Sunday Morning ~ Home
January 7, 2018
Gona ndi mwini mudzi ~ Please stay and sleep, this is the owner of the village
~ Malawian proverb
Happy New Year Everyone!
So, you’d think if you’d paid six hundred kwacha for an hour of internet, you’d get some internet, but, no. So much for the internet cafe in Mzuzu. It was Christmas Eve. We’d just spent two nights camping on the Viphya Plateau. We’d negotiated how we’d split the driving so we’d each feel a modicum of safety on the fairly dangerous roads. We’d found the house of our colleagues who’d offered us a bed for two nights in Mzuzu. We were having a great time with them and found we had a lot in common. We’d been to mass together and gone for a long walk. We sat and told stories of our lives. We laughed a lot. Then I wanted to find a place with internet so I could write my blog and send it off before it got too late. They told us there was a great little restaurant where we could get a good lunch and use the internet. That sounded like a plan, so the four of us jumped into our car and off we went. We found the dirt road to the restaurant and negotiated the pedestrians, arriving to find it closed for Christmas Eve. Oh, right. It was Christmas Eve. Some people might want that day off. We tried another place known to have internet, but it was also closed. By then we were rather hungry so went to a reliably open Indian restaurant with reliably good food and planned to go to the coffee shop afterward, where the internet was said to be reliable. Then we ordered beers to go with the spicy food, then got a little relaxed, and by the time we made it over to the coffee shop, which was packed with every other Mzuzu resident looking for internet, it was a bit late. I felt rushed and pressured and had a hard time thinking of what to write. It was annoying me that George could sit down next to me, open his laptop, and start clacking away so intently. It was distracting that he seemed to have no trouble thinking of what to write. It seriously gave me writers block. Never a pause, he just hammered away, happily recounting the events of our trip up until then while I was still struggling with whether to include a proverb or not. I didn’t have my list of proverbs with me and that bugged me, too. Then I got upset with myself for wasting so much time thinking about that while he happily clacked away. Every time he hit “return” I thought, “He’s already on a new paragraph? What the hell?” I forced myself to pretend I was writing and came up with what I thought was a crappy blog for Christmas and decided to post it anyway just so it would be done and I wouldn’t have wasted the 600k. But there were so many people in the place using the internet that it was unbearably slow, to the point where my time ran out before my website even loaded. George, now satisfied with his 2,000 words, saw that I couldn’t post my blog, so didn’t even bother logging on and returned his ticket for a refund of his 600 kwacha. So that didn’t put me in the Christmas spirit, but since I didn’t think what I had written was very good, I cared less than I would have ordinarily. I hated to break my streak, though. It’s been a few years since I’d missed a week. But given what’s going on in the world, I thought, who cares what I have to say?
I was a little burned out…on a lot of things. I felt like I hadn’t done a good job with the students the week before. Testing them was exhausting and (I thought) unproductive. I questioned what good I’m even doing here in the first place. I feel like we’ll never get this model ward up and running. I was questioning my relationship with George, for a lot of reasons, not just that he was writing faster and better than me. Matt’s comments that my writing is “pandering and pathetic” kept haunting me. I was sort of feeling he was right.
But I was happy being in Africa for Christmas.
First of all, there isn’t the yuletide sensual assault around every corner. It’s such a relief. I celebrate this holiday, and love the spirit of it, but it has been charred beyond recognition at home and I appreciate a couple of years away from it. Second, the season of Advent is supposed to be a season of reflection and sacrifice, similar to lent. He isn’t even born yet people! Here, there is much more celebrating after Christmas than before–––the way it should be in my humble opinion. Anyway, I was glad to be here. George was in his own world, so I’m not sure he noticed where I was, though we’d had some superficial conversations about how we were feeling. Nothing really deep. We’d had a good couple of days camping and were trying to regain some of the intensity of our relationship. We tried to figure out what we were missing and trying to do it without a big fight. We both had job stress and that’s always hard. It’s much nicer when one of you is having a good time when the other isn’t. So there was that. There was the season itself, and George being estranged from his kids is hard for him, especially around this time. It’s easier for me if he talks about it and doesn’t withdraw, but I don’t have control over that. There’s the uncertainty of what we’ll be doing next year. He’s applied for a Fulbright to teach somewhere in Asia and I’m not feeling like being away for another year. Not sure what I’d do there anyway, though I’m sure I’d find something. So it’s a bit unsettled and that causes some discomfort. We did manage to pack and leave the house without a single cross word, something I considered big progress, but something hasn’t been right.
Renee and Steven are volunteers in our program, having arrived in Malawi this past September. There seems to be two age groups for volunteers in this program––early thirties and over sixty. There are many more in the early thirties group, and though we love them all, it’s nice to hang around with people your own age sometimes and Renee and Steven were in our group. So nice. I’d met Renee in Washington D.C. when I went to their orientation and hit it off with her immediately. She’d been a traditional Peace Corps volunteer in Congo before the war there, so we had lots to talk about. She is a mental health nurse practitioner teaching at St John of God in Mzuzu, so she and George also had a lot to talk about. They’ve lived in Hawaii for decades and Steven has done a lot of work in the South Pacific. He knows many of the people I knew from Samoa! And they are Catholic to boot. Lots in common.
So we left the cafe, Renee and Steven waiting for us patiently, to go back to their house and decide about the evening mass schedule. They usually go to mass close to where they live but I wanted to go where Fr Richard was, the same place we’d all gone together that morning (it’s such a crunch when Christmas Eve is on a Sunday). They weren’t even sure they were up for two masses in one day and the beer at the late lunch was influencing our motivation level. I was committed to going back to St Thomas at 7 pm. There was no way I was going to disappoint Fr Richard, my old friend from Karonga. He was saying the evening mass and when we’d met with him on the 23rd, was insistent we be there. (None of the Christmas Eve masses are at midnight around here. People are usually too drunk by then, and since the masses are three hours long, very impractical.) Renee and Steven decided if they were going to go to a second mass it would be one closer to them, so George and I changed into church clothes and drove to the other side of the city and slipped into our hard wooden bench near the front, on the men’s side of the church. It was just after seven when we arrived and they were no where near starting the mass. Richard came from the back of the church when he saw us to ask, “You are not in a rush are you?” I was surprised at how empty the church was, maybe only 200 people there. It looked a little anemic. The altar was still draped in purple, which I thought was a bit odd. I expected a big transformation from when we were there that morning. There were the banners strung from the tin ceiling across the church, little triangles of cloth with a cross on each one. Bunting with a christian flair. I estimated about 2,000 of them strung up there, but that was about it. The rest was quite simple. The choir had quadrupled in size from the morning mass and there were five drummers seated shoulder to shoulder three rows in front of us. They were drumming away and the choir was singing, the choirmaster, white gloved, animatedly conducting songs sung in the local language, Chitumbuka. The mass would be said in that language as well. It was festive. As we waited for mass to start, the place started filling up. It’s as if 7 p.m. mass meant that’s when they show the previews. No one acted as if they were late. People of every age poured in until there had to have been a thousand in the church. Packed. Mass began and I saw that it was indeed different from the morning. There were dozens of altar boys, white robes with purple collars draped over their shoulders. Young girls in white dresses danced down the aisle in procession before the boys, some dropping flower petals as they passed. Incense, song, candles, all joyously moved down the center aisle with the seminarian we’d met from Ghana, and finally Richard still donning purple vestments (strange), pulling up the rear. Song after song after song, none recognizable but all joyous, was sung with clapping and swaying, between every single spoken word of the mass. I hoped George wasn’t going to be sworn off this forever, it was going to be a long mass. At great length, the gospel was finally read by Richard, then the lights went out, all the altar boys left the altar for the back of the church, a huge group of nuns swarmed the altar as Richard moved to the back, blocked by a frenzy of activity we couldn’t decipher. Then the lights came up, the drumming started, the choir burst out in song, and Richard came forward with white vestments on as the altar boys danced back up the aisle, now wearing white collars. The nuns had changed all the purple altar cloths to white and there were white candles lit everywhere. Strung in front of the white drapes on the altar were strands of white lights. The podium had the same, except those were blinking, that part was a bit tacky, I thought, but overall, the effect was stunning. I am telling you, there is nothing on Broadway as good as that mass was. Richard went to the podium and said something in Chitumbuka and there was a muted response from the congregation. He repeated it as if he were saying “I can’t hear you!” and everyone shouted out whatever it was he wanted them to say, which I think was “Merry Christmas” or something similar, and then he and all the seminarians and all the altar boys came through the church shaking hands as the choir went crazy with song and everyone was dancing and shaking each others’ hands, and it was fabulous. On and on it went, but none of it was boring. I could have watched the choirmaster forever, dancing as he conducted, and the drummers! Just watching their bodies move with their instrument was mesmerizing. Three hours of joy exuding from every person there. Before communion, a couple came down the aisle with a baby swaddled in a huge microfiber blanket. Not biblical at all. The baby’s name was Jesus (really) and he was being baptized. I was in tears at this point, as the couple really looked like I imagined Mary and Joseph to look. Ok, not the fashion, but the facial expressions and the soiled, hard worn clothes. They just looked holy. The baby wasn’t a newborn, though it was hard to see him he was so bundled up. I didn’t do a Ballard score on him or anything, but I estimate he was a few weeks old at least. Anyway, he was baptized Jesus, then the couple sat on the altar for the remainder of the mass. Before the mass ended, everyone in the church danced by the couple and put an offering in a box at their feet for the baby. The father was thanking everyone, and the mother was making an effort, but I could see her trying to protect this sleeping child. It was incredibly moving.
When the mass ended at 10:30 p.m. George and I went over the the dining room where they had music going and food laid out for the priests, seminarians, and nuns. We stayed for a while chatting with people we had met that morning, but left after a half hour, pretty well tuckered out. Richard seemed exhausted. During the mass I felt his old energy and passion, but afterward I could see how much he’s aged. I had a moment of feeling like I did when my mother started failing. I was a little upset with her for not being the vibrant mother she’d always been. It’s like these figures from my past must stay they way they’d always been. Just for me. When we were saying goodbye to him I told him I wanted to take George to Karonga to show him where we lived when we first met 38 years ago. I wanted to take him to the Misuku Hills, where Richard had taken me and Joe and our month-old baby, to an incredible mission in the rainforest. Richard seemed surprised that I even remembered that trip, or maybe he was struggling to remember it. He chuckled that I was on such a memory tour. “Why do you want to go to all the same places? Me, I don’t go too far from here now.” And I could see he is feeling the years. He has given so much. He’s so loving and generous. I need to see him at least once more before I leave Malawi this time. I have a sinking feeling it may be the last.
Hmm, I don’t seem to have any trouble writing today. I wanted to write about a two week trip and am just getting through one mass. I’ll have to ramp it up a notch. But it’s hot and I’ve got nothing else that needs to be done today, so I’m just going to roll with it.
Christmas morning we said goodbye to Renee and Steven who were leaving for Lilongwe to collect their daughters flying in from the states. We headed, under low clouds and light rain, to the Nyika Plateau, a place notoriously hard to get to, especially in the rainy season. There was a bit of tension mixed with excitement in the car. The evening mass had been good for us. Or maybe it was just me feeling less critical and more loving, but things were better between us. Or maybe it was survival. We needed to drive ninety kilometers on tarmac to Rumphi, then get over 100 kilometers of dirt road, some of it flooded, some of it steep, to get to the camp on Nyika before dark. We’d heard horror stories. The road was said to be in worse condition than it was in the 80’s. I’d been there in 1979 and again in 1980, and I didn’t remember the road being bad, but then again, I wasn’t the one driving, so maybe didn’t care. The “bad road” back then was the one from the lakeshore up to Rumphi. Actually, “bad road” doesn’t come close to describing that ascent on the back of a flatbed lorry at five months pregnant. Let’s just say the motorcycle strapped to the lorry bed next to us was in pieces when we got to the top. Scariest ride I’ve ever been on. So I thought this couldn’t be as bad as that. And we have four wheel drive. But we’re old now. We know we are not invincible. We were a bit anxious. The low areas, I thought were the worst. Rumphi was flooded and there were big rivers running down the sides of the clay road, which was washed out in many places. Our little Nissan X-trail plowed right through though, and though we had to be alert, there were only a few times I thought we might get stuck. I was driving and tolerating George’s advice quite well. We’d agreed we both needed to feel safe so we’d need to tolerate the passenger making comments if he/she needed to. Agreed. Shake. I was holding up my end of the bargain. The distance of 110 miles took us seven hours. We did stop for gas and a picnic lunch once we got to the plateau, but it’s a haul to get there. Once reaching the entrance to the National Park, it’s still a two hour drive to get to the camp, but oh, what a beautiful drive at that point. Actually, it’s all beautiful, it’s just hard to enjoy the first five hours of it.
The Nyika Plateau is such a unique landscape in Africa. It’s high, over 6,000 feet elevation, 3,134 square kilometers of layer upon layer of soft rolling green hills. Herds of zebra and antelope dot the hills, and it is just magical. As soon as we got to the gate I heaved a sigh of relief that it was just as beautiful as I remembered it. In that huge area there is only one place to stay, smack in the middle of it, called Chelinda camp. Back in the old days, there were six rooms with a common house with a kitchen (and cook) for meals, and one cabin that had three bedrooms and it’s own kitchen. These overlooked a trout pond with an evergreen forest behind it. The camp has now expanded, though the six rooms are exactly the same, the common building is now a restaurant and bar, and there are three additional self-catering cabins. They have cut down a good chunk of the forest behind the cabins which stung, but it all still looks over the pond. There is a playground incongruously situated in front of the restaurant. I wonder how much use that gets? It’s all rustic and in keeping with the landscape and original design though. It’s not like they built Disney world. Two kilometers from this camp is a new lodge, gorgeously designed to fit into the landscape with individual chalets and a common dining room and bar. It’s beautiful, not a scar, but at $350/ night, we didn’t stay there. We stayed at the camping area, another new feature since the old days, two kilometers in the other direction from the lodge. I originally thought it was to keep the riffraff away from the folks who could afford that lodge, but really, it’s just nestled in to another perfect spot in a grove of trees, with a spectacular view over the hills. There were three covered slabs with picnic tables and fire pits but those had all been reserved, so we pitched our tent on a grassy field with a great view. We had hoped to take our meals in the restaurant, but we didn’t want to walk the two kilometers at night and we brought food with us, and there was a wood cook stove we could use in a simple shelter where the caretaker slept. He lit a fire for us before he went to sing songs at the lodge for the big paying guests, and we cooked a Christmas dinner of sausages, onions, and pasta and drank a bottle of wine. It was heaven. We were getting along better and better!
We decided to spend our days there walking, and since there is no big game there and the leopards and hyena only come out at night, it was safe…until it started with the electrical storms. We got caught both days, miles from the camp with lightening all round us, soaked to the skin for a good part of the walk back. It was only mildly terrifying. Before the rain, we saw plenty of zebra, roan, bushbuck, springbok, eland, and orchids! There are 200 different species of orchids on Nyika! After it started raining it was hard to look up to see anything except the rivulets around our feet. We walked about thirteen miles each day (according to my iPhone) and were enjoying the close up view of the place. We met a couple from Italy who’d found porcini mushrooms, sure of it, and showed us how to identify them. On our drive to Nyika, when we stopped to buy food for our stay there, I’d said I hoped we could find some wild mushrooms for sale along the road, but didn’t see any. And then we find someone who shows us how to find these gorgeous porcini mushrooms, huge ones, all over the place! It was fabulous! The second night there we had pasta with mushroom sauce and didn’t have one single bad dream or stomach ache so we figured the guy knew what he was talking about. His fatter was a naturalist and taught him at an early age to identify mushrooms. And we had the good fortune to be camping next to him! We did watch that they ate them first, not to be paranoid or anything.
Late in the afternoon the rain had stopped and we’d dried off at the bar in front of the fire. We walked back to our camp passing herds of zebra to find the caretaker had built us a campfire near our tent. He brought two logs for us to sit on and we had wine and cooked our pasta and mushrooms and felt like life just doesn’t get better than that. We were actually starting to fall in love again.
Our plan was to leave there, reluctantly, on the 28th and drive to Livingstonia, a village perched on a different plateau overlooking the lake. Even though I’d lived not far from Livingstonia for two years, I’d never been there as it is so hard to get to. We thought we’d take the back road from Rhumphi, but we met a Dutch couple who’d just come from there and they said that road was impassable. They were also camping at the campground (they got one of the covered spots) and we had a meal with them the last night. We offered to share our mushrooms but they refused saying they never eat any wild mushrooms. Ok, I get it. But we’d eaten them the night before and were fine. The cigarettes they were smoking didn’t seem to bother them, but whatever. Anyway, they said we had to go up from the lakeshore and the road was horrendous. It’s ten kilometers of twenty hairpin turns so tight you can’t make it in one move. He said he had to back up to get around the corners and it’s just rocks on the road. She said she’d never been so scared on a road, but it was worth it to stay there. i wasn’t sure I wanted to drive the bad road off of Nyika, drive down to the lakeshore, then up another bad road all on the same day, though it was possible. We decided to play it by ear and see how we felt when we got down to the lake. It was pouring rain the morning we broke camp. I hate taking down a tent in the rain, but at least we weren’t backpacking. Car camping is so much easier, especially when the campsite has a caretaker lighting your fire and doing your laundry! While I was in the shelter making breakfast, George took down the tent and packed up most of the stuff. We thought we’d wait until the rain let up, but it wasn’t showing signs of that, so we said goodbye to our Italian and Dutch friends as they pulled out ahead of us and decided to just take it slow. We made it back to Rhumphi, but by then the thought of another hair-raising ride on steep wet stones was out of the question. Plus, it was so socked in we wouldn’t even have a view, so we just went to Karonga and got a place to stay on the lake. It was hot and sticky and the place had no power, but the generator kicked on so the restaurant could make dinner and a cold shower felt just fine. We rearranged the itinerary and spent the next day in Karonga, walking down memory lane, showing George my old house and office, touring the museum, and telling him what it was like back in the day. It was the same tour I’d taken Jordan on in May, but it was important to me to share it with George, too. The north of this country is so different from the south. It’s far less populated for one thing, but it is a different tribe, the tumbuka, and the landscape is so much more dramatic. It’s more lush and every tree hasn’t been cut down (yet) for firewood or charcoal.
Our next destination was the Misuku Hills, a remote place Richard had taken me to and one I was dying to see again. I knew we couldn’t stay at the mission there without him, but the guidebook said there was a guesthouse at the coffee cooperative and gave it a flattering description. George had texted them to see if they had a room, it was a long way to go without reliable accommodation secured, and he had received a reply saying, “you are welcome”, which to us meant, perfect. We’re in. The guidebook gave great directions and we had their phone number, not thinking there would be no cell service there, which there wasn’t. The guidebook describes the thirty kilometers of dirt road to Misuku (off the lovely, newly-paved by the Chinese, tarmac road to Chitipa) as “a patchy dirt road branching north at the village of Kapoka. The road isn’t in great condition, but it’s a lovely roller-coaster ride over undulating hills covered in indigenous Brachystegia woodland and protea shrubs…..” We thought that after the road to Nyika, this would be easily maneuverable. After all, there is a coffee cooperative there! They need to move their product! But when the book said “roller-coaster” they meant the part of the roller-coaster ride when you climb the hill and can’t see the other side like you are going to drop off the face of the earth. That’s what they meant. Not that its curvy and windy. That it is so steep the car engine is saying to you, “What the hell?” And you (as the driver) are saying, “Holy shit! What if there is another car coming at us?” It was hairy. But yes, beautiful, though I wasn’t looking at the protea shrubs. And, it was getting toward dusk and we were so glad we had texted ahead so they knew we were coming. We imagined arriving to a welcoming smile and greetings all round. When we got to the trading center where the guidebook instructed us to take a left then a right we found no lefts to take. We went to the end of the village, which we’d been elated to arrive at, thinking there are only two more kilometers to go…but we couldn’t find the road. We stopped to ask a group of men who’s English wasn’t exactly conversational and I don’t even know what dialect they speak there, but tried a little of chichewa with a chitumbuka greeting. They pointed to a road going the opposite way the guidebook said, but they must know what the coffee cooperative is and where it is, so we went. Holy moly. The road started out fairly good, red clay but pretty flat and then took a plunge the likes of which made me think the car would topple head over heels. Thank God it wasn’t raining. As it was, there was a huge ravine in the middle and I had to place the tires on each ridge and hope they didn’t slide off. Then at the bottom, was a ten foot level section, then a hill just as steep going up the other side, all red slippery clay. I was gunning it, which made George nervous, but I was treating it like an icy hill. We made it up and George said, “Let’s stay here two nights.” I said, “I am so happy you said that. I do not want to do that road again tomorrow.” And it was spectacularly beautiful, now that we were over that section and the road seemed downright highway like, just because the grade was less than 20%. We found the sign for the coffee cooperative office and pulled in to the gate, to find the entire place deserted. We saw a sign with an arrow that said “t house” and saw that it was broken off, so assumed the first letters for the sign had been “gues”. Ah, relieved, we walked over there to find it, deserted. Locked. Not a soul in sight. We were sure it was the right place though, because as the guidebook said, there were four rooms facing an incredible view of the hills. Yup. There they were. Four locked rooms facing gorgeous hills with a sun setting behind them.
We walked out to the road to see if we could find someone to ask. There were a group of boys surrounding a motorcycle (I could not imagine doing that road on a motorcycle) and we said we were looking for someone from the coffee cooperative. One of the guys, named Hope, said to follow him, he’d ask his mother who works for them. Oh phew. We followed him down another hill (they don’t call this the Misuku Hills for nothing) to a simple house, up another hill, where his mother (actually his aunt) sat on a porch two inches from a charcoal fire with a tea pot boiling away. Two inches in the other direction were small children playing without a care in the world. Hope introduced us to Mwewe, his aunt, who is all of four foot eight, who greeted us with a huge smile and invited us in to her home. She sent Hope to get someone with a key to the guesthouse. Oh, phew. Thank God. While we waited for Hope to return, we chatted with Mwewe, who is a clinical officer at the health center for the cooperative. She was a remarkable woman who’d been a nurse, then a clinical officer, then went for a PhD in International Public Health at Liverpool University. She was delightful and we had a great chat. I explained that I’d been there so many years ago and was anxious to see the place again, it had made such an impression on me. We talked about the health services, they are so remote! She wants to be able to do surgery since it’s so hard to transfer women to the hospital from there. No shit. We could barely make it with our car! In the meantime, Hope came back and said something to her in Chitumbuka and her face fell. She said, “Ok, then. Come with me. I will drive to his house, I know where he lives.” So apparently, the guy was not close by. Parked outside this humble abode was a broken down van, that I actually thought was junked. I would never have believed it could run. She instructed us to get in as she grabbed her purse and put some plastic shoes on her bare feet and walked around to the driver’s side. I’m like, “We’re going in that?” George said, “Let’s just sleep in the tent.” Mwewe, said, “No, you can’t sleep in the tent. It’s very rainy here.” We were in a rainforest after all, and I did want to sleep in this nice guesthouse the guidebook raved about, so I was all for finding the guy with the key. I obviously thought we’d be going in the opposite direction from where we came, because this bag of bolts could not possibly make it down and up that road. But, oh, I was so wrong. George went to get in the back, but the doors did not open in the back. There was plastic over the broken windows. She said, “No, you both can sit in front.” and then we saw it was a bench seat in the front for two people. Broken seat belts. Mwewe got into the drivers seat and had to pull the seat forward at least three feet to reach the pedals. I thought, “She is not the one who drives this car.” George and I held hands. She had a hard time starting it, but miraculously, it revved up and she pulled off this cliff (there’s just no other way to describe it) and onto the road and I saw, horrified, that we were heading back to the trading center! I said, “You have to go back there?!” George said, “We’ll sleep in the tent!” and she stopped and said, “I can go alone, you can wait here.” And then of course, we felt stupid having this woman with the body of a child, go off to risk her life to get a stupid key so we pansies could sleep inside. We held our breath and she started descending, chatting the whole time, “I used to be afraid to drive here, but I go slow,” as the car sounds like it is literally falling to pieces, clanging and banging. George said he though the car dropped the transmission on this little excursion. I thought we were leaving pieces of it on the road. It could have been just shit in the back bouncing around, but she was waving to people and calling out the window. I held my breath the whole way, but when she gunned it to make it up the hill, I was like, “Alright! Woo Hoo!” and then gave George a little look like, “See?” since he was telling me I shouldn’t do that. Not sure what my point was there, but I just figured if she could do it in this heap, I was not going to be worried about our car with 4wD! We made it into the trading center, to the guy’s house to have this wife tell us he wasn’t there. Ugh. It was dark by then. I said, “I am so sorry you had to leave your home like this for us!” sure by this point those little kids had fatal burns. George said, “you probably needed to make dinner for your family.” She laughed and waved all this off, carefree as ever, “Oh no, the boys are on holiday from school. They cook for me. Hahaha! ” That freed her up after a day of saving lives in the wilderness to drive two mzungus around looking for access to their accommodation. I was dying.
We turned around, (no easy feat in this monster) and had to go BACK down and up again sliding in the mud, clanging, banging, picked up a few passengers SHE TURNED HER HEAD TO CHAT WITH AS SHE DROVE, apologizing to us for going so slow, and made it back to the guesthouse, something I considered a Christmas miracle. I felt like an idiot to see our nice car parked there. And next to it was a little compact car with a guy also looking for accommodation. I’m like, “THAT car made it up that road?” We are total wimps. Somehow word had spread, and the caretaker of the guesthouse was there, opened up, lights on, fire burning in the fireplace to heat hot water, smile as big as Kansas welcoming us. It was incredible. We tried to give Mwewe money for gas or just to give her money, but she refused it. She said, “No. I won’t take money. Just do something for someone else.” We told her to please look us up if she comes to Blantyre, and thanked her a million times, and off she went in that hulk of a vehicle, the tiny face looking out over the steering wheel. As she drove off I thought, I cannot believe the lights on that car work.
I can’t imagine anyone even reading this it’s getting so long, but I can’t stop!
The guest house cost $9/night for two people and was simple but sublime. We cooked up some pasta and tomatoes and onions and were quite content. We’d bought two beers for George and I had a bottle of sparkling wine we’d bought in Karonga. We’d only planned to spend one night there, but after navigating that road, we were definitely staying two. We’d sacrifice one night in Livingstonia. We didn’t think about the food situation until the next day, so grateful we were to be inside and safe. There isn’t a store anywhere without going back over that road, something out of the question until we left. I’d eat leaves first. In the simple living room was the other guest, not eating because he’d had a late lunch. He was from Mzuzu but building a house in the hills which, he hoped to turn into a guesthouse. He was also fascinating, also had a PhD, was a community organizer and worked to teach young people in Malawi how to utilize their time and skills when it seemed there were no jobs to be had. We offered him some of our food, but he refused and we talked for a long time about the future of this country. He was only staying one night, just checking on the construction of his house. He was gone the next morning before we got up.
The power went out shortly after we had supper, so we read by headlamp and slept well in the cool air. In the morning there was a racket of flapping wings and more than a hundred hornbill something or other birds were flapping around the tree outside our window. It was a bit Hitchcock-esque I must say, but interesting to watch from inside our room with bars on the windows closely spaced enough to disallow these things to come and attack us. That tree was alive with them. Crazy. For some reason, at one point they all flew off, apparently there was a meeting going on somewhere else. After breakfast we asked Dixon, the caretaker where the mission was and he insisted on taking us there, and good thing because we’d still be wandering around the hills looking for it. Up and down these small paths between terraced gardens and banana plantations. Gorgeous. He took us to the coffee plantation, thousands of coffee plants, which, yes, is a good livelihood for the farmers, and the cooperative makes it fair for them but I was heartbroken to see how much of the rainforest has been cut down. A part of it is preserved, but a lot of it is gone. We walked through some of the old forest I’d walked through 38 years ago, but it was raining and wet and Dixon kept asking if we wanted to turn around so we walked back (several miles) to the guesthouse where we read and relaxed for the afternoon. We didn’t have much food left since we hadn’t planned a second night, but Dixon had some mushrooms sitting out on the stone wall and I asked if he found them close by? He gave me the ones that were there, an refused money for them. He said, “This is my home! I can find food!” These were not the porcini we’d been taught by our Italian friend to identify, but I figured Dixon knew what he was picking. I fried them up and tasted a little piece of one to see if I started hallucinating, and when nothing happened, I figured they were fine. We had a quarter of a bag of penne, a packet of South African biltong (dried beef jerky) George had gotten in his Christmas stocking a year ago, some powdered milk, and of course, beer and wine. I threw the biltong in with the mushrooms and mixed up some powdered milk and made a little sauce for the penne, and it was delicious! I couldn’t stop raving about it! Fortunately, George agreed or that could have gotten obnoxious, but it was another great evening. Rainforest sounds of nightlife together with a wonderful traveling companion and all around good guy and we feel like we are pretty good together again.
Next day, New Years Eve. (This is really getting long. Hopefully being snowed in to the deep freeze makes people want to read this.) The ride out of the Misuku Hills seemed like cake. I was not going to complain about that road after seeing Mwewe do it in that heap she drove. Cruised right out of there. It helped that it was sunny and the road dry. It’s amazing how fast that clay turns rock hard when it stops raining. We cruised along, ready to take on the road up to Livingstonia, and we did it, though it would have been easier had I taken a tranquilizer before the ascent. We had agreed George would drive up and I would drive down, but it was so scary to be on the outside edge of that road I thought, no, poor George will not be able to tolerate me driving down. i’m going to have to let him drive. See what a good vacation this was? It made me ever so nice and thoughtful. I told him when we finally made it up (one and a half hours to go six miles) that I would let him drive down. I didn’t want him to be anxious. He smiled, knowing what a sweet gesture that was on my part. We were just so in love. The place we stayed was fantastic! Lukwe Lodge with chalets designed like tree houses, all eco friendly: composing toilets, solar hot water, permagarden where all their organic produce comes from, all on a cliff overlooking the hills and lake. We settled in, had a lovely lunch at the restaurant, a thatched balcony with the same view, then took a walk to the waterfall and then to the village where the first mission in Malawi was situated. Not easily accessible for a mission, but they weren’t all dying from malaria at this elevation, and the view! Can’t beat the view! We traipsed down through hills and fields back to the lodge by sunset, took a warm solar shower, and watched the full moon rise as we sipped gin and tonics from a chair swing while we waited for our dinner on the balcony. Sweet, sweet, New Years Eve. We didn’t even come close to seeing the new year come in.
The next day after our scrumptious veggie omelet and homemade bread, we got back on the road as we needed to get to Nkhotakhota in order to make it back to Blantyre on the second. We packed up, vowed to return, and started on the descent, George at the wheel as I so generously suggested the day before. I swear to God, twenty meters into the descent I said, “Pull over! I am driving!” My nerves just couldn’t take it again, and though he balked (just a little) he said, “Ok, but you have to agree to go slow and stop and negotiate if it looks impassable.” “Yes, yes, yes. Of course I’m going to go slow.” Then he said, “If I can’t take it I’ll get out and walk.” “Fine.” I said,( nicely). One and a half hours to go six miles down. That poor car. It’s like driving on a hiking trail. In fact we decided, if we do go back there, we are walking. It’ll take almost the same amount of time!
After that, the drive on tarmac to the Safari Lodge where Jordan and I camped on the beach in May was luxury, until the road gets very narrow and there is no shoulder and you have to practically stop when a car is coming the other way. But we made it well before dark to find hundreds of people there partying on the beach for New Year. We decided to wait until the crowd thinned out to set up our tent, and we found the Dutch couple we’d met on Nyika were staying there too! They’d gotten a room, and weren’t camping, but we arranged to have dinner with them. By the time it was dark, all of the partiers had left and there were only four of us at the resort. We ordered dinner and sat at a table on the beach where they served us our meal, our feet in the sand, the full moon shining on us, sharing stories of our adventures since Nyika and getting ideas for travel through Namibia and Botswana. As the evening wore on we got into failed marriage stories, of which we could all contribute. We stayed out there until well after the restaurant was closed.
It was a surprisingly easy five hour ride from there back to Blantyre on Tuesday where we discovered the power had gone out the day after we left. Cleaning that fridge was a putrid chore which we happily did together chatting about how it was now cleaner that it had ever been. What a good vacation! George spent hours on the phone with the electric company and they assured us they would send someone out to repair whatever loose wire was hanging onto our roof damaged during an electrical storm. Why they couldn’t do that while we were gone is a mystery, but I had very low expectations they would come at all. We had been looking forward to finally getting some internet and see what the world was up to and post our blogs, but part of me was afraid to look. It was nice being in the dark, literally and figuratively. I went to the market to get some food and while I was gone, ESCOM came and restored power! The second Christmas miracle! As soon as I checked my emails I found out I had to leave the next day for a faculty meeting in Lilongwe, so I unpacked, repacked and got up the next morning to get the bus north again. It’s hard to get back in the swing of things. We both feel like we just want to be on vacation. Maybe once we start with the students again we’ll liven up, but I’m feeling like I want to make mango jam, paint pictures, and read for the rest of my life. Oh, and plan vacations.
Ok, so my intention of tying in the proverb is fast losing it’s importance. I’ve been writing this for so long I can’t even remember what it was. By the time I scroll back to the top of this it’ll be bedtime. It’s been fun, though, to do nothing but write all day…
Wishing everyone who made it this far love and happiness in the new year. Despite all the heartache and tragedy 2017 has brought, I’m inspired when a rattletrap junker can make it up a slippery hill because it’s driver believed it could. I just feel 2018 has good things in store.
Love to all,