This post is a little different. Instead of simply recaping the trip, I delve into the many obstacles that stood in my way and the difficulties in making decisions with imperfect information.
Part 1: March 14-15, 2019: Escape from Malawi
After an incredible three days climbing Mount Mulanje, I arrived at the Likhibula Forest Lodge with my friend Simone. There, we wrapped up all the logistics from the climb and prepared to take a taxi into Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city. From Blantyre, Simone would fly home to Lilongwe and I would take a minibus to the town of Zomba for my final two days in Malawi.
At the lodge, we ran into another tourist. This middle-aged man was from Denmark and, like most travelers in this part of the world, was on an epic 6-month trip around Africa. He showed me a weather radar map. In the ocean just off the coast of Mozambique was something that looked like a hurricane (technically they are called cyclones in this part of the world). With the right winds, that hurricane could slam right into Malawi. At this point, there was nothing to do. Still, I knew that research needed to be done.
The cab ride back to Blantyre took about two hours. Along the way, we noticed something that we couldn’t see in the darkness driving to Mulanje: hundreds of people camped on the side of the road. We were told that they were refugees fleeing last week’s floods.
Just outside of Blantyre, we got pulled over by the police in a roadblock. Unlike in developed countries where the police drive around in cars, the police here hang out in a group on the side of the road and pull vehicles over on foot. Then, they search the vehicles and determine if a fine needs to be paid. In reality, a fine aka bribe always has to be paid because the police are corrupt and have little if any accountability in this situation. These roadblocks are found all over Africa including Congo where I had quite the experience.
Our driver was cited for having a broken back brake light. After paying the fine, we continued on our way.
Simone lamented that she gets pulled over at least once a day. She believes that she gets pulled over because she is White and theoretically has money to pay a large bribe. She said that these experiences help her sympathize with African-Americans who are also treated unfairly by the police due to their skin color.
Two minutes later, we got stopped in another roadblock. This time, we were cited for speeding which made no sense because we were stuck in gridlock. The two fines were high enough that our taxi driver actually lost money on our trip.
We got dropped off at Doogals, the most popular backpacker hostel in town. The hostel has no website, but somehow has managed to stay in business for the last 20 years by word of mouth. Perhaps it was the poolside bar.
I tried to get on the WiFi to figure out my next move, but like most places in Malawi, it wasn’t working. Luckily, Simone had a local SIM card and let me borrow her phone. The first thing I checked was the weather. All of the weather forecasts called for heavy rain and wind on Saturday, the day I was scheduled to fly out. That meant that the storm, which I now learned had the name Tropical Cyclone Idai, was most likely heading for Malawi.
While people died in Malawi due to the heavy floods last week, I would probably be okay even if the storm hits Blantyre directly. That’s because the people that died were living mostly in wooden shacks and makeshift structures, whereas I was staying in a sturdy concrete building.
Realistically, the worst case scenario for me would be a few days of a power outage and a cancelled flight out of Malawi which would then cause me to miss the flight back to the US. I would have missed a few days of work and would be on the hook for the price of a last-minute ticket to LA – probably about $1,000-1,500. This was not something I wanted to experience, so I started to look at other options.
My pre-booked Saturday flight out from Malawi to Johannesburg was on South African Airlines. Unfortunately, they did not have any sooner flights so I could not try to change the flight. The only other option was Malawi Airlines. Using Simone’s phone, I booked the ticket online for the next day. For some reason, they would not accept credit card payments online. The fine print said I had to pay at the airline’s offices at least two hours before my flight. Because my flight left in the morning less than two hours after the office opened (smart planning), I foresaw problems trying to pay at the airport. Something I have learned in my travels is to assume that rules must be followed exactly and that exceptions cannot be made. I have seen someone get charged an extra night in an Indian hotel for checking out 3 minutes late.
After calling the airline’s national offices, I learned that I could pay at a satellite office in downtown Blantyre at an address I couldn’t look up. Even though it was supposedly only 800 yards away, I took a taxi to avoid getting lost. On the way, we got stopped in another police roadblock. While the officer was determining what to fine us for, a real traffic accident occurred on the other side of the road. Seeing that there was something actually important to do, the cop walked away and we dipped. We high fived each other and flipped off the officer in the rear view mirror. “Fuck the police” my driver said as we sped off.
Once at the Malawi Airlines office, I paid the steep $260 for the flight (actually a low fare for this route). The airline actually accepted credit cards (a rarity in Malawi) and was very easy to work with. My suspicions were also confirmed- the airline would have cancelled my ticket had I shown up at the airport the next day.
Now that my escape was planned, I could relax and explore Blantyre for the rest of the day. I purchased a wooden mask, and soaked up the sights and sounds of the city. While I got a few taunts for being White, it was generally an enjoyable place to walk around. I really liked how lively Blantyre was- I saw thousands of people on the streets.
I walked by what must be the only traffic light in Malawi. Nobody was obeying the signal. Perhaps, the police officers should be there directing traffic instead of lining their pockets with money from honest motorists.
Back at the hostel, Simone arranged for us to go to a weekly spoken word event, which was recommended by her expat friends. The event was held at an art gallery. We got dinner there and ran into Caleb from our Mulanje hike. In addition, there was a 25-year old American-born hostel owner, an evacuated Peace Corps volunteer, and a German exchange student. We ended up getting into a discussion about bargaining. Caleb said that Americans tip too much and do not bargain. As a result, he believes these overly-nice habits wreck the cheap prices for the other more savvy travelers like himself. Simone, on the other hand, believes that a little bit of extra money saved by bargaining does a lot more good in the pockets of a Malawian than an American backpacker.
While I have not totally made up my mind, I would probably take Caleb’s side in this debate. While spending an extra dollar on something does help out the Malawian more, it really does create a culture where foreigners are viewed as walking money bags. The end result of this scenario is extremely high prices where few locals actually reap the benefits. Tanzania is a good example of this.
The next morning, I uneventfully flew out from Blantyre. It was hard to say goodbye to Malawi, but I knew the risks of staying. Interestingly, nobody else was aware of the storm. Either they knew something that I didn’t know or they had no way to look at weather forecasts.
Part 2: March 16, 2019: A Hectic Airport Experience
At this point, I had spent all my energy on getting out of Malawi and put no effort into how I would spend the next few days.
Once I landed in Johannesburg at 12:00 noon, I finally was able to get reliable WiFi. I sent a message to my parents alerting them of the change in plans and then set about figuring out what to do.
I narrowed my options down to two. Option 1 was to take a bus to Swaziland. Option 2 was to take the Gautrain to Pretoria and spend time both there and in Johannesburg. The lure of visiting a new country was strong and I figured it would be worth it if I could pull off the logistics.
After doing some research, I discovered that there is a direct shuttle service from the Johannesburg to Swaziland. Bookings cannot be made immediately online, so I sent out an email request.
While waiting for a response, I had a few things to sort out. First, the airline broke my engraved walking stick – a special souvenir from Malawi. In order to hopefully get them to fix my stick, I filed a claim with the airline which took about 30 minutes. They then set up a meeting with the airline’s supervisor, but he couldn’t meet with me until 1:15.
In the meantime, I withdrew $100 in cash from an ATM and purchased a power adaptor for South Africa- their plug is different from Malawi’s. I then received an email from the bus company. They had room to accommodate me on the 2pm bus. All I needed to do was to wire money to them or get someone to pay for me in Swaziland. Seeing that those options were impossible, I asked if I could pay in cash on the bus. No response.
At 1:15, I had my meeting with the airline’s local boss. He agreed to fix my stick by the time my flight left for the US on Saturday.
By 1:35, my meeting was done. I received my response from the bus company. They said I could pay in cash once we reached the office in Swaziland. The total fee would be $70. I now realized that my $100 in cash was probably not enough, since Swaziland might be a cash economy like Malawi. Having done no prior research I had no idea if credit cards would be accepted and figured cash would be the safer move.
I headed to an ATM to withdraw cash. My debit card got declined. I tried 3 other ATMs and a bank. All of them declined my card. They must have not liked my last minute change in plans. It was now 1:45 and I was panicking. Should I go to Swaziland and possibly run out of cash? I contemplated using my $200 emergency cash fund. “Does this qualify as an emergency?” I thought to myself. I tried to withdraw money from my credit cards, but couldn’t do it without a PIN.
It was now 1:55 and I still was panicking. I went online to my bank account. There, I saw the hold placed on my card and removed it. At this point, I knew I could find an ATM in Swaziland. It would all work out!
With 2 minutes to spare, I found the name of a hostel on Hostelworld and walked outside to catch the van to the Mbabane, Swaziland.
My worries all turned out to be for naught. The bus company and everywhere I went in Swaziland accepted credit cards. Swaziland is a wonderful place, by the way!
Tropical Cyclone Idai ended up not hitting Malawi and instead killed over 1,000 people in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It is considered the worst natural disaster to ever occur in the Southern Hemisphere.
While I would have been okay, I have no regrets behind my decision as I believe it was the right decision.
As a traveler, it is imperative to always envision the realistic worst case scenario. By realistic, I am talking about events that have a decent likelihood of happening. They vary from region to region, but can include getting robbed, travel delays, scams, having an accommodation cancel, or not being able to get money from an ATM. I do not mean things like a gigantic earthquake or a meteor which are possible but extremely unlikely and impossible to predict.
How bad is that worst case scenario? Are you prepared to deal with the consequences of that scenario? If not, what is the escape plan? These are things that you have to think about as a traveler- especially as a solo traveler or when in a developing country.
Another takeaway from these events are the importance of making decisions. Indecision can lead to missed opportunities or having decisions made by people who do not have your best interest in mind. Once you’ve made your decision, make sure that people hear and understand your decision. Be loud, be obnoxious, and do not stop until you get your way. When language barriers are a factor, emotions and body language speak loudly.