Getting There: Livingstonia, Malawi

Hey World, 

Yesterday I shared the news that I am currently eating cheese doodles and not scuba diving, but before I got to that point, I had to get from Tanzania into Malawi, and spent a couple of nights in Livingstonia. So let's backtrack a bit, shall we? 

Not pictured: me sweating like I had just run a marathon

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After an early morning trek to the Tanzania-Malawi border, I left Tanzania without much hassle [though they didn't look thrilled when I said I'd be coming back in a week] and walked over to Malawi. 

[[Note to travelers: stay LEFT when you get to the Malawi side. That official looking place on the right that everyone is running to? Turns out it's a bank and not immigration]]

After hanging out in the bank for a few minutes before realizing I was in the wrong place, then changing money to kwacha, I headed for immigration, where I was greeted by a nice but stern woman who immediately put an Ebola gun to my forehead {apparently it takes your temperature -- but it's really quite disconcerting when all of a sudden you think you may die upon entry}, and after 'passing' the Ebola test, was lightly interrogated because I said I was a Miss and not a Mrs, and she wanted to know why someone my age [AKA: old enough to be married] wasn't. When I realized she wasn't going to let me laugh it off, I insisted that I was coming to Malawi to search for my obviously imminent husband, which she accepted as a valid claim, and passed me off to another immigration officer who quickly stamped my passport and let me through. 

I then had my first haggle of the day, low-balled hard and fast to get a reasonable price for my minibus ride to Chitimba and off I was!

Before continuing, I should say that minibuses here are both the best thing and the worst thing about Malawi. It is amazing that there are buses running long distances at all hours of the day (and quite frequently) so that you aren’t SOL if you miss the one and only bus at 6 AM [ahem, Tanzania] but despite the straightforwardness of the road way system in the North [IE: there's only one major road], these minibuses move extremely slowly due to:

1.     The conductor’s insistence to pulling over for any live body at the side of the road to try and convince them that they actually want a ride instead of walking. More often than not? The people just want to walk.

2.     The driver’s personal agenda to buy a ton of food roadside while the rest of the mini-bus waits cramped for him to fill a bag with pristine yams or stanky fish and then shove it on one of our laps. His personal agenda also includes: stopping to chat with friends, stopping to guzzle a bottle of water, stopping to pee, and stopping for the sake of stopping. 

3.     Everyone’s apparent need to pull over every hour for a 10-15 stretch/snack break….even though we’ve barely gone anywhere! Clearly, these people have not endured the transnational bus rides of Tanzania. 

We also had a flat tire break -- interestingly enough, this was our shortest pit stop!
4.     The Malawi traffic police – who no joke stop every vehicle about every 5-10KM, peer inside and make eye contact with every individual, do random bag searches, and for some reason, look in the trunk of the mini bus (which doesn’t really exist…but a bunch of precarious bags are shoved there and subsequently topple out every 5-10KM)

[[ Addendum: The entire northern part of Malawi smells like a giant salty fish. If you are easily nauseated, you might consider hiring a private car and keeping all of the windows up the entire time, whilst also putting your head in a vacuum sealed bag. Or if you are but want to be a hero, go right ahead and crawl into a minibus and hope for the best. ]]

ANYWHO.

After 4ish hours and countless stops (including the time where we drove around a town for a half hour aimlessly, only to realize that our driver wasn't actually the driver and just some random guy trying to make extra money while our driver took an extended food break) I made it to the Chitimba, where I then waited almost 3 hours for an already full jeep to drive up the hill [about 10Km straight uphill, with over 20 hairpin turns] to where I was staying, an awesome eco-lodge called Mushroom Farm. Thank goodness vacation means you have nothing but time (or does it?).


The alternative is to begin walking and then try and hitch a ride [good luck!] or to hire a guide to walk you up, with the option of paying a couple extra bucks for him to also carry your bags/gear. It’s estimated to be anywhere from a 1.5-2.5 hour walk, depending on your tenacity. I would have done this, had I not arrived at high noon, and the desire to walk anywhere for any amount of time was actually in the negatives.

Don't worry -- that's not the truck I took up the hill. However, mine was not much better...but it did have four doors and two chairs strapped to its roof!
So I sat, and drank questionable water {but it was cold and the lady was nice}, and turned off my brain for a little bit, which was definitely a good thing, because once the vehicle started moving, I came to realize that potentially the only thing holding my door onto the vehicle was…me. Not exactly what you want to realize as you’re careening around hairpin bends on a mountainside, but good to realize nonetheless, because I had to divert most of my attention from playing with the most precious toddler in existence (who had taken to punching me in the shoulder, much to the joy of everyone in the truck) and allocate my attention to holding onto the doorframe for dear life.


Less than 45 minutes and two stops to fix something under the hood later, I was dropped at a sign that said “Mushroom Farm” with a big arrow, and at 4pm, 9-10 hours after leaving my hotel room in Mbeya, I had arrived – vacation had officially begun!

More on my Livingstonia adventures tomorrow.

xoxo,
M


If You Can't Scuba...Eat Cheese Doodles

 Hey World,

The highlight of my planned 10-day trip to Malawi was going to be a 4-day diving course in Nkhata Bay (about an hour or so from Mzuzu). Firstly because it is one of the most affordable places in the world to get your PADI Open Water Scuba Diving certifications, and secondly, because Aqua Africa has nothing but rave reviews online for their two scuba instructors.

After a shouldn’t-have-been-long-but-was trek from Chitimba to Nkhata Bay, and a terrible night’s stay at Big Blue Backpackers (highly not recommended-but more on that later) two nights ago, I woke up early yesterday morning and headed over to Aqua Africa to check in, eat some breakfast, and begin my PADI course.

However, I wasn’t able to even put my pen to the paper to begin filling out the form when the fact that I have asthma came up, and the instructor informed me that between liability on his end and personal safety on mine, we actually couldn’t move forward at all unless I went to a major city, got a bunch of specific medical tests done, passed them all, and came back [which was clearly not going to happen].

I put on a brave face and shrugged, saying that I had had done some online research and didn’t think it was going to be a problem and apologized profusely for not alerting him beforehand about my asthma, then quickly ran up to my room and onto my balcony, where my tears fell a little more freely {sidenote: I haven’t cried so much in about a year as I have this past week}. 

It’s really hard to hear that your body, despite how well you try and take care of it, just isn’t healthy enough to do something. I’ve made peace that I may never run a marathon [but I can run a 5K!] and although I know I can still kick some athletic butt, hearing from an instructor that my body can’t be trusted to hover even 30 feet underwater without probably killing me or exploding my lungs is pretty devastating. Obviously, it’s not the instructor’s fault. Annoyingly, it’s also not really mine. And frustratingly, there’s literally nothing I can do about it. Stupid little huffy lungs of mine! Researching lung enhancers is now going on my short list. Do you think those are even a thing? Actually, I’m sure they are. There are pills for everything nowadays.

But I digress.

After an hour and a half of intermittently wallowing and reading, I decided to hop in the shower to clear my mind and take stock of where I’m at.

Here’s what I realized:

1.     I AM IN MALAWI. ON VACATION.
2.     I’m paying $35 a night for a deluxe $80 room with a private balcony overlooking Lake Malawi and a shower that has great water pressure [clearly a shower thought]
3.     Without meaning to, I saved $350.
4.     I have four days where I was going to be busy from 9-5 to do absolutely anything my heart desires – that’s 32 hours of fun to be had!
5.     While I may not be capable of scuba diving, I am capable of snorkeling, kayaking, trekking, biking, cliff jumping, laying on beaches and watching eagles – all of which are offered in the Bay.
6.     I could also just relax, which is apparently this activity where you kind of just stay still and calm and gaze into space or maybe read a book, all the while counting down the hours+minutes until the next hot meal. I could do that.
7.     Finally, the grocery here sells a Malawian knockoff of Cheese Doodles for $0.50 a bag. Just saying {I've eaten a bag a day}.


This is my balcony view right now. I KNOW.
[not pictured...cheese doodle dust all over everything]
So that’s where I am right now [well, where I was after my shower]. It’s almost lunchtime, the WiFi at my hotel is amazing, and chicken enchiladas are on the menu....as are nachos and chili con carne…it’s almost like I’m also in Mexico!

After eating, I started four days of above-water Nkhata Bay fun. Who needs to pay to get closer to slimy fish anyways?

Xoxo,
M


PS: If you came across this blog post because you were googling ‘lung enhancers’ because you too were unable to get PADI certified due to crappy lungs, we should probably be friends. Email me.

A Few Thoughts on Backpacking Solo

 Hey World,

Tomorrow morning I will wake up before the sun with my backpack and a light sidebag and head to Malawi for 9 days of sun, fun, and adventure...alone.


Despite frequently flying to destinations around the globe alone [and to be honest, I actually prefer doing airports+airplanes alone], I’ve never actually traveled around a place by myself. 

Which is a bit strange, because I don’t think I ever realized this was the case until this past month when it hit me that while I've traveled alone a lot, I haven't traveled alone. 

Needless to say: Panic and self-doubt ensued. 

And then I said "Self, ain't nobody got time for that [panic and self-doubt]. You're going to Malawi by yourself, for a week and a half, and you're going to freaking love every minute of it." I rationed with myself that it's a fantastic skill to have, that I love having alone time, and that 2014 is the Year of Pushing Limits. 2014 is the year I put fear back in it's rightful place and tell myself that "can't" isn't a word in my vocabulary. 

I'll admit it: I like being alone....but only when I have the option of not being alone. My biggest fear about traveling solo is that whole not having an opt-out to my aloneness, and being stuck with me, myself, and I the whole time! 

In order to avoid this trip being an epic fail, I came up with a three-pronged approach for my vacation planning to alleviate the fears about my aloneness so I can have the best jump into solo backpacking possible. 

Guideline #1: Plan a trip that keeps you moving. 

There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a place (unless you’re the kind of person who likes being stuck in a place...in which case, ignore this point), particularly when you’re all by your lonesome. It’s no fun sitting in one place or exhausting everything there is to do at a single location and then wishing and hoping something new and interesting to do comes along.

That’s why I’ll be spending time at not one, not two, not three, but four different towns (and five accommodations) across ten days.

I don’t want to be somewhere waiting for time to pass with a frown on my face….which brings me to #2.

[Also, this is the time that you don't have to concede to anyone else's desires, whims, wishes, or hunger pangs. GO FORWARD WITH GUSTO AND SEE/DO/EAT EVERYTHING ON YOUR WISHLIST!]

Guideline #2: Plan a trip that keeps you occupied. 

After deciding I was going to Malawi, the second most important question was: alright, what am I going to do there? 

I thought about what I might enjoy. Then I thought about what I would enjoy/prefer to do alone. And I came up with these: 

 1) I love hiking. I could walk/hike until my body started to decompose, and I would still have some miles left in me. And I don't mind hiking alone. Therefore, I resolved to dedicate some of my time to a place where I could walk/hike freely.

2) It would be a sin to visit Malawi and not spend time on Lake Malawi, but I'm not a beach lover, nor do I enjoy swimming around aimlessly. I do, however, love to snorkel, and have always dabbled with taking the next step and crossing into learning how to scuba dive [as a child I was told people with asthma can’t scuba dive, but it turns out that was a 90s myth!]. 

Well, it turns out that Malawi is one of the cheapest places in the world (yes, in the WORLD) to get your PADI certification – which is recognized widely internationally and allows you to scuba dive almost everywhere – so I reached out and signed up for a 3-4 day course that also includes the opportunity to go night diving…all with the promise of no sharks! DONE!

There's also cliff jumping (this might be pushing my limits too much...but it's an option), snorkeling, kayaking, boat taxis, and numerous restaurants/bars/hotel chalets that overlook the lake...so I think spending time at Lake Malawi deserves a significant portion of my trip. 

3) I also love wandering around a small town, and really getting to know a place. There's a historical town a few KM from where I'll spend my hiking time, but I'm also taking three days / two nights to make pitstops on the way back North to the Tanzanian border to check out two sleepy small towns. Nothing exciting going on in either of these places, but enough to peruse to take a half day and explore a little. This also builds in some flex time on my return in case I learn of something else I want to do instead!


Guideline #3: Go to places that reflect who you are [or want to be]. 

Another major concern about taking my travel solo is that I am really bad at talking to strangers, including other travelers, no matter how awesome, approachable or interesting they might look. 

However, that sentiment is not going to fly on a week+ long trip - I'm going to go bonkers if I don't have anyone to converse with! 

That’s why I spent the most amount of time researching my accommodations – I wanted to find places that were cheap but had character, had good reviews, and were frequented by other low-budget travelers. I wanted to find places that talk more about the activities they offer than the amenities in their bathrooms. 

I figured that the best way to find people who I would be most comfortable talking to or hanging out with would be those who would be at places that reflect my own interests - and the best place I'll be spending the most down-time is where I'm staying each night. 

I likened it to fishing in a stocked pond vs. the ocean: chances if you you're not a rod&reel expert...you're better off in the pond. 

And now a bigger picture note:
<< Do this, but aim the dart >>
I thought it would be best to plan my first solo trip to a place I could see myself being for awhile. 

For example: everyone wants to go to NYC, but it’s also one of the loneliest places I know. NYC could be home to anyone. NYC has something for everyone. 

You can’t quite say the same about Northern Malawi. I chose to avoid major metropolises, instead easing myself a bit more slowly into solitude. You can't really feel lonely if you're at a five or ten room lodge, but you sure can get lost in your loneliness in the lobby of a mega-chain hotel. 

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So we'll see how this goes. Fingers crossed it's a raging success!

 If I can conquer solo travel, I will be indefatigable: I'll be able to visit more countries on my wish list,  try new experiences without being shy, and gaining a confidence I haven't found yet! 

xoxo,
M




She Was Beautiful.

Hey World, 

My dog Whoopie Lynn left our world after fifteen years earlier this week. 



Although it was a long time coming, it shot me through the heart. I cried into someone else's soup (literally). I cried until my eyes hurt. I cried until my head hurt. I cried until my body hurt. I cried because I left her behind to pursue my own dreams. I cried because I wasn't there when she probably wanted me to be there the most. I cried because goodbyes hurt. I cried because I wasn't there to hold her, and I cried because no one was here to hold me. 

 I was physically debilitated for hours – I actually had to leave work so as to wallow in my sadness while curled up in my bed under my blanket from home. Taking a sip of water was too much; so was getting fully under the covers. Gus, feeling that something was wrong, snuggled into my neck and we took deep, huffy breaths in unison as time flowed past us. After a while, the tears from my eyes slowly soaked into my cheeks.

Whoopie was my beautiful girl, just as Gus Muffin is my beautiful boy [and the reason Gus had to be a boy, because I could never replace my Whoopie Lynn]. Though my tears have (almost) stopped flowing, her beauty will live on with the many memories she gave me and the lessons she taught me. 


She was beautiful…the day I got her as my 10th birthday present, when she looked into my eyes and sat next to me during the obligatory “I just got a dog!!!!” pictures, knowing full well that these photos were just the tip of the iceberg.

She was beautiful…in those early days when she would hunt birds and flies, walking with the beautiful stealth typically found in wild cats. It was the wild dog in her, and I wouldn't trade her dingo DNA for anything. 

She was beautiful….when she decided that “go to bed” should really mean “say goodnight to everyone in the home by giving them a lick” and only after the task was complete would she put herself to bed. 

She was beautiful....when she arrived in the US after a flight from hell, and managed to love us despite getting power-washed for half an hour. Her love was nothing but unconditional (although I'm sure she questioned its rationality every so often). 

She was beautiful…when she raced around the cottage at a 45 degree angle on hot summer days with her tongue hanging out, just because she could.

She was beautiful…when she climbed next to you on the couch to snuggle. Whoopie taught me that sometimes just being there (or nearby) is enough to provide comfort.


She was beautiful…when she rushed down the stairs on Christmas morning to open her stocking, and looked into your eyes with pure joy when the People Crackers came out.

She was beautiful...when she knew she had done something wrong. She owned her mistakes, but also stood steadfast behind her convictions. If she had earned a treat, she wasn't leaving the kitchen without one dammit! 

She was beautiful…in her loyalty to me. I can never claim that she was perfect, or that she was friendly or welcoming to everyone [because those things she wasn’t] but even on our angriest days with one another, she would never bite me. She would purposefully miss her snaps, and I knew then that with those you love, the bark must always be bigger than the bite.

She was beautiful…to the very end. She pulled through almost two years with patches of fur, itches that couldn't be scratched, a shrinking bladder, lost teeth, and alzheimers so as to not leave her owners alone.

If that’s not beauty, I don’t know what is.


Snooze sweetly, my beautiful girl. Thank you for everything you were. 

xoxo,
M

My Next Travel Destination!

Hey World,

It recently came to my attention that I have a week of vacation to take in September...and yes, I mean like THIS month September. While I have more than 3 weeks of vacation each year, our office is closed only three weeks a year, so most of the staff choose to utilize this time to take (at least part of) their vacation [mostly because the office is closed so I can't work anyways].

The question then was: Where should I go?

While I wouldn't mind doing some internal travel around Tanzania, I could also use shorter breaks or long weekends to do that (++ in-country travel will very soon be part of my job). Therefore, it's time for my first international travel destination!

I had a couple of line items:

1. I wanted to spend next-to-nothing on travel costs
2. I wanted to go to a country I had never been to before
3. I wanted somewhere conducive for backpacking
4. I wanted to plan the whole thing in less than two weeks

SO:

After a little bit of research and consideration, I'll be heading to my close neighbor 



Malawi!

Because time is short and Malawi is L-O-N-G, I'm limiting myself to just explore the Northern region on this trip. In doing so, I'll be less than a day's trip back to the Tanzanian border, within close proximity to a handful of national parks/reserves, AND some great small towns and beautiful beaches that all border Lake Malawi!

UMM....
photocredits 
YES PLEASE!


While this trip sprung itself on me rather quickly, I am thrilled to be able to get my passport out and my travel on so soon! Malawi is raved about in backpacking circles and has some great affordable accommodations (including waterfront views!) that I can't wait to share more about. It's also my first solo trip, so I'm pretty thrilled to see how that goes as well!

And of course, I'm excited to be able to share the results of my adventures with you all in just a few weeks!

xoxo,
M




PS: Have you been to Malawi / know anyone who has? I'm always open for suggestions for places to eat, sites to see, and can't-miss trails to hike!

#OfftheGrid: Top of the Rock, Iringa

Hey world,

I had a 'salubrious' to take on Saturday, but I ended up going into the office for a half day anyways to get my work life organized and to plan my upcoming week. Exciting stuff - I know.

Anyways, because I wasn't going to take the full day off as I was planning, I wanted to check something off of my Iringa wishlist -- to make my way up to a small Christian church/shrine that stares at me each and every day from my office view. 

Can you see it? Top left!
I packed my small backpack with a liter of water, a good book and my hiking boots, and as soon as the clock struck noon at work, I was dressed, ready and out the door!

Happy Saturday to me!
I had been told that despite the church looking quite close, it was quite a trek to get there. In fact, the best way might be to start all the way down the valley and then hike directly up. I decided to just go for it - and started at the path right near my office.



And every so often, climbed a giant boulder. 

It was easy to cross the valley onto the church-side, but I decided to forgo the obvious path at first and instead climb up the gully of boulders, which positioned me behind the church (making it nearly impossible to see) and then I diagonally crossed back and up, and luckily, stumbled upon it as I made my way to a giant rock I wanted to climb up to take in the view anyways! 


Already lost the church from my sight...





The route up took about an hour and a half, leaving me wishing I had brought a snack and more water!

From the top, I could see all of Ipogolo, Gangi Longa, and Iringa town. The panoramic view was truly stunning, and worth the few thorns and aphid attacks I encountered on the way up. 



Welcome to Iringa, Tanzania!

From my vantage point, I spent about a half hour reading and soaking in the views (and taking some selfies!), then decided to return down on a more obvious trail, keeping the path I took from near the office in sight the entire time (mostly because I couldn't ignore my growling stomach any longer). 

Made it back to the gully in less than 25 minutes...what was I doing before?!
This was clearly the better plan, as I made it back to the other side in about 45 minutes, and found it much more easy to navigate.


And that was that - another great 3 hour adventure in the books, some solo time exploring the hills, and a couple more places I saw that I'd like to hike my way to. 

Did you explore more this weekend? 

xoxo,
M

Snapshots from the Path Unpaved: Iringa, Tanzania

Hey world,

One of the things I love most about living in Tanzania again is the amount of roads and paths that are in fact, unpaved [hence the name of this blog!].

Over the past few weeks I've tried to capture some of the beautiful scenes these paths have led me to, and I hope that every so often I'll have a similar collection to share!

Do you have any remarkable shots from unpaved paths? I would love to see them!

xoxo,
M

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This is one of my all time favorites so far!

Of course, Mr. Muffin trots along the paths with me too :)







Dear World #6

Hey world,

I can't believe it's already time for my sixth Dear World post! Time is truly flying over here. I know I've taken a slight dip in posting; loving up on Mr. Gus Muffin 
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Dear World, 

Thank you for watching the sun rise. It was one of those mornings when I didn't have to be up especially early, but I found myself watching dawn arrive slowly, creeping up into the horizon [before waking up every living chicken and dog in a 4 mile radius] as I laid in bed and marveled at the painted sky. It was definitely worth the lost 45 minutes of sleep. 


Thank you for books that envelope me. I somehow spent the first four weeks of living here without reading a single page from a book. It might have been the longest withdrawal from reading in my entire life. Luckily, I gained the willpower to finish the book that I was so stuck on, and since then have devoured another book and a half in the past 10 days. I think I missed that magical place you go when the author creates a dream so real, you lose yourself in it. I'm especially glad I've found it again. 

The best place to read in Iringa

Thank you for songs that speak to the moment. You know what I'm talking about.


Thank you for puppy love. 
As I posted yesterday, Mr. Muffin has quickly become my everything. But I am especially beholden to the moments we have shared laying together and reading, or even just napping it up where he begs until I put him up with me, and then snuggles into me as I continue about my business. Clearly, everything is better when we are together. 

We take our snuggling seriously.

Thank you for slow service. It's during these times of wishing and waiting that I often realize how much time I'm not wasting while waiting...instead it's just an added opportunity to utilize every minute! For example, I am extremely glad I've waited 6 weeks until the carpenter came [some of that was me not calling, some of that was him having a broken arm] to start working on some home-improvement projects for me, as I now know exactly what I want! 

What are you thankful for? Don't forget, if you want to share your Dear World letter, just send it in to tcmtgc@gmail.com!

xoxo,
M



The Day My Heart Exploded

Hey world,

It is with great excitement that I share with you this particular love story: the day my heart exploded.

You see, this past weekend, I drove out to a small village called Muwimbi, met one of our staff members, and headed down, down, down to a small house perched on the cusp of a valley. There I saw six tiny puppies, three of which fit my criteria of being both male and having [most if not all] black fur.  In that instant, I knew that I would be back the next day to collect one. 

There were two that had black and brown fur, and one that was entirely black with white booties. The first two were relatively healthy and jumping around; Mr. Boots was quiet, timid and had the world's biggest belly [lots of worms] - it was clear he was the runt of the litter.



Of course, I collected Mr. Boots the next day, wrapped him up in a kanga [East African fabric], and bestowed upon him the name Gus Muffin.





The first day was a lot of bathing -- scrubbing off dirt and fleas and trying to force-feed him a deworming pill. Gus refused to eat or drink, and spent most of the time taking big ol' huffy breaths. I was pretty sure he was trying to die on me.





But within 24 hours, there was a drastic difference. He followed me everywhere. He whined when I left. He ran around with the other dogs. He lapped up bowl after bowl of milk, and housed a plate of rice.


He wouldn't fall asleep unless his kanga was next to my pillow on the floor so he could see me, and I could pet him as he drifted off to sleep.



Our love story began.


What's crazy is as soon as I saw Mr. Muffin, I knew he was The One.



He's the man I've been looking for for the past two years. He is the one I want to shower with love and affection, the one I want to snuggle with as I read a good book, the one whose eyes will speak volumes to me during my bad days.



I have never fallen harder, faster.


Dear world,
Gus Muffin is my world.


xoxo,
M