Monday, February 14, 2011

Africa - Malawi

Written in the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Nairobi, February 9, 2011

As I mentioned earlier, Malawi is a beautiful country. The Malawians are very friendly and we are constantly waving our hands at smiling faces as our truck rolls by. In Kenya and Tanzania children almost always ran out to the roadside yelling and waving at us with great excitement and big smiles on their faces. But here in Malawi everyone waves: the woman carrying her wash out to the drying rack shifts her load to one arm so she can raise the other in greeting as we race along; the teenager riding a bike laden with charcoal or things from the market nods his head and smiles widely; the women clustered around the town pump doing their laundry pause to look up and wave; the workers hoeing weeds in their carefully tended fields of maize also wave. It becomes a sort of game to me to see who will wave first, me or them.

Doing the wash at the town pump - Malawi
Countryside view - Malawi
After traveling quite a bit by now in 3rd world countries I've become disdainful about outwardly friendly gestures made by locals on the streets. "Hello there. Where are you from?" In Africa especially you're constantly being pitched by street touts and hawkers to buy this or that; sometimes they just out and ask you to give them money. And they're persistent. This is very annoying to me and it got old fast. But these rural people are not asking for anything, cannot ask for anything. They do it because they're friendly and I believe, happy. When you see the beautiful farm plots, the carefully swept yards, the simple but neat brick houses, the smiling faces, you must conclude that something good is happening in Malawi. I've talked to more than one of my fellow travelers who told me they experienced a twinge of real emotion -- "tears filled my eyes" one friend said -- as they took in the reality of being made to feel welcome in such a genuine fashion. These people will never see us again. We cannot give them anything but a return wave. And that seems to be just fine. Malawi was one of the high points of my safari.

Malawi fields and farms are neat and weed free

Along the road in Malawi

We stopped for a bag of charcoal along the road somewhere just north of our first stop at Chitimba Camp on Lake Malawi. On that day Mwangi happened to have had his iPod plugged into the truck's sound system so there was reggae music playing when our camp chef, Mr. Mwoi, jumped out to buy the charcoal. Kids appeared from everywhere and began dancing alongside our truck. Beautiful kids, smiling kids, happy kids. It was wonderful!

Kids greet us at a stop for charcoal (video below)

Happy kids running alongside our truck

We spent two nights at each of two campgrounds on Lake Malawi, Chitimba Camp and Kande Beach. They were a welcome and enjoyable interlude in our ambitious schedule. The overland tours all work this way I suspect. We race across many miles of less interesting country to spend time in the nicer areas; four days on Zanzibar, the three day side trip to Ngonongoro and the Serengeti, and now these four days on Lake Malawi. At Kande Beach the water was crystal clear and warm and there was a volleyball net on the beach. It was ragged and sagged quite a bit but people had a great time of it. We had taken up a collection so Mwangi could make punch that first night at Kande. He bought 3 bottles of Malawi rum, lots of vodka and gin, some brandy and assorted fruit juices. When he was finished we literally had a barrel of strong punch to drink after dinner. Some of us later that evening unintentionally learned where this mixture got its name.

Mwangi gets help making the punch from Liz and Kelsy
After dinner and with the barrel of punch under our belts we adjourned to the bar for more alcohol inspired "conversation" and other party type behavior. Before too long one of the Canadian gals was up on the bar dancing. Soon the bar was crowded with dancing campers. It ended up being quite a late night. I see now why Mwangi arranged our party for the first day of our two day visit. He's been there and done that before. It got windy later on and a light rain began to fall. I like a bit of weather, especially when the rain is so warm, so I took a walk out to the water's edge to ruminate on my Africa trip. We had a great crew and some wonderful people to travel with. I view our contingent in groups according to where they're from. Hence we had the Canadians, the English, the Aussies, the Kiwis, the Austrians and the Alaskans. And one guy from the Czech Republic. Desan lives and works in New Zealand so I include him in that group. We also had a wide range of ages, a good thing I reckon. Herb, one of the Aussies, from Perth, and I were the elders with a retired couple from Austria, Helmut and Monica, not far behind. We had several good people from England, Helen and Katy, and Peter, some middle aged folks from Australia, Wayne and Sandra, who were traveling with their 18 year old son, Stuart, another young Aussie couple, Jamie and Lisa, Pixie from Perth who was on her way back to Australia to begin college, Chris and Amy from New Zealand, and the Canadians, Andrew, Kathleen, Shannon, Liz, Kelsy, Dave, and Crystal.

I recalled the day we all met back in Nairobi for our orientation meeting. As I scanned the room my gaze stopped at Liz, Shannon and Kathleen who were chattering away with their friends, Dave and Andrew and thought, Oh shit, there's a bunch of twenty-somethings! Little did I know at the time how interesting and friendly these recently graduated Canadian lawyers would be. Or that Dave would be offering me a helping hand when our raft overturned in the Zambezi River a few weeks later.

I had this thought too: I am making friends. I love meeting new people and that's perhaps the best thing that can happen when you travel. Travel takes you out of your everyday sometimes hum-drum existence and puts you in situations where you will make connections with people. My Africa experience wasn't perfect but the folks I met on the tour were certainly cool.

I felt my shirt starting to soak through so I edged my way back to the bar. Jamie and Lisa were still there lip syncing to some songs by the Choir Boys and a group calling themselves Powderfinger. How, I wondered, did it happen that this bar in the middle of Malawi had songs these guys knew so well? I later learned they had connected their iPod to the bar's speaker system. DOH! Jamie and Lisa "closed the bar" that evening.

Next day was another beauty although most of us missed the sunrise, myself included. That evening I can tell you there was a quite bit less drinking going on. Some of us played volleyball and some were content to simply watch the beautiful sunset with a beer in one hand and a camera in the other. That night Mwoi and the crew surprised us with a treat for dinner. All day long I had been watching out of one corner of my eye some guys in a nearby campsite roasting a small pig over a charcoal fire. I hadn't guessed it was gonna be our pig roast. Mr. Mwoi did himself proud when he served us platefuls of roast pork, baked potatoes, and a delicious bowl of curried fresh greens. I had a couple more beers and turned in early. We'd need to be up at the crack of dawn for our border crossing into Zambia.

Volleyball game on Kande Beach

Our fabulous Africa Travel Co. crew relaxing : Mwoi (cook), Mwangi (captain), and Nick (driver)

Sunset at Kande Beach - Malawi