Malawi: December 18

When we crossed the border between Zambia and Malawi, two things immediately became obvious.  First, there are a whole lot more people in Malawi.  Second, there wasn’t any gas.  A petrol shortage had been going on for weeks due to a shortage of foreign currency--which we were happy to help remedy in a small way (at a very advantageous exchange rate.)   It also became immediately obvious that the above two factors were symptoms (causes?) of a country that was much more poor than any of the previous places we had visited.

Our first stop was Lilongwe where we were hosted by Jeff Robison (a former Columbia co-resident of Meg’s), his wife Shima, and their adorable two boys Darien and Kian.  We separated and spent the day in a world of two extremes.  Meg went with Jeff to the local hospital, spending the morning at the “Under 5 unit” (which is the closest thing the hospital has to a Pediatric Emergency Room), and the inpatient wards- where it was not uncommon for 4-6 patients to be sharing a bed.  The afternoon was spent at the University of Baylor funded HIV Clinic which while well-staffed and well-resourced, has a very heavy patient load (Malawi ranks 9th in HIV prevalence in the world.) Jed, on the other hand, spent the day eating cake (literally) at the British High Commission while discussing the efficacy of foreign aid.  We had just read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari,which explores aid in Africa, and our experiences in Lilongwe helped bring the issue to life as we think about our future work in Latin America. 

We left Lilongwe and headed up to Nkhata Bay, a small town on the northern part of Lake Malawi.  We found a direct bus, but unfortunately it was the local bus, which stopped (no exaggeration) every 1-2 minutes, thus taking 8 hours to complete a 250km journey.  On the basis of dollars per hour of travel it was a great value ($5) and it did allow us to get a real taste of the Malawian people and countryside (and we didn’t have to change buses!). When we finally arrived, we immediately jumped into the lake which made the trip worth it! 

Following, an amazing sunrise and morning swim we were ready to begin another long bus journey.  We got on the local bus (again) to the nearby town on Mzuzu (we hate repeating the same mistake); then hopped on a minibus which, despite being filled beyond capacity and having to sit with our knees to our chest, it took us to the border town of Karonga in a speedy 4 hours, making it the best bus trip in Malawi.

To continue our discussion of local cuisine, we certainly got a real taste of it in Nkhata Bay where we went to one of the two local “restaurants” (which looked more like a living room with some tables in it) in town.  Meg went for the safe beans and cima (the Malawian version of mealy pap, the cornmeal-based dish common throughout the region.)  Jed, on the other hand, asked what “chicken parts” were and was taken back to the kitchen so that he could see for himself.  While we ate the meal and did not get sick, we learned a very important lesson—never look in a Malawian “kitchen” before eating if you want to enjoy the meal properly (Meg will never forget the look on Jed’s face the entire time he was eating his chicken parts.) 

Zambia (December 14, 2009)

Well, it turns out it was harder getting to Zambia than we thought.  As we wrote below, we had made a reservation on the Nam-Zam Express bus that was to meet us in Grootfontein “at the gas station sometime between 8 and 9pm”  When the bus finally arrived a little past 10pm we were told two things:

1.  The bus was full (although our reservation had been made and we did in fact have a seat assignment though there were other people in those seats.) 

2.  There was a second bus coming and the first bus would wait until the second bus arrived.

So we waited and waited until 1:30am when the second bus (finally!) arrived.  (Turns out it had broken down shortly after the previous stop.) However, the second bus was also full.  At this point, we had been at the gas station for 6 hours (at least it was a Total Gas station—see Namibian entry.) Seeing the looks on our faces, the bus man then told us we could get on the first bus and just to find any seat—unfortunately, this meant sitting on the edge of the window right by the door (not so much a seat, but we could not spend any more time on the gas station.)  A very uncomfortable 600km later (made slightly better only by very soothing Zambian music and an elephant running out in front of the bus), we arrived at the Zambian border.  From there, it was an easy bus ride to Livingstone.

In Livingstone, we met Chris Bradford and Pallen Chiu and immediately headed off to Livingstone Island where we were told we would swim in a “natural pool” overlooking the falls.  (Meg pictured an infinity pool at the hotel.)  It is hard to truly describe the experience—first walking up to see the falls with a complete lack of barriers and then swimming out to a pool at the edge of the falls and then dangling headfirst over the edge of the falls! It was truly a unique experience.

 Then add on sunset over the Zambeezi river, a ramble through Victoria Falls National Park, and a bungee jump over the Victoria Falls bridge and you have a winning weekend. It was Meg’s first bungee jump ever- though she was a little nervous despite Jed’s cheerleading 

 But in the end she jumped off the bridge like a champ. Not bad considering it is the 3rd highest bungee jump in the world.

After the falls, we began a series of long bus journeys through Zambia, getting to see some of Lusaka (in the rain and a power outage) and some of Chipata. While not as empty as Namibia, Zambia isn’t crowded either, though one sees many more roadside huts (made of mud brick and straw). Zambia has a real and identifiable national cuisine, which was a tasty change from the more internationalized cuisine of South Africa and Namibia. 

Namibia (December 9, 2009)

We ended up in Namibia a day early by accident (turns out that the town on the map on the South Africa side of the border isn’t all it appears to be- which was a sign of things to come….). Luckily, we stumbled upon a rafting camp on the Orange River (which constitutes the border) in time for a beautiful sunset.

We quickly discovered two things:

  1. Namibia is bigger than it seems, especially when driving 300 miles on dirt roads (though very good dirt roads to be fair),
  2.  As Meg said “there are no people here”. To put it in perspective, Namibia is slightly larger in size than the state of Texas with a population of on par with that of Houston alone.  (Nambia has 2 people per square kilometer; by comparison NYC has over 2000--no wonder we felt like we were alone the whole time.)

Both of these came into play when we got a flat tire in the middle of Fish River Canyon National Park with no one around.  Fortunately, we were well equipped…..

And for those of you who know the Herrllivann family at all know this was not a one person job

Fortunately our stop that night was in the lovely town of Keetsmanshoop which is known for having the most petrol stations per capita (and therefore lots of tire places as well.)  We set off the next morning to explore the dunes of Sosussvlei. Part of the bone-dry Namib desert, the dunes here are among the largest in the world. Spending (a slightly longer than anticipated) time walking through them one afternoon by ourselves (again, there is no one here), it really gave us the sense of what it would like to be stuck in a real desert in the old days. Thanks to the rental tent (surprisingly not as crappy as we first thought) we were able to experience the desert dunes at both sunset and sunrise. 

After a night in the German/Namibian town of Swakopmund (staying in 2 bed “fisherman’s shack” at the municipal rest camp), we did the 21st century version of desert exploration- on ATVs! 

But the true highlight of our trip to Swakopmund was our stop at the Total gas station. Outstanding service (we had at least 5 people addressing our vehicles various needs: gas, tires, windows, oil, etc.) coupled with good humor (the man taking the money referred to himself as “the minister of finance”) and an engaging manner made for our best visit ever to a gas station. In fact, “the minister of finance” upon seeing a photo in Jed’s wallet asked if that was a picture from our wedding (which, in fact, it was). He was very interesting studying the picture in great detail and asking who everyone was- however, in his honest manner he made two grave mistakes:

1.     He identified Meg’s sister-in-law Ali as best looking person in the picture

2.      When asked if Meg looked more beautiful now (in person) or in the picture, he answered that she definitely looked better in the picture

However, given his engaging manner and the multiple blessings he gave us for a happy life, we were able to forgive him his errors. (For those of you planning on visiting Swakopmund, it is the Total station on the corner of Nathaniel Maxuilili St and San Nujoma Ave:

Our next stop was Windhoek, which is a very pleasant capital city, though not known for its nightlife (about on par with Des Moines, Iowa) or historical sites (also on par with Des Moines).  The highlight there was our visit to the Zambian Embassy—we went there to explore transport options to Victoria Falls and left with much anticipation for the wonders of life in Zambia thanks to our new Zambian friends Tonnie and Kelvin (the “ambassadors”/bus ticket salespeople.)  Among their best recommendations were to try rat and fried caterpillars; they also emphatically stressed that Zambian corn was far superior to the Namibian variety. 

Given the bus to Victoria Falls didn’t leave for two days we decided to head to Northern Namibia and meet the “Nam-Zam Express” there.  We hopped on a mini-bus, which we discovered was also serving as a moving van for a Namibian family (we stopped approximately halfway at the new residence to unload the trailer.)  We got off in the town of Tsumeb which is described in the Lonely Planet as “Namibia’s loveliest town.”  While the town is perfectly nice and most Namibian “towns” usually consist of a couple of buildings at best (again, no people here), we quickly realized the guidebook author either had never been here or had a mistress in town (or some other reason for thinking the town so lovely).

With any luck we’ll be in Victoria Falls in day’s time- that is, if our new Zambian friends come through with our bus “reservation” (ie writing our first names down on a slip of paper and assuring us the bus would meet us in Grootfontein “at the gas station sometime between 8 and 9pm”)….

South Africa (December 3, 2009)

We left the Middle East somewhat reluctantly but were very excited to start exploring a whole new region.  We arrived in Johannesburg and spent a day at the African Leadership Academy, an amazing school founded by our friend Chris Bradford.  We not only got to brush up on our high school physics and leadership skills, we also met students from all over the continent with remarkable stories and aspirations. 

We then were treated to the “Bradford special tour” which included both a visit to the township of Soweto and the Voortrekker monument in Pretoria (a monument to the “Great Trek” of the Afrikaners.)   One an intentional monument to the Afrikaners escape from persecution by the British, the other an unintentional remnant of the Afrikaner subsequent persecution and discrimination of black South Africans.  While the two are obviously incomparable in severity and gravity, the contrast provided very interesting insight into some of the ironies of the history of South Africa (that continues today with the recent persecution of immigrants from other African nations.)

Next, we traveled up north to Kruger National Park where we enjoyed our first safari experience.  The experience was truly magical.  We stayed in a remote lodge where baby baboons and impalas greeted us on the walkways in the morning.  During each game drive we were treated to a taste of the “Big Five”—including watching a herd of elephants give themselves mud baths, watching a female lioness walk right behind the jeep, and tracking a leopard in the bush for several minutes.  Other highlights included rounding out the Big Five (with the Water Buffalo and Rhino), baby giraffes, a pack of wild dogs by the roadside, and a bush walk during which we learned about the different floral and fauna (including several trees that have apparent have medicinal properties for certain personal problems; Jed took careful notes, while Meg corrected the proportions- doctors…)  And even though we were warned that the classic American “mistake” is to get really excited by a Zebra (which are considered quite common in Africa), we couldn’t help taking several pictures--their faces are beautiful up close.

Next it was on to Cape Town where we had the pleasure of enjoying the city from a breathtaking seaside apartment in Clifton.  We quickly fell in love with the city and all that it has to offer.  We managed to hit the highlights—climbing Table Mountain (turns out it is a pretty hard climb), boating out to Robben Island, wandering in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, driving to the Cape of Good Hope, and the exploring the City Bowl.  The excitement of the upcoming World Cup filled the air (as did dust from all of the construction) and the city felt very much alive and vibrant.  We also met up with Sue Valentine (a friend of Jed’s father) who told us about runs the Children's Radio Foundation, which supports amazing radio programs by and for children (check it out at www.childrensradiofoundation.org).  She also took us on a tour of the Cape Town Children’s Hospital (the only separate Children’s hospital in Sub-Saharan Africa,) which was a definite highlight for Meg.  Jed’s highlight may have been the free dinner we got because he correctly answered a question about Egypt mythology; turns out the report he did in the 8th grade on the sun goddess Nut (and the recent refresher in Egypt) paid off!

(Dusk in Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background) 

The only disappointing part of Cape Town was discovering (after the fact) that the Cape of Good Hope is in fact NOT the southern most point in Africa.  However since we (like all the other tourists there) took the picture, we feel we have to insert it here.  Maybe someday we’ll make it to Cape Agulhas.

Finally we headed out to wine country to learn about (and taste of course) the various South African wines. One of the highlights was trying various types of the Pinotage grape variety. Stellenbosch, and the other wineland towns, certainly rival those of California for beauty, culinary delights, and excellent vineyards!

Overall, South Africa is both an emotionally stimulating and draining country.  We were wowed by the great natural, cultural, and human resources of the country, but also troubled by the contemporary effects of (recent) history. We continually had to remind ourselves that much of the momentous moments in the country’s history happened during our lifetimes. Like parts of the middle east (Israel, for example), our visit to South Africa really brought history to life and gave today’s headlines more perspective .