Nyika to Kande Beach; Slow progress due to grocery shopping and truck repairs; Dress-shopping and the Fancy Dress Party; Lazy days; Mr. Loverman and Frank Sinatra; Peter narrowly escapes death again

It was nice leaving the Nyika Plateau, even if the first couple of hours in the truck were freezing. Jesus the Truck performed well enough without power-steering, and the roads were dry enough. One of the park employees had asked for a lift out, so he joined us. He had two friends who were supposed to be coming as well, but they never showed up. Before we were out of the park, though, the truck broke down agin. We hadn’t had breakfast, so we took the opportunity to eat the last scraps of food. The park employee stood off by himself, talking to no one and declining all offers of food. I felt a bit bad for him having to wait, but he was hitching after all, and had to take what came. Eventually the guys got the truck repaired, although they weren’t quite sure how, and at long last we were able to leave Nyika.

The first stop was a place called Rumphi, a nothing little town. Our hitchhiker debarked and vanished, and we all dispersed while Adam and Elton took the truck to be properly fixed. The cooking groups for the next few days were tasked with doing the grocery shopping. Personally I think their mission was only a partial success - the food they came back with didn’t look anywhere near enough to feed sixteen people for three days. There were two main problems. First, the supermarkets here have no produce - everyone grows their own - and second, we couldn’t find any ice for the coolers, since Rumphi hadn’t had any electricity for two days - so we couldn’t buy any perishables either. Sheryl and I were just spectators to the grocery shopping, though. We had no duties and spent the time walking up and down Rumphi’s street looking for aloe cream for our sunburns, which had begun to blister. We were both covered head to foot in tiny water-blisters under the skin. The heat must have bought them out. It looked repulsive, like leprosy - and that was before the skin started coming off in great sheets. Morbidly fascinated, I spent an hour on the truck playing a game with myself by trying to see how big a piece of my skin I could take off in one go - about five centimeters by five, it turned out - from my left thigh.

Our second stop was in Muzuzu, a much bigger town with a bigger supermarket. Sheryl and I had no local currency (called Kwachas here in Malawi) so we ran frantically from ATM to ATM in the afternoon heat trying to find one that would work with our cards. Of course they all displayed the relevant network logos, but we’ve discovered that that doesn’t really mean very much. We found one, finally, that gave Sheryl money, and we took our hard-won Kwachas and absconded to the supermarket The mission and the reason for needing local currency was a bottle of liquor - the stronger the better, for reasons about to be revealed. We settled on the cheapest option - a bottle of Big Five cane brandy, which cost us the grand sum of 595 Kwachas (about CAD$4).

The reason I needed liquor was that there was a certain… entertainment planned for the following evening, and I was not looking forward to it at all. It happened to be our trip-mate Gabby’s birthday, but that was a coincidence. There’s a certain overland tradition at Kande Beach called the Fancy Dress Party. It’s just what it sounds like - everyone wears hideous dresses and all the men are in drag. Harmless fun, right? Sure, if it was just wearing a dress, then no big deal - I’ve been in drag many times and never batted a false eyelash. But Elton decided to add his own little variation - we’d all buy each other a dress, picking names out of a hat. I was already upset with the whole fucking exercise anyway - I have no patience for this kind of gratuitous stupidnesss at the best of times, and I really didn’t come thousands of kilometers to Africa just for juvenile bonding rituals. So I was already trying to keep a lid on my temperat having to waste time and money, but when Elton announced his plan, I had an instantly horrible premonition of trying to sausage my sunburned, peeling, grotesque body into some hideous bare-midriff outfit picked out by one of the more devilish of my trip-mates. Oh, and we had to have dinner like this, and then go carousing at the campground bar with everyone from the other trucks, to boot.

I was not impressed. I didn’t hide it successfully, but I did hide most of it - I know that because if everyone else had guessed at how angry I was, none of them would be speaking to me right now. Because, really, what could I do? The arrangements were made, and backing out would make me look like a sour asshole and bring everyone else down. I had no choice but to grind my teeth and get through it. I knew I could fake it if I tried hard enough - I’ve been faking for so many years that I’ve become a master at defensive extroversion. But I knew I’d never be able to pull this one off without being very drunk, though - hence the desperate search for a bottle.

In the end, I was able to somehow do enough of a head-job on myself that the evening seemed hilariously absurd instead of humiliating and atrocious. Two things helped - first, we weren’t the only truck doing it, and second, I was very lucky because Elaine ws the one who drew my name, and she’s a sharp, perceptive and - more importantly - compassionate person. She got me a dress that went for maximum coverage - practically a sequined muu-muu. The Danish girls still had their sport, though - they had great fun hacking it into an indecently short shirt and tearing the neck open down to the waist - but I was drunk enough by that point to just camp it up. I’d drawn Jamie’s name, and he wasn’t at all happy with the idea either. I wish I could say I’d picked out something equally compassionate for him, but to tell the truth I just grabbed the first dress that was thrust at me. It was nice and big, though, I’ll say that. What a strange, strange night. I haven’t been so drunk - I haven’t felt like I needed to be so drunk - in years. I don’t regret the drink though - it got me through a tight spot. I never had much dignity in the first place, and what I did have is shot to hell, but at least I didn’t look like a jerk.

So that was the excitement. Kande Beach is gorgeous - long white sand with bright blue warm water, and flowering trees everywhere. We still have to worry about bilharzia, and we still can’t swim after dark because of the crocodiles, but it’s a perfect spot for relaxing, and that’s all we’ve done. Even the beach hustlers are chilled out - they all have names like Mr. Loverman and Frank Sinatra. Mel Gibson runs the dive shop. We’ve tried to stay mostly out of the sun to spare our new skins, but otherwie it’s been just reading in hammocks, catching up on our journals, sleeping and chilling out for three days. We rented snorkels and swam out to the nearest island - about 700m away - to see lots of bright blue freshwater fish nibbling at the algae. It was a tough swim - the swell was quite high and we were glad of the flippers. A few of the others had tried to swim there the day before, and Peter had nearly drowned and had needed rescue and first aid. This is the same guy who nearly got hit by lightning in Nyika, so he’s clearly tempting fate to even leave the truck from this point on.

We’ve run out of food again, but we’re supposed to be having dinner in the village tonight, and we’re leaving in the morning for Lilongwe, so we’ll get through even if we’re hungry.

The village visit was very odd. We were met at the gate and taken to the village by someone who called himself Christopher Columbus the Second. He brought us to a house that was either his or his sister’s - she was doing the cooking. He sat us down on a reed mat that looked like a giant sushi-rollling mat and brought out the food. There were beans and rice, spinach and chicken, and a sweet-potato soup. His sister was a good cook. After dinner Christopher - I wish they’d give us their real names, I’d at least have a go at pronouncing them - brought out the kids. He’s got an amateur dance troupe of little kids that do traditional Malawi dances. There were five of them or so at first, all barefoot and ragged. The biggest one drew a line in the sand a meter from us and they all lined up along it and started clapping rhythmically and singing a chant-like song. One by one each kid came out into the lamplight and danced. To be honest the dances looked a bit goofy to me. Unlike Maasai dances, these looked like the infamous Chicken Dance - all flapping elbows and knees. The chants were catchy, though, and the kids were enjoying themselves immensely. The were grinning hugely - all we could see of them when they moved back from the lamp were their teeth. After a couple of rounds of songs it was time for us to dance too. Each kid in turn picked out one of us to dance with. I wasn’t wild about trying to do the chicken dance, but I thought it was only fair, really. The Maasai village dance we’d witnesed from the road a few weeks ago left a bad taste in my mouth - the entire village was turned out dancing for three fat white people in khaki and Tilley hats. This at least was reciprocal humiliation. If they had to dance for us it seemed right for us to dance for them. Sheryl was brave and went first. Peter turned out to be the best at the knee-flapping, and Nicolai got molested by a heavy 13- or 14-year old who spent their dance plastered against him and gave him a big squishy hug at the end. I got a hug myself, but my partner was a skinny eight-year old in a grey dress. I keep thinking of the feel of the back of her hot little head in my palm. Funny little creatures, kids.

After the dancing they sang us a couple more songs and then, true to pattern, made us sing too. We racked our brains to come up with a song we all knew, with no success. All I know are lyrics to pop songs, and I sure as hell wasn’t singing alone. The Danes sang something in Danish about African animals, but all the English speakers could think of was Row Row Row Your Boat. I’m embarrassed to say so, but I’d actually forgotten the words - but I hummed along. Then it was the kids’ turn to sing the Malawi national anthem, which they did with earnest hands laid on hearts. They said they were going to sing in English so that we could understand, but the only word I caught was “Malawi” and even that was an educated guess. As the kids disappeared after a final round of clapping we could hear them working on Row Row Row Your Boat, trying to work it into their repertoire, no doubt.

The whole dinner was a bit surreal, made more so by the physical setting. We ate in the open air, under a half-moon with the biggest fairy-ring I’ve ever seen - a huge white circle around the moon. A few huts away they were burning whole, standing trees in gigantic pyres, clearing land for the coming rainy season. A pretty extreme method of pruning, I’d say. The trees sent up huge roaring fountains of swirling orange sparks into the sky and scented the whole village with a sharp resinous reek.

Christopher Columbus the Second escorted us back to the campground, and I sat with a drink trying to work through some mild culture shock. I say mild, because aside from having to sing and dance, there was nothing unpleasant about the evening. I hadn’t been prepared for the physical closeness of the people - the personal space here in Africa is much, much smaller than I’m used to at home, and there’s a lot more touching. But that’s not a bad thing either - skin feels good on skin, and there’s lots of reasons for that. It’s just alien and a bit disquieting, and I needed a bit of quiet time to think it through. Or such was my plan anyway, I’d barely slept the night before and drifted off sitting at the table, so I took myself quietly off to bed early.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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