Saturday, April 25, 2009

Easter Break Adventures

In Malawi, the Easter holiday marks the end of first term and is punctuated by a battery of exams. For me, school exams were always a bit of a celebration. They marked the culmination of a lot of hard work that, most importantly, was coming to an end. Unfortunately for Malawian students, this “culmination” lasts seven hours a day for two weeks, until what should be a crescendo is more reminiscent of a diminuendo keeping beat to a funeral dirge. The whole situation is made more unpleasant by the fact that I am required to sit in the examination room, board to tears, until the Friday nearest the reunion of Christ’s resurrection.
After a long two weeks and tens of hours of grading, freedom was finally upon Jes and I and we set off on a backpacking trip to the highest peak in central Africa, Mount Mulanje. The word Mulanje is the original name for the peak and literally means, “mountain.” When the English arrived, they intelligently added the title “Mount,” I assume because they didn’t want the mountain to be mistaken for hill, heap, or mound. In the tradition of colonizers getting it not quite right, the mountain was hence forth known as “mountain mountain.” On the way we were lucky enough to hitch a ride to Blantyre with Felix, who was already going to retrieve Ayub’s four daughters from boarding school. Blantyre is Malawi’s largest city, and interestingly, is named after the village in Scotland where Dr. Livingston was born.
The ride from MCV to Blantyre was characterized by ever increasing wealth. Thatched roofs became metal, concrete replaced wood, and no longer was the palate of paints limited to white and the offensive purple color of Malawi’s major cell phone carrier (Zain). In Malawi, the color purple is Zain, and seems to be the color of choice for the plural majority of Malawi’s rural buildings. Perhaps people simply like the color, but this is unlikely because the color is hideous (okay, Jes likes it but she doesn’t count). I suspect Zain pays out for the color’s use, or at least pays for the paint. Regardless of how they have managed to inflict the eye soar on rural Malawi, it was refreshing to see more variety as we moved closer to Blantyre.
In the changing landscape, many of the indicators of wealth were too subtle for me to have detected several months earlier. The spectrum of wealth and poverty in the United States is so different from Malawi, that it takes time to calibrate ones eye to understand the gamut that is Malawian poverty. When I arrived in Malawi things mostly just felt different. The most accurate way to describe it was a feeling of traveling back in time. If pushed to think about Malawians as rich or poor, nearly all would have outwardly appeared poor, with little distinction between their varying economic realities. After living in Malawi for sometime, I began to notice small things like shoes, sunglasses, or whether a window frame had glass, as indicators of wealth. In the United States, even the shabbiest apartment has glass windows; just as most poor people have shoes and sunglasses. In the United States the presence of such things are not indicators of wealth, but in Malawi they are. I was not completely oblivious to the subtly of poverty upon my arrival in Malawi, but after I learned more about Malawian culture and priorities, I began to be able to differentiate between a range of wealth where before I could only see poverty. It was these subtleties, which I had missed on the drive to MCV three months prior, that were painfully obvious on the trip to Blantyre.
We caught a public bus from Blantyre which was scheduled to depart at two o’clock. The bus station master was helpful yet confusing. “The bus departs at two o’clock,” he said, “so made sure you are here by noon.” Be here at twelve? What on earth for? I wondered. Nevertheless, Jes and I have learned that people’s advice often seems a non-sequitur only because of some misunderstanding on our (ok, my) part, so we showed up promptly at noon. At 12:15pm the bus rumbled into the station. The station master rushed over with the urgency of a person who wants to help others who are rather hopeless if left to their own devices, and says, “Your bus is here, better get going.” It was very kind of him to alert us, since the line was already forming by the bus door before it had stopped. Even with the station masters assistance, we were bringing up the end of the queue. No problem, I thought, as we clambered on the bus, the thing was still mostly empty and we still had over an hour and half until the bus’ scheduled departure. As Jes was negotiating her bag down the aisle to join me, the bus gave a lurch, and smartly started off. I am perfectly comfortable with the idea of public transit being late, it is in fact the predominate state of most mass transit operations. What I don’t understand is why any bus would leave early, it just doesn’t make sense. Perhaps the government strives to attain a 100% on time statistic; perhaps such claims were common during dictatorship rule, and now that a more transparent government cannot outright lie, drastic measures must be taken to preserve the appearance of the “flawless government” people were used to seeing.
The reason for the early departure still dumbfounds me, since on a back road not far from the bus depot the bus abruptly stopped for a 15 minute break. It was as if the bus crew was taking a well deserved siesta to reward themselves for the record departure time. The driver got out, walked around a bit, made small talk with several people walking by, and with no apparent motivation got back in the bus and started off again. Next we stop for fuel, then at a bus depot in a neighboring suburb. By this time the bus was completely full and people were cramming into the aisles. I looked over and saw a sign that said, “this bus is authorized to hold 65 seated occupants and 25 standing occupants. Well good, at least we weren’t loading the bus passed any sort of “official capacity.” Just then a live squawking chicken was smacked into my face as a woman nearby began jockeying for a better position. Finally, at 2:30pm the bus left the city and started heading for Mount Mulanje. We’re still okay I thought, only 50km away and plenty of time before dark.
Unfortunately the bus was what Jes endearingly refers to as, “the milk run,” meaning that it stops at every village, hut, or random spot along the road where someone desires “transport.” Of course whenever someone had to get off, they were inevitably in the back, meaning everyone before them in the aisle would have to get off then back on. The last half hour of our five hour (50km) ride was made even more interesting by the fact that Jes managed to antagonize a very loud and obnoxious drunk passenger. I have made it a goal in life never to draw the attention of loud drunk people. It is good for me that I have chosen a partner without such aspirations, since as soon as Jes murmured the, “shut up,” that everyone on the bus was probably thinking, the irritating man’s attention was focused entirely on her, and more importantly, entirely off me. We finally arrived at Mount Mulanje just as dark was blanketing the streets.
The next morning we started out on what was to be a spectacular trip. Mount Mulanje has an extensive hut system, each with a caretaker who will warm up bath water for you. At first I wondered whether the luxury of hot baths would cheapen the rustic experience of backpacking. The answer is a resounding No! It is customary to take a guide while hiking on the mountain and at first I was against such an idea. I had never needed a guide to go backpacking before, and getting lost was one of those cherished experiences no trip should be without. Jes was more receptive to the idea, maybe because she was a girl with no male ego to appease, or maybe just because she has better sense. I lost the battle to go it alone for two very good reasons. Number one, we didn’t have a map, and number two, we didn’t know where the trailhead was.
We stayed on the mountain five days and four nights during which time we hiked up steep escarpments, over rolling plateaus, and ascended the highest peak in central Africa (Sapitwa). Aside from a few cold nights it was a great trip and I encourage everyone to look at the pictures. Check out Jes’s blog for different pictures and a more complete description of the mountain.
We arrived home to the dream of every American schoolchild: Easter break had been extended by one week because of a conference that was happening at the school. Jes and I decided to take the Ilala ferry to Likoma Island, an island off the Mozambique boarder of Lake Malawi. We arrive in the port to find that the schedule had changed. Turns out the president was taking a campaigning to trip to the island and decided to commandeer the sole mode of transport. Still determined to fully utilize our extra week, we struck out to Senga Bay, a popular tourist destination with a multitude of lodges and resorts.
Hippo pools were supposed to be only a 10km walk from our resort. Several hotels offered tours, but being too cheap and foolhardy for such things we headed out on our own. After several minutes we came across a fishing village and acquired several guides with questionable senses of direction and no English ability. The price was right though, only 4% of what the resorts were charging. Jes and I’s Chichewa has improved in recent weeks (partly from lots of studying during exam week) and we are now able to communicate our needs and wants, as well as make general small talk. After a few minutes the path degenerated and I made, what was in retrospect, a very ironic comment of how it is a good thing we had gotten the guides. I suspect the guides had simply chosen the wrong path, since pretty soon we were up to our knees in stagnant and parasite ridden water. Oh well, the worse thing that had happened so far was that Jes had been stung by a wasp on her face, no skin off my back, the trip still had promise. We walked for one hour, and then two, and I began to expect our guides to jump us from behind and steal our money. But no, our guides were actually very friendly, just inept. Finally we gave up and hired a boat to take us back. At first the boat tried to charge Jes and I five times the going rate. When Jes and I started to get out of the boat, presumably to find our own way back, our guides began berating the boat owner, sensing that if we disembarked they would have to pay their own fares. Apparently the guides were able to make the boat owner see reason, since we were quickly ushered back into the boat and offered the normal rate. In the end we never saw any hippos, but we weren’t gored to death either, so I peg the expedition as a success.

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