Saturday, August 09, 2008

Malawi and Science Fair

Two blog entries within about a month of each other! Wow! Aren't you impressed by my worldly traveling? No? Oh well.

Malawi was fantastic....Megan and I had a fantastic time, and I can't wait to post the pictures when I have time (translation--end of the year). We started off with the train. We ran into two other PCVs at the ticked office who would be going as far as Cuamba with us before going further north in Moz to Lichinga, so we had some company right off the bat. We bought second class tickets, so we were pretty comfortable (3rd class=sardines, 1st class only exists certain days). The train was ridiculously slow (there were frequently people walking along side it), and the trip that should have taken 10 hours took 15. Oh well, if you had to be studk on public transport this was the way to go! We had a reasonable amount of space, could get up and walk around, buy cold drinks from the dining car, and all kinds of nice fresh things through the windows when we went through towns (i bought carrots, bread and avocado, yum!). We also made a bunch of friends, as the train was full of backpackers, particularly a German guy, Daniel, an English guy, Dave and an Australian woman, who we traveled with for several days. When we finally made it into Cuamba we staggered to a cheap pensao to crash until 3am when we would get up to find out next transport. Megan claims our pensao was a brothel based on the charm and ambience (or lack thereof) though there was no actual evidence of any such activities. There were mosquito nets and clean sheets, which is all that really mattered in the end. At 3am we met up with our new friends, and we hiked around looking for the bus stop (we were sent entirely the wrong way about four times), but finally found a car that got underway around 5 (after filling some tires, changing another, etc.). Our chapa had a really funny vibration, and I felt rather like i was in a massage chair, although my hindquarters went rather numb and itchy after a while. Gotta love public transport in mozambique, always something new. We made it to the border at Mandimba rather quickly (only about 3 hours), and were able to negotiate a reasonable price with the bicycle taxi guys (the interborder region is about 8 or 9 km) and change our Meticais into Kwatcha. The bike taxi was fun and Daniel took some pictures with his phone which he emailed to us--after the first border check he also switched places with his bicycle driver and he did the pedaling much to the amusement of all of us and all of the Mozambicans and Malawians going the other direction (lots of double takes and cackling). Malawi border crossing is lovely in that it is free and requires no Visa. Once we all made it through we found a very comfortable minivan to Mangochi which was our dividing point, from which Daniel and Dave went to Lilongwe and the rest of us went to Cape MacClear on Lake Malawi. We stayed first at a backpackers called Fat Monkeys and when that was full at another called Gaia house, both of which were very nice. The lake was truly spectacularly beautiful, and looked far more like a fresh water ocean than a lake, with turquoise water, coarse sand, picturesque islands, bougainvillea and great sunsets. We really just lounged on the beach for two and a half days doing virtually nothing, and ate some good meals. I read Amy Tan's new book, which my thoughtful mother had sent me, so life was pretty good. We eventually put our traveling clothes back on and boarded yet another truck back to Mangochi (this was the filthiest ride i've ever been on--so dusty we were almost black by the time we arrived). We killed sometime at a little museum, and spent the night there so that we could get to Liwonde national park early the next day. Malawi public transport is way more civilized than Moz--four seats means four passengers and not 5, 6, 7, etc (what a novelty!), and leaves around 6 or 7 am, so we actually got to sleep past dawn! We caught a nice easy minivan to Ulongwe from which we found yet another bicycle taxi for the 15k to the park. As usual we felt like celebrities as we were chased by flocks of screaming, waving children. We eventually made it into the park (abt 45 min to an hour bike ride, not bad), and caught the boat across the Shire river to the Mvuu Camp.

When we arrived at the camp we were informed that we were in the wrong place. They said to go to the lodge. No no no, we said, we can't afford the lodge, we booked ourselves some tents. No no no, they said, you've been upgraded. Oh really? And thus began our lesbian honeymoon, complete with matching bathrobes. Off to the lodge we went, where we were escorted off on our first safari activity, a boat ride up and down the river. We were instantly blown away by the hundreds of hippos and crocodiles, amazing birdlife, plentiful antelopes like impala, kudu, waterbuck and bushbuck, and of course, a lovely heard of elephants. The true magic of the boat trips was that you could get so close to the animals without frightening or antagonizing them. I didn't even need my zoom, and the people who had brought telephoto lenses were wishing they could zoom OUT more! After a blissful hour or two floating down the Shire (pronounced Sheeree) we went back to the lodge for a delicious lunch of thai curry, beautiful salad, fresh baked bread and flan. Heaven. By then our room was ready, and off we went to our luxury cabin in the woods with a balcony overlooking an inlet where the warthogs, crocodiles and birds came to lounge around. We had a gigantic canopy mosquito net, and two double beds with flowers strewn across them. We had a beautiful bathroom with HOT water shower and enormous tub, plus yet another shower outside on our back deck. Our front deck overlooking the water had armchairs and a hammock. We're peace corps volunteers, what? After our nice hot showers we joined the group for afternoon tea and carrot cake (it's a hard life i know) and prepared for our game drive through the park with our friendly and knowledgeable guide McLeod (gotta love the anglicized malawian names). We saw still more elephants, warthogs, impalas, etc., stopped for a sunset drink, and continued on with a spotter (and guard with emergency rifle) shining a spotlight to look for the nocturnal animals. We got some fun glimpses of hippos (they're nocturnal, so the come on land at night to eat), porcupines, brush tail hare, and a genet (cross between a cat and a mongoose). When we got back to the camp we waited in our cabin to be escorted to dinner (no walking around camp alone at night due to the wild animals who come visiting), where we had a lovely four course meal. The other guests were highly amused at having pcvs in their midst. Many of them had arrived on their private planes, and one was looking into BUYING a game park. We we re just a tad out of place.... :) Then off to bed we went for a fantastic night sleep on one of the best mattresses i have come across in an extremely long time. Bliss. In the morning we went on a game with a guide and guard, and learned all kinds of fascinating things about prints, droppings, vegetation and wildlife, before heading back for breakfast (fresh bread, omelets, sausage, fruit, etc.). Breakfast was followed by a nice long boat safari to see still more animals. We became so blase about them--oh just some more hippos...Then to lunch, a repetition of the game drive, with a trip to see a 900 year old baobab, which we could all fit inside. We then ate our last dinner and sadly contemplated our return to reality the following day. We managed to book a special morning drive into the closed off (though still enormous) reserve in which they are reintroducing species including cape buffalo, zebra, sable, eland and black rhinos, and we were lucky enough to see everything except for the rhinos. After breakfast we packed up, took our last hot showers, and the last few looks at the spectacular birdlife with many pretty little bee eaters. The lodge arranged some bicycle taxis to pick us up, and off we went back to the real world. We quite easily caught a chapa (called matolas in malawi) which was somewhat bizarrely full of swiss tourists. I think they were slightly appalled by our storage of money and cell phones in our bras. They obviously hadn't spent enough time in africa yet.

We spent a night in a fun backpackers in Blantyre where we made some nice American and Canadian friends, before catching a matola to the Moz border at Milange. Our last bicycle taxi took us home and into Zambezia province (not where we left moz from nampula). We were so relieved to be speaking Portuguese again--it had been so bizarre to speak english, and we had had to constantly keep our language-instincts in check. We were once again very lucky with transport and caught a ride with an NGO megs knows all the way to her town (alto molocue) in the same day (not possible by public transport, especially as it's down a horrible, long, dirt road). I then stayed an extra day with Megs and got to see Sarah, who hadn't been able to come with us, and had a very nice time visiting, seeing their town, and making yummy things like tacos, milkshakes and chocolate mint pudding (they asked which we should make, and i said why not all of the above, of course).

The next morning bright (or rather dark) and early found me back on another chapa to nampula, where i had yet more supreme luck to find my french ngo friend Manu heading back to Namapa in their nice car. And thus ended my spectacular vacation. It felt good to be home.

The title of this blog includes science fair, but i only have 6 minutes of my two hours left online, so that will have to wait. I'm back in the city now for our Regional Science fair which has been a blast. I'll have to put up the sci fair update when i'm back in the city the week after next on my way to our Close of Service Conference down in the South.

Much love to all of you, and keep those letters, emails, and radio requests coming (so far only my parents have requested songs for me to hint hint). Miss you all, but only 3 months left!


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