January Travelogue (Part I of III)

Editor’s note: I generally try to avoid blow-by-blow posts about what I’ve been doing, but since I’ve been MIA for a couple weeks, and since people keep emailing about what I did and saw in South Africa, this will be exactly that. After I started writing, I realized that a single post on my travels would be far too long even to hold my mom’s attention, so expect a few installments. And finally, if you don’t care about the minutiae, look at the photos and come back for more thoughtful ruminations next week.  So, without further ado:

Amy’s Trip to South Africa, Part I

(in which Elizabeth visits Malawi)

Elizabeth arrived in Malawi on the afternoon of January 11. Nate and I met her at the airport and we chilled at my house for a while, eating some Larry’s Cookies that she brought for my birthday treat. Around 5, we headed to Chameleon, an expat-oriented bar that has jazz on Sunday nights. Nate is studying jazz piano at the University of Michigan (and currently the University of Cape Town), so he was excited to hear some Malawian jazz. Most of what was played was actually recognizably American (including an curious remix of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”), but the highlight of the evening was when Nate did a little guest spot at the keyboard. He says it wasn’t very good because he couldn’t hear himself (the speakers faced out), but it was great to see him in his element.

Mosque, Coca-Cola, just another day in Old Town Lilongwe

A mosque obscured by a Coca-Cola truck, just another day in Old Town Lilongwe

On Monday, we bummed around Lilongwe, wandered through Old Town, visited the craft market, and had some grocery store adventures. Fortunately, Elizabeth is as enamoured with food culture as I, so she didn’t mind wandering the aisles of the various grocery stores in search of interesting things. (This came in handy once we were in South Africa and I was basking in the presence of a well-stocked cheese aisle.)  It was a pretty low-key day, since Elizabeth was still adjusting to Central Africa Time! We made a Thai-Indian fusion dinner with dal and an eggplant curry that I adapted from Fat Free Vegan Kitchen.

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi

Tuesday morning, Nate ventured off to visit some friends in Blantyre and Elizabeth and I headed toward the lake. Our destination was the Mua Mission, which is a Catholic parish, museum, and wood crafts shop. A couple wrong turns and some rough roads meant we arrived shortly after noon, which, as anyone in Malawi can tell you, is lunch hour. For everyone. The mission does serve meals, but since we arrived at 12:15 instead of 12 noon, we couldn’t join lunch. Instead, we walked around the mission grounds, looked at the wood crafts for sale, and watched very muddy water spill over the hydro dam. I cringe to think how much topsoil is lost annually here; most sources peg the annual loss around 35 tons/hectare, or roughly 14 tons/acre, though estimates vary widely and certainly much higher losses are experienced on steeper slopes.  By way of comparison, the USDA NRCS’ level of “acceptable soil loss” (which is certainly not sustainable, by the way) is 5 tons/acre/year.

Goodbye, soil fertility

Goodbye, soil fertility

Eventually, everyone returned from lunch and we were able to purchase admission for a tour of the museum. Unfortunately, we were stuck touring with a large group of students from Chancellor College. The museum is interesting, but really not set up for large groups of people. Combined with the lack of ventilation on this very hot day, I spent half the tour interested by Malawian culture and half wondering when it would be over. This is reportedly “the best museum in Malawi.” Whether it is the only museum remains an unanswered question.

Mua is a Catholic mission, but most carvings were more religious than others

Mua is a Catholic mission, but some carvings were more religious than others

We rolled out of Mua about 3 pm, by which time Elizabeth was famished. We drove back in the direction of Lilongwe, but stopped at a lakeside hotel in Chipoka for a meal. In typically Malawian fashion, we were handed a menu and made our choices, only to be told those things weren’t available. We reevaluated, placed our order, and went to sit at a table along the water. Half an hour later, the waitress brought out a tablecloth. Excellent, we thought, our food is on its way. But no – the chicken that Elizabeth had ordered was now also unavailable. She reordered (again). And we waited. I told Elizabeth this had better be the best damn chicken I’ve ever eaten. We kept waiting. We were chatted up by some guys working for a tobacco company. And we waited some more. Eventually, an hour and a half after we had arrived and ordered (the first time), our food came. I’m not sure what quarter of the chicken my “quarter chicken” was, and I’m fairly familiar with chicken dismemberment. My piece had a wing, a little breast meat, and quite a bit of the back. (I suppose no one promised equal quarters; are fractions, by their nature, equal?) Maybe the cook wasn’t so good with math. It did taste good, and Elizabeth got to try the ubiquitous Malawian nsima, but we hadn’t intended for our late lunch to turn into supper! The drive back to Lilongwe in the dark/rain was not particularly pleasant. We borrowed a movie from my housemate and went to bed early.

Elizabeth tries nsima

Elizabeth tries nsima

On Wednesday, we had intended to swing by Bunda and then head for Dedza. Once at Bunda, however, it became clear that my packages had finally arrived – but had to be retrieved from the Lilongwe Post Office before 4 PM.  We did go on to Dedza, ate lunch and toured the pottery shop, but the trip was relatively short because I really wanted my packages before I left for South Africa and the next day was a holiday. (I was successful. See previous post on Christmas.) We hung around my house for a while, Nate returned, and all my housemates piled into my car for dinner at the Ethiopian restaurant. The electricity went out shortly after we ordered, but we received hot food anyway.

Thursday was a travel day; we spent the morning packing and left in the early afternoon. (Nate headed to visit his Peace Corps friend in a village an hour from Lilongwe; he left Malawi on Friday.) Elizabeth and I flew to Durban via Johannesburg and caught a taxi to our hostel. The night sky in Durban was fantastic – fluffy clouds on a pinkish background. I had forgotten how lovely light pollution can be.

Even in the dark, South Africa felt like a developed country:  our taxi was well-marked and metered, the roads had multiple lanes and reflective signs, and we passed a strip – a whole strip! – of restaurants and bars and cafes near our hostel.  We arrived, found our room, washed up, and tumbled into bed in preparation for our first South African adventure the next morning:  a visit to a traditional Zulu village.

(This and more, coming in part II!)

Zulu village sneak preview

Zulu village sneak preview


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One Response to “January Travelogue (Part I of III)”

  1. jess Says:

    mua is not the only museum in malawi, theres at least two more (blantyre and mzuzu) but i agree mua is the best

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