southern africa. part 2.
We arrive in Lilongwe just as the sun is setting over this beautiful city nestled in the hills. The city is filled with green nature, and as we slowly approach the center, it takes the form of a medieval market. Dirt roads, thousands of open air shops, throngs of mild-mannered sellers, shoppers, workers. The smog lays heavy, twisting the evening light into divine shades of pinkish strawberry.
We’ll only be staying the night, but we can already tell that this is a city that we’ll be returning time and time and time again.
P.S. In Zambia and Malawi, people are incredibly picky about their dollar bills. They only accept bills which are in mint condition. Even a tiny tear or crease can render it practically worthless. I was nearly denied my visa because I couldn’t produce any USD in perfect condition. Luckily, I found some extra bills that satisfied the Malawi Dollar Inspectors. I literally watched the border official go into a back room where her supervisor held up each of my bills to the light, deciding whether they were good enough. They also prefer new bills; anything older than 2016 may also be invalidated. It’s funny to see a wrinkled 100 dollar bill, which in the US is pretty valuable, being treated as trash here in Africa.
We’d arranged the night before for Noel, a local taxi driver, to drive us to Cape Maclear, a fishing village out on the southern tip of Lake Malawi.
We left Lilongwe around 9:30am and after a few stops to pick up a sim card, some cash (there are no ATMs in Cape Maclear), and coffee, we speed east on the highway.
Noel tells us that Malawi wasn’t always this poor (it’s currently one of the poorest countries on the planet). About 5 years ago, excessive borrowing by the previous government caused inflation to skyrocket 200%. For example, we’re paying him 100,000 Kwacha for this drive, about $100. And this is considered very cheap. But a few years ago he would have been happy to drive us for 40,000. Fuel has become so expensive that it’s practically a luxury. This led to a country-wide fuel shortage, and now drivers are forced to buy much of their supply on the black market.
Apparently, the current government is even worse, and Noel (along with a dozen or so other people we talked to) are anxiously waiting for the 2025 election, hoping they’ll be replaced.
The locals we’ve talked to have a high regard for Lusaka. Compared with Lilongwe and Malawi in general, Lusaka is relatively wealthy and advanced. But personally, Jo and I much prefer Lilongwe. In exchange for Lusaka’s walled buildings and dark urbanism, Lilongwe is filled with life, exuding a certain ephemeral beauty, and seems to offer adventure around every corner.
The people here are nicer, fewer, and full of humor. There is a softness here in Malawi that becomes increasingly difficult to find in so-called advanced economies.
A sketch of our drive:
10% winding mountain roads
10% highway filled with potholes
10% dirt road
10% highway with even more potholes
10% dirt path with large mounds and sinking ditches
Around 3:30pm, we arrive at Thumbi View Lodge.
Cape Maclear is absolutely stunning. The village paths are filled with playing children. The older folks run a number of guesthouses, craft shops, and restaurants. As we sit on the deck admiring the lake and her islands, we’re occasionally passed by a few boys in a wooden canoe, a band of musical children collecting donations for their band. Cape Maclear seems to have a number of football teams, seeing as we’re occasionally approached by teenagers trying to finance a trip to a regional competition.
It’s a strange thing to be a white man in Africa. To be taken care of by black men. To be fed by black women. To be entertained, and somewhat idolized, by black children.
I can’t escape the stench of a racist past. A racist present?
Jo has compassion for the locals; well the black ones at least. But I don’t want to have compassion for them, I want to have respect. I want to level the field, to show them that I’m no better, no more fortunate than them. In truth, I am no better, no happier, no more powerful than a single person here. And yet, isn’t that itself a privilege? A fervent wish to escape without guilt, without responsibility, without offering help?
I don’t know how to be a white man in Africa. I doubt I ever will. I suppose I’m not meant to be.
That, if nothing else, is my punishment.
Yesterday evening, as the sun sank lazily into the lake, I sat talking with Chris, a young boy, the leader of a small band. He said that their only hope of buying new instruments would be if ‘some white man’ helps them. They needed ‘some white man’ to help them make music.
That just killed me.
In the few hours we spent in Lilongwe on our way to Cape Maclear, we’d fallen so in love with the city that we decided to come back for a full day on our way up to the Mushroom Farm in Livingstonia.
I woke up around dawn to the gentle wailing of the grand mosque and stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the massive central market.
But why does it stink like fish? Turns out that the main fish market sets up each morning just outside our hotel. Like, literally. In order to leave the hotel, we have to hop between large sheets spread out on the scorching concrete street laden down with piles of dried fish.
In any case, Lilongwe doesn’t disappoint. Endless open-air markets where everything from fresh produce to timber and jewelry appear all around the city. In one market, which we only reached by paying 100 Kwacha to cross a private bridge held up by rickety wooden stilts (which collapse after each major rainfall), many stalls had been converted into small pool halls. People of all ages sit around listening to music and shooting pool while shoppers swarm past.
At one point, I was challenged to a game of checkers, which I lost at lightening speed. To the delight of the gathered crowd.
In the afternoon we arranged our plans for the upcoming days and rested before the big trip to the north of the country.
Bus to Mzuzu at 7:00 am. As we board, we’re careful not to disturb the priest who is preaching — rather loudly, I might add — in the aisle. Again, as before, no one seems to find it strange that a man is shouting for 30 minutes at 6:30 in the morning. Perhaps it’s a religious bus company, which would explain the GLORY BE TO GOD written in large block letters on the front windshield.
Just before we boarded the bus, I gifted Noel, our tireless friend and driver, the stone carved nyami nyami that David had sold to me. The nyami nyami is the Zambezi river god and the symbol of Victoria Falls. Noel was the first person to approach us when we first arrived in Lilongwe. At first, we were suspicious but it wasn’t long before Noel turned out to not only be a dear friend, but also an excellent DJ on our road trips.
Whether on our drives through Malawi’s unpaved mountain roads, daredevil traffic jams, or late night excursions, Noel always met every situation with a positivity and friendliness that endeared him to everyone he met. On our way to the bus this morning, we were stopped by some cops looking for a bribe. Even then, Noel laughed wistfully, shaking his head at the corruption that has gradually taken over his hometown.
So, as we prepared to say goodbye to Noel, I wanted him to have the small nyami nyami that I’d brought from Livingstone. I told Noel about the falls and how the nyami nyami represents both their beauty and their strength. I told him that I wanted him to remember us, just as we’ll always remember him. I told him that I hoped the nyami nyami brings him the good luck he sorely deserves.
As soon as we stepped off the bus in Mzuzu, we met Philip.
Philip insisted on driving us to lunch, all the while trying to convince us to hire him to take us straight to Livingstonia (not to be confused with Linvingstone, way back in Zambia). We had been planning to take a minibus to Chitmba, sleep overnight at a lodge there, and then hire motorbikes to take us up the mountain in the morning.
But neither Jo or I were particularly eager to spend a night in Chitimba, so after some friendly negotiating, we agreed to go straight to Mushroom Farm with Philip.
So while Jo ordered lunch, Philip and I drove around town searching for gasoline. The first three stations were empty so we just went back to the restaurant to eat, hoping to find some gas on the way. Worst comes to worst, there’s always the black market.
Luckily, after lunch, we found an open gas station and only had to wait on line for 30 minutes to fill up the car.
Philip was a jovial man who loved to talk. Jo sat in the front, and the two soon became fast friends.
The drive, as usual, was stunning, as were the people.
The final section of the road leading to Mushroom Farm was so bad that we ended up ditching the car on the side of the road and carrying our suitcases the last kilometer.
And that’s how we arrived: after dark, loaded down with luggage, picking our way along the muddy path.
Mushroom Farm is famous throughout the region as a one-of-a-kind experience. A scattering of cabins, safari tents, and A-frames along a picturesque mountain ridge overlooking Lake Malawi. Dedicated to sustainability and health, Mushroom Farm grows all of their own food, as well as being zero-waste and vegetarian.
Whether in Zambia or Malawi, whenever the name Mushroom Farm came up in conversation, I noticed this glow that appears in people’s faces, whether that be a local Malawian or a Spanish backpacker. I felt skeptical. I mean, it can’t be that good.
It is that good.
The best of nature, hospitality, design, culture, and cuisine all wrapped up in something truly special.
On our first morning, we hiked up to Chombe, a nearby plateau offering views across the lake to Tanzania and Mozambique.
In the late afternoon, Jo and I sat out on the terrace and watched the sun set slowly, majestically over the mountains. We sat there transfixed for hours, talking softly between ourselves.
Another fun and relaxing day at Mushroom Farm. Went on a hike to a nearby waterfall and swam in the surrounding natural pools. In the afternoon we got massages.
It’s 6:30 am. I’m sitting out on the balcony overlooking the mountains and sipping a coffee.
Haven’t a clue what the day will bring. But here’s the plan:
Ride motorbikes down to Chitimba
Take a minibus to the Tanzanian border
Cross the border with misdated visas which we haven’t downloaded or printed yet
Once across, somehow get to Mbeye
Find the train station and book tickets to Dar
Board the train on time
Let’s see how much of today goes according to plan…
One motorbike, two taxis, one walk across the kilometer of no-mans-land separating Tanzania and Malawi, a two hour wait at the border, another taxi, two minibuses, and one rickshaw ride later we finally arrived at the Mbeya train station… to find it closed.
Instead, we checked into a nearby hotel that we randomly found on google maps and collapsed exhausted into bed after one of the most adventurous days we’ve ever had.
Shout out to Omari, the sweetest man ever, who overheard us trying to communicate with one of the minibus drivers and then offered to show us the way, only to then accompany us across the entire city, in addition to arguing with the ticket collector who tried to charge us double because we were clueless tourists.
This morning, at 6:30, I thought that there would maybe be 6 steps to our journey. Actually, there were more like 12. Each more surprising than the last. Each introducing us to new friends, new experiences, and new struggles.
At the border, we bargained for an hour with a group of men who wanted to be our money-changers, taxi drivers, cellular service providers, and who knows what else before we gave up and just found a random minibus.
But we made it.
I told Jo that the thing I love about traveling with her is that no matter what, we always wake up in a bed each morning, and go to sleep in a bed each night. No matter how crazy the intervening hours might be, we find a place to stop, rest, and catch our breath.
Our train doesn’t leave until the afternoon, or the evening, or the following morning (the station master isn’t really sure himself) so we head into town for the morning. We bumped into a family that runs a few local cafes and restaurants in Mbeya, and they gave us loads of helpful advice and even the personal whatsapp numbers for the heads of the train station and bus service to Dar!
We had a surprisingly nice time walking around Mbeya. It had seemed very intimidating the night before, but now, in the daylight, after some rest, we felt very calm and at home.
The guard at the ATM, the grocery store owner, the cafe family all became fast and easy friends. I wish I could make friends this easily back in NY. But I suppose that would involve actually talking to people. Hell no.
Back at the station, we waited for 6 hours until the train arrived (just before midnight). We were excited to finally get into our beds and get some sleep buttttttt the train was so jerky, bumpy, jarring, screechy, and just overall hellish that I doubt I slept more than a couple hours. I had the top berth and was nearly thrown off the bed several times throughout the night.
The good news is that I didn’t get sea sick.
Since we’re different genders, Jo and I are split up into separate rooms. Luckily, I’m bunking with a friendly German guy (in addition to two locals who don’t talk to us) so I’m not entirely alone in my misery :)
Woke up in the hot steamy train cabin with three strange men. Bracing myself against the jerking train as I climb down from my bunk. Pull the heavy metal sliding door open and stumble out into the narrow hallway. It’s still early, maybe 7am, and most passengers still seem to be asleep. In any case, most of them stay secluded in their cabins throughout the journey.
I clamber stupidly down the bouncing hallway, crossing over to the cafe car. I immediately order a coffee hoping that the caffeine might jolt me back to my reality.
I only slept a few hours, if you can call that sleeping. I spent most of the night with my AirPods in, trying to drown out a bit of the screeching, engaged in angry meditations to calm my frustrations.
The weirdest thing is that we’d spoken with a number of people about this exact train ride. Why, oh why, hadn’t a single one mentioned just how uniquely terrible it is?? They had all said it’s such a beautiful trip, crossing through some of the most pristine terrain in Tanzania. And they aren’t wrong, but we’re passing through it all as if we’re strapped to the back of an angry jumping buffalo. For 30 hours.
The Spanish guy in Livingstone. The American in Malawi. The local in Mbeya. The German at the station. The list goes on. All had assured us of the comfort and calmness of the train.
Fucking liars, all of them.
At some point, Jo joins me and we just sit and laugh our heads off.
This has been our superpower throughout the trip. Laughter.
We check the map. After 8 hours we’ve moved maybe 60 miles. This is going to be a longgg ride.
Throughout the day I become better friends with Jan the German, and even chat a bit with David, a lone Dutch guy who’s absolutely brimming with positivity. (Which is particularly impressive since he nearly missed the train after being bedridden with some mysterious illness.)
Jan strikes me as a memorable figure. German not only in nationality, but in accent, looks, and personality. He injured his foot while rock climbing so he now walks with a large wooden cane he bought here in Malawi. It looks like something a shaman or chieftain would wield. Jan is easy going and makes for a calming travel partner. We sleep in the top two berths of our cabin and spend the majority of each day in the cafe car, chatting, sipping coffee, and occasionally eating a local meal.
Toward sunset we enter one of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve yet encountered. I say “enter” because the railroad literally traces a thin path through the dark green thicket of mountain jungle. We pass through countless villages, pristine wilderness, and stretch our legs at the half dozen or so platforms we stop at.
Just before dinner, I brave the shower room.
One of the local guys in my room told me about it. It’s a small metal room, maybe 3x4 feet, with a small pipe dangling down from the ceiling. And so I embarked on the strangest shower of my life.
As the train bounces — and I mean bounces — along the tracks, I carefully undress and brace myself with one hand against one wall, a foot pressed into a corner, a knee up against another wall… I turn the knob and a thin stream of cold water trickles out. Thank god.
With layers of sweat and dirt to work through, I scrub every crevice and surface of my poor body with shampoo and soap. But now I’m worried that the water is running low. So I work double time, breaking into some kind of furious rain dance, hoping to get the soap washed off as quickly as possible.
Once finally clean, I turn off the water and take stock of my situation. It’s one thing to stand upright with 4 limbs and one head to support me (at certain points, I had to use my head to prop myself against the wall). But it’s an entirely different ordeal to get my pants back on in a now very slippery metal room. By the time I manage it, I’m once again covered in sweat. Just wonderful :)
When I finally squeak my way back to the others, I smile in feigned pride, insisting it has been an incredible shower.
Pleasantly surprised to learn that we made good time last night. The mood has shifted and everyone is feeling pretty upbeat this morning. The Dutch guy got off somewhere in the middle of the night but we made friends with a Korean guy named Kisuk who will join us from Dar to Zanzibar.
Does not disappoint.
Stone Town is jammed with crumbling, handsome buildings (finally some actual buildings!) traced with narrow alleys crammed with wood workers, artists, restaurants and tailors.
It’s busy here. It’s noisy. It’s colorful. And it all smells like the ocean. The people are more diverse than anywhere else we’ve visited on this trip. It’s a mixture of African, Arab, and Indian. Like a pirate’s version of Manhattan. Dhow’s criss cross the shore. We hire a taxi, driven by a friendly man named Ali, to take us across to the southwest coast of the island to a village called Jambiani.
The tide rises dramatically here. When we arrived, the waves were lapping at the walls of our hotel, but when I awoke in the morning I found that a 30 foot wide beach was waiting for me.
It’s a huge change of pace from the train. Shit, it’s a change of pace from everything these past few weeks. For $25 per night, we’re staying at a quiet beachfront hotel with a pool, palm trees and a deep peacefulness.
Now that we’re in Zanzibar, though, a certain melancholy begins to descend over me. I made it. In a few days I’ll say goodbye to Jo. In a few days, I’ll say goodbye to Africa. To all the beauty, love, adventures, people, sites, animals, laughter, confusion, and conversations that we’ve shared. I’ll be returning to NY. To everyday life.
Jo understands though. That makes it all easier, knowing that before I say anything, she already understands.
We spent the morning strolling through Jambiani, sipping ice cold drinks at a cafe, and eating at a kind of vegan hippie restaurant.
In the afternoon we joined some of the guys from the hotel on a small traditional boat without an engine. Our captain navigates with just a sail, taking us out to a coral reef 30 minutes off the coast. It’s magical. Once again, Jo and I look at each other in disbelief. The kind of magic that makes you laugh and cry at the same time.
We jump overboard and snorkel around the reefs, schools of fish dart through the coral. The sun sparkles across the crystal waters. We take deep breaths and dive down to join the fish in their beautiful world.
When we glance back at the bobbing boat, we can make out the relaxed silhouettes of the hotel guys. We can hear their laughter echoing off the gentle waves. Everything is perfectly alright in this wonderful corner of life.
We take one last dip in the ocean before getting back to the hustle and bustle of Stone Town.
We spend the day shopping for souvenirs, eating at the many restaurants, and learning about the history of this famous island.
That night, our last night, Jo and I bought some extra large lolly pops and watched The Lion King.
There it is. My final morning in Africa.
I wake up early and sit at the window. It’s quiet here. I can hear the birds chirping. The trees wave to me in the gentle breeze. I slowly feel the weight of my African month settle across my mind and body. It’s a soft weight. A reassuring weight. I can already sense the restlessness waiting for me back in NY.
But right now, it’s still my first last morning in Africa. Everything else can wait.
I reflect back on Jo. All the wonderful craziness that we experienced together this past month. And all the beauty. And all the love.
On the flight home, I write her a poem.
The Last Time
The last time
I sat on a plane
the soothing engine humming
As we skipped through the clouds
On our way across the skies
You were beside me
The last time
I smelled the pungent scent
of reheated plastic meals
Passed out, row by row
“Chicken or pasta?”
You were beside me
The last time
I pulled my legs back a moment too late
And was run over by the trolley
Passing out cold and warm drinks
“Milk and sugar?”
You were right here
Right beside me
The last time
I sat buried in memories
Covered with dreams
Suspended in unknown
Stuck in between
I had you here
Right beside me.
But that was the last time.