24: The Road from Zambia to Malawi
A Long Story About A Long Journey
Michigan Lisa was carrying enough luggage on her solo tour of Africa to make a Kardashian blush, never mind a backpacker, so when she dropped her gear in the driveway of Natwange Backpackers while we waited for a taxi that would never come, it was hard to tell exactly which bag contained the vibrator which had been accidentally jostled into its on position, the two of us standing there staring at the bags, then each another.
Our ensuing laughter would be the only sound other than the rhythmic buzzing on this otherwise silent African morning.
“Well this is going to be one hilarious adventure,” I thought.
It would be the last last laugh we would have for quite some time.
“Be careful,” wrote Jeff when I told him I was heading for Malawi.
Jeff, as some of you might recall, is my famous author friend, Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Streams of Consciousness, Broken Field, and the soon-to-released blockbuster novel about America’s favorite little rapscallion, Pud). In a dramatic turn from decades of advice that had proven to be hilariously misguided, he’d actually been right about Slovenia’s Lake Bohinj, and then again when warning me of the inherent dangers of Lamu, Kenya – though to be fair, his warning came well after I’d already left the dangerous Al Shabab territory. Well after I’d already wandered far enough from the moderately safer shores of the Indian Ocean’s beachy dunes and into what felt a bit too much like desert, where seeing a group of armed, masked men on galloping horseback suddenly appear from a hazy heat mirage didn’t seem so far-fetched.
Even at my own expense, I have to admit it would have been darkly amusing to have his too-late warning sitting in my inbox, unread, as I sat in a dank and dimly lit cell somewhere on the Horn of Africa. He might even have been one of the group to receive demands for my ransom, as fruitless an attempt as that would prove, his supposed inability to pay a penny for my release becoming a story with which he would regale friends at the Hidey Hole in Big Sandy, Montana, for years to come, his efforts to secure my freedom becoming more valiant with each retelling. He would write it quite beautifully, of course, much more eloquently than he would tell it with the initial help, and later hindrance, of the finest cheapest tequila around, his accumulated bar tabs making for a tidily negotiable sum for my release had he ever bothered to reply to my captors with anything beyond insulting snark and beer-muscled bravado.
But, as is typical of most of his advice, it wouldn’t be Al Shabab, ISIS, rogue kidnappers, or even corrupt police of whom I would have to be most careful – but the taxi drivers, bus depot workers, immigration officials, shuttle bus crews, and even the drivers of those adorable little Tuk Tuks.
In my last post, I shared my experience at Intercity Bus Depot in Lusaka, where an absurd and obscene competition for business borders at best on intimidation, and at worst, assault. Back home, that kind of behavior would result in legal charges and an immediate crackdown on the practice. In Lusaka, however, depot employees simply tell you to stop filming.
When leaving Livingstone for Lusaka a few days before, a group of five of us would each pay 285 kwacha for a shuttle ride. When I, the last of our group, loaded my pack into the back of the shuttle, an older man in a company shirt said, “Ok, so you pay the man.”
“Pay the man?” I asked, legitimately confused. “For what?”
“For the bag. One hundred Kwacha.”
“I literally handed my bag to him at the truck. I’m not paying for that,” I replied.
“One hundred kwacha. Or whatever you think is fair.”
“Hey guys,” I called to my group. “Is there a bag price I don’t know about? This guy wants a hundred kwacha.”
“Absolutely not,” replied Antea, an extreme-athlete travel-adventurer from Croatia who spends the vast majority of each year traveling the world when she’s not running two hostels she owns back home. “Tell him to fuck off.”
So fuck off I did tell the men in their official shuttle company shirts. Expecting some pushback, they simply shut the hatch and walked away, accepting their failed extortion fate while I climbed into a 22-seat shuttle with thirty-one other passengers for an airless and stifling seven-hour ride.
Having company when traveling is always nice, especially in situations like those, but there is additional comfort in negotiating the trials of cross-border travel between African nations with a friend as well. So when Michigan Lisa arrived at Natwange Backpackers in Lusaka a day after I did and said she was heading for Malawi, I asked if I could tag along.
Securing visas proved to be a task much harder than it should, with some travelers waiting three weeks or more. Malawi is a country with no broadband internet but which, for some reason, requires 90% of all visas to be secured online. Thankfully, Lisa’s relentless WhatsApp nagging of Gloria, our Malawian immigration office savior, paid off, and our trip would begin with deceptively amusing laughter and a buzzing sex toy.
The day before leaving, Lisa and I had taxied to Intercity Bus Depot so we could buy our bus tickets in advance – there’s no such thing as an online purchase here. It’s worth its weight in gold to show up with tickets in hand, especially when laden with gear and packs that scream American money, even if it’s only backpacker money. Being able to yell “we already have tickets” makes half the crowd immediately disappear, leaving only the other half to yell and fight and push and pull at your bags and arms and shirtsleeves.
Due to our taxi driver simply not showing up the morning of our ride, we secured last-second transport from our lodge, fought traffic, and arrived with only a minute to spare for our scheduled 8:30AM departure. But as I’ve noted before, this is Africa, where departure times are merely a suggestion. We would wait in the Zambian morning sun for well over an hour, watching bus company employees fight for passengers, happy to be out of the fray. Our bus was an antiquated “Greyhound” style with sliding windows, no bathroom, tvs that played nothing the first half of our ride, and African music videos the rest of the way. If there was one saving grace – it was that at least this one came without a resident preacher giving an amplified sermon for hours on end.
I knew the ticket salesman’s estimate of a six-hour ride to the border town of Chipata, Zambia, was bullshittedly short by a couple of hours, but even that would prove wishful thinking, as our ride would end up taking ten.
Lisa and I had chosen window seats on opposite ends of the same row, each wanting views of the villages, villagers, livestock, and occasional baboons along the way. We’d hoped and gambled that the bus would be relatively empty, Lisa bringing her heavy daypack aboard, and I bringing both my daypack and large backpack, preferring not to lose sight of any of my gear.
Our best laid plans would go quickly awry, however, as the bus would fill at our first stop, just minutes from the depot. Lisa and I were the only non-locals on the bus, the only mzungus. The woman who took the seat beside me sat so quickly I hardly had time to scoop up the items I had strewn about, and as a result I would spend the first four hours of the trip trapped, sweating profusely with my heavy backpack on my lap, and my daypack between my feet. I couldn’t find my phone or notepad, and any hope of writing on my laptop were dashed entirely – hell, I wasn’t even able to reach my water.
She and the other women in our row’s aisle seats were friends, or family, and would exchange a very snotty, croup-coughing little boy the entire journey, each little hacking session causing me to stick my mask-covered face out the open window, preferring to breathe the dusty hot air blowing past over whatever what was coming out of the lungs of that little germ factory.
Our first rest-stop wouldn’t be for four hours, though rest-stop is a bit of a stretch. Most rest-stops here tend to be pullovers on the side of a hot, dusty dirt road, where locals swarm the sides of the bus, competing to sell everything from water and juice and soda to bananas, nuts, carrots, tomatoes, eggs, and even live chickens. Most of the time, passengers hand kwacha down from the open windows, and goods are handed back up. Here, however, we exited to stretch our legs and use the bathrooms, which were simply a row of toilets behind the market stalls, just a bit beyond the goats.
It was then that I would find all of my lost items, most lying about my feet on the dirty bus floor. I would discover my seat-mate had been sitting on my phone since Lusaka. I’d take the opportunity to stow my large pack below, deciding the reward outweighed the risk, while both women took the opportunity to buy some lunch – a brown paper bag full of dried, salted fish from one of the sunbaked street stands just outside our windows.
The women would place the greasy, brown paper bags on their laps, tear them open, and eat with their hands as we drove away. The smell was overpowering in the thick hot air of the now standing-room-only bus.
It would be a little while yet before we would be pulled over and documented by immigration, and longer still before we hit the goat.
It was unavoidable, to be fair, our bus traveling at quite a high rate of speed by then. Our driver had occasionally been beeping at locals and animals along the way, giving fair warning we were coming in hot. But this time was different. This time he laid unrelentingly on the horn, then the brakes, and we all knew something was amiss. Aisle passengers leaned in to look ahead, while we others pressed sweaty faces to the glass or out our open windows. As I did, I saw three goats scrambling to safety along the roadside at just about the same moment the rest of us heard the thump-thump-thump’p’p’p’p’p.
In Kenya, according to my friend Sophie Kinyua, livestock have the right of way, and if you hit one with your vehicle, it’s your responsibility to compensate the owner. I’m not sure of the rules in Zambia, but other than a couple of low murmers from our fellow passengers, we would simply continue on, the brakes released, pedal-to-the-metal once again. Lisa and I would lean forward and exchange “WTF’s,” which I’m pretty sure was the extent of the eulogy that poor goat received.
We’d begun the day in the early morning light of Lusaka, but wouldn’t arrive in Chipata until well after dark, she and I still the only mzungus to be seen. At the humid, unlit dirt depot, we would once again be swarmed, jostled, pushed and pulled, this time by taxi drivers competing for our thirty-minute fare to the Malawi border.
The first thing you must learn to do when being dropped in a place like this, without any plan whatsoever, is flat out lie, immediately telling everyone that you do in fact have a plan, that you have a ride, and to back the fuck off. If you don’t get aggressive, you will be overwhelmed.
It buys you a little time to gather your wits, and not a soul will call you out on your lie when you reappear a minute or so later casually asking how much for that ride to the border.
Prices for the thirty-minute ride were as high as 1,000 Zambian kwacha, or roughly $55, an absurd amount commonly thrown out to mzungu tourists to see if they’ll bite. We would eventually find a driver offering to take us for 50 kwacha per person – a little less than $3 each.
“50 each,” I said. “So, 100 kwacha total, correct?”
“Yes, 50 each.”
“Not a kwacha more. 50 kwacha each, for a total of 100 kwacha, from here to the border.”
“Yes, sure-sure, 50 kwacha each.”
“Okay, fine, for 50 kwacha each, 100 total. You have a deal.”
We would load all of our gear into the small car, enough that I would have to sit in the front seat with my backpack on my lap, my daypack between my feet, Lisa in back sitting on top of one of hers. We would pull out of the lot and I would once again repeat our agreement, 50 kwacha each, 100 kwacha total, a tactic whose importance cannot be overstated, even if it proves fruitless, because that’s when our driver pulled over and parked by the side of the road.
“Yes, 50 kwacha each. Now we must wait for the other bus.”
“What? What other bus?” I asked, incredulously.
“The next bus. We need three more.”
“There more what?”
“We need five passengers for the car.”
“Five? There isn’t room in this car for a handbag, never mind three people and their luggage – she’s sitting on one of her bags already.”
“Yes, but we need five. 250 kwacha for the car. 50 each.”
Now, I’m not saying a 250 kwacha ride – around $14 U.S. – isn’t still a great deal, certainly not for a thirty minute taxi ride that would probably cost fifty bucks back home. But it was the blatant lie. The bait-and-switch. The infuriating frustration. It had happened to each of us far too many times on our respective trips already, and we’d had it, we were done.
“Fuck off. Nope, we’re out,” Lisa said without hesitation. “We gave you a chance. You lied. We’re done.”
Amidst his protests and our expletives, Lisa and I got out, unloaded our gear, and walked back to the unlit lot – hot, sweaty, dirty, somewhat deflated, kind of defeated, and most definitely exhausted.
There, negotiations resumed, and we would eventually agree to a ride for 300 kwacha from a large local named Chicomboso. It was the last of our Zambian kwacha, and sure, it was more expensive than the 250, and Chicomboso had to borrow a car – a car that not only had no license plates, but also looked and sounded like it was going to die at any moment. Oh, and also, Chicomboso absolutely reeked of alcohol. And when I climbed in back and scooted across the seat, I discovered that my interior door handle was missing, and automatic window button gone. And right about then is when Chicomboso put up my window and locked my door from the driver’s seat. And then his friend climbed into the passenger seat, where I’d placed my backpack, and put it on his lap. And suddenly, I knew…this was how I was going to die.
We didn’t have internet access, but my offline Maps.Me app worked as advertised, allowing me to follow along to ensure we were at least headed for the border. One detour and I was ready to strike, having pulled a $1 Tanzanian ballpoint pen that had never worked from my pocket, cocking it, holding it at the ready for the length of the ride. It was my only weapon, and as we drove I conjured images of those millionaire Hollywood actors pretending to be badasses who use things like paperclips with lethal accuracy. I very quickly also imagined the more likely reality, my aiming for Chicomboso‘s jugular, but missing, simply angering the large man, my cheap little pen sticking out of his forehead.
I wouldn’t relax until we made it through Zambia’s final police checkpoint. The fact they let a car with no license plates through an armed post, driven by a clearly intoxicated man, shouldn’t have been as comforting as it was, but I figured Chicomboso and his friend wouldn’t have taken the chance of being the last to be seen with soon-to-be-missing-mzungus, so I pressed the button and retracted the point of my tiny lethal weapon.
They would drop us, alive and somewhat well, at the border. I took Chicomboso’s number, having told him along the way that I’d be returning to Zambia at some point soon, and would need a return ride, thinking maybe they’d be less likely to dump our lifeless bodies in a ravine should there be potential for future kwacha. I can never return to Zambia now, of course, for while I won’t remember Chicomboso, if there’s one thing I’ve learned here in Africa, it’s that when you tell a local you might give them business in a day – or in a year – they never, ever forget.
After being processed at the Zambian border, Lisa and I would walk the dark road to the Malawi immigration office. It was around 9:30PM now and we would spend the next 90 minutes there, the easiest part ironically being our presenting them with fake PCR tests. Fake PCRs have become a thing here in Africa, at least among the budget backpackers, but we had a couple potential problems, beyond the obvious. The first was that my results had the wrong birth date.
“Don’t worry about it,” my friend Nathan wrote. “They don’t even look.”
The second problem was that our test results were supposedly both from the same clinic, but they’d been created by different people, so they had entirely different logos and designs.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lisa’s guy told her. “Just get into line two or three people behind your friend. They’ll never notice.”
The problem with that was we were the only two travelers in the entire border office, so there was no one to put between us.
Lisa handed her phone to the immigration officer. He expanded the snapshot image of her PCR test, took out his own phone, and began scanning her QR code as I went through excuses in my head for why our results looked different and why my birth date was wrong. I decided my best defense was to simply play dumb and feign frustrated anger. “A nurse came to my hostel to take my swab,” I would say. “Don’t tell me I was SCAMMED!? DAMN YOUUU ZAMBIAAA!!!”
He scanned hers again. No luck.
He adjusted the size of the QR code, and scanned again.
Still no luck.
He was silent for a moment, before handing the phone back to her.
“Go,” he told her.
“Go?” she asked.
“Yes, yes, go.”
Then he looked at me.
“Do you have the same?”
“Um, yes?” I said.
“Go,” he said, waving me on, not even bothering to look.
The reason fake PCR tests have started making the rounds is the cost, which can be as high as $120. And with covid still the media darling, the majority of international travelers in Africa right now are backpackers, backpackers on daily budgets that can be as low as $25, so one test can equal five days of travel. Add to that the fact that most of these countries don’t seem to take Covid seriously anyway – Malawi requires your test to be no more than “10 days” old, for example, rendering any test that old utterly meaningless. It became clear to us that the tests here are little more than a bridge for lost tourism dollars.
Our next hurdle was the supposed need for printed visas, even though the country requires them to be done electronically. We had no kwacha, we told them, making it clear that bribes to bypass their request weren’t an option (A UK friend we would meet in Cape Maclear paid $250 for his visa at the border, while two Canadian travelers were turned away completely when they showed up with no visas and no kwacha, having to bus ten hours back to Lusaka. Another, from Serbia, meanwhile, traveled to four different border offices before being allowed to get a visa-on-arrival. He was charged just $25.).
The immigration staff would end up letting us borrow one of their personal wifi SIM links and passwords in order for us to download PDFs of our electronic visas, then email them back to this same office that already had them on file, for they had provided them to us in the first place.
Our walk to the actual border was a few hundred yards on a dimly lit dirt road, past a crowded and loud, oddly-located bar, where once again our taxicab negotiations would begin.
We were told beforehand that the price for the roughly one-hour ride to Lilongwe, the capital, should be around 25,000 Malawian kwacha, or around $30. Again, still a bargain by US standards.
Our first quote, however would be for 50,000.
“Nope. No way,” Lisa said. “We were told 20,000,” she lied.
“Let’s call Chippy,” I said, as I took out my phone and pretended to send a WhatsApp message to a man whose name we’d been given by a friend in Lusaka. But the truth is, even if I’d had service – and I didn’t – it was already 11PM, and it would take Chippy an hour just to get here, never mind the fact he’d never even given us a quote.
“Thirty thousand,” said another.
“Thirty thousand? I just said we can get it for 20,000,” I replied.
“Thirty thousand and we can go now?” Lisa asked.
“Thirty thousand. And you take us all the way to Lilongwe?” I said. “Right now. And not a fucking kwacha more? Because, to be honest, we keep getting screwed.”
“Thirty thousand. And sure, we leave right now.”
“Okay, deal,” I said, not even making an effort to fake-cancel the fake-ride from Chippy. We loaded our gear into his trunk and slammed the door shut.
“Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzt-Bzzt-Bzzt.”
Lisa and I looked at each other with tired grins, able to do little more than shake our heads.
“I don’t even care. I’m leaving it on,” she said. “No way I’m taking those bags back out.”
Our driver climbed in, started the engine, and we drove along in relative silence, except for the rhythmic buzzing from the trunk that was shaking every loose nut, bolt, and piece of metal in our beat-up wreck of a car.
“I feel like we’re much closer friends now that I know your preferred vibrator setting,” I said.
“Oh my god. Shut the fuck up,” Lisa replied.
In a rare sign of great fortune, the batteries in her toy would run out before we reached our first police checkpoint, a row of steel drums and orange traffic cones placed across the road. Heavily armed, camouflaged, military police lazed their way from the darkness where they’d been sitting, walking around the car before asking for passports, asking who we were, why we’re here, where we’re going. A buzzing coming from the trunk most certainly would have raised concerns, concerns that at least would have resulted in a full search, and then, depending on their sense of humor and decorum, either a lot of laughs, or a large and fiery detonation of every last thing we owned.
“Are you carrying any illegal drugs?” one of the men asked.
“Depends,” Lisa replied, to my horror, before laughing and saying no and turning the questions back on them, asking what their names were, where they’re from.
She would do something similar at every one of our five stops, somehow ingratiating herself with each and every patrol.
Soon after our first stop, however, our taxi driver pulled into an unlit, dirt parking lot in an equally unlit, dirt town.
“The car won’t make it to Lilongwe,“ our driver said suddenly. “I have to get another. I’ll be right back.”
And with that, he exited the car and walked off into the darkness.
“What the hell?” I said.
“Here we go,” said Lisa.
We sat for several minutes in the dark of the car in the dark of the town, a pack of stray dogs walking in front of closed shops across the dark road, the only sounds being those of men yelling about who-knows-what in the black of the night.
“I want to know what they’re yelling about,” I said after a minute. “I mean, are they just yelling to yell? Like, one guy asking the other what he’s doing, and the other guy yelling back, ‘Just hanging out, what are you doing?’ And the guy answering, ‘I’m just hanging out.’ And the other guy yelling back, ‘You want to come over and hang out here?’” Because honestly, that’s sort of what it sounded like, and also because I was goddamn exhausted and now I was getting loopy.
Headlights suddenly appeared behind us, a car pulling up next to ours. Our driver was in the passenger seat.
“Okay, so you go with him,” he said after we’d all gotten out to see what the deal was. “He’ll take you to Lilongwe.”
“Are you serious.” I said, as deadpan as possible. “Jesus Christ. Fine, for 30,000,” I said to the new man. “That was our agreement with him.”
“Thirty-five thousand,” he replied.
“No no no no no,” I said, shaking my head.
“Not a fucking chance,” said Lisa.
This would lead to yet another long, expletive-filled argument. The new guy’s defense of our old guy being “he made a mistake,” with my and Lisa’s responses being more expletives, name-calling, yelling, and a reasonable amount of fury. And right about then is when the dog on the dark dirt road got hit by the speeding car.
The sound was hard and clear and sickening and heartbreaking, with the car driving off into the night without so much as slowing down, the dog screaming in pain, the rest of the pack of strays suddenly howling and crying and barking together in the night.
“Don’t look,” I said to Lisa. “Don’t look at the dog.”
But it was too late. She was already staring off into the darkness, hands to her head, pleading aloud that what had just happened hadn’t actually just happened.
But it had, and it was horrible, and it was the last straw.
“I’ll tell you what you’re going to do,” I said to our original driver. “You’re going to take us back to the last fucking military checkpoint. And you’re fucking dropping us there. We’re getting another fucking cab from there, and then I’m telling them exactly what the fuck you’re trying to do to two visitors to your country, driving us just far enough away from other cabs and then trying to fuck us over. We know exactly what you’re doing and we’ve fucking had it!”
It was an unplanned ramble and gamble that could easily have gotten us stranded right there, with no lodging, no wifi, no lights, no cars, our bags dropped in the dirt, just yards away from a bunch of strays howling around a dying dog.
But it worked.
Sort of. The new driver agreed to take us to Lilongwe for the agreed-upon 30,000, through four more police checkpoints, all asking to see our passports and visas, we answering their questions – and they answering Lisa’s. We had no internet service to give our driver the address of our accommodation, just the name: Mabuya Camp.
He had no service either. No map. No GPS. No sense of direction. And, it turns out, he didn’t even know his left from his right.
We’d left Natwange Backpackers Hostel in Lusaka, Zambia, at 8AM that morning. We finally arrived at Mabuya Camp in Lilongwe, Malawi, at 12:30 the next.
But our already exhausting journey was still far from over.
Thirty-three hours later, Lisa and I would find ourselves at Lilongwe’s shuttle depot, arriving at 9:30AM, once again being so mobbed and tossed about that Lisa would escape the crowd and walk directly to the nearest shuttle with a sign advertising “Monkey Bay,” our next destination, and simply throw her gear inside without even asking a price or time, saying to me, “I’m sorry, you do what you want, but I can’t do this anymore, I’m done, I’m taking this one.”
We’d come this far together, and I wasn’t about to go my separate way now. I’d like to claim it was chivalry, but strength-in-numbers and self-preservation was right up there as well. I didn’t want her to be alone, as much as I didn’t want to be alone either…
Our shuttle, made for 10, including a driver and one in the passenger seat, was already half full. Or so we thought. A third fold-out seat at the end of each row meant room for twelve in back and three more in front, if someone – like me for instance – sat on the gear box.
These shuttles don’t leave until they’re full, and we wouldn’t be full for another five hours, not leaving until 2:30PM. We had fifteen passengers and so much gear that the back hatch would have to be tied shut, untied, packed with more gear, and tied down again. Even fellow passengers were loaded down with random bags and boxes placed atop their laps.
We’d spend those five hot and humid hours watching gangs of men harangue and hassle and push and pull and grab potential customers, some of whom would eventually spin around, one armed cocked for a swing at whoever was grabbing their gear and clothes and arms. It made me misty-eyed for Intercity.
Four long hours after finally pulling away, Lisa and I would be dropped in Mtakataka, saying goodbye to our driver, Frank, who was kind and talkative and who’d bought us salted potato chips and peanuts from the villages we stopped at along the way. He has a small home, and dreams of farming it for a living one day, where he and his yet-to-be wife will raise their future children.
In Mtakataka, we were yet again left to a gang of men fighting for our business. We were also told that this next, short leg of our ride to Monkey Bay should cost just 500 kwacha each. Lisa and I traded our crammed shuttle for a crammed little hatchback meant for four, a car that would carry nine of us in total, plus our gear. A few miles later we were asked for 1,000 kwacha apiece. This time, we paid the inflated price without much argument.
One more ride, and our nightmare would be over.
“No more than 2,500 kwacha apiece for the final leg,” we’d been told by Frank.
“To Cape Maclear?” asked the taxi driver. “30,000 kwacha.”
“Okay you’re out. We’re not even negotiating with you,” Lisa would tell him while giving the universal sign for talk-to-the-hand.
Another would offer 10,000. Still double the price, but we were simply too exhausted to argue, loading our gear and climbing in. Once again, however, a friend would climb into the passenger seat.
“Before we go,” Lisa said. “10,000 and not a kwacha more.”
“Yes, yes, sure-sure, 10,000, yah.”
Bait taken, we would once again drive beyond the reaches of other taxis when in came the switch.
“We need to stop for gas…” the passenger suddenly turned to us and said. This by itself isn’t so uncommon, to be honest, as many of the shuttles and even large buses wait for the day’s business before filling their tanks.
But then he added, “As long as gas is open, no problem. If not, then we need black market gas, so 15,000.”
“Black market gas? What the fuck is black market gas?” I asked. “Does someone have gasoline in a bucket or something?”
Sarcasm out of my system (though the greater irony is this was probably giving far too much credit to their actual black market gas process), Lisa and I would then compete for the floor in our mutual outrage, taking turns undressing two more scammers, our wits beyond their ends. At this point they could have thrown us and our gear out of the car while it was still moving for all we cared, but little else was going to shut us up.
“You want an extra 5,000? You know what, you’ll fucking get it, but let me explain to you what’s about to happen,” said Lisa. “You’ll get five today, happily, because honestly, 5,000 is nothing to us, but it’s the last 5,000 you’ll be getting, because we’re both on social media and we’re both bloggers and we’re going to absolutely destroy you and Cape Maclear and all of Malawi to every single backpacker and tourist on our sites and tell them to skip Malawi all together and go to Tanzania or Zambia instead. So you’ll get your extra five today, but you’ll get nothing in the future and your tourism will be gone and you’ll have zero and it will be your fault.”
It was, in a word, glorious. And yet, despite the undressing, we would still pull into the gas station, and as we rolled to a stop the guy in our passenger seat would look at the attendant and preemptively say, “Closed, right?” It was a setup so obvious I laughingly called him out on it on the spot.
We then turned around and started heading back toward where we’d begun our ride, presumably to the back of some shack where we would find some guy standing with a bucket and a funnel. As we drove, Lisa, past her breaking point, was unrelenting in her verbal hammering of the two, retelling in detail each and every scam to which we’d been exposed in an effort to make them understand their idea was anything but original. We finally pulled into a dirt lot where a couple of young men were milling about. They spoke to one of them in Chewa, before telling us that the young man had just agreed to drive us where we were going for the original, agreed-upon 10,000.
Lisa, it seems, had broken them.
But rather than she and I getting out of this car and into another, the two men got out instead, and the young man, Emmanuel, got behind the wheel.
Whose car it was, I’ll never know, but that was far from the strangest thing that had happened to us in the last 72 hours. We drove off and into a field so muddy that I honestly thought for a split second that Emmanuel had been paid to purposely sink the car to its rims, get out, and simply walk away, our original drivers laughing at us from the distant road as we stepped out and unloaded our gear in ankle deep mud.
We made it through, of course, and headed down a dirt road that led into a deep dark forest, Emmanuel carefully navigating the farthest edges of huge, deep puddles, courtesy of Cyclone Gombe, a storm that had just killed two in Mozambique, the remnants of which were filling the sky around us with ominous clouds, bolts of lightning, thunder, occasional sheets of rain, and steadily growing winds.
We would drive through occasional clearings, the lightning illuminating the silhouettes of nearby island mountains, until we eventually turned into an unlit, rainy, windy, dirt road village…
A couple of Baobab trees and a few minutes later we would suddenly see a white wooden sign for Mgoza Lodge – our long, grueling journey was coming to its end. And that’s when it occurred to me, we’d never gotten gas.
“Hey, Emmanuel,” I said. “Aren’t you going to need gas to get back home?”
“No,” he said, casually. “I have plenty.”
Of course he did.
Three days without showers, of utterly exhausting travel in stifling hot buses, shuttles, and taxis, all crammed well beyond capacity. Sketchy immigration officials, confrontational depot workers, disconcerting taxi drivers, arguments, threats, fights, dead animals, and scam after scam after frustrating scam.
If only someone had warned me to be careful here – anyone, anyone at all – maybe it could have been different.
But if I’m being honest, I’m kind of glad no one did.