Pumulani Thanksgiving

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Pumulani from Lake Malawi

I love the spirit behind the holiday, but the American celebration of Thanksgiving is not the easiest for a nomadic single introvert.  I have celebrated in many ways over the years from a makeshift dinner cobbled together in a Beijing student dormitory to a turkey and muenster sandwich while writing a graduate student research paper before heading to a Thanksgiving-weekend movie opener.  I have had dinners at friends’, teachers’, colleagues’ houses–and while there can be wonderfully unexpected highlights, I am naturally uncomfortable with strangers around a table.  My preference is to spend the day doing something I enjoy and in the process take time for introspection, ideally, I like to get away.

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Our Pumulani villa’s living room

On Thursday morning C and I began our drive east to Salima, then south to the Cape Maclear area.  Once reaching the Nankumba Peninsula we turned off the paved road onto the burnt orange dirt lanes of the Cape Maclear Nature Reserve.  We bounced along  alternating between small villages of sunbaked brick and rocky scrub until reaching a gate, the entrance to the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then up a steep cement tracked dirt lane to the parking area of Pumulani.

At first it was just a gravel parking lot.  But as we got out of the car, staff spilled out of the main building, greeting us by name.  We were invited to the main lodge patio, provided cool wash cloths, and welcome drinks.  Then we were led across a bridge, along a boardwalk path, to our villa.  And every step revealed more of the incredible beauty of Pumulani.

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The upper pool and the lake

The villa was stunning.  Built into the hillside, its olive green painted cement walls, green corrugated roof, and mahogany-stained wooden window frames, blended into the yellow of the scrub grass and the green of the palm fronds and tree leaves.  Inside was spacious, really, really spacious.  High ceilings, lots of windows, simple but with beautiful details.  I took a lot of photos because maybe some day I will build a home exactly like this.

We took in the villa, settled in, then headed down for lunch.  On the way we saw a monitor lizard swim across the pond, the first of many wild animals we would encounter.  Sitting at a table, enjoying our lunch, looking at C and out across an expanse of the Lake looking west, I could feel a wave of peaceful happiness.

C wanted to swim.  She always wants to swim.  We decided on the upper pool (there are two) as was closer to our villa.  C enjoyed the pool while I lay on a deck chair under an umbrella reading a book.  It was hot, very hot.  Late November is when the rains are supposed to begin, but as they had not yet the sun scorched.

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Sunset on Lake Malawi

Just before 4 PM we made our way down the series of wooden steps and platforms to the Pumulani’s private beach where we boarded a traditional dhow for a sunset cruise.  As it was a seemingly random Thursday in November, we were the only guests who had arrived in time for the dhow, so C and I had the vessel to ourselves with the exception of our captain and a guide.  It was nice to be on the water, to feel the warm breeze.  Our guide said we would head out north and west, near one of the four villages on the opposite bank, where we might find hippos.  I was skeptical.  Hippos might hang out in the muddy Shire (pronounced Sheer-ray) River but in the Lake?  Come on!  And I was joking around with C and pointed out toward the water near the beach and said “It’s a hippo!”  I had not seen anything at all.  But then the guide said there was a hippo there.  I thought he was pulling my leg until I saw the beast breach the water some 25 feet away from the dhow.  Holy moly! A hippo in the lake!

We dined after dark, another delicious meal, and headed to our room to sleep.  It had been a wonderful, active day.  In Malawi, when the sun goes down, it is dark, even in the capital.  Outside the cities, the darkness is very deep.  We planned to turn in early.  As we entered the bedroom, I switched on the light and C pointed behind my head and said, “What is that?!”  I turned and saw the largest spider I have ever seen – its body over nearly 2 inches long, its legs made it as large as my hand – lurking on the curtain.  I must have jumped and I am fairly sure I said some bad words.  There was some shrieking and funny shaking, mostly on my part.  I grabbed C and a flashlight and we hightailed it back to the main lodge so I could recruit some person, any person, who would take care of that arachnid.  If it were still in the bedroom, I was not going to sleep very well.  The staff member I convinced to help grabbed a broom and followed us back to the villa.  He identified the spider as “friendly” but could tell me no more.  I insisted I needed no new friends so he escorted our unwelcome guest out the front door.

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Just some of the Lake Malawi National Park wildlife

After that excitement we really wanted to get to sleep, though I made sure the mosquito nets were tightly closed.  I expected to sleep like a baby.  The room was cold, too cold.  The turn down service had left the A/C blasting on a low temperature and the fan just above the bed on the highest setting.  I fell asleep but a few hours later woke, my head aching with the cold air.  After some angry hunting, I finally found the switch and turned the fan down.  Two hours later I awoke bathed in sweat — the power had gone out, but the generators had not kicked on.  If your power doesn’t go off regularly, you haven’t been to Malawi.  I did not quite get the sleep I had expected.

On our second day, after breakfast, C tried fishing for the first time.  As its a national park it is strictly a catch and release policy (though tell that to the fishermen out in the lake waters!), but we fished in the Pumulani pond.  Garth, one of the managers and an avid fisherman, helped C get started.  She was so excited to reel in a “chambo,” Malawians favorite fish to eat (I have heard it is like tilapia; I don’t eat fish, so I don’t know), and then some cichlids, the colorful fish for which Lake Malawi is so famous.  All was well until we got the line – and a fish – stuck in a tree branch.  Then it was not so much fun anymore (the fish was eventually freed).

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Who are you telling to keep it down?

We enjoyed a lazy, quiet day at our villa.  Well until loud thumps across our roof could not be ignored.  Some teenage male baboons were using our roof as a wrestling pad.  The ruckus they made, well they put the pied crows that scamper across our room in Lilongwe to shame (I call them the pterodactyls).  I went out on to our deck and yelled up to them to keep it down, and one by one small baboon faces peered over the side of the roof top to check out who was telling them what to do.  I wish I had had my camera then – to catch four baboons looking down at me – but I had left it in the villa and closed the door (we were given strict instructions by the staff upon check in to never leave our doors or windows open or the baboons might just let themselves in and make off with our stuff).   Unhappy with my demands, the naughty baboons pulled off part of the roof siding and tossed it down on us.  This required another trip to the main lodge to explain an animal encounter.

In the afternoon we took a 45 minute guided hike across the rocky hillside to a small beach where we were met by double-passenger kayaks.  C also kayaked for the first time, and I have to say for a 6-year old she did quite well.  I could not help but feel a great sense of pride about my kiddo.  She could not paddle the whole 40 minutes, and often her paddling ended up more a “paddle battle” with me, but she sure gave it a shot and sometimes we were wonderfully in sync.

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A fish eagle grabs a snack

On the third day we set out with a guide and a Danish doctor for some snorkeling off a small rocky island about 30 minutes away by speedboat.  I am not a boat person.  My long time friend CZ will tell you this, as she is a boat person.  I am more a boat-avoidant person.  But I really wanted to finally get out on the lake and to see the colorful and famous Lake Malawi cichlids in their element.  Again, my girl, bravely tried another new activity.  Unfortunately, the four meter deep water was more than she was comfortable with and the full face mask unfamiliar, so after four attempts in which she clung to me in the water, she decided she would just see the fish from the boat.  Armed with some bread provided by our guide, she happily kept the fish fed as they swarmed around us snorkelers.

On the way back, we purchased some fish off a fisherman floating on the water in his dugout canoe, in order to feed the fish eagles, Malawi’s national bird.  The guide whistled loudly using his fingers and then called out something in Chichewa but ending with “eagle” in English.  Basically, he was yelling “hey fish eagles, over here, I got something for you.”  Incredibly enough the birds, perched on trees on the island some fifty feet away took off in flight as the guide tossed the fish on to the water, and the fish eagles gracefully swooped down, talons stretched out, to scoop up their treat.  Watching them was absolutely thrilling.

Oh, I forgot to mention that just before beginning our snorkeling endeavor, as I sat in a swing chair and C played on the private Pumulani beach waiting for the captain and other passenger to arrive, I saw a lodge staff member approach C and tell her something.  It looked like he was admonishing her and immediately afterwards she scampered up the stairs off the beach.  I called out to the staff member, asking if anything was wrong, and he told me only that there was a crocodile hanging in the water just off the other side of the beach.  I could have sworn someone had told me that the crocs and hippos, while possibly in the Lake, do not hang out near human settlements.  Just a few days at Pumulani was, quite literally, blowing that theory right out of the water.

For our last afternoon C enjoyed some more pool time; I enjoyed more time reading by the pool.  After another nice dinner we turned in, and slept like babies.  The next morning we did not want to leave.  It was not only the beauty of the location and the hospitality, but the people we met there.  On the final morning, all the guests were hugging one another and wishing each other well.  Pumulani is an extraordinary place that attracts extraordinary people.  There was the Danish doctor, now living in Sweden, who was in Malawi to look into possible work in the health sector.  He had also spent summers in Malawi as a teenager with his father, who worked for the Carlsberg factory in Blantyre.  He and his effortlessly beautiful wife, also a doctor, were very friendly and kind.  There was also the Brazilian-Austrian man with his Austrian-Swiss partner.  The former had come to Africa some ten years ago for a short internship and had stayed five years.  Finally, there was Garth, one of the managers, an amazing individual whose kindness and zest for life are so apparent.  If you visit while he is there ask him to share just one of his extraordinary life vignettes.

The visit to Pumulani was just what C and I needed.  As we prepared to depart I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  I am so thankful for the opportunity to live and work in this country, to have been able to visit a place of such beauty, to have crossed paths, even briefly, with the other people at the lodge, and to have had this time to spend with my wonderful daughter.

And that neither the hippo nor the croc nor that giant spider got us.

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Restoration on the Lower Lake

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Beautiful early morning view of Lake Malawi from Sunbird Nkopola

It was a long summer.

I mean, weeks and weeks and weeks of covering for other positions empty during a transition gap, different duties due to a dearth in staff, and the unexpected because it was summer and we were short staffed and by Murphy’s Law this meant an uptick in political, economic, and consular activities.  It is one thing to anticipate it, but another to live it.  Do not get me wrong–I am not lamenting the work, much was quite interesting–but I was envious scrolling through the photos from weeks-long Home Leave or vacations of friends.  I might have had a wee bit of uncharitable, or rather undiplomatic, thoughts when a colleague told me in mid-August how he was so ready for a vacation, six weeks after returning from a month off in June.   It took a great deal of my diplomatic training to just smile and say “I hear you!” and not trip or shove him.  Diplomacy is such an amazing art.

It will still be six more busy weeks before C and I take off on a much deserved out-of-Malawi mommy-daughter holiday, but I decided that at least for the Labor Day weekend we would get out of Lilongwe, tackling some place on my Malawi bucket list.

Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa and is sometimes called the “Calendar Lake” as it is approximately 365 miles long and 52 miles wide.  On the western shore of Lake Malawi, about ten miles north from where the lake ends, narrowing drastically as it flows into the Shire River (pronounced Sheer-ray), lies the small lakeside town of Nkopola.  This was our destination for the weekend.

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The road through the high hills

Malawi is surprisingly hilly (surprising to folks like myself who prior to arriving had little knowledge of African geography).  The country sits at the southern end of the East African Rift; the north and central western portions of the country an undulating series of hills rising and falling between 2,000 and 5,000 feet above sea-level.  I decided instead of heading east and then south, we would first head south on the M1 and then just past Dedza, which skirts the Mozambican border, turn to bisect a high hill range towards the banks of the lower lake.

I had heard the road would bend and curve, yet I was still unprepared for the serpentine twists that with each turn would reveal yet another stunning view of the stark, yet beautiful, countryside.  Little traffic (there was more foot traffic than vehicles) meant I could stop on the road now and again for a few moments to snap a photo or simply gaze in happy astonishment at the vista before me.  C too gasped occasionally from the back seat.  This road took only about 40 minutes of the three and a half hour drive, but it stands out in my mind.

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Rooms built against the rock face

We arrived at the hotel just at lunch time and happily checked in, finding we had been assigned one of the unique rooms built into the face of rocky outcrop fronting the beach.  The rooms themselves were nothing to right home about.  There was a decent queen sized bed, a nondescript desk, and a too large chair that would not push under the desk enough to allow easy passage between the bed and desk.  Outside our window a large cactus obscured almost all view of the beach.  But you could hear the waves, see the bright sunlight glinting off the cacti thorns and a brilliant blue sky between cactus spines, and C breathed in deep and declared the air to be fresh and clean.

The room may not have been all that, but the lush hotel landscaping, particularly on the side of the grounds where are room was located (the other side were ground level rooms and rondavals with much less greenery) certainly made up for it.  Hungry we headed to lunch.  The tasteless interpretations brought to us left so much to be desired, but it being hot and beachy, we had little appetite anyway.  C just wanted to get her swimsuit on and enjoy the water.  Pool, lake, whatever.  We headed to the pool where C quickly made friends (it helps to bring diving fish toys and a giant inflatable sea turtle on which at least four kids can ride), and I enjoyed a book.  I felt inexplicably angry about the lunch service, but I could feel the tension beginning to melt away.

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The pathway to our room

We had a quiet evening.  By that I mean we did little but hang out in our room watching a Marvel movie on the television and dining on the half decent version of room service pizza.  However, a large conference of Malawian auditors rocked on late into the evening, the thumbing music from their venue reaching even to our location at nearly the furthest room away.  Still we slept well.

After breakfast on Sunday we drove the twenty or so minutes to the township of Mangochi.  Once called Fort Johnston during colonial days, it was originally established in the 1890s as a defense post on the Shire as it flows from Lake Malawi and as a deterrent to the Yao slave traders.  Today there are few traces of this colonial past.  We stopped to look at the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower built in 1901, its dilapidated clock face almost entirely missing, and a cannon from the Gwendolen, the Mangochi-built British gunboat and the largest ship to patrol Lake Malawi. It took almost as long for me to write that sentence as it took to circle the clock tower and read its historical markers.

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Despite its condition, the fact it remains standing and its placement at the edge of town and ahead of a bridge over the Shire, make it worth at least a cursory visit

C and I then headed over to the Lake Malawi Museum.  I only know of three museums in all of Malawi and I have been to “museums” in developing countries before, so I had set the bar appropriately low despite the surprisingly high marks on Google Reviews (six reviews giving it an average of 3.8 stars out of 5).  As we approached the single story ranch style building, which resembled a cross between a warehouse and a home, a sad metal playground consisting of a slide and the cross bars of a swingset without the swings in the yard to the right, it was not immediately clear it was open or operational.  The wide concrete slab in the yard likely a parking lot for cars that never come.  But two individuals, a thin older man and woman, sat on the porch next to the open door, giving more the impression of squatters than museum curators.  As I read the entrance fee of 500 Malawian Kwacha (USD 70 cents) and tried to hand over the money to cover both C and I, the man informed me in garbled English that the museum, though technically open, had no electricity.  I said that was fine, we would still go inside, figuring some windows would still provide some light.  But there were no windows and the darkness inside was near complete.  Not wanting to miss out on one of the major attractions of Mangochi, I asked the man if he had a light.  He pulled out a small torch and I lit up the flashlight on my phone and together we made our way through the tiny museum, past sad dioramas of Malawian wildlife, a replica of the deck of the Gwendolen, and a pathetic aquarium.  Well, if it had had fish it would have been poor, but the four small tanks empty of water and life did not even rate it the name “aquarium.”

As I handed over the money and thanked our torchbearer, and turned to leave, I mentioned to C it had been a waste of time.  She however insisted we go back inside one more time!  She said she had not seen enough of the boat deck, though I noted given how dark it was, it was hard to see anything at all.  She was adamant so we had a second visit.  C gave the museum 5 stars; I give it 1/2 a star, due in a large part for the amusing adventure of going through it in the dark.

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Beach view from the rockface stairs (the monkey on the roof also enjoying the scene)

Not relishing another poor lunch at the Sunbird, we had lunch at another nearby resort and then stopped at a wide expanse of dirt where dozens of goats were lazing about.  C dubbed it “Goatland” and boasted that she would easily catch a baby goat and implied we would then toss said goat into our car in and add to our growing menagerie.  Though I made it clear we would not be making off with some villager’s goat, I am glad C is not as good at goat catching as she proclaimed.  We then spent several hours on the beach – C playing in the surf and in the sand, with myself again reading a book.

The following morning I felt completely refreshed.  I took some time to just breath in the lake air and listen to the soothing sounds of the lake waves and the twitters of morning birds.  The restorative powers of a beach, nature, rhythmic swells, felt almost overwhelmingly strong.  Once again I felt surprised how even a few days of a change of scenery could do so much for my spirit.  C and I snuggled for a bit; how I love sharing these moments and places with her.  Then we packed up for the trip home.  Even the drive made me happy.

 

(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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C looks out at Lake Malawi