Perhaps the most novel and amusing aspect of living abroad is getting around. In the United States, I spent two years walking through the Copley Square mall to avoid the dismal cold of Boston winters. When I moved back with my parents to save money for my Kiva Fellowship, I parked my car at Norwood Central and took the commuter rail into Back Bay Station each morning, and back again in the evening. I actually enjoyed riding the rails for those three months, since it was my first and, to-date, my only taste of suburban work-a-day living. Every morning, armed with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and a day-old Wall Street Journal discarded by my father, I boarded the train and appreciated the fact that I was a commuter. And, unlike my fellow riders, I didn’t have to worry about mortgage payments and other of adulthood’s reality checks.
I brought this same zeal with me to the countries I’ve lived and traveled. And, when it comes to getting around, Africa and Asia do it right.
I am not quite sure where transportation innovation comes from, but the evolutionary pathway took a radical turn at some point, leaving Asia with the transportation equivalent of the sea animals shown in the Blue Planet episode on the deep ocean. In the Philippines, the staple of the transportation diet is the jeepney. These elongated former U.S. military jeeps with two parallel benches in that back and are known for their “flamboyant decoration and crowded seating.” These vehicles would be absurd if they weren’t so practical and convenient. Each jeepney has a defined route, allowing you to hop-on and hop-off at your leisure, provided you know where you are going. Amazingly the driver serves as both the controller and the comptroller, handling the money and the navigation simultaneously. Given the separation of these duties in Africa, this feat is a testament to the industriousness of Filipinos .
For the more rural traveler, the tricycle will get you where you need to go. Unlike the smaller, more childish version to which most people are accustomed, Filipino tricycles have a sidecar attached to a motorbike. It is designed for two, but I have seen no less than eight people riding through the rural areas. This may seem crazy, but it becomes more reasonable once you have seen a family of five on a single motorbike in Phnom Penh.
To take you the last mile, you can pick up a trisikad. It is the same as a tricycle, except pedal-powered. It is truly excruciating for the driver, who is carrying 500 pounds of people on a BMX. I know because I tried my luck as a trisikad driver during one late-night excursion back from the bar on Bantayan Island, which gave me a new appreciation for white collar labor.
Different species belonging to the same phylum as these weird creatures exist throughout Southeast Asia. The tuk-tuk in Cambodia and Thailand, the motorbike in Vietnam, and the fishing-boat ferry with the outboard motor in waterway throughout Asia give you a taste of the authentic. Of course, the bicycle is truly the rice of the Southeast Asian diet, ubiquitous and trustworthy.
For some serious grittiness, Africa offers a connoisseur’s menu. In Ghana, the tro-tro, otherwise known as “the tro,” is the way to get around. It is a large, rectangular van forged out of hard steel. Unlike the florid jeepney, the tro is straight monochromatic business. For a dollar or two, one can “tro it,” as my Canadian friends used to say, long distances. For a more comfortable ride, you can take the air-conditioned bus, but will be forced to watch Nigerian movies that are generally about witches, adultery, or both. Unlike Hollywood, where a director might put out one movie a year, Nollywood functions more like the soft-core pornography industry, where directors make a movie a week.
For pure chaos, Nairobi is truly Mecca. Matatus – 14-seater passenger vans operated by a two-man team made up of a driver and a “tout” – careen through the city, spending more time on the sidewalk or the wrong lane than in their own lane, where they belong. These horrible transports cause problems for everything, creating needless traffic jams by purposefully creating loggerheads and refusing to back down. As with copies of the Sega game “Shaq Fu,” the world would be a better place if they did not exist. Fortunately, the city of Nairobi is planning on getting rid of them once and for all.
There is one saving grace to matatus: their names. A friend of mine actually compiled a list of the best matatu names over the course of three months. Here are a few:
- Total Pain
- Tender Lover
- Short Message
- Malia Obama
- Compliant MOA
- God’s Power
- Jolly Escort
- Annointed Reloaded
- Karl Malone
Either way, these miserable machines get the job done. And I will keep riding them until something better comes along.
Anyways, those are some of my favorite forms of transportation. I look forward to sample the rest of what the world has to offer.
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The most awesome thing about the third photo is the disembodied hand groping the girl on the left.
I am also a big fan of Guatemala’s colorful and apparently doorless ‘chicken’ buses, which like many African matatus double as live animal transportation services.