Sunday, September 19, 2010

Okadas, Poda Podas and Taxis...

I have taken more public transport in the past three months than the entire four-and-a-half years I was in Freetown previously. All I can say is it is quite an experience. Initially I was wishing for the luxury of nice vehicles with friendly drivers I knew from the past. Over time I think I have developed a love-hate relationship ship with public transport. At times it seems very convenient and easy, at other times it feels like an endless struggle. To be honest, I don’t mind it so much during the day but at night, I try to play it safe and at least charter a taxi from a known driver. Let me give you a quick run down of the public transport options.

To this day I have not taken an okada. To me an okada is like throwing yourself to the lions. An okada is a motorcycle taxi that weaves in and out of traffic at high speed usually without the protection of a helmet. When I first came to Sierra Leone in 2005 there were hardly any motorcycle taxis in Freetown but upcountry in places like Makeni they were abundant. They have now made their way to Freetown but they have not become a part of my transportation options as of yet. In my opinion it is an accident waiting to happen. Yes, you can tell the driver to slow down, but seeing as there are many careless drivers on the street I would not take the risk.

What I do often take is a poda poda. Poda poda means “hither and thither”. A poda poda is a minibus covered with painted slogans that takes as many passengers as it possibly can from one destination to another. It follows fixed routes for a fixed price and so even for the “white man” they are easy to use and you’re less likely to be told to pay more. Okay, so they are cramped, hot and noisy but they are also quite entertaining. Like the time that it was so busy in town and so hard to get a poda poda that grown men were climbing in through the window to get a seat! Or the time when we couldn’t make it up a hill being so weighted down and half of the people wanted to get out and walk while the others wanted to remain in the vehicle. This caused a good discussion and in the end everyone did what they pleased. The downside of poda podas is that when traffic is heavy the drivers only like to go “halfway”. This is very inconvenient and means that hundreds of people are on the street trying to push their way into poda podas. Sometimes as a “white man” you get squashed like everyone else, other times someone is kind and ushers you in almost making you feel guilty. All in all they are quite fun and convenient. I’d say they are safer than an okada, but honestly, they probably wouldn’t meet any safety requirements in Europe.

The final option is a taxi. Taxi drivers can be more flexible with their routes although many do have set routes. The taxi routes are generally a shorter distance than a poda podas but at a same price, so making taxis more expensive. This of course is relative since the rate is 900 Leones per route, an equivalent of USD 0.21. I could take one poda poda from town to my neighborhood, whereas with a taxi it would likely be a 3-way journey. However, the taxis are less crowded, stop far less frequently and often you can just ask the driver to continue on for another leg of the journey. There are a couple of taxi drivers who are reliable and friendly and I can call at anytime to arrange for them to pick me up or drop me off somewhere. This is more expensive of course at a rate of Le 15,000 per hour, an equivalent of USD 3.60, but at night this is ideal. Instead of having to walk down a dark road or street with groups of men hanging out, the driver can drop me off at my gate. It’s convenient.

For going to and from work it is easier to take our car but we have had major problems this past month with a driver I had to fire and then a car that wasn’t working. Hopefully by Tuesday I’ll head to work in a fixed car with a new driver! Tomorrow, I’ll take a chartered taxi into work and at the end of the day I’ll walk for 25 minutes from the hospital to Regent Road to catch a poda poda home, which can take anywhere between 30-90 minutes depending on traffic! For now, I am off to find a taxi to take me to Aberdeen.

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~ Act Justly. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly. micah 6:8 ~