Day 285: The Lilongwe Round

Day 285: The Lilongwe Round

12.10.09:

Ah, well you see it’s like this: I’ve been kicking myself (literally, you want to see the whelks on my ass) about Algeria and Libya. Not because Libya sounds like an area of the female genitalia and I haven’t cracked a joke about it yet, but because of this: WHY DIDN’T I JUST BRIBE THE BORDER GUARDS?? This notion has spread like an itch all over my body and I can’t help every time I look at that bloody map on the Odyssey Home page but wince over the fact that Algeria and Libya, those two vast swathes of North Africa are still coloured in white – white goddamnit! WHITE!!

I never crossed those borders. For those of you who are joining in The Odyssey a little late (bless you I need all the support that I can muster) you might not know what happened, but a quick surmise is that I wasted an entire week in Tunisia trying to ‘do’ a border-hop into these infernal territories. Even though I was well aware that I would not be allowed to cross the secondary checkpoint without a visa (procured from London, not on-the-road), I was confident that I could at least cross the border, which invariably lies between the ‘home’ checkpoint and the ‘away’ checkpoint. But it was not to be. The Tunisian border guards (NOT the Libyans or the Algerians I might add) wouldn’t let me cross the first checkpoint and so I ended up wasting a load of time (not to mention expense) travelling over to Tunisia for pretty much no good reason as I’d have to return there in due course avec visa.

Arrrrrrrgh!!

Now, as I travelled towards Zimbabwe, crammed in a minibus designed for 15 but carrying 30 (same old story, are you as bored of it yet as I am?!), I’m struck with the same fear – what if the Mozambique border guards turn up their nose at me?

Ah, but here I have a secret weapon – like many other places that I’ve tried the old border-hop in, you can actually buy a visa on the border, so no troubles right?

Wrong!

In the morning, I hopped on the first bus to the border, only to find that the bus driver figured that it might be a good idea to stop at the crossroads town of Changara for an inordinate amount of time (nothing new there) but then when he thought that it also might be an idea to slam into reverse while a stack of luggage sat precariously a couple of inches from the rear bumper, ah well, your heart goes out to the poor people that had now a caved-in subwoofer and a huge birthday cake with a tyre mark down the middle of it.

What would have (in the West) been a case for Clouseau turned out to be a case for Mozambique’s Special Agent Starling, and thus I found myself stuck in the midst of legal turmoil as the police tried to arrest the driver for reckless driving (and presumably wanton destruction of a birthday cake) and I was left squatting at the side of the road, 70km from the border, waiting for all the hullabaloo to sort itself out.

This all took place amidst the backdrop of Heroes Day, for yes, Mozambique has one too, so while the driver and the driver’s mate screamed lorks-a-lordy at the bizzies, the rest of the town was singing hallelujah and clapping hands. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Eventually (and isn’t that the word that best sums up Africa…God knows I’ve used it enough!) we were back on our way, but I didn’t think there was any chance of my promised rendezvous with Gui in Tete at noon – it was now 11am.

Where was I? Oh yeah… the border with Zimbabwe. Now Zimbabwe is one of the countries that I have less than no interest in. While the evil corrupt murderous fool Mugabe is in charge, I have nothing to say to you, Zim. However, it is a nation and therefore I do have to step foot in the wretched place. Oh, you’re right that’s unfair, Zimbabwe isn’t a bad place – I’ve met a ton of fantastic Zimbabweans, it’s just (unfortunately) Satan running the show – that’s probably why a third of the population has left in the last decade. Once Mugabe’s dead, book me a ticket to Bungee Jump off the Victoria Falls, but until then, I, like the Commonwealth, will continue to cock a snook at that bizarrely moustachioed varment.

The border didn’t seem like too much hard work – it was only a short distance between the border posts. I asked for a ‘day pass’ into Zim and promptly got myself stamped out of Mozambique. But when I got to the Zim border, I discovered that the fabled Zim day pass didn’t exist – only it did, but the FOOL Mozambique border Vogons needed to stamp a separate piece of paper, not my passport. I went back to the Mozzy side and asked them to stamp a bit of paper. They refused. I returned to the Zim side, but there was nothing they could (or would be willing) to do. This somewhat perplexed me. Here’s a white guy with no baggage (I left my stuff in Tete with Gui) just wanting to come into your gaff for a few hours, spend some money and then leave again. But to do that would cost me a visa, and that would be a whopping $55.

Sorry, not propping up this murderous regime. Not today.

Anyway, I had passed the sign saying ‘Zimbabwe’, so I was happy that I had crossed the border. No biggie baby. I headed back to Mozzy only to be told that as they had stamped me out all of ten minutes ago, I had to go to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, wait for there for FIVE days and get a new visa for Mozambique. I had asked for a multiple-entry visa on the border with Swaziland, damn this Portuguese gibberish in my passport; I could see the sadistic glee in the Vogon’s eyes. But I’ve got no luggage, no clothes…

I don’t care.

Typical Vogon. God I hate these guys. I put $20 in my passport and handed it over to him. He shook his head. Oh for Christ’s sake man, I have no entry stamp to Zimbabwe, all you have to do is cross out the mistaken exit stamp, sign it and everything is hunky-dory.

I put another $20 in the passport and handed it back to the streak of misery. This, he accepted. Throwing it in the usual Vogon money drawer under the desk (there is ALWAYS a Vogon money drawer) and crossing out the stamp with a biro. I should have just done it myself. Ah, but why didn’t I throw a few Euro in my passport at the Tunisia/Algeria border post all those months ago?

I kick myself I really do.

So then back on the bus to Tete to meet up with Gui. The reserve trip was only slightly more hilarious than the one out – the locals call the minibus’s Twomores, because there is always room for two more, and my word, the contortions people put themselves through to squeeze into what space that simply doesn’t, can’t possibly, but-then-it-somehow-does, exist. Wowser’s Trousers.

Gui was a little surprised that I was a good three hours late, but there was just enough time for me to get to the border with Malawi – Nation 119. I said my fond fare-ye-wells and crammed myself into a minibus that soon enough took off towards the frontier. If I could make it to two countries in the one day it would be amazing – the first time since Equatorial Guinea/Gabon.

And I was stuck in Gabon for three weeks, so I hoped it wouldn’t be a precedent.

But yeah, the journey to Malawi, after starting off sloooooow (the bridge across the Zambezi was being repaired; as a consequence the traffic was one way for an hour and then the other way for an hour; we waited a loooooong time) picked up speed after the river and we arrived at the frontier just after nightfall.

There was the usual hustle and bustle at the border, I found myself taken under the wing of a woman named Mel from Zimbabwe, who was travelling to Lilongwe – the capital of Malawi – with her mum and her family. She would be setting up a new life for herself in Britain very soon, far from Mugabe’s brand of genocidal nonsense. They saw me through the all-too familiar procedures; the stamp woman didn’t even give my biro’d out exit stamp a second glance, she just – marvellously – stamped me on my way.

Mel, her family and I grabbed a taxi to the other border post (it was a few kilometres) and it was there I discovered I would have been much better off changing my money – my Mozambique Gobbledegooks for Malawi Thingymajigs at the first checkpoint. Ah well, you live and learn, eh? Within a few minutes, my deniro had been exchanged and I had myself a new SIM card for my phone.

After we crusaded into Malawi (no Visa necessary THANK YOU MALAWI I LOVE YOU), we shared a bush taxi to the nearest town. I wasn’t really expecting to get into Lilongwe tonight, but it looked like I was going to make it. After waiting in a large darkened car park for half an hour, the fringes lit with the bulbs-on-string of the many food/provisions/godknows stalls, a couple of large coaches rucked up and we made ourselves comfortable on the second one – the one with the spare seats.

I texted Jason, my Couch Surf contact for Lilongwe – I felt awful telling him what time I’d be getting in – I’m not going to tell you what time it was because it might give you ideas. In my defence, I did offer to stay in a backpackers, but Jason seemed cool for me stay at his regardless. When the bus was a good couple of hours later than they told me, I sunk into my seat.

But by now the dye was cast, and things had been indelibly set in motion. I jumped off the bus in the capital, said my goodbyes to Mel and her mum and flung myself into a taxi towards ‘Crossroads’, the nearest landmark to Jason’s gaff.

You owe me a drink said Jason in his charming Colorado drawl as I jumped into his car. I most certainly did.



Day 286: Zam, But No Beer

Day 286: Zam, But No Beer

October 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Malawi, The Odyssey Expedition, Zambia

13.10.09:

Jason was a Peace Corps volunteer for a couple of years in Malawi (luck of the draw I guess) and decided to stay on and set up a business here, and why the hell not, eh? Malawi is a remarkably great place, landlocked, sure, but at least it has roads (wouldn’t that be a fine thing, Guinea?) and electricity (oh Nigeria, you tickle me you really do). We chewed the fat for a couple of hours in the morning over (rather excellent) coffee. After getting him out of bed at some ridiculous hour last night, it would have been infradig not to.

The question was how on Earth I planned to get over the border to Zambia and then catch the overnighter to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. It all seemed so simple… there was a bus later that night that left at 7pm. It went through a place called Jenda, which was just a stone’s throw from the border with Zambia. If I high-tailed it up to that town during the day, I could have a cup of tea in Zambia, return to Jenda and sit there supping an ice-cold beer and await the bus from Lilongwe to catch up with me.

I had my plan. All that was left was a) the execution and b) Africa. Well you didn’t expect it to be easy did you? Young fool, have my teachings been for nought? I bought my ticket on the Tarqa bus for Dar es Salaam (a 26-hour journey no less), got to the minibus park and hopped on the bus for Jenda. They told me it would take two hours. It was 11am.

By 12:45pm, the minibus driver just about decided that it was time to go. And off it went – so slowly I reckon I could have cycled quicker. I had inadvertently crawled aboard the slowest bus in the world. By 4pm, when we were still nowhere near Jenda, the driver decided it might be a good idea to stop and tell everyone to get off. So you’re not going to Jenda then?

No.

Why did you tell me you were?

Cos I’m a Vogon Graham, get with the programme.

Oh for crying out loud…

So then I got another bus, which, blimey, was even slower than the first! It was like they were driving backwards. Ack, they might as well have been. It was SIX o’clock before I reached Jenda, what I thought was a bordertown (it certainly looked that way on the map). I had all but given up hope of crossing the border tonight – the borders usually close at six. There were (surprisingly) no taxis waiting to whisk any given intrepid adventurers (such as I) off to Zambia, so I ended up walking half a kilometre to the edge of town. There I found a bunch of battered old pick-ups that presumably did the border run each day. The guys wanted a whopping $40 to go to the border.

I was outraged! $40?! How far is it? 30km. I looked again at the map. Something wasn’t right here. But what could I do? If I didn’t go now, I would have to go tomorrow and that would mean missing the bus to Dar es Salaam tonight – but they don’t run every day and that ticket wasn’t cheap either. My major concern was that I didn’t have enough local money to pay the guy: I only had a $100 bill, which would be difficult, if not impossible to change into Malawian Wibbledeewee. Oh well, in for a penny. What time does the border close?

7pm.

I looked at my watch. It was 6.15pm. Have we got time?

Yeah. Yeah, bags of time.

Ha! Yeah.

I arrived at the border at half eight. My driver, Terry, had in his infinitive wisdom failed to mention that he only had half a headlight (which would vary in brightness every time he pressed down on the peddle) and so his mate, standing in the open back of the pickup, had to shine a torch – yes a torch – at the road ahead so we could pick our way along the track. Needless to say, progress was slow along the undulating dirt strip (is it a rule that all international roads in Africa must be constructed in such a way that puts off all but the most desperate of commuters?) that I later found out formed the border with Zambia.

Yep, we struggled for 30km along the road of doom when all I needed to do was get out, walk a few metres into the field on the left hand side of the road and I’d be in Zambia. But, sod it, I wanted a sign that said ‘Zambia’, which eventually is what we found. Luckily for me, the border was not one of those affairs with a big wire fence around it (like Zimbabwe was I might add) and so getting ‘in’ was no sweat. I had a chat with a Zambia customs guy (who suggested that I could actually, you know, get a visa now if I really wanted one) but assured him that I’d be back in the morning (oh Graham, you silver-tongued fox, you) and I was just checking out the protocols. In any case, I had to get back to Jenda. My bus was due at 9pm.

Short of a Harrier Jump Jet turning up and offering me a lift, there was no way we’d make it back to Jenda before nine. I had no choice but to hope against hope that the bus would be late. How late it would be would involve many more variables than I could possibly contemplate, much less control.

I harranged Terry to drive as fast as his clapped out pre-war pick-up could. Given the fact we couldn’t see the road, we made better time on the way back than we did on the way there. It was ten minutes to ten when we got back to Jenda. It was then that I dropped the bombshell that I had no way of paying him unless he knew a nice money-changing dude (there were none at the border post). Luckily for both of us, he did, and within five minutes, I had a HUGE stack of Malawi Blurghelflorgs in my claws (the biggest note here is worth about $3). A bit frustrating considering that I was leaving Malawi in the morning. I paid Terry his due and then headed up to the police checkpoint for my arranged rendezvous with the bus to Tanzania.

It was now 10pm. Worried that the bus had been and gone, I asked the guy at the post. No, it hasn’t been through yet…oh look – here it is!

The bus hung around at the checkpoint for all of 30 seconds. Enough time for me to take my seat in the middle at the back. Graham 1, Africa 0. Thank you and goodnight.



Day 287: The Slog

Day 287: The Slog

October 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Malawi, Tanzania, The Odyssey Expedition

14.10.09:

The big event of today was crossing the border into Tanzania, which is a little like Tasmania but with different letters. Nation 121. I’ve got to a whopping EIGHT countries in just ten days and I was (understandably) feeling rather happy about the current turn of evens.

What I less happy about was my seat on the coach. Sat in the middle of the back row and with no back window, there was no way I could see – much less film – any of the exciting Tanzania stuff that was no doubt whizzing past. I was also less than impressed by the fact that – once again – the nation had just decided to embark on a whole new programme of road building just as I show up, turning a projected 12 hour journey from the border into a 20-hour slog.

I contacted my Dar es Salaam Couch Surf contact, a soft-spoken Canadian guy called Dylan, but I was uncomfortable putting him through the same nonsense as Jason, and given he had to be up at 5.30am, I figured it might be an idea to crash out at a guesthouse. Which is what I did – eventually. The fist place I tried was full (I love waking up guesthouse owners in the middle of the night, they’re always so pleased to see me!) but the second place, the Jambo, had a room for me. Grotty doesn’t begin to describe and the shower was cold, but after the previous few days, I was happy to just get my head down.