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my adventurous trip to malawi

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    Getting to Malawi from Zimbabwe was quite an adventure. We bought tickets on the “luxury bus” from Harare, Zim to Blantyre, Malawi. We arrived at the station to find the roof of the bus packed 20 feet high with every type of furniture, food, and luggage available in Zimbabwe. Apparently, 20 feet worth of stuff is the limit for the roof, so the interior of the bus was packed – the whole aisle was full, so to get on and off the bus one needed to walk on top of everyone’s luggage. The Malawians are known for being kind and friendly people, and an hour into our trip we had our first experience with their generous nature. We unexpectedly stopped at a market in Malawi and we had no Malawian currency left to buy food for the road. A Malawian woman from our bus overheard our discussion and offered to give us money so we could eat. (Being that Malawians earn in a lifetime what most Americans earn in a year – this is extremely generous, and of course, we could not in good conscious accept.)

    We drove about 12 hours through Mozambique’s infamous Tete Corridor and arrived at the border in the evening. Of course, there was no transport available to the main city so we hitched a ride in the back of a pick-up. This was definitely one of the worst legs of our journey. It was freezing cold and we were going about 120 mph down pitch-black roads, passing other vehicles that had skidded off the road. At one of many police roadblocks, a policeman walked up to Dale in the back of the pick-up, greeted him (“Muli Bwanje”) and then asked him, “Do you have anything for me?” Dale knew well what the cop was after, but pretended he didn’t understand. “What do you mean?” And the cop said again, “Do you have something for me?” And so Dale pretended to be very confused and just look around, until eventually we just drove away. In any case we arrived safely in Blantyre, only to learn later that Malawi is promoting a massive “Arrive Alive” campaign to reduce their excessively high rate of automobile accidents. We agreed at that point that there would be no more pick-up truck rides over long distances or at night. (Impossible to eliminate them totally as they are the only transport in many locations).

    We spent a few days in the city of Blantyre – a laid-back, clean place – getting some business done. Here we were the recipients of yet another Malawian act of kindness. While trying to copy our digital photographs onto a CD-Rom at a cyber cafe, we were confronted with the inevitable African blackout. After waiting several hours for the power to return, the cyber cafe’s owner's brother picked us up, brought us to his home in the suburbs (which had power) and used his personal computer to copy our photos for us. Can't imagine something like that happening in the States...

    Next, we went by public bus to the Zomba Plateau, a lush mountainous area. The 60 mile bus ride took about 4 hours. We stayed at the Zomba Forest Lodge at the top of the mountain. The Lodge has visitors bring their own food that is then prepared by the resident cooks, Robert and Lucius. We were thrilled to bring all our American favorites, but did enjoy Malawian cuisine - maize meal porridge - for breakfast each day. We set out for a hike the first day, only to find that none of the trails were marked (actually, none of the trails even existed) so we just wandered aimlessly in the pine forest following the sun. The next day, we went to the forest office and hired Felix to guide us to the top of the plateau. It was a long and strenuous hike during which Felix called Dana “slowly but surely” for her frustratingly slow hiking pace. We hiked for nearly 9 hours, all the while picking delicious mulunguzi berries (yellow Himalyan raspberries) and blackberries to keep us nourished. Later, while hiking through a mountain village, we heard a cry of “mzungu” (white person) come from the distance, then suddenly there were dozens of small children surrounding us chanting "mzungu". A few of the braver ones ventured forward to touch Dale’s hands (this has been a very common experience in un-touristy places in Africa – people are not used to seeing white people and want to touch us unfamiliar creatures). Dale swung the two tiny tots up in the air, and all the children began shrieking with delight. Seeing Dana as a less threatening sort, 10 children circled around her – one holding each finger- and all began gesturing for her to pick them up and swing them. Dale and Dana took turns giving all the children a mzungu swing.

    Our next destination was Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi. Despite promises by the Lonely Planet guide book that getting around Malawi is quick and easy, this was a day and a half ordeal. We arrived in the town of Monkey Bay in the evening, and sticking to our “no pick-up trucks at night" rule we were stuck there overnight. We were escorted by two money-hungry, marijuana-smoking boys to the Venice Beach Resort. (Advice to other travelers – do not go there unless desperate). This place has been under construction for years but for some reason only 2 rooms out of 20 are semi-complete and there was no running water. The whole staff was stoned out of their minds the entire time and encouraged all their friends to try to sell us ugly bracelets so they could purchase more marijuana – affectionately called locally, “Malawi wowie”. (The owner of the place lives in Venice Beach, CA and apparently has no idea what’s going on in Malawi). We couldn’t wait to get out of there in the morning, when we boarded the back of a pick-up to take us to Cape Maclear.

    The Cape Maclear pick-up truck was piled high with bags of maize meal flower and a dozen other passengers. We sat on top of the flour bags and hung on for our lives on the bumpy ride – things kept falling out of the truck but fortunately we stayed on - and made it alive but covered head to toe in flour. We checked into The Backpacker’s Ritz (which is a clean cement block but otherwise has nothing ritzy about it) and set out to explore. Cape Maclear is a poor traditional mud-hut village set in a secluded beach on the beautiful, turquoise Lake Malawi. It is by far the poorest area we had been to in Africa. With a 1:3 AIDS rate in Malawi, this small village was being decimated by the disease. In the week prior to our arrival, 10 people had died (1/2 children, 1/2 young adults). This was the first place we had been where people really looked sick and hungry, with many children wandering around with huge distended stomachs and as Graham Greene puts it, “belly buttons like doorknobs”. There were some Israelis in town doing AIDS education, but so much more is needed. Obviously, food is quite scarce – with the exception of maize meal dishes – so we ate a lot of nsima (maize meal porridge). There was a local pizza place (see pic) that was nothing more than a brick oven sitting on the beach where we were able to get a decent pizza. (Cape Maclear is the kind of place where one day there’s cheese in the village, the next 3 days there isn’t – so we were pretty lucky.) We braved the dreaded freshwater disease, bilharzia, and went scuba diving in the lake. Perfect diving for Dana - shallow, crystal clear, no waves, and only small fish - nothing scary at all.

    We headed next to the northern beach town of Nkhata Bay. This was also a two day ordeal, culminated with a ride in a minibus that sported a windshield smashed in two places – two large, round bloody indentations in perfect position above the 2 passenger seats in the front row. Of course the driver had his license revoked, but that didn’t stop him from continuing his bus service (and at one point this lack of a driving license created a nice delay at a police checkpoint). In stark contrast to the poverty of Cape Maclear, Nkhata Bay is a thriving, bustling town with a variety of foods and beverages that were lacking in Cape Maclear. We stayed at Njaya on the beach (see pic) and ate and drank in a gluttonous manner to feed our hungry bodies. Nkhata Bay has a nice little cafe called Papaya's in the town center where Dale spent hours learning and playing the African game Bowa. It's one of those games that seems to have no clear set of rules, strategy, etc, and depending on who you ask, and their level of intoxication, you get a different story. We did lots of walking around Nkhata Bay escorted at all times by Njaya's resident dogs who embarrassed us regularly by trying to eat all the chickens and lizards on our route (and sometimes they were successful). Also amusing in Nkhata Bay were football matches played by local prisoners (there is a jail right in town) who seemed generally free to roam around town as they wished. From here we planned to catch the famous Ilala ferry (see pic) from Nkhata Bay to northern Malawi from where we were going to cross into Tanzania.

    The Ilala is the pride of Malawi - a pride that is not diminished in the least by the fact that the Ilala is chronically late or a total no-show. Just finding out the schedule is a bit of an ordeal – the conversation with the ferry office might go something like this:
    Us: “Does the Ilala stop in Itungi?”
    Them: “Yes…probably”
    Us: “When will it arrive?”
    Them: “In a few days.”
    Us: “How much does it cost?”
    Them: blank stare

    Of course, the Ilala left literally 12 hours late for our journey, so we also arrived at our destination 12 hours late, even though all the while the crew insisted that we would arrive at the scheduled time (because the schedule said so). As we sat on board at the dock, dozens of Malawians boarded the Ilala just to have their photograph taken on this famous ferry. Many were so amused to see mzungu (white people) onboard that they insisted on being photographed with us. Unlike the many Africans we meet who insist on payment for being photographed, we provided our modeling service for free.

    The Ilala journey was 12 hours long and deposited us in a town called Chilumba at about 2 a.m. Walking through the darkened streets of Chilumba (with the prostitutes and drug addicts) at 2 a.m., we were unable to find a guesthouse that was open. Fortunately, someone looking for extra money for some illegal action agreed to rent us his "room" in what appeared to be a crackhouse for a few Malawian Kwacha. This room had a single bed in it and that's it. There were no sheets, electricity, door-lock, etc. (Dana is quite certain that upon hearing of this experience, Dale will quickly fall out of favor with her parents.) We spent 3 sleepless hours listening to the other "guests" go about their business before boarding the 5 am bus to the Tanzanian border. Our journey went from bad to worse as for 6 hours the jam-packed mini-bus spewed pollution directly into the passenger area. The air inside the bus was thick with these emissions and we're quite sure this journey took about 5 years off our lives and killed a large number of brain cells. We were only partially relieved to change minibuses halfway – when a fistfight broke out among the highly competitive bus drivers as to who would take the mzungu to the Tanzanian border. We told them we weren’t taking anyone’s bus until they all got a grip, and eventually, we made it to the border still in one piece.

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