Lake of Stars

The Lake of Stars festival is a melange of African and Western music held on the shores of Lake Malawi. We went on the final, apparently most frenzied day of the festival. It was so much fun.

Our first impressions of the festival were of sand and too-cool-for-school travellers jamming to guitars on the beach. It seemed highly low key and a litte unorganized: most of our group trouped off to find a TV where they could watch the rugby (the rugby world cup is the truck obsession… it is hard to get away from it, and when the all blacks lost… there may have been blood lost on the truck as well, we shall never know). Who would pay $20US to watch rugby? So a few of us sat by the main stage, waiting for action to start. We weren’t disappointed. A British band called “Niche” came to the stage and thrilled us with truly excellent music. After she finished, a not-so-good South African group hit the stage, and we moved to the back where there were some food and souvenir stalls.

On the way up to the food, I made awkward eye-contact with a guy sitting on the grass. I nudged Sarah (who was now limping thanks to an unfortunate boating accident, see “It could only happen to Sarah” for details), and asked her if she recognized the guy. She didn’t, but apparently the guy recognized me as he got up and came over. He was part of a group we had met up with on Zanzibar Island — and he had followed us all the way to Lake Malawi! Okay, not quite true, it seems like all travellers were pulled in this direction, as we saw many people that we had met previously all congregated together. But the interesting thing about this guy, Mike, was that he knew the band, Niche, who had just played. We got to meet and interact with the band, including their really cool female leader singer Zeb.

The rest of the evening progressed smoothly, with tons of entertainment and some of the best music I’ve ever heard live. Everyone was there to have a good time, and it showed. After what seemed like hours of solid dancing under the stars, my friend Hilary turned to me and said: “What time is it?”

I looked down at my watch. I almost couldn’t believe what time it read. I checked it again. “18:50.” It wasn’t even 7pm yet, and we had already been having the greatest time. It had been pitch black since 5:30, and time had just disappeared from underneath us, moving quickly and slowly, as if we were caught in a whorl.

This is Africa time, baby.

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Wherethemalawiarewe?

It is hardly a secret that I relished the constant mental challenges of academia. Challenge is part of the reason I felt drawn to Medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature. There is something a little beyond the norm about that field, the extra language hurdle that offers insight into the words I am writing right now. I hope to reenter the university world eventually, whether in further Medieval studies or creative writing, to approach these challenges again.

It is part of this love of a challenge that led me to fear travelling before I left. It would be easy for me to treat these next nine months as a highly extended vacation. And while I am relaxing and appreciating all that these next few months have to offer me, I promised myself one thing: to continue to stretch my mental and physical limits as far as they can take me, to search out challenges and to approach them head on. I feel a little closer to that goal after this week.

Travelling itself, perhaps especially in Africa, is a mental challenge. There is so much culture colliding with us head on. Every transition from country to country brings a different perspective. I find myself right now on the shores of Lake Malawi. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and yet in many ways the average person seems better off than in Kenya. The border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania was like light and day. In Kenya, the roads are pitted and pot-holed, almost impassable except by the most manic of drivers. In Tanzania, the roads are better than Canadian – smooth black tarmac with neatly painted yellow and white lines. They say that roads are the pathway to civilization… and a fine indicator too, of a country’s wealth.

Yesterday, in Chitimba, Malawi, I fulfilled part of my promise to myself. I hiked from Chitimba to Livingstonia, a town dedicated to Dr. David Livingstone and his Christian mission in Malawi. The hike left at 7am. Only four of us – Eric, Ben, Tania and myself – decided to take on the mission. I don’t think any of us realized just how physically taxing it was going to be on our systems.

The Malawian sun is relentless. At only 45 minutes into the trip – the walk to get to the mountain, let alone the mountain itself – I was ready to give up. What was I thinking? I did not voice this concern aloud, but rest assured it was going through my head. Then I remembered that promise to myself. How about my vow to conquer physical limitations as well as mental? I bucked up and put one foot in front of the other. And then we reached the mountain.

Without the support of the other climbers, I’m not sure I would have made it up. Through the steepest part of the hill, I took it one section at a time, taking plenty of rest in between and convincing myself to go forward. PMA: positive mental attitude became my mantra. It was worth it indeed. The first part of the hike took us to a beautiful waterfall, and then a watering hole where we swam and tried to gain back our energy. There we met a couple, one of whom is a DJ at the Lake of Stars festival that I will be attending tomorrow. We then hiked further up to the town of Livingstonia, where a museum dedicated to Dr. David Livingstone has been set up. From the very top, Malawi spread in front of us like paradise. Lake Malawi is a giant glisten of water in the far distance. Bright greenery is beneath our feet, lowering into dusty red earth and sand. In Livingstonia, we encounter a chameleon, a poisonous snake and tall pine trees that stretch toward the sky. It is more that worth the climb.

By now it is one o’clock, and it has taken us 6 hours to reach the top.

We break for lunch at a little restaurant in Livingstonia. Ben asks the owner of the restaurant: “Do you have a menu.”

The answer is curt. “No.”

“Then what do you have to eat?” I step in.

“Chicken.” There is a pause. “And rice.”

“Anything else?” Tania is a vegetarian, and hopeful. The rest of us have not seen chicken in weeks, and it is a welcome, if forced, change.

“No.”

So chicken and rice it was.

The problem with hiking is that once you go up, you must come down. The way back down was much quicker, but much harder on the joints. My knees and legs ached with a dull throbbing pain that I knew would intensify over the next few days. But we were all exhilirated and happy. It was the first real exercise of the trip and we felt satisfied, healthy and above all – that we had experienced some “real Africa.”

It seems I cannot have a day of relaxing, for the next day I went scuba diving in Lake Malawi. It was a totally different experience from the Indian Ocean, but just as worthwhile.

Now I’m getting into rugby and England have just won against Australia. Let the celebrations begin!

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Fire Eating and Swimming with Sharks… Life on the African Edge

It’s not every day that you get to arrive at a party on a boat. But a full moon party was happening on the other side of the island, and we organized a dhow to take us so we could arrive in traditional style. We pulled up at a beach lit by bonfires and flaming torches, and waded through the knee-deep water.

The main spectacle was a group of acrobats called the Jambo Brothers, similar to the acrobats we saw at the Bomas of Nairobi. They performed to much wild applause. But the most excitement accompanied the fire eater. He ran the fire over his arms and legs, then put a flaming torch in his mouth and ate the fire. Then he pulled me and about 8 other people up onto the stage. We sat in a long line, and the fire eater sat in the middle of us. A plate of three flaming cotton balls was brought out on a little plate. The fire eater picked up one of the balls, tossed it around in his hands, then put it down. He gestured to me, as I was sitting at the end of the line, to go ahead a pick up one of the flames. I looked to the girl sitting next to me, one of the oasis crew as well. We smiled nervously to each other, then picked up the cotton. It was HOT! But you could keep it in the palm of your hand without it burning, pass it from palm to palm and then put it on the plate, no harm done. Everyone laughed and we passed the plate along the line for everyone else to try.

Then the fire eater picked up one of the balls and balanced it on his tongue. Then he took it out, put it back on the plate and passed it down to me again. The girl beside me chickened out. I was close to but how many opportunities do you get to eat fire? This was a dorothy moment: I certainly wasn’t in North America any more! I was the first one to go. I picked it up, unable to carry it between my fingers for too long, so I tossed it slowly from palm to palm. Then, I popped it on my tongue.

Ahh!

No, it didn’t hurt, but I was so scared that I spat it out onto the plate right away. But I got a big round of applause and passed the plate onto the next girl (also from oasis – we had a bit of a monopoly going) who was able to keep it on her tongue for a long time. When everyone who wanted to (about four out of the eight of us) had had a go, we all stood up and bowed. It was a great start to what ended up being a fantastic night.

Underwater Safari

My time on Zanzibar has been consumed with scuba diving, and so I haven’t had time to relax on the beach. I am fitting a four day Open Water PADI course into three days, along with Sarah and another girl. Unfortunately, Sarah learned on the second day that she is unable to equalize her ears to the pressure when she descends into deep water. The other girl had an unfortunate bout of sea sickness which meant that she was also unable to continue.

Another dhow took Sarah (who was to snorkel) and I out to Mnemba, an island off of Zanzibar with a huge reef surrounding it. The reef is a marine park (an underwater national park, almost) and is known to be home to sharks, turtles, and a wide variety of marine life. Sarah attempted our first dive there, but was again unable to equalize, and so continued her Mnemba adventure on the surface. I descended to 18metres underwater with the instructor, and continued on to have one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

The Mnemba scuba dive was like an underwater safari. Being underwater is a world unto itself, as cliche as that sounds. By this time I had already completed two dives, and was able to concentrate on just enjoying and wondering at the scenery beneath me. A moray eel poked his head out of his hole, gaping at us as if we had disturbed his sleep. A giant Napoleon fish loomed in the distance, his enormous form just a dark shadow in the water until we swam closer, peeked at his deformed face and he disappeared. A pair of bannerfish, which look like giant angel fish, floated past us, close to my arm. And what looked like a shark – but turned out to be a cobi fish – swam overhead. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t in an aquarium – that all I was seeing was real.

We surfaced for a mandatory interval, before diving again in another spot, this time a place well known for sea turtles. We weren’t disappointed. One enormous sea turtle sheltered itself underneath the reef and we swam around for a closer look. Large green turtles have enormous eyes that look like amber gemstones underwater. We spotted another one gently paddling away, so graceful for its size. When we surfaced again, I knew I was hooked. And now, as a certified diver, I am free to go and continue diving throughout my trip.

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A long entry… but what a week

The dust devils spin across the ground in Arusha, Tanzania. Mt. Meru stands guard, dominating the skyline, while Kilimanjaro is a whisper of snow in the background. I am standing inside a Maasai village, where a warrior by the name of Ollie is giving a guided tour. The Maasai children follow us, grabbing our hands. They know the “1, 2, 3, whee” game off by heart and after 5 minutes our arms ache from swinging, often two children at once. Sarah is a natural with children. She has them falling off her arms and on both hips. The Maasai women beg us to buy their jewelry and other wares. It is hard to refuse, and my bargaining skills get a work out.

The Oasis group are camped out at the Meserani Snake park. As the name suggests, there are hundreds of snakes about (behind glass, of course). I get to see a black mamba – the animal that had me intrigued about Tanzania from Roald Dahl’s “Going Solo”. I am much happier to see it behind glass than under my feet. It is one of (if not <B>the</b> most dangerous reptiles in Africa. The snake park owners push the feeding of the snakes early for our viewing pleasure, and we watch tiny chicks fight unsuccessfully for their lives. The morbid sight keeps us so enthralled that we nearly miss our own dinner. Thankfully we jog back in time for bangers and mint-flavoured mashed potatoes. Ah, the camping life. Only 54 more days to go of it.

I know I haven’t yet recounted the meet-up with the Oasis truck (and 22 new people!) However, since I have been many many days without internet, this entry will be long enough without all the boring travel details. Suffice to say that so far the group gets along really well, and that everyone we have met so far have been fantastic.

Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti

The jeeps fit 8 people plus the driver, so it is a tight squeeze. I sit up front with Dave (the driver), but mostly I stand on the chair and pop my head up out of the enormous sun roof. When all our heads are up, we look like meercats peering out of their burrows. Ngorongoro Crater is my first ever true game drive.

An anomaly of nature, the crater formed over 200 million years ago when a massive volcano – three times the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro – collapsed in on itself. Now, due to the presence of an enormous lake, animals flock to the crater in the dry season. People flock there too, and we are far from alone on our safari.

Driver Dame gives some of us in the jeep nicknames. Sarah is “giraffe” (“because she is tall like one”), Jason is “teacher” and I am “ma-china,” which is a Swahili word meaning “Chinese.” This is after he inquired about my heritage. It is a common question over here, as if the guides and locals I meet are infinitely curious about the past and family background. A boat driver in Lamu thought I was Arab – he himself was from Oman. Driver Dave could have sworn that I had African heritage – hwere he gets that from, I have no idea.

We pass by two black rhinos in the distance.

“Ma-china,” says Dave, “do you want to shoot a rhino?”

Well, you can imagine my reaction to that. But when I looked over at him, he was grinning from ear to ear.

“You would get much money from a rhino horn. They are believed to give men sexual virility. For the men with many wives.”

This and many other interesting facts are distributed in a similar, wayward manner throughout the day.

From the Ngorongoro Crater, we drive to the Serengeti. We do a brief dusk game drive before setting up camp. It is the most isolated camp site that we have been to so far. We are right in the middle of the Serengeti; a giraffe strolls by metres from our tent, while in the dark of night we can hear the cackling of hyenas and the roar of a lion. The night comes quickly in Africa. It surrounds us, engulfs us, until we can see nothing but the moon and sky. The sky is resplendent with stars. Sarah, Jason and I sit outside in our sleeping bags – covered in mosquito repellent, of course – and search for shooting stars. We see them. It is magic.

We are up at 4:30am for a sunrise game drive. Our most spectacular sightings so far happen within these short hours. Water buffalo trundle across the road in front of us. A leopard leaps out of the grass and snatches a bird out of the air. A hyena’s den is just off the roadside, and we see the babies suckling. One curious hyena approaches the side of the truck, so close you could almost reach out and touch it. But most spectacular of all, three male and one female lion sit right next to us, yawning and growling while patiently having their pictures taken. Lions are such posers.

We have seen all the Big Five in two days: water buffalo, rhinos, elephants, lions and leopards.

From the Mountain to the Coast

Another 4am start, and we are all fast asleep in the truck. Stu, the truck driver, pulls over and Stu, the tour guide (confusing, I know), shakes us out of our reverie.

“Mount Kilimanjaro,” he says to the confused and sleepy faces. “The sun is rising over Mount Kilimanjaro, and there are no clouds.”

It is a first for our tour guide. The view is spectacular. We are all wide awake to whip out our cameras and we shoot the mountain with the sun rising in the corner. The snow is visible at the top. Then we all pile back into the truck and fall asleep – 13 hours of driving left to accomplish before we reach Dar-es-Salaam and more importantly, Zanzibar Island.

The resort that we are at on Zanzibar Island is called “Paradise” – and the name states the obvious. Crystal clear blue water laps up onto white sand beaches. Our hotel is on stilts up out of the water and when the tide is in, as it was during dinner, the waves lap beneath our feet. The seafood here is delectable, and I have been dining on prawns, king fish, red snapper and all sorts of wonders.

Sarah and I have decided to get our PADI scuba-diving certification while we are here on the Island. Today was packed with theory – and a trip to a 5-star resort to use their swimming pool. If ever I found a perfect honeymoon destination, that 5-star resort could very well be it. Our Paradise hotel is housing us at $15/night. I can only imagine what it costs people to stay at Ras Nungwei (the 5-star) but whatever it is… it can only be worth it. After wiping the drool from our chins, we completed all our closed water dives in one long and exhausting morning.

Tomorrow will take us out on our first real open-water dive, and then onto a beautiful marine park. Scuba-diving is half terrifying, half relaxing. I’ll tell you which half after the break…

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Pole Pole

Sept. 18/2007
Things you will be glad your Mum made you bring while travelling:
– Wind-up torch
– Quick-dry underwear
– Duct tape

Things you’ll be glad you stole from the airplane/train:
– Pillow
– hand soap
– eye mask

Things you wish you had brought with you:
– earplugs
– universal sink plug
– friends from home

I always used to think that a mosquito net looked like curtains over a princess bed: romantic and soft. In reality, it is hot, sweaty and claustrophobic under one of these things. After finishing a plate of fish (tilapi) that looked like it had literally just left the ocean and died on my plate, we return to the hostel, torches at the ready. We already know the electricity is out. Coincidentally, an electrician is working on the electricity as we walk in the door. But the poor man has forgotten to bring his own torch, and is working by the feeble light of a mobile phone. Now there’s progress for you! Jason graciously offers his torch for the job but alas the good travel karma goes unnoticed by the gods… there will be no lights until tomorrow morn. So instead, I write this by LED light under the mossie net, with the blaring of the Noor mosque loud speakers in the background. Sleep, methinks, will be hard to come by.

September 20, 2007

The two days since my last journal entry have been a whirlwind. I have since lost the aforementioned LED light and the overhead lights in our train cabin have died. When the train stops you can hear the crickets chirping outside. It is the perfect mysterious atmosphere in which to recount our time on Lamu Island.

The bus ride up was hellish. Despite a 6:30am start, we didn’t arrive until 3:30pm. The three of us were crammed in behind the driver and had a full view of the mayhem that was to befall us. Baboon crossings, goats, bicycles, very unsafe overtaking, potholes the size of craters and – yes – a little hydroplaning were all part of the experience. Worst of all was the unexpected side effects of the doxycycline (malaria tablets), which added nausea to our list of grievances. Needless to say, when we arrived on the dock to ferry to Lamu Island, we were all questioning the worth of the journey. Lamu itself is its own world. The town rises up out of the water on a steady incline. The roofs are mostly thatched or else open to the sky. And most of all, there are no cars. It is the most peaceful place we have encountered since arriving in Africa. Only the loud speakers of the mosque invade the tranquility of the medieval town and even that I find more evocative than disturbing.

We check into easily the nicest guest house so far – Casaurina. There is a sociable rooftop patio where we meet the “Prince of Peace” (the chuef) and other travelers from around the world. Then we take off into Lamu, beginning with the walking tour found in Lonely Planet but then abandoning the guide book to just see where our feet take us. I haven’t felt as safe anywhere as I did in Lamu. The streets are narrow and full of people, but we don’t get hassled. The children wave, shake our hands and say “Jambo,” while we sip our cokes (or, in my case, tonic water) and just strolled for a couple of hours.
It was only Sarah and I who made it out to dinner. We sat on the terrace of Bush Gardens and enjoyed the evening breeze off the ocean. It was one of those idyllic nights you envisage before travel – no hassle, no noise, no worries, hakuna matata. Actually, the favourite island phrase is “Pole Pole” (pole-ee, pole-ee) or “slowly, slowly.”
I can’t say that we take this island advice very often. Our travels so far have been hectic, strenuous and anything but ‘slow’. But when we finally did take it – as Sarah and I did that night – it made all the difference in the world.

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