It was a 9-hour bus ride from Dar es Salaam to the southern border town of Mtwara in Tanzania. Somewhat stupidly, probably from my becoming a bit laxed after crossing too many land borders, I took it for granted that the Mozambican immigrations at the Tanzania-Mozambique border would issue visas upon arrival, as was the case with most other border entries for Mozambique. On the day of the intended crossing, I woke up before sunrise to board the pick-up truck heading for the border, my spirits couldn’t get higher with images of the beautiful shoreline of Mozambique playing in my head along the way. Thereafter my high immediately fell to a low when everyone at the Tanzanian immigrations stared at me with eyeballs popping out, “What??? You don’t have a visa? You cannot get a visa there on the other side!”
Struck by the bad news but still only half awake early in the morning, my mind was a muddle. A thousand thoughts went through my head but nothing was coherent. I inquired about other possibilities, “Maybe I can pay an extra fee (i.e. baksheesh) to the immigration officials in order to get my way through?” “Maybe they would stamp me in and I could perform the formalities later after entering the country?” – to which the Tanzanian immigrations bluntly replied, “Nope, we cannot stamp you out.” I was desperate to get back into town to plan for my next steps but for at least the next few hours, I would be stuck there in the middle of nowhere – no car would head back to the nearest town until they were full with passengers and goods arriving from Mozambique.
In an attempt to cheer up my disturbed mood, the driver kindly invited me to join him to the Rovuma River, the actual border between the two countries, to pick up new passengers. Rovuma River – I remember reading that the river was home to crocodiles and hippos and the only transport available to cross the river was via dugout canoe – rounded up by the warning: Cross at your own risk. But when I got there, it was a totally different scene. The time being dry season, the water level was so low that everyone was crossing the river on foot.
After making some further inquiries back in town, I was left with yet more options:
(1) I could apply for a Mozambique visa at the embassy in Dar es Salaam but it would take 5 working days – to be honest, I really didn’t feel like sticking around in Dar anymore after leaving Zanzibar, and doing the same bus journey along the same road for two more times.
(2) I could take a flight from Mtwara to Dar to Maputo to Pemba (already the most direct flight available), as visas are issued in all airports upon arrival. This meant that I would have to break the overland rule which I had been abiding by since February of last year, and also that I would have to take three flights to travel merely 200 km, at a cost enough for me to purchase a ticket back to Hong Kong from Africa.
(3) I could first go to Malawi, which I wouldn’t need a visa for, then enter Mozambique from there. Visas were issued at the borders between Malawi and Mozambique and even if that turned out not to be the case, the Mozambique embassies in Malawi were able to issue a visa within a day. I could get to the Malawi border via two ways:
(a) I could take the same bus back to Dar and then catch a train from there to the Malawi border; or
(b) to avoid backtracking, I could also take the mountain route along the southern Tanzanian border, but traffic was next to nothing along that route – I either had to have my own car or I would probably have wait for days for connecting transport.
(4) Screw Mozambique!
As there would be a train leaving from Dar after two days, at the end, I chose option (3)(a), and backtracked to Dar along the same road for another 9 bloody hours, followed by another 26 hours on a train to Mbeya. On the positive side, the train passed through three national parks, and I was able to see some giraffes, impalas and elephants along the way, although I was assigned into a breastfeeding mamas cabin, and the whole night was filled with the sound of babies crying and children screaming.
Sweet mama who called me her ‘lovely daughter’, after I helped peel her peas.
The railway actually went all the way to Zambia, and was built by the Chinese government – as evident from all the propaganda pasted on the walls of the train station.
Never encountered such perfect timing. By the time I arrived in Nkhata Bay in Malawi, the weekly Ilala cargo/passenger ferry, crossing Malawi Lake from north to south all the way to Monkey Bay, was about to leave in a few hours. Before I could even sit down and take a deep breath, I had to be on the move again – by the time I got off the ferry, I was on the move for 9 days out of the past 11 days – including 3 days on board the aging ferry bouncing through rough waters, one day delayed from the original schedule of two days. And, ahem… 8 days without a shower.
After the tiresome journey, the lake shores of Lake Malawi could not be more beautiful and relaxing. As I entered the hostel in Monkey Bay, I was warmly greeted “Welcome to paradise!” Cliché, but so true in my context.
Without the suffering, how would one learn to truly appreciate the happiness and feel it from deep within? I’d rather live a life which I could feel, even if it means I would have to live through it on a rollercoaster.