On Monday, a group of us took the trek across the border of Zambia into Botswana. The reason? Zambia is so expensive that it’s better to buy bulk food in another country. There is a bulk food warehouse just across the border, requiring only a 90-minute drive and a ferry ride. Apparently, this is a trip that the Overland staff makes often. Having been in Zambia for two years and barely traveling anywhere outside of the country, I decided to accompany the group for the experience.
We loaded the gigantic overland truck at 4:30 am. If you’ve never seen an overland truck, look in a travel guide. It is a passenger truck with a lot of room for storage underneath and a high seating area only reachable by stepladder. Used for people who travel “overland” for African safaris. This is where Overland Missions got their name. Anyway, the truck had a bit of trouble getting started (apparently it didn’t like waking up at 4am any better than I did). But, at 5am, we finally got on our way. We drove VERY slowly, since it was a foggy morning, the road was terrible, and the truck was huge, and reached the border at about 7am. We loaded out of the truck to get our passports stamped. As we pulled into line to wait for the ferry, we discovered that the ferry was running late because of the fog. So, we made some sandwiches and sat eating our breakfast, not even fazed by the typical “Africanism” that does not allow you to dictate your own schedule. By 9am, we were ready to load the ferry, but not before our driver pulled an expert maneuver that got us in the front of the line. The concept of a queue in Africa is quite skewed. So, we’ve stopped trying to follow our Western ideals and just fight to get in the front like everybody else.
The ferry ride lasted about 25 minutes across the lovely Zambezi River. At one point you can view four countries: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana. It’s beautiful. Once across the river, you offload the truck, jump into it, and start to drive to the border post. Jump out again, wait in the queue, get passports stamped, get back in the truck. Drive about 50 yards, get out of the truck, step on a muddy carpet that’s supposed to prevent the transmission of foot and mouth disease from country to country, get back in the truck, drive to the food warehouse. Whew! It’s only 10am and you’ve already had a workout!
Once at the food warehouse, we set to work buying 7 huge dolly carts worth of food. 100 kg of sugar, 75 kg of flour, 100 kg of rice, etc. It’s a lot of lifting and a lot of currency converting. Nowadays, I think in Kwacha more than I think in Dollars. For example, I have a better idea of what sugar should cost in Kwacha than what it should cost in Dollars. So, I was trying to convert the Botswanian currency (Pula) into Dollars, and Dollars into Kwacha. It was crazy, and I don’t think I did a very good job. The African economy also doesn’t really account for bulk shopping the way that we understand it in the States. You could often buy 10 boxes of the smaller version of laundry soap for cheaper than you can buy the huge bucket. I guess they figure that they should charge you more if you don’t have to shop as often?
Once we loaded everything onto the carts, it was checkout time. Now, remember, we’re dealing with African time here. So, checkout took just over an hour. After that, an employee stops you at the door and checks every single item in your cart against every item on your receipt. This was not a quick “that looks about right” assessment either. This man checked and counted every can of baking powder before he was satisfied. You can imagine how much time we lost when we presented him with the empty soda bottle that we had already paid for and finished! It wasn’t so bad that it took an hour and fifteen minutes to check all of our purchases, because the credit card machine was broken. Because of this, we had to draw out cash for our 14,000 Pula purchase. It took all of our cards, a bit of luck, and a LOT of time before we had enough cash to pay for our purchases. After strategically loading everything into the truck (okay, this was the THIRD time I was lifting 10 huge packages of rice), we set off on our way for the propane station to refill our propane. It was now 1pm. We were filthy, sweaty, and tired. The truck smelled like diesel from being refilled and carrying canisters. And we had to be back at the ferry by 3:30 if we had any hope of getting over the border before it closed for the night. We were doing so well we even had high hopes of finding a coffee shop and having a cappuccino before heading home. We would have done it too…if not for the flat tire.
Needless to say, it was a mad dash. Between the propane, the tires, and trying to gather some food for us to eat, it was all of 4:30 before we were headed back to the ferry. By the time we got our passports stamped and waited in line (during which time I assembled avocado and tomato sandwiches on my knees) we were cutting it REALLY close.
Because of a $20 bribe in the right hands and an INCREDIBLE move by our famed truck driver, we got on the last ferry of the night. We were so tired we barely noticed the smugglers handing their purchases off to the canoes that pulled up to the ferry for that reason. Didn’t even mind wading off the ferry through the water. We just wanted to get home! It was another 2-hour workout to keep all the containers and purchases steady on the bumpy road. But, we did get our cappuccino! We stopped in Livingstone on the way home, had a coffee, and then jumped back in the truck for another 1 long drive to the base. We arrived at 10pm. What a day!
We slept late the next day before embarking on the next project: Putting thousands of dollars worth of groceries away!
Oh Africa, one of those places in the world that has the ability to make you tired before you’ve even done much of anything. I specifically remember it being the same way in China. Even going out to dinner was a mission. But, it makes for good blogging.