It was Saturday night. My friend Des and I decided to escape Lilongwe for the weekend to explore Blantyre, another big city in Malawi.
I describe Blantyre as the Toronto of Canada, Lilongwe being Ottawa. Both fairly developed, bustling, and have a bumping night scene. One is the capital, the other is not. Both easily could be.
We were sitting at the bar of the lodge we were staying at, eating dinner and having a great time.
In the midst of my loudest cackle, for those of you who have heard it you will know what I am referring to, the bartender approaches me.
“Are you Jessica?” he asked as I nodded. “I think you left your door open. Or it has been kicked down.”
Des and I go to our room and sure enough, the door was kicked in. My iPod gone, Des’ wallet stolen.
We figured there was not much to do about it at that point, but continue on and have a good night.
The owner of the lodge felt awful for what had happened so he insisted on giving us an open bar tab. We didn’t complain.
But the next morning…we surely did. Or, we could have.
After one (or ten) too many, a night of solid dancing, and two hours of sleep, Des and I had to drag ourselves out of bed at 6 a.m. to catch a bus back to Lilongwe. No iPod to distract us, little money to get home, and no Tim Horton’s fix on the way to the bus stop.
“All I want is an everything bagel with herb and garlic cream cheese, a honey cruller and a medium double double from Tim Horton’s,” said Des. And I agreed, with emphasis knowing that the day ahead was going to be disastrous.
But it wasn’t. And am excited to tell you why.
The bus was scheduled to leave at 7:30 a.m. It left at 7:32. I was amazed. This is the first and only bus I have been on since arriving in Malawi that has left within the hour it is scheduled.
It gets better.
At about one hour into our journey, the bus pulled off of the road. We looked out the window to see a small market of people bustling about. Music was bumping and better yet, there were two men making chips. By chips, I mean French fries, but they are called chips in Africa. Des and I couldn’t believe our luck. Food was in reach when were anticipating going six plus hours on empty stomachs filled with nothing but our previous night’s complimentary beverages.
We got off of the bus. And only 400 kwacha later – which is about a buck fifty in dollars – we had two large take away containers of delicious chips topped up with lettuce, tomatoes, and hot sauce. Sounds unappealing, but I assure you it was magical. Even for 8:30 a.m.
Our bus journey continued. And so did the magic. The bus attendant walked down the aisle of the bus and switched the televisions on. Music videos played. All music that gave me a little sense of home – Usher, Beyonce, and even George Michael! Not my top picks, obviously, but perfect when you need a little dose of familiarities. Okay, well, George Michael might be my top pick, but that can remain on the down low.
This was all heard while looking out the window and seeing nothing but Malawi’s breathtaking mountainous range.
Following the music videos played a very serious yet eye-opening Malawian movie. It juxtaposed the music videos, the sights and the sense they provided. It was about abortions and was exceptionally interesting to watch. It was called Seasons of a Life. If you want a glimpse into Malawian controversies highlighted in a film, watch it.
At about half way through our voyage, the bus pulled off of the road again. This time, not only was our cry for food answered, but our prayer for Tim Horton’s! Well, sort of. People swarmed the bus with baskets of goods held above their heads. I saw bottles of Coke, more chips, tomatoes, and potatoes.
But then there he was. A man with donuts…piled on a stick! These weren’t just any donuts, but African donuts. Fried dough, no frills, no sugar coating. And they leave a sweet grease mark on anything they touch. I am addicted. No lie.
“Zingati?” I asked. “50 kwacha,” the wrinkled, older man replied.
I handed him a 100 kwacha bill and grabbed two donuts off of the stick he raised to the window.
I turned to Des who had just watched the entire event go down. She was in hysterics. Not only did I just buy two donuts through a bus window in Africa, but off of a man with donuts on a stick. From her seat, she could only see this floating stack of donuts waving about. No man, just donuts. A moment for the books.
I shall pause for a moment to mention that my business transaction with the donut-man was not abnormal. In my first blog post I mentioned drive-thru’s. I commented on how absurd drive-thru’s are when you really stop to think about them. They force you to eat-on-the-run, providing no time to stop and enjoy your food. I also praised Malawians from abstaining from this North American custom. Well, I retract my statement about Malawi not having drive-thru’s! They do…but just in a very Malawian-type-of-way.
If you are on a bus in Malawi, expect it to be swarmed by people trying to sell you goods. I have now purchased chips, Coke, samoosas, and yes, donuts through a bus window from people who run from their village homes once spotting the bus approaching in the distance. And, I might kick myself for saying this if I am later jinxed, but I have yet to get sick from any street food! It is surreal.
There are other business transactions in Malawi that amaze me. If you need something, most chances are you can buy it right off of someone on the street. Or anywhere, really. People in Malawi are generally selling something at all times.
My first Malawian bus ride ever taken a woman turned to me, opened her suit case, and showed me a bunch of socks. All types, all colours. Sadly, I didn’t need any socks at the time or else I could have been convinced. They were nice looking socks.
I have also been stopped to buy bananas, CDs, DVDs, baskets, brooms, sponges, oranges, eggs, and even, airtime! I buy the airtime for my cell phone right from the curb side. Same with my bananas. And, it is honestly not rare to see men walking around with cartons upon cartons of eggs stacked on their heads. In fact, it is more common than uncommon.
But amongst all the things sold on the streets of Malawi, there is one specific thing I cannot wrap my head around or even put on top of my head like the Africans do, for that matter!
Men walk around selling chickens. I saw this in Uganda, too. The chickens are tied at the feet, hanging upside down, and are usually swaying off of a man’s belt loops. Wild.
It gets even…wilder? I can’t even put words to this next bit.
Driving down fairly popular streets, you can sometimes spot men at the side of the rode with one arm out and extended. What are they holding? A kitten or a puppy. So you literally can buy a puppy or kitten off the side of the road in Malawi. I am determined to get a picture of this because it is that bizarre. I hear that if the men are spotted by police officers, the pups or kittens get taken and brought to the humane society. Yes, I am an avid animal lover. Can’t hide that one.
Des and I walked right back into the Lilongwe street sales as we got off of our utopian bus from Blantyre. Another magical moment appeared as we got back to our lodge that we so often refer to as “the compound” or “the palace” on its good days.
The power was on!
After only two hours of sleep and a long, yet lovely, bus ride, Des and I had the freedom to shower in hot water, make coffee, and cook! Problem free.
Power cuts happen every single day in Malawi.
It can be for an hour, or two, or even four at times. It can be bright and early, in afternoon, or late at night. There’s no routine to it. But surely, I am going to miss waking up to the sound of a generator when I go back home. Or, having to wait for water to boil for my morning coffee. Or, doing my make-up in the dark with my headlamp on. Joy! (I have actually gotten really good at doing my make-up in the dark. But…I might think that because, I am in the dark. It shall forever remain a mystery. I guess until someone says something, at least).
I learned to appreciate power cuts the very first day I was in Lilongwe. I went to the lodge next door to mine to use the pool. The clouds very quickly rolled over the sky so I was forced to either go home or find something else to do in a brand new city where I knew no one. Sadly, there was no power. So that also decreased my options.
Max, who works at this said lodge and has since become one of my closest friends, came up to me and asked if I wanted to watch a movie off of his laptop with him until the power came back on.
“Sure,” I responded. “But aren’t you working?”
“This here is Malawi,” he said. “When the power is off, there is no need to work.”
Lesson learned. And very much applied on the daily.
So, there we were. Back in our safe little compound in Lilongwe. Fed, washed, and hangover gone. Arguably one of the best days in Malawi yet.
But let’s backtrack.
Des and I were faced with a choice. We could have gotten robbed and gone to bed. Instead, we embaced the experience. If we hadn’t, our next day would not have been appreciated. The chips, the Malawian “Tim Horton’s” drive-thru, and our arrival to a powered compound would not have seemed as oh so sweet.
“It’s all about the small wins in Malawi,” says Des, who has been here six months.
And she is right.
When travelling, go for the African donuts. Forget about Tim Horton’s honey crullers.
Embrace the day as it comes. The power cuts and all. Or else, your day and all its obscurities will get the best of you.