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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Grocery shopping gone wrong

There's a lot of people on the base these days and the pantry gets emptied pretty quickly as a result.  Groceries are fairly expensive here in Zambia so we try to send a truck to Namibia every month or so to buy groceries in bulk in order to save money.  Even though it's about 100 miles to Katima Mulilo, Namibia, from Livingstone it's well worth it to send a truck to buy 1,500 pounds of groceries since it's so much cheaper.  So, even though it's a routine event to buy groceries in another country, this time it turned out to be very different.

I and 8 other people got up before 5AM last Friday the 10th to cross the border early and make it back before it closed at 6PM so we wouldn't be forced to spend the night in Namibia.  We made it to the border just fine but as we were getting our passports stamped we realized that we were missing a vital piece of paperwork for the truck.  The paperwork that we had with us had expired and the current papers had been accidentally left at the office back at the base, much to far away to turn back to pick up.  Our driver eventually ended up working it out with the border officers to let us across on the expired paperwork since we were only going for the day but we still lost about 2 hours in the process.
Waiting at the border crossing

We arrived in Katima around noon, much later than we had planned, and we only had until about 4 to get all of our shopping done before we had to head back to the border crossing.  We all had different things to get so we split up and met again for lunch.  I ended up going to 4 hardware stores, 2 auto parts stores, and a supermarket and still didn't find everything I needed while the others split up between 3 grocery stores and a couple other locations.

We finished our shopping and made it back to the border crossing around 5:30.  The sun had just gone down and it was starting to cool off so we had to bundle up for the long ride home.  There were 6 of us in the back of the canvas-topped truck all huddled together under blankets and in sleeping bags just waiting out the drive.  Things were going really well until the brakes failed.  It was the kind of brake failure where the rear brakes stuck and never released, kind of like when someone forgets to take off the parking brake and then drives around all day.  Anyway, the smell of the hot brakes made us pull over and assess the situation.  So there we were, tired from getting up early and shopping all day, cold from the ride in the back of the truck, it's dark since the sun had long since gone down, and we're on the side of the road with seized brakes about 25 miles from anything and about 2 hours away from the base.  Luckily, everyone was in a kind of goofy mood at this point and we weren't going to starve since we had just bought $5,000 worth of groceries.

I poked around under the truck inspecting the brakes and Jack, our driver, made some phone calls to the guys at the base as we tried to work out a solution.  Things got worse when we tried to re-start the truck and realized that the batteries had died.  After flagging down about 10 vehicles that didn't have jumper cables an 18-wheeler stopped for us and loaned us two batteries to get us going again.  While we were hooking up the batteries, we fixed the brakes by doing some adjustments to the rear brake mechanism.  The borrowed batteries got us started right up so we thanked the truckers by offering them a case of peanut butter and we were on our way again.

We eventually got back to the base around 2AM after dealing with the continually dropping temperature, towing a broken down mini-bus, and having to roll-start the truck down a hill in downtown Livingstone.  The day just would not end, and our "routine" grocery run had turned into a 22-hour marathon of crazy African events.

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