I THE SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY The track less travelled
One memorable night in deepest Malawi
IT is easy to get off the beaten track in Malawi. In fact, it can be difficult to stay on it, as we found early one evening in July three years ago, when we were driving up the lake road from Salima towards Nkhata Bay for a week’s holiday, in my daughter’s old low-slung Nissan Bluebird, her boyfriend at the wheel.
It was that dangerous twilight time when the roads are swarming with villagers, their children, chickens, runaway piglets, wayward goats, work-shy dogs, all dashing to get home before nightfall. For twilight is short in Malawi, and when night comes, the darkness is absolute.
By now it was obvious we weren’t going to get to Nkhata Bay and we’d have to stop somewhere overnight. Suddenly, out of the dusk, a crooked handpainted wooden sign flickered across our headlights: Maia Beach Cafe Accommodashon (sic). We let out a cheer, executed a U-turn and set out down the sandy track signposted towards the beach.
After a kilometre or so, the track divided into a number of less distinct tracks. There was no light ahead; in fact, there was no light anywhere, apart from the stars, which hung so close and bright you felt you could almost reach up and pick them out of the sky.
Suddenly, our wheels hit a patch of soft sand, skidded, and sank in. The tyres were spinning, but not gripping. We were stuck. Beyond the narrow beam of our headlights, it was pitch black. All around us were prickly bushes, their vague, menacing shapes blocking out the lie of the land. Swarms of mosquitoes smelled our fear, and swooped.
From somewhere far away there was a sound of drumming, and we could smell wood smoke. There must be a village — but where? Then we heard voices, coming from somewhere beyond the bushes.
Two boys appeared, followed by an older man. They greeted us, grinning. In fact, they might have been laughing at us. We didn’t care. Greetings were exchanged. People are very polite in Malawi. My daughter had been living in Malawi for six years, and speaks Chichewa, though the dialect is different along the lakeshore; still, it didn’t take many words to explain what had happened. The three of them and the boyfriend all got behind the car and started to shove, and slowly, slowly, the car inched on to firmer ground. We gave them some money and asked for directions to the Maia Beach resort. It had closed down last year, they said. But someone in a nearby village had a key.
We left the car on safe ground and followed them down a series of dark, winding tracks. I felt alternating waves of panic and resignation. At last we came to a small hamlet, half a dozen thatched mud-wall houses, all closed up for the night. They called and a man emerged from one of the houses; he was tall and blind in one eye. We asked whether we could stay at the Maia Beach accommodation. ‘‘You are welcomed,’’ he smiled, apparently unsurprised by these three pale strangers who’d turned up on his doorstep in the middle of the night. He fetched a bunch of keys and we followed him as he set off again down a winding track through the bushes.
After a while the bushes thinned out and I could see the soft starlit glimmer of Lake Malawi spread before us like a wide swath of grey silk. And there, along the shore, was a cluster of small bamboo huts. One was opened up for us. A torch was found. A price was agreed. Bedding was brought — three thin, stained pieces of foam and ancient and musty sheets that smelled as though they hadn’t been washed since the last visitors, whoever they had been. The mosquito nets were full of holes, but I had a sewing kit, and the kindness of our hosts more than made up for any discomforts. After they had gone, we spread out our malodorous bedding, stitched up the biggest holes in the mosquito nets and fell into a deep sleep.
Bright sunlight woke us, needling through the cracks in the bamboo wall, and the sound of children’s voices. I pushed open the door of our hut and gasped at the sheer beauty of our surroundings. After all the trauma, we’d landed in paradise. There, just a few metres away, was a crescent of silver sand lapped by the crystal water of the lake. A couple of palm trees waved lazy branches against the sun. And, as in paradise, there were angels: a gaggle of ragged, smiling children had gathered at our door, chattering excitedly. As I stepped out into the sunshine, they fell silent for a moment, then burst into a chorus: ‘‘Good afternoon. Good morning. How are you? Do you speak English? What is your name? Manchester United! Give me money!’’
I smiled back and chatted for a while. Gradually more and more children arrived. There must have been at least 20, staring curiously as I tried to wash and clean my teeth (the electric toothbrush drew squeals of delight) and following me to the hut which served as washroom and toilet. ‘‘Please, that’s enough. Go away now,’’ I pleaded. ‘‘Gowayno,’’ they echoed, smiling angelically. In the end, we surrendered. We emerged from the hut in our swimming gear, ran down to the beach and into the water. Some little boys who could swim followed; others hung around the hut, peering curiously inside. We played splashing games and beach football with them. They did somersault dives from the rocks, and brought us mangoes.
Later, fishermen came by with fish to sell, which we cooked on an open fire, thanking the good luck that had brought us to this place; others appeared with vegetables and fruit. Our good luck was also theirs — a few extra kwachas to boost the local economy.
The next day was exactly the same: sunlight, sand, water, heat, shade, fruit and fish, nightfall, starlight, sleep. And the day after. We gave up our other plans and decided to stay. Without electricity, the batteries on my toothbrush, phone and laptop gradually ran down, and I let the slow rhythm of the sun reorganise my workaday brain.
At last our money, our anti-malarials and drinking water were running out, and it was time to go. When we packed up our things in the car, I found my dog-eared copy of Middlemarch by George Eliot and the electric toothbrush were missing. Maybe some of the angels were not so angelic after all, but given the unimaginably huge disparities in income between them and us, it was a small price to pay. And I think George Eliot would have been rather pleased.
Recently I visited my daughter in Malawi again and we took our camping gear and drove up the lake road, thinking to spend a few nights at Maia Beach. We stopped some passing locals to get directions and asked at a couple of stores near where we’d first spotted the sign. ‘‘Maia Beach?’’ They shook their heads. ‘‘There is no such place around here.’’
Had we imagined the whole thing? I remembered the previous visit and my heart pounding with fear that the villagers would kidnap or rob us. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe, in their own gentle way, they actually had. Marina Lewycka’s most recent novels are We Are All Made of Glue and Various Pets Alive and Dead. This is an edited extract from Better Than Fiction, edited by Don George (Lonely Planet, $24.99).