October 3, 2013: A Tropical Paradise in One of the World’s Poorest Countries

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A long stretch of powder-fine white sad bookended by mountains and lapped by dazzling water, Cape Maclear deserves all the hypes thrown at it. The bay glitters a royal blue, studded by nearby islands and puttering, crayon-colored fishing boats. On shore in between resorts, women wash clothes, dry fish and nautical types spread out fishing nets to dry. The streets in the back of the beachfront resorts ring with gospel and reggae music. It’s impossible not to be lulled by the place.

Not only is Cape Maclear a tropical paradise, it was also a running paradise for me. Dirt roads all over the place with all kinds of entertainment along the way to keep my mind occupied and not thinking about how sore my legs still were from our descent of Mt. Mulanje. For an hour I ran with children joining me along the way on and off, adults waving at me, and going around goats, chickens, and dogs in the back streets of Cape Maclear.

I cooled down from my run by walking the back streets of the village where locals hang out. At some point a young man named Isaac join me while on way to his job at the Lake Malawi National Park, one of the few freshwater aquatic parks in Africa and designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. When I told me I was originally from Canada he was excited to share with me that he had been involved for a few years now in an economic development project sponsored by a Canadian university. When I asked which one, I was stunned when he said Bishop University – a small private university located about 10 miles from where I grew up in Quebec and where I spent multiple summers perfecting my forehand and backhand on the campus’ tennis courts … what a small world this is.

I joined the rest of the group for a beachfront breakfast that included a totally amazing Malawian lemongrass tea and then we all got ready for our day-long expedition on the lake. I have to say that the water was so incredibly inviting, especially that it was a very hot day, but I resisted the temptation to jump in. I actually almost killed myself getting in and out of the boat trying to avoid putting my feet in the water. With Boysun and Terry serving multiple roles as our guides, cooks and captains, we explored very picturesque coves along the shorelines of nearby islands, the guys snorkeled and jumped off small cliffs, we got an up-close look at the lake’s eagles by feeding them fish (not sure what king of eagles they are but they sure were impressive … they actually look like the American bald eagles) and we enjoyed a delicious lunch on a beautiful rock formation on an island looking back at the white sand beach of Cape Maclear. We lounged in the sun for about an hour while Boysun and Terry labored over a small fire, preparing us a feast that consisted of Nshima, freshly caught fish and two vegetable dishes. We returned to our lodge late afternoon, in time to do some last minute shopping. While going into some of the less touristy shops in the back streets a very charming young man started following us and commented how he liked my Adidas shorts. I told I would give him the shorts if he followed me back to the lodge, which he of course did enthusiastically. I figured he needed them a lot more than I did. I saw him later on the beach at sunset proudly showing off his new gear to his friends.

That night we watched the most incredible sunset while having drinks (I had a few diet cokes sticking to my commitment to not drink while in Africa) and a late dinner at the next door resort where Nicholas, Anne and Jason had set up their tent. This was another perfect day in Malawi …

Description of a Few Photos:

1 and 2) Backstreet of Cape Maclear behind the resorts
3) Breakfast at our resort
4) Leaving for day-long boat expedition
5, 6, and 7) Life on the lakeshore
8, 9, and 10) Wildlife during our boat tour
11 and 12) Our guides, Boysun and Terry
13 and 14) Preparing and amazing meal
15, 16, 17, and 18) Having a great time on the lake!
19) Gave away my Adidas shorts
20, 21 and 22) One of most amazing sunsets ever

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October 2, 2013: Driving to Lake Malawi with an “Abnormal” Load

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Nicholas, Anne and Jason came to meet us at 7:30am from the nearby property where they camped, thrilled they would not have to “rough it” by taking a series of jammed, smelly mini-buses across the country to make it to Lake Malawi. After we solved the puzzle of how to fit everyone’s backpacks in the back of our station-wagon, all three of them squeezed in the backseat of the car. Keep in mind that Jason is a pretty big guy … my guess is that he probably weighs at least 250 lbs. We had not left the driveway of the lodge that we started bottoming out the car every time we would go over a bump or pothole … and we had about 400 km of beat-up roads ahead of us. When we drove away from the mountain, we crossed beautiful fields where tea was being picked up. Tea is Malawi’s number one export and Mulanje is known to be one of the country’s most productive tea regions.

With time Steve got really good at maneuvering around or through roadway obstacles, which in addition to bumps and potholes, included pedestrians, bicycles, slow minibuses and trucks, dogs, chickens, and lots of goats. And the rest of us got really good at spotting them and giving Steve as much advance notice as possible. When the bumps got too large, including the speed bumps in Limbe, all of us (except Steve of course) would get out of the car to lighten the load. I think we had the entire population of Limbe laughing at the sight of a bunch of Mzungu jumping in and out of a car every couple hundred meters. Needless to say all the precautions to avoid puncturing the bottom of the car slowed our progress significantly. While on the Robert Mundabe Highway, we passed a large truck with a sign that said “Abnormal Load” instead of the “Wide Load” designation we’re used to in the US. In my view, our car was more than the wide truck represented what an abnormal load is all about.

With only a very large scale 2-country map (Malawi and Mozambique) as a guide and the lack of signs and road names, I did a terrible job as a navigator. I should have been fired given that we got lost 4 times which probably added 100 km and 2 hours to our journey. It didn’t help that one the only north-south paved roadway was in construction and all the detours were on very bumpy dirt roads. It’s almost a miracle that 8 hours later (without a significant break) the car was still in one piece when we reached Cape Maclear at the southern end of Lake Malawi. We had a great time in the car though, sharing travel stories, talking about what it’s like to live in Africa, the difference between various African countries, and debating why most international development efforts do not yield more significant results.

I had identified the Mgonza Lodge as the place I’d like to stay, partly because of the description in the my Lonely Planet and partly based on a recommendation from a British couple who we met at our lodge in Blantyre. The low-key lodge had bags of charm with brick-and-hatch cottages spread around a leafy garden that opens up to a picture-perfect white-sand beach on Lake Malawi (Africa’s 3rd largest lake). When we first talk to Alan, the British owner of the Mgonza property, we were disappointed to learn he didn’t have any room with two single beds left. He offered us a cottage with a double bed but we declined explaining we were sister and brother. I asked if we could see the dorm which is located on top of the lodge. The large open to the outdoor room with 8 bunk-beds was totally cool with amazing views of the lake and only a young Danish couple has set up camp up there. So for about $7.50 per night (instead of $65 per night for a cottage), we each got a bunk bed and full access to all resort amenities.

We immediately got solicited for all kinds of activities on the lake. The key decision each one of us had to make was weather to go in the water and chance being exposed to the Biharzia parasite, which originates from a species of fresh water snail. The parasite, which is rife in the lake at Cape Maclear, can penetrate human skin if in contact with the contaminated water. It can cause Schistosoniasis, which is a disease with symptoms of fever, rash and blood in stool and urine. Long-term effects can be very harmful, including kidney failure if the disease is not treated properly. The reason why most people don’t hesitate to still go in the water is that there is a pill one can take 6 weeks after contact with suspect water that is apparently pretty effective at controlling any potential infection by the parasite In fact, most people we met who visited Lake Malawi couldn’t resist going into the crystal clear water. Not too thrilled about having to deal with the pills and taking a chance to have these nasty looking red warms crawling around my body, I made the conservative decision to avoid all contacts with the lake water. Because all resorts use the lake water for their potable use, not only could I not swim or kayak, I also couldn’t wash my hands with water, shower or drink the water unless I boiled it. So needless to say I feel pretty filthy after a few days at the lake.

That first night at the lodge we cut a deal with Ben, a charming young man walking the beach back and forth in search of clients for his boat tours. For $20 each, Anne and I could spend the day on the boat without going in the water and the 3 guys in our group would pay double for the full snorkeling experience. The trip included an authentic Malawian lunch. We agreed to leave at about 10am the next morning.

We ended our long travel day with a nice relaxing dinner at our resort’s beach-side restaurant with stunning views of the lake. In need of proteins, I was pretty daring that night and ordered a beef/chili burger. Malawian cows are actually very tasty and my stomach didn’t rebel overnight.

Description of a Few Photos:
1 and 2) Driving away from Mulanje
3, 4, 5 and 6) Tea plantations at the bottom of the mountain
7) Mgonza Resort
8) View from dorm room at Mgonza Resort
9) Inside dorm room of Mgonza Resort
10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15) Life at Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi

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September 29-30 and October 1, 2013: Mt Mulanje – From Scorching Heat, to Pouring Rain, to Hurricane-Force Winds

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When we arrived at the CCAP Linkhubula House the night before, a number of young men were there waiting for Mzungu to arrive and offer them their services as guide or porter. One of the young men named Harry was particularly persistent. It was totally dark because of the power outage so we couldn’t see very well who we were dealing with so we told Harry we would talk to him the next morning. The Lonely Planet book highly recommended taking a guide to help with the maze of paths and the lack of signs on the mountain. It also specified to hire guides only at the forest station where they keep a guide registration list, which works on a rotation system.

I was surprised when I got out of the room at 5:30am to go to the shared bathroom to find Harry siting close by waiting for us. I guess he hung out all night with the hope he could convince us to hire him. I barely was out of the toilet, still in my boxer shorts, when he approached me again and showed me his official guide registration card. I couldn’t help but admire his perseverance so I talked to Steve and we decided to give him the job. His English was decent enough, he seemed to know the mountain pretty well and he convinced us that there was no need to go to register at the forest station and that we could just pay the hut fee while on the mountain. In a way we felt bad to bypass the guide rotation system but at the same time you could tell that Harry was desperate for the job. He later told us that he normally is able to land a guiding job only once every 2 to 3 months. Since he didn’t have any money to buy the food he needed for our 3-day expedition, we gave him a third of his fees up front. While we ate breakfast at the lodge he went down the hill to pick up the little food he needed. To make sure he wasn’t going to run with the cash we gave him and not return, we asked to keep his official guide badge. I felt bad being untrusting but I had read about that such schemes were not uncommon.

Our whole experience at the CCAP Linkhubula House wasn’t great, and at first I just couldn’t understand why Lonely Planet talked so highly of the place. Then at breakfast it just dawn on me we were at the wrong place. We were supposed to stay at the Kinkhubula Forest Lodge and based on what I saw on the internet this place didn’t look anything like it. When we were stranded the day before waiting to be picked up after our car broke down, the gas attendant who helped us out gave us the cell number of the reverent that ran the lodge where he thought we were planning to stay at. When we called to have a driver pick us up before dark, we ended up following him to a different place than where we had planned to stay, which explains the “sucky” experience.

Harry got back from this “grocery run” at about 8am, his small backpack filled with Nshima, tomatoes and relish (that’s what they call a meat stew here). We got on our way shortly thereafter. With a 1,000+ meter climb in a relatively short distance in hot conditions, with a pack on my back nearly half my weight, I knew this would be a challenging day, but we were both ready for it … or so there I thought. The first hour or so was relatively easy. The gentler climb gave me a chance to get acclimated to walking with a heavy pack on my back. Although I tried to keep my bag as light as possible, between the sleeping bag, mattress, warm clothing for the summit, food for 3 days, it probably weighed close to 50 lbs. As we stared gaining some elevation, we crossed a number of women coming down the hill bare footed with a pile of fire wood on their heads that did probably weight more than they did. Harry told us that they typically sell each pile for about KW300 but have to pay a forest fee of KW50, leaving them with a KW250 (or 65 cents) profit for their hard work.

Then the fun began. That’s where the trail got really steep. When your heals can’t touch the ground and you have to stay on your toes the whole time, you’re dealing with close to 45 degree inclination (or a 1 to 1 slope for you civil engineers). Some sections consisted of pretty difficult rock scrambling made much more challenging by the heavy packs on our backs. Nonetheless I felt strong and had no problems following Harry. Steve on the on the other hand wasn’t feeling so well and started struggling about two hours into our hike. He felt very weak and winded. Knowing we had at least another four hours to go, I started to worry about his ability to make it. I asked if he had a history of heart issues, which he didn’t. He asked if it could be the altitude but I thought we were still too low for him to be impacted by a diminished oxygen supply. It got to a point where Steve had to stop every five minutes to catch his breath. Harry asked if he wanted him to take his pack but Steve felt that the extra weight on his back wasn’t the problem. We agreed that I would go ahead on my own so I could keep a rhythm going and would stop to wait for them at every fork in the path so I wouldn’t get lost. As with all mountain climbs, the vegetation changed quickly with altitude. At one point while I was way ahead of Steve and Harry, I ran into two guys coming out of the bushes with machetes. Needless to say is startled me a little but at the same time I wasn’t overly concerned because I knew they were doing – illegally cutting cedar trees. Earlier in the day Harry pointed out a guy using a machete to take apart the bark of a tree and sculpt a perfect 6×6 piece of lumber. He explained that authorities patrolled the mountain looking for thieves who could be thrown in jail if caught. As we hiked we kept running into piles of cedar pieces were a tree had illegally been decimated. The cedar trees on Mulanje are actually more aromatic than those back home so for a good part of our 3-day journey on the mountain, the smells filling the air around us were as enjoyable as the stunning sceneries. Following my close encounter with the two guys with machetes, I made the wise decision to stay closer to Steve and Harry.

We reached the Lichenya Hut about six hours after we stared following Harry up the mountain, which actually turned out to be the exact time specified on the Mountain Club of Malawi website. The hut, which is all built of cedar wood, had three rooms and two fire places. There were no platforms to sleep on so we had to sleep directly on the wood floor. Although the hut can sleep up to 20, we were the only two guests that night so we each had our own separate room. The setting was majestic with multiple peaks towering the Lichenya Plateau in all directions. Shortly after we arrived, the hut keeper asked if I wanted him to “make me a shower.” Even though I didn’t’ really know what that met, I agreed since the thought of cleaning up was very appealing given that I had mud all over my legs and had sweated profusely all day. The shower turned out to be a large metal bucket of warm water in a nice little cedar room with amazing views.

Early evening the hut keeper came back (he and the guide stayed in a separate, much less “luxurious” structure) to light a fire so we could boil water for our dry-freeze instant dinner mixes. I was ready for bed when Steve came to get me to check out a “strange astronomical phenomenon” he called it. I guess our guides and the hut keeper had come running asking Steve if he knew what it was. They both seemed pretty freaked out and I don’t blame them because I had never seen anything like that before. Right above our hut was what looked like a large perfectly round puffy white cloud. It was so striking against the pitch dark sky sprinkled with bright stars. With time it slowly faded away. We think it may have been an eclipse, which we’ll try to confirm when we have internet access. Whatever it was, it was pretty incredible to experience such a rare occurrence from the middle of nowhere on a mountain top in Africa. Once all the excitement was over, we went to bed at 7pm.

When I woke up 10 hours later (which by the way is more sleep than I normally get in two nights) it was raining pretty hard. We took our time getting ready, with the hope the sky would clear up by the time we were ready to go. Breakfast for me consisted of dried apples, a protein bar and tea. Steve, who brought way to little food, ate the leftover pasta he had set aside from dinner the previous night. When we left at 7:30am, it was only drizzling a little. It however started raining about an hour into our trek and for about two hours it totally poured on us, making going up and down wet and slippery granite rocks with a heavy load on our back very challenging and dangerous. When we got over the last pass on our way to the Chisepo Hut (hut closest to the Sapitwa Peak), the rain subsided but the wind was brutal and I quickly got chilled being all wet. When we got to the nut, Nicholas and Anne were still there. Nicholas had just come back from summiting Sapitwa (highest peak on Mulanje) and seemed relieved to have made it back without getting hurt given how dangerous the conditions became when it started raining while he as at the top. He warned us not to attempt the summit in rainy conditions.

I spent the entire afternoon trying to get warm by first hanging in my down sleeping bag, which didn’t work too well because my clothes were still wet. I then sat inches away from the worse designed fireplace, which generated very little heat. I dried one piece of clothing at a time by holding it over the fire and putting it on as soon as it was dry. By early evening I had every single piece of clothing I brought on my body – two pairs of socks, long underwear (top and bottom), a pair of pants, two t-shirts, a fleece top and a rain jacket. The conditions outside kept getting worse as the day progressed. It didn’t help that the Chisepo Hut was a major step down from our previous hut. The few very small windows provided very little light so we had to wear our headlamp the entire day. The roof had a number of leaks so we had to be strategic as to where on the damp wood floor to place our mattresses and sleeping bags. The latrines were also very far from the hut, which was a problem given the pouring rain and violent wind. Once I finally got dry and felt warmer, there was no way I would get wet again trying to reach to distant latrines.

Just when we thought that it couldn’t get worse, the storm intensity escalated significantly. About the time we tried to go to sleep (again about 7pm), the wind must have been hurricane-force wind, with the noise amplified by the rain falling on the hut’s perforated metal roof. We both didn’t sleep all night thinking the roof would come off the hut. My multiple layers of clothing and 25-degree sleeping bag were barely keeping me warm enough. The worst part is that I had to pee three times that night. I improvised by own latrine on the hut’s deck in an area where a plank was missing. Every time I went out to pee, I had to point my naked ass into the wind and rain coming down the mountain in a furry but it was definitely a better alternative than going to the distant latrines.

We had actually agreed with Harry the night before that we would leave at 5:30am to attempt the summit. Given the lack of visibility, the pouring rain, the howling wind, it would have been suicidal to attempt going up there. Two people actually lost their lives in recent years in separate expeditions while attempting to summit in bad conditions. We were told that the body of a Dutch woman who gave it a go in the rain a year ago was never found. We already made one stupid decision earlier in the week (undertaking a drive across the country with an unreliable car), we were not about to make another one, and one that could have much more severe consequences. So for the first time I got a taste of what it’s like to get so close to a mountain peak one plans to summit and has to turn around without achieving one’s goal. I guess that’s why Sapitwa means “the place you cannot reach.” It was probably a good thing that the conditions were so extreme. Given my goal-oriented personality, I may have made a different decision in less severe by yet dangerous conditions. I promised myself that when I come back to Malawi, I’ll make another attempt at the summit.

So at 5:30am our goal had shifted to let’s try to get the hell out of there and while we’re at it, let’s try to make it all the way down the mountain so we don’t have to spend another night in a hut. Steve went to share our new plan with Harry and we agree to leave by 7am. Our first challenge of the day was to cross a stream which now looked more like a small river with rapids. To avoid getting our boots wet at the start of the day, when we arrived at the water crossing, we switched into our flip-flop sandals and pulled our pants over our knees. I didn’t feel all that comfortable with what I was about to do – crossing a rapid about 50 feet wide in about a foot of fast flowing water on slippery granite rocks in flip-flops with a heavy pack on my back and my hiking boots hanging on both sides of my neck. On top of that it was still pouring rain sideways because of the powerful wind. The recent tragic incident at Hetch Hetchy where two guys died while moving through similar moving water crossed my mind. Harry stood in the middle of the rapids barefooted with his arm extended towards me. All I had to do was reach his hand, which I did without slipping, and we made it the other half of the way holding hands. I was so relieved to reach the other side still standing. We quickly dried our feet the best we could using Steve’s towel and immediately started walking as fast as we could to get warm.

The conditions were totally miserable until we reached the first pass. Thereafter it got much better, with the rain eventually stopping and the wind subsiding significantly. The problem though is that we had to come down about 1,400 meters (4,600 ft) on wet granite rock stacked on very steep terrain. I sure could have used the hiking poles I left back at home. We reached the Chambe Hut in about 3.5 hours. There we hooked up again with Nicholas, Anne and Jason. They were having breakfast around the fire place and made room for us to huddle around with them so we could get warm. We decided to wait for them to go all the way down. They had two guides and a porter (Jason went up to Chambe separately and hired his own guide and porter). So it was nice to be able to make the remaining 1,000 meter decent in a group of nine. By the time we made it down four hours later, our quads were totally burning. At the bottom I gave my hiking shoes to harry, thinking he or one of his siblings needed them more than I do. Based on the big smile on his face, I think he appreciated the gift more than the additional cash we gave him as a tip. Steve also gave him a pretty nice present – his rain jacket, which he’ll be able to use in future expeditions … can’t believe all he had the whole time we were on the mountain was the same shorts and t-shirt.

Steve and I were determined to stay at the Kikhubula Forest Lodge this time. Realizing that having a man and a woman share a room without being together seemed to make the previous lodge owner uncomfortable, we came up with the story that we were brother and sister. We continue to stick to that story and it seems to be working well for us. What a different experience the new lodge was. They had clean rooms and showers and despite the fact that there was no electricity the whole time we were there, they cooked the two best meals I had in Malawi. The vegetable curry they served for dinner was to die for and I had my first true enjoyable salad in 2+ weeks. Breakfast the next morning was as amazing with cereals, a cheese and veggie omelet and a fruit salad with papaya and bananas freshly picked on the lodge property.

Description of a Few Photos:
1) Steve and I, with Harry, at the start of our expedition
2) Starting to get a little steeper
3) Women carrying down fire wood
4, 5, and 6) Our first day of ascent … over 1,000 meters to climb
7) Lichenya Hut – 1st night on the mountain
8) My room inside Lichenya Hut
9) Soaking wet after the rain of the 2nd day
10) Chisepo Hut at the bottom of the hill
11) Trying to get warm at the Chisepo Hut after hiking in the rain
12) Running away from the storm on the 3rd day
13 and 14) Group of 9 for last 1,000 meter descent
15) Getting close to the end
16) Kikhubula Forest Lodge (the one recommended by Lonely Planet)

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September 28, 2013: In Retrospect We Were Stupid

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Although Steve and I were looking for an adventure for our last week in Malawi, we decided against getting around the country in crammed mini-buses used by locals thinking it may push us beyond our tolerance level. We instead solicited Muthi’s help to find someone willing to rent us a car. When the friend Muthi had found backed out of our rental arrangement the night before we needed the car, he scrambled to find someone else through his various connections. Early afternoon the next day Muthi and a driver showed up with a car at the Kabula Lodge. We immediately could tell that something wasn’t right. The car, which had over 150,000 km on it, was already starting to overheat and we learned that its cooling system was filled with water instead of coolant, which is apparently is common practice in Malawi because people can’t afford coolant. Muthi said everything would be fine if we could find someone to drain the water and replace it with coolant. In retrospect, this is where we were stupid to go along with this plan … but we did and believe me we ended up paying big time later for our stupidity.

The driver said all we had to do is find Lawrence and Stolley at a specific street corner of Blantyre and they could help us with our cooling system issue. Well when we got the street corner in question, Lawrence and Stolley were both nowhere to be found and the driver just decided to abandon us there with Muthi. We stopped at a gas station to buy coolant with the hope that they could help us with the actual switch from water. The two gas station attendants looked under the hood of the vehicle and told us we needed a mechanics. They recommended one two driveways down the road. When we pulled in the driveway in question with our two bottles of coolant, all we could find was a guy laying down under a palm tree beside a dirt parking area with a greasy plastic bag filled with a few old tools. He apparently was the mechanics we were looking for. He said he could do the job for KW1,500 (about $3.50) so we went of it. When he stared unbolting all kinds of parts and taking apart about half the engine, spreading pieces all over the dirt in front of the car, I stared wondering if this was a good idea after all. But this is Africa I told myself and this is how it gets done here. Then the next thing I know, our mechanics has his mouth around the fill cap of the radiator. When I asked Muthi what he was doing, here told me that the only way to drain the water out of the system was to blow it out. The other challenge we had was to find water because what we bought was a coolant concentrate. Muthi knocked at the door of a house nearby and came back with a bucket filled with water on his head. About 30 minutes later our mechanics had the whole thing back together and as far as we could tell no bolts or pieces of our engine were left on the ground.

Confident we had solved our overheating issue, Muthi went his separate way. Next on our list of challenges for the day was to confirm that Steve could handle driving on the left in chaotic African traffic and for me to guide us out of Blantyre using a sketch Muthi quickly put together. We succeeded with both and for about an hour or so things were definitely looking up. Then about 20 km from our destination, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, Steve noticed the temperature gage of the car going up … five minutes later, we lost power and found ourselves stranded on a rural road in an area where English is pretty much useless. All I knew is that we had to somehow get out of there before dark, which was less than three hours away.

The good news is that Steve had borrowed a local phone from WFP so we were able to get a hold of Muthi who in turn contacted the owner of the piece of shit we were driving. About 30 minutes later a guy in a newer pick-up truck who spoke a little English asked if we needed to be towed to the nearest town. Still unclear when someone would be able to come to our rescue, we accepted his towing offer figuring that it would be safer to be at a gas station in a town than on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The guy then pulled a rope (I guess they don’t use chains for towing here) and attached the two vehicles together like he was getting ready to tow a kid’s tricycle or something. He said not to worry the gas station was right around the corner. So Steve and I got back in the car and Steve put the car in neutral for our next adventure, being pulled with minimal stirring and breaking control while maneuvering the pedestrians and animals spilling from both sides of the roadway. We should have known that right around the corner met a 10 km ride. We somehow made it to the gas station without rear-ending our good Samaritan. By then Muthi had called back to let us know that the owner of our vehicle was on his way from Blantyre to bring us a “better car.” We figured we were just over an hour drive from the City so we felt relieved to know we would be rescued before darkness made our situation a little more dicey. But then again this is Africa, so the meaning of “we’re on our way” is different. We definitely felt better being stuck at the gas station but there’s no question that as hard as we tried, there was nothing we could do to blend in … we just looked totally out of place … the only two Mzungu in the small town of Chitakale. When the sun started setting we called Muthi to get an update and he called back to inform us that they were still a least 30 minutes away, which according to African time could mean 60 to 90 minutes.

Steve stared getting a little nervous and decided to call the lodge located at the base of Mt. Mulanje where we were going to stay and inquire if someone could pick us up. The garage attendant said he knew the reverent who operated the lodge and gave us his cell number. Steve negotiated for a driver to come down the mountain to get us, which we were told was going to take 15-20 minutes. I personally felt like it would likely take longer and that we should just wait, thinking the owner of our vehicle may show up before the lodge driver. And guess what, that’s exactly what happened. Although I wanted to let the vehicle owner have it when he finally showed up with two friends, it was hard to be upset at him when he couldn’t stop saying “sorry madam, sorry madam.” He promised that that the new car he brought us, which “only” had 110,000 km, was more reliable. A few minutes after her arrived, power in the entire town went out and all of a sudden we found ourselves completely in the dark for the car exchange. That’s about when the driver from the lodge showed up. We explained that we no longer needed a ride but he insisted that we put 5 liters of gasoline in his car (he probably only needed 1 or 2 for the roundtrip to the lodge but whatever) and that we wait for him to get some groceries so we could follow him back to the lodge, which apparently we would have very little chance to find in the dark. In the meantime, the owner of the vehicle, with the help of his two friends, one of which must have been a mechanics, found a way to fix our broken down car and before long they were on their way back to Blantyre, leaving us behind in the dark with the supposedly better car.

We finally made it to the CCAP Likhubula House (can’t remember what CCAP means but the P is for Presbyterian so the place had a religious affiliation) at about 7pm, six hours or so after our adventure began in Blantyre. The lodge was totally dark when we arrived as a result of the power outage. Given our limited supply of cash (remember I forgot my ATM card back in the US), Steve and I decided to share a room. It’s not like Steve’s wife had anything to worry about. The interesting thing though is that our week together in Malawi is apparently the first time that Steve vacationed with anyone else than his wife or kids. The room we got was extremely basic … a cement floor, a plywood ceiling, two uncomfortable single beds with sheet that appeared more or less clean, a small wood table with chair and a sink. It was hot as hell in there but we could not really open the windows because the mosquitoes were in full force that night. Because of the power outage the lodge didn’t serve dinner that night. So Steve and I shared a freeze-dried camping meal that didn’t require boiling water. Although not very hungry because of the heat, we force ourselves to take in the calories in anticipation of the arduous days ahead.

The highlight of the day came when Steve and I went outside to meet the 3 other Mzungu who were cooking on a camping stove in front of our room. I was thrilled when I heard them speak Quebecois. Nicolas, his girlfriend Anne and their friend Jason are volunteers for an organization called Volunteers Services Oversees. They work in Mozambique and they are in Malawi on a short holiday to allow them to renew Anne’s tourist visa. We became instant friends and they’ll now be joining us on our cross-country drive to Lake Malawi after climbing Mt. Mulanje. We also planned to meet on the mountain in the next few days as we will be staying at some of the same huts. I stayed out talking to them for an hours or so (which cost me a bunch of mosquito bites) while Steve went to bed. They told me about their attempt to climb the mountain from the other side and how they had to stop because they ran into multiple fires that were set by hunters to help them trap rock hyraxes. They even saw some of the hunters ready to strike with their spears, bows and arrows. I would have loved to be there to see that. Feeling unsafe, they turned around and ended up at the same lodge, the same night.

When I got back in the room, it felt like a sauna. Getting under the mosquito net didn’t help the air flow but I had no choice given that I could hear the army of mosquitoes surround my net, ready to go on offense. As I spread out on the top of the sheets, I could feel the sweat dribbling down my legs and back, thinking how the hell was I going to fall asleep when I felt like I was about to suffocate under my net. That’s when a fairly large creature in our room ceiling started making laps from one corner to another and then scratching hard in the corner of the sink. I guess that explains the sawdust accumulation I found in the sink. No kidding though, whatever it was, it wanted in our room. I’m not sure what I would have done if it fell through our ceiling and ended up in the room. Steve slept through the whole thing … I swear guys … where are they when you need them.

Despite the day’s challenges and the lodge’s less than ideal conditions, I was happy to be at the base of Mt. Mulanje, ready and excited to start our 3-day expedition up the mountain the next morning.

Description of a Few Photos:
1) Gas station where they couldn’t help us
2) Mechanics starting to work on our car
3) Muthi fetching water from neighbor to add to coolant
4) Stranded in the middle of nowhere after car broke down
5) Being towed to closest gas station
6) CCAP Likhubula House (not so bad from the exterior but …)
7) “Luxurious” interior of our room
8) The mosquito net under which I almost suffocated under the previous night

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September 27, 2013: Recognitions and Good Byes

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The last official day of our World Water Corps (WWC) assignment was a day of recognitions and good byes. The day began with my usual 1-hour run going in a circle around the neighborhood, followed by the same omelet breakfast I had the past two weeks … I can’t wait to go back to my usual breakfast concoction of cottage cheese, yogurt and berries. After learning the day before that a guy at our lodge was robbed a knife point in the middle of the day, I asked Andrea if she wanted to walk to the WFP office with me to avoid being out there by myself. After reviewing the latest version of the comprehensive memo summarizing our findings and recommendations, some of us went shopping with Pattie as our guide. She knew the sales person at the first higher-end shop we stopped by (I swear it seems like she knows everyone in Malawi) so she was able to negotiate a deal for me. We returned to the office in time for an early afternoon party with everyone who took part in the field work performed as part of our assignment. We surprised all team members with cake and sodas. We sang together, shared stories about the last two weeks, took team photos, listened to Pattie’s endless “poem” (she call it a poem but in was more like a speech), which was way too much about me, and said our final good byes. Although I was embarrassed by all the attention Pattie gave me in front of everyone, I kept the script of her poem as a memento. My team also sang and danced for me, which I have on video. I think there is a good chance I’ll be back to the Heart of Africa for another volunteer assignment so I’m hoping I’ll get to see Pattie, Chicco, Jimmy and Andrew again.

My four volunteer colleagues and I met with Aphron (WFP-Malawi Program Manager) and Muthi (WFP-Malawi Grant Director) late afternoon to go over our field observations and some preliminary suggestions. We had a long discussion about the politics associated with the distribution of safe drinking water to various communities and the challenges of WFP-Malawi faces in relation to the Blantyre Water Board. I find it fascinating how regardless of socio-economic conditions, politics always seems to come into play. Aphron made note of all of our recommendations and indicated he would follow up on a number of them. We also talked at length about how best to structure future WWC assignments to maximize the expertise and capabilities of volunteers. This is something I feel pretty strongly about and have a number of ideas that I intend to share with WFP staff in Denver.

The last day of our assignment ended with a nice dinner at an Italian restaurant. With the exception of our friends from WFP-Malawi, patrons of the restaurant were pretty much all expats so you had the impression of no longer being in Africa, which felt weird to me. Before we left the restaurant we exchanged parting gifts with our hosts. I’m really excited about the hand-painted cup I got with WFP’s campaign slogan “Everyone Forever.”

After dinner, Alyssa, Andrea and Reid decided to check out Blantyre’s Friday night club scene. Although I was curious about the scene, I was just too tired to follow. Instead I enjoyed the great African music coming from a nearby neighborhood party from the lodge’s patio, while staring at the City lights below.

Description of a Few Photos:
1) Patty giving her speech at the party
2) Jimmy (from my team) and his son
3 and 4) Rob (from Connecticut) and his team
5 and 6) Steve (from small town close to Boston) and his team
7 and 8) Alyssa (newly moved to NYC) and her team
9 and 10) Andrea (from LA) and her team
11) My team: Andrew, Chicco, Jimmy and Pattie
12) Parting photo with everyone

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September 26, 2013: Mt. Mulanje – Do Not Go There or The Place You Cannot Reach

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All the data we collected in the field the past few weeks was stored on Android phones using a special application called FLOW that has been customized for the survey needs of WFP. The application includes a GPS feature that allows all facilities to be located and mapped. The data collected automatically gets sent to WFP’s servers in Denver. The concept of the application is brilliant but it is still a work in progress and there are problems with the technology. I used FLOW during my first trip to Rwanda three years ago where we experienced various difficulties with the technology while in the field. We didn’t run into a lot of the same field problems here in Malawi but we’ve had trouble extracting the data from the phones for analysis. Our plan was to map all the data collected, identify the data gaps for all 21 low-income areas and go back in the field late this week to collect any missing data.

Given our inability to map all the data collected, we haven’t been able to identify where the gaps are. Because of those technical difficulties, I’ve had to send my team home yesterday and started assisting Alyssa and the rest of the team on a tech memo that summarizes our observations and recommendations. Being able to stay behind in the office also allowed me to do some more planning for next week. Everyone on the team goes home tomorrow except for Steve and I. We’re staying an additional week to climb Mt. Mulanje and kayak on Lake Malawi.

Mid-day Rob and I walked to the Malawi Map and Survey Office. My Lonely Planet guidebook indicated that it’s the only place in the country where you can get a map of Mt Mulanje and highly recommended not trying to venture up the mountain without one. When we got there, the guy at the counter was sleeping but he immediately perked up when he realized someone was at the counter. I have a feeling he doesn’t get that many visitors. The map I got is actually pretty good. It shows clear topo lines and most of the hiking paths, mountain huts and Mulanje’s various peaks.

Mt Mulanje is only about 1.5-hour drive from Blantyre near the Mozambique border. Rising sharply from the surrounding plains of Chiradzulu and the tea-growing Mulanje district, it is the highest mountain in south-central Africa and one of the world’s largest granite inselbergs (rocky masses that have resisted erosion and stand isolated in an essentially leveled area). Mt. Mulanje has a well-organized system of trails and huts, leading through forests of large cedar trees and it is apparently recognized as one of the best granite climbing places in the world. After having a chance to more thoroughly study the various trails and huts available, I was able to put together a plan that will allow us to summit Sapitwa Peak, the mountain’s highest peak at 3,002 meters, while staying in 3 different huts on the mountain. Our hardest day will be the day we summit and I estimate that we’ll be walking between 8 and 9 hours that day. The mountain is not anywhere as high as Africa’s highest peak (Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania which Kathy and I climbed in 2004), but it is apparently very challenging because of the steepness of the climb. We met an English couple at the Kabula Lodge who looked like fairly experienced climbers and they said that they thought summiting Mt. Mulanje was more challenging than reaching Everest Base Camp in Nepal and reaching the top of Mt. Kenya, which are both much higher climbs. They warned us about very aggressive flies at the top and after seeing what the flies did to their ankles, I’ll make sure to have an adequate supply of insect repellant in my backpack.

Talking about backpack, Steve and I both want to carry our own bag (we won’t use the services of porters) but we’ll hire a guide so we don’t get lost on the mountain as some of the legends suggest may happen. Actually no other geographic landmark in Malawi is quite so shrouded in myth and legend as Mt. Mulanje. Many Malawians believe that the mountain still harbors a secretive population of “small people,” possibly Batwa hunter-gatherers who act as its spiritual protector. Another legend describes a humanlike one-eyed, one-legged, one-armed creature that floats slowly in the air, waiting to lure anybody who looks at it up the mountain to disappear forever. That may explain why the members of my team looked worried when I told them I was going to climb the mountain. Local beliefs about Mulanje are also reflected in the Chichewa name for its highest peak. Sapitwa is said to be derived from two words that translate as “do not go there” and “the place you cannot reach.” I of course find the appeal of summiting a peak that is named the place that can’t be reached too irresistible.

Now we still have to figure out our transportation logistics. Our Plan A failed through yesterday when Laxon (contract driver hired by WFP for our assignment the past few weeks) told us that he can’t take us because he has problems with his truck. So we’re now considering driving around by ourselves. Muthi (WFP-Malawi Grant Director) knows someone who apparently can rent us a vehicle. The only challenge will be to drive a manual transmission on the left side of unimproved dirt roads. Although Steve has never done that before, he thinks he can do it and I’m up for the adventure. The ride to Mt. Mulanje from Blantyre is pretty short (less than 100 km), but the journey from the mountain to Lake Malawi and back to Blantyre is much longer (adds up to about 600 km). We have to figure out all the details today since we need to leave for the mountain tomorrow. For those of you who have been following my blog on a more regular basis, please don’t worry (especially you Mom) about the lack of postings between Saturday and Wednesday. We’ll be totally out of touch with the rest of the world while on the mountain and I won’t have access to the internet until we get to Lake Malawi late in the day on Wednesday.

Before I go I wanted to share with you what will be another very special memory of Malawi. Since I didn’t have to be in the field yesterday, I went running late afternoon, which turned out to be pretty miserable given the heat (probably somewhere over 90 degrees). The good thing about going so late though is that kids were out of school. So I had a relay team of four small kids running with me for the full hour. At first they tried to keep up with me and I got concerned that it would kill them as I could hear them grasp for air. They then got smart and each started covering a different section of my loop. Towards the end of the run, they got so friendly that each wanted to hold my hands while we were running together. We couldn’t really communicate but just by their laughs I knew I had 4 new buddies who will be anxiously waiting for our next run together.

Description of a Few Photos:

– Road in front of Kabula Lodge … part of my morning run.
– Planning climb of Mulanje on Kabula Lodge upper patio.
– Exercising on Kabula Lodge lower patio in front of my room. Very spectacular when I exercised early in the morning at sunrise.
– Check out my fellow Cal alumni.
– Taking a break for an appetizing lunch on the street
– Woman carrying 40-L container of water on her head … that is 90 lbs!

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September 25, 2013: Africa – The Great Teacher

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With the end of our assignment fast approaching, I’m finding myself reflecting on the past few weeks. It will probably take a little while for it all to fully sink in but what I know for sure is that I’ll come back into our privileged world with a somewhat different outlook on life and an abundance of gratitude for how fortunate I am. There is no question that one cannot be changed by an experience like this one. The question is how best to channel this new insight on life. Africa is so awe-inspiring and such a marvelous teacher. My stay in the Heart of Africa has offered so many great lessons … lessons of patience, lessons of tolerance, lessons of adaptability, lessons of resiliency, lessons of appreciation and lessons of hope.

Africa teaches patience
My patience (and most of you know I’m not known for having a lot of it to begin with) was tested every morning. Trying to get everyone focused and organized at the office for our work in the field was SO challenging. Just when I thought I had everyone together and on the same page, someone would disappear. We would show up at the office just before 8am, and on a good day we would be on our way sometime between 9:30 and 10am. The morning routine could only be described as inefficient, chaotic and frustrating. But this is Africa … one can’t survive without patience because everything seems to take 10 times longer hear for some reason. So after a few days, I found a new rhythm (unfortunately didn’t find the dancing rhythm yet) and learned to chill.

My patience was also tested in a very big way when we got stuck in the biggest cluster-fuck (pardon my French) traffic jam where all the vehicles from a major road were re-routed into a narrow dirt-alley (can’t even call it a road) lined with structures on both sides and filled with what felt like crater-like potholes. With vehicles, some filled with animals and some jammed with people, trying to move in both directions with less than an inch of clearance in some areas and some vehicles breaking down and being pushed by people, we got totally stuck for well over an hour. In 90+ degree temps with absolutely no breeze and nowhere to go, I felt myself getting a little aggravated. And then I looked at the public mini-van facing the other way and stuck beside us with its side-mirror almost touch ours, and saw the 20+ Malawians stuck in it with only a few windows barely open. They were all waiting very patiently without any sign of annoyance. Yes, Africa does indeed teach you about patience.

And what about the slow internet. Although the wireless speed at the Kabula Lodge was so much better than expected, that of the WFP office was a different story … and that’s when it was working, which it didn’t for about half the time we were there. Having to wait a minute every time you try to open up a new web page was a little aggravating but at least we had internet, something none of the 800+ low-income households we visited benefited from. Most homes don’t even have a bed or table in their house, so a computer is not really high on the “to buy” list.

Finally, it was pretty admirable how everyone we interviewed, whether it was a mother resting between her multiple trips to a communal water points, a doctor at a clinic with a waiting room overflowing with sick people, or a headteacher at a school with thousands of screaming students running around, patiently answered all our survey questions and took the time to show us their water and sanitation facilities. My guess is that in the US, very few people would have even open up their doors to us, and even a fewer number would have given us 30 minutes of their time for a survey.

Africa teaches tolerance
When coming to Africa, one definitely needs to adjust to some pretty significant cultural difference. For example, punctuality isn’t all that important to people here. I had a discussion with my team one morning about how in the US, being late and wasting someone’s time in some cases could be perceived as a lack of respect. It was obvious that this was a totally foreign concept to them.

Tolerance also came into play when we learned that the entire WFP-Malawi staff was going to be away on a 2-day team-building retreat while we were here. It’s seems like having their retreat overlap with our visit wasn’t conducive to maximizing our time here but I tried to be open-minded about their decision to leave us on our own for a few days.

Whereas a tribal system seems to dominate the way of life in many parts of the world, especially in northern African and the Middle-Eastern countries, here in Malawi that system doesn’t really come in to play when choosing who you will marry and associate/identify with. There seems to be great tolerance for religious freedom also, with Christians and Muslims mingling together peacefully in Blantyre and the remote villages we visited.

One of the best examples of the Malawians’ natural propensity for tolerance is the moto of the South Lunzu primary school I found on a poster in the headteacher’s office – “Tearing Ignorance Apart.” (see photo). Mind you this is a school of 8,000+ students in one of the poorest parts of the world and their moto is about fighting ignorance. Yes in some instances it seems like Africa is so far ahead of us.

But first and foremost, what is striking is how people here are tolerant of the miserable conditions that are part of their every-day lives. Now I’m not exactly sure if that’s good or bad but when you think about it, what other choice do they really have.

Africa teaches adaptability and resiliency
This continent is really not recommended for those who can’t adapt or be resilient. For example, we learned to adapt to daily power outages, some of which were triggered by planned rolling blackouts, which seemed to always hit our lodge at dinner time. So you learn to have your headlamp around your neck at night … just in case. BTW – this is something most people in remote villages have to adapt with because they don’t have power to begin with.

Being the only white person everywhere I went during the day took some getting used to at first. The significant amount of attention we got is something we all had to get accustomed to. In most cases, especially in the more remote areas we visited during the day, I didn’t mind the attention but in Blantyre it could at times be a little disturbing.

Being dirty all the time is something I personally found difficult to adapt to. It is absolutely impossible to stay clean here. When you blow your nose what comes out is back so you get the idea. Having no hot water for a while didn’t help that situation but again, Malawians have to adapt to so much more difficult situations. The adaptability and resilience of the African people allows them to survive with so little … again another great lesson for us with a life of abundance.

Africa teaches appreciation and hope
But the biggest most meaningful lessons of them all is a lesson of appreciation for everything we take for granted – the ability to breath clean air and drink non-contaminated water, to walk on garbage-free streets, to go to a school and health clinic that has sanitation facilities, to give your child more than his or her daily school ration of porridge, to sleep instead of fetching water all night long because that’s the only time it’s available, and the list goes on …

Alyssa was telling the story of the reaction she got when one day she pulled out a tissue to blow her nose. This is something I guess they had never seen before and an extravagance that is almost incomprehensible to them. Using a soft piece of tissue to clean one’s nose is such an outrageous luxury when you think of the conditions in which these people live. There’s no toilet paper in the households, schools and health clinic and in most cases no water close by to wash your hands right after you use the facilities. And here we are with countless choices of tissues and toilet paper with different softness levels to make sure we don’t irritate our precious skin.

With so little, Malawians still find a way to be appreciative for what they have. It’s obvious that they appreciate and value friendships, family and service to others. The appreciation Pattie has shown me is almost overwhelming. She showed up at the office yesterday morning with two chitenjes for mother’s day which is in early October here … the note with the two traditional pieces of clothes said “You know Julie you are Mother Malawi because you are taking care of our life in water and sanitation – we all love you – from your twin sister.” What can I say … I’m so not deserving of this. She and Malawi have given me more during the last few weeks than I will ever be able to give back.

And this leaves us with hope … the hope of a better future for the incredible people of Malawi. We need to give them something to hang on to. At least let’s give them hope because without it, what is left?

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