Stranded at the Border

Zanzibar: the ancient, winding alleys of Stone Town, sea snakes sliding under the warm waves of Paje, sprawling spice farms, and beaches that belong on the postcards from lucky friends on their honeymoons. Zanzibar is both a place of living history and lush, destination-worthy paradise. But for my friends and me, getting to that paradise from Gaborone, Botswana, was an ascent from hell. And it started with a bus.

The madness began on a Thursday after when we skipped class at the University of Botswana and headed to the TJ bus office to catch our 3:30 ride to Joburg. We sat in an essentially bare room with some chairs and fans set up for the early passengers.

At 3:30pm, there was no bus. We asked the desk clerks what was going on and they told us that the bus was held up at the South African border, so it would be late, but it was coming. Okay then. By 4, there was still no bus and the other people who had been waiting with us congregated around the counter, speaking angrily in Setswana.

One woman half-jokingly declared that we would all sleep in the bus office. Close to 4:30, one of the employees told us to go outside because the bus had arrived, so we gathered our bags and followed him. No bus. Were they just trying to get us to go away? We lugged our bags back inside and found out that the bus had broken down and there was no backup.

We asked for our money back like everyone else, but it was like the employees had magically turned to stone. They were unresponsive (not totally surprising customer service in Botswana), which made everyone angry. Sometimes people would ask them questions, and the employees would stare past them in boredom and not say anything. One lethargically called the manager and told us that the company couldn’t return our money, but it would put us on a kombi (van) to Joburg instead.

“I paid for a bus, not a kombi,” one man snapped in English.

The kombi never showed up anyway.

The employees kept telling us there were no refunds for the 250 pula bus tickets, so one woman got the police involved. She brought in four clearly bored officers and claimed that the TJ employees were robbing everyone. In a typical fashion, the police were slow to do anything, but their presence helped. After fighting tooth and nail and even marching upstairs to speak with the supervisor, all the customers managed to wrangle their money back for the bus tickets, although there was nothing to be done for all the wasted time.

Not to mention, I had gone around the corner to use the strip mall’s public bathroom before the bus fiasco and instead of finding orderly and vacant bathroom stalls, I stumbled upon five women crammed inside. Their suitcases were stacked in the corner, taking up much of the space. One had a plate of food in her lap and a second was washing her panties in the only sink, which was full of a reddish-gray water. One of the women leapt forward and demanded 1 pula from me to use the bathroom. She (surprise) was not a bathroom attendant and I had to wrangle my way into one of the stalls and then escape back to the oh-so wonderful bus station as quickly as possible.

We sat outside and called a cab driver (let’s call him Sam) whom we had starting getting rides from the previous week. He made long-distance trips to places like Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and that’s right: Joburg. It was a shot in the dark, but it seemed like he’d be willing to drive us that night. Sam met us at the station and explained that he wanted to drive us, but there was one hitch in the plan: he had a 5,000 Rand fine from South Africa because he “unknowingly” gave a ride to someone across the border who was missing his papers.

“But sometimes the officials don’t notice things in the passport,” Sam said, folding his hands while we drank pineapple juice at a food court. “The women notice too many details, but if we get a man, I think we can make it.”

Why not?

On the 40-minute drive to the border, however, we started having second thoughts. All our other options had dried up during our gamble drive to the border.

All the flights from Gaborone to Joburg we’re booked for that night and the next morning. And an overnight kombi was out of the question; half the group didn’t feel comfortable with that option and we didn’t even know where to find one. If this didn’t work out, we were screwed.

Despite our worrying, Sam was nonchalant and chatty. At the border, we held our breath and went through immigration, casually making it clear that we were a group and that we were so excited to catch our flight. We all got through immigration—everyone but Sam. A border official took him into a small side room. When he came out 15 minutes later, he informed us that they wouldn’t let him enter South Africa unless he paid off his fine. All 5,000 R. The officials wouldn’t budge. And Sam certainly didn’t have the money in his pockets.

It was dark when we went outside. South Africa was so close—just 100 feet away, yet we couldn’t get there. And our flight was leaving in just 13 hours—with our without us. We started calling every reliable cab driver we could think of on our prepaid phones—they all turned us down, most of them because they didn’t have passports. But after two hours, we finally got the number of a can driver who would take us for 2,000 pula—roughly $250.

He showed up a little after 10pm and the five of us squeezed into the cab. One in the front and four cramped in the back. It was going to be a long ride. However, there was no time to celebrate as the police pulled us over only an hour past the border. The male officer shined his light into the car and even though one of us ducked down to avoid being seen, he saw and ordered us out of the car. The female officer requested our passports and asked where we were from. When we said we were American, she switched gears and started telling us how she really respected Americans, which certainly surprised us.

“You are all so beautiful!” she exclaimed more than once.

She asked why were traveling with a “car overload” (too many people) and we explained that our bus had broken down and we needed a last minute ride in order to make our plane. She demanded to know if we even knew the driver, and to our chagrin, we told her we didn’t. He was a “friend” of a friend, we said, and she shook her head.

“Do you know Hillsboro?”

“Uh, in Johannesburg?” my friend Christina asked.

“He could be taking you there to sell you. Sex trafficking is one of South Africa’s biggest crimes. It’s dangerous.”

We looked at each other. The officer ended up letting us go for a bribe of 100 R, which is nothing compared to the 2,500 R we would have had to pay if they had fined us for our car overload. She told us we’d probably get stopped again and that the police in Joburg wouldn’t be as nice. Her warning made me nervous for the rest of the trip.

Back in the car, my friend turned to the driver. “Please don’t sell us into sex slavery,” she joked.

As our luck would have it, we did get stopped again just a few hours later. What was creepy was that the cop car had trailed behind us for a good five minutes before randomly turning the sirens on.

“How many people are in the car?” The officer asked, shining his flashlight.

“We are five,” our driver said as he got out to explain where he was taking us.

He opened the trunk to show the officer our luggage—I guess to prove we were truly going to the airport. Fortunately, the officer didn’t notice that there were four of us squeezed into the back and he let us go. Apparently in South Africa, the police will stop drivers with foreign plates whenever they want, which explains why we were pulled over twice.

At nearly 4am, we arrived at our hostel and we paid the driver with all the pula and rand we had on us before going inside and crashing in our beds. We had seen the aftermath of a truck crash on the South African road and morbidly I had wondered if we would end up like that. With the bus cancellation, border trouble, and multiple police stops, it felt as if there had been some force working against us, but despite the odds, we were going to make it to Zanzibar (but not before squaring off with restaurant rats in Dar es Salaam).

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2 Comments

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  1. Great story…makes me glad I’m so much older and travel in a more relaxed way. 😆

    Looking forward to Zanzibar!

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