In the Slow Lane

Wed, 06 Aug 2008 13:20:20 +0000

Tete to Blantyre Index Monkey Bay

Today the plan was simply to catch a bus from Blantyre to Monkey Bay. It's not all that far, maybe 300km. Since the roads are supposed to be reasonably good in Malawi, I expected this would take maybe 6 hours at the outside. I wanted to assess the chances of skipping Blantyre on the return leg and crossing the border to Mozambique on the same day. This, it turns out, is not a reasonable plan.

The alarm went off at five, and I got myself together. It was a horribly blustery night last night, and fairly cold, so the thought of standing around the bus station for an hour before the sun was even up didn't appeal. I like to get to these buses early to try and get a good seat, but this time I decided to risk it and only turn up half an hour before departure.

I asked a random guy for the bus to Monkey Bay, and he directed me to one sitting in a bay behind all the others. I hopped on, and it did not look like the classiest ride in the joint, all bare dented steel and cracked windows. There were three or four passengers waiting, but no-one official. And it was in the wrong place, not where the guy yesterday had said it would be. So I hopped off again and wandered around, and found another bus to Monkey Bay exactly where it was supposed to be. It was in no better shape than the other one, with cracked windows and wonky seats. I don't know what the story was with the first bus, but I definitely found the one I was planning to catch.

The bus set off dead on 6:30, with only a light contingent of passengers. But it seems that most people get on at nearby Limbe. By the time we'd finished loading all of them up, the bus was packed.

My neighbour was a guy who, I have to say, stank. But you get used to these things, and at least he didn't spew on me like certain babies I could mention. Late into the trip he introduced himself and asked for my phone number. As with the waiter last night, I didn't feel that this was reasonable at such short aquaintance: I told him I didn't have a phone number, which is only a slight stretch of the truth right now, with my German SIM card lost in Damascus somewhere.

So off we trundled. It quickly became clear that we would be stopping frequently. Some stops were actual bus stations, and were thick with the usual hawkers. I had a packet of biscuits and a bottle of water with me, but I did get a couple of fried doughy things, and some samosas that turned out to be filled with potato. None of the kids selling stuff have change, and they always have to scurry away to find some with every transation. They're surprisingly honest though, going to great lengths to track people down through the chaos to return their change.

The more we stopped, the more people we seemed to accumulate. There were several chickens this time too. At one point one of them was wedged on the seat in front of me, and man, those things can be loud when they want to be. It always seemed to be the people at the back who had to get off, entailing enormous amounts of pushing and struggling and squawking to get through the throng. I was glad I had my seat. The downside was that there were no toilet breaks on the whole trip. The whole way I only had a few sips of water.

The journey dragged on, and on, and on. I had no idea where we were, or how far we'd come, and my estimates of how much longer it would be to Monkey Bay drifted further and further into the future. I didn't want to use my GPS, since it seemed like a bad idea to flash around fancy electronics. But eventually I cracked and consulted the thing, around 1:00, and found we were only about two-thirds of the way there. Very disappointing.

It was especially bad once we got past Mangochi. They are resurfacing the road between Mangochi and Monkey Bay, and for most of the way the bus was diverted off onto a dirt track alongside the road. This slowed us down, and made me even more frustrated.

The other aspect of the dirt road is that it threw up a cloud of dust. The windows were open, since the only other option was slow suffocation. The dust blew in through the windows and thickly covered everything, including my lungs. I don't mind getting a little dirty, but I really hoped there would be a shower at the end of this trip.

We were driving along a particularly rough section, and the whole bus was shaking really worryingly. And suddenly there was a gigantic CRACK from just behind me. The bus shuddered to a halt. Uh-oh. So close, and yet so far. Most people got out to inspect the damage, including myself, in time to see the driver chucking away a twisted piece of metal in disgust. Not a good sign. A fellow passenger offered to walk me into Monkey Bay, which may or may not have required a tip, and would have made me uncomfortable anyway. I can thank Cairo for this unshakeable paranoia about helpful foreigners.

In the end it wasn't an issue: the driver started up the engine and we piled on to continue the journey. I think whatever popped off, it was something holding the cabin together, because the whole thing rattled even more than before, and felt like it would barely make the couple of kilometres left to get into Monkey Bay. We made one last stop, where a bunch of people hopped off to take a lift on a pickup to Cape McClear. That was actually the destination in my original plan. I changed my mind to just go to Monkey Bay over the last few days, since it seemed slightly more full-service. Since it was late, I decided to stick to what I knew.

But I really, really hoped I would find somewhere to stay. Monkey Bay is not big. I had one recommendation from Wikitravel that sounded good, a place called "Hakuna Matata", but if that was full or closed there'd be trouble I hadn't made a reservation only because this place didn't seem to have a phone number. I spotted it out the window as we rolled into town: and then kept on rolling past. Hmm. Wikitravel had claimed it was right next to the bus station. When we stopped I asked the bus driver, and he asked the hawkers clustered around the bus. This delivered me straight into the hawkers hands, and I was immediately led away by a cluster of them. I really don't like hawkers, mainly because I never know what financial obligation I'm under. I told them very explicitly that I wasn't going to pay anything, but the guy accepted that and started trying to sell me a canoe trip or a fish barbeque or something for tomorrow. That's fine, I can play along with that. Anyway, it was quickly obvious that what I'd seen earlier was indeed the Hakuna Matata I was looking for, so I knew the way anyway. It's hard to get lost in Monkey Bay: there's basically only one street.

And there was a room free, hooray! It's pretty basic, but at only 500 kwacha, I can't complain. There's a shower, although water was unavailable when I arrived. The lady running the place is very friendly: it turns out she's a schoolteacher, only doing this job because it's the holidays. We chatted a bit about her school and about Malawi. Chechiwa for sweet potato is "mbatata", which is surely just Portuguese for potato with a prosthetic "m" at the front, isn't it? And Chechiwa for banana is "mbunga". That's probably enough Chechiwa to be going on with.

I walked out into the street to find something to eat, getting more fried doughy things and some bananas. I've realised that I'm perilously close to running out of kwacha: I have enough for the bus and this room for two nights, and enough left over for some food, but I'm going to have to find a money changer or an ATM if I want to splash out at all. The lady at Hakuna Matata had told me there's a bank next to the post office, and I went looking for that. When I seemed to take a wrong turn I found a passerby and asked him the way to the post office. Of course, he was happy to walk me there, but expected a tip. It's mean, but lack of cash is precisely the problem, and I had to say no. And anyway, I really do think that tourists should be able to ask the way to the post office without resorting to cash. I'd far rather contribute to the local economy by buying snacks from the hawkers.

Back at the place (I hesitate to call it a "hotel", since there only seems to be one room for travellers), I had my shower. Cold, of course, despite the tap having an optimistically red cap on it. There's a mosquito net, which is good because there's also mosquitoes. So it's comfortable enough. Tomorrow I can afford to sleep in and have a nice relaxing day.

Tete to Blantyre Index Monkey Bay