Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Making Our Way from Zim to Moz (rabbits?!?) and on to Malawi

We planned again to get an early start since we'd be crossing into Mozambique and still cannot predict how long the process will take. While we packed the bikes to leave, we said goodbye (again!) to Sue and then ran into Stephan and Nicole, and ended up chatting with them for about another half hour. Needless to say, we didn't leave early. Fortunately the weather was good, and the ride out of Harare was pretty. As we rode northeast, the scenery changed from farmland to giant, rounded boulders heaved from the ground. Between the rocky hills, the purple jacaranda trees, and tidy villages, it was beautiful. 

We had to stop to refuel from our jerrycans about an hour outside of Harare, so we pulled off at the end of a dirt road. While we were filling our tanks, a pickup truck stopped next to us at the end of the road, and the passenger rolled down his window. “I'm from Portland, Oregon,” the man said after looking at our license plates. Being a bit skeptical, Colin asked what neighborhood he was from, and the man named an area near the Lloyd Center. Sure enough, his name was Benny Brown, he was from Portland, and settled in Zimbabwe in 1994 after spending time traveling in Europe. He's a solar energy consultant who dabbles in mining a bit, and loves Zimbabwe. As he said, “it's the only country in the world that's going up!” This story is proof-positive that the world is truly a smaller place than I ever imagined.

Hah! My one Mozambique border control photo
We rode on, made it to the border, and met the first aggressive border touts of this trip. Before we even dismounted our bikes at the Zimbabwe post, we had an insurance salesman incessantly pestering us to buy our Mozambique insurance from him once we crossed the border. He refused to take no for an answer, but we eventually escaped into the building for our requisite passport and Carnet stamps, and then through the gate and into Mozambique, where we met...even more of them. Here, they tried to get us to exchange our US dollars for huge wads of Mozambique meticals and buy their insurance. Colin ended up dealing with the shortest and fastest of the bunch of insurance touts, who was actually helpful with not only the immigration and visa forms (since they were written in Portuguese and poorly translated into English), but also sold Colin the required third party vehicle insurance at a fair price while I waited for the stern man from Immigration to return our passports with new visas affixed. I sat on the porch outside the office and snapped a couple of photos of our bikes with everyone gathered around them and of the front of the building at the border crossing, as I've tried to do at every one we've been through. As I waited, a man in uniform approached me and asked how I was, then what I was doing with my camera. Since I know you're not supposed to take photos at borders, I tried to be surreptitious about it but was apparently less so than I thought. He asked to see the photos I had taken and made me delete them. Thankfully, he didn't take the camera from me or put me in jail (since I promised my parents I wouldn't get locked up on this trip). We made it through the border and into Mozambique and headed toward the city of Tete for the night.

Typical homestead in Tete corridor of Mozambique
Since we didn't get the early start we'd planned and our dealings at the border took longer than expected, we didn't arrive in Tete until nearly dark. We rode through the city, out the other side and across a bridge, realizing that put us where we didn't want to be. We turned around to go back across the bridge into downtown and immediately were stopped at a police checkpoint. This was the first time any officer has asked to see any of our registration paperwork, so we had to dig it out of the locked case for him to see that we were legit. He let us go, we rode back into the city, and found the hotel which was supposed to be cheap, clean, and safe, as the sun set. Unfortunately, the hotel did not live up to even our lowest expectations of cleanliness, and the rate had somehow jumped from 35USD to 95USD. In spite of the impressive mold farm growing in the wall below the A/C unit, we decided to press on. Instead we went in search of the one campground we knew of in town, which happened to be on the other side of the bridge. We turned at the sign for the campground, onto an unlit dirt road that ran along the Zambezi River, and couldn't find it. We rode back and forth on that road, in the dark, until finally, Colin saw a sign on a wall for the campground. Fortunately, it was dark when we arrived so we couldn't see just what a lovely place we'd found. We pulled into the most basic, darkest campground we've found on this trip to date. We set up our tent, blew up our mats, grabbed our bag of dry cereal, and found a crumbling step. We ate a dinner of cereal and water sitting in the dark, and then we went to bed. 

Once we arose, by light of the morning, we fully appreciated the delightful conditions of our home for the night. The bathhouse was built out of a collection of decaying reed mats and scrap metal, with a cold trickle of a shower, a single, dirty sink, and... rabbits. Now, I'm used to various fauna on the walls and ceilings of the ablution facilities around the world, but this was the first time I've seen little bunny foo foo in the corner of a bathhouse. And I had to take a photo. While Colin was in the shower and I packed the bags, a group of local street children, who came in when the campground owner opened the gate first thing in the morning to let the most crapulous safari truck on the continent leave, surrounded me as I worked.  They were all very cute, smiling and touching my hair and distracting me from what was going on behind me. When Colin returned, he saw that one child was at the bikes, investigating our daypacks. He shooed them all away and fortunately, nothing was missing, but I will not make that mistake again. Before we started this trip, I expected stuff like this to happen and know I need to keep an eye on my surroundings, but things had been so easy up to this point that I let my guard down.  All this atmosphere was included in the ultra low price of...22 US dollars. Once everything was packed, we left the campsite and stopped for fuel and to look for food. We found fuel, but since everything in Mozambique is written in Portuguese and we can't read it, we could have passed seventy different grocery stores and I wouldn't know it.  Anyway, we didn't find any food before we left Tete on our way to the Malawi border.
The ride itself wasn't particularly interesting, more dry heat and drier, dusty landscape, and lots of huge, deep potholes in the road. There aren't even many trees left in this region, since the people have deforested most of the land in order to make charcoal. We were both so happy to see the border with Malawi! Our joy waned once we got to the Mozambique border station, where we were swarmed by a group of money changers and insurance touts. An officer came to our rescue and ordered them to leave and then directed us where to go. We got our Mozambique exit stamps and walked back to the bikes and were again surrounded by the same group of people. This time, the officer wasn't around, and they would not move away from our bikes. I yelled as politely as I could for them to please get out of my way so I could get on my bike and finally had to force my way through.

Finally, were able to ride away through the gate and into... what we thought was Malawi. At every other border we've crossed, once you pass through immigration and customs of one country, you cross a bridge or some short piece of real estate before you see some kind of a “welcome to (insert country here)” sign and the immigration and customs buildings of the next country. Well, we rode slowly along, looking for the Malawi port of entry, and didn't see it. We rode a couple of kilometers before we turned around to go back, now pretty sure that we'd just blown through the Malawi border control. We didn't see it on our return journey, so Colin rode up to the gate at the Mozambique side (working all the money changers we'd previously dismissed into a frenzy, thinking we'd changed our minds about their services) and asked where the Malawi border was. It turns out it was about 10 km down the road. So we turned back around and continued further on the road we'd ridden until we arrived at the Malawi border post. There we met another mob of money changers and insurance salesmen who also wanted to “help” us. We eventually managed to get the deals done and moved on.

We needed fuel and started looking seriously for it once we'd entered Malawi (since we didn't see any before we left Mozambique). We stopped at a petrol station in the first small town we entered, only to be told that they didn't have any, hadn't had any for four days, and didn't know when they'd get anymore. When I asked where we might be able to find fuel, he suggested the city of Blantyre, which was not on our way, but is the largest city in Malawi. We considered what to do, couldn't make a decision, and rode on to the crossroads where we would have to decide. Since we could make it to Blantyre on the fuel we had, we opted to go in that direction. 

About 10 km down that road, we came upon a gas station with a long line of cars. Hopeful that we wouldn't need to go to Blantyre, we joined the queue and were motioned to cut in line by what must have been the town drunk. He took our jerrycans from Colin and carried them to the pumps and harassed the two women who were pumping gas until they agreed to fill our cans. Everyone else was there to fill not only their car tanks, but also multiple, huge jerrycans. Our assistant convinced them to fill ours since we actually needed fuel in order to not get stuck there. He was either very convincing or just super annoying, but either way, they took our cans, filled the 5 liter can and started on the 10 liter one, when... the pumps ran dry. We got the last 7.2 liters the station had, which made us very happy (even though we really could have used another 7.8 liters). Colin tipped our helper the equivalent of about a dollar, which made him very happy. We continued on, now toward our preferred destination, Monkey Bay, which is at the southern end of Lake Malawi. 
Sometime in the mid-afternoon, we stopped at another empty petrol station (in hope of topping off our such luck though) and grabbed lunch (peanuts, potato chips, and cold water- only the finest for us). The day wore on, and the sun dipped lower in the sky as we rode onward toward Monkey Bay. After passing a road sign, Colin pulled off the side of the road, and I pulled in next to him. The sign said Monkey Bay was 60 miles further along this road, but our GPS wanted us to turn right onto a dirt road that promised to save us 20 miles. Considering we didn't have 60 miles of fuel with us, the 20 mile dirt road was our option. As it turns out, the road was fine, but we had to slow down to avoid the deep ruts and to hit the planks on the bridges just right. We learned an invaluable lesson on this road- follow the bicyclists. They're local and know the smoothest route down the roads. In saving the 20 miles of fuel we didn't have, we entered a race against the setting sun. The dirt road was fine during daylight hours, but after dark, we'd have no chance of making it safely due to our lackluster headlights. We made it to the paved road as the sun set, but we still had another 20 miles to go. Colin led the way, and I followed, using his headlight and covering my beam with my hand to cover its reflection off the jerrycan. 

We rode slowly, avoiding the continuous stream of life that occurs on the roads in Malawi. Since so few people have cars, everyone walks, bicycles, sits, converses, markets, lives on the roads, so they are all just glorified sidewalks. We made it to the turnoff for our guesthouse after dark and turned off onto a dirt road...that turned into... deep sand. We struggled for the final kilometer as it was entirely deep sand, and at one point, Colin got off and walked next to his bike as it chugged along in first gear. By the time we got to the gate about a half hour later, we were drenched in sweat and panting hard from duck-walking the bikes. The guard opened the gate and we tried to ride through and found... even deeper sand. With our thigh muscles now on fire, we got off the bikes and tried to check in. At reception, we met Auntie, who informed us that due to the Malawi national holiday of Mothers' Day, they were full and only had two beds left in the dorm that she would need to “negotiate,” so we should go to the restaurant for dinner while we waited. After a good hour, she came and said the room was ready. We followed her to the dorm, to find that it was now ours, since the people who were staying in it had apparently left for some reason. The room was...shabby, and the bathroom was, um, rustic. On the plus side, the mosquito nets were intact. I needed to take a shower after the last portion of our ride, so I grabbed the soap and headed to the bathroom, where I took a cold shower while standing on a wood pallet, trying not to slip between the slats and twist an ankle (I didn't). Colin wasn't up to the shower situation, so we brushed our teeth and went to bed.

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