I was so happy to see Heather at the Mbeya bus stop. We quickly inquired about bus tickets, or should I say we were approached by several men about bus tickets. They always want to help but I never trust any of them, especially at a bus station. We were told a coach passes through Mbeya from Dar at 2-3pm in the afternoon since it leaves DAR at 5;30 am. I shook my head and told them there is no way that could be true! My bus left DAR at 6am and arrived at 6pm. A 12 hr bus ride, regardless of what time you leave. Our other option is to take a mini bus to the border for 4,000 ($3) and walk from TZ border to Malawi border and then catch a taxi.
We went to our hotel, got dinner and were blessed when while deep in conversation a man who worked at the restaurant wanted to talk to us. He was being friendly… and interrupting seems common here. When we told him we were headed to Malawi , he called his Malawian friend to come talk with us. He gave us the low down on everything we needed to know, including that there is a foreign exchange bureau at the Malawian border.
We awoke at 5am the next morning and hoped in a taxi (as it poured rain) to the almost deserted bus station. We got in and within a few minutes our near empty bus left, creeping slowly along the road stopping in various places to pick up more passengers. Heather and I kept telling each other how happy we were to be traveling together. It took 4 hrs before we were at the border, though driving time was 2.5 hrs- lots of stopping and waiting.
We get dropped off at a dirt patch behind a few buildings and people’s homes. We immediately have an entourage of 30 men asking if we want a bicycle ride to the border… the bus dropped us 1km away from the TZ border. (Tanzanian’s always seem to leave out little details, sometimes language barrier other times…) I try to get out of the circle they’ve created around us to put my pack on and get sorted. They’re also asking about exchanging money. They guide us to the main road (why the bus driver didn’t drop us off on the main road is beyond me) and follow us for .5km hoping that if they keep persisting we’ll give in. They don’t know who they’re talking to and that after 3.5 months I don’t give in or put up with it. The lie telling us there isn’t a bank or a place to change money. I tell them my Malawian friends told me there is one. One says, it’s closed. It’s amazing how if I didn’t know the right information, you’d be tempted to believe them after hearing the same lies countless times. Finally, they leave us alone. We would be asked by several other men wanting to exchange money. Crazy. Even between the TZ border and the Malawian one.
There is big sign outside the TZ border saying “Money exchanging on the street is illegal.” It’s risky- either the exchange rate is bad (you’d have to know it, if you were to try the black market), money is fake or immigration is in on it and you’d be paying a huge bribe!
I’m amazed at how many men try to exchange money with us… “excuse me” or “can I talk with you” or “Listen,” they say softly. They try to be nice but their intentions aren’t.
I wonder how many people exchange money on the black market? We encountered over 100 guys in 1km. There must be enough people coming through to keep them sitting on the road doing nothing but wait for someone to stroll by, and try to convince them they need to exchange. We didn’t see any other muzungu’s around but maybe Africans do it as well?
We get our free 30 day Visa stamp, I joke with the woman whose not so friendly and put a smile on her face and then head to the bureau. No problems. Easy. No more Shillings.
We get Malawian Kwacha. Time to learn a new currency! I’m so used to shillings, I’m trying to convert shillings into Kwacha but later realize it’s easier to go from dollars to Kwacha.
Now we need a taxi which is almost the same price per person as the minibus. Immigration told us a taxi is 400Kw, no more. As we leave the bureau we have 3 guys, a few on both sides of us converge on us as we make our way to the taxi area. It feels a bit weird but there are plenty of people in sight. I’m not worried. I ask a young guy how much a taxi is. 500kw. I look at him and say, “No, you’re cheating me.” The price is 400kw. He lies and says it’s 500kw to the bus station which is 2.5 km away from the town. “NO, you’re trying to cheat us.” It’s 400kw to the Karonga bus station. Before I know it, a police officer comes out of no where, grabs a guy who was lingering behind Heather and slaps him hard on the face. “You’re trying to cheat these foreigners, what type of impression are they going to have of Malawi?” SLAP. SLAP. He picks him up by the pants and drags him away. I look on in confusion. Did we miss something? I think the officer mentions something about stealing. I’m about to open my mouth to say, he wasn’t stealing but I don’t say anything. I ask Heather if he was trying to steal, I was facing her direction and didn’t see anything.
A moment later a guard, in a bright green uniform and black boots comes over and tells us next time it would be good not to have these guys follow you or hang around you. Sure. Obviously, we did not want them around us; we wanted an honest price for a taxi. and one was acting as if he was a driver. Turns out he was just recruiting people for a taxi. We get in the taxi and go with the same two bongo flavor songs blasting from the driver’s cassette. We hit a few checkpoints but all is good.
I’m still in shock at what we witnessed. How often does this happen? Has this guy had past history to justify that he might have been trying to steal? Had I not said the words, you’re trying to cheat us, would it still have happened? Knowing how corrupt the police are (I doubt Malawian police are any better), I imagine they abuse their power every chance they get. The irony is, he didn’t want the young guy giving us a bad impression of Malawi by attempting to give us a bad price but yet how BAD does it look when, within the first few minutes in the country, a police officer is slapping and dragging a guy away??? Hello. Please send in some logic.
We get to the bus station and immediately get on an almost full bus to Mzuzu. It’s now 11am and after 20 minutes we leave. The road is paved and the ride is smooth. The scenery is beautiful. It’s not too long before we see the lake. It’s magnificent. The vegetation lush and green. I’m impressed and understand what everyone means by Malawi being so beautiful. Five hrs later we arrive at the Mzuzu bus station and luckily are able to call the Mzoozoozoo hostel. We’re exhausted after another 12 hr day of traveling.
We’re happy the hostel feels so homey. The type of hostel I’m used to, staff friendly and information available. Tanzania didn’t really have hostels as I think of them. Is it because it’s owned by a Candaian woman? I don’t know.
We’re off to the lake tomorrow. Hopefully the weather is warmer. It’s over cast and rained heavy last night. I’m enjoying the cooler climate (70-75 degrees) during the day and easily (35-45F) at night. I’m happy to have my thermals, flannel jimmies and my down sleeping bag. It’s finally coming in handy!
Heather and I also realized that we have a lot of distance to cover in Mozambique in order for her to overland to South Africa. Hopefully, the temperatures are good in Mozambique as it’s known for the beaches. Unfortunately, the guide book says avoid the rainy season from feb-march/april. Hmmm… we’re thinking positively and going with the flow!
Internet is expensive($3-5 an hr, compared to $1-1.50 in TZ) here so likely wont’ be posting as often… and photos will likely have to wait until SOuth africa unless I can borrow someone’s computer and do things really quickly.