Saturday, September 11, 2010

Boys, Beaches, and Bus Depots (Not Necessarily in that Order)

I’m getting very behind on my updates. And I just know that all one-and-a-half of you reading this blog are desperately waiting for my next post.

So I arrived in Zomba to find that all the voluntourists had come and gone. But my first few days weren’t a total loss. My daily vigils at Tasty Bites paid off when I ran into a woman I had met two years ago during my preliminary research. A German who now splits her time between Malawi (8 months) and Australia (the rainy season), B. runs a charity with an informal volunteer program in a small town on the lake. The volunteers, mostly Germans and Aussies, come for anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months, ostensibly to tutor children in an afterschool program, but really to do any work that can be found for them. The ones who were just here were redigging a trench around the property and working in the garden.

B. had three volunteers at the time, and she assented to my coming for a brief visit. I also hoped to catch up with another program in the same area that I also knew from my prior trip.

Getting to this particular town required yet another bus ride. A couple days before I planned to travel, I went to the bus depot to ask whether any of the more reliable coach buses went to my destination. The Axa bus did not; the National Bus supposedly did (and, indeed, does) but no one knew its schedule. A few people guessed that it left between 7 and 8 in the morning.

So on my travel day, I woke early to walk to the bus depot, getting there at about a quarter to seven---plenty of time to make sure I caught the bus and even get a seat.

As it turns out, the bus leaves BLANTYRE---a full two hours (by bus) south of Zomba---sometime between 7 and 8, which as we know, means about nine o’clock. Once again, I waited. And waited. And waited. A full three hours, until a coach bus---not the National Bus---arrived. I admit that I took full advantage of azungu privilege to push my way to the front of the line to get on, lest I have to wait several more hours. And even then, I had to stand for the first half hour or so, until a seat became free.

The trip itself only took about five hours, and someone was at the bus depot when I arrived to greet me and help me get my pack to the backpackers lodge where I would be staying. And by “backpackers lodge,” I mean “campsite.” The term “backpackers lodge” is applied to a whole range of accommodations in Malawi; some of the lodges have very nice private rooms with en suite baths, hot water included (in addition to the dorms and camp grounds), while others---like this one---are a bit more . . . rustic. My room was two twin beds with thin mattresses, thinner pillows, and a dingy blanket and torn mosquito net apiece in about an 8x10-foot space. No lock on the door or curtain on the window (which was just a torn mesh screen). No electricity anywhere on the property, and the bath was shared: two working toilets and one shower, about a 50-foot walk from the rooms. The water for the bathrooms came from several large barrels on top of the building, which were filled with lake water via bucket brigade; hot water was via a small fire lit under one of the barrels. If you wanted a shower, you had to give 30-minutes notice so someone could fill the barrels.

But . . . it was right on the lake, with a small private beach and plenty of quiet. If I had been prepared for camping, it would actually have been quite nice. Although, silly me forgot her bathing suit back in the States. (As an aside: I do not understand how some girls can manage to maintain impeccable personal grooming while backpacking for months on end. I can barely keep up the basics under the most optimum conditions.)

In any case, I got to spend a couple of days with the volunteers, and I re-established my contact with the other program (although I wasn’t able to meet with any of its volunteers because they were heading out of town for a weekend trip).

In some ways, the town would make a good project site for my research. It has a steady stream of voluntourists. And it has some controversy brewing with the voluntourism programs: Some former voluntourists, dissatisfied with their voluntourism experience, decided that they could do more good on their own. They partnered with the local volunteer coordinator to channel money into a particular project. They are now alleging that the coordinator embezzled the money. I also heard rumors that some other voluntourists have complained about their program and the local coordinators, but my informant was a bit cagey about divulging the stories (he was concerned that the people involved would kill him through witchcraft). The site also has the potential to reveal the stark cultural differences between Malawi and the West, and the influence of Western culture. Rastafarian culture is big among both the local young men and the Westerners who travel there; I was often the only one at the backpackers who was NOT high on ganga banana bread. And many of the voluntourists act like they are at the beach: wearing shorts and bathing suits, smoking and drinking, flirting with the locals.

But . . . it is hot. It is dusty. It is rather isolated; transport is difficult to other areas of Malawi. And it has no Internet. No where. None. Not for miles and miles. It’s also a bit of an extreme case. My impression from my previous research is that the voluntourists in other parts of Malawi do a little bit better job of blending into local norms (although they still tend to drink and smoke with abandon).

So, research-wise: promising. Living conditions: less so.

It’s definitely a site that I want to return to several times throughout the year---stay for a week or two---but not my ideal location for my primary site.

When I wasn’t scoping out the research possibilities, I was fending off the advances of one of the staff members at the backpackers: a Rastafarian who drinks and eats meat and who spent much of the time telling me how much he liked me. I didn’t want to offend him because, quite frankly, he’s a useful informant. In addition to greeting the arrivals at the bus depot, he mans a storefront from which he sells sodas, and therefore attracts various locals throughout the day. A lot of the information I got about the aforementioned controversy, as well as some local opinion on the German charity, came from hanging out on the front porch of the store. But I did try to make myself very clear that I was only interested in friendship.

I’m fairly certain that he moved on to the next lonely female traveler as soon as I departed, although he has tried calling me a few times.

Returning to Zomba involved another fun adventure at the bus depot. This time, I was told that the bus would depart at 3:00 am. I arranged with my Rasta boy to have him accompany me to the depot because (1) hadn’t brought a torch with me and (2) even with a torch, I didn’t love the idea of walking the rather isolated road from the backpackers to town. He, of course, didn’t show up at our arranged meeting time, so I had to rouse half the lodge to find him. We finally get to the depot a little after 3:00---and find out that the bus doesn’t depart until 4:00. In fact, the driver wasn’t even there and the bus wasn’t yet open to passengers. So I got to spend another half hour on the porch of the storefront, listening to a very drunk and high Rasta boy tell me how much he liked me.

The bus actually left on time, even though it was only about half full. But it then stopped about every quarter of a mile to pick up passengers along the road. Every one of whom seemed to be carrying the entirety of their worldly goods with them, requiring a good ten to fifteen minutes at each stop to load luggage. I was lucky to keep my seat to myself for about the first hour, until a woman with a very fussy---and very stinky---baby plopped herself, her baby, and her live chicken into the seat next to me---and into about half of my seat. I spent the remaining four hours alternating between cat-naps and passive-aggressive battle for space.

I got back to Zomba; slept for half a day; took a long, hot shower to scrub off the sand and grit; and steeled myself for another week of volunteer hunting.

Next Up: Wild Goose Chases and Other Adventures


At 5:58 PM , Blogger nwt said...

Your transport travails are eerily similar to experiences I've had in the Philippines. I'm really enjoying your entries---but they're kind of making me dread fieldwork!

It sounds like you're making good progress, even if you're encountering unexpected circumstances.

Keep on keepin' on!


At 3:46 PM , Blogger artemisia said...

Man, you are a bad ass! These travel stories make me anxious to get out and about. But I feel part of that is because I know I will come HOME soon after arriving.

Hang in there!

At 6:27 PM , Blogger Jessica Mason said...

Whew, adventures! The dust and dirt would get old pretty quickly, I suspect. . . And I have no insights about tips staying clean--most of the backpackers I saw in Moscow were pretty grungy. I feel like I do all right on short trips, but once the clothes get dirty that's pretty much the end of any hope of feeling presentable.

And you will find your people! These trials are just fodder for your first couple of "entering the field" pages.


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