The plan was simple, really.
Dan and I had just completed three months at site, and we were going to travel to Blantyre to celebrate. We would catch a taxi at the Mozambique border at 7AM on Saturday, ride to the Malawian border (66 cents per person), and flag down a mini-bus headed towards Blantyre. Two hours later, we would successfully arrive in the city, where we could begin our working towards our only real goal for the weekend: To eat our way through the city of Blantyre in what would become a legendary festival of gorge.
We hoped to meet our friend James, another Peace Corps volunteer, while we were in town. He had been to the city a few times before and was prepared to take us to all of his favorite restaurants. On his list was:
The Ethiopian Place
The Indian Place but not the Expensive One
The Pizza Place near the bus stop
The Lodge at Which we were Staying
Any of the Ice Cream Shops
In addition, we were going to do a hefty dose of grocery shopping. Believe me when I say that I wrote out my grocery list one full week in advance of my departure. No food item was going to evade me on this particular trip. In fact, the night before we left, I wrote an entire journal entry about the food I intended to purchase. My grocery list looked something like this:
The words became harder and harder to read as the list continued. My handwriting became more frenzied and the ink smudged in the drops of saliva that pooled along the crease of the paper.
It might come as a bit of a surprise, then, when you realize that this blog post is not about food. While we did most of the things that we intended to do in Blantyre, we also had the SINGLE MOST FRIGHTENING EXPERIENCE OF OUR LIVES.
In Dan’s words, we experienced, “Absolute shenanigans.”
I would like to present to you my newest blog post:
“That time that I went to Malawi to buy food and, in addition to buying food, also found myself in a highly precarious situation.”
AKA: There is a Man Under the Bed
* * * * * *
Blantyre is not the capital of Malawi, but, if you didn’t know better, you would think that it was.
I thought it was.
Some people describe Blantyre as the New York City of Malawi. By this, they mean that Blantyre is the living, beating heart of the country, if not the actual gubernatorial seat. It also claims to be the most exciting city in the entire country. While that sounds like quite a boast, it is important to note that Malawi only has four urban centers that have achieved actual city status, and the real capital, Lilongwe, has been described as a bloated, over-grown suburb.
It was on this weekend, three months into our service, that Dan and I finally decided to visit this social and cultural hotspot, located just two hours away from our home on the border. Armed with lots of cash, a grocery list that unfolded all the way to my waist, and my very fancy camera, Dan and I traveled to Blantyre.
“Mostly,” we reasoned, we “just wanted to see what was there.”
It was a fairly smooth ride from our home in Zobue. Malawi has better roads than Mozambique, and our mini-bus was only seating 13 individuals. In Mozambique, the same type of mini-bus (a chapa) will refuse to budge until there are at least 19 paying customers on board. Once there are 19 people on board a Mozambican chapa, sitting chock o’block atop one another and sweating and swearing profusely, the driver will crank the engine and squeal down the road, stopping only to pick up the driver’s entire family, a herd of goats, and sixty bags of charcoal.
Sitting comfortably in our spacious Malawian mini-bus, Dan and I had time to look at the scenery around us. We were startled by the beauty of the countryside. It was, in a word, bucolic (a word that sounds like vomit but means “full of delightful, peaceful pastures.” I believe that is comes from the Latin, meaning “spew of the Gods.”). Malawi is green and mountainous, and it contrasts starkly with the landscape of the neighboring province. With the exception of the mountains around Zobue, most of Tete Provice is wide, flat, and scorched.
“Why have we been traveling to Tete City these past few months?” I whispered to Dan. “When we just could have come here?”
Approaching Blantyre, we were entertained by a large number of signs and business advertisements in English. Coming from Mozambique, I hadn’t expected to find many businesses with English names. Here they were, though:
Glory of God Barbershop
Uncle Pat and Christ the Lord Mini-Shop
You and God: The Bucolic Food Shop of Blantyre
Most business had religious names. Faith is a big part of daily life in this part of Africa, we’ve learned. In Malawi, perhaps it is not enough to attend a four-hour service every Sunday and Wednesday. Why not also honor God by constructing a bottle shop in His name?
Other signs were funny, too. The advertisements in Malawi tend to be very cautious and equivocal. Take this advertisement for juice, for instance:
“Sure-Taste Juice- A good option in terms of what’s available”
That’s paraphrased, of course, but you get the point.
There was also this slogan for a Danish brand of beer called “Carlsburg.” This particular slogan is not paraphrased. It is the most common advertisement in all of Malawi, and it is painted on every other house and business along the two-hour stretch between Blantyre and the border. You can’t go for 2 minutes without seeing this particular slogan, and by the time you leave Malawi, it is forever imbedded into your brain.
“Carlsburg,” the advertisement brags, “Probably the best beer in the world.”
Probably the Best Beer in the World
What a strange statement. It’s made even stranger by the fact that Carlsburg is not an especially delicious or well-known beer. As far as I know, it’s never won any awards and is not even very popular in its own home country.
“At least they allow for a margin of error,” says Dan. “They did say “probably,” after all. The pressure’s off.”
Thoroughly entertained by our bus ride and feeling fresh and cool, we met up with James outside of the bus station (a gravely patch of pavement behind a row of seedy-looking shops). It was about 10:30 in the morning, and we were primed to begin our gustatory adventure.
I won’t bore you with the details, but I feel somewhat obligated to give an overview.
From 10:30 to 11:00AM, we ate pastries.
From 11:00 to 12:00PM, we ate Ethiopian food.
From 12:00 to 2:00PM, we did our grocery shopping
From 2:00 to 2:30PM, we split three pastries from the grocery store.
From 2:30 to 3:30PM, we split a bag of candy from the grocery store
From 3:30 to 4:30PM, we ate Indian food
From 5:00 to 5:30PM, we each ate a large ice cream cone with a spear of chocolate through the center
|The Game Superstore in Blantyre|
Finally satiated, we went to the Backpacker’s Lodge to settle in for the night (and to eat the bag of marshmallows that we had recently acquired.) Called Doogle’s Lodge, it was located five minutes from the city center, right next to a busy bus terminal. This particular bus terminal was loud and noisy, filled with towering buses and untrustworthy characters.
|Doogle's Lodge, Blantyre|
|Doogle's Lodge, Blantyre|
“The Lodge is pretty safe, though,” said James. “I’ve stayed there a few times and I’ve never had any problems.”
We chose to sleep in a dormitory-style bedroom (4 dollars per person) and unloaded our things onto the bunkbeds.
“We should probably lock our stuff in the lockers,” said Dan. “I don’t think the bedroom door locks.”
“It doesn’t,” said James. “It’s a dorm. People can come and go. I think someone else is staying in here, too.”
He gestured towards a wet towel hanging on a hook by the door.
We put away most of our valuables and locked the lockers. This action was automatic, but I will admit that I wasn’t thinking about security when we left the room to go play pool. I didn’t even look behind me to make sure that everything was put away before I walked out of the room. I’d never had any problems with my stuff in hotel rooms, after all.
We played pool for about an hour, then returned to the room. I had just tried my first-ever Carlsburg beer and could honestly say that I was entirely underwhelmed. Their next slogan, I thought, could easily be:
Fails to live up to unreasonably high, if ambiguous, statements of quality
Upon entering the room, Dan noticed that something strange had transpired. He walked over to the lockers.
“I would check your stuff,” he said to James. “This lock has been tampered with.”
He was right. In fact, the lock had been more than tampered with. The swinging bar that attached the padlock to a metal fastener on the frame of the locker had been ripped off it its hinges. The padlock was still intact, but the locker door was hanging open.
“I’d better check,” said James. “I did have some money in there…”
He started rooting through the pockets of his traveling bag.
“Uh-oh,” he said. “This isn’t good.”
“What?” We asked.
“I think my money’s gone,” he said.
He continued to search through zippers and folds of his bag.
“My bank card is still here…” he said.
“Is your computer still there?”
“Yeah. I still have my computer. But all of my money is definitely gone.”
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“How much was it?”
“Enough. It was almost a full month’s salary. I was going to go traveling next weekend.”
It was decided that Dan would stay in the room to guard our stuff while James and I went to speak to the owner of the hostel. It didn’t seem likely that this would accomplish anything, but we felt obligated to report the theft to someone.
The owner, a long-haired Bolivian man named Carlos, turned very pink and said a few choice words when we told him what had happened.
“Let’s go look,” he said.
He came with us back to the room, then shook his head when he saw the broken lock.
“Was anything else stolen?” He asked.
We shook our heads. “Actually,” I said, “It’s strange. James’s laptop wasn’t stolen, and neither was my camera. It was only the money.”
“Was anybody else in this room?” Asked Carlos.
“Just one person,” we said. “But we haven’t seen him. His towel was hanging by the door but- oh, now it’s on the bed. He must have come back at some point while we were at the bar.”
The owner ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t like the sound of that,” he said. “I know this guy. He's kind of a drifter. He sells T-shirts in tourist areas. He stays here because, you know, it’s cheap. I think it might have been him. I never liked the guy, anyway.” He twisted his long hair into a bun. “Listen, I have no idea when he’s going to come back. His towel’s still here, but he didn’t sign in for the night. I think you had better go to the police station and file a report. I’ll send one of my guards with you.”
Once again, it was decided that Dan would stay behind and guard our belongings while James and I traveled to the police station. It was unlikely that we were going to trust those flimsy locks to protect the rest of our stuff.
The police station was very close by, in the middle of the honking, steaming bus terminal. It was not well-lit, but I felt strangely safe and comfortable. Just the idea of a police station makes me feel better.
Things inside of the station were a bit chaotic, though. Everyone was speaking Chewa and I was unsure of who did and who did not have a firm grasp on English. James told his story to the policeman at the front desk, who began writing a long, handwritten report about the incident. After twenty or thirty minutes, he gave the report to James to read. We were a bit surprised by the wording of the transcript:
“I, James, swear that these events transpired as followed:
It was on a Saturday night at 8PM when I left my room at Doogles to relax at the neighboring bar. When I returned, I was shocked to discover that the lock on the cabinet in which my belongings were being held had been tampered with and that my bag had been searched. It was with great urgency that I searched here and there for my missing cash, but I was unable to find the money that I had previously called my own. Unfortunately, the room was a dormitory-style hotel room and there was no lock on the door. Other objects of value were left, untouched. In total, the thief made off with $XX,XXX,XXX Malawian Kwacha.
James, March 10, 2012”
“This is correct,” said James. “I guess.”
We were both a bit confused by the flowery language. And why was there no actual police report form to fill out? The form in question was just a piece of computer paper with crooked, hand-drawn lines.
“We had better go and search the room,” said the policeman. He stood up to leave and was followed by two or three other officers. None of them seemed interested in speaking English unless it was absolutely necessary.
Dan was still in the room when we returned, sitting cross-legged on his bunkbed.
“That guy didn’t return,” he said, mentioning the drifter. “He’s still out.”
“The police are here to check,” I said. “Maybe they’ll find something.”
Mostly, though, the police just asked us to repeat our story and then began to root through the contents of the lockers. They even started to pat down the mattress closest to the lockers, on which the wet towel was still lying.
Finally, they seemed to be out of ideas.
“We’ll go back to the office now,” they said. “And search for leads.”
“…Okay,” we said. “Well, we’ll let you know if anything happens.”
Carlos stayed in the room with us after the police had left. “Listen,” he said. “I have an idea.”
Carlos laid out his plan: The drifter, Carlos reasoned, was probably out getting drunk. But when he returned, he would probably still be carrying a large amount of cash. If we were lucky, it would be enough money to incriminate him. All we had to do was to stay in the room as bait, and wait for him to return. If he came back, after all, and found an empty room, he might get suspicious and flee. If we were there, though, we could apprehend him as he entered and pin him until the police arrived.
“I’m really not comfortable with that,” said James bluntly. “I don’t know who this guy is. I am not interested in putting myself at risk here.”
Carlos seemed disappointed.
“Of course you can change rooms,” he said, slowly.
“Yes, please,” said James. “We would like to change rooms.”
With that, we emptied out the lockers and moved down the hall into the adjoining room.
“I think this is probably far enough away,” I said, settling on to a lower bunk. The mattress had a colorful peacock pattern. “I mean, I don’t know. That guy might not even come back tonight. It might not even have been him.”
“You know," said James. "I have a great idea. We don't have to stay in that room at all. We can go in there right now and make pillow people.”
“That’s perfect,” said Dan. “That way, if the thief returns, he won’t be able to tell that we have changed rooms. He will think that nothing’s wrong.”
“I love it,” I said. “Let’s go!”
Less than thirty seconds after leaving the original room, Dan, James, and I returned to make pillow people. We pulled down the mosquito nets and ruffled up the covers to make it look like we were snuggled up in bed.
“This kind of reminds me of Lord of the Rings,” I said. “When the Ring Wraiths come to kill Frodo at the Inn.”
“Let’s hope that this guy is not coming back to stab us,” said Dan, dryly.
I think we all felt a thrill of fear.
The pillow people were finished, and it looked very much like three lumpy people were sleeping soundly under three well-tucked mosquito nets.
We left the room and turned off the light, shutting the door behind us. As soon as I returned to the new room, however, I got the urge to return to the scene of the crime.
“I'm going back," I said. "I want to take a picture of the beds and of the pillow people. Maybe of the broken lock, too.”
“Okay,” said James. He accompanied me to the doorway of the abandoned room and pushed open the door. The room was dark, of course, and, for whatever reason, it was very, very smelly.
|Room 1: The Scene of the Crime|
“Wow,” I said. “That guy’s stuff smells.”
“You’re good here?” Asked James.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m just going to get a few pictures.” I stepped into the room, alone.
I took a picture of a bed from the door frame, then moved deeper into the room to get a better angle on what had been my bunkbed. I backed up against the drifter’s bed and into his wet towel.
“Ugh,” I said. “That guy is so gross.”
|Pillow people to be used as bait. I was backed up against the drifter's bed to|
take this picture. In hindsight, that was not such a good idea.
That room smelled terrible. Why hadn’t I noticed it before?
I knelt by the drifter’s bed to take a picture of the broken lock. The light was dim, so I had to hold very still for a longer exposure.
It was in that moment, the absolute silence in the length of a long-exposure shot, that I heard it.
I heard breathing.
I knew. I knew then, but somehow, I denied it. Slowly, very slowly, I ducked my head to look under the bed. There, just inches from my own, were a pair of legs clad in black running pants.
I don’t know why I did this, but I assumed that that could not be what I was seeing. Some strange, numb sense of curiosity edged me onward. I knelt lower on my left elbow. I don’t know why I didn’t just run. I actually took the time to make sure that I had just seen what I thought I saw.
Staring back at me, from the dark space under the bed, were two white eyes.
My next reaction was not exactly what I had expected from myself. Our fear reaction is something that distinctly instinctual. There is no choosing your response in a fight-or-flight situation. It is a reflex so automatic that you become an entirely different person.
The person I became was scared. It occurred to me that this man was between me and the door. I started to scream- this weird, guttural, gurgling scream- and I tried to run. I was on all fours already, and in my haste, I slipped and fell onto my chin. My camera jammed into my chest and my knees hit the ground, hard. I continued to scream and scrambled to my feet, crashing into the doorframe and bursting into the hallway.
Dan was already running towards me.
“The man is UNDER THE BED!” I screamed. “HE IS UNDER THE BED.”
Dan let out this crazy, bellowing yell and charged past me into the bedroom. I saw a blur of black and red as he barreled into the man that was trying to escape behind me.
“NO!” Yelled Dan. “NO!”
I ran screaming down the hall, trying to get the attention of anybody.
“The man! I yelled. “The thief! The man is in the room! Dan is alone- please help!”
It didn’t occur to me to run and get James. I ran in the direction of the bar, searching for the largest number of people that I could find. My mind was becoming clearer and I began to realize that Dan was alone in the room with a potentially dangerous criminal.
“Please,” I said, running into the kitchen and finding a staff member. “Please, please come. The thief is in the room.”
I ran into the bar area, which was crowded with people. In my panic, I didn't even think to mince my words or to try to make sense.
“Please help!” I cried. My hair was in my face and my camera was hanging at a strange angle around my neck. My knees hurt so much. “The thief is IN THE ROOM. THERE IS A MAN IN THE ROOM. Dan is alone.”
It seemed like half of the people in the bar rushed past me, running towards the room.
Defeated and finally feeling the effects of the first painful adrenaline rush, I turned and ran behind them.
Dan was no longer alone. The owner and several guards had pinned the thief against the wall in the bedroom, where he was now whimpering quietly. I was surprised by how small he seemed.
“I guess we should call the police,” said Dan.
James just looked upset. I realized that I hadn’t even thought about him during this whole sequence. I had run the wrong way out of the room. Or maybe it was the right way. I had alerted the entire hotel, after all.
The police came and took the man away. My hands were shaking a little bit as I inspected the damage done to my camera. It’s funny- my camera is my most cherished possession, but at that moment, that moment of fight or flight, I didn’t even remember that I was wearing it. I had landed right on top of it when I fell.
Thankfully, nothing was broken. Some small parts of the camera body were bent, but it still was capable of taking photos. Shakily, I looked over the pictures that I had taken. I came across the picture I had taken of the lock. It was blurry. I had moved at the last moment, when I heard breathing.
“He was in there the whole time,” said James. “God damnit. The whole time.”
Things started to become clearer. The man was there, under the bed, when we discovered the robbery. He was there when we left Dan alone, to guard our stuff. He was under the bed when the owner checked the mattresses. He was there when we made our pillow people. He was there when I went into the room alone to take pictures of the broken lock. It wasn’t his clothes that I had been smelling. It had been him.
“He must have heard us coming,” said James. “And hidden under the bed. We never gave him a chance to escape. There was always somebody in the room.”
Carlos came to talk to us.
“Listen,” he said. “You had better head down to the police station. If the thief has the money on him, the police might take it.”
Dutifully, we headed back out into the night. At the police station, there were fewer officers than before. The suspect was nowhere to be found.
“We’d like to inquire about the suspect,” said James. “Did you find any money on him?”
“We found 6,000 Kwacha,” said a policeman, ambiguously. He pulled out his night stick and twisted the tip of it into the floor. “But we are still interrogating him. Come back in the morning, and we will have more information.”
Feeling hopeful, we went back to the Lodge.
“Do you think the police stole the money?” Asked James.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.” I wanted so badly to trust the police.
Back at Doogle's, we requested a room change. I, specifically, was not willing to stay in an unlocked room after what had happened. Thankfully, the owners were understanding. They gave us the key to a chalet and helped us to move our bags out of the dormitories.
It was hard to fall asleep that night. We were all sleeping in individual twin beds, and I was wishing that I could curl up small next to my husband. I was very impressed with what Dan had done that night, but I was also fighting the urge to yell at him.
“What if he had had a knife?!” I wanted to say. “What if he had had anything?”
Even so, I had been stupid, too.
I lay away, staring at the ceiling. I tried not to look at the shadows on the curtains and tried to ignore the scuttling that I was imagining in every corner. I kept picturing two white eyes, staring back at me from underneath that bed.
“THERE IS A MAN UNDER THE BED!” I had yelled, when I had finally regained my words. I made the transition from guttural screams to one simple, repetitive statement. “THERE IS A MAN UNDER THE BED!”
I fell into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, we went back to the police station. We were surprised and put out to realize that no one was there who had been there the night before. In fact, no one seemed to know anything that had happened.
“My name is James,” said James. “I filed a police report last night?”
The woman at the front desk shook her head. Sorry.
“A man was arrested last night,” I said. “Is he still here?”
The woman shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know anything.”
Eventually, another policewoman approached us.
“Come with me,” she said.
I was feeling hopeful, but that hope was quickly starting to erode. It became apparent that she didn’t know anything about the events of the night before, either. She did not have a copy of the handwritten police report, and suggested that it would be hard for her to get.
“Can we call the man who was on duty last night?” Asked James. “He can tell you what happened.”
“Yes,” said the policewoman slowly. “Can I use your phone? I don’t have any air time.”
“Sure,” said James, “Whatever.”
The woman called the officer who had been on duty and then, glancing at us and switching to Chewa, left the room to talk in the hallway.
When she returned, she looked at us gravely.
“There was no money found on that man,” she said. “He is not the thief.”
I almost exploded. “He’s not the thief? Why was he hiding under the bed? And what happened to the 6,000 Kwacha that the police found last night?”
The policewoman looked at us sternly. She spoke slowly and carefully.
“I don’t know anything about that,” she said. Her tone of voice made it clear that our meeting was over. There was nothing left to talk about.
“I will show you to the door,” she said.
And that was it. We walked out of the police station feeling dejected and confused. I had wanted to badly to believe in the police.
“No,” I had said the night before. “I’m sure that the police didn’t steal your money.”
We wandered back into the city, but our feelings towards Blantyre had soured. The downtown area was a little less pretty today. The air was a little more stifling and hot.
We got some pizza and an ice cream cone, then boarded a mini-bus headed for the border. Dan and I hadn’t gotten robbed, but we were also out of money.
I could hardly believe that that was the ending to our adventure. It felt so open-ended. So unsettled. I was disappointed and sad.
“We caught the thief,” I kept thinking. “Dan caught him. He pinned him against the wall. Why didn’t we just search for the money then?”
The three of us were quiet until it was time to drop James off.
“Thanks for sticking around for that whole thing," he said, sliding out of the mini-bus and out the door. "It was really helpful to have you there.”
"I was kind of a big adventure," I said, truthfully. "Thanks for inviting us."