“You have no money?” the driver looked at me in confusion as five angry ‘transport officers’ crowded around his window behind me, yelling as I attempted to explain my travel method, my patience about to take a detour.
Eight hours before Hope and I had been waiting on the outskirts of Blantyre to hitch a ride to Senga Bay, near the main town of Salima. We were going to spend Hope’s last few days in Malawi by the lake, kickin’ back and chillin’ after a few weeks of climbing mountains.
After we had hiked 3 K’s out of the city from where our couchsurfing host, Kanthangu, had dropped us off, Oliver, wearing a cowboy hat, pulled over. Together with his front-seat passenger, Gertrude, he took us to Zalowe, halfway to Lilongwe.
“I can drop you where you can take a bus,” he said.
“We don’t use buses,” Hope said.
“OK,” he said as he pulled into the bus stand.
Lost in translation, we hiked 2 K’s in the searing heat to the turnoff that leads to Malawi’s capital as Oliver sped past, beeping and waving at us.
We had waited about an hour and indulged ourselves with a cold beer outside of the Kilimanjaro Lodge when Sebastian and George pulled over.
“No money?” Sebastian repeated what I had said.
“We play music for food and bed and ask good people to help us on the road,” I pitched him my usual spiel. He cracked up laughing as he popped the boot.
“OK, let’s go,” he chuckled. “You’re a funny guy.”
They dropped us off at the turnoff to Salima on the M5. It was about 14:00, hot and the road was completely empty save for the few mini-buses that tried to take us as we waved them off. After a half-hour of waiting, a lone truck appeared and pulled over.
“Let’s go,” the driver chuckled (his name escapes me but, “It means, ‘money’,” he had said), opening the back for our packs.
“How far is it to Senga Bay from Salima?” Hope asked him.
“Six kilometres,” he replied.
“Sweet,” I grinned, turning to Hope, “We could walk that – worst case.”
“We could,” she responded. “Worst case.”
Last thing either of us wanted to do was hike six K’s with all our gear.
146 kilometres later we pulled into Salima. Money had barely brought the truck to a complete stop when some young guys started to sprint across the street towards us.
“Here we go,” I muttered, mentally preparing to decline these ‘transport officers’ that were part of the scene of busy pick-up points.
Self-titled, ‘transportation officers’ are usually drunk, high or just plain annoying – hassling everyone waiting by the road for a ride, pretending they are responsible for filling up waiting vehicles with passengers – a hitcher’s worst nightmare.
This one kid, who had a face that instantly pissed me off, tried to grab our bags.
“Back off, buddy,” I said, grabbing back my pack. I hate being crowded and jostled and I was losing patience quickly after the long day on the roads.
“We don’t have any money,” Hope explained.
As we tried to shake off the guys and walk down the road, the piss-me-off faced kid pointed to a truck being loaded with people.
“It’s OK, you go with him,” he said.
“For free?” I asked.
“Yes, no problem,” he grinned. We loaded into the back and sat waiting, chatting with John, a fellow passenger.
“You should confirm with the driver,” Hope suggested after I had repeatedly asked the piss-me-off kid to make sure the driver knew we were penniless. I hopped out and approached the guy behind the wheel.
“You have no money?” the driver looked at me in confusion while I calmly explained our travel method.
Five angry ‘transport officers’ were screaming at him in Chichewa. One of them was getting into my personal space and screaming into my ear, expecting his words to go through my head to reach the driver.
I was dangerously close to eruption. I don’t anger easy, especially to a point where violence plays a satisfying scenario (in my head. I hate violence) but sometimes, after a long, hot fuckin’ day, sometimes, someone just needs an elbow in the face.
Keeping it together, I whipped around and yelled out, “Back up!” for fuck’s sake. I turned back to the driver. “Look, if you can help, that’d be great. If it’s a ‘no’, that’s fine too. We’ll get off and find another ride.”
The sun was setting and we still had the six K’s to hike – worst case – if we couldn’t get a ride. The driver sat there pondering, all the while screaming echoing around. I looked to Hope.
“They’re saying you lied to him,” she said from the back, getting her translation from John.
I looked around, getting heated on top of what felt to be 45 degrees – in the fuckin’ shade.
“Let’s just get off,” Hope called, barely audible over the rising tension. We grabbed our packs and began to hike away.
Salima is a town in a flat pan of land just off of Lake Malawi. The main mode of transport are bicycle taxis. Two-wheeled, old, rusty, painted up, painted down, mirrors, handle bars on top of handle bars bikes were peddling by, some with passengers-some without, clogging up the road – an African Amsterdam.
We had assumed that this was the worst case as we began to hike away from the noise and the anger. I was fuming. That sonofabitch asshole of a kid calling me a liar. Boy, I outta –
“Where are you going?” asked the bald African with a huge, toothy grin from inside a single cabin bakkie packed with eight people.
“Senga Bay,” I said. “But we have no money.”
“It’s OK,” he continued to grin. “Let’s go.”
We thanked him and piled in the back, holding on as the driver kept stopping to pick up people.
“There’s no way he can fit more people,” I said to Hope after I counted 15.
We chugged along, escorting the setting sun dropping over the green fields. We had been riding for about ten minutes when I realised that we should have already arrived if Senga Bay were only six K’s away.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Hope said, “I found out. It’s 20 K’s.”
“It’s what?” It sounded like she said it was,
I turned to the wind while a total of 21 people squeezed into the car.
“Where in Senga Bay do you need?” the driver asked when we arrived in the main part of town.
“We don’t know,” Hope said as we grabbed our bags, thanking him and wishing him a happy New Year.
That’s when Tosh appeared and escorted us to Murfasa’s backpackers. It sat on the shore of Lake Malawi. Reception was the bar. I explained our travel mode and offered to, “Play some music for you tonight. Hope sings and has an amazing voice.”
Two guys were sitting and drinking around the bar. One, an Indian and the other sounding South African. The Indian was checking my website on his smartphone to see if I was legit, the Afrikaans was encouraging the bartender to say, ‘Yes’.
“I have to ask my boss,” the bartender said.
He went around the bar while Hope and I took in the small garden that surrounded the beachfront lodge. The water was calling and I urgently needed a dip to wash away the day’s frustrations.
Hellington came back. “So this man here,” he indicated to the Afrikaans, “said that he will pay for your stay, food and drinks.”
It astounds me every time this happens. I’ll get a few ‘no’s’ every now and again but most of the time it’s a ‘yes’ but when complete strangers offer to pay from their own pocket – which is never my intention – I get a clichéd re-strengthening that the human race might still make it.
“We can’t thank you enough,” Hope said as we shook hands and introduced ourselves to Leon and Mahir.
Hellington showed us to a dorm room in the back where we grabbed the beds by the window. Not for the picturesque view of the lake but for the overhead ceiling fan. As Hope untangled the blue mosquito net, I slipped into my swimmers and, counting about ten steps, hit the water while Hope put together a playlist for the evening.
It was knee-deep for about fifty meters before I could dive in for a bit of submerged meditation. After showering we sat with Leon and Mahir and ordered dinner.
I tuned ol’ Red, managing to reuse the E-string that had snapped in Zomba and opened with Bob Marley’s, Jammin.
“You sing the rest,” I whispered to Hope. “Not feeling it.”
Our second song was Michael Jackson’s, Dirty Diana which Hope belted out. As soon as she sang the first words a resounding applause erupted around the bar. Either they were happy I wasn’t continuing with the singing or they were really blown away by Hope’s talent. Unlike myself, she actually has a voice that sounds amazing.
Halfway through the set our food arrived.
“We’re gonna take a break,” I announced to the ten people that had filled Murfasa’s bar, cheering us on for more. Hope and I shared a plate of beef kebab and beef curry – both with fries – and sipped on Special Brew while conversing with our new friends and benefactors. We finished the set after dinner. Leon and Mahir had to leave and Hope and I sat on the beach while Hellington closed the bar.
“What a day,” I said as we watched the lightening of an incoming storm that had brewed up somewhere in Mozambique. “What a fuckin’ day.”