I was beginning to lose faith, if I’m being honest. I’d started in the beach party town of Seminyak, then drove north to Ubud, famed for its laid back yoga vibe, its Sacred Monkey Forest, its destination rice terraces. I’d continued on to the mountains of Kintamani, with hopes of watching sunrise from atop Mount Batur. I hadn’t even planned on going to Amed, the reviews of which had been somewhat underwhelming. But there I found myself, searching for respite from the crowds, the cars, the locals starved for tourist dollars – searching for that still-elusive paradise in beautiful Bali.
Even Amed got off to a sideways start, my first room too close to the only road in this beachfront town, with locals racing by at all hours on scooters and motorbikes powered largely by loud, two-stroke engines. At my wit’s end, the next morning I would check into Lily’s Beach Bungalow, a little villa I’d noticed the night before when dodging a trio flying by on the unlit road. Lily’s, it turns out, was a little oasis between Ketut Natih Road and the Bali Sea, flowering gardens and mango trees inside its quaint walls. I would have a second floor, two-story bungalow with a private patio and sea views. At home, a place like this would cost me a grand per night. Here? Just nineteen dollars. But even without the price, Lily’s opened the door to the Indonesian paradise for which I’d been looking – and that was even before Katja walked in.
She was bone thin, loaded down with a pack that looked heavier than she, and she spoke with an Austrian accent – Vienna to be exact. We wouldn’t exchange hellos just then, but I already knew we’d be seeing more of one another. After so many months meeting travelers along the way, it almost becomes a sixth sense. Within twenty-four hours, and with surprisingly little fanfare, it was not only a forgone conclusion that we would be spending the next several days exploring Amed together, we would rarely be apart over the coming three weeks.
To be clear, this wasn’t a romance, despite the many people we met assuming we were a couple, husband and wife. As beautiful as she is, and as devastatingly handsome as I’m told I am by so many people who definitely aren’t also my Mom, this was about being kindred spirits. The same energy and taste for adventure, food, movies, and more. I would discover that Austrians and I have a similar temperament. But most wonderfully, she understood my humor – even when wrapped in my curmudgeonly sarcasm – and I hers. When she agreed with a laugh to see who could come up with the most absurd answer the oft-asked question of how we’d met, I knew it was kismet.
It wouldn’t be long before our twosome expanded. Adrian’s addition had an inauspicious beginning, we finding him somewhat lost and exhausted after navigating a treacherous “shortcut” on his scooter that both Katja and I had also just barely survived unscathed. A short time later I would lead both of them along a dark mountain road and inadvertently through the largest pothole in all of Bali at around 50 kilometers per hour. I would make it through, as would Katja. Adrian wouldn’t be so lucky, but his laugh-screaming through the pain as a doctor treated his injuries at a roadside medical clinic – while asking us if we thought Lily’s might have an available bungalow for him – pretty much sealed the deal on his addition to our duo.
The three of us would run into Fari and Keena atop Lahangan Sweet mountaintop a few days later as we watched gale-blown clouds repeatedly cover-and-reveal the sunset-silhouetted top of nearby Mount Agung. Katja and I had exchanged passing hellos with them while watching a local reggae band a few nights earlier, and she would happen upon them again in the coming days. Together, she and I would follow them to the island of Gili Air. Adrian was getting dive certified in Amed, delayed a few days to give his cuts and scrapes time to heal, but it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of the always smiling young man who’d become our “adopted son” in the ever-more-absurd stories of how we’d met.
It was in Gili Air that we would meet the bubbly, charismatic Bianca, while she and I stood watching three islanders trying to coax a white horse off of a colorfully painted boat with the Bali Sea and Mount Rinjani in the background. Ten minutes later Bianca was joining us for morning coffee, and from then on, we too were inseparable.
After Gili Air, Keena’s time in Indonesia would come to an end, and she would return to Germany ahead of Fari, who would round out our family of five. Fari’s amazing story, incredible personal strength, and hunger for life’s adventures belie her humble spirit and sparkling smile.
We would watch stunning sunrises and sunsets, and sit under the stars and “Milky Street” at night, the skies so crisp and bright at times that that it felt as if we were witness to the secrets of the universe itself. We would drive treacherous mountain roads to palaces and temples and ancient villages. We would snorkel gorgeous coral reefs and wrecks teeming with fish the shapes and color of our imaginations. We would swim alongside Hawksbill and Green turtles for as long as we cared, coming ashore to sip Radlers and lunch on freshly caught tuna. In the early evenings we would watch skies ablaze in yellows and oranges and reds and purples while sipping drinks until fires took over for the resting sun. We would meet still more new friends for dinners and watch live bands and drink espresso martinis and dance to DJs until the early morning hours, and sometimes just sit in hammocks or beanbag beach chairs and let time drift slowly by. We would witness amazing, never-ending rainbows, and hike mountain forests to stunning waterfalls, and walk rice farms where we would come upon locals who would invite us to sit, eat, smoke, drink, and sing. We would surf the waves of Padang Padang and attend a Kecak Fire Dance, share million dollar villas (for a backpackers price), swim in our private pools, cook together, and every now and then treat ourselves to dinner out under a bright moon and stars.
Throughout it all we were treated like family by locals, greeted with smiles and waves and hellos as we passed, whether on foot or two wheels. And during this far too short time, we became a family, each of us forming a bond that we hope and expect will last forever.
I had an opportunity to skip my next destination and stay a little longer in Indonesia. But Adrian had left us. Then Katja. Bianca next. The night I left for the airport and said goodbye to Fari on Seminyak Beach, we’d met another traveler, a young man from the UK. That’s how it is sometimes. Friends overlap for a bit, then some move on, and we travel along with others still. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s even welcome. But the thought of staying longer and driving along winding mountain roads and pulling over to take in some new, stunning view, without my new friends to share it with, well suddenly it didn’t seem so inviting. That hadn’t happened since Paris, the opportunity to stay on after Margot and Brooksy had returned home to the States. I decided then, as I did now, that I’d rather leave wanting more, than stay, wanting more…
I’d only just recently discovered an answer to the question of what my favorite country was so far on this adventure, and Thailand had set the bar very high – stunning landscapes and sunsets, mountains and seas, forests and coral reefs. But just a few short weeks later and I had a very clear new favorite. Part of that answer is most certainly due to the unexplored Indonesian islands I left behind. So many more places to drive and hike and swim. So many volcanoes to climb. So much wildlife still to see. I never even saw the orangutans.
But time and time again the thing that has made the most incredible places even more indelible, has been the people with whom I’ve spent time while there, the once-in-a-lifetime experiences we’ve shared together. When you find the right people along your journey, something magical happens. Julia in The Faroe Islands. Margot and Brooksy in Paris. Eric in Prague. Sophie and Peter in Kenya. Lisa and Elliott in Malawi. Poppy in Thailand. My own, truly amazing family in America, who have been present in every step I’ve taken, and for whom I am blessed so many times over. And in Indonesia, my new friends, dear friends I consider to be family.
I’ll return one day. We’ve all promised to return. Some of us are planning to get together this coming Christmas in New York, hopefully to talk about how we’ll all be back there, together again. I can only hope, because I finally found paradise, and I’m not ready to give them up just yet.
31: Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Phi Phi, Krabi
Chiyo from Thailand, Ernie and Hads!
I don’t know where to begin with Thailand, guys, except to say that I promise promise promise to try to make this the shortest written entry in some time – hell, maybe ever. The fact is, if I wanted to tell you how I really feel about Thailand, it’d take two of your lives at least, maybe three of Ernie’s with those arteries of his.
As you’re both well aware from asking me week in and week out, the most difficult question to answer – for me and nearly every traveler I’ve met – has been “What is your favorite country so far?”
It’s an almost impossible question for far too many reasons to list. Or it was. Sometime around late Africa, maybe in Zambia, I finally got my first answer. And then my second. And third…and fourth. In no particular order those answers were Thailand, Thailand, Thailand, and Thailand.
It only took a week or so in this stunning country before those answers began to make a helluva lot more sense, guys. The weather, the people, the food, the welcome – not to mention the countless gorgeous sunsets, beaches, mountains, and temples.
Bangkok’s Grand Palace, Chinatown, Lumphini Park, the gritty and outrageous madness of Sukhumvit Alley, Nana’s, and the infamous “backpacker slum” known as Khao San Road. It was a lively and intriguing start, indeed!
A train would then take me to the peaceful, serene, ancient temple city of Ayutthaya, followed by the gorgeous city of Chiang Mai, a nearly perfect mix of historic, spiritual, urban, mountain, and jungle.
A $50 flight from Chiang Mai dropped me in the quaint Old Town of Phuket, its main street shops reminding me of Stonington Borough. A couple days later, a short GrabTaxi ride would drop me in the town of Karon, where the Andaman Sea meets the Malacca Straight, with that stop followed by the beachy madness of Phuket’s Bangla Road, which is possibly more Bourbon Street than Bourbon Street itself – no paddles needed for ping pong here, guys.
I would then find relief from my exhaustingly immature ways on the stunning island of Phi Phi…Well, sort of. Sure, Phi Phi is an outdoor lover’s playground by day – jungle and forest hikes, kayaking, snorkeling, and more, but by night its beaches become a fire-juggling-techno-dance-club-party-under-the-stars-and-moon.
Phi Phi was tough to leave, but I would eventually take a scenic ferry ride north to Krabi, with its own stunning beaches, bath-warm waters, lush green forests, beckoning mountain peaks, jungle trails, and great live music scene. Krabi offered something new around each and every corner.
And did I mention the food? My lord. This country is the home of Pad Thai, guys, THE. HOME. And no, Hads, that’s not all I ate. I ate everything. I ate like a champion. I ate like I was going to the electric chair. I ate, well, like Ernie. I ate a lot is what I’m saying.
And every Thai horizon – morning, noon, and night – was gorgeous and dramatic, every sunset leaving me more and more convinced that Buddha might actually be “the” one, guys, rewarding his believers with gloriously painted skies each and every evening.
But always, always making the difference between memorable and unforgettable, no matter where I’ve traveled, were the amazingly kind and welcoming and beautiful people of Thailand. Whether on a beach or boat, at a temple or on a trail, on a corner or in a café, conversation and smiles were more than casual, more than simply being polite, they were sincere and personal and full of appreciation for the moment.
But I feel like I’m forgetting something…
Oh, right,THE CATS!
This is your Mecca, Ernie and Hads. Thailand, but especially the island of Phi Phi. Now, I know what you’re thinking, probably something like “Whoa-whoa-whoa, slow your roll there, Pops, we already live in paradise here on Lakeview Drive in Narragansett. No jobs. Free food. You fill feeders to attract birds for us to pounce and bat around. You give peanuts to squirrels so we can chase them the hell back outta the yard. You pick bloated ticks off us, and then brush us smooooth so we look good for those 2AM romantic interludes outside your bedroom window. You literally pick our poop out of the sandbox with a little plastic spoon, like some sort of indentured servant, whenever we simply don’t feel like walking our lazy asses outside. You buy us weed for god’s sake – we’re already living in Mecca, baby, WOOOOO!”
True. True. And I’d be even more appreciative if you actually uttered those words one day, but without the snark. But then, you’re cats. And even if you could, you wouldn’t. Because you’re fucking cats. And cats can be dicks sometimes.
But then, that’s on me, because I took you in. And really, when you think about it, we’re kind of the same.
Well, more mature, anyway. And I have proof I did one or two other things as well, though for the life of me I don’t remember being at any of these places…
So, guys, it didn’t take me long to discover why Thailand was suddenly the popular backpacker answer to “Which is your favorite country?” And I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t become my answer too – for now, anyway. But with only three country’s left on this yearlong adventure before we’re all together again, it’s gonna take something pretty goddamn special to beat this water, these views, and these sunsets…
Buddhism. So peaceful and inviting and, on its surface, so much more appealing to me than most other religions. Their idols always have a little smile, like they’ve finally found that elusive enlightenment. Many are presented in a state of peaceful meditation – something we could all use a little more of, especially in these dark days of America’s backwards-ass re-canoodling of Church-and-State. The fat ones are most often depicted as jolly. An outdated stereotype, sure, and an admittedly heavy weight for the heavily-weighted to bear, but when it comes to problematic stereotyping, at least this one isn’t racist. A lot of the lady Buddhas are portrayed as chilled out, lying down, looking blissful. While it’s wonderful to see women in history depicted as sitting upon thrones of gold, in positions of great power, revered and worshipped, I’m willing to bet a certain percentage of the ladies out there would trade that throne for a few hours of peace and quiet, the husband out, the kids away, a comfy daybed, a spot in the sun. The only thing that could make those idols more appealing is if they were also holding a cup of froyo. If they’d done that from the start, Buddhism’s popularity would probably dwarf both Christianity and Islam put together. Then there’s Ganesh – “the remover of obstacles and bringer of good luck” – as if being an adorable little elephant wasn’t already enough.
Meanwhile, the imagery of so many other religions is a comparative bummer, a barrage of human sacrifice and death and torture and other horrible fates that await those of us who use our God-given brains to choose the “wrong” path.
But be honest, if you had no prior knowledge of any religion, and had to choose one based on idols alone, are you more likely to get on board with “Fun Bobby,” the well-fed jolly dude who looks like he just ate a weed gummy and downed a couple craft beers, or the bone-thin guy nailed to a cross, with a spear-wound in his ribcage, who’s bleeding from his head because he’s wearing the world’s least fashionable hat?
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
And that’s pretty much what I was thinking about as I began scootering the 90 minutes home from Phnom Kulen National Park to Siem Reap, along rutty, gravelly mountain roads at false dusk in the rain. The colorful fruit and vegetable stands I’d passed on the way in now sitting empty under the dark and waterlogged forest canopy. The Rangers I’d exchanged helloes with so many hours before, long gone home.
My religious contemplations were merely a diversion, however, a distraction from the primary concern at hand, that being how to handle the fact that while one of my scooter mirrors simply wouldn’t stay in a set position, slowly ticking downward every time I angled it to see the fast-approaching motos and trucks, my other mirror was sitting in the storage pocket of the scooter itself, completely disconnected, it’s lonely stick of an arm pointing toward the heavens like an NFL’er thanking God for letting him score that last touchdown.
I’d lost it on a long, empty pathway, if you can call a rocky, bouldered, dirt and puddled trail a pathway. But that’s where Rung Bror Cheav – the Bat Cave – was located. I’d gotten lost not long before, ending up in a small little village in the mountain forest, a village that seemed to exist simply for its random collection of ornate, disparate temples. A monk and two women had helped put me back on track. But Rung Bror Cheav was still 2 kilometers away, a short distance by most standards, but a long way off when you’re pretending to be Travis Pastrana in a Gazoo helmet on a bone-rattling, bottoming-out scooter with the afternoon getting a bit long in the tooth.
I’d actually made the responsible choice at the time, having done the math and deciding it was best to turn back. I had no spare tire, no tools, and no cell coverage should something go wrong on this remote, empty, and unforgiving mountain trail. I could make it back to the village on foot and spend the night with the monk and women, I supposed, which would have made for a much more interesting entry than this, but I still wanted to see The Thousand Lingas and swim under the Kulen Waterfall.
And then, in an instant of adult self-sabotage – one of the stories of my life – I decided it would be funny to send my brothers – Steven and Jon – and our famous author friend, Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Broken Field, and the soon-to-be summer blockbuster movie based on the soon-to-be NYTimes best selling novel, The Incredible Adventures of Pud), a video of that kooky trail. While I rode down it. Throttling and braking with one hand. Filming with the other.
It didn’t go as planned, but it did go exactly as expected (watch?).
And right about then, just as I was ephiphanizing about the world’s religions to distract from thinking about how much I would be charged for breaking the scooter – fifty dollars? A hundred? – trying to remember what the rental contract said, if it said anything at all, and where I’d even put it – well, right about then is when the bug hit me square in my open eyeball.
And stuck there.
And began to sting.
And then burn.
I started slowing down while desperately digging fingers into my eye, but the stinging and burning made me squeeze that brake a little harder, harder, and harder still, until, as one might expect from a tourist on a rented moped in a foreign land, I laid that sucker down.
For the second time.
My left calf and knee and elbow and hand took the brunt of the physical damage, my ego taking the rest. I jumped up almost as quickly as I’d gone down, looking around to discover that no one, save for a stray mountain dog, bore witness to my glorious fail. I wiped the embedded wet gravel from my palm and leg, my shorts and sleeve. My shoe and the scooter itself were speckled with muddy sand too, but I left that for the rain to wash off, thankful I hadn’t broken anything more, be it more scooter or bones.
I could have lied, I suppose. Well, more than suppose – lying was actually something I contemplated for much of the rest of the ride home. I was already 0-5 on the list of Buddhist precepts, lying being one, so I didn’t feel like it’d damage my chances of joining the faith any more than they already were. I could use the epoxy in my room, bought to reattach the soles of the leather sandals I’d purchased for $10 from a Masai in Zanzibar. I could just glue the mirror back on, and then ease the scooter over the curbing of the rental place upon my return.
But then, what if it fell off right then and there, with epoxy residue turning an awkward moment into a despicable one? But maybe it would work, I countered, just long enough for me to leave Siem Reap and travel on. What then? Well, it might fall off in a day or two, for one, and what if I ended up sticking some poor college kid on a $25-a-day budget with a hundred dollar repair bill?
“Oh don’t worry, these mirrors just fall off for no reason all the time,” the girl who ran the shop might say, with a hint of Cambodian sarcasm, before telling him he’d get his passport back only after he forked over the cash.
Or it might fall off when the boy, her younger brother, washed the scooter down with the hose the next morning. By then I’d already be on the road to Bangkok, impossible to find, entirely free and clear. But still, they’d know. And more importantly, I’d know. And just because I spent most Sunday mornings at St. Augustine’s Church sitting in the back row, chewing gum bought with money Dad had given me for the coffers while daydreaming about endless acts of personal heroism, that doesn’t mean I’d avoided my baptismal religion’s greatest gift – Catholic Guilt.
And this was a nice and kind family, simply trying to eke out a living. Covid left everyone here in Cambodia, in Vietnam, across Africa and beyond, with no income and zero government assistance for over two years. And I broke the damn bike, after all, while acting like a jackass, no less. And I’d already started acting responsibly today – right before acting utterly irresponsibly, sure, but for me that still counts as being on a sort of roll.
I’d motor the rest of the way home, without incident, pondering the fate of my soul and the scooter damage done. How much would it cost? A hundred dollars didn’t seem out of the question. Sure, a mirror probably doesn’t cost that much here, but it’s a rental, and the scooter would be out of commission, and there’s the general inconvenience, not to mention an entirely acceptable penalty for simply being an idiot. A hundred wouldn’t break my bank, but when that’s your total daily budget, the thought still stings a bit, especially when you have an hour or so over which to ponder.
Do the right thing, the voice inside my head insisted, even if you do get gouged for the damage. They’re nice people and they’re just trying to make a living. Sure, they probably have a pile of spare mirrors out back, a graveyard of scooter parts from idiots past. The kid will probably have it replaced in five minutes, too, the bike not missing a single goddamn rental rotation, I thought with a grimace as I rode roads of picturesque rice paddies surrounded by glorious mountains, the irony of my curmudgeonly cynicism – a gift from Dad as powerful as anything with which the Vatican could burden me – rearing its ugly head.
But even if I do get gouged, the money wouldn’t be going to frivolous things, I countered my counter.
I do this a lot, arguing with myself over moral quandaries, willingly going down that bottomless rabbit hole.
It’d more likely go to food. Or bills. Or into the bank to help them get through the world’s next, seemingly inevitable pandemic.
And besides, Dad might have gifted me his cynicism, and he probably would have laughed hysterically at my retelling of how the mirror fell off just as I was telling the young woman what a pleasant and uneventful time I had on their scooter. But at the end of the day, Dad was guided by morality and ethics. And unlike his youngest, at least, he was a devout Irish Catholic. He would have insisted I do the right thing. And maybe he was doing just that. Maybe his was the voice in my head.
I would arrive in trafficky darkness, shower, then grab a drink at my hostel bar before facing the music and my financial comeuppance. They’d closed early, so I had to WhatsApp the shop to open for me, sharing in writing that “I might have broken the mirror.”
No turning back now.
“So what’s wrong with the mirror?” the girl asked when I rolled up the curb and through the open gate.
“Well…,” I said, lifting the mirror from the pocket of the scooter and holding it near the broken arm onto which it was formerly attached. “To begin with, this should be connected to the end of that thing,” hoping a little levity might help my cause.
I cut to the chase. “What do I need to pay for the damage?”
She looked at me, then at the mirror in my hand, and then asked me to wait a moment, taking out her phone and making a call.
Ahhh, the old “call my manager” shtick, I thought, that classic American car salesman tactic, allowing them to deflect the blame for the inevitable bad news about to come. “I’m sorry,” she would say any minute now. “I think it’s a lot too, but that’s the price the owner gave me.”
She spoke in Khmer, yet another language of which I’ve failed to learn even the most basics pleasantries. How convenient, I thought. I’m about to get ssooo screwed. Half a minute later, she hung up. Here it comes.
“My mother said it will cost five dollars.”
“Five dollars. Is that okay?”
“Five dollars? Uhmm, yeah, that…that seems fair,” I said, handing her a 50,000 riel bill. “Do you have change?”
I walked back to my hostel, the relief at my fortune turning to guilt for my cynicism, my lack of faith in humanity, in this nice family, and the misguided internal debates that had dominated my thoughts the past few hours.
“With our thoughts, we make the world,” Buddha said.
If that’s true, what kind of world do I think we live in? What kind of world do I live in? What kind of world do I want to live in?
I should have told her to keep the change, I suddenly thought. Should I have, though? Would that have been kindness? Or guilt, perhaps. It might have been seen as pity, maybe even insulting?
I didn’t have an immediate answer to that question. And luckily, I didn’t need one. Not right then, anyway. I had a six-hour shuttle ride to Bangkok ahead of me, plenty of time to fully engage my next moral quandary, journey down the next bottomless rabbit hole. Just me. And Dad too, perhaps. Time to think not simply about whether a few dollars would have been seen as kindness or pity, but to create the world in which I want to live from that moment forward.
Cambodia hadn’t actually been on my itinerary. But more than a few friends, old and new, thought it crazy that I fly over, from Vietnam to Thailand, instead of traveling by land to see Siem Reap and Angkor Wat along the way. They were right, of course. My time there wasn’t long enough, but it was time well spent, and I would certainly go back, the sights, the history, the food – and the Cambodian people themselves – all part of a world in which I am quite thankful to live.
29: Hanoi, Cat Ba, Hoi An, Danang, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
This ain’t your father’s father’s Vietnam.
Xin Chào, Ernie and Hadley!
Well, guys, I think we can all agree that India was a bit of a ginormous bummer. I wanted out so badly I flew with a concussion, a gashed hand, injured ribs, and maybe worst of all, only one goddamn cocktail all day. I left my hostel in Delhi at 10:30AM and didn’t arrive in Hanoi until 5 the next morning. I wanted out so badly that I didn’t even care my that arrival was smack dab in the middle of Vietnam’s Reunification Day celebration. What’s that, you ask? Excellent question, Ern. Reunification Day is the celebration of Vietnam’s victory in The American War and the reunification of North and South Vietnam, so what better day for a 55-year-old pasty-white middle-class American guy to be walking through the streets of Hanoi in his hiking shoes, cargo shorts, baseball cap, and fancy little Osprey backpack?
I should take a moment to point out that even at my ripe old age, I’d never once heard it referred to as The American War. I mean, of course it would be, right? The Vietnamese aren’t calling their war with America The Vietnam War – that’d be cuckoo, and yet I was no less dumbfounded the first time I heard it. Never too old to learn, as they say.
I had no real intention of coming here, as you both know. Sure, there’s always at least one person who says “My god you just HAVE to go to yada-yada place,” like when Margot said I simply had to go to India, ranting and raving and insisting it be on my itinerary – right up until the minute my post recounting what a living nightmare it was went live, and she simply wrote, “Right!?!?!?”
“No-no -no, I never said I loved it, Peter,” she defended. “I simply said you had to experience it firsthand.”
SEMANTICS, MARGOT! GODDAMN SEMANTICS!
But when it came to Vietnam, I probably had half a dozen people tell me I needed to visit, not to mention Hoi An coming in at #34 on Lonely Planet’s Top 500 must-see places in the world.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Terraced rice paddies? Probably. Those funny little bamboo hats? Most definitely. People standing in front of street food joints with wiggling squid tentacles being slurped between their lips? I could only hope.
In my defense, most Americans my age and older know just one Vietnam, thanks to being alive while it was still raging, and to that 400-hour series from Ken Burns, not to mention a catchy Broadway musical about a bunch of hard-to-like GIs, and endless 3AM viewings of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket during those late-night Newport years with Erik, Davey, Gusman, and Tope. And “Vietnam” is still such a stain on the memory of America that I rarely come across anything celebrating its modernity, amazing culture, or lively social scene.
And besides – they’re stinkin’ commies, ammiright!?
Interesting note – it turns out they’re also socialists. True fact. And it hurt my brain trying to figure out exactly how that works. I have enough trouble putting the specific differences between Communism and Socialism into words without trying to comprehend The Socialist Republic of Vietnamunder the rule of a communist government. I’ve read about it four times now and still can’t tell you how it actually works. So instead of putting my head down and trying to actually learn something, I did what I did all through high school and college, and that was to simply enjoy the ride – and enjoy it I most certainly did.
The thing I enjoyed the most, however, doesn’t appear in the photos below, and that was the gentle spirit and kindness of the people themselves. A communist government can force its citizens to keep a clean storefront and follow rules of law and order, sure. It did seem like Hanoi suddenly became midday active and industrious with the flip of a switch at 7AM, even on a Sunday. But no one can force people to smile sincerely, chat with neighbors, greet one another with laughs, pleasantries, and flowers, and you can’t fake wrinkles, man – the face don’t lie. If you’re a frowner, unhappy, defeated, beaten down, your true self shows in lines your resting face simply can’t hide. In Hanoi in particular, the people looked and seemed truly and sincerely happy and content. Keep that in context, guys. I arrived during a festival, and I’m not pretending life here is all bliss. I was also told that the demeanor of the people is markedly different in the south due to the political history of the country, but even as far as Ho Chi Minh City it was relatively the same (even if most of the locals I met there were the ladyboys of Bui Vien trying to get me to buy them drinks). I’m simply saying that the people and vibe in the small part of Vietnam that I experienced was one of contented happiness and welcome in the context of life that is hard to live all over the goddamn world.
Or maybe India had just fucked me up more than I realized.
Hanoi’s Old Town blends the traditional with the modern, maintaining its historic charm while providing plenty of American and European creature comforts. There’s a perfect amount of grit to remind you you’re in a country half a world away, mixed with an obvious pride in presentation – so while scooters are parked on the sidewalks, they’re in perfect order. While everyone sits outside eating and drinking at little kid-sized tables in kid-sized chairs, and food is prepared and cooked in open kitchens, the sidewalks – even though they’re so crowded with motos and tables and shop-wares that you can’t walk on most of them – are swept spotless, and food safety at least feels like it could possibly be a thing. There are quaint shops and cafés, hip bars, nightclubs, and a wide array of restaurants, all with colorful lights and lanterns and flags adorning almost every tree-lined street. It was really quite nice.
Cat Ba – and no, it’s not named after you two – is a gorgeous island about two hours east of Hanoi, located in the Bay of Tonkin, in northeastern Vietnam, and it was going to allow me a chance to get back into nature, from its plentiful beaches to the mountains of its national park. My stay coincided with another festival, this one celebrating something-something that no one seemed able to explain – not because of any language barrier, but simply because they actually didn’t know. Some hotel and hostel owners were even surprised to learn there was a massive waterfront stage being constructed at the end of their street. If Hanoi made me (mostly) forget I was in a communist governed country, this festival would be a stone cold reminder, with the masses turning out to celebrate something something something…
The ancient trading port of Hoi An is the location that brought me to Vietnam, coming in at #34 in Lonely Planet’s Top 500. Whether this UNESCO World Heritage Site should come in that high is up for debate – much like Slovenia’s Lake Bled – but it sure is a quaint and beautiful city with wonderful history and tradition.
With origins dating back to 192 AD, Danang is Vietnam’s fifth largest city and also one of its most important trade ports. Modern hotels line its beautiful and active South China Sea coastline, with ancient temples, caves, and scenic national park hiking routes all within a short scooter ride.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
I would end my visit here in bustling “Saigon,” the largest city in Vietnam, an unplanned transfer point to my next destination – but I’m glad I did. If not just for its historical significance, depicted so often in movies and novels and broadway musicals, then for its own little version of Bourbon Street, Bui Vien.
Until next time, Ernie and Hads, be good and kind to Jason, Rachel, and Grayson – and coming soon, a place where cats are king!
It’s been far too long since I dropped you cats a note, and I send this with hopes that real Spring is finally in the air, allowing you both to shed those winter coats anywhere you damn well please – after all, it’s Jason and Rachelle’s problem now, woohoooo!
Speaking of Spring, it most certainly isn’t in the air in India. Apathy, sadness, destitution, illness, inequality, despair, pollution, trash – ungodly heat, sure. But Spring? Most definitely not.
I began writing this from Delhi airport at the end of a long day. Long because I’d taken a digger earlier that morning on the marble stairs of my hostel lobby. And before you even make that face, Hadley, no, I wasn’t drunk, though I wish I had been. At least that way I’d have an excuse beyond just being an old guy whose flip-flopped-feet shot out from under him for seemingly no reason, resulting in an epic fail on his way to have poached eggs.
If there’s any good news, it’s that there were no witnesses to my grave indignity – but maybe more important, my injuries didn’t require a journey into the belly of the beast – that of a Delhi ER – though that wasn’t entirely clear right away. Nothing was entirely clear, if I’m being honest, as I was sitting there on the floor, more than a bit dazed, my list of injuries absolutely including a mild concussion. In fact, one of the first things I did when I returned to my room – after overcoming my overwhelming desire to vomit and pass out – was google “is it safe to fly with a concussion?” Short of reading “your brain will most definitely explode,” little else was going to stop me from getting to the airport, getting onto my plane, and getting the hell out of this godforsaken country. Not a concussion. Not the open gash on my hand that our famous author friend, Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Broken Field, and the soon-to-be-released, Pulitzer-winning Pud, Shit Happens) insisted would absolutely result in some sort of horrible infection. And not what I was sure were broken ribs, a pain so intense it was difficult to breathe, sit, stand, lie down, get up, cough, sneeze, sob like a wee little baby, never mind carry two full packs for the 24 hours of travel that lay ahead.
But don’t let my whining color your view of India. Let’s let a local do that instead.
While I was in the airport, trying to down my first and only cocktail of the day before boarding my plane (nearly ten hours after arriving, mind you, the only pain meds I’d had since taking human flight), I overheard a born-and-raised Delhian, now living in the US, talking to another traveler about his homeland…
“All of us,” he said. “Me. My sister who lives in Australia. My brother in the UK. Whenever we get together here, we all just shake our heads and agree, ‘this place just ain’t right.'”
Truer words have never been spoken, guys. This place. India. It just ain’t.
What is and ain’t right about India is complex – a long, complicated, and at-times overlapping list. I’m sure my take on it will upset some of the Hindustan dreamers out there, those kama sutra lovers, you downwith doggers (props to Ernie for that phrasing) – hell, even I fell victim to the quirky romanticism of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited – so let me add my one and only disclaimer here, the caveat that will allow some of our yogis-next-door (I’m talking you, Boo, Margot, and Joanie) to keep their India joneses alive:
I only visited four places in this truly enormous country – Agra, Jaipur, Sawai Madhopur, and Delhi.
I didn’t make it to Rishikesh, not only the home of yoga, but also of the Beatles introduction to Transcendental Meditation (now I know why both were invented here – it was the only means of escape for those of lesser means). I didn’t make it to Mumbai, even though I could have attended a two-day Indian wedding with my friend Agustina had I stayed for just one week more. I didn’t visit the chilled-out southern beaches of Goa. And I didn’t even take a ride on Anderson’s iconic train, which still runs an eight-hour route in the Himalayas.
And you know what?
And I never will.
And I don’t care.
Before I go all scorched earth, I should note it wasn’t all bad. I ate several amazing, home cooked Indian meals. I went to the Taj Mahal during the day – my reason for being here in the first place – and saw the sun set along its riverbanks in the evening. I went on two tiger safaris in Ranthambore National Park, and reveled in the legendary madness of Indian transportation, on trains, in Tuk Tuks, and even as a solo bicyclist. And despite how the rest of this might read, I met several, truly wonderful people.
So what exactly ain’t right?
To begin, India is a country that assaults every human sense, the promise of which, I must admit, was intoxicating at first.
This noise is truly incessant, and far too often, entirely unnecessary. I once read that even Vishnu himself had scribbled in one of his early journals, “If one beeps at everything…does one really beep at anything at all?” It didn’t really catch on at the time, and was met with confusion and even derision by his early fans and critics – but it might be a text some Hindus want to revisit today.
One might expect this kind of noise in metropolitan Delhi and Agra, sure, but even tractor drivers in the little village of Sawai Madhopur chugged past my room at The Village Heart Hotel each morning at 5AM with club music cranking from its speakers. By my last day there I had to fight the urge to run outside and hand him every last rupee I had to at least buy himself some serviceable subwoofers.
Even in this remote Rajasthanian town you could be the only person walking along an empty stretch of roadway (an Indian unicorn in itself) and a moto driver coming at you on the other side of the road, visible for a half mile, will still beep several times as he passes, reminding you of the fact that peace and quiet belong to no man.
Smells, Ernie? India has odors that would make your litter box – if unemptied for the entire length of my year abroad – smell like a bed of roses.
Pollution in Delhi is so thick you can chew it.
There is so much dust and dirt in the air that when doing laundry at Zostel Hostel in Delhi, they had to wash my clothes twice (The good news? It still only cost three bucks).
Trash is, well, everywhere. Piles of it. Disintegrating garbage bags of it. Bottles and cans and wrappers and packaging just dropped to the ground wherever and whenever its purpose is no longer served – out of train windows and Tuk Tuks by adults, by young kids walking down the street holding dad’s hand, it even makes up the riverbanks of the Taj itself.
The heat? My god, the heat. I used to enjoy quoting the movie, Biloxi Blues, referring to any oppressive heat as “Africa hot.” Well, I rode a bike for eight hours my very first day in India, visiting the Taj Mahal and Red Fort in Agra, and the temps that day topped out at 111 degrees.
And I was riding a bike.
I’d just spent three and a half months in Africa, and India made the worst of that continent feel like the Bahamas, which I’m pretty sure I hallucinated I was biking through by mid-afternoon.
And last but not least, of course, are the Indians themselves. Oh, the humanity. That insanely suffocating crush, so many people that there are literal foot-traffic-jams in some areas of Delhi – never mind actual traffic jams – where there is no such thing as personal space. It makes total sense on one hand – there are nearly one-and-a-half billion people in this country, so even the concept of personal space is something of which dreams are made. But then, less understandably, so it seems is the concept of common courtesy, where far too many of the people here seem to be aware of nothing beyond their immediate selves. Squeeze between me and the counter while I’m literally still completing a purchase isn’t about personal space – it’s simply about you being a dick. Lines? Lines be damned, unapologetically wedging yourself in front of me to put your bags onto the x-ray conveyor at the railway station, even as I’m extending my arms to lay down my own – when there’s no rush, no train about to leave you behind? Purposely gassing that Tuk Tuk to close the gap between bumpers so I quite literally cannot fit a leg between while trying to cross that clogged roadway in the heat and dust? Push me aside to cut in front while we’re all ambling like cattle through the crowded streets of Old Town, when getting in front of me gets you nowhere but one person closer to…what, exactly? Zero acknowledgement when I say “Please, you first,” or when I help you with your bag, hold a door (a literal foreign concept my friend Abhay said took some time getting used to when he worked in the States), or move aside to let you pass because you appear to be in a rush?
Yeah, I know, I’m sounding like an old man shaking an angry fist at those pesky neighborhood kids, and you’re both probably begging me to get to pictures of dogs suffering heatstroke, but these are just a couple instances in what was an honestly ceaseless, never-ending onslaught of sensory assault. Short of locking myself in my room, it never, ever ended – walk out that door, and I was immediately in the midst of the fray. At first, it was fun – become the water, I’d been telling myself. Go with the flow. But after a few days, I began telling myself, Y’know what, Pete? Fuck the flow.
India is a country where the caste system is built upon the very idea of human inequality. Where fellowhuman beings, simply by birthright, are matter-of-factly deemed “latrine cleaners,” their miserable fate predetermined by some shittily arbitrary luck-of-the-draw.
India is a country where women are subservient and discriminated against simply for being female, where having daughters instead of sons is often considered misfortune.
India is a country where marrying below your caste still brings actionable shame upon your family.
India is a country where many elderly parents, too burdensome and expensive to care for, are dropped off by their children to live – and die – on the streets of its major cities.
Where homeless teen boys, filthy beyond comprehension, sleep atop one another on the sidewalks in the scorching sun.
Where someone at every single corner begs for rupees for food or drink, the very old and the far too young, pleading with filthy fingers to their mouths, mimicking their hunger. A place where this is so overwhelming, so incessant, that you eventually have no choice but to avert your eyes, say no with a hand held up, and walk on. Like everyone else here does, no one stopping to help their own countrymen and women, no one extending that hand downward to help the elderly man who is lying half in the gutter, mouth agape in the life-draining heat and humidity, staring into nothingness as if begging for sweet release.
And yet, this is a place where cows are considered sacred. But are they, really?
I saw people feeding cows more often than I saw anyone feed a fellow human being, that’s true (actually, I saw no one feeding another human being). Many families feed bread to stray cows each morning. But there’s an important thing to note here – they’re strays, and these strays roam everywhere. The highways, side streets, sidewalks, yards, fields, train tracks, because once they can no longer produce milk, they’re set free to fend for themselves. I saw them in the middle of busy roadways struggling to eat discarded naan from the blacktop as cars and Tuk Tuks and motos sped around and past. I saw them atop trash piles, scavenging with mangy stray dogs, birds, and ducks. I saw injured cows and sickly cows, some with ropes still tied around their heads and necks. Not eating them might be considered a sacred act, but abandoning them to fend for themselves once they’re no longer useful to you is something less than sacred – and less than humane.
Elephants here are still used to ferry tourists up and down scorching tarmac roads and cobblestoned walkways to see old fort ruins, despite the documented fact it wears the pads on their feet flat, causing excruciating pain. The argument by locals was that their livelihood depends on the money from said tourists – and it worked. Even in the elephant sanctuaries, such as the popular “Elefantastic,” tourists can still clamber up to ride and paint – yes, paint – these magnificent animals. Apparently, the only way the mistreatment will end is for the tourists to end it themselves.
And maybe the saddest part of this entry? I actually intended to make this a funny one, guys, I really did, as the last time Elle-B said one of my updates made her laugh out loud might have been when I almost beat up Francois, the Parisian midget. Now all I get from her are automatic messages saying “Your blog was read.”
But truth is, India made being funny very hard. In fairness to its fans and dreamers, my exposure was very limited, sure, seen from just one lens, one that certainly might have narrowed the more disillusioned I allowed myself to become. Maybe it simply wasn’t my cup of tea. But in fairness to me, I’ve been to other places that didn’t quite tickle my fancy, but my reaction was nowhere near as visceral. I’m well aware that in a country this large, there can be worlds of difference a few hundred kilometers down the road, and every country has its challenges – hell, the U.S. has Detroit and the entire state of Florida! But the overriding culture, caste system, openly accepted inequity (and yes, I’m well aware of the inequities in America), the systemically-demanded corruption, and what I cannot stop thinking of as a widespread, cultural lack of empathy, goes well beyond regional boundaries. Maybe I’d understand better if I’d stayed a while longer, within or without the madness. But the fact is, I didn’t want to. Going white-water-rafting in Rishikesh wasn’t going to magically erase what happens to females in this country, or to those with the misfortune of being born into a lower caste. And getting hippy high on the beaches of Goa would provide nothing more than a momentary escape from the realities that await those “burdensome” elderly, and these oh-so-sacred cows.
Despite it all, however, I’m happy I went to India, I really am, and I’ll never forget it or regret it. I saw the Taj Mahal. I came within 15 feet of a massive, free-roaming, LSU Bengal Tiger. I had a wonderful homestay with Moses and his amazing family in Agra, where I ate delicious, traditional, home-cooked Indian meals, and enjoyed more of the same with Gulshan and his family in Sawai Madhupor. Sawai is a relatively destitute village town, with plenty of trash and even open sewage, but it is less crowded, simpler, more my speed, where smiling and giggling and adorable kids would follow me as I meandered through its streets, and where men and women, young and old alike, would come outside, stare for a moment, then break into shy grins and waves of hello.
I got to see India firsthand, something I never imagined I would experience in my lifetime. But I don’t need to go farther North or South or East or West to dissect its layers and understand its nuance – humanity cannot be defined by nuance, after all. When a traveler needs to go to a different part of a country to witness moments of empathy and equality and lawfulness, the problem doesn’t lie in coordinates on a map, and the solution requires more than a train ticket to a more agreeable locale. So I’ll remain unapologetic about my take on my visit to India, maybe only until I come face to face with my friend Ashu, or maybe Abhay, sure, and maybe then I’ll offer a humbled apology for insulting their homeland. But the truth is, I’ve had plenty of time to think about this one, and my apologies will ring hollow, as they should. And besides, if any apologies are due, I really don’t think they should be coming from me.
“Someday you’ll leave this world behind, so live a life you will remember.”
– The Nights, by Michael and Robert Silverman
The morning I left Malawi, I’d been drying my washed clothes on the thatched roof of my hut at Mabuya Camp in Lilongwe. They dried just in time for the skies to open up in a rare deluge. I and Savannah, a fellow American finishing up a couple of weeks of environmental research, left the muddied, pouring compound in a shared taxi for the tiny Lilongwe International Airport, the type of place where the security guard searching my bags kindly asked if he could have the pen he found in one of the pockets – for his son – and the terminal restaurant is a $5 plate of rice and chicken offered from a hot food station by the windows. So to say it was a bit of culture shock to suddenly find myself enjoying free wifi and a large Cappuccino in a ceramic mug along with a mushroom, spinach and cheese omelet on the sun-dappled patio of a happening and hip Cape Town café is, well, a major understatement.
I’d been told by many who’d been here before me that Cape Town isn’t “Africa,” per se, that it’s more like a European city – and they were right. And yet, as nice and comfortable and familiar as this suddenly was, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t having mixed feelings. I’d longed for fancy coffee and more of my traditional foods, not to mention being able to brush my teeth with actual tap water, but this would be the last country on my extended tour of this amazing continent, and I already missed the Baobab trees and villagers of Chembe, the barefoot kids waving to me throughout the day, and taking pleasure in simpler things – watching the fishermen go and come with their daily catch, the women washing clothes and pots and pans at the shoreline, the children singing in the street each evening. We wore no watches. We had no place to be. We told time by the sunrise and sunset. If it was adventure we sought, we could find it as easily on the roads of Chembe as we might in the National Park – or even just sitting together over a beer at the lodge.
Little did I know at the time that the next couple of weeks would be filled with natural beauty, incredible adventure, and memories I will cherish forever, memories that are uniquely South Africa.
I like a reasonable amount of adventure, more than some, less than many, and I’m generally okay with heights. I hot-air ballooned in Cappadoccia, and flew over Victoria Falls in a microlight plane, powered by little more than an industrial fan and kept secure by a single-buckle seatbelt, the likes of which aren’t even allowed in most American cars these days. My daredevil Mom and I share the amazing memory of going on a glorious glider ride over Newport many years ago, and I went skydiving with Erik Hanna and Dave Wight in Lincoln – finding that to be such a thrill that I went again a year later.
You don’t have that “falling” sensation when skydiving. It’s quite the opposite, actually. But bungee jumping? It’s nothing but that falling sensation, and maybe being eaten alive by a pack of hyena or accidentally set ablaze while grilling my world famous wings are the only other ways I’d rather not shake my mortal coil.
In Zambia, there’s a famous bungee bridge right by Victoria Falls, and the only way I avoided jumping there was because I opted for the microlight.
“And besides,” I told Nathan, who had told me about his jump in South Africa – “If I’m gonna jump, it’s going to be from the world’s highest bungee bridge.”
At the time, it was little more than a delay tactic, if I’m being honest. I’d kind of counted on something coming up between that and this moment, when I found myself looking out at the tiny little dots in the distance that were people jumping and falling…and falling…falling an extraordinarily long, long way before that glorified elastic band even began to stretch taut.
“Can I just walk out and watch from the bridge?” I asked one the members of the Face Adrenaline jump team.
“Of course, but once you’re there, you’re going to want to jump, my friend.”
My famous author friend, Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Broken Field, and the forthcoming NYTimes Bestseller, Pud), talked of the sense of freedom and exhilaration he felt once he stepped off terrafirma, bungee jumping from an abandoned overpass in Detroit, I think it was. I did not feel that. Instead, I kind of felt like I’d been pushed off the world’s highest bungee bridge and was plummeting to my death for roughly eleven minutes.
Sure, it’s possible that I was only invited to dance on tape for a little irrhythmic humor. And maybe the kids following me through the village streets only did so because word had gotten out that I just might be packin’ lollipops. But the only fact that really matters right now is that I am forever a legend in both countries, and if I play my cards right, I will never have to pay for dollar Castels in either place ever again. #winning!
My rise to fame came about because I’d gone on a solo hike through Lake Malawi National Park, out to Otter Point, a famously scenic spot for sunsets. The hike took me down dirt roads, past curious baboons, and through dense forest trails, eventually leading me to a rocky, bouldery point, with glass calm waters, blue skies, puffy white clouds, and brightly colored fish that came to me when I slapped the water’s surface. It was like a dream, a paradise within paradise. I sat, completely alone, soaking in the serenity. I’d brought water and snacks and a couple of Castels, planning to call my friend Julia from Germany. We’d met in the Faroe Islands at the beginning of my travels, and she was hesitantly planning her next adventure. I figured that sharing the beauty of the spot I was sitting in at that moment might be just the push she needed.
And that’s when I heard the voices.
No, not those voices.
At first I thought it might be a couple of hikers making their way to the point. But they weren’t hikers, nor tourists. A local man of about twenty-five came first, in shorts and a tee. Then a woman in a red top and a skirt, with a suitcase on her head. Then another woman, a man, a couple of teenagers, a woman with an infant in a chitenge, all carrying bags and suitcases and bundles, none dressed for the woods or a bouldery shoreline. In the end there would be twenty-five in all, my serenity and solitude going from one extreme to an absurd opposite in a matter of minutes.
It turns out they were a choir group from Monkey Bay, here to shoot a music video, and for the next two hours the women, men, and children alike danced to the same song but in different groupings, formations, and costumes, while fishermen rode past, catcalling and dancing and laughing from their boats, while still others stopped by on paddleboards to watch and dance and swim and leap from the rocky tops.
I would spend my time watching and filming and talking to the young man who had led the group, Promise, from Chembe Village. At the end of the two-hour video shoot, Promise turned and said, “They are asking me to ask you to please dance with them.”
“What? Me?” I asked. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, they would very much like you to dance.”
At that moment two things popped into my head, the first being a quote by an inspiration of mine, Dan Eldon, who once wrote in his journals, “It is foolish and hazardous not to dance in Africa,” and the second being an earlier regret I had for not dancing with the villagers of Mukuni, in Zambia.
So, of course, I would be honored to dance with the choir from Monkey Bay.
As I climbed down the boulders, my anxiety rising, another man approached, a man I’d seen earlier, joyously cradling and playing with one of the babies when he wasn’t dancing.
“Wait, wait,” he said, as he reached into a bag and pulled out a set of clothes, one of the outfits he’d worn for the shoot. It was a bright red shirt and equally bright blue pants, both soaking wet from the sweat of having danced for hours in the unforgiving Malawi sun.
“Please, put these on,” he said.
Eesh. Y’know what…fuck it, Peter, I thought. You only live once.
I put on the pants and shirt, then tie, cufflinks, and even the shoes he had insisted upon, and took my place between two other men, the entirety of the choir now sitting on the boulders as audience, smiling, phones out.
I can confidently say now that they very likely expected my moves to be more amusing than socks-knocking-off-amazing, but once the music started and the cameras started rolling, well let me tell you that I shocked the entire entertainment world that day. The men would walk away feeling defeated by my moves (I presume), their spots taken by two women who likely believed they were more up to the challenge. They too would succumb, though they played it off quite well, feigning indifference. But I knew. They knew. We all knew. Something magical had just happened.
A couple of days later I would be back at Mgoza Lodge, having a beer and talking with Lisa and Elliott, when Jack, one of our amazing lodge hosts, called to me from the desk.
“Mistah Petah, can you come for a second?” he asked with a wide grin.
When I reached the desk, he turned his phone to me.
“Is this you?”
And it was. In all of my dancing glory, my stint as an Otter Point Dancer having gone viral, the fate of my fame forever etched into the history of Chembe Village, of Cape Maclear, of Malawi itself.
It hadn’t taken me and Michigan Lisa long to discover that our nightmarish travel adventure just to get to Cape Maclear in the first place had been worth all of the effort. We’d arrived at night, a couple of days before I’d become the darling mzungu son of Chembe. We arrived during the remnant rains and blowing winds of Cyclone Gombe. The dirt road outside Mgoza Lodge had been dark and windy and wet, the indoor reception area dimly lit, with windowless windows and doorless doors open to the dampness blowing in from the shoreline of Lake Malawi, a lake usually flat calm, but that night its waves could be heard crashing just beyond the darkness.
We dropped our bags on the floor, immediately ordered drinks from our host that evening, Chikku, sat ourselves down on cushioned chairs, looked at each other, and immediately, we knew – our troubles had finally come to an end.
Lisa’s plan was to spend three or four days here before taking a ferry up-lake to Ncharta Bay. Elliott, who we would meet the next day, was to be there a couple nights more. As for me, I figured five nights, tops, and then on to Cape Town, South Africa. Or Mozambique. Or maybe Namibia. I hadn’t figured out the where, but I knew the when. Or at least I thought I had.
The three of us would end up spending the better part of the next 11 nights together at Mgoza Lodge, eating, drinking, hiking, kayaking, adventuring, sometimes just watching the world go by, the young kids swimming in the lake just feet from the front door of our huts, the older kids bathing in it, the women of the village washing clothes and dishes in it, the men setting out to fish in it each morning, returning to dry their catch in the afternoon sun. We showered little, though I did have my clothes washed in the lake, the same water that was pumped to our showers and taps.
Yes, we faced many of the same pressures as in Zambia and Tanzania, each of us being worked over by tourism-starved locals, fake forms for donations for school books or football teams, sales pitches for bracelets, wood carvings, boat tours, hiking tours, handmade clothes – even Malawi ganja and home-baked edibles. And we each had our own sales nemeses in the village, coming home more than once with the look of embarrassed defeat that simply said “Yeah, I caved,” before telling one another what we bought or ordered or gave away.
Lisa’s nemesis was a legitimately disconcerting guy named QB, a local scam artist who last we heard had fled to Lilongwe while village elders prepared to decide his fate as a resident of Chembe. Elliott had Ben, a beachfront vendor who welcomed him the moment he sat down to coffee each morning, ready to talk about the custom-made Bao board he tried to – and eventually would – convince him to buy. The fact that my nemesis was a roving gang of hoodlums everyone simply referred to as The Lollipop Kids should in no way detract from the intimidation and danger I felt of my own circumstance.
Lisa, for her part, set the scam standard, coming home almost every day with a story of a brazen bait-and-switch to which she’d fallen victim. By the end of our stay, she too had become a legend – both famous and infamous, depending on who you ask. After leaving Cape Maclear, a complete stranger approached her on a ferry one day and thanked her for the viral Instagram warning her friends had forwarded about QB, while a detective would call to lecture her on the seriousness of making “false accusations” about the same. The detective might have begun by playing Bad Cop, but he clearly hadn’t tangled with the likes of Lisa before, and by the end he’d not only apologized profusely, but asked if she thought they could be friends.
Lisa, of course, said no.
It was on our second evening that we’d meet the aforementioned Elliott, Elliott Crabbe, a young man from the UK who was also on a solo adventure through Africa, and from whom we would learn terms like “in the bin” – a phrase we all applied to ourselves on more than a few mornings after evenings of too many Castels and cheap tequila – and “Banana Bum Wipe,” which Elliott still insists is a delicious dessert enjoyed by his entire family. It makes me want to meet his parents.
Before coming to Cape Maclear, like us he’d visited Victoria Falls, but from the Zimbabwe side. While there, he volunteered as guest speaker at a school, and also at a center that rehabilitated elephants, gathering food and mucking out their living quarters. These volunteer efforts were entirely unplanned, both the result of a couple pints too many at local pubs, but each was indelible, as is so often the case when the unexpected happens in Africa.
When Elliott showed up at the school on his scheduled volunteer day, for example, he was prepared to share mostly unrehearsed stories of daily life in the City of Bath, his home in the UK. Upon arrival, however, it was discovered the classroom teacher hadn’t shown up for several days, and so, Africa being Africa, Elliott was asked to teach in her absence.
After protestations which included “I am in no way whatsoever a classroom teacher. I have never done anything like this before in my life, and I am entirely unqualified,” he would go on to teach the children, all alone, with no lesson plan, for more than two weeks. If Christmas break hadn’t come and given him reprieve, he might still be there, likely Principal by now, and we might never have met.
We would meet many others during our 11 nights – doctors and nurses doing volunteer stints across Malawi. A dozen 18-20 year olds from the UK, all here for eight months and assigned to different volunteer experiences, some in health care, some in classrooms, others working with animal rehabilitation. We all drank together at Hiccups Pub, one of the few formal watering holes in town.
Ravn, from Germany, had just completed a group fundraising bike trek across a few African countries. He’d sold his bike, and was taking a little holiday before returning home.
We would meet Jacob, a dreadlocked friend we referred to as “The Rastatalian,” who was visiting Cape Maclear – as best we could tell – in order to roll and smoke as many blunts as humanly possible, then dance around the property barefoot while wearing nothing but chitenges – and he wasn’t even staying at Mgoza.
Malawi and other African nations draw a lot of idealistic youth and adults alike, here to do their part in trying to make a difference in the World. In Lilongwe I would also meet Savannah, a 26-year-old IT Specialist from California by way of Connecticut, here on an environmental studies vacation. And Nina, 20, here from Belgium to do work at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre.
But Elliott clicked with us right out of the gate – able to give as well as he got from Lisa – thus making him the logical third member of the The Malawi Three. Together and separately we hiked the National Park, Otter Point, and Missionary Trail. We kayaked and snorkeled – always wary of crocodiles. All of us took at least one motorbike taxi to Monkey Bay. Lisa learned to operate a boat, and she and Elliott mastered the game of Bao, each leaving with a custom-made board. We danced on the rocks, on the beach, and with the kids who gathered each evening to sing on the dirt road out front. We each tried fire poi, taught to us by Liam and his sister, Jade, taking odds on who of us was most likely to be engulfed in flame. Elliott, choosing to try two at once, was the odds-on favorite, Lisa and I promising to push him into the lake should things go horribly awry, though truth be told we probably would have been too busy streaming it on social media, counting on the other to be the one to put him out.
We had tailored clothes made or mended for a pittance, befriended the locals, vendors, restaurant workers and kids, people we met on the roads and in the park, in the lodges and in the bars. We ate, drank, smoked, tried space cakes, and we all bonded with our hosts at the lodge – Chikku, Jack, Jeremiah – each of them becoming friends during our stay, and remaining so after we’d left.
Elliott would meet his “tidy,” Jade, while Lisa would be falsely accused of adultery by the wife of the man she’d accused of stealing money from her. Typical Lisa.
But maybe most amazing part of all was we three travelers, different backgrounds and generations, each with our own tastes, likes, and dislikes, each of us on our own solo journeys, became the most unlikely of friends.
On my last day in Cape Maclear, Elliott and I were having a beer when he suddenly said, “It just occurred to me that none of us will ever see each other again.”
I’ve said goodbye to many wonderful people I’ve met during these past seven months, and I’d be lying if I said that thought hadn’t crossed my mind during some of those earlier goodbyes, goodbyes I’d soften by sharing hopes of crossing paths in future travels.
But Malawi was different.
I’d also be lying if I said that watching Lisa ride out of Chembe Village on the back of a motorbike earlier that morning, heading for a ferry in Monkey Bay, didn’t leave me suddenly, unexpectedly, verklempt.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” I found myself saying then to Elliott. “We’re both going to be in your and Tidy’s wedding party,” I said confidently as I turned away to finish my beer, looking down the beach at the fishermen I hoped to see in the distance.
Michigan Lisa was carrying enough luggage on her solo tour of Africa to make a Kardashian blush, never mind a backpacker, so when she dropped her gear in the driveway of Natwange Backpackers while we waited for a taxi that would never come, it was hard to tell exactly which bag contained the vibrator which had been accidentally jostled into its on position, the two of us standing there staring at the bags, then each another.
Our ensuing laughter would be the only sound other than the rhythmic buzzing on this otherwise silent African morning.
“Well this is going to be one hilarious adventure,” I thought.
It would be the last last laugh we would have for quite some time.
“Be careful,” wrote Jeff when I told him I was heading for Malawi.
Jeff, as some of you might recall, is my famous author friend, Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Streams of Consciousness, Broken Field, and the soon-to-released blockbuster novel about America’s favorite little rapscallion, Pud). In a dramatic turn from decades of advice that had proven to be hilariously misguided, he’d actually been right about Slovenia’s Lake Bohinj, and then again when warning me of the inherent dangers of Lamu, Kenya – though to be fair, his warning came well after I’d already left the dangerous Al Shabab territory. Well after I’d already wandered far enough from the moderately safer shores of the Indian Ocean’s beachy dunes and into what felt a bit too much like desert, where seeing a group of armed, masked men on galloping horseback suddenly appear from a hazy heat mirage didn’t seem so far-fetched.
Even at my own expense, I have to admit it would have been darkly amusing to have his too-late warning sitting in my inbox, unread, as I sat in a dank and dimly lit cell somewhere on the Horn of Africa. He might even have been one of the group to receive demands for my ransom, as fruitless an attempt as that would prove, his supposed inability to pay a penny for my release becoming a story with which he would regale friends at the Hidey Hole in Big Sandy, Montana, for years to come, his efforts to secure my freedom becoming more valiant with each retelling. He would write it quite beautifully, of course, much more eloquently than he would tell it with the initial help, and later hindrance, of the finest cheapest tequila around, his accumulated bar tabs making for a tidily negotiable sum for my release had he ever bothered to reply to my captors with anything beyond insulting snark and beer-muscled bravado.
But, as is typical of most of his advice, it wouldn’t be Al Shabab, ISIS, rogue kidnappers, or even corrupt police of whom I would have to be most careful – but the taxi drivers, bus depot workers, immigration officials, shuttle bus crews, and even the drivers of those adorable little Tuk Tuks.
In my last post, I shared my experience at Intercity Bus Depot in Lusaka, where an absurd and obscene competition for business borders at best on intimidation, and at worst, assault. Back home, that kind of behavior would result in legal charges and an immediate crackdown on the practice. In Lusaka, however, depot employees simply tell you to stop filming.
When leaving Livingstone for Lusaka a few days before, a group of five of us would each pay 285 kwacha for a shuttle ride. When I, the last of our group, loaded my pack into the back of the shuttle, an older man in a company shirt said, “Ok, so you pay the man.”
“Pay the man?” I asked, legitimately confused. “For what?”
“For the bag. One hundred Kwacha.”
“I literally handed my bag to him at the truck. I’m not paying for that,” I replied.
“One hundred kwacha. Or whatever you think is fair.”
“Hey guys,” I called to my group. “Is there a bag price I don’t know about? This guy wants a hundred kwacha.”
“Absolutely not,” replied Antea, an extreme-athlete travel-adventurer from Croatia who spends the vast majority of each year traveling the world when she’s not running two hostels she owns back home. “Tell him to fuck off.”
So fuck off I did tell the men in their official shuttle company shirts. Expecting some pushback, they simply shut the hatch and walked away, accepting their failed extortion fate while I climbed into a 22-seat shuttle with thirty-one other passengers for an airless and stifling seven-hour ride.
Having company when traveling is always nice, especially in situations like those, but there is additional comfort in negotiating the trials of cross-border travel between African nations with a friend as well. So when Michigan Lisa arrived at Natwange Backpackers in Lusaka a day after I did and said she was heading for Malawi, I asked if I could tag along.
Securing visas proved to be a task much harder than it should, with some travelers waiting three weeks or more. Malawi is a country with no broadband internet but which, for some reason, requires 90% of all visas to be secured online. Thankfully, Lisa’s relentless WhatsApp nagging of Gloria, our Malawian immigration office savior, paid off, and our trip would begin with deceptively amusing laughter and a buzzing sex toy.
The day before leaving, Lisa and I had taxied to Intercity Bus Depot so we could buy our bus tickets in advance – there’s no such thing as an online purchase here. It’s worth its weight in gold to show up with tickets in hand, especially when laden with gear and packs that scream American money, even if it’s only backpacker money. Being able to yell “we already have tickets” makes half the crowd immediately disappear, leaving only the other half to yell and fight and push and pull at your bags and arms and shirtsleeves.
Due to our taxi driver simply not showing up the morning of our ride, we secured last-second transport from our lodge, fought traffic, and arrived with only a minute to spare for our scheduled 8:30AM departure. But as I’ve noted before, this is Africa, where departure times are merely a suggestion. We would wait in the Zambian morning sun for well over an hour, watching bus company employees fight for passengers, happy to be out of the fray. Our bus was an antiquated “Greyhound” style with sliding windows, no bathroom, tvs that played nothing the first half of our ride, and African music videos the rest of the way. If there was one saving grace – it was that at least this one came without a resident preacher giving an amplified sermon for hours on end.
I knew the ticket salesman’s estimate of a six-hour ride to the border town of Chipata, Zambia, was bullshittedly short by a couple of hours, but even that would prove wishful thinking, as our ride would end up taking ten.
Lisa and I had chosen window seats on opposite ends of the same row, each wanting views of the villages, villagers, livestock, and occasional baboons along the way. We’d hoped and gambled that the bus would be relatively empty, Lisa bringing her heavy daypack aboard, and I bringing both my daypack and large backpack, preferring not to lose sight of any of my gear.
Our best laid plans would go quickly awry, however, as the bus would fill at our first stop, just minutes from the depot. Lisa and I were the only non-locals on the bus, the only mzungus. The woman who took the seat beside me sat so quickly I hardly had time to scoop up the items I had strewn about, and as a result I would spend the first four hours of the trip trapped, sweating profusely with my heavy backpack on my lap, and my daypack between my feet. I couldn’t find my phone or notepad, and any hope of writing on my laptop were dashed entirely – hell, I wasn’t even able to reach my water.
She and the other women in our row’s aisle seats were friends, or family, and would exchange a very snotty, croup-coughing little boy the entire journey, each little hacking session causing me to stick my mask-covered face out the open window, preferring to breathe the dusty hot air blowing past over whatever what was coming out of the lungs of that little germ factory.
Our first rest-stop wouldn’t be for four hours, though rest-stop is a bit of a stretch. Most rest-stops here tend to be pullovers on the side of a hot, dusty dirt road, where locals swarm the sides of the bus, competing to sell everything from water and juice and soda to bananas, nuts, carrots, tomatoes, eggs, and even live chickens. Most of the time, passengers hand kwacha down from the open windows, and goods are handed back up. Here, however, we exited to stretch our legs and use the bathrooms, which were simply a row of toilets behind the market stalls, just a bit beyond the goats.
It was then that I would find all of my lost items, most lying about my feet on the dirty bus floor. I would discover my seat-mate had been sitting on my phone since Lusaka. I’d take the opportunity to stow my large pack below, deciding the reward outweighed the risk, while both women took the opportunity to buy some lunch – a brown paper bag full of dried, salted fish from one of the sunbaked street stands just outside our windows.
The women would place the greasy, brown paper bags on their laps, tear them open, and eat with their hands as we drove away. The smell was overpowering in the thick hot air of the now standing-room-only bus.
It would be a little while yet before we would be pulled over and documented by immigration, and longer still before we hit the goat.
It was unavoidable, to be fair, our bus traveling at quite a high rate of speed by then. Our driver had occasionally been beeping at locals and animals along the way, giving fair warning we were coming in hot. But this time was different. This time he laid unrelentingly on the horn, then the brakes, and we all knew something was amiss. Aisle passengers leaned in to look ahead, while we others pressed sweaty faces to the glass or out our open windows. As I did, I saw three goats scrambling to safety along the roadside at justabout the same moment the rest of us heard the thump-thump-thump’p’p’p’p’p.
In Kenya, according to my friend Sophie Kinyua, livestock have the right of way, and if you hit one with your vehicle, it’s your responsibility to compensate the owner. I’m not sure of the rules in Zambia, but other than a couple of low murmers from our fellow passengers, we would simply continue on, the brakes released, pedal-to-the-metal once again. Lisa and I would lean forward and exchange “WTF’s,” which I’m pretty sure was the extent of the eulogy that poor goat received.
We’d begun the day in the early morning light of Lusaka, but wouldn’t arrive in Chipata until well after dark, she and I still the only mzungus to be seen. At the humid, unlit dirt depot, we would once again be swarmed, jostled, pushed and pulled, this time by taxi drivers competing for our thirty-minute fare to the Malawi border.
The first thing you must learn to do when being dropped in a place like this, without any plan whatsoever, is flat out lie, immediately telling everyone that you do in fact have a plan, that you have a ride, and to back the fuck off. If you don’t get aggressive, you will be overwhelmed.
It buys you a little time to gather your wits, and not a soul will call you out on your lie when you reappear a minute or so later casually asking how much for that ride to the border.
Prices for the thirty-minute ride were as high as 1,000 Zambian kwacha, or roughly $55, an absurd amount commonly thrown out to mzungu tourists to see if they’ll bite. We would eventually find a driver offering to take us for 50 kwacha per person – a little less than $3 each.
“50 each,” I said. “So, 100 kwacha total, correct?”
“Yes, 50 each.”
“Not a kwacha more. 50 kwacha each, for a total of 100 kwacha, from here to the border.”
“Yes, sure-sure, 50 kwacha each.”
“Okay, fine, for 50 kwacha each, 100 total. You have a deal.”
We would load all of our gear into the small car, enough that I would have to sit in the front seat with my backpack on my lap, my daypack between my feet, Lisa in back sitting on top of one of hers. We would pull out of the lot and I would once again repeat our agreement, 50 kwacha each, 100 kwacha total, a tactic whose importance cannot be overstated, even if it proves fruitless, because that’s when our driver pulled over and parked by the side of the road.
“Yes, 50 kwacha each. Now we must wait for the other bus.”
“What? What other bus?” I asked, incredulously.
“The next bus. We need three more.”
“There more what?”
“We need five passengers for the car.”
“Five? There isn’t room in this car for a handbag, never mind three people and their luggage – she’s sitting on one of her bags already.”
“Yes, but we need five. 250 kwacha for the car. 50 each.”
Now, I’m not saying a 250 kwacha ride – around $14 U.S. – isn’t still a great deal, certainly not for a thirty minute taxi ride that would probably cost fifty bucks back home. But it was the blatant lie. The bait-and-switch. The infuriating frustration. It had happened to each of us far too many times on our respective trips already, and we’d had it, we were done.
“Fuck off. Nope, we’re out,” Lisa said without hesitation. “We gave you a chance. You lied. We’re done.”
Amidst his protests and our expletives, Lisa and I got out, unloaded our gear, and walked back to the unlit lot – hot, sweaty, dirty, somewhat deflated, kind of defeated, and most definitely exhausted.
There, negotiations resumed, and we would eventually agree to a ride for 300 kwacha from a large local named Chicomboso. It was the last of our Zambian kwacha, and sure, it was more expensive than the 250,and Chicomboso had to borrow a car – a car that not only had no license plates, but also looked and sounded like it was going to die at any moment. Oh, and also, Chicomboso absolutely reeked of alcohol. And when I climbed in back and scooted across the seat, I discovered that my interior door handle was missing, and automatic window button gone. And right about then is when Chicomboso put up my window and locked my door from the driver’s seat. And then his friend climbed into the passenger seat, where I’d placed my backpack, and put it on his lap. And suddenly, I knew…this was how I was going to die.
We didn’t have internet access, but my offline Maps.Me app worked as advertised, allowing me to follow along to ensure we were at least headed for the border. One detour and I was ready to strike, having pulled a $1 Tanzanian ballpoint pen that had never worked from my pocket, cocking it, holding it at the ready for the length of the ride. It was my only weapon, and as we drove I conjured images of those millionaire Hollywood actors pretending to be badasses who use things like paperclips with lethal accuracy. I very quickly also imagined the more likely reality, my aiming for Chicomboso‘s jugular, but missing, simply angering the large man, my cheap little pen sticking out of his forehead.
I wouldn’t relax until we made it through Zambia’s final police checkpoint. The fact they let a car with no license plates through an armed post, driven by a clearly intoxicated man, shouldn’t have been as comforting as it was, but I figured Chicomboso and his friend wouldn’t have taken the chance of being the last to be seen with soon-to-be-missing-mzungus, so I pressed the button and retracted the point of my tiny lethal weapon.
They would drop us, alive and somewhat well, at the border. I took Chicomboso’s number, having told him along the way that I’d be returning to Zambia at some point soon, and would need a return ride, thinking maybe they’d be less likely to dump our lifeless bodies in a ravine should there be potential for future kwacha. I can never return to Zambia now, of course, for while I won’t remember Chicomboso, if there’s one thing I’ve learned here in Africa, it’s that when you tell a local you might give them business in a day – or in a year – they never, ever forget.
After being processed at the Zambian border, Lisa and I would walk the dark road to the Malawi immigration office. It was around 9:30PM now and we would spend the next 90 minutes there, the easiest part ironically being our presenting them with fake PCR tests. Fake PCRs have become a thing here in Africa, at least among the budget backpackers, but we had a couple potential problems, beyond the obvious. The first was that my results had the wrong birth date.
“Don’t worry about it,” my friend Nathan wrote. “They don’t even look.”
The second problem was that our test results were supposedly both from the same clinic, but they’d been created by different people, so they had entirely different logos and designs.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lisa’s guy told her. “Just get into line two or three people behind your friend. They’ll never notice.”
The problem with that was we were the only two travelers in the entire border office, so there was no one to put between us.
Lisa handed her phone to the immigration officer. He expanded the snapshot image of her PCR test, took out his own phone, and began scanning her QR code as I went through excuses in my head for why our results looked different and why my birth date was wrong. I decided my best defense was to simply play dumb and feign frustrated anger. “A nurse came to my hostel to take my swab,” I would say. “Don’t tell me I was SCAMMED!? DAMN YOUUU ZAMBIAAA!!!”
He scanned hers again. No luck.
He adjusted the size of the QR code, and scanned again.
Still no luck.
He was silent for a moment, before handing the phone back to her.
“Go,” he told her.
“Go?” she asked.
“Yes, yes, go.”
Then he looked at me.
“Do you have the same?”
“Um, yes?” I said.
“Go,” he said, waving me on, not even bothering to look.
The reason fake PCR tests have started making the rounds is the cost, which can be as high as $120. And with covid still the media darling, the majority of international travelers in Africa right now are backpackers, backpackers on daily budgets that can be as low as $25, so one test can equal five days of travel. Add to that the fact that most of these countries don’t seem to take Covid seriously anyway – Malawi requires your test to be no more than “10 days” old, for example, rendering any test that old utterly meaningless. It became clear to us that the tests here are little more than a bridge for lost tourism dollars.
Our next hurdle was the supposed need for printed visas, even though the country requires them to be done electronically. We had no kwacha, we told them, making it clear that bribes to bypass their request weren’t an option (A UK friend we would meet in Cape Maclear paid $250 for his visa at the border, while two Canadian travelers were turned away completely when they showed up with no visas and no kwacha, having to bus ten hours back to Lusaka. Another, from Serbia, meanwhile, traveled to four different border offices before being allowed to get a visa-on-arrival. He was charged just $25.).
The immigration staff would end up letting us borrow one of their personal wifi SIM links and passwords in order for us to download PDFs of our electronic visas, then email them back to this same office that already had them on file, for they had provided them to us in the first place.
Our walk to the actual border was a few hundred yards on a dimly lit dirt road, past a crowded and loud, oddly-located bar, where once again our taxicab negotiations would begin.
We were told beforehand that the price for the roughly one-hour ride to Lilongwe, the capital, should be around 25,000 Malawian kwacha, or around $30. Again, still a bargain by US standards.
Our first quote, however would be for 50,000.
“Nope. No way,” Lisa said. “We were told 20,000,” she lied.
“Let’s call Chippy,” I said, as I took out my phone and pretended to send a WhatsApp message to a man whose name we’d been given by a friend in Lusaka. But the truth is, even if I’d had service – and I didn’t – it was already 11PM, and it would take Chippy an hour just to get here, never mind the fact he’d never even given us a quote.
“Thirty thousand,” said another.
“Thirty thousand? I just said we can get it for 20,000,” I replied.
“Thirty thousand and we can go now?” Lisa asked.
“Thirty thousand. And you take us all the way to Lilongwe?” I said. “Right now. And not a fucking kwacha more? Because, to be honest, we keep getting screwed.”
“Thirty thousand. And sure, we leave right now.”
“Okay, deal,” I said, not even making an effort to fake-cancel the fake-ride from Chippy. We loaded our gear into his trunk and slammed the door shut.
Lisa and I looked at each other with tired grins, able to do little more than shake our heads.
“I don’t even care. I’m leaving it on,” she said. “No way I’m taking those bags back out.”
Our driver climbed in, started the engine, and we drove along in relative silence, except for the rhythmic buzzing from the trunk that was shaking every loose nut, bolt, and piece of metal in our beat-up wreck of a car.
“I feel like we’re much closer friends now that I know your preferred vibrator setting,” I said.
“Oh my god. Shut the fuck up,” Lisa replied.
In a rare sign of great fortune, the batteries in her toy would run out before we reached our first police checkpoint, a row of steel drums and orange traffic cones placed across the road. Heavily armed, camouflaged, military police lazed their way from the darkness where they’d been sitting, walking around the car before asking for passports, asking who we were, why we’re here, where we’re going. A buzzing coming from the trunk most certainly would have raised concerns, concerns that at least would have resulted in a full search, and then, depending on their sense of humor and decorum, either a lot of laughs, or a large and fiery detonation of every last thing we owned.
“Are you carrying any illegal drugs?” one of the men asked.
“Depends,” Lisa replied, to my horror, before laughing and saying no and turning the questions back on them, asking what their names were, where they’re from.
She would do something similar at every one of our five stops, somehow ingratiating herself with each and every patrol.
Soon after our first stop, however, our taxi driver pulled into an unlit, dirt parking lot in an equally unlit, dirt town.
“The car won’t make it to Lilongwe,“ our driver said suddenly. “I have to get another. I’ll be right back.”
And with that, he exited the car and walked off into the darkness.
“What the hell?” I said.
“Here we go,” said Lisa.
We sat for several minutes in the dark of the car in the dark of the town, a pack of stray dogs walking in front of closed shops across the dark road, the only sounds being those of men yelling about who-knows-what in the black of the night.
“I want to know what they’re yelling about,” I said after a minute. “I mean, are they just yelling to yell? Like, one guy asking the other what he’s doing, and the other guy yelling back, ‘Just hanging out, what are you doing?’ And the guy answering, ‘I’m just hanging out.’ And the other guy yelling back, ‘You want to come over and hang out here?’” Because honestly, that’s sort of what it sounded like, and also because I was goddamn exhausted and now I was getting loopy.
Headlights suddenly appeared behind us, a car pulling up next to ours. Our driver was in the passenger seat.
“Okay, so you go with him,” he said after we’d all gotten out to see what the deal was. “He’ll take you to Lilongwe.”
“Are you serious.” I said, as deadpan as possible. “Jesus Christ. Fine, for 30,000,” I said to the new man. “That was our agreement with him.”
“Thirty-five thousand,” he replied.
“No no no no no,” I said, shaking my head.
“Not a fucking chance,” said Lisa.
This would lead to yet another long, expletive-filled argument. The new guy’s defense of our old guy being “he made a mistake,” with my and Lisa’s responses being more expletives, name-calling, yelling, and a reasonable amount of fury. And right about then is when the dog on the dark dirt road got hit by the speeding car.
The sound was hard and clear and sickening and heartbreaking, with the car driving off into the night without so much as slowing down, the dog screaming in pain, the rest of the pack of strays suddenly howling and crying and barking together in the night.
“Don’t look,” I said to Lisa. “Don’t look at the dog.”
But it was too late. She was already staring off into the darkness, hands to her head, pleading aloud that what had just happened hadn’t actually just happened.
But it had, and it was horrible, and it was the last straw.
“I’ll tell you what you’re going to do,” I said to our original driver. “You’re going to take us back to the last fucking military checkpoint. And you’re fucking dropping us there. We’re getting another fucking cab from there, and then I’m telling them exactly what the fuck you’re trying to do to two visitors to your country, driving us just far enough away from other cabs and then trying to fuck us over. We know exactly what you’re doing and we’ve fucking had it!”
It was an unplanned ramble and gamble that could easily have gotten us stranded right there, with no lodging, no wifi, no lights, no cars, our bags dropped in the dirt, just yards away from a bunch of strays howling around a dying dog.
But it worked.
Sort of. The new driver agreed to take us to Lilongwe for the agreed-upon 30,000, through four more police checkpoints, all asking to see our passports and visas, we answering their questions – and they answering Lisa’s. We had no internet service to give our driver the address of our accommodation, just the name: Mabuya Camp.
He had no service either. No map. No GPS. No sense of direction. And, it turns out, he didn’t even know his left from his right.
We’d left Natwange Backpackers Hostel in Lusaka, Zambia, at 8AM that morning. We finally arrived at Mabuya Camp in Lilongwe, Malawi, at 12:30 the next.
But our already exhausting journey was still far from over.
Thirty-three hours later, Lisa and I would find ourselves at Lilongwe’s shuttle depot, arriving at 9:30AM, once again being so mobbed and tossed about that Lisa would escape the crowd and walk directly to the nearest shuttle with a sign advertising “Monkey Bay,” our next destination, and simply throw her gear inside without even asking a price or time, saying to me, “I’m sorry, you do what you want, but I can’t do this anymore, I’m done, I’m taking this one.”
We’d come this far together, and I wasn’t about to go my separate way now. I’d like to claim it was chivalry, but strength-in-numbers and self-preservation was right up there as well. I didn’t want her to be alone, as much as I didn’t want to be alone either…
Our shuttle, made for 10, including a driver and one in the passenger seat, was already half full. Or so we thought. A third fold-out seat at the end of each row meant room for twelve in back and three more in front, if someone – like me for instance – sat on the gear box.
These shuttles don’t leave until they’re full, and we wouldn’t be full for another five hours, not leaving until 2:30PM. We had fifteen passengers and so much gear that the back hatch would have to be tied shut, untied, packed with more gear, and tied down again. Even fellow passengers were loaded down with random bags and boxes placed atop their laps.
Four long hours after finally pulling away, Lisa and I would be dropped in Mtakataka, saying goodbye to our driver, Frank, who was kind and talkative and who’d bought us salted potato chips and peanuts from the villages we stopped at along the way. He has a small home, and dreams of farming it for a living one day, where he and his yet-to-be wife will raise their future children.
In Mtakataka, we were yet again left to a gang of men fighting for our business. We were also told that this next, short leg of our ride to Monkey Bay should cost just 500 kwacha each. Lisa and I traded our crammed shuttle for a crammed little hatchback meant for four, a car that would carry nine of us in total, plus our gear. A few miles later we were asked for 1,000 kwacha apiece. This time, we paid the inflated price without much argument.
One more ride, and our nightmare would be over.
“No more than 2,500 kwacha apiece for the final leg,” we’d been told by Frank.
“To Cape Maclear?” asked the taxi driver. “30,000 kwacha.”
“Okay you’re out. We’re not even negotiating with you,” Lisa would tell him while giving the universal sign for talk-to-the-hand.
Another would offer 10,000. Still double the price, but we were simply too exhausted to argue, loading our gear and climbing in. Once again, however, a friend would climb into the passenger seat.
“Before we go,” Lisa said. “10,000 and not a kwacha more.”
“Yes, yes, sure-sure, 10,000, yah.”
Bait taken, we would once again drive beyond the reaches of other taxis when in came the switch.
“We need to stop for gas…” the passenger suddenly turned to us and said. This by itself isn’t so uncommon, to be honest, as many of the shuttles and even large buses wait for the day’s business before filling their tanks.
But then he added, “As long as gas is open, no problem. If not, then we need black market gas, so 15,000.”
“Black market gas? What the fuck is black market gas?” I asked. “Does someone have gasoline in a bucket or something?”
Sarcasm out of my system (though the greater irony is this was probably giving far too much credit to their actual black market gas process), Lisa and I would then compete for the floor in our mutual outrage, taking turns undressing two more scammers, our wits beyond their ends. At this point they could have thrown us and our gear out of the car while it was still moving for all we cared, but little else was going to shut us up.
“You want an extra 5,000? You know what, you’ll fucking get it, but let me explain to you what’s about to happen,” said Lisa. “You’ll get five today, happily, because honestly, 5,000 is nothing to us, but it’s the last 5,000 you’ll be getting, because we’re both on social media and we’re both bloggers and we’re going to absolutely destroy you and Cape Maclear and all of Malawi to every single backpacker and tourist on our sites and tell them to skip Malawi all together and go to Tanzania or Zambia instead. So you’ll get your extra five today, but you’ll get nothing in the future and your tourism will be gone and you’ll have zero and it will be your fault.”
It was, in a word, glorious. And yet, despite the undressing, we would still pull into the gas station, and as we rolled to a stop the guy in our passenger seat would look at the attendant and preemptively say, “Closed, right?” It was a setup so obvious I laughingly called him out on it on the spot.
We then turned around and started heading back toward where we’d begun our ride, presumably to the back of some shack where we would find some guy standing with a bucket and a funnel. As we drove, Lisa, past her breaking point, was unrelenting in her verbal hammering of the two, retelling in detail each and every scam to which we’d been exposed in an effort to make them understand their idea was anything but original. We finally pulled into a dirt lot where a couple of young men were milling about. They spoke to one of them in Chewa, before telling us that the young man had just agreed to drive us where we were going for the original, agreed-upon 10,000.
Lisa, it seems, had broken them.
But rather than she and I getting out of this car and into another, the two men got out instead, and the young man, Emmanuel, got behind the wheel.
Whose car it was, I’ll never know, but that was far from the strangest thing that had happened to us in the last 72 hours. We drove off and into a field so muddy that I honestly thought for a split second that Emmanuel had been paid to purposely sink the car to its rims, get out, and simply walk away, our original drivers laughing at us from the distant road as we stepped out and unloaded our gear in ankle deep mud.
We made it through, of course, and headed down a dirt road that led into a deep dark forest, Emmanuel carefully navigating the farthest edges of huge, deep puddles, courtesy of Cyclone Gombe, a storm that had just killed two in Mozambique, the remnants of which were filling the sky around us with ominous clouds, bolts of lightning, thunder, occasional sheets of rain, and steadily growing winds.
We would drive through occasional clearings, the lightning illuminating the silhouettes of nearby island mountains, until we eventually turned into an unlit, rainy, windy, dirt road village…
A couple of Baobab trees and a few minutes later we would suddenly see a white wooden sign for Mgoza Lodge – our long, grueling journey was coming to its end. And that’s when it occurred to me, we’d never gotten gas.
“Hey, Emmanuel,” I said. “Aren’t you going to need gas to get back home?”
“No,” he said, casually. “I have plenty.”
Of course he did.
Three days without showers, of utterly exhausting travel in stifling hot buses, shuttles, and taxis, all crammed well beyond capacity. Sketchy immigration officials, confrontational depot workers, disconcerting taxi drivers, arguments, threats, fights, dead animals, and scam after scam after frustrating scam.
If only someone had warned me to be careful here – anyone, anyone at all – maybe it could have been different.
But if I’m being honest, I’m kind of glad no one did.