An hour later we got our bags and decided that enough was enough, it was time to jump ship! We had already learnt that the Bus Company in an amazing piece of logic had decided to fix the clutch by sacking the bus driver and a replacement driver had already miraculously arrived. This was the last straw and with the other two we cleared immigration and customs and walked into Malawi.
A minibus heading for Blantyre was waiting down the road. After the usual fare negotiations and once again watching our bags being loaded onto the roof, we got going and apart from being tightly packed in and being stopped by the police, we had an uneventful two-hour journey.
The police in Malawi have quite a number of roadblocks. We were told that they were looking for drugs, guns and illegal immigrants but in this case they weren’t exactly pedantic choosing only to talk to the driver and have a quick look at the bags on the roof.
The bus dropped us off at the very pleasant Doogles Backpacker hostel, which as it happens was next door to the bus station, a place we would have to brave if we were to follow our plan. We were shell shocked and tired and all we could think about was how the hell were we going to face another bus ride again.
In fact so frazzled were we that we spent most of that day looking at alternatives.
And guess what? There weren’t any! We went to the British Airways office and got a price for a flight to Dar es Salaam. At US$195.00 each it was out of the question although such was our reluctance to catch another bus that we were tempted. But realising that we were not in the right frame of mind to make that decision we wisely decided to stay the night at Doogles and worry about it tomorrow.
Blantyre itself is one of these colourful and vibrant African towns and although we should have been in Lilongwe some 250 kilometres north, we still enjoyed its feel. The buildings were as usual rundown and dilapidated, the streets were dusty and dirty but the people were happy and smiling and seemed to spend their days in and around the many food stalls and street vendors that thronged the streets. There was a sort of musical beat about the place, as if everyone was listening to it and swaying as they went about their business.
How could these people be so happy when they have to travel on such appalling transport? Don’t they realise how stressed out we were? What right did they have to be happy and smiling when we had to brave death to move on?
As you can see we were becoming paranoid. Our paranoia subsided somewhat as we too began to feel the imaginary beat of Blantyre and then spent the evening back at Doogles watching the Aussies play India in one of the world cup cricket games.
Malawi is without doubt a beautiful country and despite our experiences on the bus has a warm, friendly and happy population. But like Mozambique, Lesotho and Zambia it’s poor. That night we met Martha an Irish nurse who had come to Malawi 10 years ago for a two year stint as a voluntary AIDS education worker. After that she had stayed on and was one of the people responsible for managing the AIDS education program for the whole country. I was touched by her willingness to give up her own life to help the people of Malawi, a task that seemed to me to be almost a lost cause.
As she said “These people are not worried about a disease that will eventually kill them in 10-15 years. They are more worried about how they can put food on the table now!”
Malawi like most of its ex colonial neighbours has a lot of growing pains since independence and has only recently become a democracy. An increasing number of the Malawi’s population doesn’t think that this has improved their lot. Dr. Banda was Malawi’s first President and held office as a dictator for 34 years and whilst freedom of speech and other common liberties that we take for granted were missing, generally the standard of living was better than it is today. As we were told; freedom of speech doesn’t put food on the table. With its main source of income being tobacco the government is hoping that tourism will bolster its ailing economy. From what we had seen and were later to see, it’s got a long way to go.
After a good night’s sleep everything looked better especially after everyone assured us that we had just unlucky and so we bought reserved seats for the bus to Mzuzu some 600 kilometres north. We had realised that time was getting away from us and Malawi was going to be the casualty. We had a little over two weeks to get to Dar es Salaam to catch our flight to London. In that time we had at least another three days of travel and wanted to spend at least five days on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of Dar. So a lot of what we had planned to see in Malawi was not going to happen especially as we had effectively lost a day and half and around 250 kilometres thanks to the bus ride from hell number one.
Our new plan therefore was to get to Nkhata Bay, a small town on the edge of Lake Malawi, chill out for a couple of days and then continue on to Dar. To get to Nkhata Bay we had to go via Mzuzu and pick up a local bus there.
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