Sunday, January 22, 2012

Zanzibar Part 1: a Transportation Nightmare!

I feel like I've spent a week in a story book, or a history book to be more exact. The island of Zanzibar was more than what I could have expected from its mysterious name, and even more mysterious history. Although I was sad to spend my first Christmas away from my family, I had an amazing experience tasting, learning, and experiencing my way through East Africa's most popular island. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

I've learned that no journey in Malawi is complete without a ridiculous transportation story, and this holiday trip was no exception. A last-minute bus ticket purchase landed my friend and I the last two seats on the infamous Mohammed Taraq bus, known for insanely long, unstable trips between Lilongwe and Dar Es Salaam. We boarded at 7 pm on Christmas Eve, welcomed in the holiday with a yummy cream-filled raisin bun and a homemade juice concoction, and attempted to sleep for the remainder of the journey. An abrupt 4 am stop acted as a wake-up call: we were at the  Malawi-Tanzania  boarder (before border control arrived) and although no one bothered to share, we would be stuck there for a few hours. Two border checks, $100 visa, and about five hours later, we continued on what would become another 10 hour journey. English communication was a problem - bathroom stops (for women) were even more problematic - and the highly (and unpleasantly) aromatic, cockroach-ridden bus ride made arrival all the more exciting.

After a wonderful and relaxing week away - with thoughts of beaches fresh at hand - I experienced what I can honestly say was the worst transportation experience thus of my life. We bought a direct Dar Es Salaam to Lilongwe ticket, expecting a similar journey back; what we got was a never-ending nightmare. A 5 AM traffic jam started our morning, and for fear of missing the 6 AM bus, we hopped out in traffic with our luggage and ran! We arrived at the bus depot expecting to easily find the Mohammed bus, and instead spent almost half an hour running through a maze of what seemed like 100 busses. After thinking we'd lost our chance of getting back to Malawi, we found Emma (aka 50 cent), the guy who sold us our bus tickets. "There is a problem with the bus," he said, "Come. Take this one. He will take you to the border, where you will meet the Mohammed bus." The arrangement sounded questionable, I asked for more details, and after being told several to "relax, don't worry," I tried to do just that.

Within the first half hour, I'm told we experienced a flat tire that somehow I managed to sleep through. I woke up in time to get off and watch a lesson in how to change a bus tire before resuming what I soon learned would be a hellish ride. I don't think the word "airborne" properly describes my experience. We flew for the next considerable length of the journey, attacking Tanzania's three-in-a-row speed bumps like they were figments of my imagination. The thought that I was actually going to die crossed my mind several times, and so I spent the remainder of this leg of the journey sending goodbye messages, praying, and desperately rummaging through my first aid kit to find something that would make me sleep.

While I wish that were the end of the journey, it seemed the fun times were just beginning. After stopping in the middle of the road for sometime due to an overheated engine, we arrived at a bus depot an hour away from the border (and thus an hour away from where our bus was supposed to be waiting). I had asked several times about getting to our destination (to which I was told "waiting, waiting" and shooed back to my seat), but upon arriving at Mbeya, the driver shared that it was the last stop, and since it was 9 pm and dark, we would have to spend the night. I tried to explain that this wasn't the arrangement, and that I'd spent all my shillings on the bus ticket that was supposed to take me back direct, so how would I find a place to sleep and eat? And would the bus be waiting for us tomorrow? They didn't seem to understand my English, which frustrated me more, and between my friend's broken Swahili and an hour-and-a-half of yelling, crying, and making phone calls, they agreed to put us for the night and put us on a bus the next day. Big mistake!

I experienced my first (and hopefully last) rest house, i.e., a dirty bedroom, possibly covered in mold and mildew, that made me wonder when the sheets had last been changed. My friend and I spread our scarves on the bed and slept in our clothes, covering every ounce of skin except for our hands.

The next morning, we arrived at the bus station and after speaking with three different people, they finally put us on a bus to the border, a one hour distance we were told. One hour quickly became two and then three, as the bus squeezed twice as many people as the seats allowed. The bus driver informed us he would no longer be going to the border, telling us to get on another bus. I was still in high spirits until another hour went by and the new bus dropped us in the middle of nowhere, saying we were at the Tanzania-Malawi border. Feeling emotionally exhausted, I allowed some strange man to help me carry my bags and we started the 25 minute walk to the border.

Long story short, we contacted 50 Cent, who after an hour, transferred some of our ticket funds toward a colleague to pay for a direct bus from the border to Lilongwe. When we asked the colleague to come with us to directly pay for the bus that was supposedly waiting for us, he refused, which hinted at the worst: there was no bus. Our new "friend" instructed us that we would take a one hour taxi, four hour minibus, and then another four plus hour bus to get to our final destination. We did so, paying some more out-of-pocket, and arrived home at 2:30 AM two days after the journey began.

The transportation verdict: never take Mohammed Taraq bus. The transportation highlight: watching our taxi attempt to get fuel across the river from Tanzania since Malawi had a shortage, and arriving back to Lilongwe alive and in one piece. At least the thoughts of Zanzibar continue to remind me that even these terrible transportation experiences were oh so worth it. 

Only in Malawi.

Me and my friend waiting for the Malawi border control to open.

The infamous Taqwa bus

Driving through a national park (that's a giraffe!)

An Obama fan at the ferry station on the way back from Zanzibar.

Removing the flat tire.

Our unforgettable bus...

They tried to cool the engine by pouring water into it,
but for some reason it came right out the bottom...

The guest room.

Mbeya Bus Terminal. Just one hour from the border
(or so they all said).

Walking toward the border after the bus dropped us off.

Almost there!

Some beautiful landscapes in Malawi on the way back to Lilongwe.


  1. Oh Yvette! I hope you laugh after all is said and done...Life is quite the adventure isn't it? :) Transportation...Very frustrating I'm sure. I hope you are relaxed now!

  2. Wow!! I'm exhausted simply reading. I'm glad you made it back safely.

  3. Angela, it's amazing that months have gone by and I'm still laughing! Cona, sounds like a Senegal-style trip right? Haha! All the more life experiences...