Three, two, one, hold your breath!
We curled in our chins into our chests, closed our mouths and covered our eyes. The dust lifted by the truck driving in the opposite direction swallowed us for a few seconds. When the air cleared, I straighten myself back up. Standing at the back of the open van, hands firmly holding onto the metal bar, the dry hot breeze that gently sways the scarf tied on my hair is enough to make me feel like I can take on the World. Well, at least Malawi…
And by this I mean: we managed to get a “taxi” the way locals do! Some people might argue that due to the lack of infrastructure it is harder, some might think that due to the lack of rules it is easier. Whatever way, I stood proud of myself, confidently looking to the road ahead, dusty and winding with surprises. It was a completely different perspective from earlier that morning, when I walked up this same road.
I had been traveling with a group on a truck from Acacia Africa with a guide and a driver. In total we spent a month traveling from Tanzania to South Africa, Malawi was our second country.
On our first morning in Malawi, we set foot on the road and walked up from Chitimba to a town on top of a mountain called Livingstonia. We had one official local guide for the whole group that met us at the campsite. As we walked out the campsite gate, a bunch of locals awaited us. They infiltrated our group and assigned themselves on a one to one basis, so that each of us had our own “private guide”. My self-assigned private guide was called Matias and as I came to find out later, the biggest purpose of Matias, and every infiltrated guide, was to sell handmade trinkets and jewelry at the end of our tour.
At 7am, the sun was already 35º strong. While at first I was happily getting to know Matias, I quickly became too out of breath, sweaty and thirsty to think, talk and walk at the same time. The dirt road up to Livingstonia has 20 steep hairpin bends. It is worldly known that the shortest route between two places is a straight line and while in Africa, distance is particularly important, so locals always pick the shortest route even if it means it is the hardest.
The hike was steep but mostly hot. In total we covered just under 15km in over 3 hours. This included a couple of stops at viewing points to admire how far we have come.
Looking down on the first viewpoint, our campsite was somewhere in the sandy border between lush green and the blue lake. At the second viewpoint, we got a glimpse at Manchewe Falls and then we went off track to go walking behind it.
Livingstonia is a small town on top of a mountain named after the Scottish explorer David Livingston. To this day, this town is still expanding and receiving support from Scottish charities. We walked around the grounds of the hospital, saw the church and visited the rather modest David Livingston museum until it was finally time for lunch.
The restaurant was blissfully cool. The door and window had white lace curtains to keep the sun and sand outside. And the modest interior looked like someone’s dinning room with only a plastic table and chairs as furniture. We ordered some local chicken dish and it took a couple of hours to get served. They must have gone around town looking for chickens to feed a group of 10 of us, I thought. Well the food was worth the wait and the 2h wait was history filled with memoires from our guide.
With full bellies, the thought of descending the mountain on foot was a little too much to digest for some of us, myself included. So we started looking for transport options.
On the way up we passed pick-up trucks taking lots of people in the open back. They could have been all from the same family, or they could have been sharing a way of transport. It turns out that the verdict was the latter. But there was no fixed scheduled, no fixed pick up points, no “bus stops”. At this realization, suddenly the town looked bigger than it is.
A local, hanging outside the restaurant, said “no van is going down now”.
In a town of no transport schedules, “word-of-mouth schedule” is pretty efficient around Livingstonia. For example, John plans to drive down to the village later in the afternoon to pick up maize from the market, he tells the wife about his plans. She then invites her cousin over for a girl’s chat while he is away. The cousin’s neighbor overhears the conversation on her way out to the hospital appointment and between how hot the weather is and how badly her back has been hurting, she ends ups mentioning to the nurse that John is driving down town. The nurse asks her daughter to go down town to buy more gauze for the clinic. An hour later, the daughter jumps into John’s open van, slotted between 20 other people who also followed the word-of-mouth schedule.
In our case, the word-of-mouth was even more efficient. Within 15min of being told that there was no van going down, miraculously a van appeared. It was probably in the driver’s interest to give us a lift and charge us a white person’s price. Either way, it was a fair exchange, we thought.
A few of our own “private guides”, including Matias, re-appeared out of nowhere (after disappearing while we had a long lunch time) and jumped on the van with us. So their marketing strategy is to follow us all day to redirect us to their shopping tent before we return to the campsite.
The van stopped randomly. We looked at each other with confusion. From the shade comes out a middle-aged woman with 4 heavy buckets covered by cloths. She also had a scarf tied on her head. With determined moves, she starts lifting them on to the back of the van and placing them in between our legs. At first, we were puzzled. We thought we paid for the van just for ourselves, but clearly not. Not that this was a problem for us, it is just we hadn’t fully figured the way things work around here.
Standing at the back of the open van, now with legs wide apart to accommodate a bucket from the lady, I looked back to glance at the group and noticed Matias. He was perfectly balanced sitting at the corner, one leg hanging out the van. He appeared immune to the bumpy road, immune to the scary steep hairpin turns, he looked calm and confident. Matias had that look in his eyes like he is approaching the end of a working day.
There and then, feeling dirty and sweaty, I let myself embrace the feeling that I can take over Malawi. How can I take this moment home with me?! I thought to myself. That’s when I realized that I needed Matias! I needed to buy Matias’ handmade jewelry. When our eyes met, he knew that as well and he smiled back at me. It was a successful working day for him.
– Livingstonia was named after David Livingston, a Scottish explorer that stepped foot in Malawi nearly 160 years ago. He was very loved by many African countries, as he was a slave liberator.
– The little museum in Livingstonia has a photo of David Livingston’s home in Scotland, which was in a town called Blantyre, in the outskirts of Glasgow. It turns out I used to live a 2 minute drive from it and I never knew about him before going to Africa.