Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mulanje's Quilt

There is a time for teaching and a time for traveling. After a week of final exams marking the end of term one, it was finally time for the latter, the only challenge being how to get from place to place without the use of a car. We were already familiar with the open-air matola, but the prospect of riding in the back of a truck for any longer than an hour was not exactly appealing. The bus station in Blantyre introduced us to the many options for travel around Malawi. There are the minibuses of course (by far the most expensive option), crowded speeding death-traps that stop for anyone on the side of the road, whose only advantage is that they depart at any time and travel everywhere. The larger buses come in several varieties, individually owned or company-run, which range in price, stops, and speed. Unfortunately, you must arrive early in the morning to be sure of catching one since schedules are posted nowhere but the bus station and are seldom followed. The National bus line is by far the cheapest way to travel since fares are government subsidized. This was the option Jesse and I chose for our trek from Blantyre to Mount Mulanje, where we planned five days for backpacking.

The National bus to Mulanje was scheduled to depart Blantyre at 2:00pm. Knowing this, we arrived at the bus depot at 12:00 to wait. Around 12:30, the bus roles into the station and people leap from their seats to crowd around before it has hardly stopped. “I think we should go over there,” I say to Jesse as people begin shoving their way aboard. So we went, and within 5 minutes of finding a seat, the bus was headed out of the station.

“Wow, who ever heard of public transit leaving an hour and a half early,” I thought to myself, “maybe we’ll get to Mulanje by afternoon.” This wishful thinking turned out to be a bit premature. After leaving the station we promptly stopped on the side of a road for 15 minutes for some unknown reason. Then we went to fill up on fuel. Then we went to another bus station in the neighboring city of Limbe (where about 80 people loaded down with luggage and babies shoved their way aboard, at which point I was glad that I had got on in Blantyre). Then we waited on the side of the road again. Then the bus driver pondered going to top off the gas tank, but sensing a riot forming towards the front of the bus, though better of it. We finally got on the road around 2:30.

Being a government service, the National bus is obligated to stop at every little cluster of huts along the road, lest any of the 85% of Malawians who farm the rural areas feel that their village is inconsequential. Then again, if the government bus doesn’t stop, who will? While inconvenient for me, I was glad to see that there is an affordable way for the average Malawian to visit the world outside of their own small village. Mobility creates opportunity and allows a country to modernize, something Malawi seems to be striving for.

The incessant shuffling of baggage and bodies on and off the bus stretched the trip into a 5 hour crawl down the road. Just for comparison, on the return we hitched a ride back along the same route with a family visiting from Zambia and Jesse and I both agreed that the one hour spent in the back of their pick-up was like riding first class. When dusk was just settling around the foot of the Mount Mulanje it was finally my turn to get off at one of those clusters of huts, which for me marked the town of Likabula and access to the mountain.

Darkness fell as we hiked up the road, accompanied by a train of would-be guides and porters, to the CCAP (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian) mission where we spent the first night. Awaking in the morning in this tranquil mountain retreat surrounded by trees yet opening on a meditative vista, I was glad that we had seen the mountain when we approached the previous day, since it was impossible to appreciate the monolith at our backs while perched on its side, looking out over the flatland we had just traversed. The mountain is so large that, during our approach on the bus, there was no mistake that, yes, this is definitely where we are going.

Mulanje is in many ways a fortress. Thread-like waterfalls slide hundreds of feet down the stone flanks and the top is shrouded in clouds, hiding any hint of its possessions. To call it a mountain is deceptive since it really consists of several peaks, valleys and plateaus all stretched from the floor of Malawi as if a god reached down and pulled up on a sheet of silly putty. But, even after viewing the topographic map, I didn’t realize just how varied the mountain was until I had hiked its slopes for several days.

The first day’s climb lasts only 3 hours, but in that time we ascend 1200 meters from the base of the mountain to the Chambe basin home to Chambe hut and Chambe peak. The trail is a rocky cliff rising through intermittent clouds. It is called the Skyline trail, ostensibly after the nearby tramway had been used to ferry felled trees down from the plateau, but I think the name is more fitting as a descriptor of the path. It feels quite literally like a line along the sky. The ambitious route keeps my breath fast and eyes fixed on the red dirt pack dangerously slick by the soles of barefooted men carrying 10-foot logs on their heads and shoulders down the path. In America, this would be a competition worthy of reality television. In Malawi it is a way for a man to make 2,000 kwatcha ($11) profit and for the Forest Service to earn a few bucks while disposing of unwanted Pine timber.

At the top I feel as if I have stepped off of Jack’s beanstalk. Ahead is a plateau covered in hopeful devastation. Blackened stumps, the remains of a deposed pine plantation, are crowded by a diverse array of herbs and shrubs, reclaiming their natural habitat. As an ecologist, it is wonderfully strange to see so many species reemerging after this scale of disturbance when usually the land is dominated by one or two aggressive competitors. Even more encouraging is the Forest Service’s attitude toward the mistakenly planted Pines, which are now being cleared, burned and carted down the mountain, to make room for the native Cedar tree, which hundreds of volunteers will soon encourage by planting thousands of seedlings across the mountain.

Chambe hut, our first night’s destination, is situated at the head of the plateau looking down on the rest of the basin and across from the soaring cliff of Chambe Peak. The structure itself is as expected, a serviceable wood long-house with fire place and bunked beds (no mattresses). Unexpected are the hot basins of water prepared by the hut’s caretaker and placed in little bathing huts with 360° views. The best feature though, is the porch, from where we sit and watch the light from the setting sun crawl up the towering peak.

Day two begins by weaving though desert-like hills and tumbled rock from which sprout trees that bear a resemblance to the Joshua trees of the American southwest. We are told by our guide that these trees like to grow straight from the rock. While I am sure that the explanation is slightly more complicated, I am hard-pressed to find any not rooting itself upon a boulder. Even more peculiar are the trees that offer pill-shaped fruits, sans leaves, like swollen fingers toward the sky.

The morning’s yellow hills give way to a narrow rocky pass strung like a rope bridge between two plateaus. We pick our way across, descending into mist and a wet tropical forest. The world is reduced to a foggy green window ten feet in front and ten feet behind. The soil is a rich black and the air a liquid that renders the water bottle at my hip unnecessary. Most astounding is the diversity of plant life. In one careful glance I can pick out an example of every leaf type and shape imaginable.

Our stay in the primeval forest is brief. Soon we are climbing back up out of the clouds that reveal plunging cliffs where we just passed oblivious. Up and up we clamber over stepping stones knit together by the funnel-shaped webs of spiders who crouch in the crevices, buoyed by rising mist and weighted by dragging packs until, we are again weaving through a boulder field of Suessian-trees and grasses. I half expect to see a cactus around every corner. Instead, I see our next hut only a short distance away.

Chisepo hut feels like the true alpine. Grasses and flowers lie closer to the ground and clouds wisp by. The mountain rises from our doorstep. Boulders become denser and denser up the slope until they converge into rocky crests. This is where we will begin our climb up Sapitwa, the tallest peak on Mount Mulanje and the highest point in Central Africa. While ideally located, Chisepo hut was less that ideally constructed. At first the central fireplace seems a wonderful way to heat the entire room, but after cooking dinner on it we realized that having only two walls for a fire is only a wonderful way to fill the room with smoke. Furthermore, the lack of a descent roof had us up at 2am huddled in a single blanket trying to coax the fire to burn.

By 5am we were ready to get up and moving in an effort to warm up as well as climb the peak before the clouds rolled in. The three-hour climb up to Sapitwa was the first time on the trip that I was glad we had hired a guide. Being frequent backpackers, we hadn’t planned on hiring anyone at all to go with us up Mulanje, but this decision was met with disapproval and incredulity at the forestry office where we registered our climb. The officer was adamant that without a guide we would never make it to the cabins, nonetheless find our way up Sapitwa, and without porters to carry our things? Well we could be crazy if we wanted to be. Well, a guide certainly wasn’t necessary to find the cabins, but the trail up the summit did play a little hide-and-seek so it was nice to have someone save us a few extra hours of frustrated searching.

The climb was more difficult than it appeared looking up from Chisepo hut. The trail required the attention of my entire body. Pulling up and over boulders, then sliding down and crawling into a low wet canopy of gnarled peeling paper-bark trees that had wedged themselves into the stone crevices. Walking straight up the smooth rock, feet like Velcro carefully avoiding slick wet patches. Even the plants are harsher than their appearances, such as the pretty yellow straw flowers lining the trail that crinkle like plastic or the needle-tipped grass that claims bloody revenge on any limb that accidentally bumps it from its preferred position.

The summit was a beautiful sight even after three-hours of nothing but vistas over Malawi. I stood with my feet on the clouds and air currents whipping past with no other land to impede them for hundreds of miles. I looked out, but truly from that height could not make out much other than a patchwork of land and clouds making ready for the afternoon rains. With that in mind we hurried back down the mountain lest we be stranded on wet rock.

The five hour climb on Sapitwa was only the start of the day and after a rest we donned our packs to head to Thuchila hut. Up and down we went. Up and over a field of waist-high ferns, which to me looked naked and exposed without a dark evergreen canopy. Then down into a lush gully of trees under which water clear as glass ran in streams and pools, like deep windows to the rocky bottom. Then up again across a field of grass, where bright bundles of inflorescences the color of sunset poked their heads just above the top of the grass, advertising their nectar rewards to passing hummingbirds. And again down were the mountain side was cut by yet another gully of fresh water and shade.

We reach Thuchila hut just in time for evening as the light changed to gold and painted the surroundings. The plateau drops off directly in front of the house, leaving a giant panorama of Malawi at my feet which dangle over the edge of the broad front porch. Thuchila hut is one-hundred years old and once inside it is not hard to imagine that I am a settler on the American prairie. In the early morning a surreal ocean of blue clouds blankets the plains below with only a few hilltops peaking out, as if waiting for Noah to lodge his ark atop them. With the majestic view from the front stoop and the fireplace in the bedroom, Thuchila is easily my favorite stop and I am glad that we have hiked out if only for the one night.

If I were to describe the trail on Mulanje, I would say that it has its ups and downs, quite literally. In fact the trail doesn’t seem to know any other way to go than up and down, up and down, up and down, up and, shall I continue? This became quite apparent on the full-day trek back from Thuchila past Chisepo and over again to the other side of the mountain. At first the constant up and down makes for pleasant walking, since one doesn’t get bored by a continuous climb or trek across flat land. The trip in reverse is even a nice recapitulation of the hike and a chance to ponder how I would describe the mountain. Unfortunately, by the time we reach new terrain, the scenery is hidden by fiercely blowing rain that keep my hood up and head down, eyes on the treacherously slippery path, oddly littered with chunks of quartz that would seem more at home on a collector’s shelf than on the muddy trail. At the end of the day, I am completely soaked and that last hill before the hut is almost more than my muscles can bear. When we reach the CCAP cabin, Jesse and I crouch like ninjas in our black long-underwear before the fire trying to dry out and warm up.

During the next morning’s final hike down the mountain, the sun revealed the landscape that we missed during the previous afternoon. The land appeared tumbled and ill-a-ease with boulders hugging the ground. Squat cycads form miniature groves as if hijacked from a child’s Pirates of the Carribean lego set. We descend through a tangled forest and scattered sunlight that gradually becomes more ordered as we make our way down the mountain. Almost imperceptibly, the steep jumble of plants becomes a sloping open woodland of waxy thick-leafed trees and tall grass with yellow daisy-like flowers where butterflies dot the space beneath the trees in a multi-colored confetti. And then, quite suddenly, we are down, back at the CCAP mission revisiting the frigid showers and repacking our bags to make ready for the return to Blantyre. So ends our wilderness retreat on Mulanje.

For me, what made Mulanje such a superb backpacking destination was that the path was always changing. If I walked with my head down watching my feet for any more than five minutes, upon lifting my eyes I would be greeted with something new. Then, on looking down again I might discover that the dirt has changed from red to yellow, or see a ferocious-looking caterpillar stalking along a leaf.

In many ways Mulanje is an abstract quilt whose pattern is discerned only after perusing the contours. Fields and forest are stitched together by streams and gullies. Desert-like hills fall into tropical forests which open into fields and alpine boulders. The patchiness is both aesthetically and ecologically interesting. Would Mulanje have been more uniform without the historical interference of pine farming, or do the physical contours of the mountain itself naturally create the various microclimates and vegetation patches? It would be fascinating to return with the tools of a scientist rather than those of a backpacker. But, that is an adventure for another day. Now it is again time for teaching and I return ready to begin the next term.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Photos from Mulanje

Here are some photos from our recent trip to Mount Mulanje. I'll post a written blog soon. Enjoy!
Morning view from Thuchila hut which is over 100 years old.

Clouds rolling in on the climb to Sapitwa, the highest point in Central Africa.

The grueling climb out of the valley linking the Chambe and Chisepo huts.

Chambe Peak

Evening crow.

The finger trees at the edge of the plateau.

Looking down on Chisepo hut.

The view from Thuchila hut.

I made it to Sapitwa!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Not Just For Halloween Anymore

Three Christians, a Muslim, and a Jew were walking down the road. Actually it was four Malawians and an American. Or maybe I should say, a teacher and four students. Regardless, we were walking down the road talking about the same old things that students always ask me outside of school- religion, my relationship with Jesse, and first and foremost: where am I walking to. But today there was a new topic of conversation to add to the list, that concern of students around the world- the results of the exam. The last week has been final exam week for the end of term one. Nothing has more accentuated the differences between American schools and my experience with Malawian schools than participating in the entire production of writing, submitting, editing, organizing, administering, regulating, and most of all grading these exams. (In case the reader is not aware, today I finally finished grading the endless stack of 71 mathematics exams and 68 biology exam.) I’m not sure I can give the whole process the description it deserves in the few minutes I have now before I must pack for my trip in the morning down to Mt. Mulanje (where I’m looking forward to a relaxing week hiking in the mountains). I need some time discover how my views of schooling have shifted in the last few weeks and synthesize the things that I still hold true with the revelations I am experiencing here. Hopefully I will have some time on the mountain for a bit of thinking. So, while waiting for a treatise on education, my readers will have to make do with my story about a more mundane, though no less important, topic.

I have recently discovered a new food to add to the weekly rotation of meals. Pumpkins or “maungu” look and taste like a cross between your average friendly jack-o-lantern and an acorn squash. They are sweet, delicious, and cheap. One pumpkin costs about 25 kwatcha (15 cents) and will last for two dinners. Even better is that I can make a pumpkin-peanut soup and Jesse has recently discovered how to make a mouth-watering coconut squash curry using fresh coconuts from the tree out back. Dinner is now much more of a meal to look forward to.

We first sampled maungu on a trip a few weeks ago to Maldeco. The week before I had mentioned that I was going to go to Maldeco on the weekend and one of the teachers- Mr. Piyo immediately invited us to his home there. He wanted to show us around town and introduce us to his family. We set a time to meet of 2:00 at the bus station. Well, as things go in Malawi, there were no matolas to catch and since this was the pre-bicycle era, we ended up walking the 5km to Maldeco arriving 30 minutes lat. Of course Piyo was not at our predetermined meeting locale. Figuring that he had gone home after getting tired of waiting on us we set out to find his house. It only took asking three people before we were led by an eager-to-please student directly to Piyo’s family’s house where we were met by Piyo’s father and mother and sister and brother, but no Mr. Piyo. Word travels quick around the small town of Maldeco and after 20 minutes of waiting Piyo shows up at the house oh-so-pleased that we came- he thought we had decided not to come after he had told his mother and everyone that we would be arriving. That’s small town Malawi for you, not so different from small town anywhere I suppose where you can navigate on the good-will of neighbors alone.

As I said earlier, it was at Piyo’s house where we first tasted maungu. After dining on the largest cucumber I have ever seen he asked us to wait while his mother cooked up some pumpkin from their garden for us to try. He informed us that the pumpkin is a relative of the cucumber and that pumpkins are what Malawians eat when they don’t have food. By food he means “chimanga” or corn, which is used for practically everything. I couldn’t tell by this comment whether Malawians values pumpkins or not, and still was unsure after he sent us home with three from his garden.

Our colleagues and neighbors seem to be amused by our penchant for maungu. I get the feeling that it is a poor man’s food and not a delicacy usually eaten by white folks. Whenever a friend hears that we like pumpkins they immediately offer, “oh I’ll bring you some from my garden”. There seem to be many relatives of the cucumber growing in family gardens in this area. A favorite of mine looks like an inflated banana. It is some type of melon since when I first bought one the smell was so much like a cantaloupe that I was stunned when my first bite tasted nothing like a sweet fruit, but more like a pasty bagel. However, after refrigerating and mushing it up with lemon juice and sugar it makes a delicious substitute for ice-cream.

I look forward to tasting my first real ice-cream in months tomorrow when we go to Blantyre to apply for a 6-month residence permit. The word ‘residence’ feels so much more permanent than anything we have done so far. It’s the next big step I suppose, so long as we are not rejected, in which case friends in the States may be seeing us sooner rather than later. Here’s hoping for a friendly immigration staff and continued Malawian living because. Look for my next blog post after we get back from our adventure south.