Two and a half days off

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Back on the truck. Maybe it’s me, but it seems particularly bouncy today. I find myself sighing, and clutching the computer to keep it from flying off my lap, and cursing quietly. Maybe I’ve lost a bit of my truck-savvy since we’ve just had two and a half glorious days off – no pre-dawn starts, no striking tents in the rain, and no endless hours bouncing down the road in the steamy truck. We were only scheduled to have one and a half days at Kande Beach (pronounced like “candy”), but we had a small mutiny and unanimously decided to skip a visit to the Luwawo Forest Lodge and have an extra day on the beach instead. Our leaders Sarah and Dave were just as happy as the rest of us to be able to land for a while. Luwawo Forest would have been a nice stop, but the road in and out can become impassable after heavy rains, and we were all exhausted after two long long driving days in the truck, so we stayed.

We’re down to just nine travelers on the truck now, plus Sarah and Dave and Charles. It’s a small group, and all good people. We've been traveling together long enough now that we know each other – not necessarily in a one-big-happy-family touchy-feely way, but in a way that means we’re aware of each other’s quirks and can work around them when necessary, and are comfortable in conversation and in silence. Also, the small numbers make it easier to come to decisions like the one to skip the rain forest, and it means there’s a lot more room to spread out on the truck. The big group had its advantages too, but I prefer this.

Terrence, demonstrating his “truck-surfing” technique.

Kande was a nice spot, on the shores of Lake Malawi. It’s very popular with overland trucks – there ended up being at least six there at times, so our stop wasn’t a very African experience, it was more like a bit of time off from Africa. Seeing the trucks from other companies (Acacia, Nomad, Toucan) made us realize that the Dragoman trucks are certainly not the most comfortable on the road. The other trucks were shiny and new, with more comfortable seats, individual gear lockers, and other amenities. Our truck is old and dirty and worn. All our gear gets piled into one big locker at the back of the truck, and we have no access to it during the day. We get where we’re going, but not in much comfort.

Our truck does have advantages, but those are entirely under the hood. It’s got a workhorse diesel engine that’s old enough that there are no computers or sensors or widgets involved. Dave and Sarah are both fully trained in maintaining it and can fix about 80% of the problems that could arise on their own. The newer, fancier trucks have a lot of sensors that can shut them down without notice. Dave told us about one truck where the windshield wiper sensor malfunctioned leaving it dead in the water. Without a computer to diagnose the problem, the drivers were left waiting for help to arrive. So I admire Dragoman for maintaining a fleet of vehicles that can be made to go under almost any circumstances. I just don’t understand why they can’t spruce up the interior so that the passengers can enjoy the same loving attention that the engine does. The prices among all the different companies are similar, so I’m surprised there's such a variation in the equipment.

The campsite at Kande was inside a walled compound with guards, as with all the other sites we’ve stopped at. We were advised to travel in groups if we decided to leave and walk up to Kande village, about a 25 minute walk. Mostly we hung around at the campsite. They had a cheap bar, some watersports options, a small café with excellent chocolate cake, and on-again off-again internet access.

I say there were watersports, but some of our group did not partake because of the risk of contracting schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia), which is present in parts of Lake Malawi. The disease is spread by flukes (minute worms) that are carried by a species of freshwater snail. It’s not a nice – in its most severe, untreated form it can cause kidney failure and bowel damage, but the symptoms take a long time to develop and a longer time to become severe, and the treatment is cheap and readily available over the counter . Uganda Rob used to live in Malawi and he said it wasn’t anything to worry about. Also we’ve got a new member of the group who joined us in Dar, and she’s a GP. (Nicola shares her name with Nikki, who was already with us, so I suggested we start calling the new Nic “Sparky”, which we now often extend to “Doctor Sparky”.) Anyways, Dr. Sparky went in the water, and so did one or two others, and I did too. I think the risk was minimal – the snails that carry the flukes that cause the problem tend to live in reedy areas of still water. Our area was clear of plants and had reasonable waves. Really, though, it was mostly just that I couldn’t imagine spending three days on a beach in the scorching African sun without going in the water. And the water was lovely – clear and fresh and just the right temperature. Flukes be damned, I was happy in that lake. And it turns out that the treatment is so cheap and easy that we had no trouble finding it during a brief stop in Lilongwe – a single dose is all that’s needed. It cost about $3.50.

There were also cheap upgrades available, and I ended up sharing a 4-bed room that had a bathroom a small kitchen area, and a fridge, for just 1550 Malawian Kwacha per person per night (about $11.00). Then again it was still Africa, which means that the power went out for hours at a time, and the internet was crawlingly slow, and we shared our room with some small bits of wildlife. Also there was one day when, despite the fact that the power was off, you could get a nice little shock from touching any plumbing fixture in the room – kitchen sink, tap, shower pipe… no power in the sockets, but plenty in the pipes. I was tempted to plug my computer in to the sink. Vancouver Rob – you would have been pleased. After one night when the power failed I was left with a completely drained battery on the computer and no way to charge it until the power came back, no internet access at the campsite, and no credit left on my cell phone. Completely cut off, I did what I had to do:

Book: “The Poisonwood Bible”, by Barbara Kingsolver. Highly recommended.

Other than lounging, which we did a lot, we also walked into the village. The first time we did this we had an escort of two locals who picked us up right outside the gates and walked with us all the way, trying to pull us into conversation. This happens a lot, and it’s always awkward. Part of me naturally wants to be friendly and sociable, but a lot of me remembers Hubert Scammy Scammerson in Nairobi, and the kids who put their hands out for money or gifts, and the other guys who “guide” you somewhere you knew how to get to in the first place in the hopes of a tip. Our escorts at Kande dogged us until they had “delivered” us to the local carving market, after which they miraculously disappeared, leaving us to walk back in peace.

Kande village was small, and didn’t seem to have a lot to offer other than lots of small children who swarmed around us wanting to hold hands and walk with us and ask us for treats and money and our bottles of water. At one point when we we gathered at the Post Office for a few people to mail postcards I counted twenty little black heads in our entourage. Heather seemed particularly magnetic to them.

We started calling her “Madonna” for her obvious bond with these small African children

We did buy a few things in the village, all of which were edible. And I think I shall declare one of the purchases Steve’s Weird Food for Malawi, because though it was actually strangely familiar, encountering them piled on a plate on a red dirt road in a village in Africa was, well, weird.


Yup, Tim Hortons has nothing on the women of Kande. There was a whole row of them selling small plain donuts – they had no holes but they were clearly deep-fried dough and just needed a swipe of jam or a dip into sugar to make them taste like home. And at 10 Kwacha each (about 7 cents), they were a steal compared to Tim’s.

Other than walking to the village, I did get a bit of exercise when Dr. Sparky and I rented a plastic canoe and paddled out to nearby Kande Island. It was only a short way but nice to be out on the water. We had snorkeling masks with us but they were crap and filled up with water so quickly that you only have about 30 seconds of looking before you’d have to surface and snort out a nose full of water. We quickly gave up on the masks and lounged in the water chatting.

A group of small local boys was there too – each arrived in his own handmade wooden canoe that looked not far removed from the tree. Though they were probably only about 10 years old they maneuvered skillfully with a single paddle using an interesting and fluid one-stroke-on-the-left, one-stroke-on-the-right technique. And despite the fact that their boats outweighed them by a significant margin, they managed to haul them up on to the rocks to secure them. They were playing and fishing, and they borrowed our crappy snorkeling masks even though the fit was even worse on their small faces. I wish I had some pictures, but I didn’t take a camera since didn’t want to risk sending to a watery death.

And that’s about all there is to tell about our days off at Kande Beach. Oh, except for this: I got up one night and managed to smash my right little toe quite smartly against the bed leg. I uttered some choice words as I stumbled into a nearby bed to steady myself and then hobbled off to the bathroom. The next morning the toe was swollen and sore and it’s now turned a lovely shade of purple. No matter though, I can still move it so it’s not broken or anything, and I’m only limping slightly. And if it ends up needing to be amputated, there’s always Dr. Sparky.


Unknown said...

Pam 'unplugged', loafing in a hammock, looks very relaxed.

Happy trails.


Unknown said...

p.s. Love the longer hair. Keep it flowing.

Viviane said...

I love the pic of you in the Hammock. Looks like a blast. I agree with Rob, the longer hair is great.

Karen said...

I agree on the book - an excellent read. And an appropriate read right now given the continent.

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