Getting from Here to There
Anytime you travel, getting from one place to the next is always at the forefront of your mind, always preying on your subconscious like a hungry hippo. In Europe, the trains run on a tight schedule. In New York, the Subway gets you downtown in a matter of minutes. In Boston it's the T; in Paris, the Metro; in LA a series of freeways link both points of interest. In Malawi . . . well, in Malawi transportation is something different all together. On a recent trip to the south of Malawi, Ronit and I realized these subtle differences between transportation elsewhere and transportation in Africa.
We started from Lilongwe, heading to Blantyre, Malawi's commercial center. Before we left the bus station, the drama began when I had my wallet stolen. I take full responsibility for this; it was stupid to have my wallet in my pocket in the first place. But, because it was void of money, and because the thief would have a tough time using my CA driver's license as a fake ID, I got it back by offering a "friend" a reward for finding the wallet. In the end, I'm sure our friend promised the thief a cut of the reward if he threw my wallet back in the waiting bus, which is exactly what happened. I got the wallet back, all in tact, and gave the reward as promised.
Malawians have a tolerance for discomfort in direct proportion to their poverty. To that end, Malawi is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, with annual per capita income around US$180 (Lonely Planet, 2001), so you can guess what their public transportation is like. One ride we took had 125 people crowded on a rickety, old school bus, three across on the seats and two abreast standing down the isles. Ronit & I were in the front, standing with our faces pressed against the windshield, the rural Malawi villages slowly rolling past. The 7½-hour ride was only enhanced by the hot air from the engine blowing on our legs and the olfactory assault from the nearby passengers. Did I mention the road was not paved? It wasn't paved, but was accompanied by the normal potholes found on dirt roads during the rainy season. We did end up getting seats 3 hours into the ride, but by that point, the trip had already received the title of "Worst Ride in Malawi."
After climbing Mt. Mulanje, we caught another ride from the small village of Likubula to the main road. Most of these transports are pickup trucks called "matolas," where the passengers pile in the back with sacks of grain and any bags they might be carrying. Most of these trucks can't be started without rolling forward first. The number of people that can pile into the backs of these trucks is staggering. This particular truck was carrying 20 people, ranging from infants to seniors. This was uncomfortable, but tolerable until we came to a hill. On the ascent, our truck lost momentum and the driver tried to down shift. Unfortunately, he couldn't find 2nd gear, then couldn't find 1st. The truck stalled. Since we had to roll-start, and since we were conveniently on a hill, the driver used good Malawi logic to use the hill and gain momentum to start the car. This, unfortunately, meant rolling backwards and starting the car in reverse. All with 20 people crammed into the back. The driver mastered this technique after the 3rd attempt, at which point I was freaked enough to want to get out and walk, which we later did when the car wouldn't start at all.
The other form of transport is the minibus. These are mini-vans, normally with 19 seats and 21 passengers. They move from city to city, village to village, picking up and dropping off passengers along the road. Minibuses move at breakneck speed, and accidents are common. While up-keep on these busses tends to surpass that of the matolas, they still fall into disrepair often. A door on a minibus we took almost fell off in mid ride.
With all of this drama on the roads, you might ask,
"Is it worth all the hassle?" and the answer is, inevitably,
yes! The countryside is beautiful, the scenery stunning, and the people
(despite their propensity for being crowded in transport) are warm and
welcoming. So we endure a little more transport drama so we can see more
of this wonderful place. Tomorrow we head towards the north, with more
transportation nightmares and dreamy scenery ahead.
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