September 15, 2010

Adventures in Traveling

Last week a group of 6 friends and I traveled to Lake Malawi for a little vacation get away. It was my first real traveling adventure in Africa and one that I will never forget. Early Sunday morning we all get up to try to make it to the Zambia/Malawi border in good time so that we could reach the lake in good time. Since this was new to most of us we thought that this would be enough to get us to our destination by 17:00 or 18:00 that night....we were wrong!

So we reach the border at 6:45 am I get out my passport and feel instantly nervous. I blame the American media and all of the shit that they always talk about concerning "the border". But no worries we made it through the border no is when we get into Malawi that the traveling mayhem begins. We crawl into two cabs that take us to the border town so that we can buy out a mini bus. Mini busses are the worst way to travel as far as I am concerned. They are small busses that are assorted colors. They seat 16 or 17 people properly...but it isn't that uncommon to find about 20 people crammed into on. They are also home to a whole host of smells that you would much rather wear without. We are American's with shit to instead of waiting for the bus to fill up (which could take hours) we decide to buy out the whole thing and bargain with them on the price of 16 people when there are only 7 of us. We tell them that if we buy out the whole bus there can be no stopping for other people...they stop of 3 people and a huge argument ensues...they no longer stop after we throw down with them.

The mini bus takes us to the Bus Station that is an hour and a half away. I think these bus station situations are the reasons why they say it takes a certain kind of traveler to travel Africa....nothing in my American existence could have prepared me for this. As an American you expect that there will be a bus schedule...but since I have been in Africa for 7 months now I expected that there might be a schedule that would more than likely run 2 or 3 hours behind schedule. NOPE! Wrong! Upon arrival we immediately find a schedule that appears to be older than motorized transportation itself telling us that the next bus in Nkhata Bay will leave at 11:00. It is currently 10:00 and we have to do all of the things that travelers have to do in between points A, B, and C: pee/find the bathrooms, find an ATM to get Malawian money, and maybe try to find some food and if I am really lucky a Pepsi. Tim has been here before so he sets off to find out how the bus mess is going to pan out. The rest of the boys go out to find the ATM, "cash box" and the girls split the duty of finding the bathrooms and watching the bags. Meanwhile you are constantly being pushed and pulled around by fellow travelers and taxi drivers and other mini bus drivers trying to make a kwacha (money) are asking you where you are going and if you want to take a taxi/bus. As you are telling them no, they have already started bargaining the price with you...they don't listen.

Nat buys me a Pepsi which takes care of that so the girls and I head of to the cash box to get money for the rest of the trip. We've been told that the ATM offers us the best exchange rate from Zambian kwacha to Malawian kwacha. We find the cash box about 800 meters from the bus station next to a beautiful Mosque I put in my PC debit card to take out the kwacha I have been saving for this trip only to find that my card isn't working and due to a PC glitch in the pay roll system I did not get paid this month. Well, this is inconvenient, I think to myself, I guess until I get this straightened out I will have to use my US ATM Card. The machine then tells me some message I no longer remember because I've never seen a message like that on an ATM. Well fuck! I guess I am going to have to borrow money for a bit until I get this figured out. (As I write this it has been a week and 3 days since I figured this out and the PC glitch has still not been taken care of. Oh well)

We get back to the bus station and Tim tells us the stall in which our bus will come through and you buy tickets as you board the bus so now all we can do is wait until a bus pulls up that says Nkhata Bay on the windshield. This seemed easy enough to me. WRONG again! Every time a bus pulls up into this stall complete chaos happens for about 20 minutes until it is decided where the bus is going. When the poor bus driver gets to the station he himself does not know where he is going next, he has to wait until he gets word from his boss about his next stop. Until this is decided all people in the stall waiting to go somewhere crowd around the bus knocking over fellow travelers...including women and children...with no sympathy for anyone or anything you might be carrying. I am doing all of this with a walking boot on due to a recent stress fracture I have acquired and I am pretty sure that I am going to some how hurt my knee because I am being knocked every which way with no way to compensate for my movements. There are people 5 or 6 at a time trying to all fit themselves through a charter bus door at once including their luggage. We do this routine a few times all for no reason because the bus was never going where we needed it to go. "Thank God," I think to myself, "all of my fellow PC travel buddies are laid back individuals!" No of us loose our cool or our patients. And as I write this a week later I am happy to say that we are all still friends. :)

Finally we are standing in line for a possible bus when another in a totally different stall pulls up and people start yelling that this new bus is for sure going to Nkhata Bay. We sprint over there...yes I fucking sprint with my huge pack on my back and a boot. Now it is a whole new kind of chaos because this company and these drivers are trying to create some sort of system on these unorganized people. This makes matters completely worse. People are screaming that they want on the bus. The driver and his crew are yelling and screaming back that in order to buy a ticket you have to get in a line on the other side of the bus and then after you purchase your ticket you go and form a line starting at the door of the bus. And then when all of the tickets are sold people will board the bus in an organized fashion. Then they have to tell at us...the white travelers in English everything they just said because Tim and Peter, our two loudest men, are screaming questions at the crew. By some crazy miracle that I am attributing to our American aggression Tim and Pete get the tickets and get us on the bus first and we some how get to skip the whole boarding line. We get expressed straight to the back of the bus...and then 10 minutes after we get on the bus other people have finally figured out the rules and start boarding.

When I first get on the charter I see a sign that tells all passengers that the bus has the occupancy for something like 63 people I think. After all of the seats are full the aisle then starts to fill up with 20 or 30 more people that will continue to stand for the next 6 hours! Zambians and apparently Malawians have an incredible talent for being able to sit or stand in really tight squeezing places for literally hours without moving or so much as shifting their weight. INCREDIBLE!

Now it is 13:00 and the bus is finally taking off. And we are on our way to the beautiful Lake Malawi. I have officially survived the worst part of traveling when it comes to traveling in Africa....the transport. We arrive at the bay at about 19:00 or 20:00 that night and then I get us into trouble with another mini bus driver. As the others were peeing and smoking and watching bags I was in charge of negotiation with a mini bus to take us straight to our lodge for a decent price. I did it...I thought. We all load our stuff onto a bus that is going to take us straight to our lodge. Right as the bus is about to take off we once again ask if we are all on the same page with the price. The driver looks at us like we are out of our minds and tells us that it must have been a drunken bystander that told me that price. The negotiation starts all over again....this time with 7 tired frustrated and hungry Americans all involved and 3 Malawians. Just for your information it is impossible to solve an argument with 10 people all yelling at the same time. You would think that in times like this you would remember shit like that from your 4th grade conflict management class...but you don't. Finally Tim and Pete start yelling louder than the rest of us so we shut up and they take it from there. Don't worry we made it and no one got in trouble or violent or shot. :)

Travel stories from the way back to Zambia are a little more limited. We got on the 1st bus we saw with no problems...however that bus' engine has seen better days and at times we were sort of going backwards when traveling uphill. It also got a flat tire, which took about 30 minutes to change. And it also happened to be a mini bus so it stopped what seemed like every 5K. Then we took the word of a fellow traveler who told us that the border closes at 18:00 or 19:00. A few of us think that this is funny because the people at the lodge told us that it was a 24-hour border. But not willing to be stranded over night at the border with no where to sleep we get a guest house and crash there for the night. Upon arriving at the border the next morning we ask when they open and close and they tell us that it is a 24-hour border. "Well fuck!" Tim, Peter, Fischer and I say to each other. (We are the 4 most relaxed travelers at this point) "Lets not tell the others” We all say in unison. :)

In the interim of the traveling we stayed at an incredible Njaya Lodge with a beach house right on the shore. I feel asleep listening to the waves and woke up to them as well. The water was crystal clear and the beer was cold. There were fish swimming at your feet and in between your toes. I got sand in parts of my body I have long forgotten about. Due to some misguided directions from a bartender I was forced to pee in a urinal...desperate times call for desperate measures. I went the first 3 days in the lake with my bikini top on constant worry that things were about to be exposed and wondering what I was doing wrong. It was totally life changing when I figured out I had been doing it wrong. Every morning I had a banana smoothie that was totally life changing. And I did not get sun burnt! Life is good and I can't wait until my next travel adventure here in Africa.

"Got my toes in the water, ass in the sand, not a worry in the world a cold beer in my hand, life is good is good today" ~Zac Brown Band, Toes


  1. I am an RPCV from Mali. I am trying to reach out to local agricultural NGOs for a small grant program that we are developing at Horticulture CRSP. Could you please email me if you know any local Ag. NGOs in Zambia, or if you have the contact information of other volunteers who would know of Ag. NGOs?

    I would really appreciate any help you can offer.

    Thank you,

    Peter Shapland
    Graduate Assistant
    Horticulture CRSP

  2. Hi. My name is Nate Bloss, and im a pcv in Namibia. Im about to finish my two years; myself and 3 friends are planning on doing some traveling. We were wondering if you could help us answer a few questions about Zambia. Right now we plan to go up through the caprivi strip and spend a few days in livingstone around december 14th. After this we need to make our way to lake malawi by december 23rd. I have 4 questions:

    What can we do in Zambia, particularily in the south?

    Are there any nice cheap places to stay on the route from livingstone to malawi?

    We may end up just sticking around livingstone for a while and going to malawi at the last minute. How long will it take to get from livingstone to the malawi border if we want to do it as fast as possible?

    Can we free hike in Zambia?


  3. Forgot to give you my email.