The Puppy Closet and Other Adventures in Malawi
Lilongwe, Malawi Dec.2016
What I know about Malawi: There is a large and beautiful lake there, it is known as the warm heart of East Africa because people are super friendly (hard to believe people have the capacity to be more friendly than Tanzanians), beautiful woodwork and Kanga’s. What I learned in Malawi while in Malawi, it is GREEN!!! Many of the villages are quite neat and tidy, some are less so, people are both Muslim and Christian and appear to live in total harmony along those lines, you can take a tuk tuk around Lilongwe, ATM’s are not totally reliable but people ARE super friendly and will gladly point you towards another ATM. The craft market is pretty great with some very unique and some traditional things ranging from jewelry, material, carvings, paintings, and small furniture pieces. What I learned about Malawi after having been there: It has one of the lowest GDP PPP’s in the world, which shocked me, after having been to Zimbabwe and Zambia (not even in the top 20) where you are constantly asked for money and see people staring at you with hungry eyes and self enterprising street merchants follow you trying to harass you into buying things, Malawi was a warm respite from this level of poverty. No one asked us for money, no one asked us to buy random things, everyone seemed pretty relaxed and happy, there was none of that desperation you see in countries like Ethiopia, China, The Philippines, or the homeless in Canada. Malawi was indeed one of the friendliest countries I’ve ever been to and the most happy go lucky, but apparently the 6th poorest in the world, according to Gross Domestic Product Purchasing Power Parity which takes into account cost of living, inflation rates, and comparable standard of living.
The first night at Mabuya Camp, after our daunting 14 hour bus ride from Lusaka, we sat in the bar with our candles up on the table, shoveling food into our faces, and drinking Carlsberg beers. This is the beer to drink in Malawi…possibly the only brand that I can remember. After 2 days of busing, the 3 of us were completely zoned out, watching gecko’s catching moths on the ceiling with far too much enthusiasm. Some guys tried to convince us to put our “party pants” on but we mumbled something to the effect of “bus”, and “geckos” and then we went to bed.
The next morning we tuk-tukked out to the craft market, there were beautiful and unusual kangas and other types of material. I bought a blue and black pattern which I had my Abu Dhabi tailor turn into a shirt. At the craft market they have the usual assortment of carved wooden animals; I bought a few for the kids I tutor and then picked up a few pairs of earrings; 1 for me and 1 for Andrea and Jackie. We were set to exchange small gifts on Christmas Day at the lake. This was the 2nd pair of earrings I bought on the trip made from a copper coloured wire, we kept seeing this jewelry throughout the trip…it’s a really malleable metal wire that enables the jeweler to create unique shapes. I don’t usually buy big things when I travel, I just like jewelry and fabric.
We spent the rest of the day drinking iced coffees, buying delicately painted artwork made by an armless man who had made the artworks, and then lounging by the pool. That evening a huge group checked in, they were from the Peace Corps in Botswana, and one girl’s boyfriend who had moved to South Africa to be a sailing instructor while she did her time in the Peace Corps. Nice guy but his gf….we suspected a love triangle happening between her and another Botswana Peace Corps guy…it was kind of sad but entertaining since I wasn’t very invested in their lives. At any rate we got on well and they invited us to go for a ‘walk’..walks being code for “let’s go get high.” Jackie..shockingly, went to bed before us…every other night she was always up later than us, talking really loudly as Andrea and I were trying to sleep. But this night…the one night in 6 days, Andrea and I stayed up later. We were on our way to bed..talking low and giggling quietly outside our room when we hear “Guys can you be quiet, I’m trying to sleep in here.” I am not even sure Andrea and I said anything, we just looked at each other and burst out in silent giggles then proceeded to entertain each other with a lewd silent shadow puppet show and for some reason the silent macarena dance…wtf.
Nkhata Bay, Malawi
After 2 very uncomfortable bus rides through Zambia we decided to throw money at the problem and hire a driver. Stanley came at 9 am and took us to a strip mall where we chased down an ATM that worked, a Bureau de Change; Jackie nearly lost her card in 1 machine but luckily the bank was open and they helped us out. We were told that the ATM’s around Nkhata Bay were unreliable so we decided to stock up on cash before we headed out there. So once again, stuffed with Kwacha… we set off for Mayoka Lodge in Nkhata Bay.
Once outside of Lilongwe, we started passing through these remarkably tiny, quaint, and tidy little villages that looked so natural. The house were made out of the same colour dirt as the ground so they appeared to almost grow out of the ground in such a way and order that only nature could be responsible for it. The villages were set on green, leafy hillsides, surrounded by small gardens, animals roaming, and children playing everywhere. The view from the tops of the hills was of majestic Lake Malawi.
Lake Malawi is the 3rd largest in Africa, 9th in the world, but there exists more fish species in this lake than any other in the world. Parts of the Lake are found in Tanzania, and Mozambique as well.
There were 2 or 3 cop cars announcing the arrival of the President’s convoy, Stanley pulled off to the side. Afterwards, there were about 6 or 7 black SUV’s and then the President’s SUV which was indicated with flags, with an SUV flanking both sides. Bringing up the rear were 2 more SUV’s and a military truck stuffed full of soldiers. I am not sure if that much security was necessary, paranoia, or posturing, Malawi seems so peaceful but I suppose after experiencing the amount of security precautions Obama had leaving Ottawa airport last summer, it was small in comparison.
Along the way there were several police checks that seemed kind of pointless. After 5 hours or so we arrived at Mayoka Lodge; imagine Santorini Greece but instead of white and blue houses set on a cliff, it was the red smooth brick of the Malawian dirt with thatched roofs built all along the cliff with precarious stone steps and pathways winding through the grounds that overlooked Lake Malawi. We were in complete awe and a feeling of total elation of having made it here on time, to this stunning little paradise. Mayoka Lodge is like a resort for backpackers, they have basic accommodations, dorms, small cottages, and a bar/restaurant serving happy hour cocktails and a much tamer afternoon tea. There are kayaks, canoes, traditional dug out canoes, and a floating raft and people can just laze around on the rocks and long chairs all day without a care in the world.
I remembered booking a private hut but couldn’t remember much else about it. I had booked 98% of the trip and because we knew it was high tourist season in most of the places we were going and also that in many of these places there are only one or two reputable Hostels/Backpackers, we decided to be prudent and book all our nights ahead of time. Turns out we were quite right to do that as we watched people get turned away. We were shown to a cottage with an incredible view, it was the family cottage with 2 bedrooms, 4 beds, 2 balconies, an outdoor shower, and a large bathroom; after sleeping in dorms this was heaven. I took the master bedroom as a reward for planning and booking the whole damn trip. I immediately did some sink laundry and hung everything out on the balcony and things dried so quickly in the hot sun (I would remember this fondly as I trekked through Nepal).
Happy hour, too many Sea Breezes (cocktails), waiting way too long for food and drinking too much on an empty stomach, going for “walks” with the Peace Corps from the last place; we were having a great time. Andrea came running over really excited
Andrea: Oh my God! There’s a puppy closet!!!!! (squealing with glee)
Me: a what now?
Andrea: A closet full of PUPPIEEEESSSS!!!!!!
Me: Amazing! Take me there immediately.
And off we go but the closet is locked so we carry on with the pre-Christmas festivities.
We find a bathroom we weren’t supposed to use but since there was no general toilet in the bar area and we would have to walk up, up, up, and then down, down, down some very uneven, scary, stone steps we decided to be naughty…that was the night I learned how to pee in a urinal, classy as fuck. So as I was learning new tricks in the forbidden bathroom, Andrea was outside waiting for me at the top of the stairs, when I came out she was at the bottom of the stairs curled up in the fetal position. There were two men crouched down trying to talk to her, I ran down and saw that she was all scraped up, she moved and I saw her elbow, a massive scrape/gash that looked as though a zombie had chewed on her. She wasn’t crying or making much noise at all, myself and the 2 men helped her sit up and one man who was the unofficial First Responder at the Lodge started to clean her wound very gently, with alcohol, she barely whimpered during this and it wasn’t till she kind of came out of herself and realized what was happening as we addressed her other scrapes and checked for a head injury, that she really started to understand what kind of pain she was supposed to be in…Seabreezes and “walks” had dulled her senses a little which was likely the cause but also the reason she was not in too much pain. People tried to convince us to take her to the hospital but one of the owners informed us that they wouldn’t even see her till morning sometime and I figured they wouldn’t be able to stitch her up by that point anyway. The next day the other owner who happens to be a doctor, looked at it and said they wouldn’t have been able to stitch anything because the skin had ripped off completely (4 months later, Andrea still has a huge red scar it’s her Malawi tattoo). The 2 men helped her up to our cottage and Jackie and I put her to bed with some water and 4 advils I stuffed in her mouth. Jackie and I went out to the veranda to finish our beers, we were talking very quietly so as not to disturb Andrea but she heard us whispering and Paranoid Polly came out with gusto! She was convinced…CONVINCED; that we were talking shit about her.
Andrea: I know you guys are talking about me.
Jackie: No we’re just talking quietly so you can sleep.
This similar conversation occurred a few more times before the door swung open and Andrea, looking like Ash from Evil Dead, stomped down the stairs in a huff looking for more “walks” and people who wouldn’t talk ‘shit’ about her. Jackie followed her down to make sure she was ok…I did not because I am an asshole and I was a little worn out from the whole thing,
From the moment I arrived at Mayoka Lodge and saw how precarious the stone steps were, I kept having little flashbacks to when my friend scraped up her leg on a broken concrete path in Muiido, SK. I had a feeling that someone was going to injure themselves and I was pretty sure it would be me…thanks for taking the hit Andrea!
The next day we did literally nothing but laze around in the sun by the lake, the only event of note was that I got stung by a bee, and we watched the Peace Corps use an inner tube and a kayak paddle to bring a crate of beer out to the floating island and a waterproof case for their weed and then we watched them return, sunburned and drunk. The owners let the puppies out of the closet and OMG there were 11 little babies just needing to be held by me and only ME!!!! I would have happily laid down on the floor with all of them for hours.
Mayoka Lodge is truly a special place, made even more so by the owner’s adopted children who run around taking to anyone and everyone. The littlest one decided to wander around with my phone snapping photos; I ended up with a lot of blurry photos of random people’s junk but a few very sweet selfies. Her older brother also took a few shots of himself. This 7 year old boy decided I was awesome and would come sit with me wherever I was just to hang and chat and show me all his battle scars from playing like a child without an iPad.
We walked into town on Christmas Day, there are loads of Arts and Craft stalls lining the hill on the way down to Nkhata Bay. They had some beautiful carved wooden furniture that I wish I could have bought but since I tend to move countries every few years I figured it wasn’t wise. I did however buy a carved wooden globe jewelry box. We walked around Nkhata Bay for a little bit looking for a SIM card for Jackie, and generally just walking about.
Nkhata Bay is a dusty, bustling little town but it was really hot and sweaty so we started back up the hill. Nearing the top there is a great little spot called ‘One Love’ Cafe owned by a happy laid-back Rasta who enjoys making “Space Cakes” if you’re feeling up for an adventurous day or he’ll whip you up some special Banana pancakes that taste divine with a beer as you look out over the brilliant blue waters of Lake Malawi, while he plays the bongo drum and you just generally talk about nothing important or say nothing at all. This is the way to spend an afternoon! He also happens to be the guy who made the globe box that I bought and the new living room set (hammock and table) that Jackie purchased and proceeded to carry through Malawi, and Tanzania.
Mayoka Lodge hosted a great Christmas feast and the party went on all night. We exchanged gifts after the Christmas themed karaoke competition, thankfully Jackie had swiped a roll of pink toilet paper from our Lusaka hostel, so we wrapped our gifts in that. We hired another driver to take us to Mbeya, Tanzania where we would spend a night at a 3$ hotel and fly out to Dar Es Salaam the following morning.