Malawi Wowee!

Trip Start Jun 19, 2005
Trip End Jun 19, 2006

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Tuesday, September 6, 2005

It's been almost a month since we last wrote, and as summer comes to a close we cannot believe how time is flying! Mike asked H before we left, Africa for 3 months? What will we DO? Well, that has pretty much taken care of itself. One thing that has become very apparent in our travels through Africa, the journey from A to B has been at least as, and at times more memorable than the destination. Case in point: the one-day odyssey between Mozambique and Malawi.

We awoke in the transit town of Cuamba at 4:30am and sprinted through the dark, dusty and deserted streets in search of a minibus that would take us west to the border. Our timing was perfect! We arrived just as the impossibly roomy van pulled into a random dirt lot. High fives all around as we loaded our gear and took our seats. The driver hit the gas and his lieutenant began the familiar routine of calling out the vehicle's destination in order to entice additional passengers. Before the minibus was deemed sufficiently full, we had circled the town for over an hour, repeatedly passing our hotel until, staring straight ahead with the glazed eyes of pre-dawn disappointment and discomfort, we finally began the trip. The 12-seat van held 29 people and somehow had enough juice left over to power a treble-only sound system used to broadcast a local DJ's maddening attempt to bid a rowdy good morning to every individual living in Mozambique.

We managed to complete almost one dusty, bumpy hour of the three-hour trip before the van dropped its transmission and limped to a halt in the middle of nowhere. After a great deal of discussion between the driver and the other passengers, the gist of which seemed to be what to do with these stranded muzungos, Mike flagged down a passing flatbed semi whose driver agreed to add us to his haul, and just like that we were off again. Sitting atop an unidentified pile of cargo, we were soon covered in blowing dust. But we had all the room in the world and, heads propped on our bags, dawned our iPods to add a soundtrack to the National Geographic-like tableau of naked children running barefoot past thatched huts, waving and laughing as they chased our truck. We were definitely in Africa.

Once at the border, we fought our way through the throngs of aggressive money changers on the Mozambique side, and found a hole-in-the wall eatery which despite its dubious sanitation standards was the only show in town. We ordered up some rice and beans and washed them down with cold beer, all under the watchful eyes of a crowd of young boys who seemed determined to take us for a ride on their bicycle "taxis". This turned out to be the only way to negotiate the 7km that divide the immigration posts, so we each chose a rider, haggled until everyone seemed equally disappointed with the price, and hit the road. The weight of their passengers and our baggage failed to deter the boys' laughter, let alone their assiduous pedaling as they raced each other over the rolling pot-holed hills.

Crossing into Malawi after one final haggle with the bicycle taxi boys, we jumped into a tiny pickup truck jam-packed with locals and their cassava roots, chickens and children. Thus began a series of transfers to progressively bigger and more absurdly full trucks, culminating in a final, excruciating sunset ride to Cape Maclear on the southern shores of Lake Malawi; thus ended one very full day of travel in Africa.

We spent almost the entire three weeks in Malawi on and around the lake, beginning with a two-day journey on a ferry called the Ilala. During the day we lounged on deck with fellow travelers, and at night we slept under the stars as the old-school steamer made its way gradually northward toward Nkhata Bay. Lake Malawi looks and feels like an ocean, though the warm, crystal clear fresh water is in some ways more inviting for its lack of salt and scary things that might eat you. Once settled in at the scenic Myoka Village in Nkhata Bay, with its fresh press coffee and veg meals, rustic lakeshore bungalows and unique mix of local and muzungo visitors, we vowed to stay in one place for at least 2 weeks for the first time on our trip. This plan hit the skids when the clothes we naively handed over for a much-needed professional cleaning were stolen from the drying line during our first night. We know what you're thinking - someone actually wanted Mike and Heather's clothes?! Were they trying to save us from ourselves, a kind of fashion euthanasia? We choose to think not. Hey, we may not turn heads in Portland, but by African standards we had it going on. (An interesting side-note: most of the clothes the locals wear seem to have been plucked directly from the Goodwill bins at home, circa 1990. So, as we head out to replenish our clothing supply there's a good chance we may be lucky enough to find a pair of jeans we wore in high school. The problem is they may not fit, since we seem to be the only two people in history to have gained weight in Africa). Anyway, the theft resulted in Heather's immediate disdain for all things Myoka, as well as Mike spending a great deal of the ensuing weeks going commando. Unsatisfied with the half-hearted police response, H assumed the role of clothes detective, scouring the city for boys bathing in her underwear, and shouting "Give me my jacket," in response to the hello's she received from suspects/villagers.

In dire need of a break from the case, we decided to take to the lake on kayaks. We spent three days paddling more than 75 km's north along the coast, waving to children as they emerged from their huts screaming "Azungo! Azungo!". Needless to say, kids running along Lake Michigan's shore screaming "White people! White people!" might not fly, but in this context it was just right, especially when they came to meet us in their dugout canoes, asking us our names, countries of origin and destination before they thanked us and rejoined their friends to tell them all about the encounter. We stopped during the days to jump off rocks and snorkel, or just meander around the shores where ancient Boab trees stand like sage sentries. At night, we camped out, cooking communal meals over an open fire. Once we reached our destination, we decided to hike back down south about ten miles through small villages to rejoin some folks we met at a lodge along the way. As we walked, we reveled in our commerce-free interactions with some of the friendliest people on the planet, who for now remain relatively untouched by tourism. We arrived hot and tired at our destination, a secluded beach lodge run by a very cool couple from the UK. We ended up making fast friends with the proprietors of this magical little lakeside oasis, and their friends from home who happened to be there for a visit. We kicked back in hammocks, ate delicious food and generally recreated, including some very intense table tennis played with hand-made paddles and a net made from mosquito netting - very Gilligan's Island. When their food and drink supply finally dried up, the Brits suggested we travel en masse back to Nkhata Bay. Once again, the journey was half the fun - bailing water from the boat that took us from shore to dilapidated ferry and arriving after dark under a sparkling starry sky.

H immediately resumed her investigation with renewed vigor. After several unsuccessful attempts to navigate the bureaucratic obstacles inherent in third world government agencies, H found herself accused by the Chief of Police of falsifying the cost of a Nike sports bra, worth about one month of his wages. The Chief's insistence that his trip to Mexico several years ago qualified him to estimate the value of the bra at approximately $7 inspired our friend Greg's outrage. He entered the fray, and while we are unsure whether it was his erudite argument or his bald head, tooth-mounted diamond and full-body tattoo that did the trick, he provided ample support (excuse the bra pun) for H's claim. The report was written, then typed, then double-checked and paid for ($20 to file a police report in Malawi), and we were free to go. Only in Africa.

We hung with Greg and the Brits another couple days, making our way gradually north toward Tanzania and the inevitable adieu. We have been so fortunate to meet and travel with such amazing people over the last few weeks, and while we have been looking forward to the freedom and feeling of accomplishment that comes with traveling alone, we already miss our companions and hope to see them again.

We left Southern Africa with fewer clothes but more friends than we had before, as well as a newfound appreciation for the region and its people. H has been particularly at home here, as the locals call her sister and manage to match her speaking volume decibel for decibel. We crossed the border into Tanzania yesterday and once again have been welcomed with open arms. We have both become very comfortable being the only mazungos on a bus, in a restaurant or even in a town, as seems to be the case here in Mbeya where we await a train that is scheduled to depart for Dar this afternoon. Our immediate plans include a clothes shopping spree in Dar, lounging and diving in Zanzibar and then heading north for a safari in the Serengeti. It's a rough life, but someone's got to do it! Back atcha soon...
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