A Travellerspoint blog

September 2009

Another routine African bus journey

Leaving Malawi we had been delayed for well over an hour, and by the time we left for the 5km trek through no man's land, we were 3 passengers short. By the time we finally crossed into Mozambique – after a 3hour plus period between arriving at the Malawian border and driving into Mozambique – the bus was again full. The largest of the trio had returned without a large interesting looking bag he had been carrying, and my neighbour grumbled loudly about 'those damned people again' causing me to inquire what he mean't. And as he's said it in English, I was probably supposed to.

The trio had been part of a larger group of about 10, all guys, and all with Malawian papers. Apparently the larger man with the bag was paying off the Malawians to let them through (or get dodgy passports from them, i'm not sure which) and was a well known people smuggler, who regularly made this trip with young men who wanted to get to Zimbabwe or South Africa for a better life/opportunities. Whether any of this was true, I don't know. What I do know is he returned minus the bag, was definitely the leader of the group, and carried himself with a kind of cocky self confidence that suggested that he had nothing to worry about from anybody. And he was at least partly responsible for the delay which caused to sit in the sweltering heat waiting.

After the Tete corridor and creaking bridge over the Zambesi, the Zimbabwean part of the border was one of the friendliest I have ever crossed in Africa, though the bus then got delayed for another hour or so for reasons I don't know. Add in another 2 police stops and then a puncture barely 10km from Harare, and it all mean't that by the time we arrived it was gone 10pm. Happily, the bus then shot past the nicely lit place it was supposed to stop (and where I had arranged to meet my host) and then dumped me in a very dark and dodgy looking corner of Harare city centre with some very, erm, interesting characters lurking nearby.

Hmmm. Welcome to Zimbabwe

Posted by Gelli 12:24 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)


And so to Mozambique.

5 hours later, i had left again. Pretty wasn't it?!

Posted by Gelli 03:23 Archived in Mozambique Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

A happy last morning in Malawi. Oh yes.

For reasons that I never quite understood, Blantyre was absolutely crawling with blighters that can't even crawl, but still make my life miserable. Yes, mosquito b*stards, i mean you. And their continual buzzing presence at night part explains why i was awake by 2am on the morning I left Malawi. The fact that I was already awake at this time still does not hide my frustration at the s*dding Malawian police, who have not exactly added to my enjoyment of the country.

Again, i am not entirely sure why (though i am guessing at keeping unemployment figures down, and allowing ample opportunity to try and solicit bribe), Malawian police are extremely enthusiastic with their road blocks. Whilst this is not always so much of an issue when you are in a private car, on buses it generally means long stops where everybody has to get off, and then bags are then checked: Sometimes at random, sometimes thoroughly and sometimes with such a fine tooth comb as to be utterly frustrating. Especially when they refuse to say what they are looking for, and when you had just emptied your bag on to the sand barely 20ins previously at the last road block and the bus hasn't stopped anywhere in the interim. And at both stops you were one of only a very small number to be searched.

Back to why being awake at 2am has anything to do with police; It mean't that when they randomly raided the mostly empty hostel I was in at 3am, I was already awake. They were not quiet, they were not polite. About 8 barged into our room and though all wore assorted uniforms, not one would identify themselves (except, when asked, to say 'I am from immigration': No sh1t, sherlock, that's why your hat and jumper both say immigration on them in large white letters) or say what they were looking for. Suffice to say that passports were gone over in a fine tooth comb, and then my hand luggage and anything that was left out was scrutinised deeply. They looked suspiciously at my bread rolls and jar of peanut butter. They seemed convinced that Tiger Balm was something entirely different, and for the umpteenth time seemed utterly stumped by my Doxycycline. This is not a new phenomenon: At every check, the thing that has baffled them most is my malaria medicine, and most other backpackers have said the same thing. I don't know why Malawian polie are so uniformly stupid, but surely in an area with a very high malaria rate, mzungu's with malaria medicine should not exactly be a novelty to them any more. But from how they deal with it every single s*dding time, you would have thought i was carrying plutonium pills. Or Licorice...

Half an hour later i was left alone. The Japanese girl who was the only other person in the dorm was not so lucky. She works for an NGO who keep her passport. She had with her a notarised copy (all that i required under Malawian law), but that was not enough. The olice needed to see her actual passport. And now. After chucking everything out of her back to check it, they forced her off to the police station, literally shouting at her to hurry up repacking her stuff and not even letting her dress properly. An American from the next room seemed to be having a similar discussion in the hallway and also disappeared, whilst a third person was also heard to be being removed from the premises. As there were only 5guests that I was aware of and at least 3 were removed, I could only count my lucky stars that i was still there.

The Japanese girl came back about 5.30 (without her bag), but i have no idea what happened to the other guys or her bag as I left at 6.30 to find a bus. Malawi has been pretty enjoyable in general, but it is definitely time to move on.

Posted by Gelli 12:21 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The end of Malawi

I had pretty much decided I loved Malawi within the first hour of my arrival. Firstly, it had the enormous plus point of not being Nairobi or having anything to do with the hospitals. But of more relevance were two small snapshots that I received whilst barreling along towards Karonga in the car we were hitching in.

The first was barely 20minutes in, when the driver suddenly slammed on the breaks and slowed to an almost pedestrian rate. 'What's wrong?' we asked. 'A policeman with a speed camera ahead' he answered. But I quickly saw that things weren't quite right. For one thing, you could see the plug dangling down by the policeman's feet and not, as one suspects is normally required from such plugs, being plugged in. Another couple of seconds and i burst out laughing and told the drive he could speed up again if he wanted to. 'But there is a speed camera ahead' he repeated in puzzled tones. 'No there isn't', i said 'It's a policeman pointing a hair dryer at us!!! In it's way it was utterly brilliant, especially as you know that there had to be one or two real ones around the area, or else people would quickly cotton on and ignore them.

The second incident was another 20minutes or so further on, when in a brilliant display of evolution at it's finest, we suddenly saw a monkey walking along the road towards us carrying a small plastic bag of chips he was eating from, whilst on the opposite side of the road walking in the other direction was a local man carrying a large bunch of bananas. Kodak moments are made of brief snapshots like this, though my camera was sadly not to hand.

Malawi is undoubtedly a beautiful country, and generally, a very friendly one as well. Malawi is the only place in Africa that I have been where random locals would regularly come up to me on the street in the bigger towns and cities – and I am not alone in this happening to me – to shake my hand and welcome me to Malawi, without anting anything from me at all. They would say hello, welcome, shake my hand and walk away. After being in so many places where everybody who comes up randomly to say hello either wants something, or wants to sell you something, it is great to actually feel welcome for being you, and not for being a walking (or hobbling) ATM. A surprising number of the expats and lodge owners I have come across are abut my age, and I have made allot of friends amongst them and other long termers.

This happy chap had apparently been on the bar all day, and was happily dancing to whatever music happened to be playing. I could have watched him for hours

Other guests/travellers could generally be split into a few small groups: People doing medical electives (EG placements) for 1-2.5months, and just traveling at weekends or for a short period after they had finished, or living in hostel for the whole time. These tended to travel in pairs, and a large number of these were Scottish, Dutch or German. Then there were mid-term volunteers who were mostly settled location wise for 3 or 4 weeks or more: Many had been to Malawi before, and pretty much all of those that hadn't declared their intention to return in the next couple of years. And then there were the backpackers/travelers/holidaymakers of whom there were a surprisingly small number and 95%+ were couples (or at least M/F duo's). I can pretty much count the number of solo travelers I met in the 7 weeks or so I was in Malawi on one hand.

But whilst on the whole I do still really like Malawi, there is much not to like about it, and I leave with mixed emotions. I still love it here and want to come back, but it's not a clean cut as all that. As previously mentioned I managed to prevent a bag snatchingand then got robbed in a dorm. When reporting the robbery, the policeman apologized profusely and said 'this is not normal. You must believe that such incidents are very rare, and Malawi is a very friendly and safe country'. I wanted to believe him. Yet from my experience, it is not and they are not. It has been the most striking aspect of my time here, but more than 50% of the travelers and mzungu's I have met have also been robbed. And that is a heck of a lot of robberies. There is no obvious link - some have been opportunist, some have been professional, some pickpockets, some have been well known cons, scams or tricks. A few have been violent. But the end result has been the same. The thing that intrigues me is that many chose not to report it, or didn't even mention it until they heard that I had been robbed – the attitude of 'these things happen' and 'oh well. I suppose they are so much poorer than me that it doesn't matter' are very strange ones to me. Yes, these things do happen, and yes, the locals are much poorer than the average backpacker. Old fashioned and colonial as I may sound, to my mind that still does not make it right or OK for them to steal.

From personal experience, i would say that Malawi is the one place I have been (and over the years i have been to a few places) where you are most likely to be robbed. And I would never have expected that.

But more than the frustrating but often vaguely amusing TIA moments and more than the robberies, the one thing that really made me think twice about Malawi was an incident at a club in Lilongwe a few weeks ago. A large group of us had piled into back of 2 pickups (much to the amusement of the locals to see so many mzungus in one pickup), and we were going out to one of the more well known night spots in town. We were a fairly diverse group in terms of ethnicity and nationality, and two of the DJ's were friends of at least half of our group. I was looking forward to it. At the club, as we slowly paid our entrance and shuffled in, I heard the (local) bouncers suddenly say 'I'm sorry, this is a private party and you are not welcome here'. I turned to see them talking to Max, a really cheery young guy with a London accent. He protested, as did the rest of us who were still within earshot. This is just not on, we argued. Why is he not allowed in? 'Policy' we were told. The rest of our group was recalled from the club, along with some extras who were just as outraged, and we left on mass, disgusted that such a thing could happen in Malawi.

Why did this p1ss me and everybody off quite so much?

Max is a black Malawian.


Posted by Gelli 03:09 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)


Anybody that works or travels much in sub-saharan Africa comes across TIA. Sometimes it is introduced to them with almost un-African haste. Other times, it slowly grows on them, or dawns. Yet others have their light bulb moment. For some, it needs to be explained to them. But in the end, pretty much everybody comes across TIA.

It's even hard to explain exactly what constitutes a TIA moment. Small things like the drinks delivery truck turning up without either Coke or Green's (Carlsberg green, by far the most popular drink in Malawi) on board. Traffic logjams with no police anywhere, except for 4 all directing traffic at the only junction in the entire city that has traffic lights (which are being ignored by the police). A scheduled bus which is scheduled to leave at 5am or 6.30 or maybe 3pm, or maybe 9am: Basically nobody has the faintest idea what time it leaves, although all agree that it is a scheduled bus and leaves on time. The shipping company that basically takes out adverts to announce that its main ferry is not seaworthy, but continues running anyway; The thieves that stole the double mattress and took half-bikini's but left more portable and expensive items? All incidents of 'TIA'

TIA is used for all those small incidents, issues, problems and kind of 'shrugs. Sh1t happens' moments, and things which just don't make any kid of logical sense, but happen -or not - anyway. Any one incident might happen elsewhere, and bring small amusing stories passed on to friends and families at a later date, but the sheer number of them that you come across leads to TIA. I have had occasion to

To take one small example, i am currently in the Scottish named commercial capital of Malawi, Blantyre. My idea – after the hopeful conclusion of my fight with the Mozambiquian officials, anyway – is to head to Harare in Zimbabwe. It is the next logical destination, and (though I have no intention/interest in avoiding it) to avoid Zimbabwe completely would involve a detour of 6days of solid travel, and significant expense. I really don't have much time left and so could just go straight through to Johannesburg, but as I would still need to pay the required 55usd visa fee to cross Zimbabwe, that seems a little silly. But it isn't as simple as all that. I have so far found nine separate bus companies who operate services between Blantyre and Johannesburg, who offer between 1 and 4 services a week each. Combined, there are at least 20 weekly buses to Johannesburg. All services use the same road through the Tete corridor of Mozambique and then pass through Harare. It is unavoidable. But here's the thing. None of them – not one – offers a service to Harare or is prepared to drop passengers there. I have even offered to pay the full fare to Jo'burg and just jump out early. But none of them will accept that. By now you will have guessed that I haven't managed to find a single company that is prepared to take me to Harare – or offers a Harare service – despite the fact all buses to Jo'burg must go through there, most almost certainly stop there somewhere for a comfort break, or the fact that it is a good 18hours or so closer. Instead, at the moment I am reduced to a trip which at a minimum will consist of 4minibuses and a taxi, 3 currencies, 2 European languages (and countless local ones) in a mammoth of a trip which will probably take me two days. Yup, TIA.

Ah yes, The Lilongwe to Tayport bus...

And as for the Mozambiquian incident described above, it could become a book in itself. Suffice to say that I had found 4 different locations/addresses for the consulate, visiting of which took me 1.5days to visit, only to discover that 3 of them had never had anything to do with the consulate or Mozambique, and the 4th was the consulate – until 5years ago. No taxi driver had any idea where it was (although two happily drove me at random around Blantyre and Limbe for over an hour each hoping they would get lucky and I would pay them lots. We didn't and i didn't). I eventually discovered the consulate is now in a small office block in the centre of Blantyre (with no sign or flag) and which I had walked past at least 6 times during my previous fruitless searches. If that was bad enough, the fight to get the visa I want (It's only a double entry, which is on their price list and so shouldn't be *that* hard to get) is still ongoing, wearying, and seems oddly unsatisfactory to both myself and the consular officials – it is one of those depressing long running 'discussions' in which the only agreement is that we are all unhappy about what is happening, and can't see an end in sight. TIA. There will be no winners here.

When tents go wrong...

As an almost unrelated aside, todays Newspaper watch comes from the Malawian Daily Times. In an article entitle Wife cuts hubby's parts, you can pretty much guess the story and what happened, so i'll spare you the painful (especially if you are male) details. It's the sort of story that does come up every few months even in Europe and is not all *that* uncommon. What makes this one special though, is a throwaway comment near the bottom of the story, which states '... Mverani [the Police officer in charge of the case] said Ndilowe [the wife and scrotum cutter] has in the past been arrested on similar charges but was released on demand by her husband...' . Yes, re-read that. The wife has more than once in the past cut her husbands testicles, yet he has demanded – demanded – her release. My guess is that for that kind of leniency, she either has an absolutely brilliant blackmail photo of him, or is stinking rich and he desperately needs her money. And for the record (just in case you were contemplating it), if anybody happens to deliberately cut my balls – especially more than once – i will not be demanding your release back to me: rather, I will be paying people to keep you away from me for much, much longer....

Moving on.

Yup, This is Africa

Don't know why, but I just like the idea of Solarly.

Posted by Gelli 03:08 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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