“Huh?” I snorted to wake.
“Are you awake?” Max asked.
“I am now,” I yawned, not bothering to correct him on his mistaking my name while peeking at the time:
“I am dozing,” he attempted focus as we bounced along the dirt road (an unfinished highway was not in the brochure). “You need to talk to me so I don’t have an accident.”
Max had picked me up about 12 hours before from the outskirts of Zambia’s capital. I was dropped off via taxi provided by Mojo New Media at a junction where I met Kelvin who, along with three other guys, were loading his truck with about a hundred 25-kilo bags of industrial lime (the powder, not the fruit).
“Are you going to Chipata?” I asked, referring to the border town 20 K’s from Malawi.
“Yes,” he said.
I gave him my spiel of moneyless travel and offered to, “Help load the bags in exchange for a ride.”
“Wait,” he said.
For about three seconds.
Then I took the initiative and helped load. And, like the other guys, got covered with lime powder. The guys were impressed (not by my getting-covered-in-lime. For helping. I think…). Apparently, they’d never seen a muzuhungu do physical labour.
“So can I ride with you?” I asked, dusting myself off.
“I’m not sure if I have the room,” he said. “And I’m only leaving at seventeen. I’ll arrive in Chipata at zero-four tomorrow.”
I looked at my phone.
“Shit,” I was hoping to reach Malawi by the end of the day but that wasn’t going to happen. “That’s late.
And that’s when Max rolled up in a Volvo truck carrying another, identical Volvo truck in his tray. He was practically cornered by ten guys persuading him to take me to Chipata, his final destination.
“He’s a good man,” they kept repeating (a little bag-handling goes a long way).
Max was worried about the police demanding bribes having a muzhungu passenger.
“You don’t’ have to take me if you don’t want to,” I said. “Someone else will help. Don’t feel forced.” I stepped back a bit as the guys drew in a little uncomfortably close. “Really, I’ll be fine.”
Max was cornered like a mouse and in the end agreed to cheers and backslaps from the crowd. One guy bought us sausage rolls and two drinks – a water and a soft drink – which I gave the driver as I don’t really drink softies (unless mixed with whiskey or brandy).
His other passengers were a grandmother with her 3-year-old grand-daughter (whom I offered one of the sausage rolls to) and Alec, a 32-year-old local. We had 574 kilometres to cover, according to Google’s map app and we were averaging 60 K’s an hour.
We reached the first roadblock where the police pulled us over. Max was asked to present his papers at the station. He left for about 25 minutes returning a little flustered.
“How’d it go?” I managed to cough out nervously.
“Paid,” he said, clambering back on board.
Was that a bribe demanded because of…(insert dramatic music) because of…(slow zoom in, chokes back tears) me? “So is it OK?” I asked.
I was getting weird vibes off Max. Nothing heavy but he began to open up and ask me the regular, “How do you survive without money? Why aren’t you married? How come you don’t have any kids? Have you never fucked a woman? (seriously) How come you aren’t married? (they tend to repeat) Are you gay?”
“What?” I tsk-tsk-tsk-ed to myself. “No, I like women I’m just not married.”
I was tired of explaining myself. Besides, it could cause tensions in the cabin. Sometimes I know when to shut up and sometimes I try my best to hold my opinion in.
On both accounts, I fail.
“It’s not easy the way I travel,” I hoped to finish it.
He blinked at me and returned to focus on the road.
Great. It just got weird.
Just before reaching the Luangwa River, bordering Mozambique, we dropped off the grandmother and the toddler.
The police at the roadblock before the bridge fined Max for not having a red flag at the end of the truck as his load was sticking out (alright, alright. Don’t make it dirty). Once we crossed the bridge (where a soldier also demanded a bribe) the road went from sealed tar to a dirt track that had me bouncing all over the cabin.
As the sun set we stopped in a village where Max bought three packets of biscuits and two Miranda softies.
“Open one for me,” he said, “the other two are for you and friend over there to share.”
I took a couple of sips as I needed a sugar boost and knew that if I ate more than two biscuits my stomach would reject the contents via the back door (processed foods and I don’t mix well). Still, I was hungry and ate four.
As we drove through the last police roadblock (cop didn’t even see me and still demanded a bribe) my stomach began to growl.
Shit. I knew this would happen. Whatever possessed me to go for those last two?
As we plodded along I noticed Max kept covering the gauges on his dashboard with a cloth.
“I want to focus on my driving,” he explained. “So I cover the petrol gauge so I don’t get distracted and worry about fuel.”
Huh. That’s… er… logical? He seems to know what he was doing.
I mean… at least playing the part.
We stopped to pick up a madala (term of respect for an elder man) who had cut branches at 6-9 feet lengths to take home.
On his push bike.
We happened to stop right in the middle of a swarm of white-winged ants that were aiming for every sleeve opening and wherever there was light. I was slapping about like a mad man. Nevertheless (he said with boasting chest), I helped pile the branches under the undercarriage of the truck Max was carrying. Then we heaved up the madala’s push bike to the tray of the truck where he positioned himself for the ride.
Ten minutes later we dropped him up the road then an hour later we dropped off Alec.
My stomach was slowly churning.
We were plodding along the unfinished road, eating dust from buses and trucks that were overtaking us [to close or open my window we needed to hook up two wires – the red to the metal on the door, the blue to the fuse in the fuse box.
“You do opposite to close,” Max demonstrated.
Or was it the opposite..?
I was too tired to focus on electrically pulsating wires on a bumpy road in a stranger’s truck so I chowed on dust and attempted sleep. My eyes were already closed, squinting against the thick, red cloud. Might as well try to get some shut-eye (while slapping at the flying ants that still flappered about in the cabin).
“I want to sleep with a white woman,” Max said after waking me at zero-two thirty.
Aaand I’m awake.
“For any specific reason?” I asked.
“I want to taste,” he said. “Maybe you can help. Ask one of your friends to travel with you and sleep with me.”
I stared at him as he tried to keep his eyes open. He was dead-pan serious.
Uh-huh. “Sure.” Not a weird thing to ask anyone. At. All. “Let me get back to you on that one.”
After an hour, when Max was no longer responding to my conversation. I suggested to, “Pull over so we can rest.”
40 Ks outside of Chipata, at zero-four, we parked and slept. As in, Max conked out. I tossed, assuming different positions failing to re-discover that one-and-only comfortable position which can never be replicated after being woken.
40 minutes later Max’s wife called, storing him back to life. Refreshed, he fired up the truck and we chugged off as the African sun rose on a new day. Kelvin, the lime-bag truck, over-took us with beeping horns.
Max and I waved.
90 minutes later, the announcement that, “We’ve run out of diesel,” didn’t surprise me as the truck rolled to a stop, the engine silently passing on. We debarked and broke off some green-leafed branches as was custom to place behind and in front of a broken down vehicle.
Parking on the side of the dusty road I sussed out my options:
Wait to get refuelled (which could be in the next five minutes or five hours) or hitch a ride to Chipata and make some head way.
As I contemplated my options I spied a ripe mango on the side of the dirt road.
Max declined my offer to share. The clock was ticking on the day. I was really hoping to reach Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, by lunchtime.
I decided to thank Max and, “I’ll continue hitching,” I said.
“Yes, it’s better,” he concurred. “It might be in fifteen minutes, maybe five hours. You know how it is.”
“Oh I know,” I grinned, grabbing my gear with his help.
Within 20 minutes Simba, a magistrate in a very old bakkie with massive cracks in the windshield pulled over and happily took me, squeezing me in the front seat with his daughter. He wished me well as he dropped me off at a corner where I began to walk, fending off taxi drivers when Kelvin, the lime-bag truck driver came after me on the street.
A taxi pulled up beside us.
“I don’t have money,” I said, explaining my chosen life style.
“I’ll take you to where you can hitch,” said the driver. “I’m happy to help.”
I grinned, hopping in. A few K’s later Samson dropped me off opposite Shoprite so I could hitch. I, “Zikhomo-”ed, thanking him and began walking past the taxis already parked, each driver trying to hustle me in.
“No money,” I said, pointing to my guitar. “I play music for food and bed.”
“I’ll take you,” said Gift (appropriately named), offering me a free ride as I squeezed in the front with him and another passenger, three more in the back and two bikes in the boot to the border post at Mwami some 20 K’s away.
I shook hands with Gift, “Zikhom-”ing him and fending off the money exchangers who rushed up to seek Zambian Kwachas in exchange for Malawian Kwacha. I was back in the mix of higher domination that made everything sound absurdly out of proportion (“5,000 Kwacha?” I’d laugh at an offer I’d later receive in Malawi for a 300 K ride.
“That’s about $10 USD,” Englebert would later convert for me off the top of his head on a hitch right after declining said offer).
My stomach reminded me that an impending force needed to be set free in the next ten minutes or Malawi would be the first country (and indeed, the first time since I was in diapers) that I might shit my pants.
A border post is not the place you want to look like you’re about to explode (in more ways than one). I breathed in deeply and calmly got my passport stamped out on the Zambian side and walked across the border, noticing that all the trucks were facing Zambia.
Continued in post: HITCH HIKING IN MALAWI – PART I