After a month travelling in Africa my husband, Doug and I felt we'd become fairly well acquainted with the public transport system in Malawi. It was a little bumpy, a tad on the crowded side, but when it got us from A to B we relished our achievement. There was one bus ride in particular however that required every travel-tolerance bean from our body. On the map it didn't look very far, so I dismissed the Lonely Planet's timings and recalculated optimistically. You’d have thought I’d have known better, this was Africa after all.
The day began well. For the first leg of the journey we bartered with a driver to take us in his sizeable car, revelling in oodles of space that being his first customers afforded us. It was not to last. Within minutes, we had pulled over a dozen times and the family-size car now held sixteen adults, one baby, two big backpacks, a sack of potatoes and a bicycle.
Sitting on the curb of the bus station I waited patiently, watching the bold printed tagline of the AXA buses proudly proclaiming themselves “punctual, reliable and friendly” as they slid past my eyes. Doug ran a desperate mission back and forth to the ATM, blighted by power cuts and lack of cash, he eventually managed to withdraw money on the third attempt. At some unstated hour, a bus pulled into the station and shuffling began amongst the expectant crowd around us. To say this bus was full would be an understatement. People burst out of the door well, distorted bodies pressed their contorted-selves against the windows, desperate passengers tried in vain to catch a breath of air, beads of sweat dripping down their foreheads and the luggage hold – held shut by a single piece of string - bulged precariously.
“Monkey Bay?” we asked a local girl next to us, “yes!” she smiled back enthusiastically, unfazed by the human sardine can before us . This was the only bus to our destination that day and there was not one ounce of room for us. Or so we thought. Invited to board, we watched in utter disbelief as twenty-or-so waiting companions wedged their way on. We had no option but to resign ourselves to the journey ahead and copy. Squeezing with all our might - wood carvings, backpacks and all – we wedged ourselves firmly into the throng of people in the aisle. I spent a fraught first hour of the journey gripping tightly to Doug whilst doing my best flamingo impression by balancing on one foot (there was no room to put the other leg down). Random crotches rubbed against my back, much to the delight of their owners whilst at my front a baby's head banged repeatedly against my stomach as it hung sleepily from its mother’s sling. Helping someone pass their bag to the front, a suspicious fish-scented juice leaked all over my hand, its smell lingering all afternoon.
Hours lolled by, a chicken squawked from under a seat, babies gawped and pointed their tiny fingers in disbelief at the absurd-looking white people, before growing bored of us and picking up their mother’s breast to feed. As a treat they were given a husk of a corn to nibble on, purchased from a seller through the window and astonishingly, barely did we hear a squeak out of them for the entire lengthy journey. A group of teenagers, eyeing a meer cat that had seen happier days (it was now fashioned into a hat, its tail forced up in the air for eternity) bought its now stuffed-self and took turns in adorning their heads with it.
As the crowd slowly diminished, we managed to secure an earphone each from Doug’s iPhone to while away the time. Hot, tired and stinky, we rolled into Monkey Bay in the dwindling hours of the day, relief lifting our hearts. Until we realised we were stranded. An animated young man nipped at our heels, attempting to flog us his taxi as we bought refreshments and planned our next move. Sensing an easy target - my longing to wash, drink gin and wash off the grub – his hounding persisted and we gave in, lolloped into the car exhausted, to be unashamedly ripped off. It may go down as the worst journey in my life, but it was also one of the most unforgettable, eye-opening experiences that I will continue to recount for the rest of my days.