Sunday, April 24, 2011

Books, Figures, and Munny's Hall of Fame

Made it back to Jackson on the morning of April 20th. Looking out the window, my thought was, "It sure is green around here." I've been at 810 recuperating and managing to catch up with a few old friends who either live here or happened to be in town. The plan is to head north tomorrow - pick up Jonah in Philly on Friday and head to Providence, where we'll spend a couple of weeks rehearsing before our shows start. We have shows in Portland, Cambridge, Providence, Brooklyn, Philly and DC (we'll be updating our website soon with the tour schedule, in the meantime you can check out our facebook page). From DC we'll come through Raleigh, Asheville, Nashville, Birmingham and on to Jackson. So stay tuned for a full schedule!

As my last post I thought I'd share some figures from my trip, my booklist, and offer a last time shoutout to my Hall of Fame, a.k.a. people I may owe my first born.

Figures
You've probably wondered how I've managed to pull off this trip. And while my folks have occasionally pitched in (like paying for the safari and time with them in Africa, or donating some frequent flyer miles for a free flight), it's been otherwise self-financed. Anyone who has seen me, or my "Adventure Book," knows that I've become a meticulous record keeper during this trip and I can basically tell you what I've spent every penny on. So, with that in mind, here are the figures:
  • $18,252.78 - cost of a 13 month peregrine deviation. This figure is basically what I spent on 13 months of around-the-world travel in pretty fantastic places.
  • $1,404.06 per month - I have many friends in DC who spend this just on rent, but I spent it on adventure instead. Turns out, traveling the world is cheaper than living in DC.
  • Southeast Asia trip per diem (non-inclusive of flight): $27.44
  • East Coast roadtrip USA per diem (inclusive of gas): $20.28
  • West Coast roadtrip USA per diem (inclusive of gas): $44.72
  • South America per diem (non-inclusive of flight or Machu Picchu trek): $32.02
  • Africa per diem (non-inclusive of flight or Kilimanjaro trek): $36.30
  • Machu Pichu trek: $540.00
  • Kilimanjaro trek: $1,556.58
  • Cheapest night on the road: $1.62 for a shared room in Pakbeng, Laos
  • Most expensive night on the road: $27.00 for a shared chalet on the beach in Zanzibar
What is not included in these per diem costs are my flights, both car and health insurance, and money spent on recording an album. All of those costs are, however, reflected in the overall figure of $18,252.78. Captain Safety jokes that I should be put in charge of the federal budget since I seem to be so good a number crunching and living frugally.


Booklist
At times the books chosen were deliberate, but every now and again the Kindle broke or the second-hand bookstore only had a few options. Here's the list in full:
  1. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - Steig Larsson
  2. Girl Who Played With Fire - Steig Larsson
  3. Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Steig Larsson
  4. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
  5. Bangkok Haunts - John Burdett
  6. God Save the Sweet Potato Queens - Jill Connor Browne
  7. Tess of D'Ubervilles - Thomas Hardy
  8. Resistance - Anita Shreve
  9. Savage Detectives - Robert Balano
  10. White Teeth - Zadie Smith
  11. Water For Elephants - Sara Gruen
  12. The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
  13. Out Stealing Horses - Per Petterson
  14. Rising Tide - John Barry
  15. In the Woods - Tana French
  16. The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America - Douglas Brinkley
  17. Encounters of the Archdruid - John McPhee
  18. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese
  19. Buy-ology - Martin Lindstrom
  20. Corelli's Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres
  21. The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen
  22. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues - Tom Robbins
  23. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight - Alexandra Fuller
  24. Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer
  25. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
  26. Snow Falling on Cedars - David Gutterson
  27. The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
  28. The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe - Peter Goodwin
  29. 1491 - Charles Mann
  30. The Temple of My Familiar - Alice Walker
  31. The Betrayal of Africa - Gerald Caplan
  32. Dark Star Safari - Paul Theroux
  33. Dead Aid - Dambisa Moyo
  34. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind - William Kamkwamba & Bryan Mealer

Hall of Fame
After this past year I am forever indebted to many of you - travel companions, owners of couches, givers of food, offerers of a free ride somewhere. If you fed, housed, transported, or accompanied me any time in the past year you are entitled to a "free stay at my place" card, you just have to wait until I actually get a place somewhere.

In order of appearance, though, are the heavy-hitters, those my adventure would be entirely different without. A deep-felt thank you to:
Mary Ann Scott, Sarah Schwarz, Big, Shelley Katsh & Mark Gabry, Robert & Barbara Munford, Captain Safety & Pops, Nicole Melas, Hannah Wadsworth, Freeland Church, Mary Jo & George Johnston, Jaimi Norden, Lauren Plettner, Liddell Shannon, Anya Kaplan-Seem, Jon Hampton, Lucy Whidden, Joan Sullivan-Owomoyela, Sister, Scooter Walsh, and Laura Kergosien.

I hope one day I can return the favor to you and to the universe. I am humbled and incredibly grateful for all the generosity, warmth, and laughter I've been privy to this past year. To quote Alice Walker,

I thank the Universe for my participation in existence. It is a pleasure to have always been present.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dirty Money and Southern (African) Hospitality

My last stop before returning to Johannesburg was the often newsworthy and politically volatile country of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, known as Rhodesia until the end of the civil war in 1980, is still run by one Robert Gabriel Mugabe, one of Africa's most notorious "Big Men." Since the toppling of Big Men in north and west Africa seems to be a trend of late, Captain Safety was a bit nervous about this foray of mine. But I was assured by native Zimbabweans and some of Sister's friends that as long as I kept my mouth shut I probably wouldn't end up in a Zimbabwean prison somewhere. So I ditched my copy of Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, made plans with Sister's friends living in Mutoko, and read a somewhat worthless chapter on Zim in The Lonely Planet before crossing the Mozambique - Zimbabwe border on April 6th.

Zim was, by far, my favorite African country I visited, perhaps my favorite country in the last 13 months. It has stunning scenery, gracious people, and it was the backdrop for my final reflections on this last year + of peregrination.

I started of in Harare, the capital, with some of Sister's Princeton friends who are starting an NGO focused on treating bilharzia, a waterborne parasite that can cause serious organ damage. Laura, Sister's Princeton roommate and fellow Mississippian, took me to the African bush for a few days to see the Methodist mission and community where they carry out most of their work. We returned to Harare a few days later, I bid the team adieu, and sojourned south to the Great Zimbabwe ruins before turning west to the city of Bulawayo and Matopos National Park.


Bilharzia can be found in freshwater sources all over Africa
  • Ever wonder where old, dirty American money goes when Americans think it is too foul to be of actual use? Zimbabwe. Don't ask me how, exactly, it gets there (a fascinating journey, to be sure), but it does. A few years ago Zim's own dollar suffered so much inflation as to be completely useless--the 10 trillion (yes, with a T) dollar note was worth about $1 US. To fix the inflation problem they just switched over to the US dollar and let us control the inflation for them. The result is that the entire economy runs on old, gross US currency.
  • Turns out that even countries who don't use their own currency don't really like the penny either. Instead of using US change, anything less than $1 US is quote in South African rand (about 7R = $1USD). This makes going to the grocery store a somewhat hilarious adventure. Upon my first purchase of wine, bread, and peanut butter the register read $10.18. I handed the clerk a $10 bill, a dime, and one South African rand. He turned his nose up at the dime and insisted on 2R for the change. I started to argue that 2R is actually worth closer to $.30, but soon recognized this would be a futile argument.
  • What I learned the next day was that the easy way around the confusion was to just round up your purchase with lollipops, gum, or a box of TicTacs. For example, for a $10.18 purchase you just hand the clerk $11 and ask for a handful of lollipops. This reminded me of going to the bank as a kid and the teller would give you a free sucker. This kind of arrangement quickly changed my attitude about shopping, although I am sure much to dentists' lament.

  • Day trip to a site outside of Harare with cave paintings and a great view

  • Some estimate that up to 25% of the population are informants for ZANU PF, Mugabe's ruling party. This figure means that extreme caution should be exercised with anyone who wants to talk politics with you. My friends in Mutoko even practice such caution with their 15 year old neighbor who complains about being a poor farmer and wanting political change. It's hard not to encourage the kid to fight for real democracy, but doing so jeopardizes their work as well as their life not in jail.

  • Fishing near the Mission outside of Mutoko

  • I hitched my way to and through Matopos National Park, a gorgeous park with rock outcroppings and the final resting place of Rhodes, the man who lent Rhodesia his name, endowed the Rhodes Scholarship program, and founded the de Beers Diamond Mining Company. The park is stunning and if it's location was in the US, would be as popular as Yosemite. Instead, it was nearly vacant. I was the only camper in the entire park for the two days I was there. Others came for an afternoon or spent a night in one of the lodges, but Elbert (my tent) and I were alone in the campgrounds. I enjoyed the solitude, but couldn't shake a strong sense of isolation.
  • One afternoon I hitched a ride with a group of older white Zimbabweans, who promptly insisted I join them for their afternoon braii (cookout). I hardly met a Zimbabwean, white or black, who didn't invite me to a meal or give me their number in case I ran into any trouble. "Please tell people how nice Zimbabwe is," was a frequent refrain, as if I alone could bring back tourists. People I met were incredibly gracious, which made hitchhiking a rather pleasant endeavor and the source of some engaging conversations.

  • Elbert (my tent) pitched in Matopos

  • The older gent in this particular party told me a story of how his bank account one day had a figure with 27 zeros behind it ("and that was after the government lopped off 3 zeros to try and 'solve inflation'!"), and the next day the bank account had nothing. Not one cent. No one knew where the money went, no one cared. People, white and black, referred to this time as "when things got bad," but would often follow these stories up with, "when things get better..." Stunning optimism and resolve, if you ask me.
All-in-all, I found Zim fascinating to travel through and not once did I feel threatened or unsafe. I loved feeling like the lone tourist, and reveled in the conversations with curious locals (One gent: "How is it that I find a lone lady in the Zimbabwean bush!? Where, pray tell, are you from and how did you get here?" He then proceeded to take a picture of me and my tent, as if we were as rare as the elusive white rhino, "No one's going to believe this!").

Sadly, I am in Johannesburg now, due to make my final return flight tonight. I won't stop for long, though my grand peregrination is over. I'll make my way north to start rehearsing for the Munny & the Cameraman tour (Maine, Boston, NYC, Philly, and DC are all already on the docket), which, with any luck, should carry me through July. The next step from there is still uncertain, but it will come, it always does.

This is my final entry from abroad, but I'll make a final post on figures and my booklist for anyone interested. It's impossible to accurately sum up the last 395 days, so instead I'll leave you with a quote from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which I read somewhere along the shores of Lake Malawi:

" 'I could tell you of my adventures--beginning from this morning,' said Alice a little timidly: ' but it is no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.' "

Sunset from Pomongwe Summit in Matopos National Park

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Speaking Spanish in Africa

I am currently in an internet cafe in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe but for simplicity's sake this entry will concern my trip from Cape Town up into Mozambique. Internet has been shoddy and scarce along the way so apologies to anyone who has been on pins and needles waiting for my next report.

My journey into Mozambique from Cape Town took about a week, with stopovers in Port Elizabeth and Durban, the latter being far preferable. I took the Baz Bus, a hop-on/hop-off bus that takes backpackers all over the country. I bought the express ticket, which was far cheaper, so I didn't do much hopping on and off. It's a good idea but for my purpose I probably should have just taken the regular long-distance bus. From Durban I traveled to Maputo (capital of Mozambique) via Swaziland, which was beautiful to ride through. I spent one day in Maputo doing some errands (exchanging money, buying groceries, getting a photocopy of my passport notarized, etc.) before taking the bus up to Inharrime to meet a college friend currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) there. I spent a few days with her in Inharrime and then tagged along with a big get-together of PCVs at a beach not too far away. After the weekend I said goodbye and hitched my way north via Vilankulos to Chimoio and from there I crossed into the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe.
  • You have to love countries that sometimes don't even take their own currency. In South Africa there is a large amount of fake 200 Rand notes circulating so many shops won't take them. Too bad for me, since that's what the ATM often gives you. (I won't even start about Zim, I'll save that for the next entry.)
  • Just when I thought I've seen all the different variations of strange public transit, I was (almost literally) thrown into a chapa (minibus) in Moz that was definitely at capacity. Since there were no seats (not even an inch of seat for my more-than-inch-wide ass) I was instructed by the conductor to just stand, basically between this poor woman's legs on the second row. And obviously "standing" isn't much of an option for someone 5'10 so I crouched. This ended up paying off, though, because after 30 minutes of it I got to snag the front seat for the rest of the 3 hour journey.
  • In Moz they speak Portuguese, which I equate to "just about Spanish" so I just kept pretending they were speaking Spanish. I would just jabber away in Spanish and they'd just kind of look at me funny, but understood most of what I was saying. Problem is my reverse translation skills aren't that strong. This led to rather awkward conversations where I misled people into thinking I was Zimbabwean, or married, or volunteering in the area. Whoops.
  • The meticais, the Moz currency, seems to be fairly volatile. I traded at 32 Mtc = $1USD, but the PCVs told me it has been at 45 Mtc = $1USD when they had first arrived 18 months ago! The other funny thing is that I guess a few years ago inflation got so bad they just lopped off 3 zeros from the end of the numbers. You'll still find a few of the old Mtc in circulation - a coin that reads 5000 Mtc is actually worth only 5 Mtc. (Note: Zimbabwe also tried this trick but when you're lopping off 3 zeros from digits that have 32 zeros, it doesn't quite have the same effect. Again, more on this next entry).
  • Scooter, my Bowdoin friend, lives on a Catholic mission outside of Inharrime and teaches at the school there. The girls at the orphanage called me "Mana Munny" (Sister Munny), but also "Mana Bieber" and kept asking if I was his sister since I too was a musician. How these kids even know about Justin Bieber is beyond me...
  • I know Captain Safety was nervous when she heard I'd been hitchhiking my way through some of these African countries. But almost any PCV or long-term volunteer will tell you that hitching is almost always safer than riding in a chapa or open-backed truck (the only "public transit" available). In a hitch you might actually get inside the car and have a seatbelt. Plus, for a budget traveler like myself I often got a hitch for free (sometimes they'll charge you what you'd pay in a chapa, but still, you're often far more comfortable in a hitch than in a chapa). And company in a hitch is almost always more engaging than company in a chapa. Hitchhiking has actually been one of the highlights of my adventure here and has been the source of many engaging and interesting conversations (save for the guy who only spoke Portuguese for a 5 hour journey - that one was a little awkward).

Toenails in the sand


Two of the girls at Laura Vicuna Mission outside of Inharrime. Margarite,


Walking down the beach with the dogs of the owners. Don't worry, these were friendly dogs and they weren't chasing me


Sunset over Tsene Lagoa, a saltwater lake just inland from the Indian Ocean

Monday, March 21, 2011

Munford Family's African Vacation

The Munford Family has, over the years, taken big trips together. There was the mid-1990's road trip from Mississippi to Gettysburg to track down where our ancestor fell victim to a Yankee soldier's bullet. (Instead of a soundtrack of music, we spent most of the multiple day journey listening to our parents read aloud Civil War letters recovered from my grandmother's attic. This is where I think my love of music came from...in the form of my Walkman.) There was also a trip out West to Charlie's graduation from Deep Springs and our folks thought 120 degree Death Valley would be the perfect destination for teenage daughters -"It's like the beach, except way hotter and no ocean. " More recently there was Scotland in 2006, when my family came to see me at the end of my semester abroad there. We were all considerably more patient post-adolescents but maturity and restraint was tested when the rental car for the 5 of us (plus suitcases and my guitar) turned out to be a close cousin of the clown car. I enjoy drawing comparisons between my family's vacations and the classic American vacation cinematic series known as National Lampoon's Vacation (and sequels European Vacation, Christmas Vacation, and Vegas Vacation).

Africa, as it turns out, is no exception for the Munfords-come-Griswolds. The family met up in Livingstone, Zambia to see how Sister's been managing there for the last 7 months. (She is half-way through a little over a year of working for African Impact, coordinating their voluntourism effort in the area.) We spent a few days in Livingstone before crossing the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers to Botswana and then jetting down to Cape Town for a week. All events below are true, although they are true according to me. If someone disagrees, it wouldn't be the first time we have different versions of our family vacations...
-----
March 7th - March 10th: Livingstone, Zambia
Mom and Pops stepped off the plane in unmistakable safari gear, but against our predictions and to our delight, they weren't wearing matching his and hers safari outfits. Phew. Charlie, on vacation from graduate school, seemed pretty stoked to be in Africa ("Back in Africa after 40,000 years!!") and kept asking us (Sister and me) about the various legumes and grasses that make up African bush. Not really our specialty, it turns out. While Sister was working one morning we visit Victoria Falls, which is near peak because it's the rainy season. This means over a million cubic feet of water pour over the falls every second. There's so much water that it sprays the entire canyon area with droplets. Knowing this still didn't stop Mom from asking, "Is it raining?" Sister took us on project tours and a hike into the gorge, where the Zambezi is hardly the calm, but swift current of the upper Zam - it's more like foaming white death. She also treated us to a braii (African bbq) at her favorite lookout into the gorge.

video

Rainbow over Victoria Falls from the Zambian side. You could barely see the Falls because of the spray.


Sunset on the Zambezi from our booze-cruise on the Lady Livingstone

Sister takes us on a project tour in Nakatindi Village

A hike into the gorge one afternoon

March 11th - 13th: Muchenje Lodge outside of Chobe National Park, Botswana
We all head to a pretty amazing safari lodge on the bluffs overlooking the Chobe River, Muchenje Lodge. Upon arrival drink orders are taken. Turns out all food, booze, and game drives are included in that price we've already paid. Pre-paid beer, delicious food, and stalking wild animals while someone else drives? Yes, I think this is heaven. We went on several drives over the few days and managed to see literally hundreds of elephants (Chobe claims to have over 120,000 of them in and around the unfenced park) and giraffes, which turn out to be Ginnie Munford's favorite animal. When the rest of us feign surprise at this revelation, she retorts: "I can't believe y'all didn't know that! I always took you to the giraffes first when we'd go to the Jackson Zoo." I quickly respond, "Mom, that's because they were in the first cage when you walked in the gates." Still, the giraffes seem to please her so we stop for a long time to watch them. We all quickly discover that Mom is a little too excited about her new super zoom camera and photographing duties are handed over to me, in large part to censor how often we stop for photos. Charlie seems to be most animated by the warthogs: "Just imagine slappin' a number on one of those guys and runnin' him in a greyhound race." Huh? Pops is into the kudus and for the remainder of our time in Africa he searches for a wooden kudu to put in his office. We also saw sabel, impala, water buffalo, lilac breasted something, water bucks, hippo, crocodile, zebra, and (on two separate occasions) a lone lioness. Despite a small desire to shove Charlie out near the lioness sighting, we all managed to avoid any wildlife (or sibling) attacks.

This lioness came fewer than 10 feet from our vehicle, but didn't seem the least bit phased.

Elephants playing in the Chobe River. The other side of the river is Namibia.

March 14th - 21st: Cape Town, South Africa
Some sort of sheep emergency prompts Charlie to change his ticket so as to forgo his few days in Cape Town (he's got a flock of sheep in Connecticut with him at graduate school). Now Sister and I are evenly matched against our parents. When we get to Cape Town it's a bit of a shock for all of us, but especially Sister, who has been living in Africa since last summer. Cape Town is very first-world: the power doesn't go out, beer comes out of a tap in the pub, and the streets are actually paved. Sister just about has a heart-attack when we go into the grocery store and immediately stocks up on all sorts of goods she can't get in Livingstone, like couscous and good cheese. Over the course of the week we hike up Table Mountain, visit Robben Island (where Mandela served 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment), take a tour out into wine country, drive down to the Cape of Good Hope, and visit a few museums.


Hiking up the side of Table Mountain, which overlooks Cape Town


Took a drive out to the Cape of Good Hope

All-in-all, from stalking lions stalking impala to keeping our mouths shut when Sister stalled the rental car half-a-dozen times, the Munford's African Vacation was pretty stellar. Of course, somethings haven't changed much since that Gettysburg car trip: we still are fully capable of carrying on 3 conversations at once (if you do the math, that means that at least one of us is talking to ourself); headphone therapy still very much works; sometimes you (or they) just need a nap; and at the end of it we are both grateful to our family we love, but somewhat pleased to be fully capable of traveling on without them.

From here it's up the coast to Durban before crossing over to Mozambique and into Zimbabwe. Just under a month to go...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Money, Obama, and Gadgets

A few more musings from the African continent. I head into Zambia tomorrow and will work my way down to Livingstone, where Sister is currently living and working. My folks and Brother come to the continent on Monday. Yes, the Griswolds take Africa. The next blog is sure to be a doosey.

  • If Obama ever gets depressed about his approval rating in the US, he should just schedule a state visit to an African country. They love him over here. I've seen t-shirts, hats, bags, and even bubble-gum with his face plastered on them.
  • ATMs give you money in denominations of $5 equivalent bills. I get around $200 out at a time, since that usually lasts me a week or so. This means it spits out 40 notes and I feel like a millionaire walking around with all that dough. I can't wait to get to Zimbabwe and get a billion dollar note...
  • There are hundreds of different languages in each of the countries I'm visiting. However, there is one word that seems to be used in all of them: MZUNGU, it's Swahili for "white person." The plural is WZUNGUS.
  • In Malawi, there is such a lack of a tourism infrastructure that I have yet to find a place to buy a single picture postcard. There are handmade ones you can buy in the markets, but good luck finding what we'd consider a normal picture postcard. Sorry, folks. You're not getting a card from this country.
  • In 1994, with the stepping down of Dr. Banda, Malawi's "President for Life," the official dress code for the country was eliminated. Thank gooodness, because I really don't think I would have fared well in a country where women can't wear trousers. Of course, I still dress conservatively so as not to offend. And I won't be looking for love while in this particular African nation - an "unnatural offence" carries a sentence of 14 years in prison. No thanks.
  • I've done a fair amount of travel in the last year and I've been seriously helped with a few techonological devices that weren't even invented 10 years ago. With me I carry an iPod (enourmously useful for buses that play obnoxious music or falling asleep in noisy dorm rooms), a digital camera (15 years ago it would have been near impossible to share photos of my adventures while still adventuring halfway around the world), an iPhone (the leisure of being able to download new podcasts when I reach wifi spots is pretty fantastic), and a Kindle (carrying a few ounces worth of 20 books). Of course, with each gadget comes a risk of getting it stolen, lost, or damaged. I am sad to report that my Kindle (the second one, since the first one died in Thailand) ceased to function properly this morning. So while it has been nice so far, I'm now without access to several e-Books I purchased for this trip. Good thing the 3rd world still believes in second hand books. I stocked up on 4 new reads for a little under $8. Phew.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Long Way to Lilongwe

All events depicted below are true and have honestly happened to me while traveling in Malawi over the last 6 days. In order to make a more engaging narrative, however, I've taken liberty with the timeline and combined entertaining parts of several bus rides into one day's journey.

It is 8:30 a.m. I've already eaten a few slices of bread for breakfast, taken my doxy (for malaria), had a cup of coffee, checked out of my last hostel, and headed out for the next day's journey. I am carrying my large 60L pack on my back, with my smaller day pack on my front. I reach the bus depot around 8:45. They call it a "depot" because "station" would imply there is some sort of building. There isn't much for a station in any of these towns, just a designated dirt lot where vans, taxis, and buses congregate. A friendly Malawian man greets me as "My friend!" and he undoubtedly has a friend who is going my way. I arrange a 45-km ride in his friend's shared taxi for 400 kwacha ($2.70). The friend drives a mid-size Toyota SUV, the kind that normally fits a family of 5 fairly comfortably. We have at least 10 people and 1 chicken in this car. The chicken is in the lap of the woman next to me, and is surprisingly subdued for the journey.

Every 10 - 20 km there is a police roadblock. It's not entirely clear what they are looking for, but my backpack apparently looks suspicious. They inquire to the driver and all he says in response is "mzungu" (white person). This apparently suffices for an explaination and we're let through the gates without hassle. About 20 minutes into our hour-long journey, the car coasts to a stop. It appears something is wrong with the battery, so the driver flags down another car and pulls out some "jumper cables." These "jumper cables" don't have clamps on them, nor do they look to hold much voltage, and it's no surprise (to me at least) when the cables fail to deliver enough assistance. So the driver jumps in the helping vehicle to go buy a new battery. Sensing this might be a long wait, I pull my luggage out of the car and wait for a passing minibus to flag down.

A van pulls up within 10 minutes of waiting and I've arranged the remainder of the journey for only 200 kwacha ($1.35). I give the guy my bag to throw in the back and I crawl in. These minibuses are slightly smaller than a normal 12-passenger van and fit anywhere between 16 and 20 people in them. I cram into the back seat, along with 3 other people (including one man with two chickens in a bag. These chickens are not so subdued.) The van smells strongly of fish and body odor. One-fifth of this country is Lake Malawi and someone is clearly bringing their catch to market.

We arrive in the first town after about 2 hours or so. As soon as I step out at the bus depot, I am in a sea of touts all trying to get me to go with their friend. Without much effort, I'm thrown into one of the other minibuses bound for my next stop. I arrange the 60-km ride for 450 kwacha ($3) and ask if the driver knows the turn off for Kasito Lodge. He does and I asked to be dropped there. Considering the haste in which I was thrown into this minibus, there is a considerable lack of hurry to actually leave. I sit in the minibus at the depot for 2 hours until the vehicle is sufficiently full to leave. I eat a few slices of white bread and buy a Coke for lunch. When it comes time to leave, both the driver and the money-taker (the guy who sits by the door) hop out of the van, start pushing (ala Little Miss Sunshine), the driver hops back in while the vehicle is still in motion and revs up the engine. We're off.

Again, I am sitting in the back and from here I can keep an eye on my luggage in the boot. The rear hatch doesn't actually close, and there's a two-inch gap of air between the hatch and the car. But a frayed looking rope seems to be doing the trick of keeping everything bound in well enough. About fifteen minutes into the ride, it begins to rain. Good thing this minibus has working windshield wipers. Oh wait, I forgot we were in Malawi. The good news is that I'm getting a nice steady stream of rain from the open rear hatch to cool me off. After 2 hours, the bus pulls over at the sign for Kasito Lodge and lets me out.

Turns out both Kasito Lodge and the neighboring lodge recommended by The Lonely Planet are closed. No signs saying why, but they both appear empty and no one answers the locked door. Back out to the road.

It's 4:30 by this point and I'm sitting on my bags on the side of a road running along Viphya Plateau. I can see a distant thunderstorm moving my way. It'll get dark in two hours. Hmm.

I wait about 20 minutes before a flatbed truck pulls over and the driver asks in very good English where I'm headed. I ask him the same. He says he's going as far as Lilongwe and I'm welcome to a lift, free of charge. Only catch is I have to sit in the back of the truck among several bags of charcoal. No problem, I say. I don't want to be on this lonely stretch of road when night falls. I hop on and we take off. As we pass small villages, people on bicylces and children playing in the roads all turn to look at the mzungu riding in the back of this truck, smile, and wave. I spot a sticker on the windshield reading "This Car Fueled By the Blood of Jesus." I think I have just met a real life good Samaritan.

Around nightfall, the nice man pulls over to rearrange some things in the cab of his truck. He points ahead and says "It's raining ahead. Get in the truck and you'll stay dry." So for the remainder of the 3.5 hour ride I'm inside the cab. My new friend, Tregia, speaks pretty good English and rants for a while about how he can't get a tourism visa for the US. But he never asks me for money and refuses it when I offer. He even takes me directly to the hostel where I've decided I want to stay in Lilongwe. When I asked him why he picked me up he just says, "You looked stranded. You can be on that road for hours until a bus pass. Maybe 11 or midnight you not arrive in Lilongwe."

And that, is a solid dose of traveling in Malawi. Often it's the getting there that's the biggest adventure. I'm headed to a small town outside of Lilongwe for a couple of nights and then back here to catch a bus to Lusaka and then on to Livingstone.

Dugout canoes on Lake Malawi



These minibuses fit between 16 and 20 people in them

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fried Chicken at 14,000 ft

I am standing under a small patch of shade on a hot dusty two-lane road waiting to flag down a van going south. There aren't any vehicles in sight, just people walking and riding at least two-to-a-bike. There's unmistakeably African music pumping out of one of the concrete buildings on my left. There are some guys under a bamboo structure grilling meat on a stick, and kids are all running to and from the school around the corner. No doubt about it, I'm finally in Africa. Malawi, to be precise, which seems only to have one main road running north to south. It's easy enough to find a ride because anyone who owns a car here is running a taxi service...or at least that's what it seems like.

5 days in Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar, 9 days around and on Kilimanjaro, 2 days on the road south into Malawi. It's been a wild trip already and I've got weeks to come. I've already taken a dip in the Indian Ocean, watched sunrise from over 19,000 feet above sea level, and spent over 35 hours on various buses. In keeping with my usual format, there are some musings of the Kilimanjaro expedition and subsequent adventures below.

  • The Lion King is actually useful research before coming to East Africa. People honestly say "Hakuna Matata" (no worries) and "rafiki" is Swahili for "friend."
  • Our Kili trip employed 35 porters, cooks, and guides for 10 hikers. We could hardly believe it took that many, but after our first meal of epic proportions we understood a little better. Especially on day 3 when we lunched at 4300 meters above sea level and they fed us fried chicken. It wasn't the best fried chicken I've ever had, but it was still fried chicken...at 14,000 feet above sea level.
  • Our hiking group eventually used the law of averages to get any sort of understanding on what we were doing/where we were going/how long it'd take to get there. We had two guides, each with a different answer each time you'd ask. English isn't their first language and you can tell.
  • We went on a pretty basic trip - luxurious for backpacker standards but cheaper than many other outfits. At first we wondered what that extra $1,000 got you, and then we realized at the second campsite that it gets you your own group outhouse instead of sharing with all the other hikers and porters. Nice I suppose, but really a grand for an outhouse??
  • I am sure that all the trekking companies summit Kili at sunrise so you don't know what you're getting yourself into as you walk up. Coming down in the daylight it seemed far steeper than I remembered staggering up in the dark...
  • Everyone knows the word "yes" but not necessarily the words in your question. I have learned it best to not ask yes/no questions because you'll get an answer, but not necessarily the truthful one.
I'm in Malawi for another 10 days and then over to Zambia to meet the rest of the Munfords in Livingstone, where Sister is working. What a life...

Sunset on Zanzibar


Sunset at Shira Cave Campground elev. 3,800 meters above sea level


Sunrise hits Kili at camp on day 5


Sister and Me at the top of Kilimanjaro!