At the end of our last installment, we had just gotten past a road blockage on the way to Senga. Not too long after we stopped for gas and cash in Mzuzu. Getting the gas was simple. It would prove to be one of the last simple things for a while. Also, there was some yelling in Mzuzu – the first serious argument that K and I had, but we worked it out and no one had to hitch hike to Blantyre or ride on the roof. All good.
After Mzuzu the road climbed again. Not as high as previously, but there were some nice views of the lake. K had been driving for most of the trip up until this point. He had been checking in with me repeatedly to ask whether I wanted to drive, and was concerned that he was hogging the driving, but I didn’t mind and he seemed to feel better when he was behind the wheel. But on this day I took over driving after Mzuzu.
There was a brief stretch after Mzuzu where the population thinned and the road smoothed, but for the most part the driving was nerve-wracking. I hadn’t realized until this trip how managed the roads in the US are. Highways contain motor vehicles. Streets and roads contain motor vehicles, bicycles and sometimes pedestrians, all with defined areas of the roadway they’re expected to occupy.
The roads in Malawi contained people weaving on bicycles, women with babies strapped to their backs, on bicycles, entire families on bicycles, trucks filled to the brim with laborers. The sides of the roads were lined with wandering chickens, goats, cattle, dogs, and children, all of whom might break loose and run into the road at any moment.
You don’t take your eyes off the road for a second because tragedy could be the result. We drove about 360 miles that day, but it felt like 3 times that much because it was so intense.
We each had a near miss with a dog, and one time a little kid broke away from a group of children playing by the side of the road, and got closer to the car than either of us would have liked, but we made it all the way without injuring any humans or animals.
Somewhere between Mzuzu and Senga we got a flat tire. We thought we had left Kampala well-prepared for this eventuality, in that we had not one but two tires. We also had a jack. What we didn’t have, as it turned out, was the block that keeps the jack sufficiently elevated on soft ground.
The flat happened along what appeared to be one of the brief unpopulated stretches of road, but there must have been a village nearby because very soon after we had stopped and gotten out of the car, we were approached by several adults and about 10 children. I amused the children to no end when I replied to their “what’s wrong?” with “we have a flat tire.” (Yes, they all spoke English – not sure how common that is in all of Malawi, but here they were all pretty fluent, lucky for us.)
They all laughed uproariously. Can’t say I blame them. They knew the tire was flat. They wanted to know why we were having trouble changing it. So, I explained, while at the same time trying to stanch the river of blood that was emanating from where a dried plant stalk had just sunk itself into my ankle. The scene was a bit chaotic.
Everyone had ideas about how to get the vehicle up high enough to remove the tire. None of them worked. We called the car’s owner (finally finding a use for the fancy satellite phone) but the block wasn’t where she expected it to be.
Lucky for us one of the children, a boy of maybe 9 or so, pointed out that most of the passing cargo trucks would have jacks. So, while K and the Malawi men in attendance tried various ways to get the car high enough with the available equipment, I went to the road to wave down a truck.
Once we had his (much larger) jack, the problem was sorted in short order. We handed out pens to the kids and money to the grownups. I also sneaked some money to one little girl who appeared to be an orphan … it was a tough call because I didn’t want her to be robbed for it, but she looked hungrier than the others. She squirreled it away quickly, so I’m hoping it did her some good.