Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Post from route 50 west - One week and three days after return to the US from Africa

I'm typing a quick blog from the Bolt Bus - quite a change from several weeks ago. The bus has its own internet and my laptop is plugged into a socket. Sweet. After months of being in a mild homogeneous environment in Malawi and upstate New York - I made a stop in New York City for several days. I'm now headed to Washington DC to graduate with my MA in International Development with a concentration in People with Disabilities and tie up any loose ends (like loans - eek) on campus. And see my poor and overworked Academic Advisor :-). New York City was nice and a rude slap. I'd forgotten how many nationalities live and work in the city, and how much I enjoyed its energy especially during peak hours riding the subways. Other than bathroom stalls stuffed full of toilet papers (totally opposite in Malawi) - fashion wasn't scarce either. The 80s style have been creeping in the last several years and after months away - every other young man is wearing Clark Kent style glasses frame. Whew. People watching is great. Malawi isn't a very materialistic country when it comes down to napkin rings and wearing the most trendy hat.

In a way, it's good to be home but I know I'll be back anyplace in Africa in the near future. I just turned 33 years old and is becoming quite set in my ways - but I will make this work.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Liwonde National Park, Malawi

I decided to make my own trip before returning to the United States - I chose Liwonde National Park because according to the Bradt travel guide, it's supposedly the more pristine of the game parks in C entral Africa. The park is approximately 548 square kilometers close to Lake Malawi and one other lake, and the Shire River goes through the Park. The park is populated by hippos, crocodiles, elephants, antelope, monkeys, birds, and the African Buffalo. Three days without electricity and the prices were reasonable. Long as I chose only one tour activity I needed not to carry wads of kwachas money since like many places, the lodge I stayed at doesn't take credit or debit, in cash only. I did go a little over because I forgot to include the 16.5% VAT and I was not expecting entrance and exit costs of the Park itself. I was around 600 Malawian Kwachas short (5 dollars).

Chinguni Lodge was my choice of the place to stay, slightly cheaper than Muvuu Lodge, also in the Park. It used to be a home of a game warden so the common rooms were full of skulls belonging elephant, buffalo, imapala, baboon, and hyena I think. The environs were very rustic and nice - I wished I opted for thatched huts that supported covered canvas tents and a patio. I had a nice room inside the lodge with the beds covered by high quality mosquitoes nets, candles, my own hot shower and toilet. The meals - prepared English style - were decent and filling, but when you're not walking around like you're accustomed to, your clothes start to feel awfully tight after several square meals.

A favorite spot of mine to pass the time over the next two and half days was outside in a shade that did not change and breezes were consistent. The chairs were canvas with wooden frames, severed tree trunks served as a side table for either your drink or your feet to put up. The spot overlooked the lagoons of the Shire River. Nice. Sometimes I'd be sitting there with a bottle of Carlsberg Green and a novel or diary. The Lodge is part of the Park so one would be a lucky to spot an animal to saunter by. Once, a yellow baboon visited the lodge grounds munching on this and that in the bushes. It heard the loud rip of the brillo pad as I opened my camera and off it went. The morning I left the Park for Lilongwe and Zambia - I saw a large lizard that appeared prehistoric slowly crossing the open plain maybe 10, 15 yards in front of me. Consulting my guide book - it's a Monitor Lizard, a very big lizard that looks like it came in through a time machine.

I wasn't allowed to walk on my own outside the lodge - once I was wandering after taking some pictures of the baboon and the wildebeest, and a staff approached me on his bike with a note from the management. It said something like "you are not allowed to be on your own - the elephants are not friendly". Whoops. I didn't see any :(

My only mini safari trip was the canoe. It was good - more stimulating along the lagoons but out in the water, was kind of boring. Also, I'm accustomed to be paddling on my own - two men accompanied me; one as my guide (he patiently wrote out the sights) and the other to paddle. We didn't see any crocodiles, but saw hippos at some distance. My best photograph attempt were tops of their heads and fluttering ears. We saw several fish eagles, islands of moving reeds (I never could grasp that concept), and varieties of birds including Egyptian geese. It was a mild trip because many animals basically kept away from people and it was hot outside. The lodge provided a hat woven by reeds, shading my face and neck quite well.

Possibly the most thrilling part of the three-day stay was riding the motorbike. The lodge's safari truck - their only mode of transport - broke down so the lodge sent a motorbike to pick me up. I've never ridden on one before and the ground was uneven so a very nerving one for me. Wearing a helmet and gripping the seat strap, I tried to channel my fright into trust for the driver. Parts of the road were muddy so we skidded one or twice, sometimes the driver would go into the forest between trees, and some bushes scratched at my legs. I was very relieved when we arrived at the lodge but had a small pang of disappointment that the ride was over. The driver thought I was an awfully good sport.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

MANAD in Mulanje, Blantyre

Several days after completing the Karonga-Chipita Survey Trip, I met Euphrasia and other MANAD officials in Mulanje for a five day training in Organizational Capacity Training (how to work as an advocacy, identify issues pertaining to the Deaf, etc). Mulanje is a southern most town in southern Malawi not far from the Mozambique border. Due to long training hours I could not explore much of the area. On the upside, our motel where we also had the training contained a perfect view of the Mulanje Massif (for geological information, go to: behind us. Because of low clouds (not unusual in Malawi) that the Massif is often referred as “Island in the Sky” and we did not get the view of the full mountain until the end of the training when it cleared up. As far as Thyolo, I could see the giant base of the Massif, like Jack the Beanstalk's Giant's Elephant foot through the low and heavy clouds.

A minibus took me to Mulanje, from south of Blantyre via Thyolo (the tea capital of Malawi) on M2 which took over an hour. On the way back with all of us in the minibus – needing no additional passengers) took the M4 road which is a shorter route, a strikingly different scenery. On the M2, within couple kilometers south of Blantyre and all the way to Mulanje were fields upon fields upon fields of tea. I think at the moment all of the tea picked, cured, dried and made into individual cups of tea – everyone in Southern Africa that consists of 12 countries plus the tea loving United Kingdom and Ireland can drink at the same time. Tea plantations are quite busy, some open to tourism (nope never had the chance to go though I’ve planned it one time or other  ). A deaf Malawian I know used to work in a plantation, he and his wife picking tea leaves from morning to dusk. It depends on which company owns the tea plantations – some are generous with benefits for its employees while others are not.

It was rather hypnotic with miles and miles of tea fields and people employed to pick the leaves. In the old days, one had to pick by hand which can be painful. Now they have a special kind of large hand (hedge?) clip with a small basket attached to catch the cut leaves. I observed men and women in the fields with large baskets strapped to their backs, cutting and collecting and tossing it over their shoulder into the giant basket. Long hours for little pay unfortunately.

Thyolo, where I changed minibuses – we passed near one of the largest marketplaces in the country with dizzying variety of produce. There were maybe 5 foot piles of cabbages and kale freshly brought in. I never had the opportunity to shop there.
That’d be sweet. For a while we passengers in the minibus watched touts (conductors) fight over passengers, and one tout dissing a couple who decided to switch minibuses. Often we don’t have the pleasure of choosing what minibus to take. What can really anger a tout is if you go into his minibus and you change your mind and go into another minibus. You either argue with the tout or let the touts argue among themselves. It’s mostly shouting and finger jabbing but I’ve never seen it escalate. Other touts would interfere and calm the angry tout down. Sometimes the passenger would return to the original minibus to shut them up.

Anyways, since I arrived early at Mulanje, I decided to try an Italian place for lunch (real mozzarella cheese!). Couple hours later I was ready to go to the motel – I asked the waiter to hire a taxi for me because I was not in the mood to be piled upon by taxi drivers and pick one, hoping I will not be a sucker and pay too much money. The waiter returned and introduced me to the taxi driver. We went outside and expecting to find a cab, he gestured to his bike. I’d forgotten. Many towns do not have taxi cabs, only taxi bikes. I had my rucksack not only with a week worth of clothing but with some paperwork and laptop inside. The motel is two kilometers down the road with some rises and slopes along the way. I pointed at my rucksack and pantomimed whether the taxi driver is strong? He laughed and told me to get on. I tightened my rucksack, securing all belts and loops, and made myself comfortable on the passenger seat. I was grateful for the extra handlebar too, giving me more security to hold on. Not topple over backwards.

As in any other Malawian town – there are more pedestrians and bike taxis than cars, every other bemused (or amused, depending!) face looked at me grinning. All I could do was wave.. A mazungu with a rucksack, on the back of the bike. The driver pumped his legs up and down the whole way and I was impressed he didn’t stand up for more traction. I gave him a tip for his good humor :). When we arrived at the motel, two MANAD Board members were grinning at my grand entrance.

Mulanje Massif attracts hikers and backpackers around the world – it is no easy feat. Some from my lodge went and returned with sore muscles and nasty blisters on their feet. The Malawian Deaf told me about local myths that the spirits and witchcraft cause disappearances of several backpackers. Evidently the Netherlands and one other country sent their teams and the backpackers were never found. Usually because they never hired guides – people I know went they came back because they hired guides. Better safe than sorry! Several times during training if a MANAD official was very late we’d go “witchcraft! Maybe taken away!”.

will post a picture or two..

Monday, May 04, 2009

Back stateside

Been hit by hay fever already. A nice welcome back. I am in a weird transition phase where I'm back in familiar surroundings (my parents' house) and thinking wow, did I really go to southern Africa then back here?

My 4 year old PC Dell laptop barely survived the trip. The poor thing needs rehabbing. Lots of clean up, backing up, and resting. Its internet won't work. Sigh. Will tinker with it til the internet start working.

Yes, will catch up blogging this week...

ta for now.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Behind in Blogging at Lusaka, Zambia

The last two weeks have been hazy pending the last days in Malawi with MANAD and impending finals via online course. I spent half the time researching and writing, and the other half having anxiety attacks thinking about the finals. I rarely do well mentally and physically at the end of the term. Especially since this is my last semester of my graduate career. To do an online course in a developing country’s weak internet infrastructure in your last term and prone to being neurotic, it ain’t funny. With the slower broadband connection and schizoid wifi – I've given myself so much grief. I think I have much more grey hair now than I came in with on December 30.

I just sneezed and took a look around in the internet café I’m at. No one is looking at me in fright. The Swine Flu hasn’t hit Africa yet (I'm enjoying the jokes on the FB, especially the bogus article about Miss Piggy getting arrested at the border) – so far as the information is released things seem decent. Malaria and AIDs here are scary enough. Perhaps with my uneven tan and faded clothing they think I’ve been here long enough not to carry the virus. I wonder what the scenery will be like when I pass through Heathrow and JFK airports this weekend. They'd probably detain me for sporting a Dorothy Hamill haircut (I had a decent clean up job yesterday from homemade haircuts I’ve been inflicting on my poor hair) the stylist did a good job and my hair was blown dry for the first time since Christmas. Still it’s wee short, but least the stylist cut my hair with intent on growing it out.

I have maybe four posts to write regarding my work with MANAD, griping about the internet, and touristy travel in Malawi prior to Lusaka. Will post again from London or stateside.