Travel between Malawi and Tanzania proves is the low-point of the month.
21.09.2011 - 21.09.2011 24 °C
Having spent the night eavesdropping for updates on the political unrest, we wereuncertain whether or not it would be safe to leave the lodge, let alone the country. We waited around until 9am to 1) see what the riot situation in Mzuzu was like and 2) potentially catch a lift with some people going that way. Turned out they'd decided to avoid the city, what with 5 people having been killed there on the 20th.
So, we missed the marginally more reliable buses, which leave at around 6am. It took us hours to get to Mzuzu. We were originally planning to make it all the way over the Malawi-Tanzania border and as far as Aringa. The minibus stopped so often that it took twice as long as the 4 hours it's meant to take, meaning that we pulled up to a nowhere town an hour from the Malawi border after the sun had set. It's very unsafe to walk the streets as a couple of Mzungus at night. We had no idea where in the town we were, no map as we'd not expected to stop there, and no way of orienting ourselves as there were no streelights or names roads. There was nothing for it but to ask strangers on the bus if they knew how to get to a hotel we'd picked at random for the handful named in the guide. Luckily a friendly guy from the bus ensured that the bus stopped at a convenient place for us to walk to our 'hotel' (I use the word generously. Apparantly a clean room would have costed more) and even walked us there. This was a god-send as it's pretty threatening walking around with everyone squinting through the unlit blackness at you struggling to walk on an unpaved road with everything you posses on your back.
Hotel was scabby as anything, but I did try nsima for the first time. This is an African staple and most closely resembles wallpaper paste. It's a tasteless rubbery blob designed to be rolled between the fingers and dipped in whatever sauce is to hand. It bounces almost as well as a rubber ball - I couldn't resist playing with my food! The meal was eaten in the dark as the 'restaurant' didn't have any lightbulbs, and possibly no electricity either judging from the temperature of the meal.
Despite my despair at having to sacrifice another day to contorting into a too-small seat on a dirty crowded smelly bus, we rose with the sun at 6am and headed to the bus station. We didn't make it there, instead getting picked up by a passing minibus that was going to the border. The border is shambolic and chaotic, and renowned for scammers, touts and theives. People are by far the most aggressive here that we've seen in Malawi, but this is still managable if you're used to the treatment you get in, say, Egypt, Morrocco or even South East Asian cities. We got our exit Malawian visas stamped without issue (despite the officer trying to find a flaw with our watertight visas in order to charge us an extra "fee"), but then had to walk across a long bridge for about ten minutes to get to the Tanzanian side, fending off money changing touts along the way, who are infamous for giving you fake notes and miscounting using sleights of hand. We'd been warned that the Tanzanian officials were corrupt and often detained tourists, either insisting outright on bribes or that the amount is different to the one stated on the forms. Nick had had the presence of mind to go to the Tanzanian embassy in London before the trip to pick up visas ($50 each) in advance, so there was little anyone could do to stop us going on our way. However, the nearest town is a 2km walk, and it's a choice between carrying luggage in the heat while batting away taxi drivers left, right and center, or paying a ridiculous amount for the short drive. We opted for the latter, and got to the bus station safely.
GOOD GOD this was an unpleasant experience. We were mobbed by bus touts trying to get us to come on their buses. They will lie through the back teeth about how long the bus takes, where it stops and when it is leaving, and it's literally impossible to get a genuine word out of anyone. Typically, they'll try to take your bags off you to put it in their bus, forcing you to go with them, so it's imperative to keep a tight grip and make sure they don't drag you by the arm. Funfunfun. It took us about half an hour to make a decision on the route and bus to take, during which time we weren't left alone for a second, even when we tried to retreat into a cafe. I was in tears with frustration by this point, which is unlike me, but after the bus journeys we'd done and the prospect of three more days of them looming ahead, I was seriously stressed and questioning why we'd come to Africa.
We decided on a bus and paid the guy who'd been most persistent and least rude. The bus left fairly promptly, only to stop for an hour and a half ten minutes down the road. Great start. We then found out that it wasn't a direct bus, and that we'd have to change in the middle of nowhere. This bus had less leg room than others, which was compounded by the 35 people compressed into a 20 seater bus. It was meant to take four hours, but with the addition of an hour's wait for the change, it ended up taking 8. Two of those hours were in the dark. We'd been warned off travelling in the dark as accidents are frequent, and in testimony to this we saw an overturned lorry on the way, and another that had sporadically spilled its cargo of grain sacks all over the road.
We had not been able to eat or go to the toilet all day. Actually that's not quite true: we had a few biscuits.
Tired, irritable, frustrated and with cramps in our legs, we arrived in Iringa, a day behind schedule. Ten or so taxi drivers sprinted over when they saw the bus pull in at around 9.30pm, and these were by far the most aggressive of the lot, trying to physically manhandle me and cut me off from Nick. Bastards. We'd planned a hotel right next to the bus station so fortunately had the liberty of ignoring all the little s**ts. That's were I'm currently writing from, tucked up in bed, after the lovelylovelylovely front desk man brought us up some tea and toast. He will be getting a big tip for that small act of kindness.
On a side note, there has been one redeeming feature of this hellish bus travel. Tanzanians are far less friendly than Malawians, and speak very little if any English. They aren't disposed towards Mzungu, and one old lady refused to get in a bus with us earlier becasue she thought the white devils were going to kill her. We had to coax her in, smiling and reassuring her that we were unlikely to lynch her. However, if you attempt a few words of kiswahili, Tanzanians automatically open up, racing away at 100mph with a torrent of dialogue you have no chance of understanding. The few who speak English will usually do their best to offer information and assistance. Overland travel is also a great way to see the scenery and level of development of the country, but that's worth of a post all in its own right.
Sweetly serenaded by the street sounds below, shouting women and screeching cars, I bid you goodnight.