I’m writing this in the city of Mzuzu in northern Malawi. Tomorrow, if all goes well, I’ll hitch a ride with a friend I’ve made here to the village of Usisya (oo SIS ya), the place where, again if all goes well, I’ll shoot my video. (You can Google Map all of these place names.)
I arrived in the capital city of Lilongwe on July 10 and immediately came down with a bad chest cold that laid me up for almost a week. Finally the second week I felt well enough to hit the road.
I had a plan: I would go the port of Monkey Bay, rest there for two days, and then catch the ferry MV Ilala http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Ilala for its 3-day port-hopping cruise up the coast of Lake Malawi to the port of Chilumba, and from there travel overland southward, exploring potential locations for the video. The ferry trip appealed to my sense of adventure, but after reading my guidebook I concluded that perhaps economy-class was a bit too adventurous: “…Many travelers use economy-class, but, to quote one reader: ‘vomiting children, chickens on your lap, cockroaches on your backpack, and spiders on your legs without any space to move for 15 hours might sound very romantic [!], but it can cause frustration in the long run.’…” On the other hand: “…For many travelers, the compromise between cost and comfort is the first-class deck ticket, which allows you to sleep on the breezy, uncrowded upper deck, where there is a shaded bar, as well as a restaurant below….” Sounded great, and a bargain at seventeen thousand kwacha, or less than $60.
During my first week in Malawi I had, with my friend and Malawi cyber-guide Don Thomas, taken a 4-hour non-stop bus ride from Lilongwe to Blantyre in a very quiet and comfortable 2-level bus with assigned reclining seats and a toilet. For my journey from Blantyre to Monkey Bay I decided to forego the quicker and cheaper minibus option and instead enjoy the comfort of a bus. My brain, no doubt addled by my cold, failed to entertain the idea that all buses are not necessarily the same, that the local bus I was destined to take to Monkey Bay might be different than the express bus I took with Don to Blantyre.
And oh, yes, indeed it was. Not quite a wreak–the same could be said for all the other buses crowded into the dusty unpaved terminal–it reminded me of those chain gang buses you see in the movies. It was of an indeterminate color, with a cracked windshield and torn and tattered black vinyl seats, five to a row, three on the left and two on the right, with an aisle no more than eighteen inches wide in between. No matter, for the bus was practically empty, the fare was just three thousand kwacha, and I was told the trip would take less than six hours, meaning that we would arrive in Monkey Bay at three in the afternoon with plenty of daylight left.
The bus was just half full when we pulled out of the terminal. I slid my window open, stretched my legs across the empty adjoining seat, and sat back to enjoy a breezy, visually bracing ride.
Half an hour later we pulled into another even bigger and busier terminal where everyone stood and got off the bus. I was informed we were to get onto another bus nearby. This one was similar to the first, but for one significant and disconcerting detail–it was loaded with people, with a line of others waiting to get in.
Given the fact, I guess, that I was a muzungu, a white person, and most certainly the only muzungu on the bus, (or in the entire terminal, for that matter), the conductor guy vacated an aisle seat for me and instructed me to take it. When we left a short time later the bus was completely crammed, every seat taken, the narrow aisle an impenetrable mass of standing bodies.
A few highlights of that journey. It was a local bus, meaning it stopped frequently to disgorge passengers and/or to take on new ones standing by the side of the road. Getting off meant you had to wiggle and worm your way through the sardine-packed aisle bodies, no easy feat. Getting on meant the same in reverse. Sitting in an aisle seat, as I was, meant having the adjacent aisle body, much more often than not, intrude into the space where your own body wanted to be. For example, during one seemingly endless stretch of time my head and upper torso were pressed sideways several inches by the very large and immovable derriere of a woman whose face I never saw.
It wasn’t long before three girls standing near me in the aisle caught my attention. Obviously sisters, they were dressed in matching bright pink satiny dresses. Their hair close cropped (think of Barack Obama) and ages probably ten to fourteen, they had delicate features and were very pretty. The oldest and tallest had around her head an elastic band with a plastic red flower. The youngest was the prettiest, and looked very much like a little sister of the NBA basketball star Kevin Durant. Each girl held an unopened plastic bag of cheese puffs to snack on.
The hours dragged on as the bus stopped and started, people and their luggage piling on and off. The aisle woman’s intrusive backside was eventually replaced by an equally oppressive daypack carried by a man. The three pink-clad sisters ate all their cheese puffs and gradually worked their way toward the front of the bus where they found empty seats. Then I saw them near the door, ready to get off.
As the bus slowed, four little boys suddenly appeared and ran alongside it, shouting excitedly. We stopped at a juncture where a dirt road led off to the left, which was my side of the bus. A group of about fifteen kids was waiting, and when the sisters stepped off the bus the group simply erupted. They were shouting and jumping up and down and hungrily hugging the sisters. I had no idea who they were. Fellow villagers? Fellow students? Family? Whoever they were, their joy at seeing the sisters was boundless. Another girl came running up the dirt road toward the group and middle sister screamed in delight and rushed to meet her friend. Arms wide, they collided in the road and fell into a heap, quickly to regain their feet and join the group celebration. As we pulled away they were all slowly walking in a tight knot back down the dirt road, several of them still jumping up and down. I’ve given it some thought and cannot recall in my entire life ever witnessing such pure and unfettered joy. Seeing that made the entire ordeal worth it.
We arrived in Monkey Bay not at three in the afternoon, but at 6:30pm. It was night already and very dark. I quickly learned some troubling facts: the guest house where I intended to stay had shut down the previous year, and the ferry, instead of leaving two days hence, would leave in three. I ended up spending the night at the only other suitable accommodation in Monkey Bay, a backpacker lodge on the beach outside of town. The place was fine, very picturesque the next morning, but during the night I discovered a zillion tiny ants all over the floor of my room.
As I lay in the darkness under my mosquito net I abandoned my plan to take the ferry. Spending three days in Monkey Bay, then three days on the ferry was simply too much time. I had wasted enough being sick already. I’d come to Malawi to shoot a video–and at the moment I hadn’t the foggiest where I would do this–not to spend six days relaxing on a beach and sight-seeing on a ferry. No, I would go to Lilongwe in the morning, then head north. Then, on the bus the next morning I changed my mind again. No need to go all the way to Lilongwe. I’d get off on M5, the highway heading north up the coast and make contact with the connections Don had given me.
Except in the big cities, bus terminals in the usual sense don’t exist. Instead there are designated places in towns where transport vehicles–buses, minibuses, trucks–congregate along the side of the road. In one such place later that day I searched in vain for a minibus headed to the city of Selima, a hundred miles away.
Finally someone directed me to a truck that was going there. (I should mention here that most people in Malawi speak English, as it is taught in the schools.) I climbed aboard the truck’s bed and took a spot directly behind the cab. The bed was roughly twenty feet long and eight feet wide, with a tailgate and side rails no more than eighteen inches high, this for ease of loading and off loading cargo.
No sooner had we started off than the truck pulled over to the opposite side of the road where four foot-bound pigs lay squealing in the dirt. Three were gray color and weighed about fifty pounds. The fourth was a big black boar who must have weighed two-fifty. The tailgate was lowered and the four loudly protesting porkers were loaded aboard length-wise at the back of the bed. It took four guys to hoist the boar. The truck shook when he landed. The tailgate was left open and a rope was strung through the pigs’ bound forelegs, then back through their bound hind legs to prevent them from falling out. As they continued to protest several leafy tree branches were placed on top of them for protection from the sun. And then we were off.
But not for long, of course, because the truck pulled over frequently to take on or off people and their cargo. Ordinary people, weathered old folks, women with suckling infants, little kids, bicycles, bolts of cloth, 50 kilogram bags of grain and corn, crates and baskets full of who knows what, lumber, tied bundles of firewood, bags of charcoal, chickens, ducks…all manner of things, including one solitary muzungu.
Facing forward and holding onto the truck’s cab, I stood most of the time, usually because the bed was so crowded there was no room for me to sit. The rural countryside we passed through was dry and brown and bleak. Most village houses were made of mud or crumbling adobe bricks. People stationed themselves by the side of the road behind small piles of tomatoes or bananas or cassava for sale. Others sat quietly in the shade, with nothing to do. Most kids were dressed in rags. There was no getting over the poverty of the place, how poor the people were. Malawi, I’ve read, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Malawi makes Mexico look like Beverly Hills.
We reached Selima in the late afternoon. My fellow travelers, the pigs, who’d been with me the entire way, lay tranquilly at the open end of the truck’s bed, still tied to their moorings. Almost all the tree branches had blown away. They were sleeping, perhaps lulled into that state by the long haul. Or maybe it was the truck’s exhaust.
I spent the night in a guesthouse by the side of the road. My room had an okay bed and a dank medieval bathroom with no hot water, no towel, and no toilet paper. Just lots of mold. It was all I could do to enter it to take a pee.
The next morning I found a minibus headed north. Like all minibuses I’ve seen here it was a well worn white Toyota van with windows all around. This one’s windshield was elaborately cracked. It had the standard sliding side doors on both sides, tattered black seats for fifteen passengers, including the driver, and some space behind the driver and in the back for luggage and cargo. It was almost empty when I got on board. I took the right rear back seat, farthest from the entry door and prudently away from the action. My backpack, which contained my video camera and laptop, was stored with other luggage in the cargo space directly behind me. I kept an eye on it the entire way.
We finally started off and, of course, stopped soon after to take on additional people and cargo. This happened over and over again the next four hours. The van’s capacity seemed limitless. I won’t bore you with a list of the kinds and amount of stuff they managed to cram inside and to tie on top. I’ll restrict myself to the people. Almost from the start all fifteen seats were occupied. No matter, for more people kept getting on. Soon the rows of seats meant for three people contained four, sometimes five. When it became impossible to find a place to sit people started standing, stooped over, their heads banging on the roof. They seemed unconcerned, laughing and chatting with other passengers.
There came a time when I counted twenty-three people in the minibus, not including the infants. Then the driver slowed down again. Why is he stopping? I wondered. Maybe somebody’s getting off because there’s no room for anyone else to get on. Wrong. Two more people somehow entered and found a place to stand. A few minutes later we stopped again and two more bodies miraculously squeezed through the door and managed to wedge themselves in. By my count there were now twenty-seven of us inside the minibus, not including the infants and the guy who collected the fares. He was now hanging on the outside. Unbelievable.
I got off (out?) a few kilometers south of the Nkhotakota, at the juncture of a dirt road leading down to the lake. I didn’t bother trying to make my way to the side door. Instead, I clambered over my seat and fell awkwardly out the opened back door, much to everyone’s amusement. The dirt road led down to a lodge where I intended to spend the night. Don had told me about it and a nearby village nearby which he thought had potential for the video.
I walked for forty-five minutes down the road, a few times encountering little kids who greeted me with waves and big smiles. (The kids here are so alive and beautiful I can hardly believe it.) The day was warm and breezy. I felt good.
The village proved too far to be practical, but the lodge compound was wonderful–staffed with typical Malawians, uncommonly gracious and friendly people, and situated among palm trees on a sandy beach looking out across the blue waters of the lake to the distant hills of Mozambique. All this I could see from the window of my room which was large and airy, with three beds, tile floors and bathroom, and a twelve foot ceiling. There was a refrigerator and an electric pot to make tea or coffee. In short, the place had everything, including what is probably the most wondrous and welcome invention in the history of the human race: a shower with real hot water.
It took me another day and a half on minibuses to reach my destination. Once or twice the number of passengers again exceeded twenty. Another time the front passenger door wouldn’t stay shut. The problem was solved with some black electrician’s tape. On the final leg to Mzuzu we stopped at a village where a huge white sow lay foot-bound by the side of the road. Where is that pig going? I wondered. Turned out it was going into the minibus I was in. They opened the back door and several guys managed to load the struggling animal in sideways. I was sitting in the back seat and it lay directly behind me. The pig was so big the back door wouldn’t close completely and they had to tie it shut with a rope. From nose to tail the sow stretched the entire width of the minibus. Her squeals, in that confined space, were deafening. None of the other passengers seemed to mind. And, to tell you the truth, neither did I.
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