Travel Africa by car; go ahead, I dare you. Flat tires and sore bottoms from endless dirt roads are guaranteed, and so is a generous load of adventure. In six month in Central America driving 1971 VW old-timer “GreenGo”, I haven’t had half the trouble I am now having with a 1997 Toyota Hilux named “Columbus”, a professionally maintained long-term rental.
Funny things have been happening from the very beginning. Loose steering, faulty gearbox, and parts missing in the rear suspension are long lost in the dusty pages of history books and will only surface upon return back to the rental company. But out of all the mechanical adventures, the most recent breakdown happened in the most inconvenient place.
A mountainous Zomba Plateau is covered with high-altitude temperate forest with tree ferns, waterfalls, and orange blackberries I stopped to feast on every few meters. Following the loop road through the plateau’s highest point, Columbus was making heavy though not strenuous breaths. Forest fires were all around; the ground, rocks, and surviving plants were covered with a thick layer of soot and ash. All this must have been too depressing for Columbus to see "“ he began sobbing and then fainted. Knowing what a prima donna Columbus can be, I tried to revive Columbus, but it showed little will to live and remained unconscious. A paramedic with a defibrillator could give sweet Columbus a chance to flash his headlights again, but I was high on a mountain, miles away from any villages, with only a few passers-by giving me curious looks.
I would still be standing on top of that mountain if one of them didn’t approach to strike a deal. “I go to hotel and bring mechanic and then I charge you.”
“How far is the hotel?” I said.
“Five kilometers.” Everything was five kilometers away according to my new friend "“ the hotel, his village, the river, the moon… “I come back, and I charge you, ok?”
“How much do you want?”
“I come back, and I charge you, ok?” he answered after a minute of what looked like intense brain activity. Another half an hour of the same discussion did not generate a price tag. I wrote a simple letter for the hotel manager and sent the man off, promising to keep an eye on his cargo – an umbrella and a big bag of celery. Half an hour later another man came by. He asked what was wrong. “Breakdown,” I replied. “I wait for my brother.” said the man. Apparently, my messenger buddy sent him to make sure I didn’t revive Columbus myself and just leave, or worse, take his cargo with me. I tried to engage him in conversation, but his answer to most questions was “five kilometers.”
Long after the sky turned as black as the charcoaled plateau, the messenger returned with a mechanic. I gave him all the kwacha I had, though he wanted four times as much, probably because the hotel was farther then the previously estimated five kilometers and he had time to think about his bounty, but that was all I had. The dollars I saved for the mechanic, who quickly determined Columbus had a dirty carburetor. He gave the car an awakening jolt, and set me back sixty dollars the way any respectable doctor who makes house calls should.