It's week 8 of Pre-Service Training. For the first month my group was transported by Peace Corps vehicles when we needed to visit the Boma (district center) or visit a local Community Day Secondary School. However, I knew the day would come when I had to travel by other means. That day was a couple weeks ago.
After receiving language training in bargaining and transportation, our group split up into pairs during Week 6. Then we were dropped off at various points along a road, in the company of a language trainer. Our task - get to the local msika (market) by catching a ride in a mini-bus. I was so nervous about it beforehand, and when the mini-bus actually stopped it was so chaotic that I forgot to use my Chichewa. It worked out though. My mini-bus partner Bill and I were sandwiched in the second row between the conductor and another passenger, and after about six more stops we reached the market. Success!
Since that day, I have travelled by mini-bus quite a few times, as well as by several other private transportation methods. (There is no public transportation system in Malawi that I have seen.)
As a Peace Corps Trainee/Volunteer** in Malawi my transportation options are:
- Walk: this is my preferred option, but it isn't practical for longer trips, obviously
- Bicycle: Peace Corps issued my group bikes and gave us training in how to maintain and repair them. I am not really a bicycle person as I prefer to walk most places if I can, but it could come in handy. PCVs are always required to wear a helmet when riding a bike.
- Bike Taxi: this is another transportation method that you see all over Malawi. Typically the bike is decorated with bright colors and there is a cushion on the back for the passenger to sit on. There is also a second set of handlebars for the passenger to hold into, and little footrests, although I heard as you go north it is less likely the taxi will have handlebars. Typically women sit side saddle due to the skirt. I am not that brave though, so both times I rode on a bike taxi, I just sat facing forward and pulled my skirt down over my knees.)
- Mini-Bus: for short to long-distance travel, this is a readily-available option in Malawi. Typically the vehicles are designed to seat 12 people, but they usually have a minimum of 16. I heard the PCV mini-bus record was something like 32, but I'm skeptical. So far mine is 18. At my site this will be my primary travel method besides walking.
- Hitchhike: This is discouraged by Peace Corps except in emergency situations, but in a lot of rural areas this may be the only practical option. Sometimes they let you ride for free, sometimes they might ask for money. It just depends. Regardless, you should always ask before you accept the ride. Hitching here is much safer than in America because it is so common here, but it is always wise to use common sense when employing this option.
- Basi: This is a good option for long-distance travel, and considered very safe by Peace Corps. It is travel by a large private bus. Prices vary, but you get what you pay for. I paid about 3000MK for a bus ride going South to Blantyre, but the bus waited for hours before leaving to fill every seat (and even have people stand in the center aisles). It also stopped very frequently, and didn't really offer any bathroom stops. Going back North, I took another Basi which cost about 6500MK, but it left closer to the actual scheduled time, it had music videos on a TV at the front of the bus (lots of Celine Dion, as per usual in Malawi), and stopped only at a few bus depots so it was much faster. It also made two bathroom stops, although I heard it was less a toilet and more a urination trough for ladies. On bus travel days, it is best to drink minimal amounts of water.
In the last few weeks I have travelled by a variety of different methods. Soon I'll be a pro. While in Malawi I would also like to try traveling by boat (on the lake) and by ox-cart (which is less about function and more just to try it). Special thanks to Ryan, now a RPCV, for showing me the ropes with a few of these travel methods during my site visit. I was really nervous about traveling in Malawi, but he loves it so he was a good person to go around with. I hope I can embrace travel here as well.
**Note - Peace Corps Trainees and Volunteers are not permitted to drive vehicles, nor to ride a motorcycle.