Train journeys are often something taken for granted in the western world… the convenience, the direct routes, the ability to go pretty much anywhere you want. In contrast to travel in Malawi it seems they lack character, danger and even less personal space…
Travelling from Reading to Lewes was, to say the least, an interesting experience. The hustle and bustle, the fast moving trains, all co-coordinated so precisely in order to move the a great abundance of human cattle. Everyone with their own direction, motive and ambition. The transition from being such an avid participant to what I felt to be an enemy of the crowd was not an easy challenge. People do not take kindly when having to dodge a scruffy looking guy with four massive bags that he can barely carry on their way to work!
I thought patience would be the answer, I thought that waiting to get my bags off the train at the end of the journey woud deem a more admirable gesture. But it seems that this attempt would just mean that the train conductors would have to resort to throwing my bags onto the platform for me. Kind intentions, just a job and late train!
For me, this experience has proven to be very important towards my initial interpretation of Malawi.
The heckling, the complete abandonment of safety, the hundreds of eyes on the dollar sign floating above your head and the many other extreme twists on culture, safety and hygiene that I never would have expected all seem so trivial when the warmth of the Malawian people is taken into account.
The plane journey to Addis Baba involved a great deal of trust in the airline (Ethiopian Airlines: which I note are very hospitable) after seeing the sorry state of the chassis on plane entry. I could have sworn I saw duct tape, but then duct tape does hold my van together pretty well.
The journey was very long, seven hours. It seemed so much longer when presented with Jack Black’s latest attempt at acting in a bird watching movie. Both Kat and I were so tired, fazing in and out of lucid sleep the whole way. At one point woken by what I thought as the most impressive in-flight meal I have ever had, though apparently my standards for plane food are not that high.
The seatbelt light finally came on, we were landing! But I only became aware of touchdown as the impact woke me from my final sleep as I shrieked and grabbed the arm-rests. Grabbing attention from the whole plane. I guess this experience would put a whole new twist on falling dreams.
Addis Baba airport expressed an instant difference to any other airport I had been to. Not only was it quiet, but it hosted the most exquisite and eclectic shops that you would only usually expect down a side street in London somewhere. After three hours of lying down for the first time in what was probably over a day we then got on the plane to Lilongwe, only three hours… It passed quickly.
Lilongwe airport was buzzing with motions from diplomats, police, travelers and tourists. A mix of people all crammed into the smallest arrivals area I’ve seen. After writing down my travelling intentions on a piece of paper, we then had to wait for our bags to come through on a decrepit conveyor belt that seems pointless as it is only a small distance from the plane. I believe it is only there for Lilongwe airport to compare to other international airports… I think they should allow people to retrieve their bags straight from the hold, as this would only add to the charisma that Lilongwe airport possesses.
If you do ever fly to Lilongwe please be prepared to wait for a long time for your bags to come, i thought one of mine had gone forever… The one with all my personal belongings. At the time my mind was running through all the possible solutions, one being how I might fit into age nine clothes from the donations bag I had already retrieved. Having two 23kg bags for hold allowance is great benefit, especially for the Thikondwe organization. But it can be a mental burden until at least one of them gets to their final destination.
Funnily enough, they do actually check through everyone’s baggage after you have retrieved it (I can only guess this might be incase the bag has been planted with something along the way) But if you state what you are doing to the people checking, they let you through pretty quickly.
The poor taxi driver must have been waiting at least two hours since our original arrival. We left at 9.00pm from Heathrow on the Monday and arrived in Lilongwe at 12.25pm Malawian time. We didn’t meet our taxi driver until around 2.30pm. So expect this if you are ever to land in Lilongwe.
The taxi driver was very friendly, and was to be our initial guide to Malawi. After cramming all of our baggage (probably about 120kg in total) into the back seats of a banged up Toyota saloon, not facilitating the empty boot whatsoever, and after I struggled to refrain from giving into any of the tipping requests off the numerous men who kept trying to scale my bags..I mean ‘help’ with my bags; we finally set off on what was probably one of the most nail-biting journeys I’ve ever had!
After his kind introduction and unveiling of a very British music taste (lil’ Wayne, Craig David, M&M) The taxi driver took us into Lilongwe (the Capital, but not oldest city of Malawi) To a shopping precinct to get our food and our money exchanged. The money Exchanging in Malawi deserves a whole article written about it in itself, foreign money is often changed by an ‘independant foriegn exchange bureau’ you might call it; often involving sitting in a car with a gentleman who will discreetly pass you a chunk of cash – so large in size, in exchange for your very valuable British pounds. This kind of transaction is not unusual in Malawi and at first may seem very conspicuous. You just have to remind yourself that you are in Africa, and that if you want to get any kind of decent and realistic rate this is normal practice – In the current political situation here anyway.
Politics are at a penultimate stage here in Malawi as you might already know, many things are changing and a lot is happening. The exchange rate is something that will hopefully soon be truly reflected by all of the legitimate organizations. Free trading and alternative markets are crucial to the lives of the Malawian people. Without these trading methods, people would not have any way of affording to buy or sell.
“BOILED EGGS, FIFTY KWACHA!”
The style of trading in Malawi is present in all areas of consumerism, transport, and tourism… It’s not really possible to be an introvert in Malawi. People are very personal and will approach you with confidence. In some situations you may find yourself swamped by many traders trying to get you to buy their products or services (sometimes with accompanying beggars!) This may seem overwhelming at first, but is really a normality here and inevitable if your are a ‘Westerner’. Most people assume you have lots of money.
However, it is not necessarily a negative aspect of Malawi. From my observation, it appears that people here are very warm and sincere in some respects. Although not always honest, you can be assured you will always be treated fairly if you know the price. You can barter and people will negotiate; often laughing and joking as they go. This country has an un-systemized, organic and very humanistic attitude towards business, commerce and life in general. This of course can be chaotic and inconvenient. Sometimes people can be aggressive towards other traders, but generally it’s all very trivial. I have not seen many incitation’s or acts of violence whilst I have been here apart from a few domestic incidents in the village.
The famine however, is very apparent – especially in Lilongwe. What I saw after leaving the shopping precinct evoked many emotions in me. On one road I had to look away… I’m not going to describe what I saw, as most already know about the terrible living conditions some people in the world endure. But I can tell you that these places existed with a severe lack of hygiene, nutrition and general resources. The smell was terrible. However, fortunately I have not experienced anything that bad since I have left Lilongwe and have been told that is known for being that way. Lilowenge holds title as the Capital of Malawi, but not the oldest city. It was built with trading motives, and has adapted various western attributes; some of which have no doubt had a negative effect on poorer classes in the area. Blantyre (the oldest city in Malawi) Where I am at time of uploading this post appears to be much more civilized, affluent and cleaner.
So if you do visit Malawi, or want to Volunteer, please do not be put off by Lilongwe if you land there. Malawi is a VERY beautiful country with beautiful people.
ROADS – please wear you seatbelt
If you like adrenaline, then you will like being on the road in Malawi. The buses, Matola’s (pickup trucks containing as many animals and people that can be squashed into and onto), and taxi’s all drive at ridiculous speeds, barely missing pedestrians and ‘Jingers’ (People on bicycles; often carrying other people or luggage) along their way. This is very hair-raising. However after while of being here I have now realised that this is a normality, drivers and Jingers alike seem to maneuver each other like ambulances do traffic in the UK. Most of the time not showing any cause for concern or loss of control (there are occasions).
The Taxi took us a very long way. On the M3, a road that spans most of Malawi, crawling its way through one of the most luscious, green and interesting environments I have ever seen. Planes that escaped the limits of human vision, mountains that broke the clouds, rivers and lakes that shone like needles on the green infinity that sung its presence underneath the Cliché looking African sun falling slowly behind the ever so hazy, pulsating horizon.
After many stops to trade with locals and go through police barriers, the driver got us to the Village of Domasi. The road to Domasi was very bumpy and barely a track, it ripped off the taxi driver’s exhaust (which he shrugged at). It shook us up a bit, but if anything was beneficial in waking us up to be ready for the welcoming we were about to receive.
Not having any idea where I was, in the middle of the African bush the car came to a halt. Still half sleepy, the door opened, I was surrounded by 20, 30 people of all ages. Eyes and smiles gleaming in the dim light that shone from nearby residence.
“Welcome to Malawi! Welcome to Malawi! Welcome…. to Malawi” They sung.
It was possibly the warmest of welcome’s I have ever received.
We got shown to our room, kicked away the cockroaches, and set up our mosquito nets. We briefly said hello to everyone and quickly got to indulge in a video of the project organizers wedding, being shown on an old cathode television run off a car battery. Being absolutely exhausted from our journey, both Kat and I went to bed pretty early. Not really allowing much socialising. The days after and up until now have been very for filling, and a lot has happened. I have alot to copy from my journal to the blog, but my hands are tired along with everything else. So I will take advantage of the technology in this town whilst I am here and complete my updates tomorrow.