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Werner ~ Trust ~ Finding Malawi ~ A Transkei Buy

Through Travel and Error by Matt Hamilton


It was becoming a game.

It was a twisted game, but it was a game nonetheless. It was a contest in which the objectives were simple and the hazards were severe and, frankly, rather disgusting. The few of us who weren't suffering from motion sickness on the overcrowded fishing boat had decided to pass the time in mild competition by guessing who would be the next unfortunate passenger to heave his guts into Lake Malawi.

At least we hoped they heaved their guts into Lake Malawi .

Despite the reassuring fact that I wasn't feeling nauseous, I had already been puked on twice. The first time was courtesy of the woman sitting across from me. She was unable to lean over the side of the boat before her spew splattered across my arm. That particular incident wasn't as revolting as some of the other vomit casualties I had already witnessed on the craft, for all I had to do to remove the mess was lean over the edge and wash my hand in the lake.

Unfortunately, the second splattering was much worse.

I knew the woman sitting next to me was going to puke. I knew the heaving was inevitable by the way her eyes rolled back in her discoloured face. Her moans and head wobbles were also strong indicators that her lunch was about to be fed to the fish. I caught the attention of my fellow competitors and motioned that I had found the next victim. Positioning was key to this game. It was easy to detect the signs of nausea when the person was sitting in close proximity. Deep breathing, for example, was a dead giveaway that a person was about to launch his guts.

The downside to this excellent positioning was that it put the competitor in direct line of the digestive exodus. When the woman could no longer hold her guts, she attempted to scuttle across the tangle of legs, including my own, that were impeding her from reaching the edge of the boat.

She didn't make it.

She puked all over my legs, lap and arm before she hung her head over the side. By that point, there wasn't much left to add to the lake.

As I sat in shock, disbelief and vomit, daunting thoughts crossed my mind. In the space of only 40 minutes, I had already been on the receiving end of these bilious emissions twice. How many more times would I get hurled on throughout what was going to be a choppy and rough, five-hour excursion?

As I splashed water across my lap in an attempt to wash off the chunks of undigested breakfast, I seriously reconsidered my decision to leave Nkhata Bay .

Life in this piece of paradise had surpassed my expectations. Within moments of arriving at Lowani Village , I knew that I had made the correct decision to visit Nkhata Bay . All the hard travelling, hassles, mini buses, smells, hookers, pimps and bilharzia seemed worthwhile when I sat back on the deck of Lowani Village with a cold beer and took in the scenic view of Lake Malawi .

The place was exquisite. The guest house was a small collection of A-frame bungalows scattered along a steep hillside that led into the amazingly blue water of Lake Malawi . Although the cottages were extremely basic, consisting of a bed and a side table, they were equally as inexpensive. Furthermore, the people at Lowani Village were friendly, and the Malawian cob was hands down the best and cheapest weed that I had ever smoked anywhere at anytime. The chilled ambiance of this Malawian environment had an immediate and positive effect on me. Lowani Village was as relaxed as it was beautiful.

My mind and body had slipped into proper holiday mode. My days were simple and filled with bliss. I'd wake up in the morning, have a coffee, smoke a joint, swim in the blue, fresh waters of Lake Malawi set a mere 10 metres from my bungalow and then dry in the hot sun with another smoke. This relaxed cycle would continue throughout the day. It was interrupted only by meals and mindless chit-chat with the other travellers. Then I fell into a peaceful, stoned sleep. There was no doubt that Lowani Village was a lazy trap and the perfect environment to replenish my energies.

There was something about this particular body of freshwater that was extremely appealing. The Indian Ocean was unquestionably more powerful, but there was a unique, soothing quality about Lake Malawi that the sea couldn't provide. Perhaps it was because there weren't any sharks looming in the depths of the lake, and the chances of getting munched while basking were slim and none. Upon serious reflection, I realized that it was much more. Lake Malawi , with its deep, aqua blue waters and serene environment, created a tranquillity that was equally as influential as the ocean's power. Yet it applied its therapy in a calming manner.

Even though I needed time doing absolutely nothing to recuperate from the countless late bar nights in Chintsa, I didn't expect to travel to this part of the world and not see more of it. Despite appearances, I wasn't planning on wasting the time and potential experiences by sitting and smoking in one place the entirety of the vacation. I knew there was more to see in this struggling country than the bustling village of Nkhata Bay .

Maybe I should say I knew there was less to see.

My short time in Lilongwe had exposed me to some of the tragic consequences of extreme poverty such as high crime levels and violence. Then again, such troubles affect practically every major city on the planet, especially when a large segment of the population was unemployed and broke. This was certainly the case in the Malawian capital.

However, I hoped that in contrast to this violent urban atmosphere, there would be a rural setting in which poverty hadn't corrupted the lifestyle. Although Nkhata Bay was serene, it was better described as a small town than a rural village. After all, it was complete with restaurants, hotels and electricity. I wanted more basic and less 21st-century. In essence, I wanted to feel as though I had gone back in time.

I had discovered a drastic distinction between the hectic pace of a place like Johannesburg and the peaceful hills of the Transkei . The poverty had ensured that the rural lifestyle of the Transkei remained authentic and traditional. I desperately wanted to experience the peacefulness and simplicity of the Malawian villages that I had so loved in South Africa . Despite my ignorance of the country, I believed that such places existed within Malawi . It was just a question of getting off my ass and finding one.

There was a scattering of us who had been based in Lowani Village for an extended period of time. One of the long-stayers, a French guy named Alex, was getting itchy feet. He suggested that we travel up the lake to a tiny village he had visited in the past. He couldn't remember the name of the village, but he said he remembered exactly how to get there. The Frenchman said that the region was so incredibly beautiful and unique that the actual name was irrelevant. As far as he was concerned, all that mattered was that it was the perfect spot to disappear for a few days. A small group decided to join Alex on his return to the remote, rural community. It was an adventure that would include the five-hour water taxi ride to Ussisia followed by a 10-kilometre hike across the Malawian countryside .

Hearing Alex's charming description of the nameless village, there wasn't any question that I would join the adventure.

I was intrigued by the isolation. By the sounds of it, the village had the potential to possess the peaceful, simple atmosphere that I hoped to find. It was also a chance to get off the beaten down traveller's path. This was an always welcome endeavour that had proved eye-opening and rewarding.

Mind you, being repeatedly puked on took some of the jam out of this particular adventure, and it was putting my quest for serenity into serious debate.

As the digestive exodus continued and more passengers succumbed to their nausea, I also began to question whether we would survive the five-hour journey in this poor excuse for a boat.

Water taxis were similar to the mini taxis on the road. Both vehicles were generally unsafe for travel, overcrowded with people and goods and operated by somebody with limited knowledge of what he was doing. Our tiny fishing boat, which was powered by a sputtering, 20 horsepower motor, was packed with about two dozen people and a barrage of goods. It fought its way through the swell of Lake Malawi . One of the main disparities between a mini taxi and a water taxi was that the water taxi did have toilet facilities; people would stand up and piss off the side of the boat. Again, positioning and wind direction were key. Sometimes we got sprayed, and sometimes we didn't. When somebody stood up to relieve himself, the only thing to do was close your eyes and mouth and hope for the best.

The other glaring difference between the two modes of transportation was the terrain. Although there weren't as many impending obstacles on the water as there were on the highway, we did have one, unrelenting, unsympathetic barrier to contend with — Lake Malawi itself. Don't let the fact that we were on a freshwater lake fool you into thinking we were on a calm, glasslike body of water. Lake Malawi is huge. It stretches almost the entire length of the country and represents a fifth of Malawi 's total area. It's closer to a small sea than a lake, and much like a sea, it surges and swells. On this particular day, there was some serious swell. As our boat struggled up and over a rolling wave, all I could see above the bow would be blue sky, for the craft was angled upwards as if it was a rocket ship sitting on the launching pad. When the boat would break the crest of the wave and plummet down into the valley of water, I could still see the colour blue. This time, however, it was an aqua blue wall of lake rolling towards us, which seemed destined to engulf the tiny craft.

The boat felt as though it had as much control as a bottle lost at sea.

Incredibly, the boat didn't flip, sink or get smashed.

Astonishingly, the boat didn't get lost.

It turned out that the skipper had better control of his vessel than most of the passengers had of their stomachs, for he was able to safely land on the beach in the Ussisia village. By the time we arrived at the tiny lakeside community, half the passengers had been “lake sick” and were looking considerably worse for wear. Then again, the healthier half was also looking rough and ragged; despite having retained the contents of their guts, those with sea legs had been on the receiving end at least once.

Having another person's partially digested food projected on you tends to have a damping effect on an individual's mood and appearance.

Even so, I found solace in being more than halfway to the nameless village. Plus, the remainder of the journey was on foot. This meant we wouldn't have to subject ourselves to the mercy of Lake Malawi again.

The next morning, we were up bright and early. Following a quick breakfast of bananas, we loaded up with fresh water, a few cobs of weed and our packs. We began the 10-kilometre hike across the countryside towards our Utopian destination. We began by trudging up the steep hills, which provided us with spectacular views of the lake. These views were a great excuse to stop and catch our breath. We continued back down into the lush, green valleys where the heat and humidity was as thick as the bush. Inevitably, the trail would lead lakeside where we would drop our packs and jump into the water for a quick swim to cool our sweaty bodies. Following a quick spliff, we'd throw on our gear and be on our way. It was usually up another hillside.

So the trek continued.

The hike led us through several secluded villages, and each time, the experience made me smile in awe and astonishment. Although quite surreal, it wasn't so much the serenity, simplicity or isolation of the communities that I found captivating. Instead, it was the reaction of the villagers that blew me away.

Our arrival at a village always created the same fervour.

The kids would be the first to see us coming. From the wide-eyed expressions of some of the smaller kids, I knew this was quite possibly the first time in their young lives that they had ever seen a white face. They would turn and sprint back into the collection of huts screaming, “Mazungu! Mazungu!” (This was the local way to say, “White people! White People!”)

The kids were obviously alerting the welcoming committee of our arrival, for a reception fit for royalty was received when we walked into every community. Entire families would pour from their huts, stand at the entrance and wave as we walked past. They always had radiant, genuine smiles beaming across their faces.

To put this greeting into perspective, I tried to imagine my reaction if I was sitting at home in Canada watching a ball game on TV and my little brother came into the living room screaming, “Japanese tourists! Japanese tourists!” Then I tried to gauge my reaction if my father had said, “All right everybody, outside in a line. Let's welcome these Japanese strangers into our neighbourhood.”

First of all, that scenario would never take place. Second, if it somehow did unfold, I know that I would ignore the old man's request and keep my ass firmly planted on the couch. And third, if for some bizarre reason I did get up and go outside to wave, I can guarantee that I wouldn't be all that happy about it.

However, here in these remote Malawian villages, overwhelming hospitality and kindness was exactly how the people greeted strangers.

We'd always spend a few minutes relaxing in the villages. It was a chance to have a look at the local lifestyle and, more importantly, to allow the locals a proper look at us. We were a novelty. The kids viewed us as new toys, and the elders viewed us as a new topic of conversation. I would have loved to know what they were saying, for their smiles and laughter originated, no doubt, at our expense. I didn't mind. I only wished that I could have participated in the discussion.

Nevertheless, the main reason we stopped in the villages was to catch our breath. The walk, although picturesque, was becoming long. Ten kilometres across, up and down rugged terrain with a 15-kilogram pack was starting to take its toll on my body. We were also fairly baked from both the sun and the copious amounts of ganja we had smoked along the way, and this made the final push rather strenuous. The thatched hut villages became sights of welcome relief. We knew that it would be a chance to find a comfortable piece of shade, drop our packs, eat some bananas and rest our fatigued legs and shoulders.

Mercifully, just when I hit a point where my muscles were screaming in agony, we came around a corner, and Alex began to laugh. He didn't need to say anything to confirm that this piece of paradise was our final destination.

I knew we had arrived.

Even if we hadn't arrived, I wasn't walking another step.

There was no need.

The place was another mind-boggling world.

If I looked up “paradise” in the dictionary, there could very well be a picture of the beach that lay before my eyes.

It had been proved again. The more difficult it is to reach a destination, the more rewarding that destination becomes. Following the unpleasantness of the water taxi, the continuous vomiting and the difficult hike, arriving in this speck of heaven felt as though I'd just hit the backpacker's jackpot. The empty, white sandy beach was no more than 50 metres long and 15 metres deep, but it was ample space for six travellers. The beach was completely enclosed by the subtropical jungle with the exception of a waterfall that poured out of the bush, cut across the edge of the sand and out into the crystal blue lake. The water in this section of the lake was the most exceptional and distinctive colour I'd ever seen. The only way to properly define this shade of blue would be to call it “ Malawi blue.” Although the water in Nkhata Bay was beautiful, it was still situated next to a sizable village, and I didn't doubt that a portion of the lake was the unfortunate recipient of the village's pollution. Compared to the water here, the shade of blue in Nkhata Bay could be considered brown.

We took a quick swim, rolled a couple of celebratory joints and began to make our camp. As we were doing so, I spotted an old man paddling towards the beach in a dug out wooden canoe, which was called a mokoro. He beached his mokoro, walked up to us, smiled and said in surprisingly good English, “My name is Chief Chimombo. You are welcome to stay on my beach for as long as you want.”

A little dumbfounded by the gracious welcome, we thanked him for his hospitality and commented on how beautiful his village was. He continued to smile and went on to ask, “Is there anything that you need? Food? Firewood?”

We nodded that we did. The chief's smile broadened. “I'll send people.”

And with a kind and sincere handshake to us all, the old man returned to his mokoro and slowly paddled away.

Within an hour, firewood and food arrived.

Chief Chimombo was a smart man. Each morning, he sent women to our campsite who carried bundles of firewood on their heads to last the day and evening. These were bundles, I might add, that I had a hard time lifting, let alone balancing on my head. This was a feature of African life that always blew me away. It didn't matter if it was in a city or in the deep rural hills, African woman would often carry whatever item they had on their heads, leaving their arms free to dangle. I've seen everything from a handbag to a sack of potatoes to a case of beer to full buckets of water. And, as was the case here in Malawi , they even carried massive bundles of wood. In the afternoons, the chief sent a man with some vegetables, bananas and a couple of chickens for dinner. It should be noted that the chickens we received were still alive. I knew that chickens didn't come from the grocery store, and I knew they spent a good portion of their time unpackaged and undivided. Nonetheless, I had never slaughtered my dinner with my own hands. The first night, I used a serrated knife to get dinner going. With the chicken wedged between my feet, I held the knife in one hand and the soon to be liberated head in the other. I gave the neck two quick slices and let go. The headless chicken ran its ghastly, final sprint and eventually collapsed to the ground. This left the city dwellers in the group, myself included, in a state of bewilderment. The following night, it was someone else's turn to play Grim Reaper, and they used a dulled machete instead of the knife. It was a choice that proved painfully slow and difficult to watch. However, despite the gory preparation, nobody turned down a piece of the open fire cooked bird when it came time to eat.

I don't mind saying that dinner was finger licking good.

That being said, the third evening, we paid the man who brought the chickens to do the fatal deed. It was money I considered extremely well-spent.

One morning, Chief Chimombo arrived at the beach with two teenagers. He said to us, “These boys are here to sell you ganja.” This incredible chief, knowing that the lot of us were marijuana smokers, brought two kids over to sell us some local product. It was an attempt to put some money in their desperate and empty pockets.

Chimombo was an excellent chief. He was genuinely looking after the best interests of his village and villagers. Without being intrusive, he involved everybody in his poverty-stricken community that could earn an income from us. Other than the necessities, we were left alone. We weren't bombarded with people trying to sell us trinkets or souvenirs, as was the case in many places throughout Southern Africa . If I wanted a necklace or bracelet, I could go to the village to buy one. In the eyes of the chief, jewellery wasn't a necessity.

The weed that we bought off the local teenagers was the strongest and cheapest gear that any of us had come across in Malawi . Considering this was a safe and peaceful environment, not buying an excessive amount of top quality gear would have been borderline foolish. As a result of our cannabis gluttony, we had cobs and cobs of weed. In reality, we had an overabundance of marijuana. We were constantly smoking. We smoked throughout the morning, afternoon and evening. We had so much weed that we realized it would be physically impossible to smoke it all. In an attempt to diminish our supply, we decided to start cooking with the plant at any opportunity. When we made a pot of tea, we would always put a handful of ganja in with it.

We even went so far as stuffing our chickens with weed.

Once the decapitating, plucking and gutting was done, we'd pack the ganja between the skin and meat. The chicken would then be slowly roasted over an open fire, which allowed all the oils and fats of the skin to soak through the weed and into the meat. When the bird was cooked to perfection, we would remove the ganja and carve into the tender, juicy flesh. “Space chicken” became a staple diet. It was a delicious and mellowing dinner, and we washed it down with a warm cup of space tea. Then we would lie on the beach underneath our mosquito nets, which were our only protection from the elements, and stare up into the star-studded Malawian night. We let our minds wander as far as we would allow.

While lounging on the isolated beach, I felt a million miles (and possibly a million years) from where I had grown up. The simplicity of life in this village made it possible to believe that I could have been on a different planet. It was hard to imagine that in today's day and age, a place this basic and authentic still existed on Earth. Despite appearing centuries apart, as the ladies came down the hill carrying bundles of wood or the man arrived with our still clucking dinner, I was reminded of a universal connection we shared.

The realization of our common humanness materialized one morning as I awoke on the beach. Beneath the brilliant purples and reds of the pre-dawn sky, I stumbled to the edge of the lake to relieve myself of the excessive amount of space tea that was in my system. Standing there in silence, soaking in the beauty and serenity, I spotted a couple of fishermen on the next cove over. The two men were also standing in silence and staring at the heavenly masterpiece of an African sunrise.

They were also taking a morning squirt.

In Africa, where very little can be sanitized, hermetically sealed and camouflaged, it was clear that regardless of what part of the world we're from, despite our beliefs, religions, upbringings, cultures and futures, everyone shared the first action of the day—a good healthy piss.

It was a simple thought and possibly a crude one, but it was an observation about humankind that reassured me that in spite of the madness and violence that plagues the world, we were still one and the same.

Every night, as I lay back on the beach, digesting another deliciously simple and intoxicating dinner, I watched the local fishermen. They were marked only by a lantern, and they bobbed hypnotically in their mokoros in the darkness of Lake Malawi . Every night, I smiled.

I had found the serenity I was hoping to discover in Malawi .

By doing so, I was beginning to find the serenity that I was hoping to discover within myself.

As I would drift off to sleep on my sandy bed, I would ask if life could be any more peaceful than this.

The answer was impossible to know, but be that as it may, each night I fell asleep with a smile on my face, sensing that I was on the right track.

Not only was the Malawian cob the best and cheapest weed I had ever come across, but it also came with the best presentation and packaging. Conventional paraphernalia such as Ziploc bags, bank bags, aluminum foil, newspaper and match boxes were all common and efficient methods of keeping and handling your gear. But they were never going to win any style contests. Conversely, the Malawian cob was a thing of beauty. About 30 grams of high-grade marijuana would be compressed into the shape and size of a cob of corn. The ganja cob would then be wrapped with banana leaves and tied with a string. When I wanted to smoke, I unwrapped the leaves, broke off a small section of weed and then rewrapped and tied the cob, keeping the gear fresh and dry. It was a work of art.



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