Malawian Time

It’s easy to see how people can get stuck in Malawi. People are friendly, food is cheap (60 cents for a pineapple, 12 for an avocado or a mango, 2 – two! – for a banana, and 3 dollars for a huge plate of rice, beans, vegetables, and an entire fish.) and the landscape is stunning, with verdant hills dropping into lush valleys all along the shores of a beautiful lake, the third-largest in all of Africa.

I asked a local guy I met, Gibson, why Malawians are so friendly, and he gave a two-pronged answer. First, he said that there has never been a war in Malawi. No war for independence, no civil war, nothing. The people are peace-loving. Secondly, and more of a harsh reality, they are poor. And because of that, he said, there isn’t tons of competition among people like there is in the US. It made me think. Were Americans once that way, before the industrial revolution? Before the Civil War? Not to take anything away from our culture: one of the most interesting things I’ve learned on my travels is that Americans are some of the friendliest, most open people on the planet, and that’s with war and competition everywhere. Maybe that makes the US a really special place. Malawi certainly is.

One of the hardest things to do on this trip is to ration our time. I know, I know, we’re traveling for a year. But there is so much to see that even a year begins to seem short at this point. We already made the decision to skip Victoria Falls, one of the marquee destinations in Africa, and this morning decided to skip both Ruarwe and Likoma Island, two beautiful places in Malawi, so as not to rush our upcoming time in Zanzibar, Ethiopia, or jeopardize a chance to go to Djibouti. All that means is that another trip to this part of the world is on the horizon, and Malawi, with its relaxed, decidedly Carribean feel, is definitely a place I’d love to come back to.

For all you people out there for whom the name “Africa” inspires a fear of the wild, unknown, and dangerous, I invite you to read more about Malawi, often described as Africa Lite or Africa for Beginners. It has certainly won me over in a very short time.


Boxing Day with Chairman Mao

One thing I forgot to mention before: Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, is lauded in guidebooks for boasting “the crumbling remains of a bygone colonial era” and “the last remaining vestiges of times gone by”: guidebook speak akin to a “cozy and charming” real estate listing.

Translation: abandoned buildings with garbage in the street.

Africa’s “most European capital” was anything but, with fetid human waste festering in roadside pools because of the lack of a proper sanitation system, and rotting fruit littering every available surface, giving the city a plethora of giant black clouds as swarms of flies took back the land that was once theirs before humans “civilized” it.

Speaking of “civilization,” Maputo has a unique distinction as far as its roads are concerned. Nearly every major street in the city is named after that oxymoron of paradoxes, a communist dictator.

We stayed in a hostel on Avenida Mao Tse Tung, just around the corner from Rua Vladimir Lenine, just down the road from Ho Chi Minh Street. There was Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyere, Samora Machel, and on and on. A Google Maps search will bear a veritable litany of names that would serve as entire university courses in horrendous leadership and mistreatment of populations. It’s Human Rights Violations 101, with a walking tour of Maputo.

The country is not yet 20 years removed from a heinous civil war which saw the “bad guys”, Renamo, burn down schools and hospitals, while the “good guys”, the corrupt Frelimo, won the people’s hearts basically by not being Renamo.

I’ve been to several countries recently removed from war, from Nicaragua to Serbia to Bosnia, to El Salvador. On the horizon is Rwanda. Apparently it has come a long way in a short period of time. I can only hope there is no Fidel Castro Street anywhere near.

Christmas in Malawi

Just a quick note to wish everybody a happy and healthy Christmas. Chris and I are spending ours in Cape Maclear, Malawi, a backpacker-y beach town on Lake Malawi. It’s my first summer Christmas, which is weird, and my second Christmas in a row in Africa (Morocco last year), which is even weirder. At least here people celebrate Christmas.

The strangest thing of all is that since this is summer holiday time in a holiday town, today is a big business day and everything is open to try to make money. It’s kind of sad, that people can’t be home with their families today, but I guess that’s just how things work here.

Malawi is an easy, fun, English-speaking country that loves reggae. They call it “The warm heart of Africa”. I don’t know if that refers to the weather, the friendliness of the people, or both, but I think it’s an apt name.

Missing egg nog and cold weather and family, but making the best of it. Merry Christmas to all!

Northern Mozambique

We heard the roads in northern Mozambique were awful. That’s not entirely true, as there are enough paved roads to get around. What’s awful is that everything leaves between 4 and 6 in the morning, and there isn’t a straight route to anywhere. Trips that with a US highway system would take a matter of hours take entire days, especially since the chapas (private minibuses) stop every twenty minutes in every little town so each group of locals can shove mangos, soft drinks, and more in the windows of the bus.

Chris and I bought a bag of about 40-50 mangos for 10 meticais, which is about 40 cents. We’ve been on a veritable mango binge for the past week. I’m sure that I’ve eaten more mangos in the last two weeks than I had in my entire life combined up to this point. I’ve never seen so many mangos in my life. There must be millions. Literally millions of mangos, so that the difference between eating a million mangos and eating 999,950 but having 40 extra cents makes it worth it to sell a bag for such a cheap price. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Another interesting snack that you can buy pretty much anywhere is hard-boiled eggs. Going for 7.5 meticais (25 cents) per egg, it’s not even a great deal in the States, but is a filling, protein-filled, and safe snack on those long, 16-hour bus rides.

It took us a few days to get from Inhambane to Beira to Nampula to Pemba to Quissanga to Tandanhangue to Ibo Island to Matemo Island (phew), but we’re finally on Matemo Island, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It’s relaxing, with water that guidebook writers strain themselves to think of new ways to describe. (Azure, shimmering turquoise, white-sand paradisian, etc.) We have a little A-frame bungalow about ten yards from the water, and a host at the campsite who will cook you coconut rice (a staple here), beans, eggs, and any kind of meat available (fish, chicken, duck, or presumably goat, although we asked for it today and he said he couldn’t get any) for six bucks.

The remoteness of this island is striking. We got dropped off by a boat, not at a dock, but about fifty yards off shore, where we had to walk with our backpacks on our heads to land. From there, we walked for half an hour before "the car" on the island came by and picked us up to drive us to the campsite. On the way, women with painted faces appeared out of their thatched-roof huts (yes, really), to chase after the children who shouted and scampered after the car, waving frantically as it drove by. It was like the driver of the car was a celebrity that passed once per day, and the children were just pent up with energy waiting to greet him and whomever else might be passing.

This was a nice break after one of the strangest evenings I’ve ever had. Chris and I were walking to a hostel in Pemba, when a couple of policemen stopped us and asked to see our IDs. We handed over our passports and showed them our visas, and then they proceeded to make us take off our packs, empty them, open every little bag and show them what was inside. I asked them who they represented, and they said the government of Mozambique. I also asked them what they were looking for, and they said drugs or anything else illegal. They asked me if this kind of thing happens in our country. I told them no, that it was very illegal, but that one state (Arizona, my former home) has a law sort of like it, but everyone, including human rights groups and even president Barack Obama is fighting against it.

Anyway, we’ll spend a few days in paradise and then head back down to Nampula to get to Malawi. In the meantime, crystalline, azure waters will lap at the pristine white sand under our bare feet. Yada yada yada. Merry Christmas from summertime.

Kruger Park Pictures

Due to faulty internet connections, I had to upload the latest sets of pictures to facebook instead of to my blog here on WordPress. Here’s the public link to the photos. They’re from Kruger National Park in South Africa, the park with the highest concentration of big game on the planet. And boy, was it ever incredible.

Thanksgiving in Lesotho

Chris and I recently spent four days in the landlocked country of Lesotho (pron. Leh-SOO-too). We arrived via a tour run by our hostel in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa. We don’t ever prefer organized tours, but getting to the rugged northeast of Lesotho is nearly impossible from inside the country, so we used the tour as not only an interesting look into the culture, but as free transportation into the most beautiful and remote part of the country, and as an opportunity to set up a homestay.

They took us over the border via a mountain pass that closes at 4:00 PM every day to the small, picturesque village of Mafikalisiu (pron. Ma-FEEK-a-dih-SEE-you). The language of the Basotho people (called Sesotho) doesn’t have the letter “D”, but the letter “L” serves a double purpose in its place, hence the pronunciation of the town name.

This town also gave me my new NPR name: Gemorge Mafikadisiu. I could hear that on the radio for sure.

Our host, Kiwan, was a teacher at the local elementary school. He put us up in one of his rondavels: circular, thatched-roof huts made of mud and stone. We put our bags down and made the most of the rest of our day, walking through the town just before sunset, seeing teenagers walking back into town after making the two-hour trek back from the nearest high school, and women swathed in blankets hoeing the fields of maize, the staple crop of the country that’s made into mealie meal, and eventually to pap, the food that’s eaten here like pasta is eaten in Italy.

The next day, after enjoying a local Maluti beer and watching the men play pool at the dirt-floored, tin-roofed, one room shack called Two Sisters that served as the only bar in town, we huddled into a minibus with twenty other people (some who were standing) and made the three-
and-a-half hour trek (including driving through – not crossing on a bridge – four rivers) to Bothe, a transit point toward Maseru, the capital.

To get across the country cost us about ten dollars spread over four rides. Lesotho is one of the poorest, most third-world countries I’ve ever been to. But despite the bad roads and lack of comfort in many places, I never felt safer than when I was traveling in Lesotho. Anyone and everyone was willing to lend a hand. When the hostel Chris an I planned to stay at was full, the guy running it walked us fifteen minutes down the road to another one. When the woman living there said that her house hadn’t been operating as a hostel for the last six months (something you’d think the first guy would have known), the security guard at the university let us use his office phone to call around. We ended up staying at a Roman Catholic mission which was negotiating buying electricity and hot water on the phone when we arrived. Two hours after we arrived, we had both.

The point is, people were so curious to talk to us, calling to us from their doorsteps or shops or from horseback. But this wasn’t the oppressive shouting of touts and tour operators, urging you to buy something or get lost. It was the sincere thirst for conversation of the Basotho. They wanted to know where we came from, and what New York was like, and how we liked Lesotho, and how good their English was. Even at night, people would make sure we were ok, and would help us stay safe and get to where we needed to go. I can’t speak highly enough about the helpfulness and genuinity of the Basotho. Of everything I expected from the country (which wasn’t much, considering that I, like most people, had no real knowledge of the place), this was the most shocking and heartily-welcomed.

But perhaps the most incredible thing I saw, to my 21st-century, first-
world-stained eyes, was a billboard advertisement in Maseru for Vodacom, a technology company. It featured a family (smiling parents, two happy kids) staring in wonder at a computer screen. The caption read: “Connect to the Internet and have the whole world at your fingertips.”

Pictures from the Trip So Far

Here are some of my favorite shots from our trip so far, all from South Africa up to this point.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Drakensberg, and Really Bad Bus Rides

Chris and I have had a tough time getting around on public transit in South Africa. As bad as the system is in the US, it’s easily twice as bad here.

Popular routes sometimes run only once or twice per day, and if you aren’t lucky enough to live near the departure point, your bus might arrive daily at 4:30 in the morning.

We’ve managed to scrounge up car rides from a few people we’ve met along the way, but recently we had to take an overnight bus from Jeffrey’s Bay, a dinky town where you’re either a surfer or selling things to surfers, to Durban, the third largest city in the country.

The bus was scheduled to leave at 5:30 PM from a gas station parking lot, the favored “bus station” of any town that’s too small to have a real one, which is to say, most of them. It showed up at 6:50, and, relieved, we boarded.

The worst thing about bus rides in foreign countries is always one of three things: 1) The air conditioning is cranked up so high that you need a winter coat even in the heat of summer; 2) The bus is overflowing with people, easily doubling its road-safe capacity and dramatically increasing its stopping distance, especially important because the driver is usually careening around sheer cliff faces in the rain at twenty over; and 3) The music is so loud that not even Rip Van Winkle could catch a few Z’s.

It’s #3 that came up this time. At not quite half past four in the morning, having had nothing but sporadic ten-minute dozes for the previous six hours, I awoke with a start because the music, which had been off since one AM, had suddenly been cranked back up as if our lives depended on doing so at that very moment. And what was the song that brought me back into consciousness once and for all?

Won’t you take me to…Funky Tooooown!!?

I clapped my hands to my ears in a mixture of panic, rage, and sheer disgust. I am really interested in taking a poll in which people say the one song that would be the hardest to fall asleep to. In fact, please include that in your comment. Funky Town gets my vote.

Anyway, after the bus ride from hell, Chris’ shaving cream exploded all over his backpack, and my fleece disappeared into Durban. After a great first week, this was our first low point. However, as these things do, it only got worse.

The hostel we had booked in the Drakensberg is in the middle of a field, near the Amphitheater mountain range that leads into Lesotho. Their advice on arriving without a car was to get a minibus from Harrismith, which we tried unsuccessfully to do for about four hours before we finally called and asked if they could pick us up, or what to do if not.

“Well why didn’t you just take the hostel shuttle at 5:30?” the lady said.

I told her that if she had so much as mentioned the existence of said shuttle, we obviously wouldn’t have spent four hours at a gas station flagging down everyone who stopped and asking for a ride. She agreed to come pick us up for 100 Rand each, basically 12 bucks. We were annoyed, but since it was ten at night, we acquiesced.

The next morning’s payoff was worth it. Vast expanses of rolling hills dotted with trees you’ve seen on National Geographic specials about the Serengeti, all surrounded by mountains with rivers flowing through it… It’s like paradise. And moreso because the bird of paradise is one of the species found here, and truly spectacular to behold. Amphitheater Backpackers is the name of the hostel, and it looks and feels more like a $200/night honeymoon resort than a cheap backpacker hostel.

Our fortunes have turned around, and in two days we’re taking a trip over the mountains into Lesotho, where we’ll visit some local schools and stay with a family for a few days. Then we’ll make our way, probably on chicken buses, across the country with the highest low point on earth, to Semonkong falls, when the rest of you will be celebrating Thanksgiving.

Have a great holiday, family and friends. I’ll write again when we move on to Kruger National Park.

California in South Africa – The Garden Route

Chris and I have been traveling across the Garden Route the past few days, a stunning expanse of coastline that spans the country. We’ve gone from seeing wheat fields, to dramatic cliffs with whales floating just off shore, to penguins on the beach (most species aren’t in the Antarctic), to baboons, to a one-legged grasshopper, to ocean drives that remind us more of California than anything African. It has hardly been a week, and we’ve seen and done so much, while still moving at the slow, leisurely pace that we want.

The last few days, we met Derek, a Texan who’s been on the road for 14 months now, doing pretty much the same thing we’re doing. We figure that anyone with the cojones to travel in Africa has got to be pretty cool, and that has borne itself out thus far. We left Cape Town together and have driven out to Nature’s Valley, a beautiful spot at the end of the Otter Trail, one of the most renowned hiking trails in the world. So famous, in fact, that you have to reserve a hiking permit at least one year in advance. We ignored this and walked the last half hour of the trail backwards. It wound along the cliffs by the sea, and provided great vistas the whole way.

Pictures will follow when I have faster (or more free) Internet. There’s so much beauty here in South Africa, I really can’t wait to move north and get into the wild country.

I’m on a Train!

Quick update: our hostel last night in Mossel Bay was a converted train! Amenities fairly better than a real train, but it was parked on the beach!

Sent from the dusty old road somewhere…