Nakonde to Chitipa

Balancing the Bus

The bus arrived sometime that morning. Even more people with even more luggage than the previous day were waiting, thankfully, there were seats for all. The enormous pile of luggage growing on the roof became a little concerning. The bus lurched and swayed ominously on the rough dirt road to Malawi. About an hour down the road, the driver stopped and insisted that the luggage be rearranged to balance the bus before he would continue. After rebalancing the luggage, the trip was uneventful and we reached the Malawian border just after dusk. We had begun to assume that border crossings were hassle free in East Africa but were soon to be disillusioned.

Customs and Immigration

The border post was a frame building with the ubiquitous tin roof. Inside, desks, filing cabinets, and uniformed (white shirt and tie or paramilitary) dressed civil servants sheltering behind a large wooden counter easily identified it as an administrative office. Loudly hissing pressure lanterns hung from the roof trusses casting a surprisingly harsh light and seemed to be whispering behind our backs as we answered the immigration officer’s questions.  We had been warned that Malawi had a strict dress code so Barbara was wearing a dress that covered both her shoulders and her knees. Unfortunately Barbara was not the problem. His Excellency, the Life President, Ngwazi, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, President of Malawi had decided that hippies were not going to corrupt Malawian youth and had banned long hair on men. Unfortunately, my hair while not covering my neck, covered my ears and this was unacceptable. I combed my hair back behind my ears, to expose both my ears and my neck to scrutiny. It was not good enough. My hair could fall back over my ears and corrupt the local youth. We did not know if the short, wispy, gray-haired immigration officer was  looking for a bribe, had just been abused by his wife the night before, was on a power trip, or just conscientiously trying to do his job. Rather than risk a bribe, we decided that Barb would give me a haircut. Using a pair of nail scissors, she did a rather creditable job of exposing my ears to scrutiny without totally destroying my self-image. It may not have been stylish, but it was acceptable, and my passport was finally stamped, Chitipa –  Entry 26 July 1972 – Malawi. Having passed the immigration hurdle, it was now time for customs inspection. In twenty eight years of travel, I had never had such a complete luggage search. Outside, under the glare of another pressure lantern, they opened every bag, bottle, and container; they unfolded every item of clothing; they unscrewed and squeezed toothpaste from the tube; they looked through the lenses of my camera, and then they wanted to open my film canisters. My stomach knotted, and despite the coolness of the evening I began to sweat. I was carrying exposed film from the last two months of travel. I am sure that my demeanour confirmed every suspicion of the inspector. After much explanation and negotiation, I offered to open all of the unexposed canisters, and let the inspector choose one of the exposed canisters. He thought hard, sorted through the canisters of exposed film, and finally, to my immense relief, said, “OK, you can go now”. Actually, we could not. We had to wait for our fellow passengers to clear customs. If we thought that we had been searched thoroughly, the returning workers had it much worse. All their carefully packed and hand sewn parcels were opened and inspected at least as closely as our luggage had been. As we watched and waited, I realized that we had been treated well by comparison. We were guests, albeit young and potentially undesirable but guests nonetheless and were treated with greater courtesy than the returning workers. At last with all the luggage searched, the packages repacked, meticulously re-sewn and loaded back on the bus, we drove another three hours into Chitipa to spent the night in a council rest house, men in one room, women in the other.

A Typical Bus Ride

Bus travel became a routine. Before going to bed, I would fill our canteen and treat it with halazone purification tablets. We would get up at about five or five thirty in the morning, put on the cleanest clothes we had, perform our ablutions at a communal tap, and empty our bowels and bladders at a pit toilet. Loose wooden planks and branches provided passage through a sea of mud between the resthouse, toilets and tap. A few sips of water and a couple of digestive biscuits took the edge off our hunger before heading off to the bus station. At the bus station people were surprisingly bright, cheerful, polite, and courteous, but when the bus arrived, it was every person for themselves in the struggle to get a seat. An average bus ride was ten to twelve hours. Your place in the bus was determined when you boarded. If you did not get a seat, it was probable that you would stand for the whole trip. If you were very lucky, someone would leave the bus on route, and you would get their seat, but this was very rare. Buses were almost always filled to capacity at the station. Technically this would be sixty persons seated and twelve standing. In reality, it would be closer to seventy or seventy five seated and twenty to thirty standing. In addition, there would be babies, chickens, and occasional goats. If the bus were not full when it left the station, it soon would be. This meant that if you were lucky enough to get a seat but your seat was on the aisle, you would have at least one person leaning over your head. Once seated, you could neither stand, nor sit up straight unless you were seated under the luggage rack or riding the bucking bench seat at the rear of the bus. Like economy class seating in airplanes, legroom was at a premium because they squeezed in as many seats as they could, and luggage room was at such a premium that the space under the seat in front of you was probably jammed with bags, boxes, chickens, or perhaps a goat. The seats were like old schoolbus seats, a layer of vinyl covered foam, the vinyl torn and the foam crumbled so that padding was minimal and what there was, was lumpy. Our packs went on the roof with other luggage but Barbara carried a woven banana leaf basket containing our daily essentials, and I carried a two-litre canteen of treated water and a daypack with all of my camera gear. *   The period from six AM to about ten-thirty AM was the best. The morning was cool and the breeze refreshing. The bus would stop somewhere at around seven or eight AM and people would emerge from the side of the road with hard boiled eggs, deep fried corn fritters, and bread to sell. We would lean out the window and point to what we wanted. A hard-boiled egg would be accompanied by a twisted piece of newspaper enclosing a pinch of salt and might cost a couple of cents. As we drove, we could smell the fresh earth, sometimes flowers or fruit, fresh cut crops, or cooking fires. These would gradually be replaced by body odour, baby urine, sour breast milk, and chicken and goat manure. By noon it would be hot, dust from the road would come in through the open windows and prickle our nose or stick to the perspiration on our skin. The bus would stop around noon. It might be at a small village, or it might be in the middle of nowhere. We would be allowed off the bus. If we were lucky enough to have a seat the chance to stretch was a great relief. Despite the morning free for all, once occupied, the seat was yours for the day. You could be confident that you would get it back after the break. We might stop in the middle of nowhere, but there was always food. It might be an open charcoal pit with roasting chicken and cassava, or cold chicken, dried blood cakes, or flat bread. A complete lunch including a half chicken, roast cassava, and warm Coke might cost twenty five to fifty cents. Back on the bus, we could look forward to another four to six hours of relative immobility. The heat would become oppressive, sweat would run down our faces and backs, and the smell of exhaust would mingle with the dust and other odours. This was when I most valued the ability to tune out. I would sit staring without comprehension, my mind either wandering or blank. Time would pass without notice. About three in the afternoon the pain would start. The cramped position would lead to muscle tension and the constant pressure of butt on plank would lead to butt-ache. If standing, the constant swaying and bouncing of the bus would lead to burning feet and calves and aching back. The pain would eventually intrude on my subconscious and bring me back to reality. After a few days of travel, the pain would graduate to shooting pains radiating from butt or back to foot and neck. It was now impossible to retreat into reverie or meditation, time would slow, and the discomfort of present reality become intense. About five o’clock, the air would begin to cool and by dusk, the sweat on our skin and clothes would have dried. We would recover a little energy. The trip would end about six pm. By then it would be near dark, and, if we were lucky, we would find room with our fellow travellers at the local rest house. This would generally consist of two large rooms, one for the men and another for the women. We would sleep on grass mats over either a dirt or cement floor. This would cost about five cents. If we were not lucky, we would have to find private accommodation, either a government or private guest house. Government guest houses were clean and comfortable with locking doors and screened windows. These would cost about two dollars and fifty cents. Private guest houses might be as nice as government, but they could as well have wattle and daub walls, a dirt floor, a corrugated tin roof, and an open hole in the wall for a window. These ranged between fifty cents and two dollars. In the worse case, we slept on the ground at the bus station. These were free. After securing accommodation, dinner was generally from the cache of food in our packs or from Barbara’s basket.

Chitipa to Mzuzu

Another five AM wake-up for a six AM departure. I had been quite a hit the night before. My fellow travellers were amused by my evening ritual, performed in the intermittent light of my flashlight. Brush my teeth; rinse with water from the canteen; fill the canteen at the communal tap and add the Halozone (water sterilization) tablets. Change into a different t-shirt and jockey shorts (note the use of different rather than clean) from my pack; extract the foam pad and sleeping bag from their stuff sack; unroll and fluff the foamy and bag; carefully roll up my pants and shirt to use as a pillow, and crawl into the bag. Once settled I had lain awake for some time listening to the sighing, coughing, snorting, flatulence, and snoring of my travelling companions. The ritual for my companions was to lay down on the grass mat provided by the rest house, and, unless they were watching my performance, fall asleep. The morning ritual was, with the exception of the water treatment, the reverse.

The currency problem

I mentioned earlier that the Malawian workers could not take Zambian currency out of Zambia. The flip side was that you could not buy Malawian currency outside of Malawi and this left us cashless upon arrival in Malawi. The only place to change money was a bank. Banks opened at nine in the morning and closed at three in the afternoon. The buses left at six in the morning and arrived around six in the evening. This presented a problem. The bus conductor loaned us money for the rest house that night. He told us that all of the buses we needed to take for the next few days left before the banks opened and arrived after the banks closed. This  would not be a problem he said, because we could stay on the same bus all the way to Lilongwe, and he would lend us money until we got to there. We could then change some money and repay him. The next day he loaned us money to buy breakfast near Chitipa, again for lunch at Rumphi, and we were again going to need to borrow money for food and lodging in Mzuzu. When we arrived in Mzuzu that evening, the council rest house was full. They could not even find space in the halls. Our only option we were told, was the government guest house at the edge of town. Since this would be expensive by Malawian standards we did not want to impose any further on our friend. He understood and was probably a little relieved, but the problem of how to repay him remained. This was simple he said, “You give the money to the conductor on the next bus, he will see that I get it”.

Good Samaritan

It was well after dark when we shouldered our packs and began walking in the general direction indicated to us by the manager of the council rest house. Towards the edge of town, we asked a young man for directions to the guest house. “It is far. There are no lights and you will get lost.” he said. “I will take you.” Barbara carried, in addition to her pack, the banana leaf basket that contained things we needed on the bus ride. I carried my pack, the daypack containing all of my camera gear, and a two-litre canteen. He insisted on helping to carry our luggage so Barbara allowed him to carry the banana leaf basket and I let him have the canteen. We walked some distance, and by the time we arrived at the guest house we were indeed grateful for our young Samaritan. The place was dark. Our guide walked up to a door and pounded loudly. A man appeared and we heard an exchange in Chichewa (the local dialect), which we did not understand. The man went back inside and emerged with a large board to which was attached a key. He showed us to a small, clean, windowed room. The window had curtains, a screen, and shutters. The room had an en suite toilet and shower. We thought that we had died and gone to heaven. For the past six days we had had to make do with a sponge bath conducted under our clothing, at a communal tap surrounded by mud and a few boards to walk on. Toilet facilities were pits surrounded by a low wall and a sea of mud. Access was via planks or tree limbs laid across the mud. These were especially difficult to negotiate at night and we prayed that our flashlight batteries would last. We now had the delicate task of explaining that we had no cash and would have to wait for the bank to open before we could pay. I was ready to offer my camera as security but the manager simply smiled and said that tomorrow would be fine. He apologized for the size of the plank attached to the key and explained that keys were very hard to replace. After the manager left, we turned to our guide. I explained that I did not understand the customs of Malawi but that in my country it would be appropriate for me to offer him some money for his trouble. He looked genuinely shocked but recovered and said, “No, no, not in Malawi. I am fifth form graduate so I understand these things but others would not. You are our guests and to offer money would insult our hospitality.” He eventually joined us in an evening digestive biscuit and, making sure that we could find our way back into town, he wished us good night and left.

Rest and Relaxation

What an oasis was this place. We gloried in a tepid shower, we savoured our privacy, and we luxuriated between clean cool sheets on a real mattress. The next morning we strolled into town. We found a bank and changed money; we replenished our food supplies; and we revelled in the freedom to stand, stretch, sit, or walk at will. We explored Mzuzu, which did not take long, and relaxed. Just before dusk we saw a strange apparition coming down the road towards us. As it got closer, the apparition resolved itself into two men, tall, white, and dressed in tie-died T-shirts, tattered jeans, and wearing what looked like wastebaskets on their heads. “Hello.” we said. “Hey, unreal man. Where are you from?” was the response. It turns out that they were a couple of Americans working their way north from South Africa. After the usual swapping of travel anecdotes, I could control my curiosity no longer and asked, “Pardon me for asking, but where did you get the hats? They look suspiciously like the banana leaf waste baskets that we saw at customs when we crossed the border.” “Yea, unreal man, they are!” one of them responded. It turned out that they also had had a problem with hair length at the border. After much discussion, they managed to convince the officer that the issue was not the length of their hair but rather that it was exposed to view. After all, Sikhs had long hair covered by turbans and they were allowed entry. This was true the officer conceded, but the two Americans’ hair was not covered, and  it reached past their shoulders. If they agreed to keep it covered the entire time they were in the country they could come in. Unfortunately, their hats could not contain the hair. Necessity being the mother of invention, the Americans searched for alternative headgear. It turned out that the wastebaskets were the perfect size; they fit snuggly around the head, and had more than enough room to contain the hair piled on top of the head. At this point they took their “hats” off and their hair tumbled to below their shoulders. To their credit, they were still wearing their wastebaskets and intended to do so until they left the country.

Mzuzu to Lilongwe

After another luxurious night at the guest house , relaxed and rested, we got up at five in the morning to walk into the bus station.

Honest Poor

Among the crowd trying to buy tickets was a young woman carrying her infant child. She had lost her money. She was trying to get to her family in Lilongwe, and could we help. We agreed to buy her a ticket when I bought ours. About halfway through the line, I dropped a twenty-five-tambala piece (about 25 cents). I briefly tried to find it but it seemed impossible in the crush of people. About twenty minutes later when I finally reached the wicket, I heard a murmur and a twenty-five-tambala piece passed through about five or six hands and was returned to me. Considering that the average annual income in Malawi was about one hundred dollars, this was like a having a fifty-dollar bill returned in Canada today.

Everyone for Themself

As usual, all courtesy and decorum disappeared as the bus pulled up to load. By this time I had learned that the best seats in the bus were directly behind the driver. You had leg room, a good view, and no one could stand in front or over you because they were too close to the driver. We were facing a twelve-hour ride and I was determined to capture these seats. I left Barbara to deal with the packs and scrambled for the bus as it pulled up. Before the bus had even stopped, I grabbed the handrails on either side of the door and ran with the bus until it stopped. Suddenly a head appeared under my arm and began straining to force itself in front of me. I bared my teeth and pretended to bite the exposed ear. My opponent flashed a big smile and drew back. He was not my main competition though, people were already climbing in the open windows, and the door had not opened yet. At last the door opened, and incredibly, I captured the best seats on the bus. As Barb boarded the bus and I waved her over to the choice seat, she brought the young woman along. The three of us, plus baby, now occupied a two-person seat. Unfortunately, the bus was unusually crowded and the driver relaxed the rule about people standing behind him. We were now three people and a baby in a two-person seat sitting, hunched below another two people standing in front and over us as they leaned away from the driver.

The Longest Day

Despite the chance to rest and recuperate, the trip was an agony. Our only consolation was that it could have been worse; we could have been the young men awkwardly leaning over us. They left the bus at about ten o’clock but were immediately replaced by people boarding. By the afternoon, the pains shooting from buttocks to foot and from buttocks to neck were immune to the asparin and codeine tablets that we were eating like candy. I had just taken another painkiller when memory of a trip from Whistler Mountain to Vancouver on the BC Rail passenger car came back to me. We had been incensed and outraged when we had found that the car was full and that we had had to stand for the two and half hour trip to Vancouver. Just a few days ago, I had stood for eleven hours, on a bucking, swaying bus, so closely surrounded by people that I don’t think I could actually have fallen over even if I had lost my balance. I remembered the smell of body odour, baby urine, sour milk, and chicken dung and I began to laugh. Barbara asked me what was so funny and when I told her she laughed as well. Our travelling companion must have thought we were more than a little strange. Mercifully we arrived in Lilongwe. I do not remember how we found the place where we spent the night, but it was a mud brick hut with an ill- fitting wooden door, dirt floor, and open window with sugar sack curtains. The beds were iron frames with woven steel springs, and stained, moldy, stuffed cotton mattresses. There was a wooden orange crate for a nightstand and an old shoe polish tin filled with coal oil and a cotton wick for light. We removed the mattresses and placed our thin foam pads and sleeping bags directly on the metal springs. Barbara insisted that we leave the lamp burning to keep the cockroaches at bay. Just as we were falling asleep, the local band struck up at the bar next door. Had we not been exhausted we would probably have enjoyed the music, we might even have gotten up and walked over to join in the merriment, but we just gritted our teeth and managed to fall asleep despite the band.

Lilongwe to Blantyre

We were getting close, one more bus ride, and Barbara’s brother Gary might meet as at the bus station in Blantyre. This bus ride was pretty uneventful; I remember only two incidents. The first was when a member of the Malawian youth group, The Malawi Young Pioneers, offered Barbara his seat. Barbara thanked him and in turn offered the seat to an elderly lady carrying what we assumed to be a grand child. The Young Pioneer was quite offended, it was appropriate to give up his seat to a white woman but it was not appropriate for a white woman to give that seat to an old Malawian lady. Malawi Young Pioneers were a cross between Boy Scouts and Hitler Youth. They were paramilitary, wore uniforms, were generally polite and courteous, and were rumoured to be informants reporting to the secret police. The other event involved a police officer and the prisoner he was escorting to trial. The manacled prisoner was eating a lemon with great gusto and when he saw us grimacing told us in reasonable English that they were tree ripened and very sweet. He asked the guard to quarter one (the prisoner was obviously not allowed a knife) and offered it to us. He was right; it was really quite tasty, especially if chewed with a little piece of sugar cane (also pealed and cut by the guard). We arrived in Blantyre about one in the morning and were not unduly surprised that Gary was not there to meet us. We slept on the deserted platform until about six; hung around until about nine, and not seeing Gary, decided that we might as well take the bus to the town of Cholo where Gary lived and taught. After all it was close and Gary could not know exactly when we would arrive. Six hours later, we arrived at Cholo. Some young school children happily led us to Gary’s house. We met his room mate Tom, a very pleasant young man who welcomed us, made us tea, and informed us that Gary was expecting us to be on the afternoon bus, and had left for Blantyre that morning to pick us up. He was probably looking for us at that moment. Gary arrived back that evening, pleased to see us safe and sound. He had not been too worried because people at the bus station had remembered two apparently crazy Europeans sleeping on the platform and then boarding a bus for Cholo. Our trip from Blantyre to Cholo had taken 6 hours. Gary had done the trip in his car in two.

Reunion

As could be expected of two young single men sharing a bungalow, Gary and Tom’s place was pretty Spartan, but compared to our previous accommodation, it was luxurious. I remember the next morning as almost the start of a new trip. The night before, we had showered with hot water before crawling between clean cool sheets on a firm mattress. In the morning, instead of sitting on a dirt floor, we ate a western style breakfast while sitting on kitchen chairs at a kitchen table and relaxed with friends over strong hot coffee. Most importantly, we were not about to climb on a bus for another 10 to 12 hour endurance test. From  the kitchen window we could see a small field of flowering sugar cane, the flower heads glowing golden in the rays of the morning sun. We had travelled about two thousand kilometers in 10 days; we had travelled an average of ten hours a day; we had averaged a stunning twenty kilometers per hour; and we had spent about a hundred dollars. We took the trip for granted, but apparently it was considered overly adventurous for most of the local expat community.
Rebalancing the roof luggage, en route to Chitipa. Remains of the morning market at Rumphi, our mid day lunch stop. Mzuzu, not a bustling metropolis, but pleasant and a nice change  from sitting on the bus. Morning view from Tom's and Gary's kitchen. Tea plantations between Blantyre and Cholo.
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved

 Nakonde to Chitipa

Balancing the Bus

The bus arrived sometime that morning. Even more people with even more luggage than the previous day were waiting, thankfully, there were seats for all. The enormous pile of luggage growing on the roof became a little concerning. The bus lurched and swayed ominously on the rough dirt road to Malawi. About an hour down the road, the driver stopped and insisted that the luggage be rearranged to balance the bus before he would continue. After rebalancing the luggage, the trip was uneventful and we reached the Malawian border just after dusk. We had begun to assume that border crossings were hassle free in East Africa but were soon to be disillusioned.

Customs and Immigration

The border post was a frame building with the ubiquitous tin roof. Inside, desks, filing cabinets, and uniformed (white shirt and tie or paramilitary) dressed civil servants sheltering behind a large wooden counter easily identified it as an administrative office. Loudly hissing pressure lanterns hung from the roof trusses casting a surprisingly harsh light and seemed to be whispering behind our backs as we answered the immigration officer’s questions.  We had been warned that Malawi had a strict dress code so Barbara was wearing a dress that covered both her shoulders and her knees. Unfortunately Barbara was not the problem. His Excellency, the Life President, Ngwazi, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, President of Malawi had decided that hippies were not going to corrupt Malawian youth and had banned long hair on men. Unfortunately, my hair while not covering my neck, covered my ears and this was unacceptable. I combed my hair back behind my ears, to expose both my ears and my neck to scrutiny. It was not good enough. My hair could fall back over my ears and corrupt the local youth. We did not know if the short, wispy, gray- haired immigration officer was  looking for a bribe, had just been abused by his wife the night before, was on a power trip, or just conscientiously trying to do his job. Rather than risk a bribe, we decided that Barb would give me a haircut. Using a pair of nail scissors, she did a rather creditable job of exposing my ears to scrutiny without totally destroying my self-image. It may not have been stylish, but it was acceptable, and my passport was finally stamped, Chitipa –  Entry 26 July 1972 – Malawi. Having passed the immigration hurdle, it was now time for customs inspection. In twenty eight years of travel, I had never had such a complete luggage search. Outside, under the glare of another pressure lantern, they opened every bag, bottle, and container; they unfolded every item of clothing; they unscrewed and squeezed toothpaste from the tube; they looked through the lenses of my camera, and then they wanted to open my film canisters. My stomach knotted, and despite the coolness of the evening I began to sweat. I was carrying exposed film from the last two months of travel. I am sure that my demeanour confirmed every suspicion of the inspector. After much explanation and negotiation, I offered to open all of the unexposed canisters, and let the inspector choose one of the exposed canisters. He thought hard, sorted through the canisters of exposed film, and finally, to my immense relief, said, “OK, you can go now”. Actually, we could not. We had to wait for our fellow passengers to clear customs. If we thought that we had been searched thoroughly, the returning workers had it much worse. All their carefully packed and hand sewn parcels were opened and inspected at least as closely as our luggage had been. As we watched and waited, I realized that we had been treated well by comparison. We were guests, albeit young and potentially undesirable but guests nonetheless and were treated with greater courtesy than the returning workers. At last with all the luggage searched, the packages repacked, meticulously re-sewn and loaded back on the bus, we drove another three hours into Chitipa to spent the night in a council rest house, men in one room, women in the other.

A Typical Bus Ride

Bus travel became a routine. Before going to bed, I would fill our canteen and treat it with halazone purification tablets. We would get up at about five or five thirty in the morning, put on the cleanest clothes we had, perform our ablutions at a communal tap, and empty our bowels and bladders at a pit toilet. Loose wooden planks and branches provided passage through a sea of mud between the resthouse, toilets and tap. A few sips of water and a couple of digestive biscuits took the edge off our hunger before heading off to the bus station. At the bus station people were surprisingly bright, cheerful, polite, and courteous, but when the bus arrived, it was every person for themselves in the struggle to get a seat. An average bus ride was ten to twelve hours. Your place in the bus was determined when you boarded. If you did not get a seat, it was probable that you would stand for the whole trip. If you were very lucky, someone would leave the bus on route, and you would get their seat, but this was very rare. Buses were almost always filled to capacity at the station. Technically this would be sixty persons seated and twelve standing. In reality, it would be closer to seventy or seventy five seated and twenty to thirty standing. In addition, there would be babies, chickens, and occasional goats. If the bus were not full when it left the station, it soon would be. This meant that if you were lucky enough to get a seat but your seat was on the aisle, you would have at least one person leaning over your head. Once seated, you could neither stand, nor sit up straight unless you were seated under the luggage rack or riding the bucking bench seat at the rear of the bus. Like economy class seating in airplanes, legroom was at a premium because they squeezed in as many seats as they could, and luggage room was at such a premium that the space under the seat in front of you was probably jammed with bags, boxes, chickens, or perhaps a goat. The seats were like old schoolbus seats, a layer of vinyl covered foam, the vinyl torn and the foam crumbled so that padding was minimal and what there was, was lumpy. Our packs went on the roof with other luggage but Barbara carried a woven banana leaf basket containing our daily essentials, and I carried a two-litre canteen of treated water and a daypack with all of my camera gear. *   The period from six AM to about ten-thirty AM was the best. The morning was cool and the breeze refreshing. The bus would stop somewhere at around seven or eight AM and people would emerge from the side of the road with hard boiled eggs, deep fried corn fritters, and bread to sell. We would lean out the window and point to what we wanted. A hard-boiled egg would be accompanied by a twisted piece of newspaper enclosing a pinch of salt and might cost a couple of cents. As we drove, we could smell the fresh earth, sometimes flowers or fruit, fresh cut crops, or cooking fires. These would gradually be replaced by body odour, baby urine, sour breast milk, and chicken and goat manure. By noon it would be hot, dust from the road would come in through the open windows and prickle our nose or stick to the perspiration on our skin. The bus would stop around noon. It might be at a small village, or it might be in the middle of nowhere. We would be allowed off the bus. If we were lucky enough to have a seat the chance to stretch was a great relief. Despite the morning free for all, once occupied, the seat was yours for the day. You could be confident that you would get it back after the break. We might stop in the middle of nowhere, but there was always food. It might be an open charcoal pit with roasting chicken and cassava, or cold chicken, dried blood cakes, or flat bread. A complete lunch including a half chicken, roast cassava, and warm Coke might cost twenty five to fifty cents. Back on the bus, we could look forward to another four to six hours of relative immobility. The heat would become oppressive, sweat would run down our faces and backs, and the smell of exhaust would mingle with the dust and other odours. This was when I most valued the ability to tune out. I would sit staring without comprehension, my mind either wandering or blank. Time would pass without notice. About three in the afternoon the pain would start. The cramped position would lead to muscle tension and the constant pressure of butt on plank would lead to butt-ache. If standing, the constant swaying and bouncing of the bus would lead to burning feet and calves and aching back. The pain would eventually intrude on my subconscious and bring me back to reality. After a few days of travel, the pain would graduate to shooting pains radiating from butt or back to foot and neck. It was now impossible to retreat into reverie or meditation, time would slow, and the discomfort of present reality become intense. About five o’clock, the air would begin to cool and by dusk, the sweat on our skin and clothes would have dried. We would recover a little energy. The trip would end about six pm. By then it would be near dark, and, if we were lucky, we would find room with our fellow travellers at the local rest house. This would generally consist of two large rooms, one for the men and another for the women. We would sleep on grass mats over either a dirt or cement floor. This would cost about five cents. If we were not lucky, we would have to find private accommodation, either a government or private guest house. Government guest houses were clean and comfortable with locking doors and screened windows. These would cost about two dollars and fifty cents. Private guest houses might be as nice as government, but they could as well have wattle and daub walls, a dirt floor, a corrugated tin roof, and an open hole in the wall for a window. These ranged between fifty cents and two dollars. In the worse case, we slept on the ground at the bus station. These were free. After securing accommodation, dinner was generally from the cache of food in our packs or from Barbara’s basket.

Chitipa to Mzuzu

Another five AM wake-up for a six AM departure. I had been quite a hit the night before. My fellow travellers were amused by my evening ritual, performed in the intermittent light of my flashlight. Brush my teeth; rinse with water from the canteen; fill the canteen at the communal tap and add the Halozone (water sterilization) tablets. Change into a different t-shirt and jockey shorts (note the use of different rather than clean) from my pack; extract the foam pad and sleeping bag from their stuff sack; unroll and fluff the foamy and bag; carefully roll up my pants and shirt to use as a pillow, and crawl into the bag. Once settled I had lain awake for some time listening to the sighing, coughing, snorting, flatulence, and snoring of my travelling companions. The ritual for my companions was to lay down on the grass mat provided by the rest house, and, unless they were watching my performance, fall asleep. The morning ritual was, with the exception of the water treatment, the reverse.

The currency problem

I mentioned earlier that the Malawian workers could not take Zambian currency out of Zambia. The flip side was that you could not buy Malawian currency outside of Malawi and this left us cashless upon arrival in Malawi. The only place to change money was a bank. Banks opened at nine in the morning and closed at three in the afternoon. The buses left at six in the morning and arrived around six in the evening. This presented a problem. The bus conductor loaned us money for the rest house that night. He told us that all of the buses we needed to take for the next few days left before the banks opened and arrived after the banks closed. This  would not be a problem he said, because we could stay on the same bus all the way to Lilongwe, and he would lend us money until we got to there. We could then change some money and repay him. The next day he loaned us money to buy breakfast near Chitipa, again for lunch at Rumphi, and we were again going to need to borrow money for food and lodging in Mzuzu. When we arrived in Mzuzu that evening, the council rest house was full. They could not even find space in the halls. Our only option we were told, was the government guest house at the edge of town. Since this would be expensive by Malawian standards we did not want to impose any further on our friend. He understood and was probably a little relieved, but the problem of how to repay him remained. This was simple he said, “You give the money to the conductor on the next bus, he will see that I get it”.

Good Samaritan

It was well after dark when we shouldered our packs and began walking in the general direction indicated to us by the manager of the council rest house. Towards the edge of town, we asked a young man for directions to the guest house. “It is far. There are no lights and you will get lost.” he said. “I will take you.” Barbara carried, in addition to her pack, the banana leaf basket that contained things we needed on the bus ride. I carried my pack, the daypack containing all of my camera gear, and a two-litre canteen. He insisted on helping to carry our luggage so Barbara allowed him to carry the banana leaf basket and I let him have the canteen. We walked some distance, and by the time we arrived at the guest house we were indeed grateful for our young Samaritan. The place was dark. Our guide walked up to a door and pounded loudly. A man appeared and we heard an exchange in Chichewa (the local dialect), which we did not understand. The man went back inside and emerged with a large board to which was attached a key. He showed us to a small, clean, windowed room. The window had curtains, a screen, and shutters. The room had an en suite toilet and shower. We thought that we had died and gone to heaven. For the past six days we had had to make do with a sponge bath conducted under our clothing, at a communal tap surrounded by mud and a few boards to walk on. Toilet facilities were pits surrounded by a low wall and a sea of mud. Access was via planks or tree limbs laid across the mud. These were especially difficult to negotiate at night and we prayed that our flashlight batteries would last. We now had the delicate task of explaining that we had no cash and would have to wait for the bank to open before we could pay. I was ready to offer my camera as security but the manager simply smiled and said that tomorrow would be fine. He apologized for the size of the plank attached to the key and explained that keys were very hard to replace. After the manager left, we turned to our guide. I explained that I did not understand the customs of Malawi but that in my country it would be appropriate for me to offer him some money for his trouble. He looked genuinely shocked but recovered and said, “No, no, not in Malawi. I am fifth form graduate so I understand these things but others would not. You are our guests and to offer money would insult our hospitality.” He eventually joined us in an evening digestive biscuit and, making sure that we could find our way back into town, he wished us good night and left.

Rest and Relaxation

What an oasis was this place. We gloried in a tepid shower, we savoured our privacy, and we luxuriated between clean cool sheets on a real mattress. The next morning we strolled into town. We found a bank and changed money; we replenished our food supplies; and we revelled in the freedom to stand, stretch, sit, or walk at will. We explored Mzuzu, which did not take long, and relaxed. Just before dusk we saw a strange apparition coming down the road towards us. As it got closer, the apparition resolved itself into two men, tall, white, and dressed in tie-died T- shirts, tattered jeans, and wearing what looked like wastebaskets on their heads. “Hello.” we said. “Hey, unreal man. Where are you from?” was the response. It turns out that they were a couple of Americans working their way north from South Africa. After the usual swapping of travel anecdotes, I could control my curiosity no longer and asked, “Pardon me for asking, but where did you get the hats? They look suspiciously like the banana leaf waste baskets that we saw at customs when we crossed the border.” “Yea, unreal man, they are!” one of them responded. It turned out that they also had had a problem with hair length at the border. After much discussion, they managed to convince the officer that the issue was not the length of their hair but rather that it was exposed to view. After all, Sikhs had long hair covered by turbans and they were allowed entry. This was true the officer conceded, but the two Americans’ hair was not covered, and  it reached past their shoulders. If they agreed to keep it covered the entire time they were in the country they could come in. Unfortunately, their hats could not contain the hair. Necessity being the mother of invention, the Americans searched for alternative headgear. It turned out that the wastebaskets were the perfect size; they fit snuggly around the head, and had more than enough room to contain the hair piled on top of the head. At this point they took their “hats” off and their hair tumbled to below their shoulders. To their credit, they were still wearing their wastebaskets and intended to do so until they left the country.

Mzuzu to Lilongwe

After another luxurious night at the guest house , relaxed and rested, we got up at five in the morning to walk into the bus station.

Honest Poor

Among the crowd trying to buy tickets was a young woman carrying her infant child. She had lost her money. She was trying to get to her family in Lilongwe, and could we help. We agreed to buy her a ticket when I bought ours. About halfway through the line, I dropped a twenty-five-tambala piece (about 25 cents). I briefly tried to find it but it seemed impossible in the crush of people. About twenty minutes later when I finally reached the wicket, I heard a murmur and a twenty- five-tambala piece passed through about five or six hands and was returned to me. Considering that the average annual income in Malawi was about one hundred dollars, this was like a having a fifty-dollar bill returned in Canada today.

Everyone for Themself

As usual, all courtesy and decorum disappeared as the bus pulled up to load. By this time I had learned that the best seats in the bus were directly behind the driver. You had leg room, a good view, and no one could stand in front or over you because they were too close to the driver. We were facing a twelve-hour ride and I was determined to capture these seats. I left Barbara to deal with the packs and scrambled for the bus as it pulled up. Before the bus had even stopped, I grabbed the handrails on either side of the door and ran with the bus until it stopped. Suddenly a head appeared under my arm and began straining to force itself in front of me. I bared my teeth and pretended to bite the exposed ear. My opponent flashed a big smile and drew back. He was not my main competition though, people were already climbing in the open windows, and the door had not opened yet. At last the door opened, and incredibly, I captured the best seats on the bus. As Barb boarded the bus and I waved her over to the choice seat, she brought the young woman along. The three of us, plus baby, now occupied a two-person seat. Unfortunately, the bus was unusually crowded and the driver relaxed the rule about people standing behind him. We were now three people and a baby in a two-person seat sitting, hunched below another two people standing in front and over us as they leaned away from the driver.

The Longest Day

Despite the chance to rest and recuperate, the trip was an agony. Our only consolation was that it could have been worse; we could have been the young men awkwardly leaning over us. They left the bus at about ten o’clock but were immediately replaced by people boarding. By the afternoon, the pains shooting from buttocks to foot and from buttocks to neck were immune to the asparin and codeine tablets that we were eating like candy. I had just taken another painkiller when memory of a trip from Whistler Mountain to Vancouver on the BC Rail passenger car came back to me. We had been incensed and outraged when we had found that the car was full and that we had had to stand for the two and half hour trip to Vancouver. Just a few days ago, I had stood for eleven hours, on a bucking, swaying bus, so closely surrounded by people that I don’t think I could actually have fallen over even if I had lost my balance. I remembered the smell of body odour, baby urine, sour milk, and chicken dung and I began to laugh. Barbara asked me what was so funny and when I told her she laughed as well. Our travelling companion must have thought we were more than a little strange. Mercifully we arrived in Lilongwe. I do not remember how we found the place where we spent the night, but it was a mud brick hut with an ill-fitting wooden door, dirt floor, and open window with sugar sack curtains. The beds were iron frames with woven steel springs, and stained, moldy, stuffed cotton mattresses. There was a wooden orange crate for a nightstand and an old shoe polish tin filled with coal oil and a cotton wick for light. We removed the mattresses and placed our thin foam pads and sleeping bags directly on the metal springs. Barbara insisted that we leave the lamp burning to keep the cockroaches at bay. Just as we were falling asleep, the local band struck up at the bar next door. Had we not been exhausted we would probably have enjoyed the music, we might even have gotten up and walked over to join in the merriment, but we just gritted our teeth and managed to fall asleep despite the band.

Lilongwe to Blantyre

We were getting close, one more bus ride, and Barbara’s brother Gary might meet as at the bus station in Blantyre. This bus ride was pretty uneventful; I remember only two incidents. The first was when a member of the Malawian youth group, The Malawi Young Pioneers, offered Barbara his seat. Barbara thanked him and in turn offered the seat to an elderly lady carrying what we assumed to be a grand child. The Young Pioneer was quite offended, it was appropriate to give up his seat to a white woman but it was not appropriate for a white woman to give that seat to an old Malawian lady. Malawi Young Pioneers were a cross between Boy Scouts and Hitler Youth. They were paramilitary, wore uniforms, were generally polite and courteous, and were rumoured to be informants reporting to the secret police. The other event involved a police officer and the prisoner he was escorting to trial. The manacled prisoner was eating a lemon with great gusto and when he saw us grimacing told us in reasonable English that they were tree ripened and very sweet. He asked the guard to quarter one (the prisoner was obviously not allowed a knife) and offered it to us. He was right; it was really quite tasty, especially if chewed with a little piece of sugar cane (also pealed and cut by the guard). We arrived in Blantyre about one in the morning and were not unduly surprised that Gary was not there to meet us. We slept on the deserted platform until about six; hung around until about nine, and not seeing Gary, decided that we might as well take the bus to the town of Cholo where Gary lived and taught. After all it was close and Gary could not know exactly when we would arrive. Six hours later, we arrived at Cholo. Some young school children happily led us to Gary’s house. We met his room mate Tom, a very pleasant young man who welcomed us, made us tea, and informed us that Gary was expecting us to be on the afternoon bus, and had left for Blantyre that morning to pick us up. He was probably looking for us at that moment. Gary arrived back that evening, pleased to see us safe and sound. He had not been too worried because people at the bus station had remembered two apparently crazy Europeans sleeping on the platform and then boarding a bus for Cholo. Our trip from Blantyre to Cholo had taken 6 hours. Gary had done the trip in his car in two.

Reunion

As could be expected of two young single men sharing a bungalow, Gary and Tom’s place was pretty Spartan, but compared to our previous accommodation, it was luxurious. I remember the next morning as almost the start of a new trip. The night before, we had showered with hot water before crawling between clean cool sheets on a firm mattress. In the morning, instead of sitting on a dirt floor, we ate a western style breakfast while sitting on kitchen chairs at a kitchen table and relaxed with friends over strong hot coffee. Most importantly, we were not about to climb on a bus for another 10 to 12 hour endurance test. From  the kitchen window we could see a small field of flowering sugar cane, the flower heads glowing golden in the rays of the morning sun. We had travelled about two thousand kilometers in 10 days; we had travelled an average of ten hours a day; we had averaged a stunning twenty kilometers per hour; and we had spent about a hundred dollars. We took the trip for granted, but apparently it was considered overly adventurous for most of the local expat community.
Reloading the bus en route to Chitipa. Lunch stop at Rumphi Mzuzu, no resort, but a pleasant break. Morrning view from Garyís and Tomís Kitchen.
Tea plantations en route from Blantyre to Cholo.
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved