Traveling North to South Malawi

Today Im going from northern to southern Malawi, Africa. I wake to my alarm at 4:30 a.m., in Mzuzu, Malawi. Blue netting surrounds me, protecting me from mosquitos carrying malaria. Every night I tuck the netting under my mattress on three sides, slither into bed, and then tuck in the remaining side. In the morning, I hear the honk of our taxi outside and climb in, along with my sister Emma and friend Anna. On the way to the bus depot, I watch the sun start to rise over the surrounding buildings. We arrive with plenty of time to spare, and the commercial bus opens its doors at 6:05 a.m. – I note the time because its a big deal were starting to leave within five minutes of the scheduled departure.

Traveling in Malawi is difficult and unreliable. Be prepared to wait for and negotiate a price for every form of transportation, it always takes longer than anticipated. Dont let this discourage you though, it made every day of my one month journey in Malawi an adventure. I apprehensively went up the side of the Zomba Plateau in reverse, because the taxi drivers engine would cut out going forward. I also traveled through the hilly countryside in a taxi that only had half its brakes working.

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This bus hopefully has its brakes working and is able to drive forward up hill. We leave and largely barren landscape starts passing by. Malawis scenery reminds me of San Diego, California: mostly flat desert with few hills and large rock faces. It is hot season or summer as Americans call it, and my forehead, arms – my whole body is sweating. November might not have been the best time to visit, because its one the hottest months in Malawi (86 degrees F being the average high temperature).

The ground morphs from rusty red to tan. The red soil looks like it belongs in the outback of Australia. When it rains, the ground soaks up all the moisture, leaving the topsoil dry, still cracked and dusty. Large outcroppings of rock emerge as we move south. Im heading toward the village where Anna, a lifelong friend, is currently a Peace Corps volunteer. Plumeria trees dot the topography; their pink, yellow and white flowers remind me of time spent organic farming in Hawaii, where Plumeria is also found.   

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Today is a day of moving, moving, moving – we get dropped off at the turnoff to Blantyre. A few men start to persuade us to get on their mini bus. Anna haggles the price, and we are off. We stop only after a few minutes to pick up a young girl with two fifty-pound sacks of grain, and a large woven basket. The girl is squished in by the window, one man has to sit on one of the sacks, and another man crouches by the bus door. Luckily, the girl and her possessions only stay on for a few miles.

The back of my shirt is wet with sweat. Sweat is also dripping down my covered legs. I want to pull up my skirts fabric to let my legs free, but I cant because its considered very improper for women to show skin above their knees. However, breastfeeding is completely acceptable because it’s not sexualized. The reason women must cover up is because Malawians are very religious. It’s safe to say that every Malawian I met was either Christian or Muslim. In the whole month I was in Malawi I only saw two women with their knees exposed. Also, covering up is a good idea because it shows respect for Malawian culture.    

We come to a turnoff where theres a crowd. Our bus arrives; its immediately swarmed by people. Some display Mandazi, which is fried dough. Some knock on the windows trying to sell us Coke, Fanta and small plastic bags of water. I feel overwhelmed. The most aggressive people are talking heatedly with the drivers trying to persuade them to have us get on their bus for the next part of our journey. We go to the lowest bidder, but not before Anna asks for her money back when they try to sell us to an empty mini bus. An empty bus means we would have to wait on the bus until it is completely full. 

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Finally we get out and motioned toward another mini bus, that already has at least twelve people on it, along with two large woven baskets.  At this point Im ready to chill out, but we must journey on. Anna squeezes into the middle seat. I double-check that our bags get smashed in the back. Emma jams herself on the middle seat with enough room for me to sit next to her. Someone tries to sit beside her, but she holds the seat for me. After I get in, a woman with a standup fan gets in, as well as another man. The only space left is crouching right in front of me.  I try and hold the fan out of his way.   

We ride in the mini bus for twenty minutes. Anna goes up to a man shes familiar with, and they decide on a price for a bike taxi to her house. We clamor on slightly padded bicycle racks which reside above the back wheel. Its quite the task to try and keep our knees covered while arranging our long skirts on either sides of the bike wheel. Three bikes for us, and one for our large backpacks. They strap the bags on with strips of tires. Traveling by bike taxi is my favorite way to travel, because Im not enclosed in a car or bus and can feel air all around me. Less buildings go by, which reveals the open countryside. Rows of dirt awaiting seeds fill both sides. Houses made out of homemade brick go by. I feel free, and weightless. I breathe in and dont smell burning of trash or fields. 

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We take a right turn off the main dirt road. I see a small white square in the distance. Dry rice patties fill both sides of the path. I turn and see the sun setting behind small jagged mountains covered in trees. The white square turns into a house; it has a tin roof and a small porch.

“Welcome to my house,” Anna says.

This is the destination weve been searching for. The whirlwind of the day is over. Were finally here!

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About the author: Hannah Ayers is currently a nanny living in Portland, OR. She started traveling internationally at the ripe ol’ age of six and doesn’t want to stop anytime soon. The only activity that rivals her love of travel writing is her passion for rock climbing. She has enjoyed climbing in Squamish, BC, Leavenworth, WA, and most recently Malawi, Africa. She looks forward to her upcoming climbing trip to Bishop, CA.

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