I feel like we have done all of you a great disservice. Today I realized that we have not yet given a full account of public transportation in Swaziland. A true exposé of sorts. Well, might I attempt to right that wrong following today’s travel from Siteki to Mbabane and back because today we accomplished a somewhat rare feat. We rode all of the big three. That's right the big three, not the big five. Everybody keeps talking about the big five and I still can't get that right. Lions, tigers, and bears oh my, or something or other. No, today we tackled the big three. Khumbi, ibhasi, sprinter, and with that let me begin my exposé.
First, the khumbi. The khumbi, barring the elusive taxi, is the most expensive means of overland travel in Swaziland. We’re not talking America expensive though people we’re talking PCV expensive so like 5 emalangeni (50¢ USD) more than the least expensive means of overland travel. Now, while that's a major drawback to many PCVs and Swazis alike, the khumbi has its advantages. It is, without a doubt, the fastest means of overland transport, and commonly the most entertaining. Depending on your driver conductor duo, in-khumbi entertainment includes the talents of The Band Perry, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, various rappers I don't know, and/or (note the and/or because a combination of all is entirely possible) Swazi Christian music. Perhaps the most positive aspect of khumbi travel however, is that it is decidedly exhilarating. There's nothing that gets the ol’ nerves on edge quite like rocketing down the highway at 150km/hr in an old Volkswagen with rusted out wheel wells and tired suspension. Especially, when the speed limit is 120km/hr, the road is worthy of about 80km/hr, and the Volkswagen probably shouldn't top 100km/hr, but it's ok because the speed wobbles of the Volkswagen are disguised by the potholes in the road and the potholes are ok because the speed limit is posted and they put in speed bumps but the khumbi driver doesn't give a damn because it's just as easy to go around the bumps in the dirt beside the road and once he gets going fast enough the potholes start feeling smooth and all he has to do is hang on to the steering wheel for dear life and keep his foot to the floor…trust me I know these things.
Secondly, the ibhasi. The ibhasi is by far the slowest means of overland transport in Swaziland. Consequently, it is also the cheapest because nobody with the opportunity to experience the adrenaline of the khumbi would ever pay the same for the dull ride of the ibhasi. However, what the ibhasi lacks in speed it usually makes up for in comfort. The ibhasi is a spacious, quiet ride that invokes memories of floating down a lazy river just enjoying the view as you slowly float by. On occasion though, the ibhasi hits that section of water where you lose your comfortable tube and start thinking your last thoughts as you struggle to gain a breath above the water. Such are the occasions when you need to take an ibhasi because it's 6pm and all of the khumbis are clocked out, and it's the end of the month so everybody in the whole country that came into town for their paycheck now want to go home, and the ibhasi conductors know it's their last run for the night and really want the 20 emalangeni in your pocket, so…they start putting people on the ibhasi. They keep putting people on the ibhasi. They don't stop putting people on the ibhasi. Now, in your haze of “what the hell is going on here”, you realize that you still need to get on that ibhasi, so the conductor puts you on that ibhasi and you’re sandwiched in the aisle doing all you can to avoid playing human dominoes and keep your butt out of the poor make’s face beside you, and don't even get me started on what happens when the conductor needs to come up and down the aisle to distribute tickets and then when he comes back to collect that 20 emalangeni you got in your pocket. No, I shan’t start. This is the ibhasi, but lest we forget the grandest spectacle of all when it comes to this giant, engineering marvel (but no seriously they cut up the metal floor of the bus so much to get to everything underneath I don't have the slightest clue how all the subsequent patchwork pieces of medal stay welded together)…the breakdown. The breakdown is truly a grand spectacle. It usually happens something like the finale of a great play. The hero (our ibhasi) has effortlessly defied all of his minor foes (potholes, speed bumps, fines for having too many people on board) but, with a terrifying entrance the protagonist appears (usually a loud bang, a shudder, and a cloud of smoke). The protagonist seizes our hero (remember it's the ibhasi) and evil triumphs over good for what feels like eternity (about an hour give or take) before our hero’s sidekick (some random Swazi kid hitching a ride) emerges. Together they duke it out with the protagonist with several moments of near victory (engine starts, bus shudders forward and dies again) then, miraculously, though nothing has changed and seems like the antagonist is doing just fine on his own, he is cast down defeated (the bus roars to life with random Swazi kid emerging from the bowels of the ibhasi). The curtains close to thunderous applause (everyone claps for the kid and the bus). Nothing it seems, can stop the slow and steady movement of the ibhasi.
Third, the sprinter. The sprinter is the odd crossbreed of the fast khumbi and the steady yet stubborn ibhasi, much the same as the mule is the crossbreed of the horse and the donkey. It appears as either a pudgy khumbi or a sleek ibhasi, neither giving a clear picture of the ride to be expected. It may be a perfect combination of all the positive aspects of overland travel in Swaziland. Just enough speed, just enough comfort, at just the right price. However, like today, it may also be an all too perfect combination of all the negative aspects of overland travel in Swaziland. You find yourself almost home after making a short stop to run an errand, but when you return to the siteshi the khumbis don’t stop (they're going to fast) and the ibhasi don't stop (they're all full), so you flag down a sprinter who rolls to a stop just up ahead. You greet the conductor, tell him where you're goin, and then step up into the sprinter where a horrific sight unfolds before your eyes. The door closes behind you as you process what's front, a sprinter full save two seats. You may think to yourself where's this horrific sight he’s talking about there’s two perfectly good seats left, but no my friend, these seats are the unwanted. One lies to the rear, an aisle seat seemingly okay from the onset. The other is just ahead, an aisle seat once again but surrounded on all sides by the biggest Swazis one can imagine. You sit in the seat surrounded by giant Swazis, your backpack loaded with groceries hugged to your chest with one cheek in the seat and the other hinging over the aisle with the the behemoth next to you. Then, to your continued horror, the sprinter stops. On step three more passengers. They move to flank the seat in the rear but alas all the seats are full so they crowd the aisle in the middle making it impossible for any aisle seat to so much as turn their head. Your siteshi comes up and you shout “stesh” as you feel yourself slowly being pulled down into the mass of flesh and body odor that consumes the sprinter. But no, the conductor can't hear you, the sprinter passes your siteshi, and dumps you further down the road. What a small mercy though. The walk home lets you stretch your legs, breathe in the fresh air, and laugh away the inexplicable absurdities of public transportation in Swaziland.