After our day of travel with our driver Hasan, we still had a half tank of gas (which we had paid for) in his car. To get to the border, it would take another 1/4 tank (and then to return to Lilongwe, it would finish the tank — the final 1/4). So, we worked it out with Hasan and the car company that we could pay a flat rate of 3,500 Malawian Kwacha (something like $30) for Hasan to drive us to the border. No additional fees would be necessary (i.e. for gas), as Hasan assured us that there was plenty remaining for us to go and him to return. We agreed on a time (8am) for pick-up, said goodbye, and went to bed.
8am the following day: we were ready to get to Zambia so that I could start doing interviews that afternoon (important for our tight timetable). Hasan came at 9am (bummer – but expected, a little). When we got in, I noted that where as yesterday, there had been 1/2 a tank of gas, today there was 1/4. Hmmm. Hasan had told us the night before that he was taking the car home (less than 10km from where we were; the half tank from the day prior had taken us 450km, so the missing 1/4 tank was confusing, at least). So, we drove along and I communicated to Dustin what I saw with the tank, etc (if you speak English quickly, with some words missing, and without enunciating everything, those who don’t speak English perfectly (Hasan) don’t seem to follow what you are saying).
So, we reached just south of the border, and the tank read empty. So, this was the moment of truth: would Hasan simply refill the tank and not ask for money (this would be reasonable — maybe he took some other people around after dropping us off the night before? Or used the gas for some other reason? or?).
Important interlude: Gas is very, very expensive here. In a landlocked country, gas is one of the priciest commodities around. And, because of this, there is a lot of siphoning. We had heard that some drivers will siphon off gas and sell it or have the gas attendant give a receipt for a filled tank (and the customer pays as much) — but the tank is not really filled, and the driver and attendant split the difference in profit. Knowing this about the siphoning *and* knowing that there was a quarter tank missing when Hasan picked us up *and* knowing that, as he had said, it took exactly half a tank to get to the border, we were suspicious. And, very, very sadly, our suspicions were confirmed.
We pulled into the gas station and neither Dustin nor I made a move or a sound. Hasan turned to me (I was in the front seat) and said that the tank was empty. He needed to fill it and needed the cash to do so. Umm – absolutely not. He tried to explain that something was wrong with the tank. He tried to explain that it was further than he thought. He tried a few different ways… So, I drew the tank — from empty to full, and then we went back through how half a tank took us 420 km, a quarter tank took us 150 km (to the border), and there was a 1/4 tank missing when he picked us up. Up until that point, he didn’t realize that we had noticed the missing gas in the morning. And he realized that we *really* were not going to pay. Even if we wanted to (we DIDN’T), we couldn’t. We literally only had 3,500 kwacha in our pockets (the agreed upon flat rate). So, he paid for the 1/4 tank.
The last 10km to the border was incredibly tense — and so, so disappointing. I am 87% sure that he siphoned the gas, but I am open to the possibility that maybe he didn’t (but someone else did? or something was wrong with the car? or?). I hope that I am wrong, because I really liked Hasan up until then. I hate to be finagled and manipulated like that, but I really don’t want to take advantage of people either. Ultimately, Hasan gave in so easily after we pointed out that there was a quarter tank missing in the morning that I cannot help but think that he was involved in some trickery.
What a bummer of a way to leave Malawi!