January 6, 2005
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
We arrived home from our road trip yesterday afternoon, and I have to tell you that it was a very memorable experience. Unfortunately, not all of the memories will be good. Let me start at the beginning…
We left Blantyre and proceeded to cross four borders in the next few hours. We went out of Malawi, into Mozambique, out of Mozambique and into Zimbabwe. At each stop we had to get out of the car, fill out numerous forms, usually in duplicate, get our passports stamped, pay fees (for passport stamps, visas, carbon tax for the car, insurance for the car, etc.) get the car inspected, have various border officials inspect our papers (Dan was well prepared and had a file folder full of letters from Blantyre Synod, Blantyre police, special visas, our insurance company, etc.). This generally ate up our day with needless bureaucracy. It took a lot of time and was quite nerve wracking because they don’t tell you anything and there are no signs or instructions at each border. For instance, going into Zimbabwe we went to four different buildings, did all the paperwork, paid the fees and finally got into the car and drove up to the gate. The guard told us to go back to get a police check at a fifth building. No one mentioned this before! We did and finally got across the border.
Our impressions of Mozambique were mixed. Poverty was evident, of course, and there were signs of the 10-year civil war. We saw buildings that still had bullet holes and scars incurred during the heavy fighting. We were advised not to wander more than 10 feet off the road, because of the dangers of land mines.
But much of the arable land was planted with maize (corn) and a few other crops, and although the huts were shabby, herds of goats abounded. The villages were huge compared to those in Malawi. Often there were hundreds of mud and stick homes in a single village. In Malawi, most of the villages consist of just a few buildings.
The country of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) is in upheaval right now. The farms and property of white people are being taken away and given back to the Africans. We talked to one man who lost seven farms and is now bankrupt because of this. The country is called the “breadbasket of Africa” and from what we saw lives up to its name. We drove through hundreds of miles of machine tilled farmland (in Malawi there are very few tractors – all farming is done by hand and hoe). Potatoes, butternut squash and oranges were being harvested by the truckload.
We arrived in Harare about 5:30 p.m. and stayed at the Bethesda Guest House, which is just for missionaries. It is a beautiful home with a pool and lush gardens. The Canadians who run it were away at a conference, but had emailed us that we had the run of the house and full use of the kitchen. So after we arrived I whipped up dinner and then we settled in to watch some videos on their living room television (a real treat).
The next day we ventured out to the Lion and Cheetah Park. We drove through some fabulous countryside and fantastic vistas, and saw plenty of lions and other wildlife (but the elephants from the park were in South Africa making a movie, and the cheetahs were nowhere to be seen). We even got to play with some 6-month old lion cubs! It was really fun.
Then we explored Harare a bit. At the girls request we had fast food for lunch – pizza and hamburgers. They were ecstatic. Then we went shopping in some quaint pottery, fabric and African stores. After that, we headed to the mall. We really didn’t buy much there, but it gave the girls a sense of civilization to see retail shops similar to the ones at home again. Then we went back to the guest house and relaxed.
The next day we headed to Bulawayo. It was a very long drive, and there is no place to stop and eat along the way, so I had packed us a lunch. Again, we traveled through gently rolling hills, verdant with crops and trees. Bulawayo impressed us as a somewhat dirty town. We filled up our gas tank with petrol (gas). We had been told that getting gas might be a problem in Zimbabwe, but we had no problems finding it in abundance. We went to the information center and got information on lodging and then headed for Muvano National Park about 30 Kilometers south of town to see black and white Rhinos. About 20 kilometers out of town, on a lonely stretch of road, our left rear tire went flat. Randy and Dan got the spare tire out from under the car (after I read them directions from the owner’s manual) jacked up the car, changed the tire, and we headed back to town to fix the flat tire. The first place we stopped was a grimy Shell station. Everyone but Heather and I got out of the car. Brooke and June went to buy Cokes and popsicles, it was very hot. Heather and I sat in the back seat with the windows rolled down. At one point a man stuck his head in the left window and asked us a question. We couldn’t understand him and waved him away. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew that he was up to no good. Anyway, they could not fix our tire there, so we went further into town to a bigger “tyre repair” shop and got a new tube put into our steel belted radial. When Dan went to pay, he said, “Where is my money belt?”
He always keeps it around his waist, but had removed it and put it under the front driver’s seat when he had to get under the car to change the tire. It was in his way. Heather and I did not know this, and after a frantic search, we determined that while the man had distracted us, someone else must have swooped in and grabbed it. We still don’t know exactly how they did it. It had about $2,000 in it.
We had divided up our cash between the adults before leaving Blantyre, so it was not all in one place, but Dan carried the most, because he was paying for border crossings and gas. You may say, “Why were you carrying so much cash?” Well, you have to remember, this is Africa. Dan and I have not used our credit cards once since we arrived. There is no place that accepts them. A few big hotels and expensive restaurants do, but they usually charge a 10% fee for using credit. Why didn’t we carry traveler’s cheques? Again, they are useless here. We talked to some other tourists who tried to cash one at a huge hotel they were staying at, and were unable to. The best currency to have with you is good old American greenbacks (although South African Rand are OK too).
Anyway, after this devastating incident, we decided to just stay in a quiet, well guarded guest house outside of town. We left for Victoria Falls the next morning, after deciding to come back to see the rhinos on our return trip.
Again, it was a long, lonely but lovely drive. Victoria Falls was a quiet tourist town. We decided to stay at a charming but cheap backpackers lodge that I had scoped out on the internet when researching the trip. It was a good decision, we really enjoyed the compact but friendly atmosphere. It was a good way to economize too. We all slept in a “family dormitory,” and relaxed in the pool during our stay. They also offered home cooked meals each night for $6, although I often cooked our own food.
As we checked in we were told, “if you need petrol, you had better fill up immediately.” Dan rushed to the gas station, got in line, but they ran out two cars before ours. We had had no problems getting gas until arriving in this tourist filled mecca. We did not understand why the government would not make sure that there was fuel in a city filled with travelers on a holiday weekend. We were told that it could be hours or weeks before more petrol arrived. This was a huge problem, because we did not have enough gas to get back to Bulawayo. After some anguished discussion, we decided to wait until January 2 nd, see if any gas arrived, and in the meantime enjoy the Falls.
Our walk through the Victoria Falls National Park was spectacular. One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it has the longest drop of any waterfall on earth and stretches for over 2 kilometers in length. It is not fully rainy season yet, so it was not fully flowing, but it was amazing to see, none the less. We got drenched in places, and just sat and admired God’s handiwork at others. It was an afternoon we will never forget.
Because of the robbery, we decided to curtail some of our activities. Brooke and Heather had wanted to Bungee jump off the Falls Bridge, (the longest bungee drop in the world) but that and Dan’s helicopter ride over the falls were scrapped. We decided, however, that our white water rafting trip down the Zambezi River was a must. It is rated the number one rafting trip in the world.
So the next morning, we got on a bus with some other tourists from around the world and crossed into Zambia (again, with all the border rig-a-ma-roll). While listening to safety instructions we were given a proper English breakfast with fried egg, baked beans and sausages. Then we got on a truck and headed for the Zambezi River, just below the falls. After donning lifejackets and helmets and a strenuous hike down into the canyon, the six of us got on a raft with two young women from England, and headed through our first rapids, with our guide, named “Doc.”
The first set of rapids was aptly named “the boiling pot.” Our pot boiled over, and our raft lifted up to an almost vertical position, dumping most of us out, and then as it settled down, we floated through turbulent water to a place where we could all get back in the boat. Dan and I managed to hang on to the raft the entire time, but the girls were thrown off and were “long swimmers” away from the raft. They managed to swim back to the raft and we were all dragged back aboard. Dan said, “Heather’s eyes had a wild, scared look to them when she surfaced.” I think we were all surprised by the force of the water.
We safely navigated rapids two and three, but on “Morning Glory,” number four (which is rated a 5 – which in rapids lingo means – really big and really fierce!), the raft completely overturned. Again, Dan and I were able to hang on, while the girls drifted a bit before coming back to the boat. The force of the water was so strong that my glasses were washed off my head. (In all the rides, activities, sports, etc. I have ever done, that has never happened before.) I yelled to Dan, “My glasses are gone!” as we hung onto the side of the raft and floated to calmer water where we could flip the raft back right side up and climb back in. He said, “Well, they are gone.” But a few minutes later he looked at me and said, “They are around your neck.” Fortunately, I had asked the head guide for a piece of string and had tied them on my head. I have a spare pair, but I would hate to loose my windows to the world.
After that, we knew that we could survive the rest of the river, so we attacked each set of rapids (and there were 23 of them) with relish. We each were dumped into the river several more times, but as Brooke said, “once you got used to it, it was fun.” Rapid #9 is called “Commercial Suicide.” We all had to get out and walk around those. Only kayaks can make it through those safely. The guides just let the rafts go and caught them on the other side. We had a “floating lunch” of sandwiches, apples and orange drink, and then spent the afternoon negotiating more white water and examining the red canyon walls, an occasional waterfall, amazing birds and other natural wonders.
The hardest part of the day was the climb out of the gorge. It was equivalent to climbing a 90 storey building, but was done on rickety wooden ladders and rocks. The grade was very steep, but we all managed it safely. We got on an open truck and drove over deeply rutted mud roads through the bush for an hour back to the staging area. They had a “braai” (charcoal grilled) dinner waiting for us. We munched sausage sandwiches, chicken legs, cole slaw and potato salad while we swapped tales with other river goers. Needless to say, after we crossed the border and got back to the backpacker’s lodge, we were ready for a refreshing sleep. It was one of the most exhilarating days of our lives.
The next day we spent quietly around the pool reading and nursing our tired and very sore muscles. In the evening, however, we decided to splurge and go to a nice restaurant that specialized in African fare. We drove a short distance to The Boma. We were in for a real treat. The open air restaurant with thatched roof awnings was decorated with traditional African art and artifacts. The food was fabulous. We ate impala steak, ostrich kebabs, crocodile canapés, guinea fowl stew, bush pig that had been roasted over a pit in the center of the restaurant, and delicious vegetables, salads and desserts. Our favorite was warthog with a succulent barbecue sauce. We all had seconds of that! I even ate a grilled worm.
We watched traditional dancers in costume perform and then a band came out and distributed drums to some of the diners. Brooke and Heather each got one and spent the next half hour accompanying the rhythmic cadences. We all got our faces painted too. It was an evening spent immersing ourselves in the local culture, albeit tourist style. We thoroughly enjoyed it.
Our final day in the area was spent on a land and boat safari. We were taken to Botswana to the Chobe National Park in a van. This time at the border crossing we also had to walk through a wet pad filled with chemicals that kill hoof and mouth disease. The day was spectacular. Chobe has the largest elephant herd in all of Southern Africa and we saw hundreds of the huge grey beasts – eating, drinking, taking mud baths, dusting themselves with dirt, swimming, etc. What a sight! We saw warthogs and their kids, dozens of colorful birds, thousands of impala, antelope and kudu. We had tea on the shores of Namibia, and lunch at a Game Lodge. At one point on the boat safari, a hippo got annoyed with us and started attacking the boat. We escaped unharmed. Needless to say, it was a thrilling, once in a lifetime day that we will remember forever. What a gift!
The next day, there was still no gas to be had in Victoria Falls, so our only option was to go home through Zambia instead. This meant that we will not get to see rhinos while we are here – but at least we could get back to Malawi. We crossed the bridge into Zambia, and sat for two hours at the border. We paid $25 each to get into Zambia, but the computer was down so the car could not go through. (This was the first computer we’d seen at a border.) Finally, Dan convinced the guard to do the paperwork manually, and we started the long trek to Lusaka. Zambia is a much more sparsely populated country than Malawi. We drove for hundreds of miles without seeing a village, a goat, a person or any signs of civilization. However, Lusaka was the biggest city we visited. It had large banks and tall office complexes as well as strip malls. At one the girls spotted a Subway, and so we got supper there. The sandwiches were basically the same as they are in the States! Then we found a “truly African” (that’s what the sign said) lodge (more like a motel) that was being renovated. Only three rooms were intact, and we took two of them. They were beautifully decorated with giraffe shadow boxes and zebra prints on the bed and curtains. It was reasonable and well guarded. We ate our subs by the pool.
The next day we headed for Malawi. It was a 9-hour trip. The first part of the road was constructed by the Japanese as an aid project and was better than any road in Malawi. Then the project ended and the road deteriorated into a pot hole ridden muddy mess – for about five hours. Brooke and Heather took turns riding in the back of the truck and getting bounced around. We stopped once for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and mangoes we bought from a boy on the side of the road.
We crossed out of Zambia with the usual flurry of passports and paperwork, but when we got to the Malawi border it started pouring, and the electricity was out at the station there. We filled out our forms in semi darkness (fortunately there were no computers there) and got drenched. We were also told that we had to get extensions on our visas (we had already done this, but they were not interested in looking at the paper that we had documenting it). However, we managed to pass through customs and be on our way, another few hours to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
By this time it was getting dark (and unsafe) but Dan managed to find a lodge that he had stayed at previously when he was in Lilongwe for a meeting. The manager remembered him and gave us a good rate. We ate at a Korean restaurant just down the street, and bought food to eat for breakfast.
The next morning we toured the capital. Dan drove us by the embassies, the Federal Reserve Bank, up to Capital Hill and by the craft market. It was nice to see the government seat.
The drive to Blantyre was glorious. Malawi has the most varied geographical features that we saw. We crossed flat fertile plains, rolling tree covered hills, saw picturesque villages and dramatic iselbergs (rock formations.)
We stopped at Dedza, the highest town in Malawi, for lunch and a tour of Dedza Pottery. We bought a few pieces of the Malawian themed pottery, and were on our way down the home stretch.
The sun was shining and there were puffy cumulus clouds dotting the azure sky. We had never seen such a clear day in Malawi. As we began our descent out of the mountains, we saw the flat plain that is the start of the Great Rift Valley. Then, glowing in the afternoon sun was the southern end of Lake Malawi! The guide books all say that you can see it on a clear day, but they are few and far between. It was an astonishing sight. A bit further down the road, the majestic Mt. Mulanje loomed in the distance as well. It was blanketed with thunderclouds and we could see the rain pouring down. It was breathtaking.
Unfortunately our “high” did not last long. As we pulled into our yard, we knew that something was wrong. Michael, our gardener, stated in broken English that there had been a robbery. Details were fuzzy, but our kitchen door had obviously been kicked in and was now bolted from the inside. Alfred, who had the keys to the front door, where we could enter, had left earlier to go to market to purchase some food. We waited for him for three hours. During that time we peeked in windows to see if we could ascertain what had been stolen. The girls were very upset and wanted to go to their friend’s house, so Dan drove them over to the Soye’s.
It was getting dark and Alfred still had not returned. Dan called Daniel Gunya from the Synod to see if they had a duplicate or master key. He came over, said hello, and then went to find the key. He never returned, so with the help of Andrew Soye, our Presbyterian Church of Ireland friend, we broke into the front door. The item we were most concerned about was our computer, which we had hidden before we left. Miraculously, it was still there, along with our airline tickets and credit cards. The thieves took things that to us, seemed strange. They left our printer sitting on the desk, but took seven pairs of shoes (shoes are very expensive and hard to get here). They took the nice Revere Ware pots and pans that Dan’s mother had just brought for me, as well as cooking oil and orangeade. They stole towels and pillowcases (probably to haul stuff out) and some clothing. The also took the beautiful toaster, kettle and iron that I bought in London. (You may think- “well, those are easily replaceable,” and in fact we have already bought new ones, but the quality is significantly lower. We use the toaster three times a day, at breakfast, at tea for Alfred and Michael, and at night when we make toast for the guards.) They stole the recharger as well as batteries and two sets of speakers. Alfred found the girls’ case of CD’s in the yard, which the thieves had probably dropped there in their haste to depart.
The inside of the house was not the only place hit. They stole our hose ($100) and wheelbarrow (another very expensive item in Malawi) as well as all of Michael’s gardening tools and even his gum boots that we bought him recently. Even the big bag of charcoal that we had gotten last month for Alfred was gone.
The one item that we are the most upset about is Heather’s iPod (that is an MP3 player or a digital music player). It is engraved with her name, and has been the source of great trouble for her here, but it had just returned from a trip to the States in mint condition. Her clarinet that was also specially sent here, was taken too. Fortunately, Brooke had taken her iPod with us to listen to in the back of the truck, so it is safe.
None of our DVDs were taken, nor was our lantern or the girls’ iPod speakers. Dan’s radio was gone, though. As we go through the day, we have discovered more things that are missing.
Dan’s Mom is missing a wheeled suitcase that was half full of clothing and $50 from her wallet (found out in our yard), but her plane tickets were tucked safely away. They left the credit cards too. I told you that they are useless in Africa J .
None of us was injured, although the blow to our mental and spiritual health cannot be underestimated. Brooke almost broke our hearts when she said, “We came here to help these people. Why are they hurting us like this?”
As a family, we have traveled extensively all over the world, but we have never had any problems. To be robbed twice in one week is quite a blow. Since last night we have, however, received many kind emails from friends and family and supporters. We know that we are under girded by your prayers, and that with God’s help we will get through this. Already today, we have been busy replacing some of the more essential items. Tomorrow we will try to buy new school shoes for the girls (they have to wear plain black shoes with their uniforms). I have to be honest with you, we thought very seriously of packing it all in and heading back to Pittsburgh; we felt violated, victimized and vulnerable. But today, we are encouraged and stronger and are picking up the pieces and getting our lives back in order.
This morning Dan summed it up when he said, “Our Malawi experience has been harder than we ever imagined, but I think that we are doing OK.” I am also reminded of the sign in Dan’s office in Pittsburgh, “There is nothing that will come my way today that God and I can’t handle together.” That has certainly been true for the Merry family time and time again here in Africa!