The word that comes to mind when I think of Malawi is gentle. Everything I experienced, everything I saw over the course of my two and a half weeks there exists in my memory in gentle shades and tones. It's a developing/third world country, but it's not like the other developing nations I've been to. It's not hard or broken. It doesn't feel like the raw, open wound of Port-au-Prince or the screaming poverty of urban India.
Malawi may be a developing nation, but it's soft and whole, happy and kind. Its slogan is "the warm heart of Africa" and as hokey and touristy as that phrase is, the unexpected thing is that it fits.
After a bumpy start to the journey which forced me to entirely rebook my flight the night before I left, and stops in Addis Ababa and the Congo, I made it safely to Lilongwe, Malawi's capital.
Lilongwe is the capital but it's nowhere near the size of most capital cities. It's sprawling, dotted with business and shopping districts, but like the rest of the nation it's still filled with wide open spaces of rural land. We were only in Lilongwe for one night before leaving the next morning for the Habitat affiliate in Mulanje, an hour or so away from Blantyre in the south-east corner of Malawi.
Our night in Lilongwe is notable mostly for introducing me to my wonderful Habitat team. People sometimes ask me how I could travel by myself to places like Malawi or Thailand, go so far from home without knowing someone on the trip with me. And the reason is because when I travel without the safety net of someone from my life, it's so much easier to open yourself up to the people you meet. You have to rely on the people you're with, and people go from strangers to friends in the matter of minutes. It's very much the summer camp experience, where the process of forming bonds is sped up to the point where you can spend weeks with someone and feel like you know them better than someone you've known for years.
I love Richmond, and I love having it as a home base. I love my friends and family here. But there's a whole world of people out there, from backgrounds and lifestyles that I don't see every day in my life here. One of the many wonderful things about this trip was that I got to be surrounded by people who were different from me, who lived in different places, had grown up in different parts of the country, and who had completely different life experiences. It's good to see that. It's good to be reminded that not everyone fits into the little boxes we often surround ourselves with.
We had people from PA, LA, San Francisco, NYC, DC, LA, Canada, Australia, and London. We had lawyers, bankers, architects, and students. I've been on trips like this where there are people in the group who get on my last nerve and drive me up the wall by the end of the trip. But this team was just an all together amazing group of people, especially my roomate for the entire two and a half weeks (including six nights in a tent), Shabana, a truly cool Canadian girl (my first Canadian friend!) who in some ways was so different from me but in other ways was just like me.
In Lilongwe we also met our local Habitat coordinator, Jacquie. The best way I can think to describe Jacquie and the wonderful job she did taking care of us, is that whenever she was around you felt this calming, maternal presence fill the room. She is probably not too much older than me, but she emanated that universal Mom warmth. She's a strong, independent woman in a country where that is much harder to achieve than in the US. She told us stories of growing up in a family where the men were always served meals first and where the women had to cook, and how wrong that felt to her. In a place like the US, it's so easy for a woman to find her voice and independence. In a country like Malawi, it's still often a struggle. Which makes it all the more inspiring and impressive that Jacquie did just that, found her voice and her strength, the courage to say that she wanted more for her life, for her daughter's life. She is a single mom who is also helping to raise her late sister's child, and her job with Habitat often takes her away from her kids. But through her job she dedicates her time and energy to help the people in her country have safe, decent places to live. Basically she's a super hero and an inspiration, and I'm so happy to have met her.
Our Habitat group with Jacquie (front, center) at the hotel in Lilongwe
With the group fully assembled we left Lilongwe on Sunday to head to Mulanje. We were told it was a 4-5 hour drive. Really it was an 8 hour drive. By the end of the trip whenever we were told a time estimate we learned to multiply it by at least 2x, to account for what is often referred to as Africa time.
I didn't mind the drive, because it meant I could watch Malawi out the window for 8 hours. It was both what I expected and nothing like I expected, the wide open plains and space of Africa in my mind, along with unexpected mountains and endless hills. The roads are paved and safe, but travel is slow because of the constant police road blocks, every half hour or so. The speed limits are also incredibly low, and our poor driver, George, got a ticket for going 2km over (they told us it was likely because the police officer saw a bus full of foreigners and figured the driver could afford it).
Toward the end of the drive, Mount Mulanje came into view. At first it was a indistinct blur of rock on the horizon, but as we got closer it became more defined, a striking jolt of ancient, cloud covered stone rising abruptly from the flat earth around it.
We made a turn off the main road, and crept up into the bottom of the mountain toward our hotel, Kara O'Mula Country Lodge. I did not expect a great deal from our hotel. I was ready for no hot water, possibly bucket showers, shared, dorm style rooms. What I got when I stepped off the bus into the chilly evening air (we were there during their winter, which, surprise, is actually COLD) was absolutely stunning. The view up the mountain was Mount Mulanje's rocky, craggy peak. The view from the mountain was equally breathtaking, lush green tea plantations with smaller mountains and hills in every direction. The hotel was set on a ledge, with a restaurant and bar at the bottom and smaller bungalows and rooms sprinkled higher up on the hillside.
Me and Shabana's room was on the top floor
I cannot think of a more beautiful place to stay. The staff lined up waiting for us as we clamored off the bus, all with big smiles on their faces. George, the hotel manager, welcomed each of us, and for the remainder of our stay he would be there every day and night. He was the ultimate gentleman, always dressed crisply in a suit, always patiently ready for any request or question. After we got to our rooms and put on warmer clothing, we grabbed some Carlsburg's (the official beer of Malawi) and sat at a table overlooking the view.
We ate our first dinner in the hotel's restaurant, the first of many dinners where I ate in vast quantities and very, very well, and then huddled near the hotel's front desk, where there was internet reception and everyone with iphones and ipads (not I) checked emails and Facebook. But mostly we talked, chatted about all of the random and varied things that people chat about when they don't know the details of each other's lives. We also talked in detail about travel, about the places we've been, the places we still wanted to go. In my normal life, in a room I'm often one of the people who has traveled internationally the most. In this group I was basically a travel newbie. It felt inspiring and invigorating to hear about all of the places these people have been. Some of them were on their 7th or 8th Habitat trip and had been to places as varied as Mongolia and Jordan, Sri Lanka and Uganda. The universal thing with everyone on this trip was that no matter how many places we'd each individually been, we were all junkies, all addicted and hopelessly smitten and starry eyed with travel, with the experience of going somewhere completely new.
It was so lovely to share this obsession with everyone on this trip, to exchange stories, to dream up future trips, to obsess over REI as a travel supply destination, or compare notes on airlines. My love for travel never goes away, but sometimes it loses a little of its fire if I go long enough without a trip. Malawi completely ignited it again, made everything I love about travel come alive in vibrant color and detail, like coming up for air after a long time under water. It felt like a homecoming in that way, because I was back doing my favorite thing in the world, and able to talk endlessly about travel in a way I can never do at home without annoying the crap out of everyone I know. But our Habitat team let each other drone endlessly on about past trips, let each other exchange memories of our highest highs and lowest lows, because we knew, because even a second hand story about travel, to someone who can't live without it, is beautiful and sparkling to hear.
I went to bed that night under my mosquito net already so grateful for what I had experienced, for the people I had met. And this was only day two.
But of course all of this is preamble for when the real core of my trip began, with the next day and the beginning of our build in a nearby village. Of course that is a story deserving of its own long-whinded space, so stay tuned.