(The Not Quite) Lake Escape

15A three day weekend.

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.


The M10?

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.


Along the beach

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 center of the village

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.


village children and shop

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)


Mua Mission

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.



Zomba & the Lake

Two weekend getaways two months apart in two of Malawi’s most extraordinary places.


A view down to Zomba town through the trees of the Plateau

Just a few weeks after arriving in Malawi our social sponsors, the family that prepared and eased our transition to the country, whisked us off for the Labor Day weekend.  Our destination: Zomba, the colonial capital of Malawi.

Early on Saturday morning, N–, S–, and Little N, their 5 year old daughter and already one of C’s favorite new friends, arrived to collect us.  N– did the driving the four plus hours from Lilongwe.  Having only recently arrived and only driven myself from home to Embassy or home to supermarket and back, the drive was an eye-opener.  It is hard to capture in words the changes from Capital City Lilongwe, where most of the expat community lives, with its large, high walled compounds, through the neighborhoods of the everyday population, where one steps directly from a simple brick home right onto the bright rust red earth alongside the road; chickens and goats roam freely.  Then a turn onto the M1, the main artery that stretches from the very northern border with Tanzania to the furthest tip in the south into Mozambique.  One might expect a major road with such a prominent name to be something of significance, yet there is no marker, no sign, to indicate that the two lane asphalt road is anything special at all.  Then at a large roundabout N– mentions that this is the borderline of Lilongwe.  There is again nothing to mark this change.  But soon the signs of urbanization fall away and although Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, there are times when there is no sign of civilization as far as the eye can see.


The lovely Embassy Cottage

The scenery is unexpected.  The country is more undulated hills than flat.  I had expected flat, though I cannot say why.  We alternate driving on high plateaus and in valleys, past traditional villages, and thriving market towns.  Though there is more greenery than I expected, especially at the tail end of the cold and dry season, and more trees despite deforestation, the scenes are mostly sparse and dry, particularly in the latter half of the journey, after we have passed the town of Ntcheu, skirting the border with Mozambique, and left Central Malawi for the Southern region (the turn off which again gives no indication taking that right would lead you soon to an international border).

We arrive at Zomba but our actual destination was up, up, up the winding road of the Zomba Plateau, which rises some 6,000 feet above the Shire Highlands.  Near the top we stop, just past the famous Sunbird Hotel, at the U.S. Embassy cottage.  I had heard the cottage previously served as the summer retreat for the Ambassador when our Embassy was located in Blantyre.  The rustic wooden three bedroom cottage, seemingly to have escaped the worst of 1960s architecture, is built into a hillside; the front of the house just peeks over as you drive in and in back opens onto an expansive sloping yard.  Several baboon scurried away towards the trees as we approached.  There was quite a lot of greenery and the air was fresh; the altitude contributed to a cooler clime.  We were still in Malawi, but felt very far from the capital.


Berry goodness

After unpacking the car and selecting the bedrooms, we made lunch in the cottage kitchen and ate out on the back patio.  Then S– and I and the two girls headed out for a walk toward the Plateau Stables to look into horseback riding for the following morning.  At the cottage gate hopeful berry sellers waited; they must have seen us pull in as there were no other residences at the end of the bumpy dirt drive.  I suspect Embassy folks are almost always good for a sale.  We did not disappoint as we not only bought strawberries and raspberries but also arranged to buy strawberry plants to take back to Lilongwe.

The Plateau Stables are just a 10 minute walk from the Embassy cottage, or a good 20 minutes if you walk with two five year olds.  No matter.  We had little planned but walks and relaxing and getting to know one another.  Along the path — deep orange dirt and jutted, wide enough for cars though surely a challenge during the rainy season — we came across baboon.  They strode forward purposely and though I tried to act nonchalant, as though I come across large primates on walks all the time, I doubt I was fooling anyone, least of all the baboons.  I eyed them warily as they too eyed me and we all kept on walking.  We arrived at the stables and while S– set out to organize our ride for the next day, the girls and I headed into the pasture in search of horses.  Little N had been before and had a particular horse in mind, C just wanted to see any horse, and then of course to pet a horse, and then of course to ride.  The scene was idyllic, green grass, tall trees, crisp mountain air, horses grazing…and baboons running around.  You know, the usual.


Just another mom and child out for a stroll

It was not easy tearing the horse-crazy girls away from the stables, but after some time we walked back.  We prepared and sat down to dinner and then the cottage caretaker prepared a bonfire in the stone pit located in a gazebo in the backyard.  S–, the consummate host and planner, had brought music and the makings for S’mores.  The wood must not have been right for a bonfire as it smoked terribly.  Not being particularly woodsy myself, I could not have pinpointed the problem, but we all made do.  The girls and I did a lot of dancing to some Disney favorites and whenever the smoke made its way toward us, we shifted our dance location.  The cottage is stocked with movies and N– tried valiantly to set up the DVD player for some Disney classics selected by the girls, but it was not to be.  In the end the girls settled for some kids TV and us adults ran off to do what adults do when kids are distracted (shower without interruption!).


The following morning we slept in and then enjoyed a homemade breakfast of eggs and toast and bacon.  Then S–, myself, and the girls headed off to our horseback riding adventure.  It was a cool morning, the temperatures perhaps in the upper 50s.  Mist hung over the plateau.  We rode the horses first across the Mulunguzi Dam.  With the dark green hills of tall pine, the nearly white overcast sky, and the steel grey waters, I felt as though I were somewhere in Europe rather than central Africa.  I half expected the Loch Ness Monster to rise from the waters or, at the very least, a crocodile to remind me where I was, but only the wind disturbed the surface of the lake.  Once across the reservoir, our guides lead us up into the forest.  With the exception of our own chatter and the occasional small group of women carrying bundles of branches on their heads (deforestation is a huge problem in Malawi–the wood is used to make homemade charcoal for cooking) to whom we called out “Muli bwanji” (“Hello” in Chichewa), the forests held a quiet stillness.  We only rode for an hour but it was a soul nourishing hour.  Or at least a soul-nourishing 50 minutes.  And then my rarely-in-the-saddle behind began to insist on getting down.

We regrouped at the cottage and then headed up the road to the Sunbird Ku Chawe hotel for lunch.  The weather was still chilly and we sat as close to the fireplace as possible.  Then an after lunch rests at the cottage — I indulged in a mountain cottage nap.  In the afternoon C and I met a guide who took us on an hour long mountain walk.  Initially, it looked like C might scuttle the walk complaining loudly in the first five minutes how incredibly far the walk had already been, but soon enough (thankfully) she got into the groove, looking for flowers and monkeys, or at the very least gave in.   Occasional forced walking in nature is good for children.

We spent another lovely evening at the cottage.  A quiet dinner, a fire in the fireplace.  Some board games.  I slept perhaps the best I had since arriving in Malawi.  The next morning after an early breakfast we packed up the car and by 7:30 AM were on the road back to Lilongwe.  Though it was just a day and a half and two nights, the plateau getaway had been restorative.

Two months later I pack up the car for our first self-drive trip outside of Lilongwe; our first Mommy and C trip in Malawi.  This time we headed east to Senga Bay, the closest beach on Lake Malawi.  I admit that I was a little apprehensive about the drive but I had been told it was very straightforward: head north on the airport road, turn right after the Carniworks store (a prominent butcher/grocery) on the only road that goes to the right, and then take that road all the way to the Lake.  An easy peasy 90 minutes.


Its a lake that looks like an ocean

Well, perhaps not quite.  Everyone had told me an hour and a half, but it took me 2 hours.  Maybe it was that one wrong turn?  Or driving behind the truck piled high with people, standing room only, for way too many miles?  Maybe there was an extra police stop or two? Or maybe people just like to round down?  By the time we arrived at the Sunbird Livingstonia, at the very, very end of the road, I was tired and cranky.  Did I mention it is the super hot season in Malawi?  And also I still have not replaced the air conditioning in the car, inoperable due to someone stealing the relevant fuses somewhere between Durban and Lilongwe?  When my daughter tells me her armpits are melting, I tell her I did not have air conditioning in my cars growing up, but I actually really, really want to get those fuses replaced.  I just have not found the time just yet.  A hazard of being a single working parent in a new country.  But at long last we did arrive, maybe more than a bit sweaty, and I was underwhelmed.

At first.  Then we went for a walk along the beach – and it is a beach – as the sun set.  My daughter had asked to change into her swimming suit and I told her it was not necessary because we were just going for a walk.  I should know my daughter by now.  She had to walk in the waves.  And jump.  And skip.  And fall in.  On purpose.  She was so happy and it made me happy.


Good Morning Senga Bay

It is dark early in Malawi.  By 6:30 all traces of day are gone.  We had an early dinner at the hotel and then headed back to our room – a cute little round chalet.  There was no air conditioning as the power does not support it (power is a continual problem in Malawi) but the hotel had provided a rotating fan.  I opened the windows and turned on the fan and we fell asleep to the sound of the waves.  Again, some of my best sleep in Malawi.

When we woke and opened our front door I was confronted with a dazzling view.  The whitewashed gate to our chalet stark against the hotel greenery, sunlight glinting off the blue lake waves.  Rainbow skinks skirted across the sidewalk.  Large glossy black and white pied crows, soared from palm to frangipani tree.  Wow.  I was both immediately glad I had booked two nights so that we would have an entire day, and simultaneously sorry we did not have longer.  C was ready to get down to business and demanded we eat breakfast as soon as possible so she could *finally* put on her swimming suit and properly get into the lake.

On the beach C ran at full speed across the sand, leaped repeatedly over waves, and could not seem to decide if she should have her pool noodle or the inflatable ring or neither.  She collected shells.  She lay on the beach staring into the sky.  She covered herself in sand.  At 2 1/2 hours I said we needed to go in and clean up for lunch.  We are very fair skinned folks; I usually try to limit our beach and pool time.  But I let her play a long, long time (and as a result we ended up with her first ever sunburn — though with such fair skin I am amazed we made it nearly 6 years without a burn).  Her laughter was too infectious.


The Goat Herder

We drove to another hotel known for its extensive menu of Indian and Chinese dishes for lunch.  Along the way, we drove through a village and C declared that she very much needed to pet a goat.  I asked that she wait until after eating for the goat experience and she reluctantly agreed.  Following lunch I parked across the street from the hotel entrance, near where we could see some goat kids playing.  C declared that it would be quite easy to catch a baby goat due to their small size and her incredible speed.

The goats proved more resourceful and speedy than she anticipated.  Fairly soon, the sight of a blonde child running after goats in the village drew the attention of a crowd.  Several children approached me but I could not answer their questions as they did not speak English.  But soon enough a woman stepped forward as translator and I explained my daughter’s desire to pet a goat.  This was communicated to the group of children, who hooted with laughter and then set off to catch one.  One boy managed first to rope a large goat and dragged it over to my daughter to the seeming delight of everyone.  C was pleased and shyly pet the goat.  The boy then set off to capture a baby goat to also offer up for for some hugging.


Beach boulders – even the bird crap looks cool

Back at the hotel we had some pool time (and by “some” I mean another 2 hours!) and C quickly made some friends with some other children.  Most of them were also from Lilongwe and also attended the same school.  We then took another sunset walk on the beach — I wanted to head over to some rock formations at the far end.  They did not disappoint.  The large boulders, the sand, the water, the darkening sky with just a hint of pink: it was beautiful.  C was initially skeptical about the walk and the rocks, but soon enough she was crawling on them and leaping off.  She even posed on all fours, facing out to sea, head raised in a roar — she told me this was Pride Rock and she was in her “Lion King pose.”  Walking back she actually ran right into a classmate from school and I had a chance to talk to him mom while the kids played.  It seemed all of Lilongwe had come to Senga Bay for the weekend.

I suppose if I had grown up around one of the Great Lakes, I would not be so surprised and taken with a lake that looks like an ocean.  The waves that roll along a sandy beach, the whitecaps as the wind whips up the water.  And a horizon in which one does not see another shore, only perhaps an island.  And yet without the salty smell of the sea.  Of course I grew up in Northern Virginia instead, but I am sure Lake Malawi would be impressive anyway — the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest lake in the world.

Two weekends away in Malawi.  Extraordinary.


C looks out at Lake Malawi