JULY 10: Lily and I checked out of Mango Drift and headed back into Mbamba Bay.  Despite the treatment of the day before and a prolonged dip in the lake, the puppy still had quite a few fleas, and they had gone into its ears to avoid all the measures taken against them.  Lily wanted to take it back to the vet for more medicine, which she got.

We had brought three posters in Chichewa (actually more in Nyanja dialect) to hang up in strategic spots on Likoma Island.  Our first stop was the library.  Likoma Island has a very nice library. As I asked for a place to hang the poster, Lily spoke to a man about the possible booking of another concert on the island for the band that was coming to play at the choral festival.  It would make the trip less expensive for them if they could cut their costs by giving two concerts.

After a man working at the library put the poster up in a prominent place on the front door, we walked to the next logical place for our notice, the cathedral.  I explained my purpose to a man who was working outside in the gardens, and he conferred with another man also at work in the garden.  Lily sat down to wait, probably recognizing what was going to happen.  The first man asked me to follow him and led me up a path about a quarter of a mile past the library complex, past part of the school, the hospital and several houses.  We climbed the stone steps to a large building, and he gestured for me to wait in a chair.  Soon a woman appeared and crouched on the floor; we exchanged niceties and the man explained my purpose.  As she appeared to be going into the house, a young man emerged.  In English, he told me that he was the new deacon and had just begun the job that day.  I congratulated him and wished him well, then explained my purpose for the third time.  After careful consideration, he recommended that I hang a poster on a tree outside the cathedral, since otherwise people would only see it on Sundays and only if they went to church.  He had specific trees to recommend that he noted were strategic to the crossroads.  We made our farewells, and the man led me back toward the cathedral.  When we found a promising tree, we would look for a nail that was already there to hang the sheet of paper.  If we could not find one, my assistant would go to another tree and dig a nail out with his bare hand, then bring it over, where we would pound it in with a rock.  Thus, after a hike, four-person committee meeting and an expedition with a guide, in forty-five minutes I had managed to hang two pieces of paper on trees.  But this is life here.

At the cathedral garden, I met back up with Lily, who was once again surrounded by children fascinated by the puppy.  She had just been getting up to go into town to run her other errands, knowing I would understand why she had left and where she was going.  Headed into the main part of town together, we ran into the choirmaster of Chicaia, who had come over to the island, he said, to buy some sugar (and likely visit relatives, since sugar is available in Cobué).  We had not yet received a letter from him, but he confirmed that his choir would be at the festival and that he was coming to the training.

We got our exit stamps the day before with that day’s date on them, so I went to the immigration stand just to make sure he thought that was okay.  “Oh, it will be no problem,” he assured me.  To tell the truth, I really wasn’t very worried about it.  The officers in Mozambique knew him, and we had his phone number.  I knew a simple phone call would straighten the whole thing out if there were any questions.

Once I had gone to the Malawian immigration stand, I had no more errands, so I went to the boat to wait.  Lily needed to buy one more dog, this one a little older by only a few months.  After I had been on board for about fifteen minutes, a child waded on and tied this new dog to a post that held up the boat’s canopy.  Shortly after, Lily boarded with a bucket of maize scraps [gaga] that she had managed to find to use as chicken feed at the farm.  This substance is practically like gold here (remember we had been unable to find any in Cobué any time someone had looked), so this find was quite an accomplishment.

Now fully boarded and settled in, we began the journey back to Mozambique on the Miss Nkwichi.  Lily passed out some delicious “scones” (which here are really just long loaves of plain bread) that she had bought in Mbamba.  We looked hopefully at the lake, deciding that there were not the whitecaps there had been the day before.  This should be a much smoother ride.

Alas, we were wrong.  The trip back was very bumpy.  Fortunately, the rocking was mostly from front to back rather than from side to side, which I think is better for motion sickness.  I know I am more comfortable with that form of rocking, and I am not prone to feeling ill.  It was not a smooth journey by any stretch of the imagination, and the new dog got seasick twice; it lost the little bit of my scone I had fed it in the harbor when we thought it was going to be an easier trip.  The wind was quite strong and it was chilly on the water.  These dogs were very thin from lack of food since birth, so we were trying to wrap them in empty rice bags and rain ponchos as they cowered on the floor.

It was a real relief to reach Cobué, and I think that was probably the first time I had ever felt that way about the town!  We had a bit of a wait for immigration.  The policeman we had met the day before was there and Lily and he were teasing one another.  In Portuguese, they had a brief back and forth about who was lazier, then their conversation turned to the lake.  “The lake was very rough today,” Lily began.  “Ah, yes,” said the policeman. “A friend called me from his boat and told me that it was very choppy.  But Mala Point…” he made a cautionary sigh and whistle.  Mala Point is the rocky point that juts out between the main part of the village and Nkwichi; we must go around it to get to the lodge.  Lily was joking still.  “Will we live?”  He returned her tone. “Ah, my friend, I do not know. We shall see.”

The younger immigration officer arrived.  As we worked on the forms, he and Lily were discussing things in Portuguese, which she told him I could understand fairly well but could not speak.  She said that I spoke Nyanja instead, at which I added “pang’ono pang’ono” [an expression that has multiple meanings: slowly, little by little, bit by bit, etc.].  He looked up at me as he was filling out his own forms and attaching the visa to my passport.  “Ah, no!” he said. “You are very good.”  Not true, but still very nice to hear.  Maybe he was remembering my rather eventful day the week before when I was trying to explain my passport in my solar backpack.  Regardless, it’s always nice to get encouragement as I keep working on my language skills.

When we got back to Julius’ beach, there were two girls who were going to Mala and needed a lift.  They waded in after we boarded, handing their bundles to me to put on the floor next to the dogs.  We first made a short journey to the other side of Cobué to pick up some nsima powder and fabric.  All the way to Mala, boatman Mr. Cristovão stayed very close to the shore where the waves were not quite as heavy and we all felt better psychologically because the shore seemed within reach.  One of the girls seemed quite uncomfortable.  I gave her a pillow and she tried to lie down and sleep the journey away.

We came to shore at the very edge of what I think of as the village of Mala, closest to Nkwichi, and the girls got out of the boat with their loads.  I looked out at the lake.  We had reached Mala Point.  The waves were crashing hard against the rocks and spraying up in huge geysers.  Lily had said that if the waves were rough we would need to dock in Mala and walk the rest of the way or sleep in the boat.  The boatmen appeared to think we could make the run for it.  As we started to back out from the beach I held my breath and then let it out in a long, controlled exhalation.  I knew I would need to remind myself to breathe.  I could see I was about to be in for something I had never experienced.

As we got closer to Mala Point, the waves, which were so mild looking at a distance, first gained whitecaps and then began to show their height.  Undoubtedly some readers may have gone out in the ocean on a slow motorized scow, but I had not; and make no mistake, this three hundred mile long and fifty mile wide lake is very like an ocean without salt.  We began pitching, sometimes front to back, sometimes side to side, and worst to my way of thinking, sometimes diagonally.  We would pitch up, then drop precipitously into canyons of water ten feet down.  Water was sometimes pouring over the front of the boat.  The dogs were cowering, too frightened even to whimper.

The early English explorers of the area had noted the lake’s strange tendency to have waves that came in threes, then an interval of relative calm and then another batch of three.  I remembered reading about this as we continually ran into this phenomenon.  We would often ride the first wave relatively comfortably, then sort of hang at the top of the second one before plunging precipitously down right in front of the third, that wave looking as if it were about to swallow us up until it got under us and lifted us again.  The poles holding up the canopy were creaking, making the boat sound as if it was going to get pulled apart or topple over from the wind taking the canopy; although I knew better, the groans and creaks were unnerving nonetheless.

Even when we had been hugging the shore, Lily had felt a little queasy and was now lying down on the bottom of the boat, cushioned by pillows and backpacks and holding the dogs, covering herself and them with rain ponchos.  At one point as we crested a huge second wave and plunged I yelled involuntarily, “Whoa!!” because it caught us by surprise and rocked us diagonally.  Lily was curious and started to get up just as the huge ten foot wall of water was coming at us.  “Don’t get up!  Don’t get up!  You don’t want to get up now!” I cried out.  She lay back down.

Cristovão was a master at slowing and speeding the motor to ride the waves as much as possible rather than plowing through them.  At times, though, the boat was not all in the water but buoyed up on the wave just at its center.  At those times the motor would rev sickeningly, sounding as if it wanted to stall; but then it would regain its place in the water and start its normal reassuring purr.  It was Cristovão’s mastery of the boat’s motor and boatman Mr. Richard’s relative calm as he went about securing ladders and oars and various items that were sliding around that convinced me to try to stay calm.  It was very odd, but once I had started watching the waves I couldn’t keep my eyes off the scene; I was unable to look away.  It was too fascinating, frightening and frankly exhilarating all at once.  I wanted to see it, remember it, and was committed to seeing how it would all end.  It was riveting.

The most difficult part was the perception of a landlubber that we were constantly moving away from the shore instead of toward it.  I do know there were times we were riding very large waves wherever they were taking us, whether by choice or by force I do not know.  Then when that set of three would be mercifully finished, the motor’s whine would rev up again and we would move perceptibly forward.

Over and over I was singing one of the songs I had learned in the villages: "Ndaniko anayenda pa nyanja? 'Mbuye Yesu anayenda pa nyanja!" [Who walked on the lake over there?  The Lord Jesus walked on that lake!]  It was always a catchy tune and one for which I understood the words right away; but I realized that up to now I had understood only the sound of the words and what they said.  Now I could say I truly understood their meaning and how important this story was to someone who had been on water like this, particularly its conclusion of the waters being calmed by faith.  Once again the local intertwining of daily life and religion became clearer to me, although I have to admit not at that exact moment - upon reflection later!

We were almost there at last; we had rounded the point and were making our approach to the lodge.  My heart sank as we went parallel to and halfway down the beach at Nkwichi.  Were we actually going to have to dock somewhere else?  In reality, Cristovão was using the action of the waves to practically push us into the harbor as he turned us to back in, the diagonal action of the waves rocking us to and fro the whole time we turned.  As we came into the docking area with unbelievable precision, the second boatman, Mr. Richard, threw his arms out and caught hold of one of the poles on the dock, then quickly took a rope and fastened us to it.

It had been quite a ride.  I looked back at Cristovão, who had an almost surprised look on his face.  Then he broke into a huge smile, and I laughed.  “Mwayendetsa bwino!” [You have driven this thing well!] I said.  Now it was his turn to laugh.  “Yes, thank you!” said Lily, who later told me that was the roughest she had seen the lake when she was in the boat.

The dogs were thrilled to get out of the boat; I could only imagine what they must have been thinking about what was going on.  Lily got them some food from the kitchen, which they devoured.  I went up to the office to get some work done with what was left in the day.

And I told myself that, if the lake is ever like that again, I will be more than happy to walk the four hours to Cobué.


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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013