That was the question of the day on Friday when our “new” car (new to us) was on the ’empty’ line of the gas gage. As I’ve mentioned before gas (or petrol as it is called here) is in short supply or maybe I should say controlled supply. Within three minutes of our house there are at least six stations but in the two weeks we’ve been here they are only open one at a time with a long line of cars waiting to fill up. People line up before the tanker arrives once they hear it is coming.
Wednesday night Randy arrived from the hospital at about 7:00 saying there was a line at one of the stations, but thinking it might lessen and needing to relax, he sat down for a while. Then the power went out so I couldn’t cook dinner anyway. So we hopped in the car and went over to experience the petrol line. We got in line, turning the engine on and off, inching our way closer to the pumps. An hour and a half later, just 3 cars from the pump, the gas was gone! No more petrol! We returned home at 9:00, sobered by the unsatisfying experience and not very hungry even though we had power again.
So it became my job to figure out how we were going to get gas and be the lackey to wait in line for it. Many car owners have “someone” to do that job for them (or so we hear) along with other “ways” of finding out where gas will be available on a particular day. My way was to first pray for wisdom and success, then I made an alias so I could go on Facebook to join the Malawi Fuel Watch group (yes there really is one and no I don’t yet want my real identity on Facebook). Friday morning I checked the ‘Watch’ and heard of one place that I thought would be fairly close. I have only driven here twice and don’t know my way around AND driving is on the left, British style so this was out of my comfort zone. I dropped Randy off at the hospital and went in search of petrol. He told me I probably had a couple of gallons and the car would likely get 20 miles per gallon, I didn’t want to be the one to push that envelop.
After driving around for awhile, seeing all the stations with cones or tires in the bays next to the pumps (meaning “closed–no petrol”) and watching the gas gage on my dashboard drop even further, I decided to go back to the house to check on Fuel Watch again. I passed one place that had some cars sitting in the bays so I pulled into the pump. The gas attendant (they still have them here) said it would be coming sometime but he didn’t know when. He said he would check my oil and water levels “free, no charge”. Of course he told me that the water was “dirty” and would have been ready to remedy it for me for a small fee. I declined since the car is to be inspected next week for insurance purposes. It was only later that I realized this might have been an invitation to give me the “inside scoop” on the petrol if I’d been willing to tip him for his expertise.
After several hours a post came up that there was petrol at a station close by. I jumped in the car, said a prayer again that I wouldn’t run out while waiting in line. I had to stop at two other stations of the same brand before I finally found the one that actually was pumping. Eureka! I found it! The petrol line! The station with gas! Oh, thank you, Lord!
Now my prayer was that I wouldn’t run out while sitting in line and that it wouldn’t be a repeat of what Randy and I had experienced several nights before. The line was about a mile long when I joined it. For the longest time it seemed I was the last car. I felt this was an ominous sign. But I was thankful to be even this close to the possibility of filling up. This became my view as I slowly inched our way ever closer to the station.
Although I did not get out to look in every car, I am fairly sure I was one of the few white people in line (maybe the only one) and definitely the only older woman in line.
A line of people sitting still in cars is a captive audience for the local entrepreneurs. I was offered windshield wipers, peanuts, belts, phone chargers, newspapers and phone minutes. I had lots of opportunities to practice my chichewa greetings and “Sindikufuna kugula” (‘I do not wish it today’), a very polite phrase that seems to cause even the most ardent salesman to move on.
Thanksgiving and joy is what I felt when I finally pulled into the station’s driveway and was waved to a pump. I made it! By now I could also see that the line of cars behind me had grown quite long so maybe I was at the beginning of the distribution time rather than the end.
Beauty and wonder had prevailed in the respectfulness of humans one to another in the midst of a limited commodity and in the mysterious, unrecognizable but somehow present orderliness of a single line of cars filing into eight pumping islands to align with whatever side of the car their gas cap was on.
Then it hit me, did I have enough cash to fill the tank? How much would it cost? Everything is cash here, no credit cards of any kind. I watched the man in front of me fill his tank. The numbers rolling over and over into the thousands ($1.00=168K official rate or $1.00=270K street rate, you do the math).
Now, it was my turn. I told the attendant I wasn’t sure how much the gas tank would hold and that I only had 20,000K. He said he’d fill it with 10,000K and then start again and see how far it went ( this was because there was a 10,000K limit and he was doing me a favor). I watched the line on the gas gage steadily climb as my thirsty gas tank was filled. At 16,200K he stopped. It was full! (Not sure how many gallons it took because its all in liters but gas is about $8.00/gallon! Ouch!) I wanted to get out of the car and do a little happy dance but I don’t think the car behind me would have appreciated it. Instead I drove back to the house rejoicing and thanking God for another learning experience in Malawian culture and His provision in all things. Then I texted Randy and told him he would not have to walk home from the hospital after all.