Trading concrete dreams for sand and safaris, Claire Jackson takes her New York adventures to the other side of the world, to Malawi, Africa.
I am welcomed to Malawi by a single two-storey building in the middle of the tarmac. Like most airports, the building is non-descript, striking only for how minute it is compared to JFK. As we disembark the plane, down the steps, onto the tarmac I am hit by the dry heat of Africa, a welcome change from the humidity of New York. Having made the conscious decision to do no research whatsoever, I am anxious to see what awaits me on the other side of this building. What I’m picturing looks more or less like a scene from The Lion King.
My imagination is embarrassingly inaccurate. Lilongwe, where I have landed, is Malawi’s capital city. As well as crowds of people, there are few tall buildings, only the odd billboard advertising Fanta, the country’s favourite drink. My brother and his fiancé have driven four hours from Blantyre, Malawi’s other city, to pick me up and we have the drive back ahead of us this afternoon. Once we escape the hectic Lilongwe traffic, where children beg at your window and the road rules are as ambiguous as they are in NYC, the evidence that I have arrived in third world comes through all senses. In twenty hours I have flown from one of the most commercialized cities in the world to what is the poorest country in the world not involved in a war. This is what real culture shock is.
Beyond the city it is barren and vast, not unlike The Lion King, but with more greenery at this time of year. Along the side of the roads there are small villages with thatch-roofed huts and a single water pump the only source of water. We pass potatoes, bananas and charcoal that is seemingly selling itself on the side of the road. In my semi-conscious travelers state all I can say is “No thank you” when my brother pulls up to a group of children selling grilled mice on a stick, a local delicacy I soon learn.
As soon as the red sun sets, we encounter the true hazards of the Malawi night. Cyclists balance along either side of the road, wearing black t-shirts making them invisible in the night. Our fellow motorists approach head on with their inside indicator flicking, making up for the lack of headlights. Children walk along the side of the road, on thier way home presumably; from where I don’t know, some look as young as three. Independence is obviously learnt as early as possible.
But I can’t say that my trip would resemble too closely the reality of average Malawian life. After a few days in Blantyre, we drive four hours through the hot sun, through tiny towns with brightly coloured markets, loud boom boxes and no running water. The smells of trucks, buses and utes struggle under the weight of whatever cargo they’re transporting. Out of nowhere we pull through a set of gates and find green lawns, trees fat with leaves and full of fruit, and beyond that the beautiful blue Lake Malawi complete with sand right up to our doorstep. After lying on the beach we are taken out on a sunset cruise, out into the deeper waters of the lake and served what is here known as a “sundowner”: the drink you have as the sun goes down; certainly an idea I see myself adopting once I am home.
This is why the tourists come to Malawi. This is where the expats come for long weekends, to celebrate birthdays and New Years. It is beautiful but I have been warned. I even promised my mother that I would not be swimming in Lake Malawi after the stories I heard. But those stories are not from here. The lake is so large that even with thousands of dishes and children being washed in here daily, disease doesn’t spread to all spots. This is why one gets injections before leaving home so one can make the most of the clear fresh water that laps on a beach-like shore as it mimics the Pacific Ocean. I think if these spots can exist in the middle of Africa, they must exist in New York. I must find them this summer.
It is the next stop on our journey that really blows my mind. We arrive at Cape Maclear, what I imagine is another tourist hotspot. As we board our boat to Mumbo Island, two mothers are washing clothes and dishes for their families; children of all ages play songs for us on their own instruments crafted from water containers and tin cans. Mumbo Island: one resort, no electricity, just us and the resort’s staff at this unexpected sanctuary. Our huts are perched on giant rocks, looking out over the clear waters. We have a compost loo and a bucket-shower that is filled with hot water on request. It is so tranquil we risk lighting lanterns (think The Hangover 2) and send them over the hundreds of fishermen who fish all night out in the lake. It’s a relief when we see the lanterns eventually fall into the water rather than onto the dry bush of the island.
It takes some clever planning to arrange a holiday in which you experience culture, have some time in the sun, and manage to tick something off your bucket list. I was certainly being exposed to an entirely new culture, my tan was getting the top up it needed and here we were – one border crossing and several hours of dirt track later – driving over a river into a Wild Life Park in Zambia. Immediately, I spot the first elephant through the trees, hippo in the shallow river, and crocodile on its banks. Our lodge overlooks a riverbed on one side and a lagoon on the other. We can see baboons, water buffalo and different types of Springbok from our shower. Hyenas and the occasional leopard roam the grounds at night making it mandatory for a guard to escort you to and from your room after dark.
We total twenty-four hours on Safari, four hours in the morning, four at night, for three days. It’s still not enough. From our open truck we see zebras, kudu, giraffes, elephants. We see a leopard taking a drink of water less than two meters away. The guides know how to spot, they know how to stalk and they know how to get up just close enough not to scare these beautiful creatures away. Again, of course, we remember the nightly ritual of enjoying a sundowner mid way through each evening safari. Our guide is given a tipoff as to where to find one of the local lion prides. As if hunting with his own animal instinct, our guide Patson (who was guide to legendary David Attenborough in 1996) takes us to the lions who are gorging on a buffalo corpse. They’re doing sunbathing of their own as we park up with cameras in hand, again only meters away. They seem not the least bit disturbed.
At the lodge we are treated to buffets at every meal, a swimming pool that overlooks the valley, and a beauty spa that watches over the hippos and crocodiles in the lagoon. Having driven through such desolate and undeveloped countryside, that these two environments are so close in proximity can be a bit of a mind-f***. But still, Malawi is named in The Lonely Planet’s “1000 Ultimate Experiences” guide as the country with the friendliest smiles and happiest people.
Worlds away from the consumerist chaos of New York City, I’ve found myself in unfamiliar territory, literally miles out of my comfort zone. This is a different world from what I am used to. A different world from what most of the population are used to I would guess. And while it is the chaos I prefer for now, I’m sure I’ll find myself back here, my Lion King visions an ignorant fantasy.