I had just arrived to Lilongwe the capital of Malawi, after a 36 hour bus ride from Mozambique, on a real 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 only went half way up my back. My back has ever been that sore in my life, no exaggeration, I could barely walk after that. I didn’t take any money out of the bank before the journey, as I just figured I would withdraw some once I arrived to Lilongwe. Upon arrival it took everything I had in me to struggle to get off the bus, as I think I was on the verge of being paralyzed, stretching has never felt so darn good or so darn bad at the same time.
‘Hello Malawi!’. 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 started carrying my massage table without asking, and so I began following him as we head towards the bus that will take me to town, as soon as we get 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 big chunk out of what I had, but I was extremely sore and tired from the journey, didn’t not have it in me to argue or barter, so I just gave him what he asked for. Then after being totally overcharged for the bus ride(which I didn’t know until later, but knew it was super pricey), I finally get off in town. It was ridiculously hot, and I needed a shower, and I was wearing jeans, and melting, especially with all my baggage. Yah 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. 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. YES! that’s a big load off my shoulders. Literally! My 70 litre backpack never felt so light.
First bank I was so happy to find, didn’t work with my card… that sucks! But ok, ‘Let’s find another one shall we’ I thought…. Second bank, and once again, it doesn’t work with my card. Alright then, no need to worry, 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 come and just grab my table and a small bag and just start carrying my stuff back towards the bus. They were watching me since I had got there and new 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 I didn’t have money to give them, I don’t even have enough for myself. They just kept on going, and didn’t listen to me 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 was telling you to stop.’ They didn’t speak English, and so it escalated quickly, and they started getting really angry with me, and I was just trying to explain, I literally only have 1000 Kwacha. Suddenly people in the streets start to crowd around, and ask what’s going on.. I am now super stressed, and exhausted from the long and painful trip up from Mozambique. I once again start explaining my situation, and saying how I was telling them to stop and they wouldn’t listen, and that I have no money, only 1000 kwacha, and I don’t know what I am going to do. Then the people 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 money’. At this point I am pulling everything out of my purse to show everyone crowded around that it is ALL I have…. Well suddenly everyone was yelling at me, and it was getting a bit crazy, and so a few tears of stress left my eyes, and in a very strong and stressed manner I started saying ‘Give me my stuff! Take if off the bus!’. Well as soon as those tears came out, a few of the locals started pushing everyone away from me and saying, ‘Get away from her, the white girl is crying, leave her alone!’. Then I was escorted onto the bus, and as I was sitting by the window, just trying to comprehend what just happened and get my baring’s, a women comes up to the window and says, ‘Excuse me miss’, I turned and looked at her and she continued, ‘I am sorry about my people’. The way in which she said was so heartfelt and calming. My response was, ‘Thank you, but please don’t say it’s your people, it’s not your people, it’s just 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.
So off I went to the hostel, to see if I can figure something out, but they told me they will not give me a bed until I get my bank situation sorted. Alright, off I go again, now I see the swanky Protea Hotel. I think, 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 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 $250 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?! Yup, it’s a travel visa, so the numbers are printed on the card, not imbedded, and well, this is Africa! They only have the old machine to take an imprint of the card, not an electronic machine. ‘ This is not my day!’ I was thinking, but I managed to keep a smile and I ask the women if I can book online, and she said ‘No, its not possible’. ‘Can I please speak to the manager?’ I asked. Yup, 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, 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 tell her my situation, and of course as I am stressed and a bit scared now, I start telling her how its going to be dark soon, and I am on the verge of being stuck in the African streets with all my stuff, and it is not going to be a safe situation, and nobody will help me. Well yah, a lesson I learned a few times in my life is, ‘Don’t tell your mother all the 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 ASAP 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 opens. My mom was hoping someone would be in the shop early. So I ran to the office, and the women working there kept checking and checking for my transfer. Nothing. They even stayed open till 5:30 for me. Finally they say, that they have to shut, and they are so sorry. Well that was the cherry on top of the cake and my emotional breaking point again. It’s 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. So yes I was absolutely losing hope at that point, and tears of stress streamed down my face. One of these beautiful women came 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. But she says, that she will give me the money. ‘AMAZING, she completely saved me’ I thought. I was so beyond thankful, words couldn’t express my gratitude, and I promised her I would give her even more then that back the next day.
Finally, I got to the hostel, got a bed, and was thinking after all that, I could really use a good stiff drink. I am chatting with the other travellers in my dorm room, and I am telling them my crazy rollercoaster ride of a day, and everyone can’t believe it, so they all want to buy me a drink, and off we went to the hostel bar, where everyone was treating me, and we were having such an awesome time. A little later on I was sitting at the bar having a chat with this guy, whom was also an avid world traveller, we are having a chat about the events of my day, he got up to go to the washroom, and on his return, he 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. I automatically say, ‘No, I can’t take your money.’ He looks at me and says, ‘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 back, I simply want you to have this, so at least you have something.’ And after we finished our beer, he got up and left. And I never seen him again. I was blown away and touched by his selfless act, beautifully unforgettable.
After all these ‘more then I could have imagined events’ taking place throughout the evening, I remembered, Oh no! I forget to call my mom!?’ Everything just happened so fast, and then I was having the time of my life with all my new friends, and 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 African streets. So I borrowed a phone to call her. “OMG, Petrena!! Where are you?! I have the people from the Protea hotel driving all over the place looking for you!?’ Clearly completely panic stricken, yet you could hear the reassured thankfulness in her voice to hear me alive. Oops. ‘I am ok, actually I am doing freaken amazing, 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 upset mothers email to the Protea’s head office in South Africa about them thinking it’s ok to leave a foreign young women stranded in the streets, and then her finding out that you can book online when the women at the check in told me I couldn’t, was enough to get some quick action out of them. And after in 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. Yah,I could see why he was so apologetic, ‘Ooooo, yes my mom was definitely scared and angry’, nothing like motherly instinct kicking in, but it got stuff done. My poor mother, the things I have put her through on my travels(I really do love you). Not going to lie, 1 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, and knowing I still had a long way to go, it was a super rejuvenating evening.
I finally got my financial situation sorted, and 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. Yet she saved me when my last bit of hope was lost, so it was the least I could do. No matter what happens in life, if you make it through the worst, most hopeless moments, and those moments where your suddenly feeling more alone then ever, the moments that follow, are always unbelievable, unimaginable, and unforgettable. 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.