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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 8, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 41
Week 14: Thank God For Jack!!! And some of the most trying travel in my life.
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Week 14: Thank God For Jack!!! And some of the most trying travel in my life.

As I mentioned last week, Louis and I decided to spend our last night on Mozambique Island at Ruby's. It was wonderful, but we had no idea how wonderful until we had finished week 14 traveling with Jack. Our conversations and interactions with Jack had been limited. We thought he might be 'gay', but we were so busy playing with our 'Dutch' friends, we had not had any time to really chat until Sunday night on Ruby's rooftop terrace.

Jack, we found out, was going our exact route to Malawi. And he had done it before. When I say 'exact route', I mean sorting out the overnight stays, getting train tickets, know where the chapas (small buses/vans) or trucks went, figuring out boats that often don't follow their own schedules and ultimately leaving Mozambique and entering Malawi by dhow (sailboat).

Sunday night we said goodbye to the friends we had met while staying at Casa Luis and Ruby's. It was the first time in 15 weeks I felt depressed. Mozambique Island had really grown on us after we had gotten to know it and I know I would always remember our stay there. A "world class place' and UNESCO Heritage site, run down and ruinous, the most incredible scenery and beaches along with the great fun we had with all our new friends.

I knew too, putting the SGN on line was weighing heavily on me. I had 'squeeked through' on Mozambique Island, emailing a friend in Seattle to 'hit the final switch'. What was going to happen in Malawi? I talked to Jack about my concerns and he said we would be in Nkhata Bay about 3 am Sunday (6pm Saturday, Seattle time) and at Big Blue Star, which he was going to manage for a month for a friend. They had a computer and internet access that actually worked quite well.

It was like a big weight was lifted from me and I was ready to go. We were up Monday at 4:30 am to catch a chapa to Nampula. After walking to what we considered the pickup point near the hospital, we got on a chapas and headed for Mampula or so we thought. We drove up to the bridge and stopped, the chapas "ticket man" yelling Nampula, Nampula. We were comfortably full (about 15 people in the van). Deep down inside we knew they weren't going to leave until we had at least 21 people - our record is 27 in a van. Well, the positive side is we drove around the island a couple of times and I looked at it is the final goodbye tour. We were full at 24 and the chapa looked like an IKEA van with stuff tied high on the roof.

We got to Nampula and walked 15 minutes to the train station. Tickets for the train tomorrow would be for sale at 2pm and it was 1:45. Perfect and we got in an already long line. The tickets went on sale about 2:30 (about MT 350 or $11 for 2nd class, no 1st class on this train, price for 3rd class MT 70). We walked into the city center (about 20 minutes) checking hotels on the way. We wanted something close to the train so we could walk at 5am in the morning to the station.

The next morning we were up and gone by 5 and into the lineup to board the train. The lineup was moving, but so, so long. Then Louis spoke up - "hey guys, think this is for 3rd class". We found the entrance for 2nd class and found our compartment on the train quite fast. How naïve, in Africa for 3 months, Jack, born in Africa and a seasoned traveler and we thought 4 of us (and in our case a fifth - a baby) in the compartment and we would be full. Two more people and all their stuff squeezed into the compartment and we were off.

Everyone we had talked to had loved the train trip. Lonely Planet listed it as the author's favorite "must do". It was wonderful and fascinating. Mountains, like immense boulders standing on the African landscape. Great little towns, where we would stop for 15 to 30 minutes, with all the vendors coming up to the windows selling their stuff.

What was being sold seemed to change with the town. Some towns had onions and potatoes. Others bread and tomatoes. After about 3 stops we had enough food to make sandwiches and the train had additional passengers in the form of live chickens.

We walked to the dining car to get a bench and table to make our lunch and eat it. I am sure the car was turn of the century. No, 2 centuries ago. You could see the ground flashing by through the floorboards. We propped up the table as it was falling over and prepped lunch. I don't know what happened. Too hot in the charcoal fired kitchen that backed onto the dining area, or maybe a bump? Suddenly out of the cracks between the boards of the walls of the car, scurried the cockroach army to disappear under the wall and the floor boards. It was not to be our last encounter with these critters.

The kitchen on the train really looked like something from 1890. The fires were blazing and so hot I don't know how the kitchen staff could work. And incredibly, their food was actually quite good.

As we traveled on the train we got to know Jack. My first impression when I first saw him at Ruby's on Mozambique Island was that he might be a person who is a little "light weight" for being a serious traveler. He had introduced himself as a Canadian from Ottawa. On the train we learned more about his story.

Was I so wrong! He was born in Lesotho, an African country completely surrounded by South Africa. He really didn't know much about his birth, except that he was born an orphan. His parents had been visiting Lesotho and died in a car accident and he had been born. He had lived for a number of years in an orphanage in Lesotho, gone to school in Lesotho and then by scholarship in South Africa. He was finally "fostered" by a Canadian couple in Ottawa, Canada.

He created and runs (with his organizations board) the Joy Foundation which gives scholarships to orphans around the world to help with their education. Jack travels personally to meet and interview teachers and orphans to see if some students might qualify for a Joy scholarship.

And Jack is no "light weight" traveler! What might exhaust me and cause Louis to buy a ticket home, Jack takes in stride. He is not exactly your "tough jock" but on many occasions he stopped our row in a bus from being too overcrowded and he could intimidate most who crossed him into submission.

Then there were the African kids&they seemed to stare at him. I don't know what it was. The next moment he had candy and the kids would mob him. In the days to come on the boat, we would arrive on the beach of a village and Jack would be dancing on the bow, the kids on the sand below, laughing and imitating him in unison. Then all the parents would join in, howling with laughter. Every landing at every beach was the same. The warmth of the kids and parents and the hilarity of it all was intoxicating.

The train arrived in Cuamba, the end of the line. It had been a long 11 hour trip. It had been so much fun, great scenery and wonderful interactions with other passengers as well as all the people selling their wares along the way.

We found a small hotel and checked in. It was your typical small town African hotel. With buckets of water to flush the toilet and to have a cold shower in the toilet room down the hall. It did have mosquito nets which helped us feel more comfortable.

We went for dinner at a nearby restaurant. As you do when traveling in Africa, you ask as many people as possible about how you get a chapa to your next destination and when will it leave. Ask 5 different people and you will likely get 5 different answers.

We were up at 4:30 and found a chapa to Lichinga. We were off and moving and all I could say - we were traveling in "real" Africa - dirt roads, dusty, miles of washboard. So cramped that moving your leg 1 inch would only give you relief for about 5 minutes.

About a half hour before we got to Lichinga the chapa slowed down and pulled off to the side of the highway. A motorcycle pulled up behind us and the driver and "conductor" had a conversation with the motorcycle driver and then suddenly we had a crew change. The driver and "conductor" took off on the motorcycle and we drove off down the highway with our new crew.

Very shortly we pulled over for a police check. The new driver chatted with the police and off we went. We realized that our current driver was driving because the other two were probably wanted by the police.

Suddenly we took a right off the highway to travel through a village on the outskirts of Metangula. We dropped off all sorts of passengers and drove around and then pulled onto the side of the highway some miles from where we had left it. Soon the motorcycle arrived with our previous driver and ticket person. They resumed their positions on the chapa and we were off.

We got to Lichinga about 1:30 in the afternoon and Jack suggested we not stop for the night. He wasn't sure when the boat was leaving Metangula for Cobue and he didn't want to miss the boat.

We were exhausted by the time we got to Metangula. Jack was "taking no shit" from the people driving the chapa and was not going to be crowded out. People had been getting on and off through the windows at each village we stopped at. There was no way to go up and down the "isle". Louis wasn't saying much except to ask me for the Lonely Planet guide and where there might be an airport. It was tough but I had no idea how tough it was going to get.

It was dark when we got to Metangula and we left Louis with our stuff at a bar. Jack and I went off to find a place to stay. We nixed the place Jack had stayed 6 months ago. It was fair to say it could have been a step down from the "hooker haven" we had staying in when going up the coast. Louis probably would have walked out and we wanted to be as close to the boat as possible as we had heard it was leaving at 2am.

We looked at two more places and they were much the same. The price was right, about MT 250 or $8.00. It was not the time to make life rougher for Louis who was well into planning his mutiny. Then wonderful Jack made the acquaintance of the person in charge of tickets for the boat and then he met the captain. We were offered free accommodation on the Dangalila!

I was thrilled and Louis seemed okay as we walked down to the boat in the dark. Our boat was sitting with its bow on the beach, listing somewhat to one side. We climbed up a narrow ladder from about foot of water onto the bow. The watchman opened the front hatch and showed us where we could store our stuff and the two beds. We lowered ourselves into the old creosote smelling room. As we put our stuff on the beds we noticed the walls move. Cockroaches everywhere, the big 3 inch plus, flying African kind. Louis was out of the hatch and onto the deck. Looking at both of us with eyes that said "kill and you are both crazy" at the same time! We sat on the benches on the bow to talk "about things".

I went below and got our sleeping bags and brought them up on the deck. Jack had adapted somewhat to our "cockroach" cabin and had gone to bed. I made up a bed on the front deck of the boat and Louis sat on the bench wrapped in a sheet. We were so, so tired now and I was hoping somehow I could get some sleep. Suddenly Louis jumped up with a giant cockroach crawling up his sheet. I saw it and then another dash away. I stood with Louis on the deck, a wonderful, warm African night, a full moon and was paralyzed at what to do next.

Everyone was slowly boarding and weren't sure what to do. We went back to the hotel by the beach but it was full. We walked back and sat on the beach. It was about 1am and I had just confirmed with Louis that cockroaches don't live on sandy beaches when a big one flew in and we both jumped up.

I had been checking my email on my Blackberry and my wonderful brother in Vancouver was offering to give me a car. Did I want it? My feelings were indescribable. Trapped with cockroaches in Africa, being offered a new car in Vancouver, all at the same time. It was the weirdest night and nothing seemed to make sense.

I went off to get Jack. He wasn't sleeping all that well. He told me later that the sound of flying cockroaches even kept him awake. Jack tried to humor Louis and he was remarkably successful as I was unsuccessful. He helped Louis set up a 1:30am picnic on the beach and made us some strong drinks with some vodka we had bought earlier at the bar. Louis laid back down on the sand wrapped in his sheet. He was suddenly asleep and snoring. I sat like a protective dog next to him wondering what was to happen next.

It was 2am and time for official boarding. As our stuff was on board, I though ½ hour of sleep for Louis was a good idea and we could get on at 2:30 with a 1/2 hour to spare. At 2:30 the diesel started up on the boat. I woke Louis and suggested we get on board. We were 5 minutes late and they wouldn't let us board. The boat was stuck on the sand and they were going to spend the next hour trying to get it off.

Watching the scenario made Monty Python seem like conservative comedy. They roared the diesel and a ½ dozen people would try to push. The boat would just list one way, then the other and not move. We watched this routine about every 10 minutes for over an hour. We suggested that the boat might float if some people got off. Any solution other than roar the diesel were not considered over even perhaps imagined.

Finally, over an hour of this and the boat finally pulled off the sand. The captain saw us waiting on the sand a motioned for us to get in the next boat. We were being given special privilege and I felt somewhat bad. Then we were ferried out 4 people at a time to the boat in the tippiest "launch" I have ever experienced. I also was concerned that they might have left us and Jack and the boat would have sailed off. Louis suggested that there was no way the boat would leave us "with Jack on board"! We were off on our 12 hour "cruise" up the coast of Lake Malawi to Cobue.

I thought I had experinced fear with the bus ride two weeks before. The boat was loaded like an African bus. I believe the boat had a capacity for around 50. The Captain had said he could get 90+ on the boat. We would list from about 30 degrees one way and then list the other way. You had to hang on to the railings or you could just slide across the deck and off into the water. Thank goodness they were hugging the coastline. The crew knew things were not great.

We were so tired. Louis was dozing off and I was really concerned he would let go and go sliding off the deck and into Lake Malawi. I was too concerned to go to the beds, not because of the cockroaches but if something happened I knew I would be trapped below and drown. And I didn't want to leave Louis on the deck. We joked with Jack that we remembered a movie where the main characters name was Jack. True to form he poised flying over the bow of the boat until the captain yelled at him saying he couldn't see. Finally I was so tired I didn't care and went down below to sleep. Had we not been so tired and the boat so scary, the trip up Lake Malawi would have been sensational. Pulling into all the villages, Jack playing with the kids on the beaches. The locals getting on and off actually helped to make the trip "almost" wonderful. Louis and Jack carried on and joked, even made sandwiches and we slowly motored up the coast to arrive at Cobue about 1:30 in the afternoon.

Jack and I left Louis on the beach with our stuff to find a sailing dhow or motorized boat to take us the 35 or so miles across to Likoma Island in Malawi. We also were pushing because we only had until 4:30 to meet immigration in Likoma Island until they closed.

We found a boat and Jack negotiated a price. Then we went to the immigration office in Cobue to get our passports stamped to officially leave Mozambique. This is important as if your stamps don't agree there can be big fines and they have no problem putting you in jail. The good news was that the visa for Malawi was free. Nobody was at the immigration office so I stayed there and Jack went off to find the immigration officer. He found him, we got our passports stamped and we took the motorized boat to Likota Island.

We got off the boat on Likota Island, crossed the beach and road and walked into Malawi immigration. The officer's name was Jack and he remembered Jack from his March trip. We were now officially in Malawi. They speak English here and we are staying at the Mango Drift Backpackers. It is a great place. The pendulum now was in the extreme opposite position. We found ourselves in paradise. Truly, truly beautiful with all the baobab trees, the water and the incredible people. Our own hot, hot water, flush toilets, wonderful bar and restaurant with owners from England.

We spent some time visiting a family with a 1 year old albino baby boy. Jack is helping support the boy and had a large package of donated suntan lotion and many clothes. Being an albino in Africa is life threatening, not because of the sun or the other challenges an albino has, but there are many people who believe that the flesh and body parts of an albino will make them invisible, if you use the hair in your nets you will catch big fish and the internal organs will make you strong. Living here on the island was actually a relative safe haven from this threat.

Likoma Island has an incredible cathedral which was built in the early 1900's by some Italians. It is the largest cathedral in Africa and is in amazingly good shape and totally out of place in this village on this small island in Lake Malawi. It is currently in use and when we were there they were getting ready to have a wedding. We met the family and chatted with many of the people.

We had a wonderful break at Mango Drift and really enjoyed the water, scenery and great evening meals. It was time to get ready to catch the Ilala, which ran weekly up and down most of the length of Lake Malawi and travel the 12 hour boat trip to Nkhata Bay for our next stop.

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