November 27, 2013

Day 33 (around the bend)

Woke up early to embark on a 30 kilometer hike up to the town of Livingstonia, nestled among the mountains ringing Lake Malawi.  Did you get that?  30 kilometers?  That's like, 20 miles, for those following along with American goggles.  In canvass shoes like these.  Worst blisters I can recall.

We began along the paved roads, passing children carrying bushels of wheat-ish shrubbery to school: a punishment for prior tardiness.

The flat before the 20 mile hike

Overlooking Lake Malawi

Eventually the school children thinned out, and we turned right, away from the main road, to begin our wide switchbacks up into the hills.  Along the way, we were joined by two friendly dogs, mutts of the mushroom farm around the bend.  And they were so happy to be trotting along side us.  Sniffing the ground and begging for ham sandwiches.  Which made me both glad and sad... this is the best life for a dog, roaming free and leashless in the sun-warmed dirt.  One I'll never be able to provide in a San Francisco studio.

Dwarfed by Eucalyptus

We walked beneath Eucalyptus trees, which are some of my favorite.  We stopped to refill our water atop a waterfall, dropping sharply over the cliff.


At the top, I bought and ate a Mars Bar from a local canteen.  Begging the question, on a town on top of a hill in Malawi: Are we ever really that far from familiarity?

Also, a goat with a bouffant haircut, scratching his chin on a rock.

November 14, 2013

Day 32 (to chisel some)

One of the curse/blessing trade-offs of being always-on-the-move is that you have to be up and at 'em at the crack of dawn every day.  Curse because, duh.  Blessing because it turns out that sunrises are stunning.

Pure beauty

Drove to our second Malawi campsite today.  A more local, less touristy-feeling site, after long hours of winding up and over the perimeter mountains.  

Driving through Malawian mountains

We stopped at a local market around the way where women scowled at our cameras and I bought the most rewarding avocados I've ever encountered.  Though, that may be more a product of 32 straight days of camping food than of the produce themselves.  Though the sugar snap peas I also bought certainly didn't distinguish themselves for superstar flavor.  

But I'm getting side-tracked.  Which is easy to do when you build up a month's worth of food cravings.  My hand-copy journal is riddled with notes about the things I wished I was eating along the trip.  

We arrived at our site in the mid-afternoon, and most people went straight for a dip in the lake.  

Looking left

Looking right

My tent-mate and I went straight for a wood-carving lesson at Norman's school of woodcarving, where I was assisted by self-nicknamed "Mr. Nice" and she was assisted by "Mr. Bombastic."

Norman's School of Carving

And by "assisted," I mean that they would lavish praise upon our wood-carving skills while we hacked away at a block of tree for an hour, and would then finish 90% of the actual work in the last 10 minutes. 

The facade of skilled craftsmanship

The real craftsmanship

I (sort of) made that!

Norman's youngest son out of 12 sat an elevated railing, chipping away at a hunk of wood with a hammer, as his penultimate son joined us on our log to chisel some masks.  

The penultimate son


Following the carving, Mrs. Nice and Bombastic, not wanting to adjourn the evening too early, led us down a winding path through dusky greenery, to visit the local witch doctor for individual predictions.

 Through the dusky green

Growing up with a dad who faked preposterous fortune cookie fortunes during my childhood (Hi, Dad), I don't subscribe to much spiritual hokum, as it were.  Nonetheless, I was still hoping for a prediction with some vague poetry that could be retained and applied future situations needing the weight of significance.  Unfortunately, the "prediction" consisted mostly the answers I had already given to Mr. Nice's inquiries through the course of the afternoon:
- You have a sister;
- You don't have a boyfriend;
- You like your job.

What it looked like inside the hut

What it looked like with a camera flash

But the best part was their final pitch, in which they offered the sale of any or all of the following 3 potions:
1.) Love Potion #9- For single people who want to find love.
2.) Love Potion #7- For coupled people who want their love to last.
3.) A potion for hangovers.

Clearly, people who have done their market research.

October 30, 2013

Day 31 (no matter where)

Woke up today with the soft colors of dawn in front of me, and the sounds of waves lapping against the shore.  

Room with a view

Still in Kande, we started the day with a frenetic village tour.  Leaving our camp, you could see dozens of feet under the gate, shuffling and stamping in anticipation, some hoots and exclamations of excitement bursting through.  When the gate opened to let us tourists out, nearly 20 some-odd men began hollering and clapping as though cheering rock-stars onto the stage.  In a mere moment, we were engulfed by self-proclaimed tour guides and wood carvers, painters.  Each one adopted one of our overlanding team and tenaciously held on, both figuratively and literally.  

Canadian-donated water pumps (Canadians are popular in Kande Beach)

Lost it!

Fuzzy Kande

Village tours or slum tours, in general, get mixed reviews.  How much of the concept stems from Westerners using the context of someone else's poverty to promote their own altruism?  Fetishizing the real flesh and blood lives of other people.  But, really, how else can we know things if we don't expose ourselves?  From my end, my favorite thing to see around the countries I've been is always the commerce.  A peripteros selling lottery tickets in a plaza at the base of the Acropolis in Athens.  A hair salon in Kibera.  And these in Kande Beach, Malawi:

Kande Butchery



Bike repairs


After the village tour, I spent some afternoon time on the beach and even went for a full-body dip in the lake, where the schistomites weren't feeling as prickly as the day before.  The waves were much larger, and the current much stronger than the Indian Ocean, confusing what I thought I knew of lakes and oceans.  To get out, I had to use the high-knee-stepping technique, like a freshman practicing for marching band auditions.  And I thought, "at least it's just a lake."  As if no one ever drowned in a lake, and I'd never read Kate Chopin.  

Lake Malawi

I went online at the cyber "cafe" in the campground's reception area to take a peak at the rest of the world and found that both DOMA and Prop 8 were overturned by the Supreme Court.  History happens every day, no matter where we are.    

And then I sat here, at this table by the lake with my American water bottle and my Malawian beer:

And wrote this.

October 15, 2013

Day 30 (Lake of Stars)

My biggest fear prior to embarking on this overlanding trip was not cheetah rabies (as it could have been) or large group socializing (as it should have been); it was a specific and significant fear of swimming in Lake Malawi.  

But we're clearly not there yet, because last entry left us driving and driving, relentlessly, through Zambia.  

The first line of today's journal entry reads: And more driving.  

We finally crossed the boarder from Zambia to Malawi, exchanging currency behind a truck with some "honest" guys who were hiding from the immigration police.  

Like Zambia, Malawi had some really interesting Public Health and awareness billboards.  The first one I noticed said, "End child labor in tobacco plants."  Another was a cartoon couple with one peering into the trousers of the second, and a caption that says, "You can't tell by looking."  Also saw a small roadside pub called, "Precious Boozing Place."  

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, although I wouldn't know that from driving by the houses, which are nicely-constructed brick-- leagues above the thatch of Zambia and the tin of upcountry Kenya.  The reason for that is simply raw material; the soil in Malawi is good for brick.  Driving through was a smorgasbord of red, brown, and dark charcoal bricks being dug, dried in the sun, or cemented into place.  

Dirt turns to mud turns to brick

Building buildings

In parallel, the women were tending tarps of cassava drying out in the sun.

Blankets of cassava glow in the light

An entire country, drying its goods.  

As a poor country, Malawi towns have brought me back to my time in Marsabit (without the feeling of most remote isolation).  Women in brightly-colored kangas pumping water from Canadian-donated pumps and carrying large tubs and jerry cans atop their heads.  Saw some kids who had concocted a slide upon a mound of dry dirt.  Playing happens anywhere and everywhere.  

And here, I must admit, I am remiss.  I took some notes on history and politics, intending to fact-check them later for depth and detail, but here we are, and this is what the journal says:
Joyce Banda, 2nd female president in Africa; promoted to power after the president's death.  Views on gays?  Men tried to take away from her.  Tiff with Madonna.  
So if any of those leads spark an interest, feel free to research!

Which brings us now to Lake Malawi.

Lake Malawi, first views

I used to conduct mental health assessments with homeless women in San Francisco's Tenderloin District.  An experience I was recently reminded of when I attended the San Francisco General Hospital AIDS Grand Rounds this week and saw my old PI present our mental health data from that study.  As expected, mental health diagnoses in that population were through the roof.  But the diagnoses themselves seem a bit blurry.  Generalized anxiety... agoraphobia... who doesn't have a touch of those?  Another diagnosis- specific phobia.  Which means that anyone with a specific phobia is classified as having a mental heath diagnosis.  

But I'm veering a little off-point.  The point being, that while Lake Malawi was supposed to be one of the grand highlights of this overlanding trip, my background in Infectious Disease Public Health had instilled in me a very Lake Malawi-specific phobia: Schistosomiasis!  

It sounds like it's spelled (Shis tow so my a sis), and is pretty fun to say aloud (SCHISTOSOMIASIS!), but less fun to get.  In short, parasites who hang out with water snails burrow their way into your body through your skin.  They they poke a hole in your lungs.  Then you cough them up out of your respiratory tract at night, and swallow them back down into your intestines, where they wreak havoc. 

It also doesn't help that I hang around with other Infectious Disease folks.  A few weeks before I left Nairobi, I was having an Ethiopian feast with some doctor friends, one of whom heard about my upcoming Malawi trip and nearly shouted, "DO YOU WANT TO HAVE KIDS OR DO YOU WANT YOUR OVARIES AND OTHER ESSENTIAL INTERNAL BITS AND PIECES TO BE SCARRED FOR LIFE??"  At least, that's how it echos in my memory.  Doctors are scary when they're being authoritative.  

So... schistosomiasis.  Lake Malawi.

Laundry and dish washing in Lake Malawi

Washing dishes

Sandcastles, everywhere

That first afternoon, I overcame my biggest apprehension of the trip by submerging my feet in Lake Malawi.  Despite guide assurances that no trip participant has ever been infected, and that the schistos live in other stagnant areas o the lake, I couldn't help but feel little schistomites prickling their way into my feet, up the ankles, and began the fatalistic assumption that they were then making their way towards my lungs for puncture.  


But, as with most minor psychological traumas, I made it through.  And roomed with the most beautiful views of dusk and dawn.  

Room with a view

Sleep and wakefulness both came ushered by the sound of waves.  

Lake Malawi.  Alternatively called the Palindrome Lake (for its dimensions) or the Lake of Stars (for what Livingstone felt was the best celestial vantage point), there was no brilliance to the stars our first night, but the clouds broke to reveal a ladle-shaped blood-red moon on the horizon, about to dip into the lake and scoop up the fishing boat lights that I mistook for a town.  That moonperch town does not exist. 

October 4, 2013

Days 28-29 (along the road)

Two days of driving, driving, and driving through Zambia.  

This is how we do.

Apparently the overlanding company didn't think that there were any worthwhile stops between Victoria Falls and Lake Malawi, which is a shame because Zambia is turning out to be beautiful.  Beautiful out of our bus windows.  Beautiful from the road.  

Zambia obtained independent statehood in 1964, before which it was Northern Rhodesia.  Which gives them the distinction of being the only country to compete in the Olympic games under one name and to leave it under a different one.  One day, I will impress with this fact at trivia night, and the victory will be oh so sweet.  Obscure facts and geography of east and southern Africa- that's what I bring to the table.  

We've been passing tree-covered hillsides and small roadside villages with brightly-clad women selling brightly-colored produce and circles of men tinkering with bikes.  

As the trip goes on, the countries start to look more and more like Kenya.  Though Zambia is greener and has a bit less trash on the side of the roads we've driven.  

I've also started noticing some really neat Public Health signs along the road, including:
- "Spouse abuse is a crime"
- "Support and love your children"
- "Circumcision: A man who cares.  Services this way ------>"

All of which suggests that Zambia might be a place I'd like to return to.  One day, future permitting.