First day in Zolokere

Third day in Malawi, first day in the bush. Jake’s letters and website come nowhere near fleshing this place out, not for lack of trying, it’s just a hell of a lot. Got off the plane, straight out to the road to start the long journey north hitchhiking. A couple picked us up in an SUV. Next leg was a couple in a car, then a minibus, then a truck with a minibed. We’re let out at small towns; the car goes no farther in our direction. I counted 24 people inside the minivan, 6 of us squeeze into the bed of the little Toyota meshing our legs, hugging our knees under the pressure of the wind. At each stop people loiter along the side of the road. Smiles and waves. Men hold hands with each other. The buildings remind me of Baja. The business names hand painted on planks and stucco walls are ingenious. Telephone communications and International Business Center, it’s a tiny grass hut with an old landline telephone on a reed table, a wire is strung to the rooftop of the neighboring building. The land is shaped like Arizona with softened angles, the fauna is African. Proud trees command the hillsides. The ride continues well into the night.

In the back of the truck. The driver is pressing hard up what must be a mountain. I’m looking backwards, but I can feel we’re climbing through the darkness. We yell against the wind to communicate, now and then I can feel the temperature drop as we get higher. After the long trip on the planes, and the day on transport, the muscles in my back feel like hot red iron straps. The sun set in a plunge, and for the first time I see the Southern Stars. It looks like a diamond wave is crashing through night. The Milky Way is so bright you can make out all its densities, like knots in wood, the bulk of the Milky Way seems to be down here, in the South. Shadow woods fly by the side of the road, I look up and see the biggest falling star I’ve ever seen. It wiggles from one horizon to the other on the lip of the diamond wave. I yell and everyone in the truck looks up then we all look at each other with our mouths open.

We spent the night in a Peace Corps house in Mzuzu after dinner in a local café. Mosquito nets hang over all the beds. I washed my face and fell asleep in the middle of Jake’s story.

Next morning. The guy sleeping in the back of the house has malaria. He’s sitting on the coach wrapped in blankets when we leave for the market. There’s a coffin shop on the corner. The market is full of healthy foods, but for many people they’re too expensive to buy. People are friendly here. There are tables covered in small silver fish that shimmer in the sun. As we walk around picking up supplies, Jake fills me in on the background stuff. One fifth of the population is HIV positive, its one of the 10 poorest countries on Earth. Polygamy, women have few rights. This is a vibrant, tragic country. I took a picture of the girl who works at the coffin shop. Her smile turns it into a pleasant place.

Next morning, transport day. Still one more leg to go to get to Jake’s village. An egg seller gives us eggs and chats with us while we wait at the bus station. Two hours north then we cut through the hills. The land is green, flat valley floors with blue smoke tendrils rising around stony green hills. Broad flat topped trees – its autumn here and I’m surprised to see that some of the trees have turned orange. The van stops at Rhumphi, the district capital. Shops line the small main street, dozens and dozens of people line the road. Jake picks up packages of dried soy pieces, then we go stand under a tree to wait for the truck. All morning Jake has been warning me. Thirty-five, forty people packed onto the bed of a five-ton truck. Three hours on rutted dirt roads through the hills. After that a four mile walk to the village. Just next to the tree is the hut of a traditional healer. A dead lizard hangs on a stick in the front. Bottles of viscous liquids are on display. The truck pulls up empty except for fifteen or twenty gas cans strapped down in the back. Jake claims the seats in the cab and tells me we’ve been really lucky. We wait another hour and a half for the truck to fill.

The truck stops at the foot of small walking trials to let people off. The driver stops to chat with people along the road. People jump off the back and disappear into the brush. The kids smile if you wave to them and wave back. I’m amazed, the people are so friendly. A little girl in a yellow dress is standing at one of the last stops before we get out. She’s watches me intently and whispers ‘foreigner’ to the little boy next to her who repeats her.

The sun is setting as we walk from the trading post where the truck stopped. The road to the village is a capillary through a sea of green. It’s two tire tracks with a foot of grass in the middle. Close to the village there are tobacco plants growing in plots near the road, this is the bush.