Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Glorious Gift of Petrochemicals

 Bicycle taxis drivers waiting for fares 
10/18 Another early morning after a long night, but today we were heading north. Today's ride would only be a few hours, so we weren't in a particular hurry to get on the road. We also weren't looking forward to the 12.5 miles back to the main road. We packed up the bikes, showered, and were on the road by about 9 am. We made our way back down the horrible road, again taking about an hour to go the short distance back to the paved road. I am happy to report that we both made it without incident. The rest of the ride to Senga Bay was easy but there was no petrol along the way. We reached the town of Salima, which is the turn off for Senga Bay at around noon. We were excited to see a line of minibuses surrounding the local BP station. In anticipation, we swooped in, only to find that fuel had been expected early in the day but did not arrive. We rode into Senga Bay and found a very nice campground as recommended by the Green Monster people. We stayed at Cool Runnings, a campsite and guesthouse run by Sam, a very cool woman who does many good things for the community. Camping here is cheap, but the restaurant is kind of expensive. It is a beautiful place though, with the first grassy lawn we've seen since Victoria Falls. It's so much nicer to camp on grass than in sand. We noticed a set of motorcycle bags outside the tent next to ours. Chatting with Sam, we found that Stefan (the DR800 rider from Harare) had just left that morning for Tanzania, but that Garth, an BMW mounted rider from Seattle, was still here. We spent the afternoon setting up camp, inquiring about the fuel situation (not good), having lunch, and chatting with our fellow travelers. Later in the afternoon, Garth returned from his ride, and we spent much of the rest of the day talking about our respective trips. Garth flew his bike to Frankfurt many months ago and has been riding southward ever since. His trip has been very different from ours and it was fun to hear of his adventures in northern and western Africa. After dinner and a couple of beers with Garth, we retired to the tent for another sweaty night. While we've experienced warmer air temperatures in other parts of Africa, the humidity here in Malawi is much higher. I imagine this is what much of the rest of our trip is going to be like.

This evening we listened to Sam, the woman who owns and runs Cool Runnings, talk about the various projects she's involved with in the village of Senga Bay. Sam is a nurse. She's from Zimbabwe, lived there with her husband on their farm until they got kicked off their land, then went to South Africa (her husband's homeland), where they lived until he was killed some 10 years ago. She then moved to Malawi, which she considers home (since she spent the first 8 years of her life here),built Cool Runnings with the help and support of the village, and uses her business to support the good works she does. She's been the chair of the community police for years, and the people won't let her retire. She helped build a library for the village by getting the children to collect all the plastic bags in the area over a four year period, which she then took to Lilongwe to sell to a company that turns them into buckets and such. They raised enough money from this to actually buy the bricks and other materials to build it! She helped start a program to build wheelchairs out of recycled materials for people. She started a primary school and hired teachers who want to teach. She takes care of the people of the village, treating their emergency medical problems, takes them to the hospital, and advocates for their care once they're in the hospital. I don't know when she has time to sleep! Sam has two volunteers living in the dorm right now who are assisting with various projects, including teaching the people about planting a type of tree that grows very fast from a cutting off another tree. They can use these new trees after just a year to make charcoal. They are also testing a different type of stove that uses only a fraction of the charcoal their conventional stoves use, also saving the number of trees in the area. Sam is always thinking about new ways to improve the lives of her village and is, in a nutshell, an amazing woman.

Garth from Seattle, on a long adventure of his own
10/19 Sam is also in need of petrol, so every morning she checks on availability. The bad news is that there will be no fuel today unless we would like the privilege of paying 750 kwacha per liter on the black market. Since we need 13 liters, that means it would cost us about 57USD for a little more than 3 gallons. Maybe some day, but not today. Instead, we decided to do some bike maintenance, namely clean the air filters and wash the bikes. While we were getting ready to start on this, we said goodbye to Garth, since he was heading south. Shortly after Garth left, I made a mad dash for the bathroom. It seems that “bad fuel” I consumed the other evening did turn into an exhaust problem after all. Call of the wild answered, we got to work. By early afternoon, we'd finished with Colin's bike, buttoned it back up, and he really wasn't feeling very well at all. We took a break and he made another dash for the loo. Since he felt warm and achy, we decided to spend some time researching our trip to Tanzania, and if necessary, to Mombasa. The rest of the afternoon was spent on the chaise lounges on the lawn next to the lake, books in hand. He felt somewhat better later in the day, so we went for a swim and a walk down the beach before dinner. We showered and went to bed early in our home sweet tent.

First bath in Africa for our little piggies
10/20 Second verse, same as the first. After rolling out of the tent, my first stop, once again, was Sam's office. The only thing that changed since yesterday was the price of the black market fuel. It had now gone up to 1000 kwacha per liter for the final 40 liters available. That makes it 6 USD per liter, and later in the day, a couple from Israel was desperate enough to actually pay that. Considering that camping in this idyllic spot is only 1600 kwacha per night, our decision was obvious- stay another day. As I had pooped out (literally) before getting to Re's bike yesterday, it was the job for today. Since we sat at eye level with the bikes, there was no escaping the fact that they were filthy. We had picked up some cleaner in Harare but hadn't yet found the opportunity to use it. As I still wasn't feeling very well, Re volunteered to find a bucket and some water and wash the little piggies. I once again headed to the chaise lounges by the water and put my time to good use playing spider solitaire on my iPhone. After a while, I returned to find that Re had decided to change into her bikini to wash the bikes. Given the conservative dress displayed by most Malawi women, this was perhaps, the first ever, bikini car wash (ok, motorcycle wash) ever in this country. Earlier in the day I broke into the prescription meds and began a course of Cipro. It eventually makes me feel better, but when I start Cipro, I feel “off” for the first day or two. After lunch from the market, I also put on my bathing suit and we went for a lovely swim in Lake Malawi. The water here is crystal clear, and it was the perfect temperature. What I neglected to put on this morning, was any sunscreen. Due to this oversight and my British heritage, the result was inevitable.

Later in the afternoon, now safely out of the sun, Re and I found ourselves chatting with Sam and a couple of her British volunteers. While we had heard of fuel smuggling across Lake Malawi from Mozambique via the local ferry, and while swimming earlier, I couldn't help but notice Sam's speedboat with attached 40 hp Mercury engine. So later, while we were chatting, I wondered aloud, about how many liters of fuel her boat could bring back across the lake. Doing a little bit of quick math, it was determined that, with the driver and guard along, it could haul approximately 800 liters back to Malawi. Fuel at the dock on the Mozambique side was going for the equivalent of 350 kwacha per liter, and if one could sell all 800 liters at 1000 kwacha per liter, that would net a tidy profit of over 3100 USD (less expenses). Of course, I would never advocate for breaking the law, but pointed out that this could be considered a mission of “mercy.” When we left them, everyone was smiling and laughing about the idea, but maybe the seed was planted. Then, we were back to being beach bums for the rest of the day.

10/21 Third verse, it's getting worse. With a strange feeling of deja vu, I walked up to Sam's office, asked the same question, and got the same answer. No petrol today, and no black market available at all. Maybe there will be black market fuel available tomorrow from the Mozambique ferry. And I was also “glad” to see that no one broke the law at my suggestion and made their own private run to Mozambique. Sigh. Overnight, a new couple had arrived at the campground. Marc and Katie are an American couple who have been volunteering in South Africa for the past four years. Funnily enough, Marc and Colin seem to have the same good taste in swimwear, as they were wearing matching bathing suits.  Their time on the continent is almost up, and they decided to have one final hurrah and camp their way through southern and central Africa before heading back to the states in February. We spent several hours talking with them, and it was good to get their perspectives on Africa and the role of NGOs here. We spent much of the rest of the afternoon out of the sun (@!#$% sunburn) working on RRs and blogposts in anticipation of finding internet access tomorrow. After a dinner of some things that Re found in the local market, good news arrived. Sam came and found us to say that petrol had arrived at the Caltex station in town and was also due later in the day tomorrow at the BP. Since she was going anyway and had a permit to buy (legally) 200 liters in jerrycans, she said she would pick up 13 liters for us at cost. I really do love this woman! This was the best news we'd had in days. Since tomorrow is Re's birthday, I decided to get her the gift of unleaded. The news got even better a little while later, when Sam realized she needed to empty one of her 20 liter jerrycans in order to take it with her tomorrow. I grabbed our cans and ran to the generator room, where she filled them with 13 liters of sweet, sweet love (in the form of hydrocarbons). Well, this changes everything. We've been stopped for so long that we were going to have to remember how to get back on the road. We headed to bed early in anticipation of forward movement.

The dinner I made was our first vegetarian meal in quite some time. It's funny that the only options we were offered at the Cool Runnings restaurant all have meat, since Sam is a vegetarian. Marc and Katie had asked this morning if we knew where the market was in the village, and since I've gone each day, I offered to lead the way. After lunch, the four of us headed through the village, past the school, over the sand dune that doubles as a soccer pitch, and into the market. I bought rice, dry kidney beans, tomatoes, onion, okra, and a tiny bag of oil (they divvy up liter bottles of vegetable oil into smaller bags, so you can buy like two tablespoons of oil at a time if it so moves you). At home, if I cook beans, I always buy canned ones, so I had no idea how long to soak the dry ones. Figuring hot water would work faster than cold, I asked at the restaurant kitchen for some hot water, but the power was out, so they had none. Fortunately, another camper had started a charcoal fire in the braai to boil some eggs, so I moved in and used the heat for my beans for the afternoon. Well, it unfortunately takes more than the three hours I had for beans to soak, so they were a little firm (but not crunchy!). The veggies were great though! And after dinner, when we spoke with Sam, Colin mentioned our surprise over the lack of veg options on their menu. She was surprised herself that we were not offered the full range of menu options, since they have many pasta, TVP (fake meat), and vegetable choices available. We didn't mean to get her staff in trouble, because what we did eat was very good and told her so. She just smiled and said they have been naughty lately and would need to have a talk with them.

The mob at the gas station. Notice the soldier with the rifle.
10/22 Since we had to repack virtually everything, we rose early and got to work. We hit the road around 9 am for the 250 miles or so to Mzuzu. Less than 5 miles down the road I spotted a problem: in my haste to get the jerrycans filled, I neglected to make sure that my bike was topped up. If full, the first fuel light should last approximately 25 miles, but mine only lasted for 5 miles. Oops. Considering that even with everything full, 250 miles was close to our limit, that missing liter could turn into a big problem. Consequently, today's ride would be an economy run. As we reached Salima town, we spotted Sam, sitting on the hood of her 1980s vintage, yellow, Chevy shortbed pickup, and swung in to say hi. After again thanking her, she passed along the news that petrol had arrived about 60 miles up the road in the direction we were going. Not sure if it would still be there, we stuck to the economy run idea and cruised at 35 mph, north towards Nkhotakota and the promise of more petrol. After nearly two hours, we reached Nkhotakota and quickly found the fuel station. In fact, we couldn't have missed it due to the near riot situation going on there. We pulled in through the out door since they allow motorcycles to jump the queue and I pulled up to the pumps while Re stayed a safe distance away. I pulled up with the other motorbikes and stopped to appreciate the scene. There was a soldier with a rifle standing next to the pumps and using said rifle to push the crush of people away, while another, much larger officer (in fact, he was the largest non-westerner I have seen in Malawi) grabbed “patrons” by their throats and physically moved them out of the way. The motorbikes kept trying to inch up in front of the cars to get to the pumps but were trumped by a pickup truck that came screeching in. The driver of the truck proceeded to push the crowd out of his way with his fenders. I thought to myself that this just isn't worth it. About this time, another uniformed police officer walked up to chat. I couldn't help but notice the chaos going on behind his back as he encouraged me to consider his friend, the black market petrol salesman. He told me the price was 500 kwacha per liter (of which, I am sure, he gets his cut) and led me to his friend. Five liters would be enough to ensure that we could make it to Mzuzu safely, and so I shelled out the cash and got the fuel. We continued on toward Mzuzu at the same slow pace, determined to save every ounce of fuel we could. At one of the many police checkpoints, we heard there was petrol in the stations in Mzuzu. The slow ride allowed us to appreciate the scenery. Whereas southern Malawi was brown and dusty, northern Malawi was green and verdant. We passed through groves of banana trees and several rubber plantations along the way. The strangest vignette of the afternoon occurred when we stopped for lunch in some unnamed town. There was a small Cash N Carry behind the empty petrol station, and Re went in to find something cold to drink and hopefully something to eat. While she was inside, I stayed out with the bikes and entertained several of the local boys who'd shown up. Re shortly returned with some juice and digestive biscuits (which was pretty much all that was available). We had barely cracked the lid on the juice and opened the biscuits when an odd apparition appeared. I still don't know where she (he?) appeared from, but all we saw was a bony old hand reach in to snatch our juice. We turned to find a person who appeared to only be 4.5 feet tall and maybe 75 pounds after our goodies. She wouldn't take no for an answer and kept lunging for our stuff. Neither of us wanted to touch her with our bare hands and were once again, glad for our Dariens. I finally gave her some of our biscuits and she slipped away. We made it to Mzuzu around sundown and found the recommended guesthouse. It was again, crappier than described, but it was only for one night. Also staying there was a Canadian couple, and we spent a while comparing travel notes before we hopped back on the bikes to head out for dinner. It is Re's birthday, so I wanted to do something nice and had found that there was a good Indian restaurant in town. We had a great dinner before picking up a couple of beers and heading back for the night. The bad news is that there are lines at every petrol station and none of them seem to be moving.

About the biscuit snatcher- I'm certain it was a woman. It was a very strange experience- we sat there on our bikes, and I have no idea where she came from, she just appeared out of nowhere. She was frail looking and never said a word, she simply kept reaching for our food. I've never felt so guilty about drinking a bottle of juice in front of someone before. After Colin gave her some of the biscuits, it was like she vaporized, but I saw her in the crowd of people walking along the roadside after we pulled out of the parking lot.

My birthday dinner was a delicious surprise! I was happy enough with the gift of gasoline, let alone aloo mutter, lemon rice, and naan, among other things.

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