Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Trip Interruptus, N'doto Seized

Trip Interruptus, N’doto Seized

It’s happened before and will no doubt happen again. Someone we love becomes seriously ill and we have to end our trip early or return home for a few weeks. That’s what happened last month when we received word that Scott’s mom, unwell for some time, was entering hospice back home in California.

We drove south along the Great North Road, back the way we had come. We talked about which airport we would use and where we would store our vehicle. When we arrived at Pioneer Camp outside of Lusaka owner Paul Barnes was more than happy watch over our Landy during our absence. It seemed our exit from Africa would be fairly straightforward. Except for one thing. Each time we cross a border we apply for a Temporary Import Permit (T.I.P.) for our 40-year-old Land Rover and our T.I.P. was 3 days from expiring. We looked up the penalties for overstaying a T.I.P. in Zambia ($150 per day - not a figure that made us comfortable asking for forgiveness rather than permission) and we searched the location of Zambian Customs in Lusaka where we would appeal for an extension. After an hour in the tedious slow ooze that is Lusaka traffic flow, we were on the second floor, room 5 of the Zambia Port Customs Office seated across from Mr. Dennis Mwikisi.

Dennis was tired. Or he seemed tired. Or sick. He slumped, half draped over his desk. He could barely keep his eyes open as we told our story. His mumbled words came from beneath his right hand, which he periodically ran over his face and head as if he were trying to wipe us, and our tale of woe, from his memory. His other arm looked tired too as it was working to hold up his head.
“Not possible,” Dennis burbled into his hand after we requested an extension. We politely implored. After some discussion and, “Sorry, but would you please repeat that please?” Dennis, eager to be rid of us so he could rest, granted a 30-day extension with the proviso that our vehicle be stored in the Customs Vehicle Seizure lot, not at Pioneer camp. 
“Isn’t there any way we can get a longer extension? And can’t we leave our vehicle at Pioneer?”  Scott pushed.
“No,” gasped Dennis. I began to worry that Dennis would expire before our T.I.P. would. His head was almost flat on his desk. Then, from the depths of his responsibilities as a bureaucrat, he suddenly gathered enough strength to say, “Go to the head office on Cairo Road and ask for Mr. Christopher Mwango. Perhaps he can help you.”

So off we went, to the heartbeat of Lusaka that is Cairo Road.

Mr. Mwango was not anywhere near as lethargic as Dennis. Christopher was happily busy at his desk, sitting upright and beaming as broadly as the man in the photo above him – Mr. Michael Sata, the President of Zambia. Nothing held his head up but his neck.
“Fine, fine. Yes, how can I help you?” he said brightly after we introduced ourselves and asked after his health. We explained our situation.
“Oh no, I’m very sorry to hear your news, but extensions past 30 days are impossible.” He paused. “You might see Mr. Dennis Mwikisi at the Port office and inquire with him.”
“We have been to see Mr. Mwikisi and he suggested we see you. The thing is, my mother’s condition is…indefinite. It would be helpful if we had more than 30 days.” And Scott lobbed and Christopher returned until Mr. Mwango finally agreed to extra days. “But you must return to Mr. Mwikisi who will arrange the necessary paperwork. I will phone him now and tell him you are coming. You’ll be charged a storage fee of 18 Kwatcha ($3.00) per day until you return to Zambia.” He rose and extended his hand indicating the match was over. “In any event,” he said merrily, “technically speaking, three days from now, when your T.I.P. expires, we will seize your vehicle.”
We thanked Mr. Mwango for his time and alertness. As I walked out of the office I stopped in the doorway and as an afterthought said, “By the way, what happens if we aren’t back in the time allotted?”
“Then,” he said gravely, “you must buy your vehicle back at public auction.”

“Hurry,” I said to Scott as he drove back towards Mr. Mwikisi’s office. “By the time we get there, Dennis could be on life support!”
We stopped at an Internet Café and quickly composed a “letter of understanding” detailing our discussions with Mr. Mwikisi and Mr. Mwango. “It’s probably only worth the paper it’s written on but it can’t hurt and it might help,” Scott said as a second copy printed.

Back at Dennis’ office we were cheered to see that he was awake, if not more erect. Scott presented the extension agreement we had prepared.  Dennis, elbows splayed out on the desk and holding the document in both hands, not only read the agreement word by word he corrected the spelling of his last name! Then he did something you long to see a government official do when you are requesting the impossible. He stamped it! He stamped the copy too and handed it back to Scott.
“All right,” (all rrrrright) he said, eyes once again at half-mast. “Bring your vehicle tomorrow and I will show you where you can park (pock) it.”

Subdued, we drove back to Pioneer Camp. As we neared the gate Scott turned to me. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Then we talked about all the bad things that could happen. The car could be striped. It could be stolen. If we overstayed our extension we would have to buy her back at auction. What would that cost? We surrendered to the unknown. “It is what it is,” said Scott. “We really have no choice.”

The next morning as Scott drove away I said farewell to our Landy and everything inside her, all we owned in Africa: tools, bedding, a library of books, pots and pans, shoes, clothes, and a pantry full of food. Scott told me later that he parked her next to a seized Range Rover, which for some reason, made me feel better. As if her younger yet more successful brother would watch over her while we were away. The next day we flew back to California not knowing how long we would be gone and wondering if we would ever see N’doto again.

Next: Bread, Ice-Cream and Gin

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