27 November 2009

Full tank, please

There was a petrol crisis in Zambia. There were long lines whenever petrol/diesel came into each fuel station. I was out of petrol and walking to lab (7 km / 70 minute walk) for a couple of days or so before I bit the bullet and waited in line. The plan was simple, I would drive the car to the petrol station that's about 300 metres from my house at the early hours of 5 way before anybody else got there. As soon as the station opened I would be the first at the pump, get my tank filled, and drive off into the sunrise. Brilliant plan, even if I say so myself.

So I woke up, picked up my reading for the day and got to the petrol pump. Apparently, other people had the same idea... to be fair though, one of them looked quite desperate for fuel.

So, a small hitch in my brilliant plan. But nothing too bad. I was still 5th in line, and should manage to get some petrol. So I asked the attendant when the station would open and when fuel is expected to come in. Station opens at 7 and fuel might come in by 10.30. Great! So I settled down for a long wait with a book in hand and the occasional foray outside to scan for a fuel truck. Luckily there was a shop right by the pump and I was able to find some 'healthy' sustenance in the form of crisps and water. Hey, I was working hard by waking up early so thought I should reward myself.

As time went on the station started to get crowded. Quite a few people had made a side business of filling fuel in all sorts of containers and selling it on the 'black market.' I was offered generous deals by a few well meaning individuals, at only 2-4 times the official rate. They assured me that the fuel would only come at 17.30 (about 12 hours from when I started waiting). I told them I'd wait and they shook their heads indreculously at the foolishness of the foriegner. The last thing I needed was adulterated petrol in the tank... then no car, no fuel, and I'd be out a few tens of millions trying to replace the fuel system on the car. I did feel sorry for these entrepreneurs when the owner of the station came out and kicked all the used milk cans away. Only approved petrol containers at this station. The black marketeers were persistent and kept putting their plastic cans back, but I didn't see any of them get any fuel. Safety first I suppose.

I had some time to reflect on the political grandstanding and what had led to the crisis. The country's sole refinery had shut down for maintenance and government had ordered refined fuel from Kuwait. Government had refused to acknowledge that there was a fuel crisis and said they had ordered enough and were going to figure out where all the fuel was. They implied that people were buying extra fuel and hoarding it. Inspectors were sent to petrol stations to make sure that the stations were not holding back fuel. A prominent opposition leader took jerry cans to a petrol pump and asked for fuel in a well-photographed event. Eventually the President had to step in and order the energy ministry to bring in more fuel. Though unhappy about the situation, he let the energy minister continue in his post to be answerable to the public. The government announced that there would be no duties on imported fuel... but they didn't sign it into law so the fuel companies refused to import. It would be their trucks stuck on the border if the customs officials refused to take their word for it, you see. Also, the fuel companies were angling for a higher petrol price as (apparently) they could not make any profit with the current price of fuel even with no import taxes ! So I guess normally they are all non-profit organisations and don't make any money selling at the government approved prices. And they are so generous that they open new petrol pumps every couple of blocks.

With the sun coming out with a vengeance and having woken up early, people all around me were starting to drop off. This guy looked very comfortable... I wish I could sleep like that when the Sun was out.

I got a lucky break and the driver in front of me decided he had enough of waiting and wanted to leave. He was blocked on all sides and had to do some complex jigsaw-puzzle type manouvering to get his car out. So now I was just fourth from the front. Exciting times. I got into discussions with drivers in the neighbouring vehicles about the crises. Their opinions were that the crisis was artificially created so that some higher-ups could line their retirement funds due to kickbacks. It's always possible, but I thought the amount of money lost from not having fuel for a couple of weeks was far greater than the amount gained from any shady deals. I'm sure we'll find out when the next government comes into power what these guys were up to. As we were talking, the much awaited tanker rolled in. The driver of that thing was everyone's favourite for miles, I tell you... women were throwing panties at him, people were fainting... nah, just kidding. He looked fairly harassed and wanted to get the fuel offloaded as soon as possible. Following the tanker were about 50 cars. People have taken to staying behind any tanker that comes in, following it to the station, and waiting patiently for petrol. Smart !

So now it was a relatively short wait... just an hour and a half... for the tanker to be offloaded and for the pumps to start. Everyone was excited, but then a potential hitch showed up. The first car at the pump, the Hummer, had no driver. Apparently it had been parked by the pump all night. We were hoping that the owner would show up at some point, otherwise we were all going to be stuck. There was no way a tow-truck was getting through the crowd. Apparently Mr Hummer had told some of the petrol pump attendants to phone him when the pumps started up, but nobody knew if he was coming or not. And then another odd thought struck us, how big was the fuel tank of that car? Would we get any fuel after it was done filling? Well, then Mr Hummer showed up and immediately was on the mobile, right in front of clearly marked signs saying No mobile usage allowed. I guess since there was no fuel being dispensed, maybe he thought he was safe from battery sparks. None of the attendants tried to stop him either. I guess they thought if he wants to set himself on fire, let him. To bring back an earlier thought, safety first, as long as you are poor. You have the right to immolate yourself and set fire to the station as long as you can pay for the damage.

The tanker finally offloaded and we all got into our cars in anticipation. All the other pumps started working, except the one I was behind. Yes... I had been waiting for 6 hours behind a hummer and a few other cars at a petrol pump that was out of order. It was a little funny seeing Mr Hummer's antics, he got fairly angry although he had not been waiting at all. I've sort of got used to Murphy being a constant companion, so it didn't faze me at all. I quickly made deals with the cars waiting next to me and they kindly allowed me to join their line. I, in turn, let the car in front of me at the non working pump jump into line. Amazing that people didn't blow their top. There was a further hitch, with the attendants refusing to put petrol in cars where the fuel door was on the opposite side of the car, away from the pump. So started more jigsaw puzzles, with cars (the ones that joined from the non-working pump line) having to turn around and face the line to get petrol. There's another half an hour of my life I won't be getting back. Of course nobody was controlling traffic and the station was packed so it took a long time for each car to drive out, turn, reverse, and have the fuel door face the pump. Then it took a long time for them to get out by reversing the procedure.

Finally... my turn... after about 7 long hours, "Full tank, please."