Sunday Morning~ Back to Blantyre
May 28, 2017
If any of you are planning a visit (which we’d love, by the way), plan to stay longer than ten days. It’s just too short when traveling anywhere in Africa. That said, Jordan’s stay has been fabulous, just a teensy rushed. Heavily infused with luck, thank God, but too short. Of course it was me that packed the whole country into the visit, but I’m glad I did. There were just a few things we didn’t get to, but he wants to come back. Yay!
I’m writing this early but I know I won’t finish it until this evening after he’s on the plane back to Warsaw. It’s been a flash. We’ll be going to mass in a little while, then home for one last meal here together, then to the airport to drop him off and return the car to Godknows.
Let’s see, where did I leave off last week? We were leaving Liwonde for Mua Mission I recall after a boat trip down the Shire River. The boat trip was great, always count on the hippos for a good show. With the river level at end-of-rainy-season high, we could only see their heads, but still, they are a thrill to watch, especially up close. I asked the guide if they ever tip the boats over? He said he’d tell me when we got back to camp. It seems if we went over one while he was submerged and he decided to rise up…well, I guess it was better not to know. We got a good view of a couple of crocodiles, which was a treat since the grass is so high they can easily hide. The birds are always reliable, and though Jordan’s not a bird fanatic, he showed some enthusiasm. I told him I’d never appreciated birds until this year. George has definitely shown me their interesting side. And at the very end we found some elephants so close we made eye contact. I just love those beasts.
After dropping George in Liwonde town to get the minibus back to Blantyre, Jordan and I headed north to Mua Mission. I must say, having a car is nice. It shaves off half a day of waiting. It’s not possible to go very fast on these roads, but the countryside is gorgeous and meandering is fine. We talked for the hours it took to get anywhere and that, for me, is not time wasted.
I’ve got to say a word or two about traveling with my kid. I’ve written before about how we raised our kids to be travelers, and I find it’s a comfort to be on the road with someone so familiar. It’s like putting on a comfortable pair of old slippers. This past week was truly a blessing. And though Jordan was a little more leery of bugs than I am, there was nary an altercation.
Traveling in Africa is always an adventure, even when everything goes according to plan; it’s always so cumbersome to get anywhere. This country is not very big and ten days should have been plenty to cover the 450 miles north to south when you think in American terms. That’s like a morning drive! But finding petrol isn’t assured, definitely finding cash isn’t assured, and neither is finding your destination. No one takes credit cards and you can only take out a limited amount of cash each day. And the largest bills are the equivalent of $2.50, so it can be stressful. And petrol is expensive! When we did manage to find an ATM, half the time it wasn’t working or the machine was out of cash. That means no petrol and that means you’re not going anywhere because believe me, it wouldn’t be fun to run out of gas in some of these places. That would really throw the schedule off. I learned by Monday to get cash every time I saw a working ATM and never let the tank get below a half. By Monday I wasn’t so cavalier.
We’d been to Mua Mission while we were in training, the first Catholic Mission in Malawi started in 1903 by the White Fathers, an order named for the color of their robes not their skin. Fr. Claude Bouche is a French Canadian father who arrived in Malawi in 1967, and himself an artist, dedicated himself to preserving the artistic culture of the three main tribes of the area.There is a great museum there with fabulous carved masks. There was an interesting write up about it in Jordan’s travel book and it was high on his list of places to see. When we were there last July the visit was rushed and we were a big group, so I was eager to return and spend as much time as we wanted. It was a three hour drive from Liwonde, a perfect distance for one day. We thought we might go the other twenty kilometers to Dedza to see the ancient rock art that’s been discovered there, but that twenty kilometers turned out to be as the crow flies, not as the road goes. The road was more like 70 kilometers. So by the time we had a tour of the museum and talked with Fr Bouche for a long time, it was starting to get dark and we hadn’t even walked around the grounds or seen the church yet. We decided to spend the night there at a hostel located about 100 meters from the museum. One hundred meters. Do you think we could find it? We had to ask at least ten people where it was, drive up and down terrible dirt roads in the gathering dusk, pass the same group of kids over and over, go back to the now closed museum to look at the diagram on the outside sign, and finally, two women carrying firewood on their heads, sent us in the right direction where a group of children pointed the way to the hostel. It was a little ridiculous. Good thing the rental car had unlimited mileage.
The place was sweet, I thought. Jordan didn’t like the cockroach droppings at the back of his bed, but it was just droppings, not cockroaches. Cockroaches was my diagnosis; it was a bit small for mice scat, but could possibly have been gecko. My feeling was: we are off the road, have beds with clean sheets and mosquito nets, a sweet old man is making us a meal, there’s hot water for a shower, so I didn’t care if it was snake poop. The nets tucked in and that makes me feel safe. We never saw a cockroach, which, always makes me think they sprayed poison in the room, something that bothered me more than Jordan.
The next morning after a good breakfast we used up a good amount of our cash with paying for the room, meals, and a few wood carvings from the art gallery. We were heading for Nkhotakota, a fairly big town where there is a game reserve. We figured on a three hour drive for the 140 kilometers, about the same distance we’d done the day before. So after walking around the mission, down the trail to the waterfall, then to the church and hospital, we set off. We had plenty of gas to get to Nkhotakota and there were two lodges to choose from inside the reserve. We thought we’d get there in plenty of time to get cash, gas, and lodging. Well, the road was not good. Potholes made it impossible to go even 50 miles an hour and it took us four hours to get to the town. Still, not bad, but there was no bank! I could not believe they didn’t have a National Bank there! We needed gas! We needed cash! There was no way we could make it to Nkhata Bay, where we were heading the next night without more petrol. I pulled into a gas station and asked if they’d take a check? Nope! This wasn’t good. I had the equivalent of $12 and we needed to sleep somewhere. I pulled out of the station and started driving toward the other end of town and saw a small blue National Bank sign, but no bank. When I got closer I saw a paper taped to the sign that said, “Outpost Now Open”. Across a dirt field was a painted cement storefront with a few people sitting on the porch. I asked if there was a bank in there? They said, “Yes,” and pointed to a little desk with a three-sided plastic barrier perched on top. There was a little curved area cut out of the bottom of the plastic simulating a teller’s window. I could have pushed the whole thing over. There was no one behind the desk, which was apparently a little wild-west outpost of our bank. The people on the porch said they’d be back at 1:30. It was 12:45. A bit of a bummer, but I was glad there was a place to get cash, so we went off to kill 45 minutes looking for the old tree that David Livingstone camped under, written about in the guide book. We found a small faded sign pointing the way down a dirt road. We saw plenty of trees, but couldn’t find the one David camped under and after 45 minutes we wondered who would even care? Back to the bank cubby we went to find that the “system was down” and there was no cash. Okay. Change of plans. I guess we aren’t going to the game reserve. I called one of the lodges to see if they’d take a credit card and they said, “No, the system is down.”
We’d passed a sign about 20 kilometers back that advertised a lodge on the lake saying, “Credit Cards Accepted, Wifi Available”. So, without a lot of options, we drove back there, then another eight kilometers down a dirt road to a lovely lodge on the beach that had camping for $5 a night, a nice little restaurant, showers, and though the “system was down” they’d take a check! We asked about the wifi and they said they didn’t have any. Jordan pointed out that it said on the sign there was wifi available and the guy told us that maybe up at the sign there was wifi, but not here. So we had a chuckle, then a walk on the beach of this beautiful enormous lake, ate fresh fish for supper, slept well in the tent, and saw the most gorgeous sunrise before we had our tea and headed back to town praying the “system” was back up and we could get some cash.
Back to the outpost desk when they opened at eight to be told to come back at ten because the boss was at another bank trying to get some cash. I said I didn’t want to wait another two hours as we’d already spent a whole extra night there waiting for cash. I decided to go to the gas station and have them put the gas in and then give them a check. I wasn’t going to ask first. Then we’d bag the game reserve and just head north to Mzuzu where I knew there was a bank and fellow volunteers to stay with. I drove the quarter mile back to the gas station and was accosted by guys trying to sell us stuff (nice stuff for cheap), but I said we didn’t have any money, which always sounds like a lie since here we were driving a car on vacation, and they were blocking the gas station attendants who were pushing them aside to get to the car to ask how much gas we wanted, when they guy from the “bank” came running into the station waving to us, saying, “We’ve got some cash!” He opened the back door of our car, jumped in and said, “Let’s go!” So I pulled back out of the station, back to the “bank” and went in to get enough money to get enough gas to get to Mzuzu, another three hour drive that took nearly five the road was such crap.
We ended up having enough time to go to the game reserve where I paid the entrance fee with a check and since they didn’t mind the check added the ten bucks for a guide. A short distance up the road the armed guide got in our car and told us to park and we’d walk to a waterfall where they usually can see some animals across the river. So we left the car and followed him down the trail. Along the way he stopped short, took his gun off his shoulder, squatted down, and said, “Get back! Get back!” I looked up and could see the elephant tusks pointing toward us about 20 yards away. They were coming our way. Jordan had his camera around his neck and took a picture (which I could not believe, I sure didn’t) and we scrambled back up the path and stood behind a tree. The guide said there were many of them and we couldn’t go that way. I only saw one, but I didn’t look too hard before I turned tail and ran. He said there was another way to get to the waterfall but it was a longer walk. We didn’t mind. Well, about a half mile into that trail, it was a similar scenario with the guard grabbing his gun and whisper-yelling at us to get back! There was another big herd of elephants coming at us. I was like, I’ve had enough of this, can’t we just drive? But the trail wasn’t drivable, and we were blocked both ways, so we went back to the car. He told us we could try one road to drive down and see what we could find, but it was getting hot and the animals were probably going toward the shade so our chances were slim. What we did find on that drive, however, were swarms of Tse Tse flies. The ones that cause African Sleeping Sickness. We were driving along, enjoying the bad road, when the guide told us to roll the windows up quick, but by the time we did the car was already full of the flies. When we rolled the windows down to try to get them out, more came in. So I drove while Jordan and the guide tried to kill all the flies. So that was exciting. I didn’t think I’d live to see an actual Tse Tse fly! I hear their bite hurts so I don’t think we got bitten but it took some skill to drive while getting them out of my hair.
…It’s getting late…it’s now Sunday evening and we’ve gone to a really nice mass in a village, had a lunch with Mark, one of my drivers at the college, and dropped Jordan at the airport. Then we went to the orphanage to return the car and had a tour there. I don’t think I can write anymore tonight. At least not coherently. I think I’ll leave the story here and continue it next week. I just hit the wall.
Love to all,