We decide to adjust our route. Change, things continuously go differently than we’ve had planned. Helga dislikes it. For me it’s a way of life. Close to your self, survive, judging situations day by day, checking priorities and choose. And then to see whether it was the right choice, deal with the consequences and on to the next travel day.
It’s the beginning of September and the summer starts here in Africa. We can feel it starting to be hot and dry. The wind starts in the afternoon and blows warm air past uncovered limbs. Our skins are dry and our lips cracked.
A couple of weeks ago our air conditioning broke down. The windows from our car are opened as far as possiQble and a thick layer of dust has gathered on the inside of the whole car. The dashboard, the doors and the insides of the windows, all covered in dust. The wind seems to help a bit, but not really.
Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe has problems with unpredictable and recurring protests. In Mozambique is tension between the government and the opposition which causes instability in the middle of the country. The far north and south still seem safe, but the travel advice has changed to negative a while ago. We are on our way to Malawi and when we have a look at the map we decide to travel through Zambia. From Zambia it is easy to drive into Malawi and since we will be there before the raining season hits, we can still visit South Luangwa National park.
It’s early in the afternoon when we drive into Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. A while ago we found a bumpersticker which pretty much sums up how we feel about driving through a city: “ I’d rather be lost in the woods than found in the city”. Not that we really have a choice, since it’s time for some repairs on the car.
We talk to some people in Lusaka and finally we feel we’ve found a decent mechanic in town. We drive through the city, turn off the main road and end up in a dodgy suburb. A long wall has been erected in between the low buildings and has been painted red and white, although it has clearly seen better days. When we drive up the heavy metal doors swing open and we drive onto a courtyard covered in oil residue. Our car window is open and I can hear our tires sticking to the ground. A mechanic points us towards a corner where we can park the car.
I walk into the office where three middle aged men, who clearly enjoy all that life has to offer, stare at me incomprehensibly. There is one desk, one guy is sitting on an old desk chair, while the others pulled up two different chairs. The guy in the desk chair seems most likely to be highest in the hierarchy. I turn towards him and start by casually dropping some names before I start with what I came to ask. From the corner of my eye I can see that the man slides a small gun, which I recognize as a 357 short barrel, under a newspaper. I don’t really pay attention to this and tell him that we would like to have our oil changed and that we have some other small repairs. I also tell him that I will be present to assist and that we have all the parts ourselves.
The man leans back in his chair and shouts something intelligible from the office. Immediately three guys, in what once were blue coveralls come running. In Zulu he gives them instructions and as soon as he’s finished they turn around and walk towards our car. I quickly follow suit and reach the car together with them.
We open the bonnet and the workmen divide themselves around the car. I’m a bit nervous and try to keep an eye on everything that is going on. The first thing that happens is that I see one of the guys unscrewing the fuel filters, which I told them was not necessary as I already did that myself. The next thing is when someone else tries to unscrew the oil sump with the wrong size spanner.
I can feel the last bit of control slip through my fingers and decide to step in. With an emotional undertone in my voice I shout: “Stop, stop, stop!” I can feel myself relax again when the guys put their tools away and gather around the hood of the car.
“I don’t know what your supervisor told you guys, but we’re doing an oil change, we’re cleaning the air filter and we’re greasing all the grease nipples. That’s all! I am a mechanic myself, so I just need one guy to help me here.” After this, two guys leave and start working on some other cars. The mechanic who I am left with, takes the air filter out of the car and walks away with it to clean it, I presume. In the meantime I do all the other stuff that needs to be done.
When he comes back, he hands over a splotchy grey air filter. I take a look at it and wonder about the colour differences. I ask him to take me to the compressor and see that he used a loaded paint gun to “clean” the air filter. Sniffing the air filter the distinctive paint smell fills my nostrils. “ So, that’s how you do it in here in Africa,” I tell him while I keep the air filter in front of me. “ You spray the filter full of paint so that you make sure the customers have to come back at some point.”.
Filled with anger I walk into the office where the three men are still sitting. Nothing has changed and they are still happily chatting. I throw the air filter on to the desk and the paint and dust spill out of it. “ Look at this, one of you mechanics sprays my air filter with a paint gun! What a joke!”
He shrugs, calls down the mechanic and has an animated conversation with him. I step back out of the office and tell him that I don’t need the help of his guys anymore. I also tell him that I am not leaving without a new air filter. Two hours I wait for it in protest right in front of his office, but eventually we drive out of there with a brand new air filter and a car that still works.
Very tired now I look at Helga and say: “ this is just an absurd story. I just feel sorry for the guys who work there, they really should go to school or be properly trained by someone. This whole company will not survive like this. What a bust.”
The next moment which comes to mind clearly is when we are driving out of the city. We had been busy for two days to get everything organised to finally leave Lusaka behind. A wide stream of cars takes us through the inner city and every 30 meters or so we have to stop. It always happens that there is someone right there where we stop in the middle of the road selling his goods. For a while it’s welcome entertainment while we have short conversations with the vendors, but soon it starts to get boring. I try to create more distance with the car before me so I can keep driving when everyone stops, but I learn that this only encourages other drivers and in particular minibuses, to get in line before me.
Eventually we get to the main road, the aorta of Lusaka and the speed of the cars picks up. Finally making some progress we look at each other: finally, freedom. A black pick up clearly has the same opinion as we seen him zigzagging through traffic. He overtakes us on the inside and disappears out of sight. “ Did you see that?” says Helga. “that guy drives like a mad man.” A couple of kilometers later we find out that his driving didn’t really make the difference he was hoping for when he eventually ends up right in front of us.
Luckily we recognize it’s the same car and forewarned is fore armed. The next moment be brakes out of nowhere and I can see the distance between us getting smaller rapidly. Braking myself is of no use, I need to get out of the way. Helga sees it happening, she looks left and says “yes” while I make the quick decision to overtake left and send angry looks to the driver on my right.
In the next moment I can see three police officers on the road trying to get through traffic. It is clear that they are aiming for our car and I suddenly understand why the driver in the black pick up braked so suddenly: a speed trap.
The road is chaos, I have to switch lanes again and end up in front of the black car. The police officers are not fast enough and before they can stop us we’ve already passed them. There was no way we could’ve stopped. Startled, I look at Helga: “ what do we do now?”
The heavy, spirited driver from the black car, who obviously saw everything happen also turns out to have a spirited character. He starts to behave like an officer himself and tells us through his open window that we should drive back to the police at the speed trap. If we don’t, then we will be stopped at the next roadblock as they communicate with each other. It is hard to get out of this discussion and we take a turn to make it look like we’re heading back. Satisfied, the black pick up drives away. Now, Helga takes over the navigation. She leads us through ghettos, dirt roads, dry riverbeds and eventually out of the city. Just after the last city road block we turn back on the main road and 80 km out of Lusaka we encounter our first police check again. Their friendly smiles tell us that luckily, there is no warrant for arrest on a white Troopy and we might have gotten away with it….