PictureThe results of the fire on the mountain. The baobab, as usual, is just fine.
AUGUST 3: The staff and volunteers gathered to say goodbye to me and to help load up the Mozambican film crew so that we could all leave on the speedboat.  We had some trouble getting out of the harbor because the kumwera kept pushing us back into the rocks so that the boatmen could not lower the motor.  Eventually a man who happened to be at the lodge selling tomatoes with his family jumped into the water fully clothed, pushed us out far enough to get the motor down, then swam back to shore.  He had no particular connection to any of us; he just jumped in to help because that is what people do.

I waved as long as I could see anyone, which wasn’t long because of the kumwera.  Thankfully, these were the roiling, rolling type of waves that heave you up and set you down, rather than the stunning canyons of a month ago.  We were all given hooded ponchos, and because I was in the back I had to pull mine down over my face because I was getting drenched by the spray.  I was very happy about this, actually, because it meant I could not see what was happening as we rounded Mala Point, always the most difficult part of the journey.

On the other side of Mala Point, things began to calm down as they always do simply because you have rounded the point, but then they began to calm down to the point that by the time we docked at Cobué the lake was almost calm  - though one could see the waves were still rolling a bit further out.  Fishermen had appeared almost as if by magic; a sure sign that conditions were improving.  Thus I stepped out of the boat lighthearted.  Maybe I should have been sad that I was leaving, but to be honest, after last month, all I cared about was the waves and having a smooth voyage.  This is very similar, by the way, to the reaction one gets asking someone here if they enjoy their job.  They look at you unable to comprehend the question.  If it earns enough money to feed the family, it is as enjoyable as it needs to be.  If the waves are smooth and the journey is pleasant, then the farewell came at the right time; it was time to go.

I got out of the boat and proceeded to Migração to get stamped out for the last time.  The office was locked, and I was about to call the phone number on the piece of paper taped to the door when an older man came out of the building next door.  That building is very curious: one half is the customs and maritime police office, but the other half seems to be a house where a family lives. I have always wondered about their connection to the duties at hand.  When I had come up the hill to Migração two women were there outside that family’s door, and they looked at me with faces of anxiety that I have come to recognize as the fear local people feel when they see a white person and do not speak any European languages.  “Mwauka bwanj?” I said in the local dialect  [How have you awakened, the equivalent of “Good morning”]. Their faces changed instantly into broad smiles. “Ndauka bwino, kaya inawo?” [I awakened well, but I don’t know about you?] each said almost in unison. “Ndauk, zikomo.” [I have awakened as well, thank you] I answered. And upon hearing this conversation the older man emerged.  I think he might have been hiding until he heard the Nyanja, because now we conducted the entire exit interview in that language.  He explained to me that the regular immigration officer (the one with whom I rode in the chapa last month) was sick.  I expressed my condolences and then we got down to business.  He knew how to record the forms in all the books, but he must not have known how to change the exit stamp, as he stamped my passport with yesterday’s date.  Oh, well.  With my departure now set for the day before - if any police stopped me to ask why I was still here, I went back down to the boat.  In fact there was a policeman at Julius’ beach, but he knew me from town and he had gotten extra chicken at the choral festival, so I knew I was fine.  “Okay, Mr. Mark,” Mr. Brighton from Nkwichi said. “We can go to immigration now.”  He had been so busy helping the film crew he had not noticed I had already gone and done it.

We got back in the boat and headed diagonally across the lake toward Likoma.  The water was roiling again halfway there, but it soon calmed down once more and I was glad my last boat ride on Lago Niassa / Lake Malawi (at least for now my last ride) was a good one.  The immigration office on Likoma is at the airport in the afternoon, which was convenient because I had arranged for vehicle transport to Mango Drift since my bags were so heavy.  Immigration was smooth, with the rookie officers rookies no longer.  They wished me well and hoped to see me again.  “I hope so, too.”

Just as I got out of the airport, Georgia from Mango came by in the transport, and I hopped in.  We took the winding roads to the primary school on that side of the island, and then we stopped because the road goes no further.  A worker at Mango was waiting and scooped my heavy red duffel suitcase before I could even reach for it.  He put it on his back (it has backpack straps, though I don’t think they are very comfortable), and we began our walk to Mango down the steep path with many sharp rocks, he in his bare feet with my 35 – 40 pound suitcase.

Once I was checked in, I wanted to go to Mbamba Bay one more time to see the stores and get a few things.  I took the shortcut, which is straight over the top of the mountain to the other side, then rejoining the main road near the secondary school.  Going up the path, I noticed that there had been a fire recently in the mountain.  I wondered what had happened, since there is of course no lightning here during this time of year, and it is not the time for field clearing nor is the top of a mountain the place to clear for a field in any case.  It made the path a little more difficult because the occasional inevitable slip on a loose rock made your foot slide further than usual with no grass to stop it.    

PictureLooking towards the new fire.
That night the mystery was solved.  I found out that a mentally disturbed man on the island has recently taken to setting fires in the southern part of the island.  The fire site I had walked over had only been set the night before, and teams of islanders had worked hard to beat it back before it swept down the mountain and burned the lodge and the village.  Of course we are talking about them doing this with cloth and with hoes; there are no ways to get water up there to use for firefighting.  Fortunately, not only did the dirt road serve as a firebreak; but also just as the fire reached the road, the wind shifted and pushed the blaze back into itself, effectively burning it out.

AUGUST 4:  I slept hard last night, very different from the last few nights when I have awakened at 3 in the morning for some reason or other and stayed awake.  As I was repacking for the plane flight, everyone outside began rushing around running from one end of the beach to another, calling out.  The man had set another fire, this time just on the other side of the mountain; and the men were rushing off to see what they could do to stop it.  

PictureReady to go up the hill
Originally I was to ride a boat to the fancy resort Kaya Mawa, then get off the boat to get on the safari vehicle with the guests there for transport to the plane.  This fire meant the manager Kevin and all other men were unavailable, so one of the men who was chasing the arsonist called out to a woman who works there to bring my bag to the school, where Georgia once again would pick me up to take to Kaya Mawa by vehicle.  Again before I could reach for my bag to protest that I could do it, she had scooped it up and placed it on top of her head, making her way through the sand and then up the sharp rocks in her bare feet.

Getting to Kaya Mawa, it turned out that there was one too many guests to go on the safari vehicle, so they asked if I would mind getting to the airport on a quad bike.  I wouldn’t mind at all!  We made it well before the big safari vehicle, which allowed me to call and confirm my taxi on the other end of the flight.  It was all so strange: in Mozambique there were no calls (except by tenuous skype connection), no flights, no taxis, no quad bike or safari vehicle transport, no airport.  Here, a mere twelve kilometers across the water, there were all these things, and I knew Lilongwe would feel even more jarring.

The flight itself was very different from that first solo journey.  I was flying this time with eight vacationers who had come to stay in a luxury resort.  It was interesting to me how different I found their conversations now than I think I would have three months ago.  How can so many people travel so far and pay so much money in order to not really see what is before their eyes?  Then again, who knows how much I have missed?

As the plane lifted and banked towards Mozambique and then turned away from it, the finality of this portion of the journey finally hit me.  At first I was feeling very sad and sentimental, then I suddenly found myself angry with me for reasons I can’t quite describe.  Sentiment is a luxury, I suppose, unavailable to those I just left.  Better to just keep going.

We landed at Lilongwe and transferred the mounds of luggage and souvenirs to the luggage carts.  I was met by my driver, who whisked my suitcase into the taxi and we were off.  Now I was moving to a new level of wonderment, seeing paved roads, multi-story buildings, grocery stores, gas stations, ATM machines, banks, water treatment plants, ads for internet companies and phone money transfers… all things I have not seen for three months. 

I was back in Old Town in no time it seemed (being used to taking a day to go twenty miles) this time in a hotel near the Post Office, which also serves as a crafts market – or aggressive salesperson gauntlet to run as quickly as possible, depending upon your mood.  Today it felt more like a gauntlet to me; everything was just a little overwhelming, and I tried to run my errands as quickly as possible so I could get back to the hotel and just relax.  The hotel has a bed with an actual mattress instead of a foam pad, electricity and lights, wi-fi and a private bathroom with a sink and a shower – again all things I have not seen in a quarter of a year, and things that I am appreciating as the daily miracles they are.

At lunch I chatted with the waitress in Chichewa.  The restaurant here is designed for ex-pats, and the menu reflects that fact, with burgers and lasagna and club sandwiches, foods I had actually forgotten about!  When she came to take my order, I teasingly asked here where the nsima was.  “Nsima?! Have you had nsima?” “Ah, many times; I have been in the villages.” This is a sort of code here, and together we began launching into what the menu didn’t have: nsima, mphunga, mchicha, usipa, chambo, kampango, mbuzi, etc. etc.”  It was funny and fun but bittersweet at the same time.  Those are foods I may not have again, and it was odd for me to think how much I will miss them.  I ordered a burger and fries.  It was good.

As the muezzin began the sunset call to prayer, I settled in to my room.  Tomorrow the thirty-hour flight journey begins: Lilongwe to Blantyre to Addis Ababa to Rome to Toronto to Boston, and then the drive home.  I am trying to picture how North America is going to look to me after three months and ten thousand miles away from home, but of course I have no way of knowing.  It’s as much a part of the adventure as coming here; and everything will still be just as new.


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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013