Mama, my sister Lily, and John are finally here in Malawi! Here is an account of their first few days!
After a year of reading this wonderful blog from Sandy and Kate, John, Lily and I are finally here in person! We flew to Johannesburg where we checked into our Hilton Hotel (dedicated by HRH Price Charles himself) about 6:30 on Monday night having left Atlanta at 6:45 pm Sunday night. Johannesburg is lovely and very European in its feel and look.
One can only fly from Johannesburg to Blantyre, Malawi, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so we had a day to enjoy “Joburg”. Taking Sandy’s advice, we booked a tour to the Lion Park northwest of town. Our fabulous guide, Matussi, which means The Helper in Zulu, picked us up at the hotel and we drove about 35 minutes to the Park. Once there, we drove through different large fenced areas where we saw many species of antelope and deer, zebra (with a newborn), giraffe, and guinea hens. Then we motored to the first enclosure with lions.
This Park is a conservation park to which injured or orphaned animals are brought. They also take in “pet lions” who at 800 pounds are not as cute as they were at 15 pounds!
The lions are absolutely magnificent and are so huge and powerful. We were literally 8 to 10 inches from these cats when the approached our van — I had no idea from my zoo visits that even the females are so tremendous. We drove through the enclosure with white lions, which the Park endeavors to keep a pure genetic line, and then we drove into a large enclosure with grown but immature lions who were thrilled to have a new van with which to play! And to lions, playing with a van means eating the tires, bumper and the spare wheel cover! Matussi was very experienced, however, and knew how to play back — when to drive quickly away and when to tarry so we could take pictures.
While not “wild animals” ranging freely, seeing these animals being cared for and protected were inspirational. Our next stop was the nursery where we got to pat 2 month old cubs and be up close with three cubs who were four or five months old. Next door were the eight to nine month cubs and we were NOT invited into their lair! The cubs make the most amazing high pitched screech — a baby roar I guess. I was concerned that Lily was going to try to smuggle one of the tiny cubs out under her jacket.
Kate and Sandy are taking us on a true safari later in the trip — more to come. Matussi returned us to the hotel and we ventured to Mandela Square for lunch – presided over by a massive statue of Nelson Mandela. Again very European feel. Lunch was excellent! Wednesday morning Matussi picked us up (with five bags to check and five carry on bags — the Clampetts go to Africa) for our South African Airlines flight to Blantyre. The airport is huge, modern and chaotic! They use buses to take passengers to the planes on the tarmac — I know you will love the visual image of me standing at the bottom of the steps in the pouring rain in jeans and (wait for it) high heels, laden with carry on bags, waiting for my turn to climb the steps — what jetway??
John, Lily and I each had an aisle seat which was great for the two hour flight. But when we entered the plane, we discovered wonderfully delightful flight attendants helping their guest find “seats they liked” — Lily was asked to move so that a couple could sit together — honestly, I will wager that 20% of the 157 passengers changed seats for one “they liked better”. We FINALLY got to leave when a delightful Indian man who said he had been “in a situation” finally said “I don’t give a hoot where I sit at this point” so we could close the boarding doors. We all three liked the airline so much — they gave us a hot lunch and the wine was free!! I did not partake but my seatmate in the window seat did (I ended up in the middle seat with Lily in my aisle so we could get the couple together) and I was very glad she did, as we had summer Africa weather — huge thunderstorms around which we had to fly. At one point attendant asked us to enjoy the “major thunderstorm to our left”! Our approach was very bumpy and my African seatmate asked if we could hold hands — she was terrified. I was glad she’d had that glass of wine!
Classified as an International Airport, Blantyre has only one runway and no taxiway! At landing, our 737 had to go to full reverse thrusters to avoid the end of the runway. FUN Landing!!! The plane burst into applause for the charming pilot. We taxied to the tiny two story airport building — probably 50 yards long — with an open porch on the second floor. That porch was packed with children — packed. They were schoolchildren on a field trip to “see an airplane land” (I was delighted, as was my seatmate, that they actually had a positive experience!) Kate and Sandy were amongst the children and we did see Sandy waving like a madman as we left the plane. Passport control was efficient despite that all 157 of us went through at once.
Customs was a great introduction to the wonderful people of Malawi. A lady, leaning on her elbow behind a desk, welcomed us and asked why we had come to Malawi. We told her about Kate and Sandy and Christmas here. She wished us a Merry Christmas. Then slowly turned her gaze to the cart with seven bags piled on it(we were allowed 90 kilograms and came in at 85.1) and asked us if we had anything new in the bags. We said we did not and she waved us on through! We had two duty-free bags full in plain view. . . Sandy and Kate were right around the corner and grabbed us immediately.
We loaded our truck and headed for their home. The first thing that struck me about Malawi is how incredibly beautiful it is — it is now the rainy season and so everything is lush and green. The second immediate impression was from the sounds — the birds, the insects, the traffic, the radios — it is lush from a visual and auditory point of view. Their home is lovely and much bigger than I had anticipated Soche, the cat, met us at the door and immediately bonded with Lily (watch out Boo and Scout).
John and I are staying in the identical apartment next door which belongs to a English couple who have gone home for Christmas. Around 4:00 pm it started raining again and the hot air dissipated — it was lovely in the apartment with the windows open giving the living room a nice cross breeze. As soon as darkness fell, Sandy closed the windows to keep out the mosquitoes (Sandy has the life and times of mosquitoes all figured out) and it did get a bit warm in the house.
There is no sign of Christmas (well, one skinny Santa without a beard) but there are the most amazing crickets outside that sound EXACTLY like sleigh bells ringing on their traces. It SOUNDS like Christmas here even if it is warm and summer!!! Kate and Sandy fixed a great supper for us. We were all gathered in their not-huge kitchen when a flying termite flew into the kitchen. About the same time, Kate opened the freezer — and the termite flew in– not missing a beat nor expressing any distress or concern, Kate slammed the freezer door, trapping the termite. We all roared — THIS is our Kate?? They have both become true citizens of this wonderful country. They speak Chichewa very well (Lily and I are trying to learn some basics of Chichewa, John is teaching them how to speak Southern!) and maneuver the city with ease and confidence.
They have made friends with several local artists. We rose early on Thursday and by 8:00 am our first artist had arrived with his paintings. A very talented lad. We bought two paintings of birds for Sweetgrass.
Sandy was still needed this week for work, so Kate was our tour guide. We visited the local market which is the most amazing place I have ever seen. I believe one could find anything one wanted there — literally. The stalls are made of random pieces of 2 by 4s and 4 by 4s with shelves made of what looked like bamboo. There are cloth “walls” between the stalls — open air shoe stores, and Kate’s favorite place to shop for clothes is an open air stall. The sounds and smells of the market were very new to me. From blaring radio in a language I did not know (HOW surprising is that?) to foods cooking with rich spices I had never smelled before. One stall had open bags of rice, converters, and door stoppers!
The people were friendly and quick to ask if we needed help. We right hand drive people constantly caused walking traffic issues by walking on the right (as in the USA) and not on the left (as in Malawi) but perhaps we are trainable. Well, maybe some of us are trainable!! When we returned to the apartment after lunch, an artisan, Redson, whom Sandy met five years ago in Mulanje had taken a 4 hour bus ride to come see us and bring us some of his work. He was so lovely — his uncle taught him how to carve cedar and ebony and he spoke so fondly of Sandy. He is a mountain guide when not the rainy season. He still carries a fleece jacket in his bag that Sandy gave him five years ago — and showed it to Kate, Lily and me with great fondness for Sandy and their friendship over the past years.
More to come!!!! Here are two photos from the lion park!