Upon finishing Peace Corps service my friends and I had arranged some travel to go out with a bang. For me, this COS trip was the chance to get to see some of the amazing things I'd missed in South Africa, and also to get to see other Southern African countries. It was such an adventure, filled with equal parts amazing and scary.
Safari at Kruger National Park
The first stop was somewhere I had wanted to see since arrival in South Africa. While I got to see a lot of cool animals at Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape, I had never been on a proper safari (in the open air vehicle, with a guide, all that jazz). It was a blast! We saw tons of really cool animals (even glimpsed the top of a lion’s head). Seeing a rhino in the wild was my favorite because they are so rare, massive, and crazy looking. They look like dinosaurs - it's unbelievable! I also loved seeing the hippos for the same reason. Both are just really huge and bizarre looking animals, it’s pretty amazing to see them in the wild.
With my PC friend Sam and her two friends visiting from Seattle we left Kruger and headed to Mozambique to check out the famous beaches. Maputo was our first stop and a starting point before our final destination of Tofo. Maputo honestly didn't leave me with a very good impression. It was a pretty dirty city, with lots and lots of massive potholes on the streets and the sidewalks (which I had the pleasure of trying to avoid in our rental car).
The trip to Tofo took us through the countryside of Mozambique where seeing plastic bags of cashews hanging from branches on the side of the road was typical (and so was someone practically running in front of your car to try and sell you them!). We had a few run-ins with the local Moz police while driving. Luckily none of them fined us, and despite all the warnings and horror stories we didn't have to bribe anyone. Tofo is a TINY little beach village with some pretty amazing spots. The tacos at one restaurant/diving shop were incredible! The market was really cool, and the place we stayed was pretty awesome too. It was quite a ways down the beach so we had it to ourselves since it was "off" season. This place is so off the beaten path it's pretty amazing that they get as many tourists as they do - but it was definitely worth it! So beautiful!
Our trip in Moz was cut a day short due to a flat tire on our car rental, which we got patched by two sixteen year old boys who spoke not a word of English (but did a great patch job!). We ended our trip with a visit to my friend Sam's Peace Corps site in Kwa-Zulu Natal. She had the opportunity to visit my site when she came to help me with my Camp GLOW and I had always wanted to see hers. It was great to be able to put faces to names and see where she spent her two years!
Next on our trip list was Malawi. For this portion of the travel I was with my friend Sami (not to be confused with Sam). We had purchased our 36 hour bus tickets up to Lilongwe and met in Joburg the night before we took off. Talk about an interesting bus ride. First, we were the only white people (which we were totally used to, but I'm pretty sure they all thought we were crazy). Second, we had the least luggage out of everyone and literally a semi-truck sized trailer was being pulled by our bus to accommodate all of the "luggage" everyone was bringing back to their families in Malawi. Third, for what felt like the entire 36 hours, horrible movies/music videos played. Some points they blared the music so loud you had no choice but to watch. My favorite were the music videos like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13G7nekKkbk.
The bus ride took all day and night Saturday and we had to go through two boarders before Malawi (Zimbabwe and Mozambique). At the Mozambican boarder we had to pay a ridiculous amount that we are 100% positive they just made up (since no signs were posted saying how much it was, and I had just crossed into Mozambique the week before at a different boarder where the prices WERE posted, and they were less). They were also incompetent and racist - a great combination. They refused to help any of the white people who came after us, and we're convinced the only reason they helped us is because our bus attendant talked to them for us. They also put the wrong name on my friend’s visa - the last person who had gotten a visa before her was apparently named Michael so on her visa that's what it said! Of course upon exiting the country they didn’t even notice that the name on her visa didn’t match the name on her passport (luckily!).
Once we arrived in Malawi we only had a bit further to go before we got to our destination, Lilongwe. We ended up getting onto a mini bus taxi though and ditching our big bus for the last part of the trip because at the boarder we were stopped and the authorities were going to look through all of the cargo (remember the semi-truck sized trailer we had at the back?). It had to be emptied and it was all gone through - it was going to take literally hours. A German lady we met who was traveling back on our bus (she got on in Zimbabwe) told us she always just leaves the bus here and takes a mini bus to Lilongwe. So we joined her in the hopes of getting to Lilongwe before dark. Long story short: we arrived after dark, Sami got into a physical altercation because a man was trying to pick pocket from my backpack in the overly crowded taxi rank area, we arrived at the backpackers our friend had made a reservation at a few weeks before to find it closed (permanently), and had to find a new place to stay - in the dark, in a city we had never been to before. Luckily many Malawians speak English so it wasn't a huge problem and our taxi driver got us to a different backpackers. Crisis averted (kind of).
The next day Sami and I spent the morning visiting the Peace Corps office in Lilongwe to attempt to get me a yellow fever card (the WHO International Travel card which is generally yellow - which you need with proof that you've had the yellow fever shot to cross certain boarders - like getting back into SA). I HAD the yellow fever shot (you need it for South Africa) but I had lost my card at the Mozambican boarder the first time I crossed it. Of course. So the whole morning we're at the medical office of PC Malawi and they are trying to contact PC South Africa for my records. They were apparently busy that morning in SA because it took them hours to let them know that they had already sent all my records to DC. GAHHHHHH. The thing we got out of it though was a ride with PC to another point in Malawi that would get us closer to Nkhata Bay (our destination which was supposedly only four hours away by car, but which PCVs assured us would take us all day to get to – they were right).
They had told us that we should hitch hike to the city Mzuzu, which is the largest city close to Nkhata Bay. So the travel was: Lilongwe to Mzuzu to Nkhata Bay. Long story short: hitch hiking didn't work out, AWESOME Peace Corps Malawi staff went out of their way to help us, and without them we would have been stranded in the middle of no-where Malawi, and we ended up on a bus to Mzuzu. We arrived in Mzuzu several hours later after dark at which point we got a taxi. We had been talking to our friend Anise who was already in Nkhata Bay with her friend Jorgen waiting for us to arrive. We had originally arranged a taxi to come from there to get us, but decided there would be plenty at the taxi rank by the buses and it would be cheaper for a ride just one way (this little detail is important to the rest of the story).
We get in the taxi and pay him part of the total amount so he can fill up petrol before we go. We are a good thirty minutes into our drive (now remember it's night and this is middle of no-where Malawi so it is PITCH BLACK outside). We're driving through these winding roads in what appears to be the middle of a jungle but since we can't see anything, we have no idea. All of a sudden Freddy's headlights go off, which is bizarre because it's PITCH BLACK OUTSIDE. I notice this and say "Hey Freddy, how come the lights are out?" - silence. I ask again. Silence. One more time...the reply is a soft laugh. At this point my thoughts are: I'm going to die, this was a setup, and he’s going to kill us on this road in Malawi. Sami and I are looking at each other like...ummmmm WHAT is going on?! After a few minutes the car just slowly comes to a stop. Freddy STILL has yet to explain what's happening and I'm getting more panicked by the second but I’m trying to stay calm. He gets out and pops the hood.
After him going back and forth from trying to get the car started and going out to the engine silently he finally says "battery problem". He then tries to jump start it by rolling the car, but the hill is behind us, and he of course doesn't explain what he's about to do so we start rolling backwards into the dark - we're honestly thinking we're going to go off a cliff into oblivion. Sami and I are holding hands terrified and when the rolling start doesn't work we know we're in trouble. We called Anise to let her know what was going on (and spoke loudly and clearly so that he knew we had a friend waiting for us at our destination). Of course at this critical moment we run out of airtime so can't communicate from our side with Anise anymore. We were able to arrange to have a taxi come and meet us on the road though so we knew someone was on their way to get us. We ended up making it safely to Nkhata Bay but not without being a bit traumatized. I really was terrified. To defend the taxi driver - he felt ashamed because his car broke down, and he was embarrassed which is why he wasn't explaining anything. Also it has been my experience that Africans tend to not explain ANYTHING, especially if it's an uncomfortable or disagreeable thing (like - oh shoot - my car battery is dying!). Instead, they avoid and remain silent. Not a good thing when you're a scared tourist and all you what to know is what's going on!
The good news in all of the craziness was we made to Mayoka Village (the backpackers) and it was AMAZING. Seriously - amazing. Mayoka Village is on Lake Malawi, and is one of those rare places that is so cool, you never want to leave. Their food was AMAZING, the views were AMAZING, and the chalet we stayed in was - AMAZING! Everything about it was so cool. They were socially and environmentally conscious and the place is community owned and operated. They have free excursions you can take - like going cliff jumping into the lake (which we did - so much fun!). We were able to walk into town, see the markets and shops, and get to experience the "Warm Heart of Africa" (how Malawi is known). We really did find Malawians to be incredibly friendly and helpful. They would go out of their way to help us with things, which compared to other places is pretty unique.
We went snorkeling in the Lake which was so clear and blue - you could see all the fish and plants perfectly. We did a lot of hanging out at the restaurant within Mayoka and ate there every night because the food was so delicious we didn't want to go anywhere else. It was fun to explore town and see how the Malawians live. For anyone traveling to Malawi - Nkhata Bay is a great place to stay and you should stay at Mayoka Village. For some reason their online presence is non-existent but it is where you want to be. Anise and Jorgen stayed for two nights at Big Blue Star (or whatever it's called) which is the only place I found online) and it was BAD. What we discovered in Malawi is that you can't plan ahead, and you can't trust anything you found out online (also true for Tanzania). Playing it by ear and being flexible is necessary to travel though these places!
We were really sad to leave Mayoka - we could have stayed there for a full week and wanted to stay longer! We had to move on though so we left for Tanzania. We left Mayoka early in order to get to the hospital in Mzuzu so I could figure out my yellow fever card problem (to explain why this was such an issue...our friend had been denied entry onto transport out of Zambia to South Africa because she didn't have her card. I was going to be doing the same thing and I didn't want to get stuck in Zambia, or at any boarder!). Anyway, we had heard that no yellow fever shots were in Malawi but they would still stamp and sign the cards to say you had received one (gotta love Africa). So that's exactly what happened. I went from one person to the next at the hospital, and had to pay 1,000 Malawian Kwacha (which is nothing) for a signature that said I had the yellow fever shot there, when in fact I didn't. TIA.
It was hard to say goodbye to Malawi - it had been such a great experience but we were so excited for the next leg of our trip - Zanzibar! We headed out to the boarder by private taxi (it was quite the "splurge" but still ridiculously cheap...LOVE Malawi) and ended up getting to Tanzania right before it started to get dark (after of course one of our taxi's tires blew out on the highway and we had to stop and put on the spare...). Each time we went to a new destination on this trip it took us AT LEAST two full days to get there and generally multiple things went array on the way. Once we arrived at the Tanzanian boarder we were greeted by very eager people, ready to take advantage of us. But that's a whole different story...