Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Up Close and Personal with Lions

Day 59: Gweru / Antelope Park, Zimbabwe
Conical Tower in the Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe © Matt Prater
The Conical Tower inside the Great Enclosure at the Great Zimbabwe complex of ruins, Zimbabwe
Sunday, we left Bird Park outside Harare at 5:45 in the morning, and five hours later we arrived at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins near Masvingo. The vast complex of stone walls is probably the most significant archaeological site in sub-Saharan Africa. The central circular structure, the Great Enclosure, is an impressive example of precolonial stone work. The dominant feature is a conical tower whose exact purpose is uncertain, and the enclosure's tall, curving walls create several narrow passageways. There is also a museum at the site that explains the history of the ruins and contains several bird carvings found among the stones – one of these birds has become the symbol of Zimbabwe and is featured on the nation's flag.

Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe © Matt Prater
The Great Enclosure at the Great Zimbabwe complex of ruins, Zimbabwe

After lunch, we made our way to Gweru in the center of the country, four hours away. Our destination was Antelope Park, a premier wildlife park dedicated to returning the threatened African lion to natural habitats throughout the continent. The park will actually be featured in a new British television series called "Lion Country", which will hopefully bring attention to the plight of lions – the number of the cats in the wild has diminished dramatically in the last few decades, a result of poaching, encroaching urban communities, and many other factors. Antelope Park, like Bird Park near Harare, has had to fight passionately to accumulate enough land to carry out its mission. As the government bureaucracy in Zimbabwe presents major obstacles, other African countries such as Zambia, Mozambique, and Ghana have expressed interest in establishing sister parks to help reintroduce lions into the wild. It is a multi-generational process: specialists at Antelope Park will help cubs develop their instinctive hunting skills, and once those lions reach maturity, they will be bred. The resulting cubs will learn how to hunt and survive from their parents rather than humans, and they will then be released into the wild. During our four-night stay, Antelope Park offered us a unique chance to witness the different stages of their mission, and to get up close and personal with the lions.

Monday was a pretty relaxing day. In the late morning, we took the truck into town for a few hours so we could eat lunch and go to the supermarket. Then we enjoyed the atmosphere of Antelope Park for the rest of the day. It is the nicest campsite we have stayed at – a picturesque, slow-moving river lazily flows past the camping area, the staff are genuinely the friendliest we have met, and the dining area offers free tea, coffee, and juice all day long.

Lion yawning, Antelope Park, near Gweru, Zimbabwe © Matt Prater
A lion yawns in Antelope Park near Gweru, Zimbabwe.
In the evening, I set out for my first activity with the lions, a night encounter. I climbed into an open top truck with several other visitors and a few lion trainers, and we sped down the dirt road outside the camp gates. We soon arrived at one of the lion enclosures, and the trainers opened the gate and released three of the lions. We continued to bump along the rough road, this time with three lions walking alongside the open sides of the truck. If they had wanted to, the lions could easily have leaped into the vehicle with us, but these lions were well behaved. The objective of the night was to assist the lions in making a kill. One of the trainers controlled a large red light, and when prey such as impala was spotted, he would shine the light on the unfortunate animal, guiding the lions without disturbing their night vision. This activity hones the lions' hunting skills so that once they breed they can teach their cubs to hunt more effectively. Among the trees, two scarlet orbs reflected in the beam of light – we had found a target for the cats. It was a giraffe – surely too large for lions who were learning to hunt. But our lions must have been hungry, and a chase began. The driver accelerated and we raced across the rugged terrain as the lions charged at full speed towards the giraffe. Giraffes can run unbelievably fast, as it turns out, and the lions tired quickly during the chase. We had to search for easier prey. Soon we passed two more giraffes, one of them a baby. One of the lions must have had her mind set on giraffe, because she initiated another chase, this time directly down the road. All of a sudden, a herd of startled zebras darted across the road directly in front of us and disrupted the chase. The baby giraffe was safe. As exciting as it would be to see the lions take down a giraffe, it is dangerous prey – a giraffe can kill a lion with one powerful kick. As the evening wore on, we illuminated numerous impalas with the red beam, but none of the chases were successful. One of the guides explained that the full moon, although it made it easier for us to see the chases, also allowed the prey to see their hunters more easily. Every time, as the lions stalked quietly through the grass, the targeted impala made a loud warning sound and bounded off into the darkness. Although the lions returned to their enclosure hungry, it was fascinating to witness firsthand their stealthy hunting technique. After returning to camp and eating a cold, left-over dinner, I fell asleep to the splashing of water birds (or crocodiles?!) only feet from my tent, accompanied by the echoing, ghostly roar of distant lions.

Posing with a lioness, Antelope Park, near Gweru, Zimbabwe
Posing with a lioness in Antelope Park near Gweru, Zimbabwe
Yesterday was packed with activities. First thing in the morning, I walked with lions. The walk was similar to the one near Harare, but this time featured much larger twenty-month-old lions who had already made some kills. The dawn lighting was also much better for photography than the previous dusk walk, and I was able to pose with the majestic cats. When posing for photos, we had to approach the lions from behind and were not allowed to pet them on the face or ears. The lions have been conditioned to view people on their walks as older, taller members of their pride, not other animals or humans. However, if you take an action that might make you seem inferior (such as crouching down), a lion may pounce. This is not malicious, but rather a playful act of asserting dominance. Lions wrestle with other members of their pride, but a twenty-month-old lion wrestling with a human could be deadly. To further protect ourselves, we carried sticks – not to beat a misbehaving lion, but to distract them by dragging the stick back and forth through the dirt. Lions, just like domestic house cats, quickly lose focus and are attracted to the nearest interesting object.

Posing with lions, Antelope Park, near Gweru, Zimbabwe
Posing with lions in Antelope Park near Gweru, Zimbabwe

Young lion drinking water, Antelope Park, near Gweru, Zimbabwe © Matt Prater
A young lion drinks water from a puddle in Antelope Park near Gweru, Zimbabwe

As soon as I returned back to camp, I set out for the horse stables for a horseback safari through the park. We all picked our horses and mounted – but mine didn't want to cooperate. The other horses automatically walked towards the trail we would be taking, but mine just walked back into the stable and stood there! No command would convince my horse to budge, so I asked for a second horse. This one seemed acceptable at first but soon made its way to the front of the line, ahead of our guide. The guide said that my horse was a natural leader – not exactly what I wanted to hear considering this was my first time ever riding a horse. As we began the trail, something startled my horse and it sort of bucked – luckily I stayed on, but it scared the crap out of me and I demanded yet another horse. After two duds, the third one was a charm. It was a calm, normal horse who stayed near the back of the line and kept eating a lot of grass. Once I became more comfortable controlling the reins, I learned how to make my horse trot by kicking it gently in the ribs. The horses walked for most of the trail, but whenever I fell too far towards the back of the line, I gave a gentle kick. We saw a few animals, mostly various antelopes, and by the time we were heading back to the stables, I felt a bit more natural. At one point, there was some standing water in a dip between two hills, and it was great fun to give my horse a kick and splash through the water up the other side of the hill. Still, a trot was plenty fast enough for me.

After eating lunch and relaxing with some free tea in the camp's shaded dining area, I walked over to an enclosure that contained a few lion cubs. A guide let us inside the enclosure, and we were able to play with the cubs for a while, rolling them over and patting their bellies. One of the cubs is apparently not fond of people, and he growled and backed off whenever someone approached him. The other two cubs were personable, but even they became grouchy after spending too much time with us. We left the cubs and then took a vehicle out to the large lion enclosures for feeding time. As we approached the fence, the stench of a decaying cow carcass became overpowering, and the buzzing of hundreds of flies grew louder. We crouched down by the carcass and waited for the gate to open – then, from the far corner of the enclosure, several massive adult lions charged at full speed towards the meat, skidding into it and sending blood and flies spraying through the air. They ripped the carcass to shreds and then each took a piece of the meat gnawed it to the bone like dogs. I had one more lion walk before dinner, but the cats were lazier than they were on the morning walk. Still, I couldn't help but think about the lion feeding and the ferocious, pent-up power within these imposing beasts.

After dinner, I encountered another of Africa's most impressive creatures: the elephant. It was an elephant-back safari, illuminated only by the glow of the full moon. There were four elephants, and two people plus a guide rode on each animal. Nix and I shared a 23-year-old elephant, and we clumsily climbed onto the leathery creature from an elevated wooden platform. I sat in the back, all too conscious of the animal's hip bones shifting back and forth like pistons underneath the thin blanket on which we sat. Halfway through the walk, our elephant suddenly ran into the trees off the side of the path, and I thrust my arms around both Nix and our guide as we nearly slid off the beast. The elephant behind then charged us, its tusk nearly missing my foot. After the animals calmed down, our guide explained that the two elephants don't like each other. So we continued the walk, this time with our arms in a death grip around our guide's waist. At the end of the walk, we dismounted onto the wooden platform and carefully descended the ladder-like "stairs" constructed of horizontal tree branches. Back on solid ground, I realized that I could hardly stand, as my legs had been so widely spread while straddling the massive creature.

I had an excellent night's sleep, as Tom and I upgraded to an A-frame lodge for the last two nights at Antelope Park. It was $20 per night, but it was the best upgrade of the trip so far. Today I did absolutely nothing except take a much-anticipated bath in the luxurious tub, lounge around the cabin, and gaze at the calm river flowing by the windows.

Lodge interior, Antelope Park, near Gweru, Zimbabwe © Matt Prater
The interior of an A-frame lodge at Antelope Park near Gweru, Zimbabwe

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Frustrations and Surprises in Zimbabwe

Day 55: Harare / Bird Park, Zimbabwe
We reached Cuchamano on the Zimbabwe border at 7:30 yesterday morning, and it took two and a half hours to cut through all the red tape and finally enter the country. We proceeded through all sorts of convoluted formalities – off the truck to receive exit stamps out of Mozambique, back on the truck, off again to show our yellow fever vaccinations, back on the truck, off yet again to receive our visas to Zimbabwe, back on the truck. At this point, I was called into the immigration office again because the official had forgotten one of the stamps in my passport. Back on the truck once more, and then we had to wait for a long time while the border police questioned our driver, who was accused of paying for his visa with counterfeit bills (which are disturbingly common here). As Zimbabwe's currency was utterly destroyed, the country now uses U.S. dollars, so some people asked me to check their bills to make sure they were not counterfeit. we got off the truck again so it could pass through the border empty, walked through the border, showed our passports yet again, and finally boarded the truck one last time. The mission statement of the immigration post, displayed next to a poster of Robert Mugabe, is to be one of the most efficient border crossings in the world. Ha!

It took almost four hours to reach Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Although Zimbabwe has been devastated in many ways in recent years, its infrastructure has remained intact, and Harare is probably the most developed city we have seen in Africa so far. We stayed at Kuimba Shiri Bird Park on Lake Chivero, about 25 kilometers west of the city center. The area is teeming with wildlife, including more species of birds than North America and Europe combined. Waterbirds gathered near the reeds along the shore of the lake. Of course, swimming in the deceptively inviting water would be foolish due to the many recent crocodile-related deaths.

City center of Harare, Zimbabwe © Matt Prater
A storm brews over the city center of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.

In the evening, we had a costume party, wearing hilarious and embarrassing garments that we bought for each other at a market in Malawi. Most of us upgraded to the shared dorms – it's nice to have an actual bed sometimes, although mosquitoes are more of an issue since there is no protection from a tent. The power and water go out often in Zimbabwe, and it was frustrating to coordinate showers – the water was completely out by the time it was my turn for one, but I managed to have one this morning.

After breakfast, a few of us wanted to go into Harare, so we walked to a "bus stop" on the nearby highway that was really just a bunch of locals standing by the side of the road. A group of Zimbabweans waved down a combi (a sort of shared van), but it was too packed for us to fit. More people climbed into the backs of pickup trucks that served as taxis, but they were piled almost on top of one another. Finally, an empty pickup truck stopped when we waved it down. A man was driving, and a woman holding a toddler sat in the passenger seat. It was not a proper taxi, but just a friendly Zimbabwean family on their way to town who decided to give us a lift. We climbed into the bed of the truck and enjoyed the breeze as we raced along the highway towards downtown. When we reached Harare, the man asked us through the back window of the cab where we wanted to go, and we told him Avondale Shopping Centre. It was a bit out of his way, but he was happy to take us there. When we reached our destination, we gave him a dollar each (the price of a combi), but he was shocked that we wanted to give him money for what he thought of as an everyday act of kindness.

We ate lunch at a pizza place inside the mall – the restaurant looked like any you might see at a mall in the United States, and the food was excellent. After lunch, we walked around the nearby market, where stalls sold everything from paperback novels and pirated DVDs to clothing and wood carvings. Jude and I needed to get back to camp for activities in the afternoon, but everyone else wanted to stay in town for a while. The two of us walked to a nearby combi stop and crammed into the vehicle for the short ride to the main part of downtown. We walked past high-rises that contained banks, offices, and hotels while we were followed the entire way by a little girl demanding money. She stayed by our side for half an hour before finally realizing we weren't going to give her anything. As easy as it would be to just yell at the girl and tell her to leave us alone, it was important to remain calm – there were literally no other white people anywhere to be seen, and racial relations can be tense in Zimbabwe. We didn't want to draw a crowd of locals who might think we were harassing the little girl.

We needed to make our way back to Bird Park, so we began hunting for a combi that was heading to Norton, the suburb where the park is located. We walked one block off the main street, and the orderly rows of glass and concrete buildings gave way to a chaotic mass of combis. We asked one combi driver after another if they were headed to Norton, and most either returned a quizzical look or gave us phony directions and demanded money for the lame advice. One driver finally said that he was going to Norton, so we crammed into the empty seats in the back of the vehicle. Luckily, we asked some of the people in the combi if it was headed to Norton, and they said that it wasn't. The driver had just given us the typical African "yes" and probably didn't even understand the question. We climbed back out of the combi and continued asking locals how to find public transportation to Norton. We kept the search up for close to an hour before finally breaking down and taking a taxi. It was ten dollars each, a cheap price for maintaining some sanity.

We arrived back at Bird Park just in time for an afternoon speedboat safari on the lake. Our guide, the owner of the park, is a white Zimbabwean who is incredibly knowledgeable about the wildlife of the area. Like many white landowners in Zimbabwe, his citizenship was revoked and he has had to fight for his land. Such passion makes for an amazing guide, and he managed to get us within ten feet of three white rhinos grazing along the lake shore. Most animals are not scared off by watercraft like they are by land vehicles, so sneaking up to them is much more feasible by boat. We also saw zebras and several species of birds, including fish eagles, before returning to the campsite.

White rhinoceros, Lake Chivero, Zimbabwe © Matt Prater
A white rhinoceros stands at the edge of Lake Chivero near Norton, Zimbabwe.

White rhinos, Lake Chivero, Zimbabwe © Matt Prater
White rhinos stand at the edge of Lake Chivero near Norton, Zimbabwe.

Next was a visit to nearby Lion Park, where we met a five-month-old and two seven-month-old cubs. We were given a brief safety lecture about how to behave around the lions, and then they were let out of their enclosure to go on a walk with us. Occasionally, one of the lions would flatten its ears and concentrate intently on someone's flip flops – their behavior is very similar to that of domestic cats. To prevent them from pouncing on our sandals with their razor-sharp claws, all that was needed was a quick distraction by a stick being drawn through the dirt. Like domestic cats, lions have a very short attention span. As dusk drew near, we said farewell to the lion cubs and returned to Bird Park to our "luxurious" dorm beds.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Off the Beaten Path into Mozambique

Day 53: Tete Corridor, Mozambique
This morning, we bid farewell to Malawi and crossed into Portuguese-speaking Mozambique. Every other overland tour company sends their trucks through Zambia due to the economic and political turmoil in Zimbabwe – Oasis is the only company that visits Zimbabwe, and to get there we have to cross the Tete Corridor in the northern arm of Mozambique that juts up to the west of Malawi. During Mozambique's civil war, this stretch of road was infamously known as the Gun Run and was plagued by hijackings and land mines. The landscape is vast and beautiful – rolling hills receding into mountainous backdrops are punctuated by traditional villages of thatched-roof huts. The villages seem more basic and rural than those in other countries we have visited. There are no brightly colored ads for telecom companies painted on every shop, but as a result the earthen colors blend picturesquely and naturally into the countryside. The residents of these villages live simple lives centered around farming, and I can't imagine that it looked much different here hundreds of years ago.

Village, Tete Corridor, Mozambique © Matt Prater
A village along the Tete Corridor, Mozambique

After a quick lunch on the side of the road, where we endured the curious gazes of a growing crowd of locals, we drove on towards Tete, the capital city of Tete Province. Tete is nestled on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, and we had to wait for an hour in traffic before we could cross the main bridge. A mob of vendors ran towards our truck while we were stopped, reaching up to sell cold soft drinks. They would accept almost any currency, which was helpful since most of us still had some Malawian kwacha left. It is technically illegal to take kwacha in or out of Malawi, and there are no money changing facilities at the border crossings. It became a gamble when taking money out of ATMs in Malawi. Too little, and you wouldn't be able to buy meals or pay for activities. Too much, and you would be stuck with useless currency after leaving Malawi. Luckily I had 200 kwacha left, just enough for a refreshing Coke.

After crossing the incredibly wide Zambezi, we drove another hour and a half to our bush camp. There were flies everywhere – at any one time, I had ten to fifteen of the annoying insects resting on my body, and many more buzzing through the air all around me. We quickly built a fire to drive them away, but they didn't seem to diminish much – I just took refuge in my tent until dinner. The flies finally dispersed after sunset, but there is not much to do at bush camps, so we all retired early to our tents.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Malawi's Modest Capital

Day 52: Lilongwe, Malawi
After a late night, I slept in Monday morning. I spent much of the day lounging around the campsite – and trying to get my 1,000 kwacha back from Black William, who seemed to have skipped town. In the afternoon, a few of us went on a walk to the village with some local guides. The school, while certainly struggling, seemed better off than the school in Chitimba, where there are five teachers for over a thousand students. The Kande school even has a minimal library consisting mostly of donated secondhand books from overseas. We also visited the medical clinic, which is also in better shape than the one in Chitimba – at least this one has an intact roof.

Village street, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Street scene in the village of Kande, Malawi

Grocery store, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Grocery store in the village of Kande, Malawi

School classroom, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Classroom at a school in Kande, Malawi
Sign on school library door, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Sign on the library door at a school in Kande, Malawi

We returned to camp in the late afternoon and lounged around in the hammocks overlooking the lake, and then we set off for a local dinner in the village. We sat outside under the stars, on mats normally used for drying cassava. The first pot that was brought out contained pumpkin soup, which was surprisingly tasty and boiling hot. The main course was simple: rice, beans, spinach, and cassava bread. The cassava bread was really more like ugali, a starchy white substance that is part of the staple diet throughout much of Africa. The rice was well cooked, but required careful chewing due to bits of gritty stone or sand that were missed when the rice was cleaned. After dinner, the children of the village sang and danced for us. As we walked back to camp afterward, the children were literally hanging onto our arms incessantly begging for water bottles, backpacks, money, anything we had on us.

Cassava drying, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Cassava drying, Kande, Malawi
Woman cooking ugali, Chitimba, Malawi © Matt Prater
A woman cooking ugali, Chitimba, Malawi

Wood carving shop, Kande Beach, Malawi © Matt Prater
A curio shop with wood carvings, Kande Beach, Malawi
Early Tuesday morning, before our departure from Kande Beach, I walked out of the gates one last time to find Black William and get my refund for the botched fishing trip. Another local named Sisko owed $20 to a couple on the Oasis truck, Brian and Viviane, so they joined me in trying to hunt down the scammers. None of the men were anywhere to be seen, but a couple of women were working in the fields. We asked one of them where we could find Black William and Sisko, and she went into the nearby hut and fetched a guy named Sam (a.k.a. Samuel L. Jackson), who would show me to Black William's house. There were two curio shops near the gate, one of which was owned by Sisko. Sisko was absent, so Brian and Viviane asked Sam if they could take some wood carvings from the shop in exchange for the money he owed them. Sam agreed that it was fair, so they started rummaging through the shop and picked out a few items. Viviane headed back to camp with the carvings from Sisko's shop, and Brian accompanied me to Black William's house. A woman out front looked in the hut and said he was gone (surprise, surprise), so I asked if I could take something from the other curio shop in exchange for the money Black William owed me. Earlier in the day, I had been told that the second shop was owned by Black William, but Sam said it was actually owned by another guy named Neville. Receiving false answers seems to happen a lot in Africa – if you ask someone a question, they almost always answer "yes" even if they don't know the answer or don't understand the question. Even though the shop turned out not to be owned by Black William, Sam said that all the guys outside the gate help each other out and that I could take something from Neville's shop – Black William would repay Neville later. As soon as I started looking at the wood carvings in the shop, Neville appeared and said that I could not take anything because Black William was untrustworthy and would not repay him. At this point, it was obvious that I had lost out, so I left the shop and boarded the truck. At least I'm only out $6.

It was about a six hour drive to Lilongwe, the modest capital of Malawi. The city is quite attractive with its relatively clean streets and modern buildings. Before dinner, we paid a visit to the house of the British high commissioner (ambassador), whose son is an acquaintance of someone in our group. Each of us signed the official guest book and then walked through the mansion to the back veranda, where tea, scones, and cake were spread out attractively on a table. The back yard was lush green, and a croquet course was set up. I walked down to the tennis court and played for a while before going for a swim in the pool. The showers in the changing rooms by the pool were an absolute luxury – it was the first truly hot, high-pressure shower I've had for weeks. Finally, I played a bit of ping pong before heading back to the house. The American ambassador had dropped by for dinner, so we got to visit with him briefly before leaving the ambassadors to their dinner. It was fascinating to hear first-hand accounts of the issues affecting Malawi and Africa in general, and it was so refreshing to have an evening of such civility – a welcome break from weeks of camping and cold showers.

This morning, I set out with a few others for town. We ate lunch at Nando's, a South African fast food chain that specializes in chicken. The food was great, but the service was even worse than in American fast food joints, if that's possible. Once we had ordered and sat at a table, I had to repeat my order about three times and go up to the counter once or twice to ask where my meal was. I eventually got all the parts of my meal, but it was quite a hilarious ordeal to get them all. After lunch, I browsed the curio stalls by the Lilongwe post office, firmly ignoring any vendor who hassled me too much. I would say, "I'd like to look at your carvings, but if you keep bugging me, I'll buy from someone else." That seemed to work pretty well. I bargained hard for one piece, but the vendor let me walk away – even though I felt it was a fair price, he could probably get a much higher price from another tourist. You can't win them all.

This evening, we had a farewell bash for Deepa and Neerav, who are leaving the trip at this point. The 73-day trip that I am doing is split into several segments, so we occasionally lose and gain passengers when a new segment starts. Deepa and Neerav have been with us since the beginning, and we're all sad to see them go. Good luck guys!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pig Day

Day 50: Kande Beach, Malawi
Saturday we headed south from Chitimba for Kande Beach (pronounced "candy"), stopping in Nkhata Bay to visit some roadside curio shops. Malawi is famous for intricate wood carvings – animal figurines, bowls, masks, tables, chairs, and many other things. Bartering for these souvenirs is an art, and vendors often accept items for trade – flip flops, t-shirts, old mobile phones. Although it is possible to obtain some great deals, once your shopping is done, it becomes very tiresome dealing with the constant hassle from street vendors, who always shake your hand and offer a "good price for you." Some tag alongside for long distances, striking up conversation that is only a thinly veiled sales tactic. They are ruthless in trying to force the sale of unwanted items, and after enough time in Africa, most of us have become quite callous, ignoring anyone who tries to talk to us and refusing to shake anyone's hand. As unfriendly as it feels to act this way, it is the only way to deal with the constant hassle.

Sign for campsite at Kande Beach, Malawi © Matt Prater
Sign for campsite at Kande Beach, Malawi
We reached the camp at Kande Beach after a few hours. It is a beautiful setting on the sandy shores of Lake Malawi, the misty silhouette of mountains hugging the shoreline to the south. A rocky, tree-filled island beckons just off the coast, the only interruption to the otherwise unbroken sea of water that stretches to the horizon. Like much fresh water in Africa, Lake Malawi carries a risk of schistosomiasis, an infection caused by bilharzia parasites. However, all that is needed to guard against a possible infection is a single pill, taken within two months of exposure. It is not necessary to avoid swimming in the lake for fear of parasites – it is just as easy to become infected from showering, as campsites along Lake Malawi draw their water directly from the lake.

Lake Malawi, Kande Beach, Malawi © Matt Prater
Lake Malawi and Kande Beach, Malawi

Outdoor seating area, Kande Beach Resort, Malawi © Matt Prater
Outdoor seating area at Kande Beach Resort, Malawi

Yesterday was "Pig Day," a tradition with many of the overland truck tours. Early in the morning, we walked out of the camp gates to some nearby huts, where we witnessed the slaughter and preparation of our pig, which we would roast on a spit for dinner. The act retained a shadow of savagery in the forceful thrust of a knife into the squealing pig's heart, the spurting of warm blood into a bowl, and the pained last breaths of the animal as it was lowered into a shallow pit where it would be shaved. As one local villager carefully poured boiling water over the hide of the dead pig, another expertly scraped the steamed hair from the animal's skin. As brutal as these events may sound, they are a potent reminder of the source of the food we eat – we as Westerners, familiar only with our sterile plastic packaging, often forget where the meat we eat originates.

In the meantime, I sat down nearby and learned how to play bao, a Malawian board game similar to checkers. The villager who was teaching me explained that the name originates from the fact that the game is often played in the shade of a baobab tree. Of course, after learning the rules of the game, the villager immediately hassled me to buy a board. After explaining that I had already bought a game table in Chitimba that contained both bao and chess boards, the vendor then offered to write up an instruction sheet for me for only 1,000 kwacha ($6). I told him I would find the rules online.

On the short walk along a dirt path back to the camp gates, I arranged an afternoon fishing trip with one of the locals and agreed on a price of 2,000 kwacha ($12) for three of us. The man called himself Black William. All the men in Kande Beach use creative pseudonyms – Sugar and Spice, Spiderman, Samuel L. Jackson. I paid half the amount up front so Black William could purchase the fishing lines and bait. He would receive the rest after we returned from the trip. At noon, Becca, Beth, and I walked out to the beach where we were supposed to meet Black William. The trip was to last two hours – we would take a boat out to the solitary island, learn how to fish as the Malawians do, and have an opportunity to jump off the rocky cliffs into the refreshing waters of Lake Malawi. As this is Africa ("T.I.A."), Black William was an hour late and told us that he was only then going to get the supplies and prepare the boat. He told us to return at two, but we reminded him that we wanted to be back at camp by then. He said, "OK, five minutes then." After much longer than five minutes, we walked down the beach towards a little shack where some locals were sitting and asked for Black William. He finally saw us and led us towards our "boat", which was quite literally a hollowed out, knotty log. We looked with apprehension at each other but decided to give the Malawian boat a try.

Men pushing dugout fishing boat into Lake Malawi, Kande Beach, Malawi © Matt Prater
Men pushing a dugout fishing boat into Lake Malawi, Kande Beach, Malawi

The sides curved up and towards the center, so it took some maneuvering to squeeze our hips past the rough wood edges and sit down. The three of us were scrunched, almost on top of each other, at the front of the log, and Black William rowed from the back. We seemed precariously balanced on the constantly surging waves as we floated towards the island. As we rocked side to side, our guide told us to balance so we wouldn't roll completely upside down. With arms outstretched like gymnasts on a balance beam, we shifted our weight to one side or the other, keenly aware of the danger of capsizing. Because it had been such a tight fit to wedge ourselves into the boat, it was a terrifying prospect to consider what would happen if we overturned. To make the situation even more alarming, water began slowly rising in the curved bottom of the boat. When we were sitting in water about eight inches deep, Black William remarked nonchalantly that we were sinking and that we should turn back because we didn't want to get into trouble. Relieved, the three of us anxiously fixated our eyes on the beach ahead, fiercely gripping the sides of the hollow log every time a wave hit us from the side and threatened to roll us over. After a few minutes, we finally reached the safety of dry land.

Man in dugout fishing boat on Lake Malawi, Kande Beach, Malawi © Matt Prater
A man rows a dugout fishing boat on Lake Malawi, Kande Beach, Malawi

We asked if he could refund the money we had paid that morning, and he agreed. He walked off to get the money and said he would return in a few minutes. After half an hour, we were fed up, and I walked out of the camp to the side of the beach used by locals. I talked to a man who said that Black William had already spent the money on the fishing equipment and that cash was hard to come by. He suggested that we might receive something else, such as wood carvings or another excursion, in exchange. I told the man that I just wanted the money, and he replied that I should meet Black William at the camp gate at five o'clock – in three hours. I knew it was probably going to be a futile task to get the money back, but I was not going to give up. At five, I walked out of the gate and, unsurprisingly, there was no one there. I decided not to worry about it for the rest of the evening – I had the whole next day to find Black William and get my refund.

Pig roasting on spit, Kande Beach, Malawi © Matt Prater
A pig roasting on a spit, Kande Beach, Malawi
Back at the truck, an adorable abandoned kitten had turned up – we named her Nudge. We mixed up some powdered milk, and she lapped it up. Nudge became our mascot for the evening, and we took turns playing with her and letting her sleep in our laps. Shortly, our pig – which we named Lady Penelope – was a nice golden color. She was removed from the spit, and dinner was served. The meat was quite fatty, and there were some unappetizing strands of black pig hair still attached to some of the chunks of meat. At least we had plenty of chips (fries) to fill up on. After dinner, we mixed up some punch and played drinking games. We soon moved to the camp bar and took Nudge with us. She lazily curled up in my lap while some of the others played a few games of pool. When it was my turn to play a game, I was appalled at the hundreds of midges – tiny flies – that swarmed around the light suspended above the table. Many had fallen onto the green felt and had been squished into a fine black mat as the pool balls rolled over them. But there's not much sense in scrutinizing the condition of an African pool table.

Outdoor seating area, Kande Beach Resort, Malawi © Matt Prater
Outdoor seating area at Kande Beach Resort, Malawi
Outdoor bar, Kande Beach Resort, Malawi © Matt Prater
Outdoor bar at Kande Beach Resort, Malawi

Sunset over Lake Malawi, Kande Beach, Malawi © Matt Prater
Sunset over Lake Malawi from Kande Beach, Malawi

After I finished playing pool, I noticed that there were about five people from our group dancing on the bar. The music was blaring, and after I finished my drink, I joined in. It was great fun until eleven o'clock came and the bartender turned the music down. He would have been happy to keep it loud, but he said he would be reprimanded by his boss. We left the bar and walked down to the beach for a night swim in the lake. Making sure to keep our mouths closed, we ran through a curtain of thousands of midges that swarmed between the lampposts. Once past them, we splashed into the refreshing dark water. A silent lightning storm in the distance flashed behind the silhouette of the lonely island and occasionally brightened the star-filled sky. After our swim, four of us – Deepa, Nix, Tom, and I – ran off to the truck for a four-person truck party. We put my iPod on and music boomed out of the truck's speakers as we danced in the narrow aisle between the seats. We were having an awesome night, and the music gradually increased in volume until it was absolutely pumping across the campsite. The highlight of the evening, however, came after a string of dance tracks when we switched gears and all started singing along to "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story. I could not imagine a truck party with better friends! It was a perfect end to an amazing night, and we finally crashed around three in the morning, only minutes before rain started pouring from the night sky.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Village Life in Malawi

Day 47: Chitimba, Malawi
Yesterday evening, I lounged around the bar at Chitimba Camp late into the evening. There was a spectacularly beautiful silent lightning storm in the distance, hovering ominously over Lake Malawi. High above the storm clouds, the stars shone brilliantly, and the shimmering band of the Milky Way was clearly visible stretching across the dark African sky.

Lightning and stars over Lake Malawi, Chitimba, Malawi © Matt Prater
A bolt of lightning illuminates the starry night sky over Lake Malawi, Chitimba, Malawi

Today I went on a tour of the local village. We visited a primary school first, where we learned of the difficulties of funding and maintaining teachers. There are over a thousand children at this particular school – and only five teachers. Some of the classes have almost two hundred children. The current president of Malawi has reopened many of the teacher colleges that had been closed by the previous president, but the hardships faced by local communities in Malawi are intense.

Schoolgirl, Chitimba, Malawi © Matt Prater
Schoolgirl in a blue dress, Chitimba, Malawi
Children at primary school, Chitimba, Malawi © Matt Prater
Children at the primary school in Chitimba, Malawi

Room in medical clinic, Chitimba, Malawi © Matt Prater
A mosquito net hangs from the unfinished ceiling of a room in a medical clinic, Chitimba, Malawi
We also visited the local medical clinic, which faces similar shortages. The sole doctor at the clinic informed us that the government provides vital malaria medication and other supplies for free – the people of Malawi are among the poorest in Africa, so their lives depend on charity and government provided services. In addition to treating malaria, the clinic also provides testing and counseling for HIV and AIDS. The clinic does not have electricity and is suffering from shortages of soap and other basic sanitary supplies. The facilities reeked of urine and are quite dismal by Western standards, with exposed rafters and chickens grazing in front of the entryway. Sick patients wait to visit the doctor in an exterior corridor containing only a stone bench bathed by the brutal heat of the Malawi sun.

Our most exotic visit was to the hut of a local witch doctor. He wore a belt of rough-sounding bells and held a whistle in his mouth as he jumped and gyrated to the beat of drums. The result was a loud and energetic pandemonium of noise and movement. Afterward, he told us each our fortunes privately, speaking through a translator. Of course, the future scenarios were all ridiculously similar, with only slight variations: we all, it turns out, would live long and prosperous lives and produce many children. Still, it was all good fun.

Witch doctor, Chitimba, Malawi © Matt Prater
A witch doctor sits in his hut, Chitimba, Malawi
Witch doctor dancing, Chitimba, Malawi © Matt Prater
A witch doctor blows a whistle and performs a dance as men drum in the background, Chitimba, Malawi

Hot and dripping with sweat from the intense humidity, we journeyed through fields of maize back to our campsite and at last were able to lounge lazily at the bar by the deep blue waters of Lake Malawi.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stone Town / The Long Journey to Malawi

Day 46: Chitimba, Malawi
Monday morning we reluctantly left the white sands of Zanzibar's northwest coast for the island's main city, Stone Town. We stopped for a tour of one of Zanzibar's famous spice plantations, where we learned about the multitude of crops that have been a leading component of the island's economy for centuries. Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla – they all prosper in the warm climate, as do numerous tropical fruits like lychees, starfruits, jackfruits, pineapples, and bananas. Particularly interesting is the iodine plant, which "bleeds" the rust-colored antiseptic sap.

Achiote "lipstick" fruit, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
The fruit of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana) contains seeds that produce a red pigment, hence the plant's nickname, "lipstick tree." This specimen is from a spice plantation on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania.
Our next stop was a grim reminder of Zanzibar's dark history of slave trading. We toured a dungeon where Arab slave traders imprisoned slaves for days without food or water to determine their strength. In a dark room that could barely contain ten of us, up to eighty slaves were piled on top of one another, the only light from two tiny slits in the thick stone walls. Those who did not succumb to disease or starvation were transferred to the adjacent slave market, where they would endure further brutal tests of their strength. A whipping post stood in the center of the square – those slaves who did not cry out or collapse when repeatedly beaten would command the highest prices. These practices were occurring in Zanzibar at the same time that the equally barbarous slave trade to the Americas was happening thousands of miles away in West Africa. Slavery was abolished in Zanzibar in the late nineteenth century, but remnants of the practice remained until the first decade of the twentieth century. At this particular site, a European missionary built a church on the former grounds of the slave market. The spot where the whipping post once stood is at the center of the altar, ensuring that the human atrocities that occurred there are never forgotten.

Historic waterfront buildings, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
Historic buildings line the waterfront of Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania
After the sobering journey into Zanzibar's horrible past, we journeyed further to the edge of town where stone buildings met the shimmering sea. A few of us walked around the ancient streets for a while, browsing the numerous shops crammed with wooden carvings of animals and African paintings. We stopped at a picturesque Italian restaurant for some exquisite ice cream, a rare luxury in Africa. In the evening, we met up with the rest of the group for drinks at Africa House, a British colonial club that features a beautiful balcony looking over the sea. Afterward, we all walked to the nightly food market at Forodhani Gardens, where I tried some fresh octopus. The spices lent a delicious flavor, but the meat was quite tough. For dinner, we returned to the Italian restaurant for some fantastic pasta. As we walked back to our hotel, the exotic and unmistakeable sound of prayer calls resonated from the mosques and echoed throughout Stone Town.

Majlis shisha lounge in Africa House, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
The Majlis shisha lounge in the Africa House Hotel, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania. The building was an English colonial club from 1888 until the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964.

Boats at sunset, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
Boats at sunset, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Octopus at Forodhani Gardens night food market, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
Octopus and other delicacies at the Forodhani Gardens night food market, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania

It was an early start the next day. Waking up to my alarm before five o'clock, I wearily descended the narrow stairs to the dining area for a simple breakfast of fruit and toast. We walked to the port and took the seven o'clock ferry back to Dar es Salaam. We still had to endure an additional eight hours on the truck before finally reaching our bush camp. The evening air was sticky, and we had to use the rain cover on our tent because of intermittent rain. It was stifling inside, and I finally fell asleep to the high-pitched buzzing of mosquitoes in my ears, occasionally swatting the unwelcome intruders away.

Yesterday was an extremely long drive day, ten and a half hours to yet another bush camp – this meant no showers or toilets two nights in a row. Luckily, the night was considerably cooler, and I slept comfortably.

Market, Mbeya, Tanzania © Matt Prater
A market in Mbeya, Tanzania
Today we stopped in the southern Tanzanian city of Mbeya to buy some food at a local market. Then, this afternoon, after two and a half days of driving all the way across Tanzania, we finally reached Malawi. We had to make sure to use all of our Tanzanian shillings before reaching the border, as we were not allowed to take them into Malawi. Similarly, we could not obtain Malawian kwacha until we were in the country, as the government maintains tight control over their currency. Malawi is currently undergoing economic problems which have caused certain commodities such as fuel to vary in availability. I am now lounging by the shores of the vast Lake Malawi, anticipating what adventures may lie ahead in a new African country.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ups and Downs in Paradise

Day 42: Zanzibar, Tanzania
Yesterday was our first full day on Zanzibar, and we all split up to do separate activities. I decided to go snorkeling with green sea turtles in a natural lagoon with my tent buddy, Tom, a guy named Olly, and a girl named Jess. The four of us were apprehensive about plunging into the water with such huge creatures, but our guide assured us the turtles would not bite. It was amazing to be surrounded by these majestic animals, but it was startling when a turtle would swim up underneath me so that I was standing on its slick shell. The turtles also seemed fond of swimming towards me underwater and then suddenly sticking their heads out to look me directly in the eyes just inches from my face. Despite our guide's insistence on the turtles being "vegetarian," both Jess and Tom managed to receive innocent nips from one of the friskier turtles.

Snorkeling with green sea turtles, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Snorkeling with green sea turtles at the Baraka Natural Aquarium, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Sunset cruise, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Emily, Alex, Tom, and me on a sunset cruise off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania
In the afternoon, about ten of us opted to go on a sunset "booze cruise." To get on the boat, we had to wade out into the sea and climb a ladder onto the deck. The crew unfurled the sail and the wind carried us swiftly through the deep turquiose waves. Every time the boat turned, the strong wind tipped us sideways so far that the low side almost dipped below the waterline – one time, we actually did, and water sloshed over the side until we tipped back upright. The crew kept instructing us where to sit to best balance the boat. The drinks were strong – practically half vodka – so I only had a couple, but the whole experience was a lot of fun. Upon returning to shore, I spent the rest of the evening at the beach bar, enjoying cocktails with my friends and amusedly watching the drunken dancing that lasted into the night.

This morning I walked down to the beach, waded out into the water, and climbed into the same boat from the cruise yesterday. This time, I was going on a snorkeling trip to an area near Mnemba Atoll off the east coast of Zanzibar. The ocean was quite choppy, and we were headed directly into the swelling waves. As we climbed to the top of each wave, it was reminiscent of a theme park ride as we edged over the peak and splashed with full force into the valley of water below, repeating the undulation again and again with the relentless onslaught of surging waves. It was fun at first, but after a while the endless swaying and rocking caused most people on the boat to feel seasick. It took over two hours to finally reach our snorkeling site, and it was to everyone's dismay that the crew informed us that we could not land on the nearby beach due to the rough water. At least it was still calmer than it had been in deeper water. We headed for a group of other dive boats in the crystal clear sea near Mnemba Atoll and dropped anchor. This was the spot.

Resort near Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
A resort near Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Boat near Mnemba Atoll, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
A boat near Mnemba Atoll off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania

Snorkeling near Mnemba Atoll, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
Snorkeling near Mnemba Atoll off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania
Mostly recovered from my queasy stomach, I prepared my mask, snorkel, and flippers and jumped into the refreshing swimming-pool-colored water. I was immediately shocked by the strong current. The waves, although they appeared gentle from the boat, surged continuously into my snorkel. My shoddy mask also did little to keep the water out. I managed to spot a few fish but quickly became concerned by the potential danger of the situation and swam back. Luckily there was a rope that I could use to pull myself against the current back to the boat. Most people were back in the boat within ten minutes, quite upset by the fact that we were not warned about the unfavorable conditions. A few people who had been pulled by the current towards the deep blue ocean were thrown life preservers and reeled back in. At this point, everyone was feeling like the day was completely wasted, and we just wanted to return to our hotel. Because of the choppy conditions, we were served lunch on the boat instead of the island beach, which was tantalizingly close. We were all dreading the two hour return journey, and I was lucky enough to sleep through most of it. In the late afternoon, we finally reached dry land. We later complained about our experience and were able to compromise on a price of $15 each for the trip. Of course, I am not happy about paying anything at all for five hours of feeling seasick and two dreadful minutes snorkeling, but I suppose the captain and crew had to be reimbursed for the equipment rental and food. Nevertheless, the trip should have just been cancelled if the conditions were bad.

After resting for a bit after such an arduous experience, I slowly regained my appetite, and dinner made my lingering disappointment fade away. Pumpkin coconut soup, Indonesian noodles with prawns, and Zanzibar spice cake with a cream sauce proved to be an exquisite end to a mostly lousy day.

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