I had just arrived to Lilongwe the capital of Malawi after a 36 hour bus ride from Mozambique, on a local African bus, that was falling apart, overcrowded, and had no cushioning on the seats. Not to mention, I was one of the lucky ones to get stuck sitting in the middle on one of the fold out chairs, that literally only went half way up my back.
My back has ever been that sore in my entire life, no exaggeration. I could barely walk after that.
I hadn’t taken any money out of the bank before the journey, as I just figured I would withdraw some once I arrived to Lilongwe. No big deal right?! Upon arrival it took everything I had in me to gain feeling in my body again, and struggle to get off the bus, as I think I was on the verge of being paralyzed. To this day, I don’t think stretching has never felt so darn good or so darn bad at the exact same time.
‘Hello Malawi!’. I was still pretty excited to be there. A new destination to be explored, and adventures to be had.
With my backpack and massage table in tow I took off in search of a bank. I only had about the equivalent of $30 on me, which doesn’t get you far when everyone you meet keeps ripping you off.
Right away a local guy came and picked up my massage table without asking, and started carrying it away. I began following him, he seemed to know I was en route to the bus into town and headed in that direction. As soon as we got to the bus, the guy puts my table down and tells me I have to give him a certain amount of money, and it was a a very large chunk out of what I had, much more then what a tip should be for such a short walk.
I was extremely sore and tired from the journey though, and I didn’t have it in me to argue or barter, so I just gave him what he asked for and got on the bus.
After forking over another good chunk of what I had left for the bus ride(which I found out later I was once again totally ripped off), I finally get off in town.
It was ridiculously hot, and I needed a shower badly, can you say 38 hour bus ride through extreme heat?! And I was wearing jeans(need longs to protect from malaria on bus rides), and melting, especially with also carrying all my luggage which consisted of a 70 liter backpack, a 25 pound massage table, and another hand held bag.
Yes, you could say my clothes were sticking to me, and yes, it felt awful, and I know it was not one of my most attractive moments. Thank goodness for a bit of perfume! Although that didn’t mask my greasy look.
Needing a break from carrying enough stuff for a mule and profusely sweating, I ended up asking a security guard at a property if I could leave my massage table with him while I went on my mission to find a bank to which he kindly obliged. YES! that was a big load off my shoulders. Literally! My 70 litre backpack never felt so light.
First bank I came across I was so happy to find, and it didn’t work with my card… ‘That sucks’ I thought. But ok, ‘Let’s find another one shall we?’…. Second bank, and once again, it doesn’t work with my card. Alright then, no need to worry I told myself, third time’s a charm. Or so they say, and this time it wasn’t so charming.
Yes, once again, the bank didn’t work with my card. Malawi was definitely giving me a warm welcome, especially in my worn out condition. However gotta keep going! So I decided I would grab the bus and go back to the Lilongwe where there was the closest thing to a hostel that existed, and it would give me a chance to reassess the situation I was faced with. Off I went to collect my table, and tip the guard as much as I could afford(especially since he didn’t ask for anything), as my means were almost out.
Just as I was getting money out for the security guard, two local guys once come and just grabbed my table and the small bag and start carrying them off back towards the bus. They were watching me since I had arrived and knew exactly where I was heading.
Having learned my lesson previous to the last bus ride, ‘that this help is not free’, I began running after them telling them to ‘Stop’, as at this point I didn’t have money to give them, I didn’t even have enough for myself.
They just kept on going, and didn’t pay me any attention at all. As soon as they put my stuff down, they turn around and tell me they want 1000 Kwacha, so 500 each. ‘What?’ I say… ‘I cannot give you that, because it’s all I have to my name and I did not ask you to carry my bags, in fact I was running after you telling you to stop’.
They didn’t speak English, so it escalated quickly, and they started getting really angry with me. I was trying to explain, I literally only have 1000 Kwacha to my name at the moment. However that was getting me nowhere, as they could not understand a word I was saying.
Suddenly people in the streets started to crowd around and ask what’s going on.. I am now super stressed at this point, and even more extremely exhausted from the long and painful trip up from Mozambique. I once again start explaining my situation to the English speakers that arrived. I explained how I did not ask for their service, I was telling them to stop and they wouldn’t listen, that I have no money, other then my only 1000 kwacha, and I had no idea what I was going to do.
The people then said, ‘So what are you saying? You want to break the 1000 Kwacha bill and give them 500 each?’. ‘No’, I responded, ‘I am saying it is all I have, I can’t access any more money’. At this point I am pulling everything out of my purse to show everyone crowded around how empty my wallet is and that it really is ALL I have….
Well suddenly everyone was yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand, I was alone, exhausted, and now at my breaking point. It was getting a bit crazy, and suddenly a few tears of stress rolled down my face, and I started saying and yelling ‘Give me my stuff! Take if off the bus!’. As if I actually had another plan. I probably would have just sat in the street and cried for awhile till I formed another plan of action.
Well as soon as those tears came out, a few of the locals started pushing everyone away from me and yelling, ‘Get away from her, the white girl is crying, leave her alone!’. At which point I was escorted onto the bus.
As I was sitting by the window, trying to comprehend what just happened and get my baring’s, a women came up to the window and said, ‘Excuse me miss’, I turned and looked at her and she continued, ‘I am very sorry about my people’.
When I looked in her eyes I could see the sincerity, and instantly felt a calming feeling come over me. To which I lovingly gazed back and responded, ‘Thank you, but please don’t say it’s your people, it’s not your people, we are all just people, and it’s simply an unfortunate situation’.
It was when I paid the gentlemen on this bus ride going back, that I seen how bad I had been ripped off on my way there.
By time we arrived, I was all dusted off and ready to continue my mission. So off I went to the hostel, to see if I can figure something out, and perhaps they would give me a bed or a locker while I sorted my financial situation. That didn’t happen though, they told me they will not give me a bed until I get my money situation sorted.
Alright, off I go again, with almost no energy left in me. I came across the swanky Protea Hotel. I thought to myself, ‘Ok, it’s going to be pricey, but I bet there they accept cards’, as a that time not many places did and I was running out of options, at least even if it’s a splurge it will buy me a day to figure out how I will access my money.
I walk up to the counter, I am told its $250US a night…. What other choice did I have at the moment, so I give my card, only to be told, they can’t accept it?! Are you kidding me?
Yes that’s right, it’s a travel visa, so the numbers are printed on the card, not embedded, and well, this is Africa! They only have the old machine to take an imprint of the card, not an electronic machine. ‘ This seriously is not my day!’ I was thinking. As per always, I managed to keep a smile on my face, and I ask the women at the counter if I can book online, and she responded ‘No, its not possible’.
‘Can I please speak to the manager?’ I asked. I tell him my situation, and ask if he can just let me check in and I will get some money sent through Western Union to me from Canada with no problem at all. ‘Nope’. Is exactly what he said. But, he will let me make a phone call… Alright I call my mom in Canada. I was getting desperate at this point, and I tell her my situation. Of course as I am stressed and a bit scared now, I start telling her the fact of the matter. It’s going to be dark soon, and I am on the verge of being stuck in the streets of Malawi, with all my stuff, it;s not going to be a safe situation, and nobody will help me. Well yes, a lesson I learned a few times in my life is, ‘Don’t tell your mother all the exact details when your doing a solo trip across Africa!!’ Obviously, its going to freak her right out.
With my mom having said she was going to western union straight away, relief came over me. Problem was, it was getting close to 5 at this point, that’s when western union closes, and its only getting close to 9am back in Canada, and that is what time western union in my town opened up. This was also before you could do online transfers. Africa is behind the times a bit.
My mom was hoping someone would be in the shop early to help her out. So I ran to the Western Union office, and the women whom were working there kept checking and checking for my transfer. Nothing. They stayed open till 5:30 for me.
Finally they said, that they have no choice but to shut, and they are so sorry. Well that was the cherry on top of the cake and the tip of my emotional breaking point again. It’s now getting dark, and its definitely not safe for me to be in the streets at night, not to mention, alone, and with all my belongings. I was absolutely losing hope at that point, and stressful, scared tears streamed down my face.
One of the women came over and hugged me, and asked how much a room was. I told her at the hostel its 1100 Kwacha a night. It might be a cheap hostel to a backpacker, but for a local women in Malawi, that is half of her month’s salary. With no hesitation, she says, ‘she will give me the money’.
Suddenly she took on the appearance of an Angel! My eyes opened in astonishment, gratitude and bit of disbelief. I was so beyond thankful, words can’t express my gratitude. I promised her I would give her the 1100 and even more then that back the next day. She just kept repeating, ‘don’t worry, just take care of yourself’.
Finally, I arrived back to the hostel, got a bed, and was thinking after all that, I could really use a good stiff drink. My nerves where shot., but I still had no money. I only had enough for the bed.
I began chatting with the other travelers in my dorm room, and I was telling them the tale of my crazy roller coaster ride of a day. Everyone was shocked and felt so bad for me, they all wanted to buy me a drink. Winning! And off we went to the hostel bar, where everyone was treating me, we were laughing, and having the best party ever.
A little later on, I was sitting at the bar having a chat with this guy, whom was also an avid world traveler. As we were having a chat about the events of my day, he got up to go to the washroom, and on his return, he sits down and pulls out a wad of Kwacha with a clip on it and holds it out to me. It’s maybe the equivalent of $40, which is a lot when you are backpacking, and a lot in the local currency, so it really is a wad of cash. I automatically say, ‘No, no, no, I can’t take your money.’
He looked at me and said, ‘Listen, I have been travelling a long time too, and I know what it’s like when you run into these unforeseen situations. I will most likely never see you again, and I don’t want anything given back for it. I simply want you to have this, so that at the very least you have something.’ And he put it in my hand.
We finished our beer, and he got up and left.
We did not exchange details, and never seen him again. I was blown away and completely touched by his selfless act. It is something I will never forget. That man must have had some good Karma in his court.
After all these incredible and heartfelt events taking place, and me back to loving life, I suddenly remembered, ‘Oh no! I forget to call my mom!?’ Everything just happened so fast, and I went from having the worst day to the best day, and I was now having the time of my life with all my new friends. The last thing my mom heard from me was that I was scared, penniless, and on the verge of having to fight for my life in the streets of Malawi.
So I borrowed a phone to call her. ;OMG, Petrena!! Where are you?!’ she screeched. ‘I have the people from the Protea hotel driving all over the place looking for you!?’ Clearly she was completely panic stricken, and yet you could hear the reassured thankfulness in her voice to hear me alive. Oops.
‘I am Ok, actually I am better then ok, I am doing freaken amazing’ I tell her. ‘You wouldn’t believe all the incredible things that happened to me!’ I exclaimed. Well yes my mothers sigh of relief was so big you could feel it, not just hear it.
One frantic and very upset mothers email to the Protea’s head office in South Africa, tearing them apart for thinking it’s alright to leave a foreign young women stranded in the streets, and giving false information about the ability to book online(when in fact you could book and pay online), was enough to get some quick action out of them.
After an incredible night with all my new friends in the hostel the hotel concierge picked me up the next day for a night in the hotel, and the general manager met with me in his office and he profusely apologized, and showed me the email my mom had sent to the office.
Yes I could see why he was so apologetic. Her motherly instinct, and direct wording, sure got things done.
My poor mother, the scares I have put her through on my solo travels. Not going to lie, one night of luxury and a comfy bed was a ‘huge unexpected treat‘ after hitchhiking, crazy bus rides, sleeping on dirt floors in rural villages, and that painful almost unbearable bus trip from Mozambique. Knowing I still had a long way to go, it was a super rejuvenating evening.
I finally got my financial situation sorted, and I went back to Western Union so I could repay that Angel of a women double what she had given me. Now she was the incredibly thankful one, it was amazing how her eyes lit up.
Yet she did more for me then she will ever know. She saved me when my last bit of hope was lost. She was the propeller for all the incredible events that followed.
To top it all off, after I left Western Union, a women approached me in the streets and starting telling me a sad story of how she needed this medicine and didn’t have money for it. I felt so bad, and so decided to give her the money. She kept raising the price of the medicine and in the end I gave her 2000 Kwatcha. Little did I know, that is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Ripped off once again. That was fine though. Another lesson learned.
In reality, what is wealth if not to be shared, and I had so many people share with me by that point, I was happy to give.
No matter what happens in life, if you make it through the worst, most hopeless moments of despair, and those moments where your suddenly feeling more alone then ever with you head held high and a positive outlook with a mindset to succeed and make it work – the moments to follow, are always unbelievable, unimaginable, and unforgettable. More then you could ever believe they would be.
Through all this, when I think back to the events that took place, it is not the hardships of that day that stand out in my mind. What I remember when I think back to that day, is the incredible kindness that was shown to me by some beautiful strangers in Malawi.