The Gang at the Bar at Lake Malawi
Sleeping With The Elephants
At about 4:30AM this morning, Jon got up to go to the loo outside the tent. He came back in a bit later and said, “There’s something very large tearing branches off trees out there.” He couldn’t see what is was, and didn’t stick around to find out. As it turns out, Paul the Russian had been woken up at 4:00AM by similar noises. He looked out the tent to see 4 elephants and 1 baby elephant standing around the tents eating the branches off the trees. By the time we’d all gotten up at 5:00, they were long gone but left plenty of elephant dung as incriminating evidence.
Issues on Zambian Border
The drive to Malawi was a long one. I twisted my back helping to load the truck in the morning, and took 3 Advil in preparation for the very bumpy roads. After 20 minutes on the road, Didier the Frenchman gave me a box of French painkillers which I promptly took. An hour later, I swear I couldn’t feel my cheeks but my back felt much, much better. 🙂 We stopped for a break at 9:00 and my back was much looser. A few hours later, Didier gave me another one and I fell asleep. We stopped a little before lunch at Chipata and Jon and I walked through the market there. Jon found it very amusing that I was so out of it and the Aussies deemed me “Stoned Heidi” for the day which made me laugh. A lot.
At noon, we stopped at the Zambia-Malawi border and our truck was over-taken by a group of men who were willing to change currency for us. We were forewarned ahead of time that the rate is less than beneficial, and should wait until we get to a Bureau. But it was amusing to see these guys clamoring for money changing opportunities. We all went in to the Zambian office to clear immigration, and this is where the trouble began.
Everyone checked through without incident — except us, of course. Here’s what the problem was: when we flew into Zimbabwe a week ago, the tour company had arranged an airport transfer for us. When we crossed the border from Zimbabwe to Zambia to get to the campsite, the driver took our passports and got us through customs. But apparently, the Zambian entry stamp was dated for only one day’s validity and we had been in Zambia for a week. At the time, Jon and I were so tired from our flight that we didn’t even notice. But the woman here at the Zambia-Malawi border certainly noticed , and she wasn’t going to budge an inch. For a few minutes we tried to explain to her that we didn’t know this had happened and that we didn’t do this to the passports, but she said “you can’t prove it, so too bad”. So we looked at her blankly and said, “Well, what does this mean for us?”. She said, “You’ll be charged.” Now, the first thought through my mind was, “Charged. I wonder how much this is going to cost us.” Jon’s first thought was, “Charged. I wonder how long a sentence we’ll have to serve.”
So the charge was 10,800 Zambian Kwatcha per day of overstay, and this was a week after the stamp on the passport. We owed 7*10,800 = 75,600 Kwatcha. We had made a point to spend the last of our Zambian Kwatcha at the Shoprite in Chipata, so we had no more currency other than US Dollars. We asked if we could pay in US$, and they said yes but they would only give us a rate of 3000Kw/$ (very bad exchange rate). Obviously, these immigration officers thrive off of making our lives miserable. Now I, of course, was still under the influence of some strong French painkillers, so I got a little emotional about all this and basically abandoned poor Jon to figure out how to get us out of the this mess.
Jon went out to the street-side currency exchange market to see what kind of rate he could negotiate. After I had sobered up a bit, I went out to see what he was up to, and was amazed at the whole process. If there was a Zambian Commodity Exchange, this was it. It was like something off of Wall Street: they had market makers, traders, runners, currency arbitrage, and price collusion. All they needed were suits to complete the picture. A large group of them had crowded around Jon, who was standing next to the truck. Vanessa (our guide) was in the front seat of the truck helping to facilitate the transaction. Everyone was yelling different exchange rates and they had expanded the market to include US Dollars, Zambian Kwatcha, and Malawi Kwatcha. There were numbers being quoted left and right and wads of money being waved in the air. My brain was much too fuzzy to figure out what was what, but Jon and Vanessa were doing just fine. These guys on the street were basically arbitraging their way from one currency to another. Not a risk-free arbitrage, but they were all but guaranteed a profit. After Jon had traded US$ for Zambian Kwatcha and Malawian Kwatcha (I still don’t know how), we went back into the office to pay the penalty. The officers miscalculated in our favor, which we didn’t bother to correct since they were going to pocket it anyway. So an hour after the entire trauma began, we passed the Zambian border with our friends joking “$&*#(@# Americans!”.
At the Malawi border, we got through unscathed. But Didier had some trouble because he didn’t have a Visa. So we spent another hour on the Malawi border while Vanessa and Brendan wheeled and dealed with the officials for Didier. In the end, they have him a pass into the country that was valid from 2 days, with the understanding that he would obtain a Visa. So onward we drove to Lilongwe (capital of Malawi) where we looked and looked for the Immigration Office, but didn’t get there until 4:04. Of course, it closed at 4:00. We’ll have to come back tomorrow if we want to take Didier with us when we leave.
Steps Campsite at Lake Malawi
We arrived in Salima at Lake Malawi at the Steps Campsite around 6:45. It was dark which is always a terrible time to arrive at a campsite because you have to set up the tent, arrange bags, cook dinner, and find the loo in the dark. It was windy, and we could hear the lake rather than see it. But we had no trouble finding the bar. The local beer – Carlsburg – was less than $1 each so we were happy. The bar closed at 11:00, so we plugged in the laptop and played MP3s until 1:00. Then I went to bed and the Aussies went swimming.
Brenden and Jason, Lake Malawi bartenders