Keep Your Shin Up

Keep Your Shin Up

In the western world, air-conditioning can often be found in homes, shops, offices and cars. However, in Malawi, this is a rare luxury. In a budget taxi from Cape Maclear to Blantyre, having this cooling system available is rarer than finding a smile upon Jose Mourinho’s face. The 4-hour journey proved to be a very sweaty and uncomfortable affair. Perhaps surprisingly, this wasn’t the worse part of the trip. The beaten up, old Toyota had no radio or CD player but never fear, the driver had his phone with him and we could play the songs he had stored on there. Being an indie, rock, metal type of guy, listening to hip-hop, r ‘n’ b and warbling love songs are not exactly my cup of tea. But hey, it’s either this or nothing. After 8 unlikable tracks, the playlist stopped. Relief. A brief period of respite as the driver then played the same songs again. And again. And again. And again. For the entire journey, I was subjected to just these same 8 tracks. My head was fried. I was brainwashed by some rapper whining about his hard luck story, an r ‘n’ b singer pining for his 3am booty call and a Caribbean sounding female banging on about someone called “Johnny.”

To try and block out these turgid, turd-laden tunes, I turned my attention to the passing landscape. We drove by villages dotted with wooden huts, agricultural fields with their diligent workers hacking at the dry land, mothers carrying babies in knotted material on their backs and ram-shackled markets and stores selling their wares. All this was happening under a relentlessly, hot Malawian sun. Once more, the highlight for me was seeing the huge baobab trees along the way. Though I have been lucky to see these wonders of nature on a few occasions, they never cease to astound me with their size, shape and importance to the life around them. Their beauty is in stark contrast to the rapper’s sexist, degrading lyrics that were on track number 4 of my driver’s playlist. With the heat rising fiercely in our vehicle, the only saving grace was having a breeze come through the open windows. This was all fine until we had to stop at road crossings or security checkpoints, of which there were many. At one of these stops, an armed police guard, with a large automatic weapon at his disposal, walked around our car and leaned his head into my window. “Do you have anything to drink?” he asked. I picked up my half-full, water bottle and showed him what I had. He shook his head. “Something to drink,” he responded and motioned his hand to his mouth to symbolize consuming an alcoholic beverage. “Sorry, no,” I returned. He moved away from our car and motioned for us to continue on our journey. Now that was a first. Never been asked to bribe an armed policeman before. In retrospect, I should have handed him my driver’s phone and done us both a favour.

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We arrived in Blantyre around midday. Being situated in higher ground, the temperature was much cooler than at Cape Maclear. As we pulled into my lodge, where I would be staying the next 3 nights, it even started to rain for a short while. I said goodbye to my taxi driver and thankfully, he and his phone sped away. Later on, a wonderful rainbow arched over the sky with lush, green mountains providing a perfect backdrop behind it. The taxi ride, with its lack of air-conditioning and the repetitive playlist, were already a distant memory. My lodge was quite nice with several separate, self-contained buildings. I was placed in a cottage with a couple of guys who were both volunteering at the local hospital. In the evening, I joined them and some of their friends who were also medical volunteers for dinner and wine. This was lovely, imported South African red wine and infinitely more palatable than the putrid, boxed wine I had downed on Christmas Day. We discussed what there was to see and do in the area. The best and most intriguing option was to go to the Zomba Plateau, which was about 2 hours away by mini-bus. Here you can go trekking in the forests, visit beautiful lakes, natural waterfalls and enjoy some spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.

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Early the next morning before I went on my trek, I had the complimentary breakfast at the lodge. The coffee was as thick as tar and not much tastier despite a whole cow’s worth of milk dumped in it. I made some toast but the butter substitute was so disgusting, I would rather have spread the bread with wallpaper paste. Unperturbed, I left on schedule and walked down to the mini-bus stop to make my merry way to Zomba. There was no direct route, so I had to change vehicles about 30 minutes into the journey. It was chaos. Dozens of mini-buses all crammed full of people and bags of produce, rice and lord knows what else, were sat by the road. Meanwhile, the money collectors and drivers scrambled to lure you onto their bus instead of their rivals. Luckily, a guardian angel appeared before me. She helped locate the correct bus to Zomba amongst the melee and I leapt on board, placing myself at the back well out of the way. To get as many people as possible on these mini-buses, there are a few extra fold-down seats in addition to the permanent ones. If you wanted to alight the vehicle, you would have to get up, fold the seat back up and allow the person behind you to get off. I was ok. I was at the back. The only time I would have to go through this charade was when I was at my stop in Zomba.

The journey took around an hour and a half as we went through numerous security checkpoints and picked up passers-by to fill in any tiny crevices still available inside the mini-bus. Finally, we reached a petrol station in Zomba where I was due to hop off. It seemed most people were getting off here too. I waited until the people in front of me made their way off before I got up to go. As I stood up and took a step forward with my right leg, one of the fold-down seats in front of me came crashing down on my shin. Instant pain. The metal frame dug into my flesh and tore open a giant gash that bled immediately. Within seconds, more blood was gushing out of my leg like a volcanic eruption. As I looked down, I could see how deep the cut was and made myself feel quite sick. Gingerly making my way towards the front the mini-bus, the kind operatives hastily ushered me off and sped away as quick as possible. Cheers, fellas! Standing in a petrol station forecourt with a bleeding wound in the middle of nowhere is not how I envisioned the day unfolding. My second guardian angel of the day appeared. One of the petrol station assistants had seen my bashed up shin and brought out a first aid kit. Though it looked like a toy doctor’s case that my nieces play with, inside there was at least some gauze, sterilising pads and a plaster. With blood spilling onto the concrete and in agony, I was grateful to this young man for helping dress my gaping cut. He said I would need to go to a clinic for stitches, as the wound was pretty deep. The gauze was barely stemming the flow of blood, so I knew I had to heed his advice. But I was in the middle of nowhere, where on earth could I get my leg patched up? Where could I find a clinic around here? He pointed to the building next door. “That’s a clinic there.”

Some good fortune at least. A bunch of staring onlookers with puzzled expressions watched as I limped my way over to the clinic. Once inside, I noticed the place was tiny and deserted with just a few lines of empty plastic chairs in the middle. It looked more like a village community hall than a place to administer medical treatment. Still, what choice did I have? A third guardian angel appeared. A young medical assistant popped up behind the counter and took me into a small cubicle to examine the cut. Her face winced when she took off the plaster. Clearly not a good sign. She said I would need stitches for sure. Great. Perfect for a day of trekking then. Once she cleaned the wound, she said that one stitch would probably suffice. To numb the leg, a large needle was thrust into the cut. I have many tattoos but this was way more painful. Thankfully, it was a brief sense of pain before she methodically applied the stitch. Within a few minutes, I was patched up, bandaged up and ready to go. In a week’s time I would have to remove the stitch and hopefully, all would be healed and back to normal. Leaving the clinic, I was determined not to let this minor inconvenience stop me from going on my trek around the Zomba Plateau.

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I took a taxi to the top of the hill where the treks all start from, grabbed a map and bounded along the trail. Well, maybe not bounded. More ambled my way along. Hey, I just had my leg cut open and stitched up. Give me a break. By now, the day was becoming very hot. So the first stop at a beautiful waterfall was the ideal tonic. It had a few tiers that cascaded down the rocks with a lovely pool at the bottom. I dipped my one, non-bandaged leg in the water and felt the cool water rush over it. Bliss. Onwards, I made my way through some giant pine forests before reaching some fantastic viewpoints of distant hills and a small, tranquil lake. There was no one else around, and standing by the water’s edge, I let a smile form upon my face. What a day I was having. But in the end, my fortitude and determination was trumped by my right leg’s physical inability to go much further. I took a very steady, leisurely walk back to the starting point where I was greeted by a local man who asked if I needed a ride back down the hill. I said I did and he informed me that his brother had a motorbike and that he could take me. In a few minutes, the brother arrived on his bike carrying a helmet that would have been too big for a T-Rex’s head. I put it on; more for appearances than safety. And then we were off. I think he had only just started riding a motorbike because he took the corners very wide; often going into the other lane. This was not a good thing as there were vehicles coming up in the opposite direction at times. The daredevil in me just grimaced and bared it as we careered down the hill. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee. As we descended, I did notice the amazing views of Zomba and its surrounding hills. This really is a beautiful part of Malawi and very different from the shores of Cape Maclear. Finally at the foot of the hill, I thanked and paid my motorbike driver before hobbling off to catch my mini-bus back towards Blantyre. I was extremely careful embarking and disembarking both the vehicles I had to take. As evening drew in, I arrived back into the city and headed straight for the supermarket to buy a few well-deserved, cold beers. With my bandaged leg raised up on a chair, I sat in the cottage at the lodge sipping beers and told the story of my day to the medical volunteers. On reflection, it seemed so farcical. But I was thankful that I had a few guardian angels to steer me through what was a bloody, (figuratively and literally) eventful day.

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