Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dave the Criminal?

(This was written by Dave with Sarah’s comments added in parenthesis.)

This past weekend, we traveled to Dedza, a small town a few hours northwest of Blantyre. The town is well-known for a pottery factory on the outskirts of town. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, the shop sells “garishly kitsch ceramic products aimed squarely at the expat and tourist market.” Some things were as Lonely Planet described them, but some of it was cute and most of it was nice. We planned to go for the day, browse the pottery and return home that evening.

But, it was travel in Africa as usual. (Nothing ever goes as planned and I should have known better than trying to go so far - over 200km - and come back by public means in one day. With the express bus, though, in the morning and afternoon, it sounded possible. Knowing how it could be, though, we took a few essentials in case we spent the night.)

The first mishap of the day was missing the so-called express bus at 7:00 am that morning. It filled up before we or the other students traveling with us arrived at the bus station. So, we had to take the slower, later bus. We didn’t leave until 8:00. That in itself made it unlikely that we would be returning to Blantyre the same day.

I enjoyed getting out of the hospital and seeing a bit more of Malawi than the road between the guesthouse and the hospital. The bus traveled through the outskirts of Blantyre on its way north, and we were able to see the change in housing from the rich suburbs to the ‘more densely populated areas.’ (When I asked Dr. Taylor last week if there were slums in Blantyre, she said that there were more densely populated urban areas. It was definitely that..)

Soon enough, however, we were traveling through the Malawian countryside and enjoying the views of lush green maize fields up and down the hillsides. And then we came to the major stop in the trip.

We crossed a river and then pulled aside for what seemed at first a pit-stop for the driver and anyone else who wanted to risk getting off the bus and not getting back on before it decided to leave. When the bus stopped, there was some commotion near the door of the bus (which was a little way from where we were sitting) but as it was all in Chichewa, we couldn’t understand what was going on. After a little bit, nearly everyone had started to leave the bus. The other students decided to get off as well, but as I didn’t need a break, I stayed on the bus to watch the bags the others were leaving behind (I told him to stay, since several of the girls left all their stuff on the bus – a bit risky). As far as I knew, no one had to get off the bus. (After getting off, we asked someone who said that it was a security check and everyone had to get off, but while two of us went to the restroom, no one went back to tell Dave to get off the bus.) So, after a few minutes of diligently watching the bags, I suddenly notice that besides the police officer now on the bus, I was the only adult on the bus. When his partner got on and saw me, he immediately demanded to know where I was from and then to see my passport. As I’ve never traveled within a country with my passport before, and no one had warned us to do so, I hadn’t thought to bring it with me when we packed in the morning. Since I didn’t have it, this officer was out to prove that I was in Malawi illegally and said I was to be detained indefinitely until my passport arrived (in those words). He asked who I was with, and, not wanting to involve the other students if necessary, I simply said “my wife.” So he looked out the window and promptly called one of the other students on board and demanded her passport. Then he called a few others on board, only two of the four or five of us there had a passport.

They asked us all to get off the bus and escorted us over to the police station. (I was outside coming back to the bus, and saw Dave being escorted off the bus by the police and heard them discussing with the police officer. I went over to ask and see if I could help, and they found out that I too didn’t have my passport). At this point we were calling our prof in Blantyre and asking for help. At the same time, one of the students began fervently negotiating with the officer in charge. She had a passport, said that we were working at Queen Elizabeth in Blantyre. With that information we were all let off based on her passport and story. And, as we looked out the window, we saw the bus pulling away without us on it. (I was inside the station with her – there it was like it was no big deal. The officer in charge didn’t say much, but when she explained what we were doing, he told us we could go. I did overhear a bit of the other officer talking with the professor on the phone. When she told him that she had lived in Malawi for 20 years and had NEVER heard of such a thing, he told her to “check the Malawi consitution” in a rather rude way. He was actually the only not nice person we’ve met so far, so don’t get bad ideas about Malawians.)

We were forced to wait for another bus and pay another fare to get to Dedza. This was probably an even slower bus, and we had to stand in the aisle most of the rest of the way. So, everyone was a bit on edge when we arrived in Dedza, at about the time we had originally planned to be leaving Dedza (5 of us had planned to come back; 3 were planning to stay the night).

In all, the trip was nice. (It was a fabulous adventure!) We did end up enjoying our time in Dedza. The food they had was very good (VERY good, including cheesecake and fabulous coffee). They were able to take many forms of currency, so despite leaving without much kwacha (the local currency – isn’t it a great name?), we were still able to pay for our late lunch, dinner, room for the night, and the pottery that we shipped from there back home. On Sunday morning we went for a hike in the rain with three of the other students. It was lots of fun and we got a great view of the surrounding small villages and farms. (It was GORGEOUS – if I find a place where I can upload online, I’ll post a picture or two.)

The trip home was uneventful except in that we started waiting for the Blantyre-bound bus at about 1:45 and it showed at about 3:30. That bit of time was stressful because we had very little assurance that any of our information was correct about when and if another bus was coming that day. (This is where having been in Africa for a while was helpful – I knew something would come and that we’d all get home.) The bus that did come was the same one we had left Blantyre on the other day. (When we got on, the conductor asked us how the rest of the previous day had been. I explained how we had gotten there and how we had to pay twice. I started to ask if we could give us a discount for the return trip since we’d already paid once and only used a fraction, but another student cut in while he was considering it and said that it was silly, so he didn’t have a chance to give it to us. That’s actually happened several times, but that’s another story.) It was fairly obvious to identify. It is the only bus I’ve ever seen where the front is a semi-truck and the trailer is the portion that is the bus. It was an odd thing to ride in, but the driver was good and safe (especially after dark – I always pay close attention to how the drivers drive.)

So, Sarah’s going to add some comments later, and then post this bear of a story… Otherwise, the rotation is going well; in terms of structure and responsibility, it is very similar to a rotation in the US. In terms of diseases it is very different.

I’m all done now and going to bed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Finally we get the details on the police story! It makes a good story and one to laugh at a bit, but I imagine there were a few tense moments as the events were unfolding. I'm glad that all turned out well and that the only thing that came of it was that you were delayed in getting to Dedza! We'll probably carry our passports when we travel outside Blantyre - we're too old for all that excitement. :)

Loved reading all your recent blog entries - THANKS!

Mom Halter