The third of the year, but as we had stayed put the first two it was time for C and I to get out of Lilongwe for a mini mommy and me vacation.
I had had some big plans. A friend from college, SC and her daughter M, now currently residing in Cape Town, were to make the flight up to visit. C was beside herself with excitement at the prospect of guests from out of town. She had on more than one occasion made it clear that she would show them to their room and she would show them around the house and yard. She warned me repeatedly that my job was to pick them up at the airport, but it was her job to show them around Panda B&B, which is what she named our house for visitors. She had taken pains to put little accents in their room – from placing two hyacinth hair clips left over from her Moana birthday on to the bed, to also putting her blue bird desk lamp on the dresser (with a blue spider web on it — I don’t know, she thought it made it homey?). For a finishing touch she placed a plush Panda with a personal welcome drawing on the pillow.
Two days before they were to arrive SC messaged me with the bad news: due to an unexpected, and extremely important, work commitment, they had to cancel. C was devastated. Frankly, I was too. I considered even cancelling the hotel I had booked and changing to someplace closer. But I had been looking forward to going to the southern part of Lake Malawi for some time, and the deadline for cancelling without penalty had passed. So it would be Cape Maclear or bust.
Early Saturday morning we packed up the car and hit the road. I will be honest, I was a wee bit nervous. This would be only my second road trip outside of Lilongwe (with me at the wheel) and Malawian roads are not for the faint of heart. The first part was fine enough — the M1 north to the M14 east, the same route to Senga Bay we took in November. Ninety minutes out we headed south on the M5. Don’t let the names of theses highways fool you, they are two lane roads with little or no shoulder. Sealed but full of potholes and unexpected surprises around bends (a truck stopped? a herd of goats? a police checkpoint?) But the drive was pleasant enough. Then just after Mua, my GPS directed me to make a left onto the M10. And there in front of me stretched a dirt road. I checked the GPS. Yeah, I made the correct turn. So we bounced along the dirt road as it gradually narrowed. I hoped it would not end. Thankfully after a bumpy 10 miles or so we returned to tarmac.
The last 20 minutes or so, once reaching the Cape Maclear Nature Reserve (and the area of the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the sealed road once again fizzled out. With the exception of a few enterprising youngsters wielding hefty garden tools attempting to shake down passing motorists, it was uneventful and we soon pulled into our lodge.
Within a few hours I was disappointed. The lodge, despite costing a pretty penny, had no WiFi, no restaurant (both advertised online). They offered lunch — but with no menu we were told we select from a few fish or chicken dishes. Despite being only one of two apparent guests ordering lunch, or even at the lodge at all, it took more than 45 minutes to bring us the food. We had an option between Coca-Cola, Fanta Pineapple, or water to drink. The whole place looked tired and worn. We went for a walk on the beach. Not five feet from the property and I was waylaid by a man wearing a vest who said he ran boat tours. I said I just wanted to walk on the beach with my daughter. He said no problem, he could tell me about the boat trips along the way. I asked him to cut to the chase and tell me the price — I was interested in a trip out on the lake — but he would not reveal them right there and then and said he had a set price sheet he could show me. US$35 per person! I said no. We went on our way.
C had put on her swimsuit, desperate to play in the water, but this was different from where we had been at Senga Bay. The beach is hard pebbles and there is lots of glass. The village butts right up to the lake, the lodges, dive joints, and hostels in-between. Locals use the lake for everything — for their ablations, brushing teeth, washing clothes, washing dishes, fishing, and play. I saw the rusted handlebars of a bicycle in the shallows, a long pipe ran into the water and along the beach, carrying water somewhere to the village. I let her only a foot or two in. She was not happy. Neither was I.
At the hotel C swam for hours in the pool as I contemplated checking out the next day. For dinner we declined to once again order chicken or fish from the hotel and headed to Gecko’s, where a lively atmosphere, a decent singer, a mancala game, and quite possibly the best pizza in Malawi revived us. Despite the hard and somewhat lumpy mattress we both slept very well.
The next morning I was still mulling over whether to check out. But C saw other children in the pool and was cheered. She instantly made friends; she’s sweet and friendly and open — though our giant orca pool toy probably didn’t hurt. And I let go. I let go of the idea of “doing something” on this trip. Sitting by the pool, reading a book, watching my daughter play is doing something. Striking up a conversation with the other parents while we lazed at the pool watching our kids is also doing something. I learned they are Lebanese-Malawian and own a prominent shopping center in Lilongwe. For lunch C and I went next door to the Funky Cichlid, a backpacker dive, where I had the most disappointing spaghetti bolognaise of my life (it took 45 minutes to make and when it arrived it had spaghetti and ground beef and cheese but no sign of tomato sauce — I was told to add it from the ketchup on the table) and C hated her burger. No problem. That day I was not bothered. It was funny. We shared a KitKat instead. Then went back and took a nap. Then headed back to the pool. Dinner was at Hiccups Pub, upon recommendation of our new Lebanese-Malawi friends, where C enjoyed a chicken shawarma and flatbread and I lapped up quite possibly the best hummus in Malawi.
On our final morning C and I took a stroll through the village. At 7:30 in the morning it was quiet — most likely with the majority of the population long awake and on with their day, bathing or doing chores or fishing at the lake only meters away. Malawi is poor, its one of the poorest countries on Earth, and the majority of the inhabitants of the village poor as well. I do not want to sugarcoat it. I am afraid of romanticizing it in some way. Several kids in the village regularly approach foreign tourists with handwritten notes asking for donations to support their transportation to a football game in a neighboring village. There is no football game, of course, but I cannot fault them for trying. Others will pester visitors to listen to their “boy band” and charge per song — but they are surprisingly good with their makeshift instruments, covers of popular songs such as “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and some pretty great dance moves. But with the exception of some persistent (and relatively mild to other places I have been) requests to see someone’s shop or take a boat tour, the villagers were friendly, and busy going about their daily lives.
On the way back to Lilongwe we stopped at the Mua Mission, one of the oldest Catholic missions in Malawi founded in 1902, and the Kungoni Culture Center, which celebrates the cultures of the Ngoni, Yao, and Chewa tribes. Historical and cultural sites are few in Malawi, museums even fewer, so it was a bit of a treat for me to stop here. Though the museum is only three rooms, they are chock full of information and one could easily spend two hours there with the guide. Lucky for the waiting Catholic University students, C and I went in for the express 30 minute tour, though including the gift shop and walking some of the grounds, we still spent an hour here. C liked the room of Gule Wamkulu masks best. (The Gule Wamkulu is a ritual dance of the Chewa people that involves costumes and masks, some quite elaborate. The dance has been inscribed by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage)
It was not quite the trip I had intended. I had wanted to get away, and I think I had envisioned some kind of fancy lodge that kept Malawi at bay, but instead of an escape, we got a little more up close and personal. At first it was uncomfortable, and to be honest, I am still processing it. My expectations. The reality. The natural beauty and the everyday lives. Economics. Culture. Environment. Do not get me wrong. I know a short walk on the beach and a walk through a village and a stop at a cultural center do not a deep cultural immersion make. But it was eye opening for both C and I.
We will not soon forget it. (especially as C lost her first tooth in the car on the way — a loose tooth, a bumpy road, and an apple are the ticket!) And though I declared at first I would not go back, I already expect that an untruth.