Malawi.

I type the word and stare at it, say it over and over in my head.

I google Malawi and get this from Wikipedia:

The name Malawi is thought to derive from the word Maravi. The people of the Maravi Empire were iron workers. Maravi is thought to mean “Flames” and may have come from the sight of many kilns lighting up the night sky.

Shanana Malawi boatThe Shanana Malawi, docked at an island in Lake Malawi.

I spent ten days in Malawi. On the ninth day, sitting in the beach bar at Fat Monkeys Lodge in Cape Maclear, eating a chicken mayo sandwich and staring out at the lake, I began mentally composing a blog post. As I was doing that, I started to cry and had to quickly wipe the tears away when a guy in the bar walked up and asked if I knew where to find an ATM. (I didn’t.)

I wish I’d gone to my room right then and written the post. Now that I’m back in Joburg it seems kind of melodramatic and I’ve been stalling on blogging for three days now, because I need to write this before I can move on to anything else but I can’t figure out how.

I’ll try to write the post more or less as I did in my head that day on Lake Malawi. Here goes.

Landscape in Malawi on the road to ChakwawaMalawi.

Hi from Malawi

When you get hired to do a photography assignment in Malawi, and you can’t believe it because Malawi has been at the top of your countries-I-want-to-visit list for as long as you can remember, and you don’t often get job offers like this and the person who hired you is one of your oldest and dearest friends.

And you’re so excited you can hardly bear it, because it’s been a shitty six months and if there were ever a time you needed a drastic change of scenery — a trip to Malawi, working with one of your oldest and dearest friends — it’s now.

But also you’re nervous because it seems too good to be true — the job sounds amazing and Malawi sounds amazing but what if it falls through at the last minute or what if the photography is too hard and you fail or what if the whole thing just doesn’t live up to your ridiculously high expectations?

But it doesn’t fall through, and you find yourself at the airport in Joburg with a film crew — a posse of dudes — who you’ll be working with for the next week. And you fly from Joburg to Blantyre, and sweat like crazy in the tiny airport waiting in line to buy a visa, and squeeze into a van with the posse of dudes and a million pounds of camera equipment and this is all happening, wow.

And it turns out there could be no better people to spend a week in Malawi with than this posse of dudes — they’re smart and funny and thoughtful and cute and have an endless supply of stories to share about the remote and fascinating places they’ve been all over the world. You realize you have quite a supply of stories yourself, and spend many hours swapping them while drinking Malawian beer called Kuche Kuche.

On the first day of work, you take photos of a group of young inventors at the University of Malawi Polytechnic School: 20-year-olds inventing heart rate monitors and drones and breathing machines and electricity supply tools. Their work is so inspiring and you shoot away and you realize you’re nailing it and, as often happens at times like this, you hear Jon in your head saying, “That’s the frame,” and you know he’d be proud of you.

Halfway through the day, you stop for a moment and realize with a jolt that you’re not sad anymore — those long, shitty, sad months are behind you now and you feel certain they’re not coming back. It’s the best feeling in the world.

On the second day of work, you drive over the escarpment into the Rift Valley to a town called Chakwawa. You visit a crowded hospital and take pictures of young mothers with newborn babies, and pass hundreds of people riding bicycle taxis and stop for herds of cows and goats crossing the road. You see how difficult life is for the vast majority of people in Malawi, and this is not a place to romanticize but it’s so freaking beautiful all the same.

On the way back over the escarpment, you jump out for photo-ops and sing along to Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler with the posse of dudes.

Posse of dudes in MalawiThe posse of dudes (plus me), on a mountain overlooking the Rift Valley between Blantyre and Chakwawa. Left to right: Rick, me, Bob, Eldson, James, and Kenny. (Photo by Maxwell the driver)

Heather in MalawiHey look, I’m happy. (Photo by Kenny.)

At the end of the week you reluctantly say goodbye to the posse of dudes and fly briefly to Lilongwe, where you and Bob stay at a shabby but kind of charming hotel called the Korea Garden Lodge and run around town taking photos of people on cell phones. You happen upon a giant statue of Hastings Banda, the first president of Malawi.

Duncan in Baltimore Ravens jerseyWhile on a mission to take photos of people in Lilongwe making use of digital technology, I met a guy named Duncan wearing a Baltimore Ravens football jersey. Duncan didn’t know or care who the Baltimore Ravens are but he was happy to be photographed.

Heather and Bob with President BandaBob and I with President Banda. (Photo by John, the Banda statue caretaker)

At the weekend, you reluctantly say goodbye to Bob at the Lilongwe airport and a kind man named George drives you across the escarpment to Lake Malawi. It’s pouring rain as you cross the ridge, then the sky clears and you come upon a rushing, muddy river tearing a gash down an emerald-green mountainside. George drives you down into a flat, hot plain dotted with villages and majestic baobabs.

Muddy river in MalawiThe rushing muddy river.

Baobab tree in MalawiMajestic baobab.

Village near Lake MalawiVillage life near Lake Malawi.

You turn off the main road at a town called Monkey Bay and continue along a dirt track to Cape Maclear, where you find Lake Malawi and Fat Monkeys Lodge. The power is often out at Fat Monkeys, and your room is hot and doesn’t have enough lightbulbs and the bar has run out of Kuche Kuche. Nonetheless, Fat Monkeys suits you fine.

Fat Monkeys LodgeFat Monkeys.

You spend four nights at Fat Monkeys, watching women wash clothes in the lake while children and dogs frolic in the water around them. Men paddle past in dugout canoes. You eat chicken mayo and a thick, white, meaty fish called Kampango, which is possibly the best fish you’ve ever tasted.

Men with fish on Lake MalawiFreshly caught kampango.

Banana vendorBanana vendor.

You ride out on the lake in a boat called Shanana Malawi and snorkel around a small island looking at electric blue fish and big monitor lizards and fish eagles high up in the trees. You get terrible sunburn. You haggle over Malawian souvenirs. You wake up at 5:30 a.m. to hike up a mountain with a man called Jambo to an overlook above Cape Maclear, where the lake spreads out beneath you like a flat, gray disk. You sit for hours in the beach bar, reading a book called Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Your strange choice of reading material, a novel about a 16th-century aristocrat in the English countryside, is somehow perfectly suitable for Fat Monkeys.

Fish in Lake MalawiElectric blue fish in Lake Malawi.

Hiking above Cape MaclearHiking above Cape Maclear. (Photo by Jambo)

On that ninth day, sitting in the beach bar mentally composing this post, something explodes inside you. You’re not only happy, but awake. You feel euphoric, like waking up from a coma. You’re alive again.

It feels like the flames from many kilns lighting up the night sky.

Malawi.

Sunset on Lake MalawiSunset on Lake Malawi. The end.

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