At the end of the last installment we had successfully fended off a pack of currency exchange jackals, just on the Tanzania side of the border at Songwe. Next stop, the border crossing, which we hoped to clear before closing time so we wouldn’t have to spend the night in the car. By this time it was about 5:00 Tanzania time, but, happily for us, it was 4:00 Malawi time.
As we learned earlier each crossing has two parts – exiting the country you’re leaving and entering the new country. The exit from Tanzania went smoothly. We took turns; into the immigration office, show our passports, a little of the stamp-and-flip and we’re on our way. From here we proceeded the 100 or so yards to the Malawi entrance area. This is where it got interesting. Imagine that the crossing area is a bowling lane right after a strike. Or, imagine that it’s inside a water-filled globe and that a large hand picked it up, gave it a few hard shakes and set it back down again.
As we pulled up, cars were scattered, pell-mell, before us. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to their arrangement. Some were facing forward, some backward and some sideways or diagonally. Most alarmingly, some were very dusty and had greasepaint dates (some quite old) scrawled on their windows.
We threaded our way through the demolition derby-esque arrangement of cars until we were in line to pass through the metal gate that was the only thing standing between us and Malawi. As we took in the scene and tried to figure out our next steps we saw the gate go up. The cars in front of us went through. We looked around for some sort of official and saw none. The gate was still up so K gunned it and we passed uneventfully into Malawi. Was it really this easy? Well, no.
As we crept forward clear of the gate an official ran up to the driver’s side window and gestured for us to stop. Darn!
K showed him our paperwork. He nodded his approval, but then told us that we needed to sign … something. At this point we were about an hour and a half out from closing time. K parked the truck, gathered up all the paperwork into his fabulous portfolio (K never leaves home without a stunning assortment of high-end leather goods) and followed the gentleman into the customs building.
As I waited I entertained myself by people watching. When that got dull I rolled down my window and engaged with some exchange rate jackals. I was curious to see what absurd rate they would offer a lone foreign woman. At this point we had already exchanged our Tanzanian shillings, so we were talking USD to Malawi kwacha. The official rate was about 390 kwacha per USD. One expects to pay a small premium for the convenience of car-side exchange … so, a reasonable rate would have been about 350. They offered me (“for you, madam”) 250. Hahahahahahaha!
After about 45 minutes, I started to worry. Maybe K was in there, tied up in a small room, covered in high-voltage electrodes, being asked to give up state secrets, or more bribes, or . . .
I decided to give it until the hour mark, at which point I would batten down the car and go look for him. At the 55-minute mark, he emerged from the customs building accompanied by an official. I watched as he approached the car only to pass in front of me and disappear behind a large bus, beyond which I could see an embankment leading down to . . . who knows? An abbatoir? An interrogation room? A cashier?
Fortunately, he had seemed in good enough spirits as he passed the car, more apologetic than anything. So I decided to give it a further 20 minutes. After about 15 he reappeared, sheaf of papers in one hand and portfolio in the other, and got back in the car. Mission accomplished – we were now officially in Malawi.
According to K, despite his desperate worry that the customs office would close before his paperwork was complete, the experience was uneventful. Just a lot of waiting for this official, then waiting for that official, then waiting for the stamp-and-flip. When he passed in front of me on the way to the mystery land beyond the embankment, he did wonder if something terrible was going to happen, but instead they took him straight to IBM HQ, circa 1992, complete with air conditioning, whirring computers, dot matrix printers and bustling officialdom.
Oh, and by the way? So far NO ONE has asked us for that Interpol certificate we worked so hard to acquire back in Kampala.