Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ode to the Poda-Poda, the Local Public Bus

It's cheap and reliable. By some miracle it doesn't collapse into a heap of metal and human flesh over the course of a run on local roads. Evangelical slogans on the hood and on stickers pasted over cracks in the windshield may just as well be the prayers that make it possible for us to reach our destination: "The blood of Jesus is over my business." "If God gree we go succeed." The fare collectors tend to be wirey and adept at climbing through the windows when the doors won't open from the inside, and they have no trouble squeezing in when even the aisles are packed with passengers. They are also quite strong, which helps when it comes time to muscle the door back open, if it closed at all. Huge metal bolts or lengths of nylon rope hold everything together and usually keep the main passenger door attached to the body of the bus. I always get correct change. Few people bother to complain about the tight fit - 5 people on a bench meant for three that has an extension one can pull out into the aisle - or the bumps in the road so the mood onboard is a pleasant one. The sight of another poda-poda that has lost a wheel (it seems lug nuts often shake loose on the roads and even go missing altogether) or a young boy substituting for the regular fare collector trying to close an obstinate door can often get all the passengers laughing amiably and cracking jokes about the pitiful state of the poda-poda. It's better than walking in the heat and dust. The seats are usually firmly bolted to the floor of the poda-poda, and even when this isn't the case, the seat immediately in front is usually firmly bolted to the floor and so there is usually something to hold onto even when there isn't much to sit on. I have only once had to sit on a loosely bolted rear bench of a poda-poda, the rear door of which would not stay shut.

If I am lucky enough to get a seat in the front half of the bus, I will probably arrive with absolutely no bumps on my head. There are lots of places along my daily commute where tires can be repaired or even pumped up without anyone having to get off the poda-poda, although it means that three or four strong young men have to rock the bus back and forth during the process to allow room for the air in the tires and this usually means more bumps on my head. I recognize most of the drivers and fare collectors, friendly, familiar faces I am happy to see in the morning. The drivers are not particularly aggressive and most seem downright courteous in traffic, but they have no fear of potholes or drainage ditches or oncoming traffic on their side of the road. The view of the beach along the road is stunningly beautiful. I like the name and it even has another nickname: bone-shaker.

The Libyan government seems to have donated several brand new, white vans that sit higher off the road than most of the current poda-podas (Despite what one might expect, poda-podas all seem to be of only a handful of makes and models, mostly second-hand Mazda mini-vans from the Netherlands and Germany). The seats are cushioned, and no one seems to be sitting in the aisles. I suspect they charge more than the 900 leones (about 30 cents) that is the regular fare, but I am looking forward to a ride on one of them one of these days. Since the windows are also closed, I think they might even be air-conditioned. I hesitate to get too excited, though, because I have seen only two white vans running my route and I don't want them to spoil my enjoyment of the every-day poda-poda. I am not the only one who has taken notice of these vans. Passing one of them on the road is one of the few things that will definitely set a poda-poda passenger to complaining.

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