It’s overcast, the grey, looming skies teasing with spots of drizzle here in Johannesburg. This morning, with less than an hour of sleep under my belt, I said “see you later.” The golden-tinged post-dawn made the parting more difficult as I recalled long, winding minutes spent watching the sky expand and own and rule my field of vision and fields of thought. It’s true that people make a place, but a place makes a place too. I’ll miss the way the air feels, the way the ground simultaneously aggravates and caresses – an unexplainable contradiction of sensations that make up that ethereal, transient concept called home.
But it is true, too, that that the people make a place and that may have been the hardest part of that whispered, hidden “see you later.” Everybody, all the crazy, insanely nutty, eccentric and beautiful people who made up my Bots experience – and some individuals in particular – are now memories waiting to be retapped, revamped and reexplored. There’s a lot of unanswered questions as I sit here in the comforting chill of Sleek Backpacker’s Lodge in the company of Daniel, two Malaysians and an (overly) gregarious man from Mozambique, Telise.
Eish… Go siame Bots. I really very much hope to see you soon. And hello Malawi, tomorrow.
First, a quick flashback to the later hours of last night at the hostel in Joburg. Here’s a quick little snapshot: sitting with questionable Chinese food brewing and bubbling in my stomach, listening to PeterPan and Padi (two Indonesian rock bands) with two Malaysian girls while this psychotic Mozambiquan performs wacky dance and tai-chi in the garden. What the hell, I find myself asking again in Africa. These are the experiences that make up a youth and I can only smile, laugh and swallow them bit by bit to regurgitate and sift through at some later date.
We left to the airport in a rickety but fully functional and very able to “move” (our driver insisted) VW at 7:30 AM. The flight to Lilongwe was uneventful besides a few bumps courtesy of cloud cover and a few more courtesy of the brat behind me. Apparently kids are bad at reading even the most piercing of glares. Lilongwe is an unspectacular city but I can tell I’m going to love Malawi. First two things I noticed: 1) An apparent affection for public service billboards with one quarter occupied by the smiling face of the president and 2) GREEN! The landscape is a lush, soaked, vibrant green peppered with the clay and straw huts that speckle the outskirts of the city. The people are incredibly friendly as we discovered as we sat outside the bank talking to two gregarious Rastas, John Banana and Coconut. The hostel we’re staying at, Mabuya Camp, is hopping and I had a great, looping, extended conversation with Johannes, a Norwegian studying for a year at the University of Cape Town. Franka, a German math student who was studying at UB with us for the semester, arrived despite our worries after bussing through Zambia and we went to get some sustenance. Besides a long-winded hiccup when Standard Bank swallowed Franka’s card whole, we had a nice evening at an Indian restaurant. Once again Indians are omnipresent. We spent the remaining time watching the hours trickle away with the rain at the hostel. Tomorrow we take a pretty long bus ride to Nkhata Bay and hopefully catch the ferry to the islands in Lake Malawi. We weren’t willing to drop 7,000 kwacha (about 50 bucks) on a shared minibus with a British lady, Abby, so the bus it is. More – and hopefully with a little more depth and thought – from the islands. Boroko!
We woke up early in the morning and made our way to the Shire Bus stop. to my disappointment, we were not escorted to carriages by hobbits scurrying around the hillside. Instead we entered the relaxed frenzy that is the bus rank. Throngs of people seemed to bustle and move while everything also seemed to be moving in a sort of extended slow motion. The line behind the ticket window refused to shrink and packed buses remained idle in their stops. Two hours and a few chunks of break later we were on the bus for Nkhata Bay. Abby, a British woman who works in a textile workshop on Likoma and Lauren, the manager of the hostel at Likoma were on the bus and along with Daniel and Franka we occupied the back row of seats. The seats were stiff and unstable and my bum slowly progressed from dull pain to duller numbness. The bus was densely packed with people standing shoulder on shoulder all along the aisle. Stops were made literally about every 5-10 kms, and when we were driving it was Malawi gone Formula One. The bus rattled and shook as we sped past village after village, blurs of lush tropical green dominating my window screen. At the stops, the same wares were offered through the windows: drinks, bread and maize, maize, maize. After one and a half cobs of corn and five hours I was done with the experience and ready for the islands but alas, there were about four more hours of holding on for dear life as I slid around my stiff throne. Finally, we passed some rubber plantations and we had reached the Bay.
We triumphantly disembarked and in between smiles and greetings made our way to the ferry that would take us to Chizumulu Island in the lake. We had been banking on the fact that ther would be ATMs at Nkhata, but noooooope. So it was time to be frugal. We watched Lauren and Abby purchase their first class tickets and bought our own second class ones not quite knowing what to expect. The second class cabin consisted of a small, four-walled room mainly occupied by bags and with a few benches that were already taken along with the bow of the boat which held most of the cargo. We made our way to the first-class deck, a large empty space with some mattresses and a bar and hung out with Lauren and Abby. A few hours later the ferry hadn’t left, it was now around 9 o clock, and I drifted into slumber. When I was woken up, the ferry was moving and the ticket-collector we had been dreading so much was standing over us, palm outstretched. We played dumb, and after a little “oh this is first class?”, we walked down towards the now completely crowded second-class cabin. Stepping over sleeping bodies, mothers wrapped like blankets over their children and in between raucous pre-adults sipping on ‘Greens’ (i.e. Carlsberg) and greeting with wide smiles and slapping hands. We finally found some empty space on the bow and settled down to sleep the five hours away on top of petrol drums. Yes, our sleeper cabin consisted of trying to make the thick plastic ridges and uneven placement of large barrels of petrol comfortable. It wasn’t. As I drifted towards sleep not from comfort but from necessity I saw a rat the size of a healthy cat climb a railing towards the front of the bow, turned to my side and saw a calloused foot inches away from Daniel’s face and I laughed a little bit. Oh, the experiences that make up a lifetime.
The ferry finally pulled into the bay around the island at around 3:30 AM. I woke up from my neck-breaking petrol siesta just in time for the obscenely loud horn that would have propelled me off the drums and into the lake. Small rowboats made their way to the ferry and started bringing loads back to different points on the island. We got on the rocking rowboat and headed to Wakwanda, the only hostel on Chizumulu. On the boat was Nick, the owner, Franka, Daniel, myself and Quim, whose first words to me were “I’m from Cataluna, but I have a Spanish passport.” We got to the hostel and I could already tell, even in the pitch-black early morning, how beautiful it was. The air felt spectacular and we sat around the bar and talked over a couple of Greens. It was 4:30 before we staggered to our dorm, tucked behind a pavilion sitting area right on the beach. I fell asleep confused of dates, time, place, but it was a welcome confusion.
I woke up not quite prepared for what I’d see when I walked out of my dorm. The sun shines through a thin cloud cover, illuminating the azure expanse of water. Waves lap against a sandy, rocky beach and the regular blue/beige dichotomy of a beach is thrown a wild card with deep greens hugging the island. In the distance, what look like columns of black smoke rise from the lake in the horizon. It isn’t smoke, however, but thousands of miniscule lake flies feeding and being fed on. I sat down for coffee with Quim, the world-hopping Catalan and together we sat marveling in unison at the sheer tranquility that seemed to float in the damp air. It was bath time and despite it being a little brisk, I waded into the lake. The temperature was perfect and I could just feel how clean and pure the water was as I dove and propelled myself further off shore. I came out rejuvenated and after a few more hours of ‘relaxing,’ (what has become the key word of the trip, we decided to explore the island and headed off towards Same Beach, the supposed center of activity in the island. The walk consisted of winding, sloping trails through cassava patches and baobab trees, bulging at their bases. A chorus of “Hello!” and “What is my name?” and “Give me picture!” gave us our soundtrack, as children, who seem to make up the largest segment of the population, smiled and chased and laughed. It’s a beautiful island where lush grasslands hug the lakeshore. Eventually we started feeling our energy lagging a bit and asked Boise, a boy in Form 3, where we could get some mangoes. He led us to a towering mango tree, where the fruits hung like thick, juicy reminders of vitality and life. He epertly scale up the tree and a torrential downpour of mangoes ensued. As they hit the ground with resounding thuds, I picked up a ripe-looking one and peeled away the skin to reveal the moist yellow below. When I bit into it the juices filled my mouth and tickled my senses into sweet, gluttonous submission. We left with a backpack full and our sugar levels rejuvenated and made our way to the other side of the island back to the hostel.
the first thing I saw when I woke up on Chizumulu.
The smiling faces of the crowd of children following us down the dirt paths created a stark contrast with some of their bloated, malnourished stomachs. The poverty I’ve seen in Malawi, so far, is far worse than anything I’ve seen in the rest of Africa. That being said, a peaceful sort of self-sufficiency seems to exist on this fishing community. Very little seems to come from the mainland, besides essentials like those fuel drums we were sleeping on. The people seem happy here and much of the day in between catching fish and selling the fish is spent in sitting around – groups of people in staggered circles sharing gossip, or talking about the fishing bounty of the day.
We got back to the hostel and with the mangoes not quite having satisfied our growing appetite sat down for a lunch of Veggie Bean Burgers and planned out the relaxing the rest of our day would consist of. Quim seems to pay close attention to scheduling “doing nothing.” After lunch we borrowed some snorkeling gear and hit the lake The visibility was not as perfect as it would be on a sunny day but it was beautiful and felt great to snorkel again – a good second place to the scuba diving I cant afford because of the ATM incident. The fish were small but of myriad colours, species that only exist in Lake Malawi. More ecstatic doing nothing filled the hours afterwards until our pre-arranged dinner in the small local restaurant next door. When we tried to have lunch there earlier, the old woman was unprepared so we told her we’d be back for dinner at seven. We had a delicious dinner of grilled fish, nsima (mealie meal) and beans costing us about $1.50 each. We’ll be back tomorrow for sure as my thin wallet burns away at my pocket. We spent the rest of the night with good conversation, good beer and a beautiful view of the near-full moon from the beach. A magical force seemed to push the surrounding clouds away from the moon, forming perfect circles of clouds, as if the moon had been dropped into the night sky creating ripples on its surface.
So this is what peace feels like.
Night Above Chizumulu
A glow creates concentric circles
of ghostly diffused light.
Each shift further away from its source
yields a slightly darker shade.
Like fingers disappearing as they reach
for the most opaque, most mysterious parts of our universe.
Fingers disappearing in the most perfect act of perfection,
a perfect search bringing perfect peace.
Perfect, though, in imperfection.
Raining down thoughts,
like the tenderest mango shaken off the tree.
Inundate me in your waters.
Let me see me in your reflection.
We’re sitting under a tree on Same Beach waiting for the wind that will take us to Likoma Island. We just hiked, with our bags, over the hill across the island. The island barber is convinced the wind is on it’s way so the small sailing boat will be able to leave, but on this still beautiful, sunny day I’m not so sure. Wait! I’ve just been informed it’s ready. And yes there they are putting up the patched up blanket of a sail. Here we go.
I’m finally sitting at the bar of Mango Drift Lodge on Likoma Island under a giant mango tree. The place is stunning and a step up from the last island, so I’m glad we came here second. Sandy beach, a dorm-hut hugging the sand and a bar built around a mango tree with a ladder that is open for picking for all. The two juicy mangoes were exactly what I needed after the physical exertion of the past day. The boat ride was 3 1/2 hours going in windless heat at around 1 km/h. Entertainment was given through the plastered “captain” who was sucking on little packets of gin the majority of the time and reclining in the one spot of shade the rest. Some further entertainment was offered when Quim dropped his sunglasses into the lake and dove in after them. In a few minutes his head was a dot on the horizon and we were turning around amidst drunken curses from the captain. He lost his glasses ultimately but it provided some amazingly awkward silences and even more awkward nervous laughter.
We pulled up to the island and were pointed in the direction of Mango Drift. We had to hike about an hour uphill, downhill and over crumbling stone bridges. Collapse seemed imminent as I felt all my remaining moisture draining out of me but we finally hit the beach. I sank into satisfaction over a few mangoes, four glasses of water and an ice cold beer. Satisfaction is so much sweeter when you work for it. And this place is SWEET!
I spent yesterday evening in a state of suspended animation. void of any real awareness of time and place I spent a long time looking at the sky. The near full moon shone with a ferociousness that made the night look like early dusk. The sky morphed and transformed the clouds using the moon as their hub, their canvas to shift and create contradictory and beautiful masterpieces. first the moon was a silver beacon in the middle of an atlas of clouds that were giant shifting frozen continents. Then a cloud would contract and stretch as the dense overcast became a thin veil – a winking hint at the luminous brilliance that floated below. As the waves of Lake Malawi licked at the shores of Likoma Island, an elusive and deceptive sky painted epigraphs of transience and startling reality.
I’m sitting in front of another perfect cove on Lake Malawi at Nkhata Bay. The lingering swell of the waves lapping at the rocky shore brings memories of the storm last night – the one that hit us when we were on the Ilala ferry from Likoma back to the mainland. It was sad to say goodbye to such a paradisaical place – an island where my days consisted of sitting, reading, writing, mango overdosing, underwater adventure and the extent of physical activity being a one hour long hike to town for dinner and back. We were told the ferry had come early (nothing comes on time in Malawi) so scrambled to get ourselves ready and board the motorboat to take us to the Ilala. We made our way around the island, stopping at Kaymara, the $300-a-night older sister of Mango Drift to pick up Lauren and Abby (weird to have had the same travel partners from Lilongwe on). We saw clouds forming and so we decided oil drums might not be as comfortable this time, so joined Quim, Abby and Lauren in first class. The first few hours, up until Chizumulu, were spent lounging by the bar. At Chiz I decided to give sleep a shot and curled up on a bench against the rail of the deck. Just as I felt my thoughts turn into that pre-sleep jello, a wall of cold rain slapped me in the face and people were scrambling to escape the horizontal downpour. As the ferry rocked and swung around it’s anchor and the captain shouted puzzling orders like “I want no injury! Please don’t let me overpanic!” on the loudspeaker – the seven of us, now including Nick, the owner of the hostel at Chizumulu, ran around to find a dry spot. Eventually, soaking wet, we filed into the dining saloon where I found a chair in the periphery of the sea of sleeping bodies on the ground. I fell asleep, head down against the table, like a folded leaf, rocking back and forth through the ride. I woke up to the invasive foghorn of the ferry that meant we had arrived. It was still raining as we disembarked and boarded a bus to Mayoka, a beautiful hostel a few minutes out of the town, nestled against a secluded rocky bay. We were welcomed by Gary, the owner, with tea, coffee and muesli and waited until it was late enough (it was 6 AM when we finally arrived) to wake up the man who was staying in the four-bed dorm Franka, Daniel and I would be staying at. Exhausted and soaked to the bone, I briefly admired the wonderful view from our terrace and collapsed into bed. It’s around 2PM now and I plan to spend the last few days in a similar way as the first – absorbed in a fully-conscious sort of slumber where thoughts, emotions and impressions can boil and simmer as I prepare to leave this wonderful continent.
Things can halt to a stop when underwater. Thoughts, movements can slow to a stasis as gravity becomes unfamiliar and sensations undefined. I went for an extensive swim today, and while I flipped and twirled in the depths, fully submerged, time and place lost all relevance. When I broke the surface I was next to a dugout canoe, with an old man steering from the back and the inside full of freshly picked mangoes. Where am I?
The last few days have been relaxation at it’s finest. Yesterday morning, Daniel took one for the team and bused to Mzuzu, the city nearby where there are ATMs, functional Internet and apparently beautiful tapestries with bananas on them, to stock up on essential and on short supply items – namely money. Franka and I went into “downtown” Nkhata Bay. It was market day and so the town was bustling with life. Makeshift stalls lined the streets selling everything from fresh fish to traditional medicine to soap. One man stood on a stage, sweating, dancing and auctioning t-shirts to a surrounding crowd of out-stretched hands. An entire marketplace was set up for selling clothes that had been donated through NGOs. How they ended up being sold for 100 Kwacha a piece seems a little suspect to me.
the hustle and bustle of Nkhata Bay on monday market day
a fishwife (it's a word, trust me, look it up) on market day.
We went into an old man’s house, whose name I now don’t recall, the father of a family Franka had met the day before. We spent a while with four of the seven sons as they showed us around town but what I enjoyed most was the conversation with the father, an absolutely fascinating man. Among other things, he worked as a police man in Zambia, where he learned Kung-Fu from imported Chinese masters and worked in Mobuto’s Zaire, building the gargantuan dump-trucks used for cobalt mining. Now he lives a quiet retired life of fishing and metal-working on this idyllic bay with his large family and owns some land he hopes to rent out. He had a lot of things to say about themes ranging from Mobuto and Cold War politics in Africa to the art of staying on a dugout canoe without succumbing to the non-existent center of gravity.
After a while we made our way back to the hostel and I spent the rest of the day in superfluous mango-eating and lots of lounging, swimming, reading and writing. After dinner, Daniel and I stuck around the bar and played a creativity (and Carlsberg)-fueled game with two Australian girls, Zsofi and Lucy, and two American girls who have been in the Peace Corps in Lesotho for the past two years. By midnight I was fast asleep. Obviously I need my sleep. Clearly these days have been strenuous.
Saturday, 20/12/08 – Sunday, 21/12/08
We’ve gone full circle as Daniel and I sit in the garden of Sleek Backpackers in Jo’burg, watching our hours in Africa dwindle away. My remaining days in Nkhata Bay were spent in a simultaneous sadness of impending departure and excitement over the lush jungle of new experience that now exists inside of me. These reflections bounced in and around me like light through a maze of mirrors as I watched post-rain sun glisten over the lake or when I was a few feet under water or walking through town having conversations about Rastafarianism in Africa or eating the oft-repeated spread of salted fish, ncima, and some sort of green vegetable.
One of my favorite things about traveling is meeting people. Besides Quim, who was still around until the end, still relaxing, and still a source of non-stop entertainment, we’ve met some other interesting characters. These include some locals of Nkhata like Cheese-On-Toast, Chicken Pizza and simple (I’m not even sure what to say about those names…Cheese’s real name is Marcus Garvey, apparently, but he prefers his pseudonym). After a short improv jam session the night before, I met up with them at Butterfly Lodge next door on Wednesday night. Everybody picked up a drum and it’s fitting that I had my first real drum circle on one of my last nights in Africa. Eight pairs of hands, including mine and Daniel’s, slapped and battered at drumheads as rhythms spilt into each other and a percussive frenzy flew over Lake Malawi. Occasionally, Cheese interjected with Rastafarian dancehall vocal chants or Simple steered the jam session towards a more traditional Malawian approach. Forty-five minutes later the jam died down and D and I went back to Mayoka in time for the delicious fish barbecue.
With full stomachs, the party started after dinner and it was fortunate that everyone seemed in a festive mood on Daniel, Franka, Quim and my last night on Lake Malawi. We were up late into the night as things got progressively more boisterous until a few fights broke out and the owner was on the bar shirtless, and it was clearly time to call it a night.
Our wakenings were staggered the next morning as one by one, zombie-like creatures emerged from the woodwork, stumbling towards the sweet rejuvenation that is a Giant Banana Pancake. We had met Steven, a bear of a man with often crass and sometimes brilliant wit from Newcastle and his London-born friend Ben who may or may not have malaria the day before. They were headed to Lilongwe in a friend’s car and had three more spaces – perfect for Franka, Daniel and I who were going that direction. It was slightly more expensive (fuel is pretty damn pricey in Malawi) but worth the less sore bum than what the bus offered. We said our goodbyes, traded contact information and parted with our week-long travel buddy, Quim, and hit the road.
The drive was beautiful, one I could not fully appreciate through the high foggy windows of the bus. In our pale blue Rav 4, we snaked our way through the vibrant green landscape. Every once in a while we would pass a remote village, small brick and mud huts nestled against cassava plantations. As we neared Lilongwe, we passed through a low-hanging cloud and were enveloped with mist. It was hard to spot pedestrians and potholes and for a while we crawled through the eerie fog in a tense snail-like state. It cleared up and as night fell we reached Lilongwe said our goodbyes to the British Bunch and Franka, D and I settled down where we started our Malawi journey – Mabuya Camp.
It was a quiet night and a fairly early retirement after a brief conversation with two American guys traveling up to Uganda from Cape Town.
In the morning Daniel and I went to a pharmacy to buy pills for bilharzias, a not too rare parasite present in Lake Malawi, just in case. We said our sad farewell to Franka who continues traveling until March and too a taxi to the airport. At the airport we randomly ran into Anique, a student from Georgetown who we met in Cape Town, where she was studying abroad. She was with a friend who was huddled in the corner with malaria. We caught up in between interspersed “are you okay”s to the lump that was Jarvis in the waiting room. After a turbulent flight we landed back in Joburg and we said our goodbyes (they just keep happening). A sixty dollar taxi ride later – Joburg is #$%@ing HUGE and taxi prices reflect that – we had stopped off at Monika’s place to collect our bags and were settled in back at Sleek backpackers, the launching point of our journey.
At the hostel we met Gabriel, the Tanzanian manager and were reunited with the former employee who drove us to the airport, Douglas from Zim. They invited us out and at around 9 we hit the town. We weren’t allowed in to the bar at Rosebank due to our t-shirts and sneakers so we headed to Melville, a hip area I had heard of before. Fifgteen minutes later we were on 7th Street, a Cape Town Long Street-esque row of clubs, bars and restaurants. It was a mixed, shifting crowd as we hopped from bar to bar. Joburg, and SA in general, is such a diverse place and it’s history has left it far too divided. So I was happy to see everyone from the thugs of Soweto the Mini Cooper driving yuppies of the suburbs all having a good time on a single stretch of asphalt. We ended the night at a Boerwurst stand- hot dogs smothered in ketchup, mustard and chili sauce that I’ve noticed are hugely popular all over Southern Africa.
The next day, D and I spent the day recovering in the hostel, only taking a break to walk down the street for some grease-coated grease at a fast food joint called Yanky’s – a strange last meal in Africa for Daniel. At four D left to the airport and we had our dreaded “see you later.” It’s strange to say bye to someone you’ve spent, almost literally, every single day with through a barrage of new experience. But I’ll see him in a few weeks in icy Philadelphia.
I spent the evening in the company of Brian, a permanent resident here at Sleek. Brian is a 50-something, mumbling man from Liverpool with a complexion the colour of a matador’s cape. We drank Black Label beer and watched David Bowie and Billy Connolly DVDs until it was time for me to call it a night. An interesting character, with the lexicon of an especially foul-mouthed sailor, Brian was a great source of entertainment and conversation. A particularly touching moment was when after putting the Bowie DVD in, he went to his room and came back with a gold ring in his weathered (and red) earlobe. His eyes sort of glossed over, maybe from the effects of the beer, but I think it was him traveling through a warp of time and space back to those glory days at Hammersmith Apollo.
Today, I’m rearranging my life, sorting some photos and hugging Africa goodbye. I haven’t left yet or had any time to even thin about the last five months, but I already see someone new when I look in the mirror. I feel different. It’s going to be really tough to leave, but I’m looking forward to India to see family, see old friends and gather my thoughts amidst the (sort of) familiar.