Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Catching Up + Story Time

It has been a long, long time. Please trust that I definite plans to update long before now, but have been thwarted for various reasons. I’m sure a lot of you heard that I recently fell ill. I decided to spend my hot season by spending 6 straight weeks at my site… which is a hot site already as it is the lakeshore after all. I was getting busy walking to school 5 days a week (a 40 minute walk one way) and following my counterpart just about everywhere- meetings with my youth network, etc. Well, sweating away a few pounds, I started to not feel well, and then never started to feel better... so I had to get down to the Peace Corps Office in Lilongwe to see our doctor, the brave Dr. Max. Turns out I had some heat exhaustion and dehydration- got 3 bags of IV, and got to rest in the capital for several days. It definitely made me feel better. On my way home I got to visit my friend Willie's site, Nchenachena, and it was extremely beautiful!! Maybe almost as beautiful as mine (he has no lake, but he is in the mountain and valleys and things so it's pretty nice). It was nice to see another Peace Corps site, and was a good transition to getting back to my own site.

My paternal grandmother passed away while I was sick in Lilongwe. It was hard because my maternal grandmother just passed away two months before this. Somehow, I was lucky enough to be with friends both times that these things have happened. I had wonderful support from the Peace Corps Office and my Peace Corps friends, and I was in touch with my family as best as possible. It's hard not to be there for them when I know they are hurting, and I'm hurting too. I love you family, miss you so much. Wish I could have been there with you guys.

Anyway. Things at my site are going well. It's almost the end of the school term, so me and the kids have a lot of work to do to wrap up and prepare for exams. All of my other projects are in progress, more details coming (as they get more interesting to write about). I'm going to be a counselor at an upcoming girls' camp during school break, exciting! One thing that is also coming up soon that I am excited about is World AIDS Day, which is December 1st! My health center and one of our CBO's (Community Based Organization) is cohosting a little celebration. We are luring people to our celebration by the promise of a chance to win a FOOTBALL (soccer ball) if you get an HIV test! This is quite the pull for the local youngin's, and basically anything really, because a good football is hard to come by. So, if you come to our celebration, and get your confidential HIV test, you get a raffle ticket to win. In addition to testing, we're going to have different informational sessions for people to learn more about HIV and how to support their friends who are positive, or help their friends make healthy choices. There will hopefully be a lot of learning and positive discussion going on- and even if there's only a little it will be an improvement, as HIV/AIDS is still a very quietly discussed subject in my area. It's my dream that at least 100 people get tested... wish us luck!

Now I'd like to introduce a little "story time" segment that I wrote awhile ago- it's about transport in Malawi. Future story time topics will include "How I Know My Dog Is Malawian", etc. So enjoy! (and check out my updated wishlist! love you guys!)

I should be clear before beginning, that I don’t like any form of transportation in ANY country. I hate driving, I’d always rather tag along in someone else’s car. I do not like trains. I don’t enjoy the time spent on planes, I find them wildly uncomfortable. When I was volunteering in DC and had the ride the metro for a half hour each way once a week, it was okay I guess, but also quite expensive. When I lived in my apartment in St. Mary’s I used to ride my bike to the grocery store sometimes, which I enjoyed, however many people looked at me like I was crazy (I’m going to assume they were jealous of the extremely large basket on the back of my bike). So yeah. I don’t like transportation. I like to walk! I really like walking. Maybe one day I will walk a marathon.

Back to business. Transportation overall in Malawi is not the best, to put it lightly. There are few privately owned vehicles, and they are owned by Malawian bwanas (bwana means boss, and when said it means rich person). Occasionally a Malawian bwana will pick you up, which is nice, but it’s not a way to rely on for getting around the country. Many of the NGO’s and other national organizations (i.e. the Peace Corps) have white Toyota jeepy like things… they go really fast, and you’ll be lucky if one can pick one up. Otherwise maybe you can catch a ride on a big rig. They go slower than some other transportation, but they rarely stop and go long distances if you’re trying to get somewhere far. I haven’t had much luck trying to get sweet rides like this, but it happens every now and then. Many volunteers depend on these kind of transport because of the hassles of public transportation.

Most transportation in Malawi is public- in the form of minibuses (large vans with rows of seats), matolas (open air flatbed trucks), and big buses (like greyhounds… but generally not as nice). The big buses are the cheapest generally, but unless you’re leaving from their start destination, it’s hard to guess when they might be arriving near you. They are often overloaded with people (a common theme in Malawian transporation). I was riding from Mzuzu to my friend Robert’s house in Nkhata Bay and I got on the bus an hour before it left and I still had to stand. However, a nice Malawian who saw me falling asleep while standing up gave me his seat. I like that the buses are cheap and generally, don’t stop as much as other forms of transportation. When I went to IST, I took one of the bwana big buses (the nicer big bus… more expensive ticket) and the bus actually left at the time it said it would, the seats were comfortable (I had a seat!!), and there was a TV on the bus playing music videos; and it was about time for me to catch up on my American 1980’s music videos, and my Malawian music videos as well. We stopped very few times and it was an enjoyable ride. If I was going to travel alone a long distance, I would shell out the dough for the bwana bus.

Next, we have matolas. Nothing about matolas seems official- there’s no notion that it’s a taxi service or anything of that nature. There’s two people working the matola- the driver, and a ‘conductor’ who sits in the back with us laypeople, collecting money. I find that many people who work on matolas (and minibuses) aren’t the friendliest, but hey, we gotta get around somehow. Many volunteer prefer matolas because it is an open air situation, and it’s better than being crammed in a hot minibus. I have had both positive and negative matola experiences. I do appreciate the open air experience of the matola and getting to see the beautiful view of Malawi. However, I have also been extremely crammed with tons of people and their kuthundu (kuthundu means stuff… could be anything, but especially near me, it often means USIPA… giant baskets loaded with these tiny little fish… nice and smelly), weighing down the matola so you can barely hit a good speed. I would say matolas are often most likely to be in the worst shape, and to stop the most along the road. I’ve tried to make the point to different matola drivers that people would pay more for a more enjoyable ride with less stops (at least I would anyway) but that idea hasn’t seemed to have gotten across yet. For me to get out of my village and to the tarmac road (the M1, which can get me almost anywhere), it is almost exclusively matolas. The road in my village isn’t the best for a matola ride, but the view is the best in the country, I guarantee it!

Last but not least, we have the minibuses. Many volunteers vow never to ride minibuses. I do, because once I’m on the tarmac road I like to get somewhere, and often a minibus is the first thing that arrives. A minibus is the equivalent of what we would have called a bush taxi in The Gambia. Minibuses are often extremely overcrowded, depending where you are- I heard from someone who lived down south that they actually enforce only letting a certain amount of people on a minibus. I’ll believe this when I see it, I honestly hope it’s true. But near me, it’s usually myself and what feels like a million other people, and again, all of their kuthundu, crammed on a minibus. It’d be hard to travel in Malawi if you had serious personal space issues. Every possible space on the bus is taken up by people or kuthundu, and we’re going beyond the seats here. Empty space is lost money, and as much as I appreciate this savvy business idea, again, I would pay more to be more comfortable. Minibuses also stop a lot, which is probably one of the most annoying things about transport, cuz once you’re finally in it, you just wanna get to where you’re going!! When Patti came with to my birthday, on our way home from Mzuzu we took a minibus, and I felt like a jerk taking up space with my puppy, since Malawians don’t all love dogs as much as we Americans generally do. But then a few months after that, I was on a minibus sitting next to a Malawian who was holding a puppy! So, I know that I must be fitting in pretty well at least.

Another thing I should address- I live at the bottom of THE escarpment. Emphasis on THE, because that is how we describe it, as if it’s the only one (it’s not). I don’t think I had even heard of the word escarpment before coming here, but what it basically means to me here is that I live at the bottom of a mountain, and the windy scary road that goes down it. We volunteers feel very divided by this escarpment, constantly trying to lure our friends to what we believe is the cool side of the escarpment (and it is cooler on our side, because we’re there and so is the northern lakeshore of Malawi). But our many rejected invitations can be understood, because the escarpment road is probably one of the most frightening roads I’ve ever been on. It is incredibly steep, and WINDY. And when you’re in a packed minibus, trying to chug your way up the steepest hill ever, sometimes you just think that you might not make it. Going up the escarpment is scary cuz it puts a lot of stress on whatever vehicle in to chug up it. Going DOWN the escarpment is probably equally if not a little more scary, as your driver has to ride the brake the whole time and the windy-ness is known to make people sick. On that same minibus where I was sitting next to the Malawian with the puppy, several people on my bus got sick. I was sitting in the back and there was a lot of noisy commotion, when the man next to me said “People are vomiting!” and laughed. That’s when I noticed that people had their heads out the windows. Lovely! One of the coolest things about the escarpment that is that you are almost always guaranteed to see baboons on the side of the road, and since many people won’t see baboons outside a zoo in their lifetime… then yeah, it’s pretty cool. Also, if you’re not too scared to keep your eyes open, the view of the lake is amazing!

As I previously mentioned, the rides to get out of my village are almost exclusively matolas. Unfortunately, there is no rhyme or reason to finding a ride out at whatever time you’re wishing to leave. After 5 months or so of living in Mlowe, I would say it’s probably easiest to leave early in the morning… but sometimes you still might end up waiting for awhile for a ride. Leaving any other time of the day is a gamble, and I have on occasion walked the 10 kilometers to the tarmac when transport was not available. I would say the hardest transport day is Sunday, and I try not to take too many chances on that day since I’m not trying to make a habit of walking 10 kilometers in the heat with all of my kuthundu. But at the same time, as I try to make all these notions on how easy or hard it is to get transport out of Mlowe, anything can happen. Sometimes I’ll be waiting for just 10 minutes and find a ride, and other times upwards of two hours. 10K is not that far, but it’s not a paved road, and… it’s hot people! It’s hot! The ride cost 200kwacha, which is about $1. Many of the drivers know me now and they will drop me right by the turn off to my house w/o my saying anything, which is pretty nice. I would say getting into Mlowe is much more annoying than getting out, because you have to wait for your matola to fill up (and then overfill, and then some) and the time it takes for that to happen is long and arbitrary. Few times I’ve lucked out and arrived at Chiweta (the point on the tarmac where you get onto Mlowe road) with a full matola ready to leave, and those days are great moments in time. But we can’t always be so lucky! But again, it’s all not SO bad.

One of my favorite things about travelling though is STREET FOOD! I have been a fan of street food since my time in The Gambia, where my friend Mike and I used to go to the market every Sunday evening to walk thru the market and buy our dinner bit by bit. We also would often by frozen juices thru the windows of our bush taxis while travelling (I miss wonjo juice!). Here in Malawi, whenever your bus makes a stop near a trading center, people are at your windows trying to sell you food! For cheap! My absolute favorite thing to buy on the road is hardboiled eggs! I can never get eggs in Mlowe, so to be able to buy an egg (or 2 or 3) from the side of the road, with my own little packet of salt is greatly appreciated. I also love the boiled maize, which is only 20kwacha! And it’s delicious! Chippies (French fries basically) are a PCV staple, but some chippies stands are better than others. Sometimes you get a little salad of cabbage and tomato with your chippies, which is sweet. Mendazi (fried dough) and scones (not actually scones, more like… a biscuit? Or a roll?) are classic and cheap cheap. Samosas are one of the best finds- it is rolled out dough that is wrapped around something delicious and fried. If you’re lucky, you can find a meat one (gotta get that protein!) which cost 50kwacha, and other vegetarian versions (maybe filled with rice or potatoes) for 10kwacha. We know that anything fried is delicious, and I like to buy my fried things while sitting in a vehicle, thru a window. The number one road food for hot season is MAFREEZIES!; Which is frozen juice or soda in little baggies. How refreshing! And at big trading centers you can buy even more- bags of potato chips, rolls of cookies, FRIED CHICKEN, all types of things. I always try to indulge on the road, it’s the cheapest way to eat! Although the first thing anyone in a position of authority will tell you when travelling is to NOT eat street food, I have to disagree. Get out there and try something! You just have to be open to having some GI difficulties every now and then. Bring some Tums! I’m lucky that I’m pretty sure I have a stomach of steel and have had probably the least amount of GI problems than other other volunteer I know in country. Lucky me!