Day 1: Through the fire, through the flames
Our story begins with me stuck at our hotel the morning of my family’s arrival with a rental car that I couldn’t drive. Off to a good start (Subtext: the rental company had dropped off the car the night before, but failed to tell me that it was a stick shift, which I can’t drive, and I didn’t notice this until the next morning. Whoops). I frantically called the rental office, and luckily a driver came to take me the airport while they got another car “ready” for us (foreshadowing). So I set off with Moses, the driver, and we made our way to the airport plenty early. Luckily, there is an observation deck with a bar at the airport, so I was able to enjoy a Carlsberg before I watched their plane touch down. After a long line to get through customs, we were reunited. Normally I hate hugs, but in this case they were actually nice. We waited for their baggage, which was lost in Kenya but luckily made it on the next flight out, and headed to the car, picking up a fellow PCV who had just arrived back in country as well. We drove back into the city to our hotel, dropped off all their stuff in the room, and caught up on things. After a bit, we decided to go into town and get dinner, where we shared our first Carlsberg green together, and to my Mom’s surprise had burgers in Africa (after easing her qualms that it was indeed beef and not elephant meat…). Here’s where things get interesting. We walked back to the hotel, where there seemed to be something abuzz. As we walked in, somebody mentioned to me that they thought our room was on fire. Yeah, on fire. Dumbfounded, I sped down the hall to our room, and indeed there was smoke coming out and I could see something ablaze. And nobody was doing anything about it, really. There weren’t any smoke detectors or anything, so I think everybody was just really confused. So I unlocked the door. Flaring up from my family’s bags were about waist high tongues of flame. A worker finally came over and we unrolled a hose to try to put out the fire, which didn’t do a lot. I saw a fire extinguisher, and asked the worker if we should use that, but he didn’t respond. I asked again, and still nothing. So I grabbed it myself, ripped off the safety, gripped the trigger, and walked into the room, guns a-blazing (no pun intended). It put out the fire in a matter of seconds, so it was a really good idea not to use it right away (not). There was a lot of smoke so we cleared out to try to let it air. The owner of the lodge showed up and decided we should call the fire brigade, which was a really good idea to do after I already put the fire out (not). He also let us stay in a nicer room for the same price as our cheaper one, which was really nice and he definitely shouldn’t have let us pay nothing seeing as our stuff burned in his hotel (not). Some people from the Peace Corps office came and brought us non-smokey clothes to wear and other non-scorched toiletries, and they were overall super helpful and comforting. The final report from the fire brigade didn’t find a specific cause of the fire. It looked like it started from one of the bags, but they had just been through airport security in 4 different countries so it’s not like they were holding anything unsafe. We decided to leave the room as is, and assess the damage in the morning, too tired to move to a new place despite the severely harshed mellow. It wasn’t looking hopeful. We went to bed ashy, tired, and wondering what the heck the rest of the trip would be like. It can only get better, right? Riiiiiight?
Day 2: Laundry Day
We dishearteningly awoke the next day to check out the losses. Fortunately, we were able to salvage more than we thought. My brother saved more clothes than he thought, and most of my mom’s were okay. They lost a bunch of supplies and food, some they had brought for me and some just for the trip. They lost some shoes and some other toiletries. We also lost two large boxes of books and school supplies for my school that my mom had brought over, thanks to her elementary school who donated the stuff, and her church which paid to have them shipped. Major bummer. We took everything outside and laid it in the grass, keeping what we could. Luckily, Peace Corps allowed us access to the washer and dryer at the headquarters, so we spent the rest of the day doing laundry. We were going to visit my host family that day, but instead we spent hours getting the smoke out of all our clothes and had to stay in Lilongwe an extra night which is never good news because Lilongwe sucks (too many cars and mean people).
Day 3: Driving on the wrong side of the road
With our fresh clothes and remaining belongings, we set off on the main road M1 north to my site. It was my first time driving for an extensive period of time in like a year, so it felt weird. Add the fact that the wheel is on the right side of the car and that I had to drive on the left side of the road and it was weirder. Also throw in having to maneuver through wobbly bikers, roadside fried-mice-on-a-bicycle-spoke vendors (Mom wouldn’t try one….pansy), wrestling iwes, sunbathing dogs, confused goats, cop checkpoints, fervent fishmongers, cow herds, grand canyon-sized potholes, oblivious afternoon drunks, lane squeezing busses, speeding matola trucks with 20 people piled on the back, and chickens constantly trying to cross the road (there’s a joke in there somewhere). Anyway, we eventually made it to Mzuzu, about 6 hours later, and then proceeded east to the turnoff to my site, Luwazi Mission, about halfway (30 minutes) between Mzuzu, the biggest city in Northern Malawi, and Nkhata Bay along the lake. Once we reached the turn off, we had another 15 minutes or so of hilly, bumpy country road to maneuver to get to my house and school (usually I have to walk it, an experience quite comparable to watching “Avatar:” it’s beautiful to look at, but also painful and stupid and dumb). As we crept deeper into the bush and the sky got darker and darker as we got farther away from any power, my family became more and more shocked that this was my home…I actually live here (sometimes I wonder this myself). We eventually made it to my house and were greeted by some of my co-teachers. We unloaded our stuff at my house, popped a squat on my baller new wicker 3-piece couch, and busted open a box of wine because you gotta keep it classy in the village. A while later the cooks at my school brought us over dinner: rice, chicken, and two types of greens that I forgot what they’re called. It was hella good, even the “tourists” thought so. We chatted a while by candlelight with some of my coteachers for a while and then hit the hay.
Day 4: A new chief is born AKA things get better
The next day, my school held a ceremony to end the term/school year, and also to welcome my family to Luwazi. It was really great. It was mainly centered around thanking my mom for her fundraising efforts with her school back home to get Luwazi more textbooks and supplies. Teachers, area chiefs, and students spoke and shared their gratitude, and two students even put on a skit about me, which was weird but cool. After the ceremony, the teachers, chiefs, and us shared lunch in the staff room, and they presented us with more words of thanks as well as gifts. They gave my mother a beautiful hand carved, wooden “chief chair” adorned with animals and the phrase “Welcome to Luwazi CDSS Malawi.” not only that, but they also gave her chitenjes, which they wrapped around her head and waist so she looked proper African. One of the area area chiefs claimed that she was now the new chief of Luwazi. It was a good day. We left that afternoon for Mzuzu, and while dropping off a coteacher who caught a ride with us I got caught in a speed trap and got a ticket for speeding. I was over the limit by like 5 KPH. Whatevs, today was so awesomesauce nothing could bring me down.
Day 5: Under tow AKA things don’t get better
We set out in the morning towards Nyika National Park, a few hours north of Mzuzu. With us was the same co-teacher from the day before, who we were dropping off in Rumphi, a town right before the ascent up to Nyika. We dropped him off at his house, where he insisted to take some “snaps” with us. As soon as we busted out the camera, kids came from all over to get in on the action and an impromptu African photo shoot occurred. Once we finished, we went into town to get some supplies for Nyika (ahem….Carlsberg). We also needed gas, but the GAS station was out of GAS, which sounds redonkulous, but is actually quite common here. Luckily, my teacher friend knew where to find some less reputable sources of petrol. He led us to the bus depot, where we bought some black market fuel like gangstas. Then we loaded up on drinks, chips, and a few other things (Mom bought a green flashlight for some reason), and got back on the road. A road which was no longer paved, extremely bumpy, and about as dusty as 1930’s Oklahoma. We continued up into the hills and passed villages and children, all of which Mom wanted to take pictures of. As we were climbing higher, all of a sudden the car stopped, and wouldn’t start back up. We opened the hood, and from my professional experience* dealing with cars I could tell it was overheated (there was smoke coming out). Some villagers came out and started to chat with us and took a look at the car, something I would have helped out with based on my vast auto repair knowledge,* but it seemed like they had things under control. We waited for it to cool down, then decided to give it another go. We got a little ways, but then when trying to go up another hill it died again. I called the rental company, and apparently the car they had given us had just had a leaky radiator that had apparently been “fixed.” Awesome, so know we knew the problem (and my original diagnosis that the radiator was the culprit was now confirmed*). Luckily, the good folks back at the first breakdown had phoned the mechanics at the main gate of the park, and they would be coming to get us soon. Until then, the flocking, helpful villagers continued to try to play around with it (amateurs), and I nervously stress-ate Cheese Curls out of frustration.* I was getting pretty agitated and upset with myself for planning a doomed trip, but a local named Timothy came over and talked to me and cooled me down. Thanks, Timmy. Eventually, the mechanics came and rigged our white SUV up to their heavy duty parkjeepthingy* with only a thick rope. The rest of the 10km or so to the park entrance was hilly, so I had to stay behind the wheel to steer and break whenever we went downhill to keep us from ramming the other truck from behind. One of the mechanics, Jamghogho (awesome name alert) rode with me, and I found out that he started at the park as a brick layer when he was a teenager, and his favorite animal is the bushbuck. We got to the park entrance as it was getting dark. I went to meet with “the boss” and found out that I had to pay for fuel to retrieve parts and maintenance to fix the car up front, which took about the rest of the cash I had on me. Luckily, they let us stay at the camp’s youth hostels, where they hold camps and stuff for kids in the park. So our mechanics went off to fuel up their car to take us another 30km into the park where Chelinda camp was located. We waited for a long time, and the colder the night got the hotter out tempers became. I decided to go back through the trail into the woods to the bosses house to make sure his guys were coming back. FYI MOM: I never told you this next part because I didn’t want to freak you out, but enough time has passed where we can look back and laugh right? So as I went deeper into the woods and further from light, I was trying to remember how long the trek took the first time when I saw two huge, gleaming, feline-looking eyeballs about 15 feet away. I remembered hearing that there were a lot of leopards in the park, so I’m pretty sure that’s the large, shadowy, glowy-eyed figure I was face to face with. But I handled it pretty smoothly I feel, I mean I’d been living in Africa for almost a year at that point and witnessed many strange things, and ever so calm and collected I bravely turned and ran away as fast as I could. So I did not meet the boss man. Eventually the mechanics showed up, we cruised to the camp where it was freezing, and bundled under the covers of the youth hostel to try to forget about the troubles of the day (at least our beers stayed cold…).
*NOTE: I know nothing about cars.
Days 6-7: Bikes, zebras, and choirs (not at the same time but that would be awesome)
We had arrived to the youth hostel in frigid darkness, so in the morning light we could actually scope out our surroundings. The compound consisted of about 8 hostels with beds, a dining room with fireplace, an entertainment hall, and a bathroom/shower structure. The hostels had light bulbs, but power only came on for about 2 hours a day because nobody was staying at the nearby, nicer lodge that we couldn’t afford. There were bushbuck and roebuck and other antelope-type creatures all around the site. We were here for two days now, one more than we planned because we had to wait for the car to get fixed. The first day we kinda of just hung out, we walked to the local lodge that had a restaurant and bar and fancy chateaus to stay in. We dined on peanut butter sandwiches, because the food was super expensive. That night some students arrived to the youth hostels that seemed to be like a part of a choir, because, well, they were singing like a choir does. They let us watch them practice their songs, and they were really good. We went to bed, and in the morning went to splurge on breakfast before setting out on a bike safari. Unfortunately we didn’t see any animals because they were burning grasses, but the mountainous scenery was picturesque and beautiful. But I was pretty upset that I didn’t get to see a zebra, the ONE thing I wanted to spot. We even went out of the way to check out a water hole, but only saw roan antelopes. A little dejected, we headed to the bar to relax after the long ride. We went out and sat on a platform neighboring the water of a large man-made dam. After a while, the owner came out to us, and was pointing off at something. At first I had no idea what he was doing, but then he whispered the word, “ZEBRA.” Sure enough, a zebra had wandered in to the area, and we could see him. He kept coming closer too, until he was probably only like 20 feet away. It was one of the coolest things ever, our own miracle zebra.
Day 8: Lake Prizza
After another freezing night at Nyika, our mechanics returned the following morning with our fixed car. We drove out of the park and to the main paved road without any issues. After a brief pit stop in Mzuzu, we finally made our way to Nkhata Bay, and the lake! Despite all the frustrations we had endured, the lake was a calming agent and set our minds at ease. We didn’t do a whole lot once we got there besides vegetate and talk and try to command the awkwardly shaped compost toilets at Butterfly Space and enjoy delicious pizza night at Mayoka (mine had sweet corn on it!). It was calm and uneventful and exactly what we needed…
Day 9: New Friends
Before making our way south along the lake, we stopped to chill at Chikale Beach for a bit. There was barely anybody there, yet still my mom happened to make a new Malawian friend on the beach, my brother found iwes (kids) doing beach-flips to take pictures of as well as hustle a rasta into free games of pool, and I successfully buried my lower half in the sand. It was a big morning. After the beach, we stopped at the curio market and picked up some souveniers for them to take back home. Unlike the curio guys in Lilongwe, I didn’t actively feel like punching any of them (another reason Lilongwe is the worst). We scored some art, wood carvings, keychains, necklaces, Luso La Manja stuff (check it: http://www.etsy.com/shop/lusolamanja). We then cruised down the lakeshore to Nkhotakota, where we spent the evening at a place called Sitima Inn, which looked like a ship on the inside. There was one worker working the desk and the bar/restaurant, and despite his English not being very good he earned points for adorably hop-stepping and prancing to get anywhere, whether it be to go grab a pen or get extra napkins. My mom got pizza again, because why not eat pizza two days in a row in Africa if you can?
Days 10-11: Lakination
The next morning we made our way further south to Senga Bay, where we stayed at a place called Cool Runnings. This would be the last stop on our trip, and it proved to be a good one. The lodge was located on a big open beach which is where we spent most of our time. There were a lot of beach iwes around, and they seemed to take a fascination with my mom. She read to them, let them braid her hair (horribly), and took pictures doing karate moves with them. By this time the fam had discovered that Kuche Kuche was their new favorite beverage of choice as opposed to greens, so we enjoyed a few on the beach. On the second day, we took a boat out to Lizard Island, where we climbed to a small hill and then snorkeled with the famous Malawian cichlids. There were some British soldiers that kept coming around the lodge, apparently they were training Malawian forces somewhere nearby and this was the place they came to hang out. But most of our time, we just spent relaxing on the lake, which was a perfect ending to the trip. As we were leaving, a worker noticed that one of our tires was flat and helped us fix it, which was an even more perfect/fitting ending.
Day 12: Tiwonana!
Their flight did not leave until 2:30AM the next day, so we took our time to say goodbye to the lake. We made our way to Lilongwe, got my mom’s new chair bubble-wrapped and packaged for the flight, made some final luggage purchases to replace those lost in the fire, and ate our last meal together in Malawi at the same place we had our first, a place called Serendipity (luckily, this time nothing started on fire while we were there). We drove out to the airport plenty early, and sat around until it was time for them to board. We were able to get the chief chair on the plane as checked baggage, because luckily two of their bags of stuff had burned in the fire (by luckily, I mean not luckily). Finally, it was time for them to go, and it took a while to say goodbye. It was really good to have them here, and I think I would have had a really tough time making it through my entire two year service without seeing any of my family. After they left, since it was so late, I asked the parking attendant if I could snooze in the car for a few hours. I don’t know if he quite understood me, cos he just asked for the parking fee, but nevertheless I crawled in the back seat and slept for a few hours before returning the car to the rental company. I may not have driven for a year, but I think the time I spent behind the wheel during those two weeks was enough to last my entire service, possibly my life.
Huge thanks to all the people that helped us out in our times of need, I don’t know how dark things could have gotten without the kindness of others. Also huge props to the teachers and students of Luwazi:they gave my family, and me, a day we’ll never forget. Despite the setbacks, I’m really glad they came. I hope they are too…