February 12, 2017
Malonda koma kuitanira: Sell, but advertise first
~ Malawian Proverb
This Sunday morning has me sitting at a corner desk in my thatched room looking out at Lake Malawi. Sunrise is behind me and the light is soft. There are big dark billowing clouds forming to the north and I can see them coming toward us. This experience is so different from Shamwana, where I only got out of the village every six to ten weeks. Here, our weekends are free and since the country is not at war, we can move about as we are able or inclined. Pat and Stacy are leaving tomorrow and I felt like they couldn’t come all this way and not see the lake. It was a haul to get here, but nevertheless, we persisted. We must get back to Blantyre today, however, and those clouds are making me nervous.
Cape Maclear is a small cape that juts into the lake at the southernmost tip in Monkey Bay. It’s difficult to get to, as it requires going up and over the mountains that form the semicircle protecting it. The landscape is incredibly unique and beautiful and one of the islands visible from here is National Park. There are lots of places to stay along the enormous lake, but I love this one with it’s fishing village and local activity using the lake for all their housekeeping and hygiene needs. Not being a swimmer, I’d rather watch the scene than swim and having had some nervous inquiries about schistosomiasis, I figured Pat and Stacy would too. There isn’t a risk of being eaten by crocodiles here, but with all the local bathing that goes on, the risk of getting schisto is real. So I thought weaving a cultural thread into the lake visit would be loved by one and all. (The jury is still out on that one.)
I was here nearly ten years ago when I was on holiday from working in Shamwana. I spent two weeks traveling in Malawi, and made my way by mini bus to Monkey Bay, then matolo to Cape Maclear. There is no public transportation to the cape, but there are flatbed trucks (matolo) that transport goods and people over the rough road, up and down the mountain to this little paradise. Being buried under a crowd of people, trying not to get crushed by bags of maize, I didn’t see much of the scenery on the way in last time. So Friday, I was hoping to enjoy the scenery and get here early enough to be over that road well before dark, sitting with a drink watching the sunset. George is in the midst of end-of-term crunch and was stressing about being away two weekends in a row, so he stayed home to get his work done. I was soloing as tour guide. Valuing our friendship, I knew better than to make Pat and Stacy ride on a matolo, so rented a car for the weekend. They’ve been very good sports so far and I didn’t want to push it any further than the minibus ride last weekend. Plus, it would have taken the whole weekend to get here by bus, so a car was the only way to do it. It’s only 135 miles from Blantyre, but with the roads as they are, that’s a five hour journey. I knew it would be a push, since we couldn’t leave until around one on Friday afternoon, but nevertheless, we persisted.
Some of the local organizations rent their cars on weekends to help pay for them, and a friend had had good luck with a car she got from the Malaria Project, so I gave them a call. I told them where we were going, wanting to be sure the car would make it over the dirt road to the cape. I was assured the car had done the trip many times and it would be no problem. I picked it up on Friday as soon as the students finished on the wards (more on that later). I was a little disappointed at the condition (I was hoping for a RAV 4 or something with a little clearance) but was told they had just gotten new tires and had it tuned up. This thing looked almost as low to the ground as my mini and I was a little skeptical about getting over the rainy-season roads. I was shown in great detail where the spare and jack were, handed the keys, and told to have a good trip. I could pay when I brought the car back. Never even ask to see my license. I was going to ask if there was a registration or anything, but he was already walking away, so I figured I guess I don’t need it. I got in, found the windshield wipers, and drove home.
We weren’t taking much, so loading the car was simple (even though the back door wouldn’t open) and we were on our way. Navigating the traffic near the hospital was second on my worry list after muddy roads, and I was anxious to get that over with. We got through the roundabout traffic unscathed, onto the Zomba road, and were merrily on our way, calculating the sunset to coincide with our arrival to this gorgeous spot. The roads here have roadblocks every so often–––gates across the road, blocking traffic, staffed by police who are checking I-haven’t-figured-out-what. Some cars are waved right through, some have to pull over. When we are on minibuses, it’s the same story. Some go right through and some get stopped. The stops don’t last long and I’ve seen money exchanged, but can’t claim to know what is being paid for. I just hoped they didn’t ask for a registration.
First road block, waved right through, second road block, waved through, then “Wait! Stop!” Hmm, I thought maybe he could see the inspection sticker was expired or something as I drove by, so I pulled to the side and rolled down the window (this clunker had air con). The policeman walked up to us and asked, “Did you see your front tire?” Well, I’d seen it when I picked up the car, but we got out and looked and the left front tire was flat as a pancake. I have no idea how long I was driving on it like that, but it felt fine to me. I’d even passed a big lorry not too far back and marveled at how well the car handled. Could it really have gone flat just as we got to the roadblock? Well, at least I knew where the spare was and had an experienced tire changer as a passenger. (I hate car trouble. I would have waited until someone came along to do it for me, which in Malawi, takes all of 20 seconds.) With an onlooking crowd of children, Pat got the car jacked up, tire off, spare on, and we were on our way in about a half hour. Not too bad. But we couldn’t make the rest of the journey without a spare, so hoped we could find a place in Zomba to fix it. About 300 meters down the road was a filling station with an air gauge. We pulled up to it and I asked the female attendant who pumps the petrol if we could get a tire fixed there. She pointed to the thin barefooted man standing behind her in the ragged blue grease monkey suit, who gave us a toothless grin, grabbed the flat tire and ran, rolling it, to the tree nearby, where his companions sat next to a pile of tires. Apparently they watch the air pump looking for customers. He submerged the tire in a big basin of water and quickly diagnosed that the valve was leaking. He told us he could run and get a new one for 1000 kwacha. (That’s about $1.20). So Pat sat on a bench under a tree watching the repair, while Stacy and I found a bank for some cash. By the time we got back, the tire was good as new, we popped it in the trunk, paid him 2000 kwacha for the labor, and were back on the road. We were an hour behind by then, but still thought we’d make it before the daylight was completely gone. We laughed at how quickly and efficiently some things get taken care of around here. At home, I’d still be waiting for AAA to arrive and would probably have to wait a week for that particular tire to be ordered and delivered. We’d have been spending the night in Zomba. But for a mere four dollars, we had but the slightest delay.
We missed one turnoff so that set us back another twenty minutes, and by the time we got to the turnoff to Cape Maclear it was dusk. Ok, just another 18 kilometers on a dirt road that was partially washed away in a car with low clearance. Anxiety was starting to build. A flat tire on this road in the dark would not be ok. Very slowly, trying to appreciate the beautiful lighting on the mountains, we made our way, as I tried to keep the car on the parts of the road that were still there. We got to a paved portion (Must be new! I don’t remember that from before!) and were golden for a good while, then back onto dirt, now completely dark, about one kilometer from the lodge. Only a half mile!! Then the road was gone. Gone. I thought maybe I’d veered off somehow and the road was behind me. Pat got out to take a look. When he opened the door a monsoon blew in, like Wizard of Oz-type wind. This was not good. He came back to the car and confirmed that there was no way a car could cross. Some people were walking by and we asked where the lodge was. They pointed in the direction where the road should have been. And just as I was thinking, “Well, we’re close enough to walk.” Stacy said, “There is no way I am walking.” so saved me the hassle of suggesting it. The man who pointed was telling us there was another way around, so carefully, so as not to slide off the part of the road that remained, I backed up to a spot where we could turn around. Another twenty minutes or so and we were going through the tiny village with pond-sized puddles beneath the Baobabs leaving us about ten inches to get by. It was hard to see but, nevertheless, we persisted and were at the lodge, parking the car behind the bamboo fence that shields the village from the view of the lake. This bothered me.
Some time ago, I’m not sure when, but more than ten years, some foreigners put up lakeside lodges along the waterfront in this village. It’s a perfect spot, I concur, and they are very simple structures and not high, but they all have a tall bamboo or cement face on the roadside of the lodge. The road is dirt, more a path than a road, and is the main street through the village. You can’t see the lake at all from the road and the lake is no more than 20 yards away. On the opposite side of the village from the lake are maize fields, and behind them a ring of mountains. It’s incredibly picturesque, except for these fences that block the view of the lake. Really, you could spend a week in the village and not know there is an enormous lake 20 yards away. This is the size of one of the great lakes. It’s huge. There are narrow walkways between the lodges and the villagers all use them to access the lake. They wash all their dishes there, wash their clothes, bathe, brush their teeth, everything that needs to be done with water is done on the beach. The lodge owners had water piped into the village and there are places with faucets to fill buckets so the women don’t have carry them so far, but apparently they don’t get used much. This is an obvious attempt to keep the lakeshore clean, but clearly didn’t work. The villagers continued with their traditional lifestyle, just without seeing the lake from their home now. It seemed to me this would be a problem for them.
I will not lie, after dropping our bags in our simple little thatched roofed rooms, I couldn’t get to the bar fast enough. It was a funky place with chairs in the sand and tables built around the trees and the lake within spitting distance. The menu was simple but the fish straight out of the lake and fabulous. No wifi, but a local band with homemade instruments singing American covers with an African flair. It was worth the hassle of getting here. It was windy, but warm and pretty much a perfect tropical scene.
Yesterday morning, we walked a few steps from our room to the lawn chairs and sat for four hours drinking tea, eating breakfast, and catching up on fifteen years of news. It’d been a long time since we’d sat and filled in the blanks and the conversation never lagged. Finally, around nine we decided to take a walk in the village, where we made the mistake of buying some locally made earrings (with lucky seeds!) from one of the hundreds of hawkers. Who knows who makes all these wood carvings and bracelets, but so many men are trying to get every tourist here to buy their wares and it gets really obnoxious. Since they saw us buy the earrings they would not leave us alone and one guy, Michael, fell into step and became our uninvited tour guide. I actually didn’t mind too much, because I was curious about how they felt about the lodges and he was very forthcoming. He said they lease the land from the village owners of it, and the lease gets renewed every year. He told us it benefits the village a lot because they have a steady income now and the kids can go to school and there is a health clinic there now. Plus it provides jobs. And if they are not happy with how they are treated, they won’t renew the lease. He said everyone was happy with the arrangement. I asked about the fences blocking the view of the lake. He told us no one minds that, they can walk to the lake between the lodges any time they want. The fishing hasn’t changed, they just have more customers now. It was an interesting perspective and one I hadn’t imagined. I was thinking in the western mindset that of course they would want to see the lake! It’s beautiful! But they don’t really think of scenery in the same way we do. They continue to laugh at us every time we take a photo of the sunset, or a pretty tree.
Michael had told us he had a woodcarving shop near our lodge and we promised when we were done with the walk we’d go and look at his stuff. The “shops” are just an open bamboo structure and the wares are on the ground and we went and bought a few things from him. I have no problem haggling over price, but it makes Stacy very uncomfortable, so I told her just give me what she wants and I’ll do the negotiating. Now, you have to be willing to walk away, and I knew they were gouging us, so starting in on the bartering, but when I said “Forget it. We don’t need this. “ and started putting it back, Pat butted in and we ended up paying more than we should have. I let it go. Michael did give us the tour after all and we figured that was worth something. We went back to the lodge for lunch and sat talking for another couple of hours. As we were thinking of getting up to walk to the National Park, Michael, now shit faced drunk, staggered from the beach to our table and collapsed into a chair across from us. One of the gardeners tried to get him up to leave us alone and he argued that WE WERE HIS FRIENDS! It was pathetic. Makes me so sad. The gardener talked him down and calmly got him to leave without a huge scene. He was shamed and muttered “Sorry” as he stumbled down to the beach again. The villagers down there all ignored him. I hope someone took some of his money away.
Yikes, These clouds are getting serious. I’m getting more nervous about the ride out of here. Wind is picking up too. I think we are about to get slammed. There is a distinct line of rain hitting the lake and coming toward us and it’s blowing a gale. Now I am too distracted to write and trying not to envision our rental car sliding off into a ditch. This is making me think the villagers are probably incredibly grateful for those fences. They surely protect their houses from this wind! Amazing how perspectives can change when the wind changes.
I’ve got a ton to tell you about work stuff, but I’m going to save that for next week. I’ll put on my lucky seed earrings, eat breakfast, and hope this is a passing storm or we are going to be in this village for an extended stay…
Nevertheless we will persist.
Love to all,