It’s December and I’m in Malawi. This relatively small African country known for its immense lake is very hot, remote and where I will be spending Christmas this year. Let’s rewind 6 weeks, back to not-so-hot London. Picture me in my ironed shirt, polished shoes and dry-cleaned cashmere sweater sat at my work desk surrounded by more work desks manned by others dressed as neatly as I. The job is travel sales and my anxiety levels are off the charts. As the final line in Radiohead’s song ‘Creep’ states, I don’t belong here. I feel about as welcome as a case of myxomatosis in a rabbit warren.
Not only is the job grating, and that I feel a plum dressed like a Tory voter, the conversation is the personification of banal. One afternoon, my co-workers were engrossed in vigorous debate about the pros and cons of a certain manufacturer’s vacuum cleaner. And even better, one of my co-workers has one for sale. Cue round-the-table discussion and bidding. Minus one participant of course. My mind was elsewhere. It was out the door, gathered its passport and was on a plane going anywhere from here. Miraculously, I made it through to the weekend. On my days off, I spent the time plotting and scheming, mapping and dreaming of going back to travel around Africa. And come Monday morning, I had made my decision. I was going to knuckle down at my job for the next 30 years, get a nice pension and improve my research into household appliances so I could join in more of the office conversations.
Pah! No way. More chance of me marrying Natalie Portman than that happening. Sipping a cup of tea and still in my pyjamas, I drafted and sent a resignation email as I couldn’t bear to go into the office anymore. With immediate effect, I was free to follow my recently hatched travel plans. And this leads nicely into how I ended up in Malawi. But why Malawi I hear you cry. Well, firstly I have never been to this country and secondly I have family living by the shores of Lake Malawi in a town called Cape Maclear. Put 2 and 2 together and you get me gone and on my way south.
3 weeks of arranging passed, then it was time to up sticks and leave my place near Wimbledon. After a thankfully uneventful flight from London, my first few days back in Africa were spent in Johannesburg. Ahh, the sunshine and red wine; what a combo. It made this London lad a very happy chap indeed and the many suffering with winter flu back in England very jealous. Still, life is full of choices and I decided it was best for me to ditch the smart casual work attire for flip flops, shorts and sunglasses. Regret is not a word that springs to mind.
A few restful days later, I boarded my flight to Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. With my passport stamped by the jovial customs staff, I made way into town and checked into my hotel. What hit me was the heat. It was so hot, I was breaking into a sweat by just blinking. In the evening, I had dinner in the restaurant underneath the hotel. Happily tucking into my food, I was rudely interrupted by an older British guy who started talking about himself and how he used to own this restaurant, run numerous big, swanky hotels and pioneered employing ethnic minorities in positions of power in the hospitality industry. And he carried on talking and talking at me for what seemed a hundred lifetimes. In the end, I was ordering the bill whilst he was in mid-monologue putting a swift end to my first night in Malawi. Trust a Brit to ruin it.
The next morning, my cousin had arranged for some friends of hers to collect me from my hotel in Lilongwe and drive me to Cape Maclear; around 4 hours away. Along the roadside, market traders were selling everything from chickens to bricks, from coal to wooden electrical sockets. Once out into rural Malawi, we passed villages strewn with straw huts, smiling little children and meandering bleating goats. As we neared our destination, huge mountains rose up on the horizon dominating the skyline. While down on the ground, giant baobab trees stood out in the scorching sun providing shade for some sleeping villagers below. Goats weren’t the only wildlife seen en route. A few troops of baboons turned their heads as we passed by. But these were all trailers to the main feature. After several sweltering hours sat on the back seat gazing out the window, Lake Malawi loomed into view. It was beautiful. It was vast. As far as the eye could see there was water. Lake? It was more like a sea.
Boom, boom, boom, we bopped along the dirt road to get towards the town itself. Upon arrival, I peeled my sweaty back off the car’s upholstery and got my first glimpse of the beach. It was stunning and surprisingly busy. The shore was full of kids playing football while their mothers washed dishes, clothes and themselves in the water. Just off shore, boats full of fishermen and red-faced tourists moved slowly by. While in the middle of the lake, a couple of gigantic, grassy islands stared back at me. As the day reached mid-afternoon, the temperature soared and I took solace on a sun lounger under a tree. And it sunk in. I’m in Malawi. I’m at Lake Malawi. Taking a stroll along the beach, I was getting long looks from the locals. Not sure if it was my pale white skin, tattoo-laden arms or broad smile that drew their attention. Or was it something else? Hope no one had written something rude on my back without my knowing! Anyway, bare feet in the sand, I marched on waving and saying hello back to the friendly kids on the beach while they played football or frolicked around in the water. I met my cousin after she had finished delivering her pilates class. It had been 3 years since we last saw each other and, along with her family and other friends, we shared a few cold drinks as the sun set. The stars came out in abundance when the sky darkened. Been a while since I saw such a starry night. They were actually the only lights in town as the electricity went out. The dormant fan in my room was taunting me during the hot, sticky night while a squadron of mosquitoes circling overhead took it in turns to kamikaze into my flesh. Welcome back to Africa, Ant.
My first full day at Lake Malawi was a mix of the good, the bad and the bendy. I woke up early and took a dip in the lake’s shimmering, freshwater. So relaxing and refreshing while the sun turned up its temperature. I took refuge in a book under a tree. Restlessness took over around midday, so I decided to take another walk along the beach. This was the bad. I walked for ages and realised there was little respite from the sun along the way. I was literally cooking. My shoulders, neck and face were as red as a lobster in a Manchester United shirt. Later on, I was scheduled to take part in one of my cousin’s yoga classes. Despite my flesh bubbling like a witch’s cauldron, I somehow got through the session whilst pulling all manner of weird and wonderful grimaces on my sunburnt face. As the night drew in, thankfully the electricity came back on. The now functioning fan, on full blast pointed at my boiling skin, was a welcome relief. Over the whir of the fan, thunder clapped loudly and lightning flashed brightly. I smiled. But only briefly as it hurt to do so. That damn African sun.