At the end of our last installment, we were ready to depart the Utengule Coffee Lodge with plans to cross into Malawi at Songwe before nightfall. We passed through Mbeya on our way south. As a trade route city, Mbeya has a very transient population, and a surfeit of squalor, so we didn’t linger.
You’ll notice that the sky over Mbeya was pretty dark. Not too far outside the city, the sky opened up and we were treated to a torrential rainstorm. We were neutral about the rain, but it was fun to watch the village kids react to it. They were apparently very happy – we passed one little guy who was dancing by the side of the road like his life depended on it. If he were a certain 20-something blond, tongue-wagging American pop star, I would have said he was twerking, but it was more joyous than that. I had the impression that when you’re that close the Equator rain is always welcome.
We took a small detour to see the land bridge.
From there our goal was to cross into Malawi that day, knowing that if we got there too late we would be spending the night in the car. A notable aspect of our travels this day was the truck names. The whole way, we noticed that many of the trucks and mini-buses had names painted on the back. For some reason we saw more than usual during this part of the journey: Boy Sasa, Ebenezer, Smart, Fighter, Fax Machine, Whatever and Nameless were the most memorable.
We had heard that gas was more expensive in Malawi, so we stopped at a station a few miles shy of the border crossing. The actual pumping of the gas was mostly uneventful, but while we were parked, a pack of currency-exchange jackals descended on us. I should mention, my travel superpower is the ability to convert currency in my head. Even though we were moving from one African currency to another we needed to convert Tanzanian shillings to USD and then convert the USD to Malawi Kwacha so we could be sure we were getting a reasonable rate relative to USD.
So, there we were, parked at the station, trying to get a few Malawi kwacha. I knew the going rate relative to USD and had figured out a reasonable shilling to kwacha rate. Needless to say, the currency jackals were not offering that rate. Their rate was about 20% lower.
So, we said no, and they offered a better rate, but then tried to bamboozle us as we did the actual exchange – by trying to hand over less than the agreed upon amount of kwacha. K insisted on running everything through his calculator, meanwhile the jackals kept up a steady, distracting patter as they tried to reach through the windows and effect a speedier transfer.
I suddenly thought to look back – thinking that perhaps their goal wasn’t to squeeze a few extra kwacha out of the exchange, but rather to distract us over a few kwacha in order to keep us from noticing while they robbed us blind, but our stuff was secure and the spare tire was still affixed to the back of the vehicle (later we will be very glad of this).
The border crossing experience is worth a post in itself – stay tuned.