Sunday, November 24, 2013


The kids had a day off from school last Friday (Nov. 15), so we decided to take advantage of the long weekend and see Zomba.  We loaded up and headed out at around 9, heading south along the M1.  Part of the way the road runs right along the border between Malawi and Mozambique, so we stopped to snap some photos on both sides of a boundary maker, labeled MW on one side and MZ on the other.  The border runs right through cornfields and people's front yards.  We saw a few more uniformed soldiers than usual, but that's not what you'd call a tight border.  People and goats (and tourists!) wander across it without a second glance.  While we were taking the pictures, some friendly women came by with a head load of firewood and we did our best to talk with each other, but were stymied by lack of a common language.

We stopped in the town of Liwonde for lunch, randomly choosing a restaurant along the river that looked promising.  We waited an hour for the food to come - not surprising once we realized they were cooking everything over two small charcoal burners.  At least we could look at the hippos and fishermen in the river while we waited, and do a little birdwatching.  We had a good long look at a black and white Pied Kingfisher, and saw it hover over the water looking for fish.  While we were looking it up in the book Joel looked at a brightly colored bird on the same page and said, "I'd really like to see one of those!"  Not ten minutes later one of them perched on the little pier in front of the restaurant: an unbelievably blue Malachite Kingfisher with a bill that looks ludicrously large for its body. 
(Joel:  I always knew I was a miracle worker!  I've tried summoning another bird, but it hasn't shown itself yet.  Apparently magical bird-summoning only works if there is a bird of the called-upon species in the area.)
The vegetable curry and spaghetti tasted great once it finally arrived, and Emma discovered to everyone's surprise that the friendly cat lounging under our table was very fond of nsima (stiff maize porridge). 

When  we finally got to the town of Zomba around 3 in the afternoon, after a drive that had taken longer than we expected, it became clear that sightseeing would not be the first item on the agenda.  The car began acting up, losing power as Eric tried to accelerate.  So once we found Annie's Lodge where we had reservations, Eric asked someone at the front desk about a mechanic.  I'll let him tell the story of what happened next in his own blog post.

Meanwhile, the kids and I wandered over to the national botanical garden that lay just across the road from our hotel.  It didn't quite live up to what I had envisioned   - it had the look of a place that would have been quite impressive 30 years ago.  We only saw a few signs: some so weathered they were unreadable, some which no longer had plants beside them.  Still, it was a pretty spot and fun to poke around in.  The plants and trees were interesting even without signs (though I still would have preferred some information!). 

Joel's definition of an interesting tree isn't exactly the same as mine though.

Actually the botanical highlight for the kids wasn't anything that was planted on purpose.  We found some little weeds called sensitive plant, which quickly close their leaves when you touch them.  I forgot to get a picture but they are very fun to play with.

We found a stream flowing through a rocky ravine, so that was  good for some exploring.  A good-sized crab sidling along a big boulder was a highlight there, and we saw baboons and vervet monkeys.
Can you find Joel in this picture?

Once it got dark around 5:30 we headed back to the hotel, only to learn that Eric was still out with the mechanic, so we ordered a very forgettable dinner at the hotel restaurant.  Annie's Lodge is made up of buildings that used to be the Parliament Guesthouse; Zomba was the capital of Malawi until 1975 and its parliament stayed there until 1994. The place now gives the impression of having once been rather more impressive than it is now, though we couldn't complain of the cleanliness.  This picture shows the door to our room in the morning light, with the Zomba Plateau.

 Eric could and did complain about the bathroom a little.  There was no shower curtain at all so water went everywhere, and the floor (that for some reason had been installed several inches above the base of the toilet) sloped toward the corner where a semi- permanent puddle formed.  The handyman in Eric can hardly stand stand such goings-on.  I was just happy for an actual shower: we've been doing the bucket-bath thing at home for a couple of weeks now.  (Since the college students came back, we have had the water go off pretty much every day.  Even when it's there, the pressure is too low to get anything more than dribbles from the shower head.  It seems the water supply is one of many things that aren't quite prepared to deal with the drastic increase in student enrollment at Bunda.)

The next morning we finally headed up to the plateau, which is what attracts so many tourists to Zomba.  It looms impressively over the town, and once you wind your way up to the top you find yourself amid cooler temperatures, pine plantations, and young men trying to sell you the sweet orange Himalayan raspberries that grow wild up there.  The forest is managed for timber production and is mostly pine plantation.  We passed a sawmill and lots of people carrying firewood, but also saw where pine seedlings had been planted at the site of recent logging.  A 4x4 could have taken us to less managed parts of the plateau, but we didn't want to take our little Polo beyond the swanky hotel at the top.  So we parked at the hotel, picked up a photocopied map, and set off on foot, resolutely ignoring the men who crowded around us wanting to be hired as guides.  (We did not ignore the guy selling plums - Joel a.k.a. The Fruit Bat looked too wistful.)  We found a path that ran along a stream in a ravine that was apparently too steep to be logged.  It wound among tree ferns, Himalayan raspberry bushes, and big black and white butterflies.  

Himalayan raspberries, a tasty invasive plant

I took some great pictures of the lengths Joel went to in order to recover his pocketknife when it fell into the stream, but he says I'm not allowed to post them!

When we popped back out onto a road, we followed it through the pine plantations, past people trying to sell us plums, mangoes, and berries, up to a waterfall.   

It was easy to tell where the path to the falls turned off the road: it was marked by more guys trying to sell things.  Here it was quartz crystals collected on the plateau and little wooden carvings.  They didn't follow us to the falls though, for which we were grateful.  By this time we were pretty hot so it felt great to kick off our shoes and wade in.

Walking back along the road, we ran into a group of teachers from the kids' school, including Emma's own Mrs. Drower.  Apparently we weren't the only ones taking advantage of the long weekend!  We also met up with a very friendly group of women carrying firewood, whose smiling efforts to talk with us made me wish yet again that I could speak Chichewa.

When we finally made our way back to the hotel, we ordered lunch there since we'd used their parking lot.  There would have been a great view from the outdoor dining area, since the hotel is right at the edge of the plateau, but it was pretty smoky and hazy.  

 After lunch we walked through the hotel's beautiful grounds, where  Joel and Emma were quite pleased to come across a giant chess set.  A game immediately ensued, so  I napped in the shade and Eric whipped out some work he'd brought along.

There is a lot of the plateau that we never got to see, but it was time to head down.  Before leaving the hotel parking lot we stepped out the gate to take a closer look at the curio shops lining the road.  We came away with a sturdy bread basket woven from grasses, as we'd seen a woman making along the road earlier that day, and a salad tongs shaped like a hippopotamus opening and closing its jaws.  Joel has become the self-appointed salad chef of the family and decided he needed the proper equipment. 

On the way down, we drove through one of the fires whose smoke from up top.  I never got the chance to ask anyone, but am guessing the story is similar to what we learned at Dzalanyama, where people burn the understory to get a quick flush of new grass for their livestock to graze.  It works in the short term, but years of this can reduce organic matter in the soil, and if fires are too frequent can prevent regeneration of some kinds of plants and trees.  Where it wasn't too smoky the views were great.

Back in Zomba town by late afternoon, we stopped in at the market - Moses had mentioned that you can get yams there.  Yams are hard to come across in Lilongwe but Moses is very fond of them, so we tried to find some.  They were all sold out that late in the day, but Emma, Eric and I still had an interesting time working our way through the crowded little stalls of the market which sold everything from the big thick wooden spoons for stirring nsima to old car doors.  Joel said he was too tired for a crowded experience so he volunteered to stay with the car as the security guard. 

There were geckos under this gecko too.
After showers and some rest,  we walked back over to the botanical garden where we met up with another Fulbright scholar who lives in Zomba.  We spent some time hanging out with her, some of her neighbors, and their kids who had some kind of jungle-ball game going that Emma joined in.  She recommended we try an Italian restaurant, which turned out to be fantastic.  Great as the food was, served with a nice view from  on a patio overlooking the city, it turned out that the highlight of the evening was watching a very active collection of geckos hunt the insects drawn to the lights.  Who says you need to go on safari for a wildlife experience?

The next morning on the way to breakfast the kids befriended a battered but very friendly tomcat, who followed them and sat faithfully at Joel's feet to snap up the crumbs he kept tossing.  After months with no cats around, the kids were enjoying this weekend!  Every time we pass a roadside kitten salesman holding a squirming handful of cuteness out to passing cars, they ask if I'm sure we can't get a cat here and take it home with us.

Then I announced that I was under no circumstances going to start a long car trip without stretching my legs first with a stroll in the botanical garden.  Eric, true to form when faced with a car trip, just wanted to get underway but I dragged him and the kids along.  Next thing you know we were struggling to follow Eric over boulders and under branches, tracing the course of the stream up the ravine.  At one point Joel and I, dressed for a hot car trip (he in flip-flops, I in a lightweight skirt) gasped, "Whatever happened to the little stroll?"  Eric just shrugged.  "You invited a Nord along.  It turned into an expedition."

Joel caught the tiniest skink we'd ever seen.
Finally in the car and on the road, we thought the adventures were over.  Not quite.

After all that we were hungry for lunch long before we got home, so we detoured off the M1 a little to stop at Dedza Pottery Lodge.  Emma was very amused by the sign reminding people not to forget any belongings when leaving.  Shucks, there goes the plan to sneak off without the kids!

Joel saw one of his classmates there, so we met his parents and another couple they were traveling with - more teachers from BMIS.  It turned out that both men of the party sometimes work with one of Eric's long-lost Woodstock friends, who now works for a US government health program Malawi.  So Eric wrote down the phone number while we all shook our heads in amazement at what a small world it is. 

Before we left we saw yet another BMIS teacher and his family, in Dedza for the weekend to do some hiking.  It begins to feel like the expat community in Malawi might not be that big!  It does look like there would be fun hiking in the area.  Some of the rock formations, jutting up from piney slopes, look for all the world like they could be from Colorado's Front Range - until you catch a glimpse of thatched huts.

We stopped along the way when we saw someone selling pumpkins beside the road.  Pumpkins here are dark green on the outside with sweet orange flesh.  They're not that easy to find in Lilongwe either so I stopped to buy some for Moses and Chimwemwe, since there were no yams.  I was quite pleased with myself, as I managed a little bit of tentative bargaining in the process.  Not something that falls within my comfort zone!  The Maliros were delighted with the pumpkins. I was glad to have brought them something, because Moses immediately offered to go with Eric to buy a used tire the next day to replace the one destroyed during the trip.  It takes more than a little bit of tentative bargaining to shop for a big-ticket item like a tire in this part of the world!

So, all in all, a fun weekend despite some setbacks.  The kids dreaded the 4:30 a.m. alarm the next day, but consoled themselves with the thought that they only had 20 more early bus rides remaining.  It surprises me to realize how near we are the end of our time here, when I feel like we're still at the early stages of learning about so many things.

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