Adventures of A “Muzugo” in Malawi

Adventures of A “Muzugo” in Malawi

One of the most common misconceptions people have about Africa is “all of Africa is the same”. Almost every time I cross borders overland, I’m amazed at the kind of changes that some imaginary line can introduce. Malawi was no different. First, I noticed an increase in population density (Malawi has almost 14 million people in just 118,000 square kilometers compared to Zambia which has about the same population in an area seven times the size). While nothing seems crowded after my month in China, there was a consistent string of little villages, to an extent that it made finding a lunch spot or even a non-discreet bush toilet a challenge even for our driver TK has been perfecting his picnic spot spotting abilities for over a decade. The Land Where People Materialize Out of Thin Air Our first day in Malawi he picked a place that fit two out of three usual characteristics (clean, shaded, away from villages)… or so he thought. When we unpacked the first couple chairs, we saw one kid peeking curiously from the road. Before we knew it, a dozen of his friends gathered, shyly hiding behind a dead tree but very blatantly watching our every move. “Ignore them, ignore them” said Nikka, as he quickly chopped carrots, since Nomad Adventures has a policy against giving leftover food to villagers since word travels fast and they don’t want the locals to expect a free feast every time they see a truck. A few minutes after the young children started gathering, a herd of cow hopped over the hill made by the elevated train tracks. The teenage herdsman paused to investigate what we were doing but seemed to decide, regretfully, that he should follow his cows. Tailing the bovines came another clump of preteen boys wielding small wooden clubs accompanied by mangy dogs. They surrounded us, spaced out in the nearby field, watching us hungrily between the tall grasslands. “Oh goodness. It looks like we might be the ones eaten at this meal”, one of the Belgians commented. Nikka’s chopping accelerated audibly and we awkwardly clutched empty water bottles and nervously looked around for potential defense weapons. After ten or so minutes, the preteens got bored and the hunting party moved on but the first clump of young kids didn’t move an inch until our truck left them in a dust cloud. “Sharing is Caring”: Relentless Entrepreneurs Who Convince You to Strip Time and time again, this lesson that “empty spaces in Malawi aren’t actually empty” seemed reinforced. You go for a swim at the beach of Lake Malawi and one guy appears to welcome you to his country. Before you know it, his brother, Happy, joins the group. Then it’s his cousin “Name is William. Business name is Georgie Peorgie”. Another kid pushes them aside to hold our hands. “I’m No Hassle. Come into my shop. T.I.A. (“This Is Africa”)… free looks and you have all day”. Another doesn’t wait until we finish our swim and dives into the water and pulls out a handful of bracelets for sale (still not sure how he kept them dry). You tell them you don’t have any money and this excites them more. “Hakuna Matata. No problem. What do you have to trade? Maybe your watch? Sharing is caring!”. These twenty year olds are relentless and successfully had us stripping and swapping T-shirts, hats, socks and headphones for their woodcarvings, bracelets and necklaces. I ended up trading an old digital camera for two custom tailored pants and a magnet. While I’m sure I could have bartered harder, it provided an afternoon of activity, which involved marching around the village to pick out the fabric, finding two tailors (sharing is caring!), meet the boy’s mother and his friends… etc. The Wild West of Africa? Malawi mystified me in other ways. The buildings looked better constructed than in Zambia but the small towns gave off an eerie deserted feel like an old Wild West mining town (especially because they have “Gold Depot” shops). The paint was faded or peeling and chunks of the buildings seem to have been broken off. Many of the structures had boarded up windows and doors, with tattered sheets blowing in the breeze. Locals would be hanging out at one or two shops, or shooting pool at an outdoor billiard table under a thatched roof. The other half was completely deserted, as if haunted by ghosts. I was especially entranced by the “tea shops” I found in every town. “People in these parts can’t possibly be drinking enough tea to warrant a shop”, I thought to myself. When I asked the tour...

First Foray into “Real” Africa: Traveling Livingstone, Zambia

First Foray into “Real” Africa: Traveling Livingstone, Zambia

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.”  ― Beryl Markham, West with the Night My plane skidded above dried, toothpick-esque trees and skidded to a stop on a small landing field at the Victoria Falls airport, surprisingly small for servicing one of Africa’s top three attractions. I joined the hoard of wheeled suitcases, walked by a sign that denoted the area where ebola inspections should have happened, cringed at some nasty pictures of ebola symptoms and passed quickly through the immigration line. I scanned the hand-written signs of taxi drivers for various resorts in my area. Not seeing my name, I asked the information desk if there was a place I could call my hostel. “Ahh… the landlines are down. If you buy me airtime, you can use my cell phone”. I crossed the airport to the only airport shop, a lady who sold snacks, handicrafts and airtime in a space as small as a closet. “You want to call a hostel in Zambia? They won’t pick you up here. Cross the border and call them as soon as you reach Zambia side. Norman will help you”. She ushered me outside into Norman’s white cab. I skeptically followed. “Welcome to the REAL Africa!” bellowed Norman after he heard an abbreviated version of my story. “I won’t move to South Africa if my life depended on it. More opportunities maybe, but no safety, man. You have to be alert at all times.” We passed through the small, touristy Victoria Falls village and he dropped me at the tired-looking gates of border patrol. The officers mechanically stamped my passport, gave me a white piece of paper, collected by a man 5 yards away then waived me to on the dusty road to Zambia. I jumped on the sidewalk to avoid laden, transport trucks and hopped behind a couple women with baskets on their heads, admiring the sexy hipsway that accompanied their walk. Meanwhile, I cringed under the weight of my backpacks and sweated, regretting the three layers of leggings, legwarmers and multiple shirts that I piled on back in the cold of Johannesburg. We walked across a rusted bridge, waived away the men trying to get me to bungee jump off of it and took a picture of the waterfall as I straddled the country line between Zimbabwe and Zambia. I repeated the border control procedure, then looked around the dirt parking lots for a phone to call my hostel. Someone directed me to the police station where a couple guys my age lounged outside in broken recliner office chairs. Eager for a distraction, they offered to help, “take a seat, take a seat”. I carefully balanced myself on a stool, and kept my bags close, since the guys advised me that the baboons that circled around us loved to steal things. Time flew as the guys gave me recommendations for my time in Zambia, advised me to check out their grandfather’s mountain resort (“you can stay for free”), taught me a few Tonga phrases and drooled with envy at my life. Kelly, the guy in the police officer, begged, “take me with you! I can fit in your backpack!”, he insisted as he yanked off his shoes and emulated climbing in. After about an hour, I remembered my mission and we called up my hostel. “What happened? He was waiting for you at the airport all afternoon. Usually we don’t pick people up from the border but we’ll send him along”. The driver came, and the two police station boys didn’t let me go without big hugs, elaborate handshakes and determined reassurance, “Katie, you’ll stay at the backpackers? Two days? We will visit you!” After welcoming me with a cheek-to-cheek smile, the driver explained the confusion. Apparently he had been waiting at the Livingstone Airport… “we looked up your flight information- Hahn Airways arrival at 15:10 from Johannesburg. There were no planes landing at 15:10 and we never heard of that airline. We thought you might be arriving on a private jet, but even then it would be registered”. He dropped me at the hostel but not without a wink and a “what are you doing tonight?”. “Well, I definitely owe you a beer for waiting for me all day,” I replied. We made plans to meet back up and I entered the...

Myths Debunked & Rumors Destroyed: Traveling China

Myths Debunked & Rumors Destroyed: Traveling China

“I have been groomed by media to expect walking into a smoke bomb of chemicals with images of smoke stacks in the back ground bellowing caustic chemicals so as to erode at the very people who work and put it in the air” -Friend #1 “There’s a ghost town in the most populous country in the world?  What is there to do in Shanghai except climb ever-growing skyscrapers?  Use and throw cheap stuff?” -Friend #2 “You’re in China?  Are you alive?  Chinese people are very hard to deal with.” -Friend #3 (Still not sure what specifically was meant by this…) Of all the places I’ve traveled, China has been the one that has truly blasted my stereotypes to smithereens.  In addition to the recent conversations I quoted above, I’ve had dozens of people made comments about visiting the communist kingdom that is stealing American jobs and flooding the market with cheap products that poison our babies.  I’ll openly admit that I held many incredibly misconceptions of China myself, partially from one day of teaching Chinese students in Durham but many from the American media.  I braced myself for mobs of people spitting and farting in public and eating cats like heathens.  I feared teaching would involve a lot of awkward silence as they tentatively typed on their translators, a refusal to get their hands dirty building things and robotic responses when I forced them to talk (granted I developed many of these fears after a day teaching Chinese high school students in Durham in February).  I expected dirty streets, stinky air and a month where smog strangled any sense of sunlight. I experienced some of these things.  Tourist attractions on the weekends were pretty packed, due to summer break and a growing middle class that wants to see their country.    At the Humble Administrator Garden in Suzhou, our experience of the UNESCO site was definitely hampered when we were stuck on skinny bridges, sandwiched and stuck between sweaty families shuffling slowly with minimal forward motion. “Sightseeing is one of the more doubtful aspects of travel and in China it is one of the least rewarding things a traveler can do- primarily a distraction and seldom even an amusement.  It has all the boredom and ritual of a pilgrimmage and none of the spiritual benefits”. -Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster: Travels Through China Zhongshan Mountain in Nanjing epitomized what I expected tourism in China to be like: mediocre attractions artificially reconstructed for click-happy tourists, with the featured Ming Temple empty except for shops that sold postcards, waving cat statues and lucky knots.  But that happens anywhere and I’ve discovered that there’s more to China than just the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and simplistic way this large and complex country is portrayed in the media. During orientation week of nerd camp, the academic coordinator showed us a “Danger of a Single Story” TED talk from a Nigerian author that warned us about making generalizations from isolated experiences. “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Here’s what I learned about traveling China, based on a teaching month in Kunshan, traveling on the weekends to Suzhou, Zhouzhuang and Nanjing with a few days in Huangshan, Yanqing and Beijing at the end of the program.  Most of the time I traveled with someone who spoke at least basic Chinese but I spent a couple  days in Shanghai and a day in Beijing exploring independently.  There’s truth to many of these rumors but there are extremely notable exceptions so I’ll share tips that I picked up that can help you have a better experience. “You know more about a road having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world” -William Hazlirt Rumor 1: It’s hard to travel around China if you don’t speak Chinese  As with most of these rumors, it depends where you are.  In general, I was impressed with the amount of English on signs and on announcements on trains and even local buses around Kunshan.   It’s really easy to navigate the high speed train and city metro systems.  Shanghai is extremely well-labelled with English street signs which even include the cardinal directions.  All the tourist attractions in Nanjing, Zhouzhang and Suzhou had English signage and were easy to navigate, although maps were typically in Chinese. I think the hardest part for modern travelers could be the internet situation.  Free wifi is “readily available” in many train stations, cafes and some main squares but often requires a Chinese SIM card to get the password to unlock it.  So for...

“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University

“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University

“How’s China?”, a friend Facebook chatted me. “Uhhh… I’m fine”.  I snuggled further in my sweater in my air conditioned room as I listened to Spotify, responded to work emails on Gmail and drank out of my water bottle.  “I’ll have to get back to you about China”, I responded.  Despite having lived five days at Duke-Kunshan University in China, I honestly have no idea what China is like. I landed in Shanghai’s Pudong airport which was like any airport but with infinitely more instructions- how to ride the escalator, how to board the train to the arrival terminal, how to get off the train, how to sit on the toilet, how to wash your hands… I waited for my co-workers in Starbucks, where I flipped through the Chinese version of Cosmopolitan.  Despite the foreign characters, the Western models and celebrity gossip in their version made the magazine familiar, even though there was a blaring void of sexy stuff, so much so that they renamed the publication “Cosmopolitan Success”.  Behind my magazine, I engaged in my favorite activity of people watching, which didn’t undercover anything too interesting.  The march of men in suits didn’t surprise me but I definitely giggled at teenage boys with sequin-splashed shirts and technicolor pants so colorful that I wanted a pair.  My boss encouraged us to grab dinner, so we went upstairs for pizza at an Italian Restaurant since we thought our access to Western Food might be limited (it isn’t… there’s a Western option for every meal on campus).  Besides the fact that the waitress insisted on unfolding our napkins onto our lap and pouring a shot-size glass of Evian water as if it were liquid gold (it almost costs that much), we could have been eating at any Italian chain restaurant in the US. A driver shuttled us to the Duke-Kunshan University campus which would be our home for the next month.  As a bit of background, Duke University has a Talent Identification Program where a talent search identifies gifted students who qualify for a 3-week academic summer camp (or as I affectionately call it, “nerd camp”).  I’ve taught for this program in India for two summers but this will be the first pilot of the China program, hosted at a brand new collaborative university developed under collaboration with Duke. Security guards in suits dramatically opened the doors to the “conference center”, whose white marble floors, spacious reception desk and colorful modern furniture made us all feel like CEOs.  Campus is located in an area of China known as the “Venice of the East” because of all the rivers in canals.  The architects designed the campus to appear floating on lakes with lily pads to embrace the ambiance of the surrounding area.  Staff helped us with our bags across the connecting bridges and directed us to suites so new that I had to check the wall to make sure the paint had dried.  Our two-floor room (designed for four people but inhabited by two for this program) had high ceilings, a flat screen TV, vanity sink section and so much space that I couldn’t even talk to my roommate without voyaging from one corner to another.  Instructions on the desk taught us to connect to the high speed internet without problems (although I first thought it was broken because Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and all the websites I normally go to were blocked by the government but a Duke VPN quickly took care of that) and provided a cup so we could take advantage of the filtered water spigot to quench our thirst.  I hopped in the shower, half bracing myself for cold water (as was typical in Vietnam and Hong Kong) but instantly relaxed with the warm stream coming from the “water massage” shower heads. All this felt great to my semi-homeless gypsy self, especially after living out of a backpack for so long.  I’ve enjoyed being able to enjoy a shower instead of view it as a necessary evil, to eat raw vegetables and put ice in beverages without having to worry about whether it’ll make me sick and to unpack for a bit in a place where I have access to all modern conveniences.  Staff from the university has even taken us out to the town to spoil us with a traditional Cantonese meal and allow us to stock up on supplies at the local shopping mall but all we saw were relatively empty streets, nice cars and modern looking buildings. Kushan feels like a wealthy suburb and business center, where everything is neat, organized and efficient.  Is this China? Not really.  We’re at an international university with top-tier resources and being able to drink the water, have consistent (and unfiltered) internet...

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

For those of you who have read my other posts about Vietnam, I’ve had mixed feelings about my two weeks here. For some context before I dive into my overall impressions, I was initially hoping to spend this time in Myanmar, exploring a country that recently opened up to foreign travelers before it got too touristy. I had to fit the trip into specific dates before my teaching gig in China and when looking at flights, Myanmar would be much more expensive and require more plane transfers and time spent in airports. I decided I might as well see Vietnam, which eluded my prior trip to Southeast Asia because of Visa requirements, and finish off the region and visit without paying a penny for flights. So that’s why I’m here, wishing I spent the extra time and money on Myanmar. I think I would have liked Vietnam better if I was younger and less familiar with the region but this country is a well-trodden journey through the Southeast Asian backpacker trail and it was hard to avoid getting caught up in all that entails. First, the hostels are full of backpackers from the UK and Australia and vacationers from Korea.  Most travelers come here on summer break or a gap year between school, attracted by cheap booze and beaches, so the average age is around 20-22. Some of the people I saw looked barely old enough to drive a car, never mind travel around foreign countries. Since this many people’s virgin foray into foreign travel, the whole country is set up to shuttle people up or down the prescribed route from North to South. Everyone and their mother wants to sell you cheap trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, and since budget conscious people (me included!) just look for the cheapest price, I found most of the tours to be lots of people packed in small spaces with tour guides who can barely speak English and don’t even attempt to explain what you’re seeing. A typhoon in Halong Bay and my failure to just postpone the trip instead of listen to the travel agent and replace it with mediocre day tours, caused my week in the North to be back-to-back tours which are generally something I only sign up for as a last resort. Perhaps if you pay more, you’ll have a better experience. For me, traveling that way is a bit superficial and unsatisfying, however it’s often the easiest and cheapest way to get to these places if you don’t speak the language to get good taxi rates. If you have limited time, I’d recommend sticking to the North. Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi were all highlights for me and give a good sense of an urban experience as well as some of the most beautiful nature in the country. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, is usually the universal favorite. It’s a cultural city with cute yellow buildings, a river flowing through it and some of the best shopping in the country but definitely touristy. I had my most powerful experiences in the South of the country with the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnel tour, which is a half-day trip from Saigon. As much as read about the Vietnam war, watched travel shows about other people experiencing these exact same tours, the extensive scope of the devastation to both sides never sank in until I saw these two things myself. One of the most surprising things about this trip and knowing the history is that no one, anywhere in the country seemed to hold the slightest bit of resentment against me, being an American. Seeing photographs of people and villages destroyed and the atrocious aftermath of chemical warfare (Agent Orange) made me uncomfortable to be an American here.  It was truly heart wrenching for both sides.   I couldn’t believe the lack of lingering bitterness over something that many middle-aged or older people in Vietnam had to live through. I really wanted to get a local perspective on this but the Vietnamese couchsurfer who walked with me through the War Remnants museum and the other locals I asked, feigning incomprehension and/or dismissing my questions with “I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-this” smiles. The hard to overcome cultural barriers was another reason Vietnam wasn’t my favorite place to travel. People of Vietnam are “friendly” and there’s always someone around who speaks enough English to get your immediate needs met/sell you things (even in the middle of Halong Bay) but the culture is much more reserved. As much as I tried to talk to locals, I rarely got any meaningful information with three surprising exceptions: I spent...

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

After traveling most of Southeast Asia a few years ago when I spent a summer based in Singapore, my first week in Vietnam didn’t impress me much. Part of it was my fault because with all the traveling I’ve been doing lately, I didn’t have much time to do research beyond familiarizing myself with the typical backpacker route.  Ho Chi Minh City- Nha Trang- Hoi An- Da Nang- Hue- Hanoi- Sapa and/or Halong Bay…. but even after talking to dozens of travelers, that’s all anyone did so it seems like it’s a country where people don’t get off the beaten path.  The cities were crowded and loud, with only a few attractions within walking distance. Most of the things that were worth seeing required a motorbike and luckily, I could ride on the back of a bike with couch surfers braver than myself to explore the attractions of Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi but still it was a lot of temples and wading through Asian tourists armed with selfie sticks. When my trip to Halong Bay got cancelled, I was a bit bummed, especially when the replacement tours felt like something that had to be survived rather than enjoyed. But I was definitely looking forward to Sapa, the land of rice paddies and tribal minorities in the North. This trip also turned into a bit of a debacle, but in the end, quite a pleasant one. Getting picked up from our hostels was the usual hassle: we expected a sleeping bus but instead we got a crowded van with another non-verbal tour guide, so we sat on each other’s laps wondering whether we’d have to endure the 6-hour journey in a massive mosh pit. The man wordlessly checked a couple tickets, kicked two Russian girls on the street then took us down a dark alley where, thankfully, a sleeping bus awaited our arrival. The arrival to Sapa I passed out on the drive and around 4:45 AM, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot. Some fellow travelers confirmed that we arrived in Sapa our final destination. we stopped somewhere which was Sapa according to some people’s GPS but when a brave soul tried to leave the bus, he was blocked by the driver and the assistant. The driver shut the bus doors dramatically and there we sat until 6 AM with no idea when we’d be released from captivity. At 6 AM, they forced us out of the bus into a rainy parking lot where the locals tried to sell us homestays and periodically arrived with signs with names like “Tim Thom” looking for people who didn’t seem to exist. As our group dwindled, about 45 minutes later, a man with a sign with our names on it welcomed us into his van. We drove up to Grand View Hotel, which was positioned to have a great view, but fog obscured our view. To enter the hotel, we had to elbow our way through a mob of Hmong women trying to sell us bracelets and wallets. We piled into a lobby filled with angry tourists trying to change their reservations to switch hotels and alarmingly, the receptionist didn’t even seem the slightest bit surprised. When we asked to brush our teeth in an empty room, we could see why. One of my fellow travelers aptly described the hotel as something out of The Shining. It had it all from exposed pipes, unexplained puddles, punch holes in the door, grimy glassware collecting decades of dust, a funky smell and inadequate lighting. We were invited to breakfast in the next room. A woman “dusted off” our table with a duster that looked like it was designed for breeding dust bunnies and we sat down, exhausted after our night bus ride and asked for coffee. “No coffee,” the waiter abruptly replied, throwing moldly menus like Frisbees at our faces, potentially to distract us from the cockroach running across the checkered tablecloth.  After a bit of squealing, we chose our breakfast based on which food would make us less sick and decided it would be hard to mess up bread with butter and honey. Sure enough, the waiter replied to that request, “no butter”. We meekly munched on our half-roll of bread, avoiding the wilted side of tomato and cucumber, skeptical that it would fuel our 12 km “hike”. The trek After finishing breakfast and another hour of waiting and discovering new reasons to be sketched out about the hotel, we were rallied by a young Hmong girl with a baby on her back who introduced herself as our tour guide. We donned our ponchos and...