Independent travel brings many rewards, but travel using such means isn’t without its risks. The older I get, the more I factor safety into my plans. If as a traveller I have nine lives when it comes to near misses, I figure I used up a fair few of them when I was young, naive and imperturbable.
Rust buckets and fatigued drivers
In the UK, we take it for granted that vehicles are roadworthy but the same can’t be said for some parts of the world. Things have improved somewhat since, but on my first trip to Lima, the taxi that took us to the airport was an ancient Beetle. Its doors had rusted into a beautiful but deadly filigree mesh and were held shut by pieces of ragged string. Even the driver made reference to its poor condition, opting to leave us on the road outside rather than to risk being apprehended by the police or airport authorities in front of the airport terminal. Things are rather different now. Doing the same run on my last visit I had a functioning seat belt and a seat with complete upholstery, though the traffic in Callao was as bad as it had ever been.
Driver fatigue, particularly when it’s coupled with bad roads, can be lethal. In places where driver hours aren’t regulated and drivers aren’t routinely breathtested, you could find yourself in a whole heap of trouble. Sometimes, if it’s the only bus company running the route, you don’t have a choice. The bus I boarded to take me from Chachapoyas to Cajamarca wasn’t in the best of condition (though by no means the worst I’ve encountered) but it was that or a prohibitively expensive private transfer. Safety-wise, I should have opted for the latter. Instead I tried to sleep through a night of switchbacks and squealing brakes, saying a prayer of thanks that we made it one piece when we pulled up at our destination at daybreak. Travelling at night had one big advantage, however – it was easier on the nerves not to see how close we were to the edge of the ravines.
Often, I’ve taken local buses within cities or out into the surrounding countryside. In Latin America, they’re often repurposed American school buses. The bench seats are uncomfortable: sticky in the heat, the cracked leather slippery and uncomfortable on bare legs. In Haiti, though, I’d have given anything to be travelling in one of these Nicaraguan chicken buses. Instead, I took what was possibly the most uncomfortable ride of my life in an overloaded tap tap. The end justified the means, but you can read here about the journey from hell that took me to Port Salut:
These days I turn away vehicles, though, when I know there’s a choice, refusing a taxi without seat belts and doing some homework about which bus companies have the best safety record. It’s possible to find companies that run services with two drivers so that each can be well rested after a stint at the wheel. If a company states on their website that they routinely screeen for drugs that’s also a plus, though admittedly hard to corroborate. It’s particularly important to be cautious if the road you’re due to travel on is an accident blackspot. Hiring a car and a driver is often a smart choice, though check the condition of the vehicle before agreeing a price – no one wants to break down in the middle of nowhere, as happened to me out in the Senegalese countryside.
The dangers of walking
It can be tempting, especially in cities, to think that opting for two feet instead of a ride with a crazed minibus driver would be safer. Remember though, that this assumes the driver won’t opt for your bit of pavement. In Nairobi, I needed to get to the central railway station to catch a train to Mombasa. It departed right in the middle of rush hour; my journey took me from the suburbs to the thick of the action.
Drivers lent on horns to vent their frustration but in the melee, there were vehicles everywhere. Lane discipline was a forgotten art as cars, buses, vans and taxis tried everything they could to get ahead. Not every overtaking manouevre was a successful one. Consequently, some drivers found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the road. My driver was optimistic we would reach the station in time, following a full sized bus packed with commuters up the kerb and along the pavement (which incidentally wasn’t as wide as the car, let alone the bus). Pedestrians scattered and we returned to the carriageway when we reached the junction.
I’m not saying I was especially safe in the passenger seat, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be a pedestrian on those streets. In China and Vietnam, I’ve found that the solution to crossing roads where there is that much traffic – there, it’s likely to be bicycles and motorbikes – is to team up with other pedestrians and form a kind of Roman testudo, minus the shields. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve put a local person between me and the oncoming traffic. I figure that they’re used to it, plus they speak the lingo should it become necessary to yell obscenities at any driver coming too close. I’ve also learnt that it’s imperative to maintain a steady pace and not to waiver from my course. If the driver or rider knows where you’re going to be, they can swerve to go round you.
It works – if you can hold your nerve. Have you got any other tips?