The Peace Corps uniform – usually consisting of worn khakis or Old Navy skirts and some type of sport sandals – has several badges of honor. One for the longest amount of time between showers, another for the sickness that forced remnants out both ends. You earn merits for overcoming work frustration, fashioning a neat shelf out of limited materials and eating food that doesn’t seem edible. And then there is public transportation.
Every Peace Corps Volunteer across the world since 1961 has a taxi story. The long waits, rollercoaster-like roads and crammed vehicles with passengers that refuse to open the window are as much a PCV rite of passage as crapping your pants.
The bulk of my insane moments in Lesotho happen on a taxi. From nearly dying to being use as attraction for potential customers to drunk men passing out on me, the taxi ride is equally frustrating and hilarious. I decided to start a new feature for the blog, Taxi Tales, where I will recount some of these moments in hopes of shedding a different aspect of my life here in Lesotho. I do not mean any harm with these stories and would hate to offend the Basotho, but some weird stuff goes down in these 15-passenger vans enough to make me almost miss a oil changes, car payments and the $40 a week major oil companies steal from me. Almost.
So, for my first Taxi Tale I will talk about the second closest I ever came to dying.
We had been at our sites for just a week and, despite being on the three-month lockdown, we were allowed a few days off for Christmas. A group of us, mostly volunteers located in the north, decided to meet in Katse, the home to a fellow volunteer and a very beautiful dam.
Hannah and I hoped to take a bus, but as newbies, we didn’t quite understand the workings of the public transportation system, especially on a holiday when many were traveling, and missed the bus. So, we took a string of taxis from one village to another, hoping we would finally get on the one that took us to where we wanted to be. Ranks were full of people trying to get home for the holidays and we were outmatched by the bustles. Conductors, seeing our confusion, would ask us where we wanted to go and, after our reply, would point us in the direction of a car. We’d get in the taxi, wait for it to fill, hold our belongings in uncomfortable ways and then realize we were only going a ways down the road when the taxi pulled into another rank and said we had to get a yet another taxi.
After the fourth taxi, we finally found the one that would take us all the way to Katse. We were getting nervous because it was already late in the afternoon and we needed to be at our destination by sundown. There was a long line of people wanting to get in the same small vehicle we did but we were able to sweet talk the driver into two places in the back.
Nestled in the back of the taxi, the car slowly pulled out of the rank, having a hard time even getting over speed bumps. Hannah and I looked at each other. Something doesn’t feel right.
The first hour of the trip was fine, despite the driver going faster around the corners than we preferred. We got to a village and they made us all get it out for a minute. Once leaving this village we wouldn’t see another for two hours. The landscape of the drive changed. No more rural villages with bo-‘me’ holding shopping bags on their heads or children standing along side the roads. On one side the earth extended high and the other it extended low. To reassure us was many warning signs with cars falling off the cliff.
The drivers’ speed and care did not correct itself for the dangerous terrain. We zoomed around the mountains as if go karts on a slick track. Our nerves started to rattle. We did not feel safe. The climbs and turns were endless but I tried to remain calm thinking we couldn’t have that much further to go. I was wrong.
A nasty climb met as after a turn around the mountain. Our untrusting vehicle started to attempt it, but not even half way, it stalled. It started to roll backwards and downwards, right for that corner which would be come a drop off.
Hannah and I start screaming and were half way out the window when other passengers too started yell. The car was picking up momentum and I envisioned our white van tumbling down the mountainside.
Much to my amazement the driver was able to stop the car and hold it in place with a few rocks. We all got out and waited while a few men tried to put the car is some working order. Sundown was coming fast but there was no place for us to go. We were stranded on a mountain.
Fixed, they called everyone back into the car but Hannah and I were reluctant. We didn’t feel safe. The car continued to sputter up the hill, attempting and even bigger one, and Hannah and I decided either we’d stay in that car or we’d live to see Christmas.
Days before two volunteers died in a car accident in Mozambique. The news flashed through both Hannah’s and mine mind and we didn’t want to be next. We screamed at the driver to let us out and said we didn’t want to go further. The other passengers looked at us crazy. You will get raped out here or hit by a car. We didn’t care. We needed to get out.
At about that time the car stalled again but the driver stopped it before the visions of our fiery death came back. It was now 5 p.m. We had maybe two hours of sunlight. We needed to get to Katse, but we had no vehicle and no idea where we were. Some private cars passed us by but we positioned on a hill and they weren’t going to stop. I started to tear up and a very sweet Mosotho lady, Angela I think, tried to calm us down and promised us we would make it to Katse that night.
We needed a plan and we needed one now. “I think we should call Peace Corps,” I told Hannah. And right as the words came out another van, our rescue taxi, came up the hill.
Still not convinced this one would die too, Hannah and I quietly said prayers to ourselves (“Are you praying right now?” “Yeah.” “Me too.”) until we were out of the most mountainous spot and reached villages. We made it to Katse, met up with our friends at the lodge and calmed our nerves with beer as we retold the story.
We took an alternative route on the way home. Although our life wasn’t almost compromised, the bus did break down and we were stalled for two hours. Later a woman leaned over us to puke out the window.
Now, Hannah and I have a new rule. We no longer take sketchy taxis and we no longer sit in the back of a taxi together.