Saturday, 21 November 2009

An unplanned stop in Zambia

It’s funny how some of the most unplanned days end up being the most memorable. Today should have been an ordinary drive day from Lilongwe over the Zambian border to Croc Valley camp on the outskirts of South Luangwa national park.

We arrived at the border around 11am and were held there for well over an hour merely due to typical African bureaucracy. Not only did we have to fill out all the usual forms, there was also a log book to complete, vehicle forms and even a toll to get through the barrier. It took a fair while for the guy behind the desk (there’s always only one person regardless how busy the border is) to process and stamp our passports. We then had to wait for nearly an hour for the toll man to arrive. His role is to collect the toll and raise the gate but he was nowhere to be found so we had to just sit and wait.

Crossing the border it’s immediately obvious that there is more money in Zambia than Malawi. I counted at least three satellite dishes in the first small village we came across – something I saw only very rarely in Malawi. Zambia is by no means rich: the people still work the land to make a meager living but their meager living is just not quite as meager as it would be in Malawi.

From the border town of Chilapa where we changed up some money, we had a 120km drive across a dusty, potholed track to the national park. This was the only road in or out and it would take at least 3.5 hours to get to camp…on a good day!

We started our teeth shattering, back jolting drive through local farmland but after half an hour and a odd sound emanating from one part of the truck, we came to an abrupt holt. Tim inspected the truck, only to find a bolt on a key piece of the cab had worked its way off. Apparently, this was a particularly important bolt as without it, the whole truck could topple over….especially on the road we were currently on.

We offloaded again and Tim got on with tinkering with the truck. Our presence at the side of the road started to draw a crowd and a group of young children ran towards the truck to see what was going on. Following them were older siblings and even parents until the whole village of 20 odd people had come to have a look.

The children were dressed simply in ill-fitting charity clothes. They had no shoes and many had the distended bellies characteristic of either protein deprivation or parasitic infections of the gut. One little boy was completely bow legged and ran awkwardly towards us, excited to join in. A little girl carried her little younger sister on her back.

We were going to be there for a while so we decided to resort to the international language of football. Someone grabbed a football from the truck and kicked it out into the group. Our little dirt patch on the side of the road erupted in excitement as a mass of children’s bodies began to dart from side to side following the ball in a cloud of red dust. And so began our kickabout with the locals.

Michelle, Jolie and I got stuck into the frenetic fray and were charged from all sides every time we got the ball. When I winced as the ball hurtled towards my face, the young lads burst out laughing finding it hysterical that I could be afraid of the ball. The young girl sat her little sister on the wall and joined in; even the parents got involved, one father showing us a few keepy-uppy tricks whilst a little child clung to his side.

After half an hour or so Tim decided he didn’t have the bits he needed to fix the truck so he flagged a car down that was heading back into town so that he could go and find spare parts.

For the next two hours we spent our time being run ragged at football, talking to some of thevchildren and then playing ‘memory’ with a pack of cards. Unfortunately, everyone wanted to join in so Jolie was utterly surrounded by both children and parents. She tried in vain to teach the crowd the art of turn taking with little success…it was immensely funny to watch as a dozen hands kept trying to turn cards over at the same time.

When I got my camera out to take a few photos, the kids were absolutely fascinated. They loved nothing more than all trying to get into the picture then pulling silly faces. When I showed them the photo I’d taken they’d all roar with laughter and take the Mic out of each other.

Tom then got the speakers in the passenger cab going and some of the kids burst into dance .Ravi and Carmela picked up a stick and so began a limbo competition. By this time Tim was back and was putting the final touches to the fix so it was not long after we started playing limbo that the engine roared back into life and we had to get on board once more.

It was sad to say goodbye and the disappointment in the children’s faces was all too clear to see. All of us had had a fantastic afternoon and for me it meant more than any organized tour I could have done on this trip. To spend an afternoon bonding with these beautiful people with just a ball, a stick and a pack of playing cards to break down the language and cultural barriers was one of those great experiences in life. And for once in Africa, we were asked for nothing but our friendship.

Hobbling along to Lilongwe

After three days at Kande Beach it was time to head to Lilongwe – the capital of Malawi. We hit the road and started the slow climb up to a mountain pass. The road was steep with stunning early morning views over the lake. The last of the evening’s mist was rising and the sun was coating the lake in a beautiful reflective sheen. Our truck seemed to be doing fine when suddenly, as Tim tried to change gear, the gearbox failed. We were on a steep incline but Tim managed to reverse the truck to a small patch of ground just off the road.

We offloaded, sitting by the side of the road in the sun as Tim – with a little help from some of the boys – managed to fix whatever the problem was. Half an hour later and we were back on the road, only for the same thing to happen a few hours on.

We finally stumbled into Lilongwe around 2pm where we had to stock up on supplies. After a mammoth supermarket shop, we headed to a fruit and veg market. Tim had warned us that there are often times when it’s really difficult to buy fruit and veg in Malawi as there is often just nothing to sell. Fortunately, many of the fruit and veggies were in season so we were greeted with piles of mangoes, bunches of bananas, and green beans and tomatoes carefully arranged in small 50 kwacha piles.

Every price here is negotiable. Like everywhere in Africa, as soon as stall holders see a group of mzungos walking towards their stall they’re quick to raise prices. With no price tags anywhere, market shopping always takes that bit longer that grabbing what you want from a shelf in a supermarket and dropping it into a basket. Here, with a little tongue and cheek, a few ‘my friend, my friend’, and plenty of smiles, you can usually get a really good deal. To put this into perspective, we spent 2,500 kwacha and bought all the fruit and veg we needed to feed 17 people over 3 dinners: 2500 kwacha is worth about £12.

That evening some of the team went out to a casino/club in town. Unfortunately, I’d come down with a cold (it may have even been the almost deadly strain of man flu that a few guys on the trip had had over the previous few days) so it was early to bed for me.

A rain storm like no other, a very lucky goat and three not-so-lucky chickens

On our second morning at Kande, around 4am it started to rain; not just any sort of rain, but torrential tropical rain that fell like sheets and soaked you through in seconds. Normally, at this time of year, Malawi only experiences short rains – sudden cloud bursts that last little more than half an hour. The rain we had lasted till lunchtime and there was no let up whatsoever.

Our plan for the day was to kill and spit roast a goat. I’ve never seen an animal being killed for food so I was quite looking forward to going to the local village and watching the sorry event; however, the rain put a spanner in the works.

Most of us were awake early: the early sunrise and the sound of the rain on the tent making undisturbed sleep impossible. As we sat beneath our rain shelter, mugs of steaming coffee to hand watching torrents of water bubbling underneath our tents, it became all too clear that the rain wasn’t going anywhere fast.

At 9am we headed to the gate to see our goat. The goat stood in the security guard’s booth with a look of grim inevitability about it: as though it had already resigned itself to its fate. Fortunately, given that we would have had to cook him for a good 10 hours and the rain was still pouring, we decided to spare him and ordered three chickens from the village instead.

The chickens arrived dead and plucked early in the afternoon. By this point, the rain had stopped so, whilst most of us were playing intense games of Monopoly, Griff was able to get a fire going and set up the spit. Two-and-a-bit hours, and a lot of basting later and we were tucking into our village chickens. They tasted great but deep down I was a little gutted that we didn’t get to eat the goat.

Kande beach and the incident with the wall

We arrived at Kande Beach Camp late afternoon and set up camp for the next three nights. Like Chitumba, the camp was on the shores of Lake Malawi. It had an open bar with hammocks placed throughout the camp all with stunning views across the lake.

After pitching my tent I decided to go for a barefoot jog along the beach. The section of beach where the camp stood was beautifully kept but further along, the beach was left to nature. This was where the locals congregated. Here women were scrubbing clothes in the water whilst naked young boys and girls swam or played on the beach. Manure was a regular sight where cattle had been brought down to the lakes edge to drink. Everyone was pleased to see me and the young children ran up and clung onto me or ran just in front of me making running rather awkward. A 20 minute jog was all I could muster in the heat so it was back to camp to help prepare the chilli bin party.

A large cooler bin was filled to the brim with the infamous African Trails cocktail: fruit, fruit juice and No 1 – a rather potent Malawi cane spirit. From here, the evening spiraled steadily into a state of drunken debauchery. It began with Circle of Death – a lethal drinking game that I first came across whilst travelling in Peru – and ended with most of the team skinny dipping in the lake. Tim turned the fourth king and was made to down a drink stood on the bar top in nothing other than a plastic bag (not a pretty sight given his rotund stature). We then joined forces with a group from Acacia tours who’d raided the local clothing market of charity clothing and were in full dress up. (Jaz who’d been with us for the first three weeks of our tour had switched to an Acacia tour so we’d got to know his group pretty well). We ended up having a fair few drinks at the bar and dancing around like idiots to the sound of Bon Jovi’s Crossroads album.

I had a great time but I was also missing Mike like crazy so my heart wasn’t quite in it. I’d tried to call him in Nepal after hearing how ill he was and my phone had died. I was gutted as it had been the first time I’d spoken to him in over a month and my phone was now playing silly buggers and not switching on at all. Jolie saw me looking a bit down and gave me a big hug which was just what I needed.

I managed to get back into the swing of things but when the night got to the point where Jon was wearing Camela’s bra on his head, Jolie was trying to pull people’s boardies down and Carmela had shoved shot glasses down her top so she had Madonna type pointy tits, I felt it was time to make my excuses and head back to the tent. Fortunately, I managed to escape the compulsory skinny dipping enforced by Jolie and also missed the incident where Jon, emerging from the water butt naked and thinking that Griff and Gaz were giving chase to steal his clothes, ran headfirst into a wall. He managed to graze his head and shoulder quite badly and ended up in the fetal position on the sand being helped out by Griff, Gaz and Nat who were all butt naked. That would have been a Kodak moment!

Bartering on the shore of Lake Malawi

Today I spent six hours bartering. Just outside our camp at Chitumba were a number of wood workshops where the likes of ‘Mr Cheap as Chips’, ‘Van Diesel’ and ‘Happy Pineapple’ produce some of the most beautiful carvings I’ve come across. Our driver Tim told us that this was THE place in Malawi to pick up wood and boy was he right! There were stunning wooden chairs intricately carved with the ‘big five’, elegant salad bowls and serving spoons, captivating sculptures of tocoloshi – a mystical evil spirit-type character, an effigy of which in Africa is used to ward off other evil spirits.

Mr Cheap as Chips and I sat down to discuss the price of a wooden chair he’d carved. I’d been around each of the small, wooden stalls to look at all the wooden chairs available and his were by far the most beautifully carved. His price for one of the largest chairs he had started at $65 and he was a tough guy to bargain with. With me I brought three items to trade: a pair of Reef sandals, a sweatshirt and a brand new tube of Colgate toothpaste.

In Malawi everything is traded primarily because the high import costs (the government impose a 100% import tax on everything that’s imported) drive prices up. Thus, any imported items such as toiletries, clothing, batteries etc. are in high demand, either for the locals to keep for themselves or to sell on.

Of my three items Mr Cheap as Chips was most interested in the Colgate toothpaste which was surprising given the value we associate with each of the items in the west. It took me two hours of hard bargaining to get the cost of the chair down to $45, Colgate toothpaste and a sweatshirt. The only problem remaining is to ship the chair to Australia but as long as it gets there in one piece, it’ll be worth every cent!

That afternoon I spent another 4 hours bartering on other items. Much of the time was spent laughing and joking with the locals, sharp intakes of breath on either side as new prices were suggested and long silences in which both sides pondered the value of the deal. It was utterly draining but a huge amount of fun and I managed to take home some amazing pieces of wood whilst lightening the load of my rucksack considerably by trading those items I’d yet to use!

Politics: T.I.A.

Malawi has no diesel. There just aren’t any supplies in the country and Tim is phoning ahead to his contacts to try and get enough put aside for us to be able to make it into Zambia. You’d think that the lack of supplies would have something to do with a lack of funds to purchase diesel…but no…it’s because Malawi has sold its supply of diesel on to Zimbabwe in a misguided attempt to make money.

At least 147,000 people may need food aid this year say the paper’s headlines. What they don’t mention is that Malawi sold its surplus corn supplies to Zimbabwe and Zambia.

And where does the money made from these sales go: a new private jet purchased by the president ‘for the country’

(Source: Tim…so not necessarily 100% accurate and yet somehow 100% believable) T.I.A.