The Malawian Christmas
I couldn't quite choose which story to tell from Malawi, so I decided to do a small snippet of our first week here.
17.12. Chipata, Zambia.
We spend the first day of our trip browsing the hardware stores of Chipata. Amazing how many hardware stores there are in a small village. We want a plastic cover for our tent; there are none. One shopkeeper offers us a bunch of plastic bags. We thank him and move on to groceries.
I find a pasta sauce called monkey gland sauce, and force Hanna to get it. I'm quite excited- I mean, in which marketing department brainstorming session was it decided that Monkey Gland Sauce would be just the name for a pasta relish?
At the campsite I check the ingredients, and am sad to note that there is no actual monkey in the sauce. We go to bed early, with a clear sky. Maybe we don't need a plastic, after all, we muse.
At 9pm it starts raining, and it doesn't stop all night; at 11.30 we finally give in, and call the owner, standing outside in our soaked pyjamas, and get him to open a room for us. Everything is wet, and we fan out our books and clothes to dry. I've never been so happy to pay for an overpriced room.
18.12. Lilongwe, Malawi
Early morning, and the previously sunny Chipata is damp and grey. Drinking our morning coffee, we decide to hitchhike to the border. As we cross, we meet a tour group and I strike up a conversation with a German couple. It works, and we get a free ride to Lilongwe, two hours further east.
The hostel is nice and cozy and it's nice to meet new people. We go our for a beer, and I choose a Malawian brew called Kuche Kuche. I spend the rest of the evening thinking what Kuche-Kuche might mean.
19.12. Liwonde National Park, Malawi
It's still a few days till Christmas, and we want to see a national park, and some animals. The bus station is un-African; it's pleasant and organised, and no one hassles us. Lilongwe is a provincial, sleepy town, and the bus station lacks the manic chaos of Lusaka, where a tourist gets pulled by the wrist into buses they don't want. It leaves only fifty minutes late.
The ride to Liwonde is beautiful. Scenery is usually impossible to describe, and hard at best; southern Malawi is an odd mix of South America and the Scottish highlands. Full of rolling green valleys, and suddenly a massive mountain rises up from nowhere, the sheer cliffs damp with dew and little thatched huts and barefoot kids dotted along the bottom.
When the bus arrives to Liwonde, we are surrounded by people. The park entrance is still a further 8 kilometers away, and it's raining. I look around for a taxi. A young man grins and pats the back of his bicycle, which is padded. This is the taxi, madam. Oh well. This is a first.
In the evening we cook the monkey gland sauce, which is very nice with our fish.
20.12. Liwonde NP
It rains, rains, rains. I don't have any waterproofs, I don't have long trousers. Actually, I don't even have an umbrella, come to think of it. The park is beautiful. The lodge has no electricity and has an incredibly romantic feel to it. We are right by the Shire river, with towering mountains on one side, and a marshland on the other. We go on a canooing trip, and I marvel at the silence. Occasionally, a hippo surfaces and yawns, but there are no other sounds. Antelopes stare at us and we stare back. The scenery is full of dozens of shades of green, and I never want to go home.
I have a theory; the smaller the African bus station is, the more confusing it is. We're up early, and stand at Liwonde station, but cannot move- we are surrounded by conductors, all with conflicting information; the bus is coming later; the bus already left. The bus is here, but it's full; the bus only goes tomorrow. I swat people like bees out of my way, and choose a bus. It gets us to Lilongwe in record time.
We arrive to realise it's Sunday, and everything is closed. None of the ATM's have money in them. We pool our cash and buy some food, and at the hostel, we pool our change and buy a few kuche-kuches.
22.12. Mzuzu, Northern Malawi
There's certainly a routine now- alarm goes off at 6am, get up, pack bag, pay up, walk to the bus/train/taxi, get on, sit for hours, get bored, get tired. This is not a holiday, this is backpacking at it's toughest. At least I finally agree to buy a raincoat from the local market in Lilongwe, but only after haggling so long the vendor is willing to pay for me to go away.
I'm getting grumpy, but still stare at the fantastic plateau we drive through. Northern Malawi is even more stunning and dramatic than the southern part; more sparsely populated, full of blue mountains that stretch on to Tanzania and Zambia, with little valleys in between that grow tall, proud-looking pine trees, and a single straight road which cuts through the middle.
We always bet on the arrival time, and today, I win a beer with my pessimistic bet; we arrive an hour and a half late, and I'm tired, tired, tired.
The plan is to spend Christmas at the Mushroom Farm, an eco-retreat in the middle of the Northern nothingness, few kilometers outside of Livingstonia. The farm has a compost toilet, a solar-powered shower, and it's set on a cliff overlooking lake Malawi. Unfortunately it is a ten-kilometre hike up a nearly vertical mountain. There's no transport, so we stock up on water and start hiking up. Of course, it's the first hot day since our arrival, and after a kilometre, I'm gasping for breath. After two, I want to throw myself off the cliff. A man appears from nowhere, and offers to carry my ten-kilogram bag for five dollars. Five dollars?! A ridiculous amount, I tell him, and hoist the bag back on my shoulders.
At three kilometres, I am dying but the scenery is stunning; the clouds hang next to us and it's getting cooler. Just when I think I'm done, a car comes up around the bend; it's an open-backed truck full of local people, bags, children and chickens. They manage to fit us in, and we get lost in the sea of people, bumping along the road, occasionally losing a bag or two.
The eccentric owner welcomes us, and we pitch our tent up right next to the cliff. The view is amazing. Tomorrow is Christmas, and I'm tucked away in the remotest part of Malawi.
Christmas Eve at the Mushrooom Farm
We had our morning coffee served to us on a terrace overlooking the valley. The terrace borders on the edge of the cliff and I can see the sheer drop down; I like being up high, so I sit there, sipping coffee and feeling like a lady from the colonial times, enjoying her mid-morning refreshment.
Few more people arrive, and we have red wine together by the fire as the damp evening sets in, swapping travel stories.
Santa doesn't come, though.
(very drunk fred passed out outside the tent)
(Mick dancing, poorly and drunkenly)
(Carrie sitting on the coolest eco-friendly toilet I've ever seen)
It rains the whole night, and we sleep restlessly, patching up our tent using our raincoats. Exhausted, but determined to see Livingstonia, we hike up the remaining five kilometers uphill from the Farm. It is an odd town; built by the British some hundred years ago, it has a massive church, a museum and a hospital (on top of an almost inaccessible mountain) but only a very few residents. We sit at the steps of the Stone House, a grey, empty building and wait for the fog to clear and the rain to pause, and feel like we're Nicole Kidman in The Others.
On the way down, a group of kids follow us, and sing old Beatles songs to us, giggling furiously.
Mick, the very extrovert owner of the Mushroom Farm, slaughters two ducks and cooks us a massive Christmas dinner. We have a small but fun group; three Brits, Loren, Nick and Carrie, Eric, an American, and of course myself, Hanna and Mick. We laugh more than we eat, and by the log fire, Mick dreams up new cocktails for us to try. The mountains go pitch black and we cannot see anything. At two am, we crank up the volume on the small stereo, and take turns to DJ. We have an air guitar championships, and Carrie and I arm wrestle, and in the end, we decide we all win, and get another drink. We dance around the bar until 5 am until we can't drink anymore, and everyone falls asleep. It's been a good Christmas.
(Fred partied a LOT)
Boxing Day, Nkhata Bay.
We sleep for an hour, wake up to the rain, and throw our things together; we can't really be arsed with packing, so we end up with a bunch of plastic bags full of random belongings. Mick needs to drive to Mzuzu, so he gives us a lift, and probably saves our lives. I sleep the whole way. I feel each of my 29 years and 9 months- not that I'm counting down to my 30th birthday. Not at all.
Another bus, another change of scenery, another hostel and town. We are finally at Nkhata Bay, where I am meant to do absolutely nothing for the next eight days. This is a totally new world, a world of beach parties, sunshine, fruity cocktails and lots of backpackers. I am astounded; there are more white people in the hostel that I've seen in the last four months put together. It is nice though, but what gets me most excited though, is that I have an actual bed, in an actual room. Maybe even some sleep.