The following blog entry is dedicated to Shanya Luther. The distance may be far, but we’ve been through the good, the bad, and the just plain ridiculous together along the way, sweet friend. You are missed...

Shanya chowing some cane

Well, Malawi was… well, Malawi.

I can honestly say that, with the exception of seeing my sweet luscious boy Adamu, I truly could’ve done without the trip through hell.
Next time I fly.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start (as they say).

The Beginning.

Thursday morning I got a call to do a freelance job that I’d been bidding on for a couple months. The only catch: I had to finish the whole thing in a day – only 6 hours to design an entire 9 page booklet on spousal abuse from scratch. (chanting: “think of the money, you need the money, think of the money…”)

Tonya, my saviour, spent the day doing the necessary running around for the upcoming bus trip to Malawi in these 6 hours while I had my eyes firmly plastered to the computer screen, mumbling: “… yeah, yeah, Ton, my bank card’s in my bag, just get out a couple hundred and buy some snacks for the trip… while you’re at it can you buy us lunch, I’m on page 4,… oh, and don’t forget to get more sunscreen while you’re out, and pick up my bracelet being repaired from the corner jeweller, do you think we need to bring gifts for Adam’s roommates? and…”

I get the publication off to the people commissioning it amidst Tonya’s continued gentle pleas, “Ummm, Amber… I can see the bus here from your office window… looks like they’re loading now. Do you want to go soon? Amber?? Sweetie, don’t you think we should go soon…???”

We are met by Shanya at the bus stop just outside my office shortly thereafter. We board the “chicken bus” bound for Harare.

The Chicken Bus From Hell

Chicken Bus: defn: (n) an economic mode of transport reserved for those who cannot afford a regular ‘coach liner’ like Greyhound. Commonly used as transport in rural areas for long distance trips; often contain chickens, goats, screaming children, bags of dried fish, and so on.

Ten hours travelling 540 kms to the Zimbabwean border. Diesel exhaust flowing steadily into our faces from the open windows. Three of us crammed into a tiny space into which only tiny children could fit. Seats damaged and skewed requiring regular restricted movement to keep one butt cheek or another from going numb. No food other than what we pick up along the roadside. Packages falling regularly into our faces and onto our heads from the poorly tied storage above us. Women sitting on buckets in the aisles, making leg room negligible (never mind a private hell for the women!). Pee breaks scarce as line-ups reminiscent of Stalinist Russia develop outside the rest stops. “Hills” making the bus crawl fitfully and noisily up the shallow grade. Police and any other road blocks demanding passports, bullying the passengers whose visa’s had lapsed by a day, followed by long sojourns of waiting while the bus driver paid god-knows-how-much of a bribe to the various law enforcement agents aching to bust us for overloading the vehicle piled high with refrigerators, couches, and other massive boxes and bags.

We survived to the border and made a pact between the three of us around 4am not to get back on the hellbus.

Shanya and Ton shook their fatigued and numbed booties all over the parking lot of the border in courageous efforts to find a Good Samaritan willing to donate three seats of a cushy car to our pathetic and poor unwashed selves. A couple of incredible Zimbabwean knights in shining silver SUV’s came to our rescue.

Harare.

Harare found us in a grotty guest house complete with roach-infested showers with no Zim dollars in our pockets to buy dinner for our starving bellies. Shanya and I went on a mission to sort out the currency issues and procure provisions.

It was at this point in the trip that my uncanny ability to be able to find the “dark side” of any foreign underbelly came into play. Without going into too much detail (and therefore avoiding prosecution by the local authorities) I managed to change enough cash to get us a chicken and chips meal with a little extra for some bread in the morning.

The next day we jumped on another chicken bus to Blantyre.

In Transit via Mozambique.

Small mud huts with thatch, rocky outcrops blanketed with deep green forests, women carrying water on their heads in buckets, children laughing and waving, grumbling bellies from hunger. Quintessential rural southern Africa. We hadn’t eaten or stopped to pee from Harare all the way through Mozambique due to what I presume to be the sadistic tendencies of the bus driver. We hadn’t eaten anything all day but the rations of bread and a couple bananas I procured that morning. It’s amazing how creative you can get with limited supplies, “Oooh, this time I’ll WRAP the bread around the banana and pretend it’s a proper sandwich!”

A Newfie came to our rescue somewhere around the Malawi border.

Wayne drove us to the nearest hotel restaurant, paid for our meals and our drinks – all of which were consumed within seconds of being put in front of us, and gave us free lodging in his guest/staff home for the night.

Guardian angels sometimes have funny easterner accents.

Tonya, Shanya and I have since decided to make a t-shirt for the three of us to commemorate the trip. It will say the following:

What does it take to get from Jo’burg to Lilongwe?
1. Optimism,
2. Underworld connections, and
3. A great booty.

To explain:

1. At several points in the trip Tonya would say things like, “well, if you look at the bright side…” At one point, about 7 hours into the first chicken bus ride, being stoned on the exhaust and insane fatigue, both Shanya and I looked at Tonya incredulously and, in unison, stated, “Tonya, THERE IS NO BRIGHT SIDE.” Tonya agreed reluctantly and sat back quietly for the rest of the trip. Throughout the trip she remained the much-needed optimist throughout the journey – keeping us safe and sane.
2. As mentioned, I managed to miraculously sniff out the black market of virtually anywhere we went in order to procure the basics.
3. We are all in agreement that Shanya’s fab backside managed to land ours into the luxurious SUV’s throughout the trip.

Blantyre.

zonked out Tonya

The last leg of the trip was in a luxury bus coach – that which we should’ve taken from the very beginning.

Tonya emerged from the bus depot after buying the tickets in Blantyre, wiped away a tear, and emotionally stated, “guys, guess what? It has an on-board lavatory!”

My breakdown came as I sat sleepily in the comfy seat sipping the first tea I’d had in almost 4 days, eating a really tasty samoosa and watching some movie I still can’t recall. You can’t believe how good hot and sweet milky tea tastes on the other side of hell.


Lilongwe.

Adam was the hostess with the mostess as he spent 4 days hanging with us, taking us to the lake, preparing and hosting a party/braai/bbq for us, and just being the bestest guyfriend ever. It was almost worth the pain endured to get there. Almost.

The lake was awesome, as to be expected. The time to enjoy it was far too short. Tasty home-cooked meals over small electric burners, quiet conversations in cadence to crashing waves on the shore, thatched-roof guest house, skinnydipping in the moonlight while joking about hungry hippos and crocodiles, photos taken of our every move, beautiful Malawian boys bringing in their daily catch to try to sell to us. After over 5 years I still adore Lake Malawi.

Home (aka: Jozi in a new light).

The trip back was far less traumatic than the trip there.

I only had to endure Malawian Christian music on repeat at top volume, Nigerian films that seemed to espouse (encourage?) both child and wife abuse, and a “full meal” plan of one box of chips, a sausage, and a chicken drumstick for the entire 24 hours.

I’m home. I’m happy. Tonya returned after another week hanging out with Adam in Malawi. I had to get back to work.

the best meal after a long journey!

I went for a meal with Shanya (the clever one who took a flight back to Jozi) and our friend Stephan the night I returned. French fries with gourmet Dijon mayonnaise, lush and moist dark chocolate cake, a stiff double espresso macchiato with raw brown sugar. I was in heaven once more. After spending the week alternating between not eating, waiting for a meal for over an hour, or, at the very least, taking the only option on the menu that was still available (usually a cheese sandwich or greasy chips), Johannesburg was my newfound kingdom of earthly gastronomic delights.

We ate salty buttery popcorn in front of an independently-made repertory film and laughed the entire way home in our cosy warm taxi cab. I walked into our earth-toned welcoming cottage and crawled under the feather duvet to sleep soundly for the first time in over a week.

Don’t get me wrong… I still love Malawi.
Next time I’ll fly.

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