With dawn still half an hour away, I crawled out from under the mosquito net and quickly got dressed. We had to regroup. The plan was to get some kwatcha out of a bank to change into US dollars, which we would need to bribe the Mozambique border guards. To achieve this I had to leave at 6am to travel to the nearest ATM at Mangochi, a 45 minute drive, to get back in time to try and cross the border again at 8am.
At 6am, the motorcycle rider I had booked for the trip didn’t turn up. After 45 minutes of frustrating frigging around I finally managed to organise a cab to the city and back for probably way too much money, but time was of the essence.
Up and over a mountain range in the breaking dawn, blue mist in the mountain shadows was mixing with wood smoke from the kitchen fires. Mangoes, bananas and baobabs. Villagers were stirring and the streets filling.
I was already nervous that we had stayed a night without a visa in Malawi, and now I was passing through African roadside police checks without a valid visa. They didn’t usually check wazungu, but I still wondered what a Malawi prison was like. I had heard stories of human faeces mixed into the nzhima. Gulp! I practiced some mindfulness exercises.
At the ATM, I nervously entered the card and prayed to hear the whirring roll of dispensing notes when I pressed enter. If this didn’t work, we really were in the poo. I would have to travel on to yet another town, another ATM, until I retrieved cash.
Yes, it worked! Back in the cab, The Pretenders song Brass in Pocket echoing in my brain, back to Chiponde, back to the room. Jules’s tooth was already feeling better thanks to the antibiotics. Yay! This time the three motorbikes booked to take us across no man’s land did turn up. We didn’t stop at the Malawi immigration office , which again surprised me. Straight on to the Mozambican immigration office.
They knew who we were when we arrived, but a burly army officer still wanted to search our bags again. At the army post at the front of the crossing, he ordered the three of us into his hut with our bags, but Sam just bounced off and sat in the shade of the building housing the immigration offices.
‘He is very rude.’
It was not something you wanted to hear an African soldier with a machine gun say.
‘He has special needs.’
‘Oh, I see. He is your son, yes?’
‘I am very sorry.’
‘That’s OK, he is a good boy.’
The officer eventually let us proceed down to the offices were. Jules and Sam sat on the cool tiled floor while I stood waiting at the counter. Nothing was happening in a rush, that was for sure. A junior official took umbrage at our floor sitting indulgence and ordered us out onto the verandah.
Waiting, waiting. We three sitting on the verandah, the motorbike riders sitting near the bikes with our packs strapped onto them, the officials on a circle of chairs at the other end of the verandah. Jules and I smiled as sweetly as possible at everyone. Eventually the ‘chief’ called me into his office.
After a few concerned looks at some pieces of paper, he raised his head and pointed a fat finger towards me. ‘Why did you not get your visa at the embassy?’
‘I had been told you could get it at the border, and I also read this on the Mozambique government website.’
‘Who told you this?’
‘Some friends who had got their visa at the border, and also I rang the embassy in Lilongwe the other day and they also said this to me.’
The former was true, the latter was not, but I thought it would improve my chances.
He ran his hand through his hair, shaking his head. He pointed his finger again.‘This will cost you 100 dollars, for each person!’
‘OK. I have this.’
It was an exorbitant rip-off, but I was prepared to wear it at this stage.
‘I have to check with my boss. This is not easy you know.’
He made a call on his mobile, speaking in Portuguese. Three times he mentioned a hundred dollars, and seemed worried. Eventually he hung up and spoke quickly and in an offhand manner to me. ‘The machine is broken, it is not possible. You have to go back.’
Bugger. It seemed he, his colleagues, and, of course, we all wanted us to be able to bribe him, but the broken machine, whatever it was, meant a visa could not be issued. The only person who seemed pleased was Sam, who realised there was a country off the travel itinerary.
Jules and I discussed our options. If we went all the way back to Lilongwe or south to Blantyre to get a visa, it would basically mean the whole of the next week Jules was with us would be spent in a bus, and it would be a tight fit to get to Pemba in time anyway. This was not what any of us wanted to do. The best thing would be to change Jules’s flight to be out of Lilongwe, abandon Mozambique and spend the week in Malawi. It was a softer option, but one immediately I felt more comfortable with. I needed to focus more on Sam, and less on travel. At least we saved $300 on visa fees and bribes.
We came back through Malawi customs.
‘Where did you spend last night?’
I sheepishly admitted we had stayed in Malawi without a visa. The customs officer gave me a wry smile and Sam and me each new one-month visa. Phew.
We completed the minibus trips of shame back to Lilongwe, the first of these an open truck with thirty people crammed in the back. Spilling into Mabuya Camp at 8pm, we had been travelling for 28 hours of the last 48. Three border crossing attempts in two days had failed. Minibus, truck, utility tray, motor bike, taxi and ambulance. We were exhausted, hungry, dehydrated and frazzled. Sam had actually handled all the hassle, the delays, the chaos better than Jules and me. Pizza and bed; tomorrow was another day.
The next day I read the front page of The Nation, the Malawian paper: Mozambican refugees were pouring across the border into Malawi as the rebel group Renamo were threatening to take over any northern district governments which were not appointed by themselves. Just as well it had proven impossible for us to go there.
Perhaps sometimes things happen for a reason.