(Dustin’s last post)
Over the last week or two in Zambia a low level theme had been brewing about how I was going to get home. The complication was that my flight left from Malawi, but we were ending our travels in Zambia. The obvious solution was from my to fly from Lusaka to Lilongwe, but that is easier said than done. There are two airlines with reasonable flights, on alternating days (which in total provides one flight per day). My flight from Lilongwe to Addis Ababa left at 2:30 on Saturday, which meant I should be at the airport around noon. The daily flight on Saturday arrived in the evening, so that meant I would need to leave a day early (Friday), spend the night in Malawi, then leave on Saturday. That sounds like a good idea, except that the operator of the flight, Air Malawi, apparently doesn’t like to sell airline tickets. We tried multiple times: through a British website (rejected because travel didn’t originate in Europe), through the Air Malawi website (failed because the website credit card entry was broken), though a travel agent in Petauke (failed because they couldn’t figure out how to contact the airline), and finally though Ben and Anna’s company travel agent (can’t book flights that don’t go through South Africa!). When we were finally able to get a competent travel agent in Livingstone, the ticket price had increased to $350, which didn’t even include the two airport taxis and overnight hotel cost in Malawi. So at that point we hatched plan B.
We had made friends with an excellent taxi driver in Chipata named Alick, who was anxious to get more business. The origin of failing to get the Malawi flight stretched all the way back to when we were staying at Dean’s in Chipata – so we had earlier already raised the possibility of him driving me from Chipata to Lilongwe. The idea would be that I would fly within Zambia from Lusaka to Chipata, get picked up at the airport and then driven 3-4 hours across the border and to the Lilongwe airport. It seemed a little risky given the reliability of automobiles in Zambia, and unforeseen issues at the border crossing, etc. So the original plan was to go to Chipata on Friday, drive to Lilongwe, then have the extra cushion of Saturday in case something went wrong.
By the time we were in Livingstone on Thursday, trying to buy the Air Malawi flight and discovering it’s exorbitant price, rationality was waning on my part. So I decided to just risk it – which meant flying to Chipata Saturday morning, catching the taxi to Lilongwe, and having only about 1 or 2 hours of buffer time for any problems. So, we bought the ticket to Chipata and decided to throw the dice.
Come Saturday morning Julianna dropped me off at the airport to start the adventure (7am flight). If all went as planned I would be in San Francisco 48 hours later, by virtue of a flight to Chipata, a taxi to Lilongwe, a flight to Addis Ababa, a flight to Frankfurt (with a 12 hour layover), and a flight to SFO. The first two legs seemed the riskiest, but the initial flight went off without a hitch. I arrived at the Chipata airport, where I was supposed to meet our taxi driver. There were only 5 of us on the plane (which was small enough that they couldn’t fit by large backpack bag into the luggage compartment under the plane and had to put it in the main cabin!). Anyway, the airport cleared out quite quickly and it was soon obvious that no one was there to pick me up. Julianna had kept the cell phone for her last week in Lusaka, so I was starting to wonder how to get myself to Lilongwe if our friend Alick didn’t arrive. He was about 20 minutes late, but did arrive, and from there we headed out. On the way into Chipata from the airport he informed me that he didn’t trust the ‘fitness’ off his car, so had arranged a friend to drive me across the border and to the airport. I was happy he was trying hard to make sure things worked out well, but it didn’t raise my overall level of confidence in automobile reliability! We met up with the friend, agreed on the splitting of the negotiated fare, and were off to Lilongwe. The border crossing went easily enough, concluding with a text to Julianna from the taxi driver’s phone – to let her know I had crossed the last major obstacle. We ended up picking up a ‘good friend’ of the driver at the border (a common situation is that the driver will ask if their friend can join in the car – because us crazy muzungus don’t fill all the seats!). I said that would be fine with me, and we headed on our way. After dropping the woman in downtown Lilongwe we continued out to the airport and arrived with time to spare. The most perilous segments of the journey behind me, I rested easy and coasted through the remainder of the trip. It was a long 48 hours, but a welcome relief to return to the comfort of home and a nice warm shower.
I made it back to the house and met Julianna’s cousins Mike and Melissa (they were staying at our place because they had to come back to San Fran from Thailand in order to get their work visas for South Korea). They were just starting a game of Settlers of Catan, and offered to add me to the board. I said – why not? – and settled back into the routine of home.