Thursday, June 5, 2008
A bus to nowhere
If you’re headed south to Malawi from Tanzania don’t buy a bus ticket to Lilongwe from Mbeya. That’s one thing I’ve learned.
The con men sold me the direct ticket from Mbeya to the Malawi capital yesterday when I got off the bus from Iringa. The idea was I would take a local Tanzanian bus to the border and then switch to the Malawi bus for the rest of the ride. Forty thousand shillings seemed a bit high, but not too high and I feared waiting to buy the ticket at the border could leave me without a seat. I was a bit suspicious, but I spend large swathes of my time here being suspicious.
I woke at 5:40am and the mini-bus trundled out of Mbeya an hour later. There were thirty of us in something a bit bigger than your parents’ mini-van. After four hours we were at the border and it became clear my ticket would take me no further. I had been napping until just before we made it to the border and it was the rudest of awakenings. Still in a fog I held my ground, got back on the bus and said I was going back to Mbeya to get my money.
It was a stubborn (or principled) thing to do since even in a best-case scenario I’d be going 12 hours out of my way to get $32 back. But I had an oh-no-you-don’t anger towards the friendly college student who ripped me off and it wasn’t about the time or the money; in fact the whole premise of his scam is that no rich whitey will bother going all the way back once they catch on at the border.
I believe that violence in the media does encourage violence in society and I believe this mainly because five years of watching boxing all day as my job really made me want to get in a fight. I still haven’t had the chance to throw a right cross but I was viscerally ready on the ride back to Mbeya. You couldn’t quite say I was willing to die over $32 but I was ready to inflict and/or receive more harm than $32 probably merits.
Five squished hours later we got back to Mbeya and the bus driver and “conductor”—whose job is to shout out the bus for more customers—told me to get out so they could sneak up on the bogus ticket seller without him seeing me in the van and realizing something was up.
I wasn’t sure whether to trust them but I didn’t have much choice so I took pictures of them and their van (something I nearly did with the ticket seller and obviously now wish I had) and waited at the police post.
The police seemed genuinely dismayed with my fate and not nearly competent enough to do much about it. The best “lead” was the serial number from the bogus ticket, since the seller still has the book of tickets, but I had to recommend writing that number down twice before the cop caught on.
The boys on their stealth mission didn’t find him and I wanted to go to Malawi so I cut loses and tried to catch the twice weekly direct bus that actually does go through Mbeya and down to Lilongwe. But no one knew anything about the bus and I finally ended up in the car of an Australian missionary looking for it in vain. She took me back to the main bus station where I had first departed 10 hours before. I got on another mini-bus and came here to the border, which had already closed.
A Tanzanian customs guard who happened to be on the bus got off with me and walked me to a guesthouse near the border. It was full. But another one had a room and I set up shop a few hundred meters from Malawi. I bought a nearly cool Serengeti beer and my first meal of the day. Just before the thundershowers rolled in I sat down at my broken laptop to write this stupid entry.
Posted by Brook Silva-Braga