Well my faithful readers, we’re “on the road again,” avoiding immigration officials, sleeping in bus stations and withdrawing US dollars from ATMs.
Doesn’t seem like real life, right? My thoughts exactly. But alas, in this crazy world, that is how I can summarize our journey out of Malawi, through Mozambique and Zimbabwe and into Botswana.
We left Blantyre, Malawi Monday 5 March. The bus ticket cost $25 US and we had to pay for it in USD. OK, no need to panic (yet). I had enough to cover for my ticket and for Ben’s, but Ben didn’t end up paying for his because the bus driver didn’t charge him. Why, you may ask? Because for the first jolt of travel electricity into your spine, the conductor and driver told Ben that sometimes wazungu from the US don’t make it across the Mozambican border since their immigration guidelines are strict and officials are reluctant to dole out entry visas upon arrival. Great. Wish we had known that before we pulled out of the bus station.
So it was a tense few hours on the bus until we reached the Malawian border. Flew through Malawian immigration without a hitch until it came to boarding the bus again. We had planned to change money at the border—it’s not technically the “black market,” rather the “parallel market,” and in Malawi right now, the only way to exchange kwacha for other currency.
I didn’t stutter—you heard right: Malawi does not have any other way to exchange its kwacha for foreign currency, except via a semi-illegal route at border crossings. There are no dollars, euros, sterling or even South African rand to be able to exchange money legitimately.
Thus the guys at the border, who get neighboring countries’ currencies by unknown means, make an absurdly ridiculous exchange rate that is at least half of what it is supposed to be. Meaning if I had 30,000 Malawian kwacha, the rate should be 166 kwacha to $1 US. But at the border, for 30,000 kwacha, they were saying you could get the equivalent of $100 US, even though that is $80 US less than what it was supposed to be. We decided to take the advice we heard from other passengers: They said in South Africa we could change kwacha for a legitimate rate.
One little problem—there was an immigration official or police officer at the bus door asking everyone if they had more than 3,000 kwacha and if you did, then they forced you to change it at the exorbitant rate. Ben and I, being tight-budget travelers, decided to wait until a more lucrative opportunity presented itself to us. So, in a nutshell, we were smuggling money out of Malawi.
We got back on the bus and drove quite a bit through either “no-man’s land” or actually part of Mozambique before we reached the border control. When we arrived at the Mozambican border, I thought we were about to be locked up abroad and that was certainly a very low point in my life.
We put on our most acquiescing and polite faces, although I probably looked like a very sad, scared and dirty person since the bus ride was very hot and dusty. We calmly asked the immigration officer if we could get a multi-entry visa. His response: “NO.” So then we asked for a transit visa. His response: “NO.” When those two options didn’t work, he said we had to pay $70 US for a single-entry visa. “SINGLE-ENTRY ONLY,” he barked.
I did not have that amount for the visa, I hadn’t prepared for that because I had to pay for the bus ticket in USD. Ben didn’t have any dollars since he was borrowing from me. The tears are welling up, people are shouting in Portuguese, the other passengers want to leave without us…disaster had struck. Luckily Ben thought to ask the bus conductor and driver if we could borrow money from them and pay them back (with interest/a bonus) when we got to Zimbabwe so we could withdraw USD from an ATM. They were our saving grace as we continued through the immigration process, pole pole, “slowly by slowly.”
The border control agent used the “hunt-and-peck” technique to type up our visas, then we had to take a (horrendous) photo and wait for the visa to print out and plastered into our passports. After the whole laborious process, I just wanted to get back on the bus and melt into the seat. Then began our five-hour “stay” in Mozambique.
The countryside was beautiful but I could not enjoy it fully because of the border situation; I had a bad taste in my mouth and was tired. We raced through a spectacular African thunderstorm as we approached the Mozambican/Zimbabwean border. Crossing into Zimbabwe was such a relief and went much more smoothly than I expected; we were able to obtain a transit visa for only $30 US as opposed to the $50 US for single-entry. Talk about a dollar saver menu at the border.
After a few more hours of traveling, we arrived in Harare, the bustling capital of Zimbabwe, where we promptly searched for a Barclay’s ATM to withdraw American dollars. That was strange. I don’t understand the economics or mechanics behind the fact that Zimbabwe defaulted to the USD when their own Zimbabwean dollars had such a high inflation rate (I’m talking there is a one hundred TRILLION dollar note, which I have as a souvenir). But it was good to pay the very nice conductor and driver back for helping us cross the borders.
Unfortunately, there are not too many backpackers’ lodges in Harare since most backpackers’ head straight for Vic Falls. Since we were already feeling tight on cash and time, we opted for the free rest at the bus station, on the bus. Low point? Possibly.
The next morning we were on the road again toward Gaborone, Botswana. The capital of Botswana is affectionately known as Gabs, and it was 20+ hours away from Harare! At least this bus was a bit more comfortable, but the ride increasingly skidded down to new all-time lows. Things could have been a lot worse: After crossing the border from Zimbabwe to Botswana, I realized a very valuable piece of luggage was missing. I frantically sprinted back to the Zimbabwean border and asked if anyone had found a blue Nakumatt bag with a stuffed animal and camera, among other things, inside. I almost left Biggie Bunny behind! The camera, that’s easily replaceable. Biggie Bunny? Not so much.
We arrived in Gabs around 3:30 a.m. and like in Harare, there aren’t a lot of backpackers/youth hostels. So, we slept on the bus for a mere 2.5 hours before we set off for Ghanzi, the capital of the Kalahari Desert.
So ends the transitional post, crossing borders and long bus rides.
Next stop, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa!