23 October 2009

2009-10-23: Blantyre shopping spree


After spending the morning writing some fellowship-related emails, and being unable to send them because my flash drive stopped working, I went to Blantyre in the afternoon. I managed to achieve my main goals: I found a craftsman selling a gift item I wanted; I went to the Zain customer service centre and got an answer about reactivating my phone number (the answer was no, but at least now I don't have to wonder), and I went to the big department store Game and bought sundry luxury items such as canning jars and marshmallows.

Main text:

My grand plan for the day was to get up early, go to Makoka and measure seedlings in the morning, and then go to Blantyre in the afternoon to do some shopping and errands. But the part about getting up early didn't go so well, since I hadn't gotten to sleep until 4 AM. (You're probably getting tired of hearing me say this every day!)

When I did wake up, it was clearly too late for me to go to both Makoka and Blantyre, so I decided just to go to Blantyre. (Blantyre is Malawi's largest city, with a population of about 700,000. It is the commercial, financial, and industrial hub of Malawi.) Blantyre is only 70 km away, about an hour by car or 90 minutes by minibus, so an excursion there doesn't require too much forethought.

The most urgent reason I wanted to go to Blantyre was to visit the customer service centre for Zain, my cell phone provider, to see if they could restore my old phone number. (The Zomba office had given me a negative but somewhat uncertain answer, so I thought it was worth trying the main office.) I also wanted to go to the Immigration office to see if they still had my student permit on file from last year, or if I would have to start all over again and get a new form stamped by ICRAF. And I wanted to get a gift at the crafts stalls.

* * * * *

As I was getting ready to go, I remembered that the Immigration Office issues student permits for a maximum of six months, so that if I applied for one soon, it would expire before my field season was finished. I ought to do what I did last year, and renew my 30-day visitor's permit before seeking the student permit. (One visitor's renewal is permitted, for a modest fee.) So, never mind the Immigration office, then. Blantyre was still worth the trip.

Although the morning was already growing old, I decided I had really better send some emails today, regarding fellowship applications that were soon coming due. So, although I was itching to get out the door, I sat down and wrote these emails, and saved them to my flash drive. I would just stop by Posts Cafe, my less-favourite but more convenient Internet cafe in the MTL building.

I was striding down the main road, approaching the bridge over Mponde River, when my attention was drawn to a moving patch of colour on the ground. It was a large butterfly, mostly black and yellow with highlights of orange and blue. Its rear wings were adorned with graceful swallow-tails. Sadly, it appeared to be near the end of its life; its movements were feeble and it seemed disoriented. But it was a beautiful creature.

Wouldn't it be nice if I could keep its wings, I thought. If it is going to die anyway, at least its beauty wouldn't go to waste.

But I didn't know for sure that it was going to die, and I didn't want to premptively end its life. At a loss for what to do, I picked it up in my hand and walked with it. Perhaps I could find a more hospitable place for it to rest than a dusty roadside.

On the other side of the bridge, my roommate passed me on his way home. He saw the butterfly in my hand, and I explained the dilemma. "You could just kill it," he said. A logical suggestion, but I couldn't take his advice.

I ended up carrying the butterfly with me to the MTL building, and tucked it gently amongst the grasses at the base of a poinsettia bush. If it recovered and flew away, good. If it died, perhaps I would find it there tomorrow.

* * * * *

At Posts Cafe, my flash drive didn't work in any of the computers! How frustrating. It was a new flash drive - a very small one that I'd bought at Dulles Airport on my way out, because I forgot to bring mine. Maybe it was too new-fangled to work with their old computers.

I really needed to get to Blantyre, but I also really needed to send these emails, so I sidetracked to All Seasons Internet Cafe, where this flash drive had always worked before. But, alas, today it didn't.

At that point I had to give up. If I didn't leave for Blantyre soon, the shops would close before I got there, and the trip would be a waste. So I hopped on a minibus.

The first third of the trip was very familiar, because Makoka is along the road to Blantyre. After we passed Makoka, I would have liked to stay awake to see the scenery, but I was so tired couldn't help dozing off. Falling asleep in a minibus is no mean feat; it's like falling asleep on an amusement park ride.

After one hour we arrived in Limbe, Blantyre's satellite city, and the bus stopped. Blantyre and Limbe blur into each other, but the city centres are far enough apart (6 km) that it is necessary to take a minibus from one to the other. On the highway between the two cities is Chichiri Shopping Centre, a mecca for all things modern and luxurious. There is a bookstore! A department store (Game)! A huge grocery store (Shoprite)! You can print digital photos and get real pizza! Not surprisingly, Chichiri Shopping Centre is high on the list of "things mzungus like."

The Zain Customer Service Centre is also at Chichiri, but I decided to take a minibus straight from Limbe to Blantyre first and go to the crafts stalls. It was not yet 3:30, so I should have time to return before Zain closed at 5.

* * * * *

I hopped off the bus in Blantyre and made a beeline to National Bank (fortunately I still seem to remember where everything is, and how to get there quickly). I couldn't do my shopping without getting cash first, since even big stores usually only take cash. There were the ATMs, and... oh, darn it. One ATM was apparently out of order, so there was a long queue at the other. Maybe I wouldn't make it back to Zain in time after all.

Minutes ticked by as I inched closer to the front of the line. The second ATM reopened, but by the time I realised this, an equally long queue had formed there. Finally, after about 15 minutes, I had a bundle of K10,000 in hand. That should be more than enough for my shopping spree.

I (almost literally) ran to the crafts stalls, which are arranged along one side of a cross-street just off Victoria Street, the main thoroughfare. As always, the sellers were very eager to attract my attention: "Madam, come see my shop." "Madam, you like bracelets?" "Come, I give you good price."

On previous occasions, I've been content to browse the stalls and listen to the sellers' overtures. Today, however, I was on a mission. None of the craftsmen had exactly what I wanted, but one was willing to make the item for me, so I gave him a down payment and asked him to sign an informal contract.

Hopefully the deal would turn out well, but it had taken longer than I thought. If I was lucky, I would still make it to Zain in time.
But I still had a ways to go: minibuses are not allowed to trawl for passengers in downtown Blantyre; that would cause too much congestion and chaos. So I had to walk all the way back to the highway. I kept looking at my watch. 4:35... 4:40... this was going to be touch-and-go.

Fortunately, I got a bus, and it proceeded to Chichiri without undue delay. I jumped out, ran throught the parking lot, and was through the sliding glass doors of the Zain Centre by 4:56. Whew!

I explained my problem to the very nice young lady at the customer service desk (who gave no hint that she was anything other than pleased to see a disheveled customer come rushing in a few minutes before closing time on a Friday afternoon). She was sympathetic, but told me that my phone number could not be restored. The time window for doing that, she said, was three months. After three months, the number was returned to the pipeline of available numbers, and would be allocated to someone else. Although mine hadn't been reallocated yet, it soon would be.

Oh well... that's what I expected to hear. At least now I had a definite answer. I would have to send all my contacts a text message with my new phone number.

* * * * *

My last stop was Game, the big department store at Chichiri Shopping Centre. I had several things in mind to buy there, and I knew I would end up seeing other things I wanted. I am always tempted by their wide selection of things you can't get in Zomba, such as Weet-Bix, marshmallows, and powdered cheese sauce! (I bought all of those things today.)

I also bought some dog bowls for my roommate's dog, since he is always tipping over his plastic water bowl. It seemed a very worthwhile investment in the health of our household canine.

The last, and most important, item on my list was: canning jars. I didn't know if they were available at Game, but if they existed anywhere in Malawi, they would be here. I wanted to preserve some of Malawi's wonderful fruits and take them back with me to California (or at least eat them later in the season). Most of all, I wanted to harvest some golden raspberries from Zomba Plateau. These raspberries are so fantastic and so abundant, they are just crying out to be turned into jam.

I searched the kitchenware section to no avail. Then I noticed there was some more kitchenware around the other side of the aisle. I scrutinised each shelf, and there... aha! Canning jars.

They were litre-sized, when I would have preferred pint or half-pint. And there were only three of them. And one was missing its lid. But hey, beggars can't be choosers. I placed the two intact canning jars into my basket. They were quite dusty - apparently home canning is not a wildly popular pastime in Malawi. (But it should be! Especially considering the lack of refrigeration!)

At checkout, I was mildly horrified at the total cost, but I decided each individual item had been worth it. And I was now the proud owner of two-thirds of the canning jars in the entire country.

* * * * *

It was dusk when I walked out to catch a minibus. My ride home was uneventful, except for a mechanical problem that emerged near Namadzi:
a burning smell began wafting from the engine, which sounded rather ill, making muffled squeaking noises. The driver slowed to a crawl, and went even slower uphill, presumably trying to prevent the engine from giving up altogether. We did eventually make it back to Zomba in one piece, although we did something rather peculiar: with all the passengers in the bus, we took a detour on a dirt road to someone's house, where the occupants came out to meet us, and the conductor handed some bags of groceries out the window. I bet that's never happened to you on any bus trip you've taken.

At home for the rest of the evening, I tried very hard to be disciplined and get some work done on my computer, and not procrastinate, and not fall asleep too early nor too late. I drank a cup of the Malawian black tea I'd bought at Shoprite, ate some more leftover watermelon, listened to "The Wrath of Khan" soundtrack, and slowly but diligently got some writing done.

My little flash drive, alas, proved to be completely dead. It didn't work in my own computer, either. What a piece of junk - I bought it only ten days ago! And now that I was on the other side of the world, I couldn't exactly march back into the store and demand a refund. Fortunately, my long-shot backup option worked. The flash drive that Mom had given me in February - which didn't work in my computer at the time - proved to be amenable to a reformatting. This blog update comes to you courtesy of the Cruzer U3 Micro SanDisk (I may have forgotten some of its middle names).

And now it's now, 11:30 PM. That seems like a reasonable time to go to sleep, and I'm tired! I'd like to say it was the shopping that was tiring, but I think it may be the four hours of sleep.

Chichewa word of the day: alibe = there is not


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