September 28, 2013: In Retrospect We Were Stupid

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Although Steve and I were looking for an adventure for our last week in Malawi, we decided against getting around the country in crammed mini-buses used by locals thinking it may push us beyond our tolerance level. We instead solicited Muthi’s help to find someone willing to rent us a car. When the friend Muthi had found backed out of our rental arrangement the night before we needed the car, he scrambled to find someone else through his various connections. Early afternoon the next day Muthi and a driver showed up with a car at the Kabula Lodge. We immediately could tell that something wasn’t right. The car, which had over 150,000 km on it, was already starting to overheat and we learned that its cooling system was filled with water instead of coolant, which is apparently is common practice in Malawi because people can’t afford coolant. Muthi said everything would be fine if we could find someone to drain the water and replace it with coolant. In retrospect, this is where we were stupid to go along with this plan … but we did and believe me we ended up paying big time later for our stupidity.

The driver said all we had to do is find Lawrence and Stolley at a specific street corner of Blantyre and they could help us with our cooling system issue. Well when we got the street corner in question, Lawrence and Stolley were both nowhere to be found and the driver just decided to abandon us there with Muthi. We stopped at a gas station to buy coolant with the hope that they could help us with the actual switch from water. The two gas station attendants looked under the hood of the vehicle and told us we needed a mechanics. They recommended one two driveways down the road. When we pulled in the driveway in question with our two bottles of coolant, all we could find was a guy laying down under a palm tree beside a dirt parking area with a greasy plastic bag filled with a few old tools. He apparently was the mechanics we were looking for. He said he could do the job for KW1,500 (about $3.50) so we went of it. When he stared unbolting all kinds of parts and taking apart about half the engine, spreading pieces all over the dirt in front of the car, I stared wondering if this was a good idea after all. But this is Africa I told myself and this is how it gets done here. Then the next thing I know, our mechanics has his mouth around the fill cap of the radiator. When I asked Muthi what he was doing, here told me that the only way to drain the water out of the system was to blow it out. The other challenge we had was to find water because what we bought was a coolant concentrate. Muthi knocked at the door of a house nearby and came back with a bucket filled with water on his head. About 30 minutes later our mechanics had the whole thing back together and as far as we could tell no bolts or pieces of our engine were left on the ground.

Confident we had solved our overheating issue, Muthi went his separate way. Next on our list of challenges for the day was to confirm that Steve could handle driving on the left in chaotic African traffic and for me to guide us out of Blantyre using a sketch Muthi quickly put together. We succeeded with both and for about an hour or so things were definitely looking up. Then about 20 km from our destination, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, Steve noticed the temperature gage of the car going up … five minutes later, we lost power and found ourselves stranded on a rural road in an area where English is pretty much useless. All I knew is that we had to somehow get out of there before dark, which was less than three hours away.

The good news is that Steve had borrowed a local phone from WFP so we were able to get a hold of Muthi who in turn contacted the owner of the piece of shit we were driving. About 30 minutes later a guy in a newer pick-up truck who spoke a little English asked if we needed to be towed to the nearest town. Still unclear when someone would be able to come to our rescue, we accepted his towing offer figuring that it would be safer to be at a gas station in a town than on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The guy then pulled a rope (I guess they don’t use chains for towing here) and attached the two vehicles together like he was getting ready to tow a kid’s tricycle or something. He said not to worry the gas station was right around the corner. So Steve and I got back in the car and Steve put the car in neutral for our next adventure, being pulled with minimal stirring and breaking control while maneuvering the pedestrians and animals spilling from both sides of the roadway. We should have known that right around the corner met a 10 km ride. We somehow made it to the gas station without rear-ending our good Samaritan. By then Muthi had called back to let us know that the owner of our vehicle was on his way from Blantyre to bring us a “better car.” We figured we were just over an hour drive from the City so we felt relieved to know we would be rescued before darkness made our situation a little more dicey. But then again this is Africa, so the meaning of “we’re on our way” is different. We definitely felt better being stuck at the gas station but there’s no question that as hard as we tried, there was nothing we could do to blend in … we just looked totally out of place … the only two Mzungu in the small town of Chitakale. When the sun started setting we called Muthi to get an update and he called back to inform us that they were still a least 30 minutes away, which according to African time could mean 60 to 90 minutes.

Steve stared getting a little nervous and decided to call the lodge located at the base of Mt. Mulanje where we were going to stay and inquire if someone could pick us up. The garage attendant said he knew the reverent who operated the lodge and gave us his cell number. Steve negotiated for a driver to come down the mountain to get us, which we were told was going to take 15-20 minutes. I personally felt like it would likely take longer and that we should just wait, thinking the owner of our vehicle may show up before the lodge driver. And guess what, that’s exactly what happened. Although I wanted to let the vehicle owner have it when he finally showed up with two friends, it was hard to be upset at him when he couldn’t stop saying “sorry madam, sorry madam.” He promised that that the new car he brought us, which “only” had 110,000 km, was more reliable. A few minutes after her arrived, power in the entire town went out and all of a sudden we found ourselves completely in the dark for the car exchange. That’s about when the driver from the lodge showed up. We explained that we no longer needed a ride but he insisted that we put 5 liters of gasoline in his car (he probably only needed 1 or 2 for the roundtrip to the lodge but whatever) and that we wait for him to get some groceries so we could follow him back to the lodge, which apparently we would have very little chance to find in the dark. In the meantime, the owner of the vehicle, with the help of his two friends, one of which must have been a mechanics, found a way to fix our broken down car and before long they were on their way back to Blantyre, leaving us behind in the dark with the supposedly better car.

We finally made it to the CCAP Likhubula House (can’t remember what CCAP means but the P is for Presbyterian so the place had a religious affiliation) at about 7pm, six hours or so after our adventure began in Blantyre. The lodge was totally dark when we arrived as a result of the power outage. Given our limited supply of cash (remember I forgot my ATM card back in the US), Steve and I decided to share a room. It’s not like Steve’s wife had anything to worry about. The interesting thing though is that our week together in Malawi is apparently the first time that Steve vacationed with anyone else than his wife or kids. The room we got was extremely basic … a cement floor, a plywood ceiling, two uncomfortable single beds with sheet that appeared more or less clean, a small wood table with chair and a sink. It was hot as hell in there but we could not really open the windows because the mosquitoes were in full force that night. Because of the power outage the lodge didn’t serve dinner that night. So Steve and I shared a freeze-dried camping meal that didn’t require boiling water. Although not very hungry because of the heat, we force ourselves to take in the calories in anticipation of the arduous days ahead.

The highlight of the day came when Steve and I went outside to meet the 3 other Mzungu who were cooking on a camping stove in front of our room. I was thrilled when I heard them speak Quebecois. Nicolas, his girlfriend Anne and their friend Jason are volunteers for an organization called Volunteers Services Oversees. They work in Mozambique and they are in Malawi on a short holiday to allow them to renew Anne’s tourist visa. We became instant friends and they’ll now be joining us on our cross-country drive to Lake Malawi after climbing Mt. Mulanje. We also planned to meet on the mountain in the next few days as we will be staying at some of the same huts. I stayed out talking to them for an hours or so (which cost me a bunch of mosquito bites) while Steve went to bed. They told me about their attempt to climb the mountain from the other side and how they had to stop because they ran into multiple fires that were set by hunters to help them trap rock hyraxes. They even saw some of the hunters ready to strike with their spears, bows and arrows. I would have loved to be there to see that. Feeling unsafe, they turned around and ended up at the same lodge, the same night.

When I got back in the room, it felt like a sauna. Getting under the mosquito net didn’t help the air flow but I had no choice given that I could hear the army of mosquitoes surround my net, ready to go on offense. As I spread out on the top of the sheets, I could feel the sweat dribbling down my legs and back, thinking how the hell was I going to fall asleep when I felt like I was about to suffocate under my net. That’s when a fairly large creature in our room ceiling started making laps from one corner to another and then scratching hard in the corner of the sink. I guess that explains the sawdust accumulation I found in the sink. No kidding though, whatever it was, it wanted in our room. I’m not sure what I would have done if it fell through our ceiling and ended up in the room. Steve slept through the whole thing … I swear guys … where are they when you need them.

Despite the day’s challenges and the lodge’s less than ideal conditions, I was happy to be at the base of Mt. Mulanje, ready and excited to start our 3-day expedition up the mountain the next morning.

Description of a Few Photos:
1) Gas station where they couldn’t help us
2) Mechanics starting to work on our car
3) Muthi fetching water from neighbor to add to coolant
4) Stranded in the middle of nowhere after car broke down
5) Being towed to closest gas station
6) CCAP Likhubula House (not so bad from the exterior but …)
7) “Luxurious” interior of our room
8) The mosquito net under which I almost suffocated under the previous night

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