Saturday, September 29, 2007

Malawi: The Wild Interior

Tearing ourselves away from the lake, we jumped in our first in an endless stream of pick-up truck rides as we made our way to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, where we’ve heard rumors of great herds of elephants. The Malawian countryside is absolutely gorgeous, rolling hills and mountains, dotted with villages and jacaranda trees. One sad reality that is impossible to avoid, however, is the large percentage of coffin shops you see on the side of the road. Indeed, many of the furniture makers have changed their signs to call themselves coffin salesman. And with the high rate of HIV/AIDS, their business is likely picking up as a result. It’s a sobering and depressing reality.

The last and most-memorable leg of our trip was sitting cross-legged in the back of a matola, flatbed pick-up truck, being bounced down a bumpy dirt road. The truck was packed, and Kathleen found herself holding another woman’s child in her lap, while Eric was plied with Malawian Gin (which comes in little plastic one-hit sachets) by an exceedingly friendly drunk who promised to come keep us company the next day (please, no!). Open jugs of diesel spilled on Eric’s pants, while we hoped the guy smoking a cigarette in the back didn’t drop his light. Alas, we landed at the National Park gate at sunset, waved goodbye to our friends, handed back their children, and made our way to our hut where we dined on warm beer and peanut butter and tomato sandwiches.

The next day, we learned the rumors are true as scores of elephants paraded past our hut en route to Kazuni Lake. It’s the laziest game viewing we’ve ever done. We sat on our verandah and watched while the amazing animals ate, drank, and occasionally tussled. It was truly incredible. They got so close to our hut that one bull elephant sent us scrambling inside for cover. And the baboons sat at our picnic table, as though waiting for us to serve them lunch. Fantastic. We ran into a tour guide that we had met previously, and he graciously offered to have us join his group for breakfast and dinner. A delicious breakfast and dinner, I might add. So kind! And then he proceeded to get drunk and regale us with crazy African bush tales. At night, we could hear the hippos grunting and elephants trumpeting. Magical.

Our last destination in Malawi was Chinguni Hills, although getting there was half the fun. Especially when we had to take a taxi-cab ride from two seedy-looking fellows with their hats pulled low and booming rap music in their car with tinted windows. When we got in and they heard our accents, they flashed huge warm toothy grins and said genuinely, ‘Welcome to Malawi!’ So typical of our experiences here, where everyone is overwhelmingly nice, friendly and helpful. At Chinguni Hills, we embarked on a canoe safari into hippo paradise. Grunting, laughing, snorting and bobbing up and down in the water, they are so fun to watch. But don’t get too close please. We were hoping that we actually got to paddle the canoes, as we would have welcomed the exercise, but evidently it’s too dangerous. As a Boundary Waters’ paddler and map-reader extraordinaire, Eric was chomping at the bit to lend a hand, so he did finally convince our boatman of his finesse and helped push us through some reeds.

Dinners at Chinguni Hills were also a highlight. Candle-lit (no electricity) affairs served family-style with fresh produce and cold beers. We were so appreciative and impressed with the crowd staying there (and virtually everywhere we stayed in East Africa). A thoughtful international mix of travelers well versed in local politics, history, and news. A few were on holiday from their work in Zimbabwe distributing food to those who needed it (which is virtually everyone), and others worked for human rights and environmental organizations throughout East Africa. It made for really thought-provoking conversations, which has been much of the joy of our travels thus far. Hopping on bike taxis, we were sad to leave. And I’m sure the bike taxi riders were sorry to see us---what with our big packs and big bottoms. At least it was mostly downhill, and we tipped well.

Making our way to Blantyre,
we ran errands (postcards, email, flight tix) as we prepared to leave Malawi. But that didn´t mean Kathleen didn´t have time to have a skirt quickly made on the street. Who can resist this cultural experience? You go into the open market and buy a bolt of fabric. Then you give it to a guy set up with his sewing machine on the sidewalk, who takes your measurements. Then you swing back in an hour to pick up your new outfit. All told, it was less than $6. Granted, it´s no Elly Karl original, but still...

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