such as International, Horizon, Virunga, etc. They have set stops along the main roads, and you have to buy a ticket from the representative at your stop. Selling tickets forces the operators to regulate the number of customers on each bus, making the trips much more comfortable. You know that there will be no more than two people in the front beside the driver and four people in each of the back four rows.
These buses are usually less rickety than a standard twegerane. They look sturdier and cleaner, and they have a tag hanging from the rearview mirror reporting their last maintenance checks. My advice: travel express whenever possible.
Twegerane, on the other hand, are a different story. In each bus, there is the driver and a guy in the second row to collect money from passengers. Unlike express buses, twegerane do not have set stops. They have the route they always follow, but they are free to stop whenever and wherever they like. This means that people are constantly hopping on and off for very short distances, and whenever the driver sees someone flagging them down along the road, they pull over to pick them up.
These operators don’t sell tickets; when you get on the bus you can negotiate a price with the guy in the back and you hand him your money as you approach your destination. And because there are no tickets, there is no limit to the number of people that get crammed on the bus. Three people per row is most comfortable but four is standard. However if you happen to find yourself in particularly entrepreneurial bus, there can be five or six people crammed into each row, with people hunched up against the roof not actually sitting down in a seat.
Keep in mind these numbers do not include babies and small children. The babies are strapped to their mothers’ backs most of the time, and the kids end up sitting on any available laps. It is not uncommon to spend your journey balancing a complete stranger’s child on your lap or having them stand between your feet.
Whenever your bus pulls up to a stop, young boys carrying trays of snacks or women with fruit run up to the windows and sell their goods. You can buy anything from fresh doughnuts, kilos of carrots, peanuts, hardboiled eggs, drinks, and cookies from these little vendors.
Being the only white person on the bus can have its advantages and disadvantages. If you’re lucky, they move you to the front seat with the driver. And while part of me always feels really uncomfortable with the preferential treatment, it’s also way more roomy and comfortable up front so it’s hard to turn down! Today the girl beside me insisted on holding my backpack on her lap and kept offering me half of whatever food she bought from the vendors. Some people get really chatty and want to practice their English or French with you and ask all sorts of questions about America. You can read about a particularly memorable encounter I had recently on public transportation here.
When you finally arrive at your stop, you simply knock a few times on the ceiling of the bus or hiss at the driver to signal to them to let you off. Large stations where you can catch connecting buses are always crowded with people. As soon as you step out of your bus, you are swarmed by other drivers shouting the names of their routes. The men will grab your arm, saying, “Sister, sister! You go to Kigali? Kigali? Here!” as they pull you towards their van. They vie with each other for your business since they are desperate to fit as many people in their car as possible.
I usually don’t fight it much and just end up in whatever taxi comes along first. The buses don’t leave until they are full, so if you get crammed into an already full car, you leave almost immediately. If you end up in a partially empty van, you at least get to choose a good seat but you might end up sitting in the hot parking lot for an hour.
The same type thing happens with the moto drivers. When you untangle yourself and crawl out of the taxi, the motaris start circling like sharks. They hiss to get your attention, ask where you’re going, and try to offer you the best price.
Traveling by moto is my preferred method of transportation, but Peace Corps has a variety of restrictions regarding moto use for safety reasons. I’ve made friends with a few of the moto drivers in my village, so whenever I need to make a quick trip on the dirt roads near my village, I call Damien or Theo to come pick me up at my house. I trust them, I know they give me an honest price, and if they happen pass me on the road heading the same direction they often offer to take me free of charge. It’s so much fun to wind through the mountains on the back of a moto, admiring the stunning views and taking in the fresh air.
All in all, transportation in Rwanda is actually really good, despite some of the aforementioned complaints. From everything I’ve read about traveling in Africa, Rwanda really sounds vastly improved from other countries. The roads are in better condition and are much cleaner. The routes are more consistent and run more reliably. The cars are safer and better regulated. Plus since Rwanda is such a small country, it takes far less time to travel from one place to another.
So what do you think- ready to fly over and travel Rwanda with me? 😉