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     Volume 4 Issue 29 | January 14, 2005 |

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Travels in Malawi

The Warm Heart of Africa

Farah Ghuznavi

After spending some time exploring Lilongwe with my friends, we planned an extended road trip for the second week in Malawi, encompassing the mountains (the Zomba plateau), and of course, Lake Malawi itself. Five minutes into the outskirts of Lilongwe, the setting became quite rural. The road ran alongside the maize corn fields, which were mostly harvested, the dry husks of the plants lying undisturbed. At one point, two squatting women (one carrying a baby in a sling on her back) sat harvesting the remaining corn cobs. Just beyond the road lay rolling green plains, dotted with dark green vegetation, mostly trees. In the distance, like giant anthills, you could see conical, pudding-shaped hillocks.

We passed signs of commerce by the roadside, vendors roasting sweet potato and maize corn, or offering little piles of peanuts, sweet potatoes and guava for sale - literally people "going about their business". On one occasion, we saw an enterprising goat sneakily eating the roasting sweet potatoes from the side of the tray, unnoticed by the vendor! The number of coffin makers though, provided a sobering reminder of another everyday aspect of life in Africa the swathe cut through the population by the HIV virus.

During the trip, we had some interesting encounters with Malawian English. One aspect of this was the charming way people pronounced their "R"s (as "L"s), most evident in the frequent response of "ollite" (all right). It was hard not to imitate, despite our desire not to be obnoxious tourists! And since the national beer is available primarily in green and brown bottles, you would often hear waiters asking people if they wanted "gleen" or "blown"...

I also enjoyed reading some of the road signs for various businesses e.g. Heaven bound coffin makers. Another favourite was the "Rightway driving school" (the instructor we saw was, however, driving on the wrong side of the road...). Meanwhile, I am still pondering what the "Pfuko-Nazi" driving school teaches! At one petrol stop, the sign on the toilet door read "Please keep de toilet clean" (and it must be confessed that the toilets were in general far cleaner than in our part of the world). We passed tiny one-room shops with the grandiose titles of "tea rooms". There was the "Friendly Grocery Store" (which looked distinctly closed and unwelcoming) and the "Always Jesus" grocery store. In Lilongwe itself, I had earlier noted "The Jews - signmakers and construction specialists" (interesting combination), and "Bratts, the children's store" (proprietor Hardson Captun). And one of my favourites remains "Kleenkrew, worriers against grime" (perhaps they meant "warriors", or was it just a reflection of the extent of their concern?)…

For most of the drive, nature provided much to appreciate. We saw some magnificent Baobab trees, even stopping to take a picture of one. The birds provided a riot of colour against the cloudless sky, with their blue, red, orange and yellow plumage. Most seemed unafraid of people, settling wherever they pleased. To my displeasure (as I found out in the breaks we took during the drive) even the insects were colourful and BIG! However, just when you think you're really out in the African bush you come across some reminder of "civilisation" (on this trip, it was a church of Jehovah's Witnesses and a huge billboard advertising…..you guessed it, the ubiquitous "Fair and Lovely"! Is there anywhere on the planet where you can actually get away from them?!).

We stopped briefly at Dedza, famous for its pottery workshops, taking the time to browse some of the beautifully crafted products, as well as indulge in the excellent coffee and pastries in the small garden cafe. As we continued towards Zomba, the scenery gradually shifted from rolling pastures dotted with rondavels (small round huts with thatched conical roofs) and distant hills, to thick vegetation by the side of the road, to high roads with a view of the plains below. The proximity to the mountains with their thick forests and some evergreen trees (the highest point being 2000 ft.) became increasingly clear.

Everywhere we went, we passed local markets, bustling with vitality. We stopped at one to buy some ebony carved masks and wall decorations, as well as a set of tiny wooden elephants. The bargaining was fierce, but ended in good-natured farewells all around. Though we were slightly disturbed to be mistaken for Americans - especially when we heard the sellers' (unsolicited) views on the war in Iraq - we managed to correct that impression quickly, and were happy to affirm that we shared the local view that the situation in Iraq was not a good one.

Along the road, people were selling all manner of things, from buckets of potatoes and coal, to basketry, to little piles of enormous avocadoes and tasty, bright red tomatoes. There were also many small roadside craft "shops", where people had laid out their wares for passing drivers to consider. The area by the lake specialises in basketwork. This was evidenced in the wealth of baskets of different sizes and shapes for sale, as well as the round carpets with the spiral designs, looking like giant targets for archery practice. We could not resist the ingeniously crafted Pajero-like jeeps, made out of local materials. They came in three sizes, and had extra tyres on the back, engines which could be opened for inspection, rearview mirrors and roof racks where there were boxes to store things! This was one product clearly influenced by local terrain (which really does require four wheel drive vehicles outside urban areas), as well as the preponderance of aid workers (MSF, Save the Children, GTZ) in their four wheel drives…

We finally reached the large town of Zomba, in the mountains, that night and faced a rather long, and very confusing drive up a dirt track on the mountain (it turned out the road had been badly flooded in recent weeks) to the plush Meridien Ku Chawe hotel, where we were to stay for the next couple of nights. The hotel was quite beautiful, somewhat unexpectedly appearing out of nowhere, in the middle of this dirt track. It is built primarily of red brick, and is somehow reminiscent of the older luxury hotels in India. This feeling of familiarity was heightened by the climate and bio-diversity of the area, which was misty and rich in climbing vegetation (which threatened to take over the road at times), very much like the Indian hill stations. The views from the hotel were spectacular, and as I sat reading on the balcony the next morning, I counted more than a dozen varieties of brightly patterned butterflies - in shades of black, orange, white, red and yellow. It was also pleasantly cool here, in striking contrast to the relative heat and strong sunshine of the plains. In the evening, the hotel dining room had a cosy log fire, and we were all happy to sit adjacent to it!

Ku Chawe had its fair share of characters. The vendors outside the hotel had to be persuaded with some difficulty that I really did not want to buy potatoes or the wooden carved Noah's Ark with all the requisite pairs of animals, when in fact, I was trying simply to buy some raspberries instead. On a walking trail in the mountains, my friends met a jubilant Rastafarian (complete with dreadlocks and a small ad hoc shelter), who informed them that he had been there for the last few days, fasting and praying to God and the Emperor (I should mention that he had been meditating in the area of the mountains known as the Emperor's Peak, which is named after the last Ethiopian Emperor, Heile Selassie, considered holy by many Rastafarians).

But the most interesting character we came across had to be the female monkey prowling around the hotel gardens. The monkeys in the hotel gardens are mostly well-behaved, since they receive scraps from the backdoor of the kitchen on a regular basis. This one though, was pregnant, and it was clearly playing havoc with her hormones, because she had no hesitation in grabbing a series of food items off plates (rolls, fruit etc). Even after we moved out of her reach, she swung down to another table, lifted the lid of the sugar jar, and used the spoon to eat some sugar. The waiter informed us in a resigned fashion that she was in the habit of taking the sugar jar with her sometimes, emptying it and just dropping it from the tree when she was finished… Needless to say, I avoided the balcony sugar jars after that you literally didn't know where they'd been!

The next day we drove down to Cape Maclear, and the shores of Lake Malawi. The start of this leg of the trip was less than auspicious. After a longer than expected drive, we staggered down a long and bumpy dirt track to Chembe Lodge, with its large canvas tents scattered along the lakeshore. We had already unloaded our luggage before realising that we were in the wrong place, and then went in search of our booked accommodation at another lakeside camp, which consisted of a long low building with individual rooms. My relief (at accessing indoor accommodation) was short-lived, as it turned out that there had been a mix-up, resulting in our rooms already being rented out to someone else. The alternative accommodation provided nearby was less than satisfactory, so we ended up after almost an hour, back at Chembe Lodge!

As it turned out, we were lucky because by the end of the day, all the tents at Chembe Lodge had been taken…I appreciated our good fortune even more, when we walked around the village that evening. This was clearly a one-horse village! There was a "restaurant" called Nando's (named after the famous restaurant chain serving chicken), but it consisted of a single dark room, where you might not want to risk eating anything, given that you could barely see what you were eating. "Harrods" next door, was a single room store selling matches and other fairly basic sundries. But my favourite was the single room "Ritz", advertising itself as a "super deluxe minshop (sic), bar and pizza" (which just about covers all bases!)

The lodge area was quite striking, with Lake Malawi lapping at the front door of some of the tents, and a fantastic view of the nearby islands and the fisher-boats making their way along the lake. The tents were spacious and clean, but I have to admit that as an urban Bangali, living in a tent in a continent known for its exotic fauna (especially reptiles and insects!) was not altogether an attractive proposition for me. Nor did the bats that came out immediately after twilight contribute much to my peace of mind. While it is commonly said that bats possess an internal radar which makes it impossible for them to bump into people, I had of course seen the one programme on the National Geographic channel which asserts otherwise (i.e. that while bats do have some kind of navigating system, it is by no means foolproof…). The brief period during sunset was beautiful though, as were the fireflies that came dancing through the darkness immediately thereafter. The lizard population was large and varied, ranging from huge iguanas, to small bouncy golden house lizards, to beige and brown-patterned medium sized lizards. Alas, I came across none of the tiny, emerald green grass lizards I had been so charmed by in Uganda ten years ago.

When the sun rose in its orange and golden splendour the next morning, with a glorious view of the lake and the soft lakeside breeze blowing, I reconsidered my dark thoughts of the previous evening. In the daylight, it all seemed rather silly, especially since I had successfully avoided any close encounters with bats. We decided to hire a boat to go out to the islands, and to our amazement, ended up with a beautiful catamaran. The vehicle was not only spacious, it was quite striking in its construction, since it is a twin hulled vehicle, with large areas in front (a tarpaulin stretched between the two wings, with the water clearly visible a few feet below), and a deck area at the back, suitable for lazing around on. As it was a sailboat, there was no engine noise, and it was a truly relaxing experience to cruise around the lake on this marvellous boat. Our experienced crew consisted of Harrison ("Like Harrison Ford, you know") and Henderman. They were both very pleasant, and we also benefited from Henderman's side business of selling bracelets made out of leather and decorative leather wire (at the knockdown price of about sixty takas each).

After a short time, we reached the shore of one of the islands, where we were provided with swim gear, including snorkels and masks, so that we could see the brightly coloured tropical fish at play. My favourites were the bright blue fish, which moved in large shoals around the area, but there appeared to be many other varieties around as well. Around lunchtime, we were taken to another beach, where we had a picnic lunch. This was briefly marred by a rather obnoxious individual, who was part of a group already there. Since his companions appeared at least as embarrassed by his behaviour as we were, we were able to largely ignore him, and moved off again shortly thereafter. And to his accusation that when you come to Malawi, you must talk to Malawians, we were happy to agree, pointing out that we DID talk to Malawians, including our boat crew, but that it didn't mean we had to talk to HIM! There is a saying that a picnic is not a picnic without ants, and I guess this guy fulfilled that role for us that day…

The final part of the day was spent on the catamaran, cruising around with occasional dives off the boat for the adventurous members of our party (not myself, needless to say!) in the middle of the lake. This followed another beautiful sunset at the lodge, and a quiet evening. I should add that it was only the evening that was quiet, since the night ended up being rather more eventful than I expected. Some of our fellow guests were prowling around at all hours (no doubt seeking the toilets in the dark), but the most unexpected source of noise came from a nearby village. It was Easter weekend, and the village people were celebrating in high spirits. They sang with evangelical gusto throughout the night! We later found out that there had been pagan tribals drinking and dancing, as well as Muslims, who participated more soberly in the Easter festival with their Christian neighbours. I was reminded of how in Lilongwe, my European friends had been asked, quite casually, if they were Muslim. With a large number of both Muslims and Christians living in the country, most Malawians seemed to think it quite possible for anyone (white, black or brown) to belong to either community, and did not appear to go much by stereotypes. With inclusiveness of the Easter weekend celebrations, once again Malawi left me with a sense of envy in terms of how well its diverse communities managed to get along with each other…

(To be continued)



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