This entry could have easily been called TIA (This is Africa) Part II, but WWJD seemed more appropriate. While as you will see, God does make his way into this story, the ‘J’ in this WWJD stands for Jon (not Jesus). Perhaps because my first real travel experience (and many to follow) was with Jon or because we manage to have crazy adventures without ever stepping onto foreign soil or because he is my most loyal blog fan (sorry, Mom), he often comes to mind when I get myself in precarious situations. I wonder, ‘what would Jon do?’ Sometimes I take the path less traveled, as Jon always does…and other times I say, “oh, hell no” and stick with the tarmac. On Friday, I found myself thinking WWJD on more than one occasion, and consequently ended up back on the road with the man size potholes.
After the last epic trip to Mfuwe, I vowed never to return…at least on public transport. But one weekend in the smog of Lusaka made me anxious to find an alternative, especially with only two weekends left in the country. Since Petauke, the most recent and last site visit, was just four hours from Mfuwe, I decided to give it a second chance.
Finishing up my site visit in the morning, the first two hours of the journey were simple, as I hopped a bus to Chipata. However, the only option to get to Mfuwe from Chipata was on the back of a lorrie, filled to the rim with potatoes, beer and mattresses. WWJD? That one was easy…he would take a lift with the cargo.
Turns out I was not the only person with this plan. After an elongated period of packing (and actually the worst packing job I have ever seen, including a piece of rebar jutting out from the back, with the smallest piece of scrap plastic indicating it was there), twenty people appeared out of nowhere and started clambering to the top. It was the shit show of all shit shows. I ran to the truck, threw my remaining backpack to the top and someone how squeezed into the last remaining spot on the vehicle. Fortunate for me, this was on top of a mattress and not a sack of potatoes.
We didn’t even make it out of town before we were flagged by the police. All of the passengers were kicked to the side of the road and the vehicle was impounded for carrying passengers on a cargo truck and overloading (see video). On the side of the road, the other passengers and I debated what was to happen. Would the drivers pay the fine and come back for us? Would the vehicle be released? As nightfall crept closer, I decided action was necessary. WWJD? I conspired with two other local men I had been chatting with and we grabbed a hitch back into town and to the police station. We were informed the vehicle would not be released until morning and we should find a place to spend the night. With only two nights in Mfuwe, sleeping in Chipata was not an option--- I had to leave that night. The driver said that he did not have money to refund us until the morning and my new friends seemed to think the situation was helpless. However, still committed to reaching Mfuwe, I threatened to go in and tell the police and made it just a few feet away from the station door, when suddenly the money appeared. ‘But only money for the madam…’ So I had to once again put on the mean face and demand my new friends get refunded as well.
With our money and packs, we took off for the road, hoping to find a hitch. Unfortunately, it was already dark and no one seemed interested in picking up three strangers at this hour. A taxi driver did pull over and offered to take us to Mfuwe for 350,000 kwacha. Not an entirely bad deal since the 130 km dirt road drive was horrible, but the price was a little steep for the group and my budget would not allow me to make up the difference. However, we decided that if we could shove a few more passengers in the car, we would be set.
At this point the rest of the passengers were following our lead and making their way back to the police station. Two were willing to join our mission, but again we were faced with the task of refunds. The first man left his wife behind to collect the money in the morning (typical). However, the additional woman could not afford the taxi without her refund and she really needed the taxi ride because she had to be at work at 7am in Mfuwe the following morning.
Again my co-conspirators were ready to give up. WWJD? I quickly changed from enraged musungu to charming volunteer and made my way to a police officer. I asked to use the bathroom and as the officer escorted me, he asked how I was doing. At this point, I retold the story, tugging at the heartstrings. He fell for the bait and took on my case. Unfortunately, the driver wasn’t lying this time and really had no money until the morning (his boss had take the stash and ran). To everyone’s surprise, the policeman pulled out 40,000 kwacha to personally refund the woman, so she could get in the taxi with us. He said he would deal with getting the money from the driver in the morning. The entire group looked at me in shock...apparently policemen are typically as corrupt as the drivers and this was completely unheard of. We didn’t waste another moment and ran out the station, hugging and high-fiving, as we piled into the taxi.
The taxi driver drove like a maniac, and the music was blaring, but I didn’t care…we were going make it to Mfuwe! Two of the men only need transport to a village about halfway to Mfuwe. Three of us were left in the taxi. We only made it another 20 km, when the taxi driver began fighting with the two in the backseat. At first, I had no idea what was being said, but quickly deciphered that he was demanding more money. I looked at my cellphone…no service. I looked out the window…pitch black. Shit. WWJD?
I started out with reasoning. He wouldn’t reason. I resorted to yelling. He wouldn’t budge. (Side note: I have never yelled so loud and I even shook my fists). Then I tried to play on guilt…bringing his mother into the conversation. Finally, in a very dramatic finale I said, “In your mother’s eyes, in God’s eyes and in MY EYES…you are thief, a cheat, and a HORRIBLE person.” Then I got out of the car, took a picture of his license plate and said I was walking to Mfuwe, at which point I would report him to the police. The other two passengers looked at me in disbelief. I slung my bag over my shoulder, not knowing what I was really going to do…a huge lump growing in my throat. Within minutes the taxi was trailing me and the driver was pleading for me to get back in. We paid the original price and we sped off…the music once again blaring as we continued to Mfuwe. Ten minutes later, the taxi man had the audacity to ask if he could be my friend. After laughing uncontrollably for a few minutes (I was still calming myself down from the earlier episode), I took the opportunity to explain to him how friends treat each other. As it turned out he didn’t have a lot of friends (at least trustworthy ones) and was orphaned at a young age (which explained why the mother strategy was not effective). By the time we reached Mfuwe an hour later…I probably was the closest thing he had to a friend. And there is no doubt in my mind that Jon would have been too…
My friend, a safari guide in Mfuwe, not at all entertained by my stories, refused to let me take public transportation back to Lusaka on Sunday. He somehow organized a ‘resident rate’ ticket on the one plane leaving Sunday afternoon. And since I did not have to show ANY form of identification at the Mfuwe International Airport, no one seemed to know any better.
Although I love public transportation adventures, I was ecstatic to spend more time with the wildlife and take a one hour flight at the end of the day, instead of a 13 hour multi-leg bus ride.