Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Getting around in Juba

As a foreigner in Juba without an INGO/UN cocoon, I spend a lot of time getting up to speed on the workings of public transport. Private taxis -- often posh SUVs -- are prohibitively expensive. This leaves three options: foot, matatu (minibus), or boda-boda (motorcycle taxi).

[An aside: this city is run by foreigners, and I'm fascinated to see how that affects language -- which words overheard on the street are taken from English (anything NGOish), which from Arabic (numbers) and which from Ugandan street talk (boda boda, of which all the drivers hail from the land of the crested crane).]

As one boda driver observed, laughing, yesterday, "You are fearing!" It's true -- I don't feel very safe on the careening motos. The young drivers wear dark sunglasses even as the gloaming turns definitively to dusk. They take the bumpiest, narrowest, most-rutted and soccer-playing-children-filled dirt tracks so as to avoid the traffic police, who can always find some infraction with a boda driver. When walking is not possible, I prefer matatus. Matatu parks are always a mess: the minibuses jostle, bodas dart, hawkers ingratiate, and would-be passengers stay alert to the alternating squishes of mud, dust, and garbage underfoot as they scope out and push for a seat on the next bus home. They're Hans Monderman on speed.

Here's what I really like about these situations: being forced to rely on strangers for navigational aid often reaffirms my faith in humanity. Usually someone will see my confusion and help me find my way, taking on my cause as her own. (Three times people -- who I'd barely had time to say hello to -- offered to pay my fare. That has never happened to me in CAR.) Here's what I don't like: getting dumped in a far-off marketplace just as it's emptying for the night and discovering that, kindnesses of strangers or no, I am miles from my intended destination.

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