Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Catapu Forest, Dinner with Sr. Tejas, and Gorongosa

From Caia we were on the tarmac for a beautiful ride through the Catapu forest at sunset. We were passed by maybe four cars during the three hours of riding, and it was mostly down hill so I kept an average speed of about 20mph. It wasn't all roses though, I got my first case of Mozambican diarrhea during this ride which got progressively more violent that night, but I'll spare you the ugly details, any Peace Corps friends reading this can look forward to that story over a beer next time we meet.

We read about a cool forest lodge in lonely planet that turned out to be an awesome surprise. It was tucked away in the Catapu forest and is run by a company that is making furniture from the native forest, I don't know how sustainable their business is, but the forest surrounding the lodge and all along the road looks pretty virgin. The lodge was really nice, like one of the high end chalets in yellowstone or Yosemite, but with very few visators, and we got our own bungalow for $12. Wiz ate a fantastic dinner with good Beer, while I stuck to rice and soup. The restaurant had a great ambiance, it was outside and warmed by a fire pit. The owner came and talked to us, and when he heard we were heading to Gorongosa he told us he had a truck heading that way in the morning, and offered to load us and our bikes in the back.

We're no purists about riding our bikes so we took the 270km ride to Gorongosa town, which gave me a chance to recover from my stomach ailment, and gave us a full day to search for a guide to take us up Gorongosa Mountain, which is known for it's spirits and needs a series of ceremonial rituals in order to climb...hence the guide. We had no luck finding a guide and decided to proceed to Gorongosa National Park, before we attempt to climb.

That night we had dinner with an extremely interesting old Mozambiqan man of Portuguese decent named Mario Tejas. His father moved here in 1905, and he was born and raised in Northern Mozambique. He loved telling us the stories of his life and travels to the Americas, where he worked in the cruise line industry. His eyes were full of expression, especially when talking about women; "Oh that Mexican women! What can I say?...She was truly like an angel...I'm saying she glowed!" He explained to us that red wine keeps mosquitoes away. And told us the story of the South African couple in a pristine Cadillac that found him when he was eighteen and had him get a mining license. They went to a remote corner in the bush and they walked out with a small bag of rocks the women called crystals. They gave him a small sum of money that seemed like a fortune to an eighteen year old, and dissapeared. It wasn't until he was in Miami many years later that he realized that they were uncut diamonds and the couple walked away with a real fortune. He went back to the same spot years later, and nearly died from Malaria while looking for diamonds. He said he promised God he would leave and never come back if he could live. A promise he has kept, until now. He's almost eighty years old and when we saw him he was on his way back from Maputo with another mining license heading back to that same spot. At the end of dinner he said, "When I look back at my life I'd say it's been 85% suffering, and 15% enjoying...you know with women and wine and dancing." When I asked him if the 15% was worth the 85% he simply shook his head and said "naw." But something about the smile on his face told me he was lying.

The next morning the ride to the Park Gates was beautiful. Over the sound of our own tires on the path we could hear Baboons barking in the distance mixed with the birds singing in the trees over head. As we got closer to the gate the forest got denser and more tropical looking. We couldn't bring our bikes into the park, so we locked them in an office and loaded our katundu into a passing park truck to get to Chitengo camp.

We camped at Chitengo and did a game drive this morning with a local guide. It was the first real Safari I've taken in Africa and it was incredible. Gorongosa is beautiful, and even though most of the animals were poached during the long civil war by Renamo troops which were based near the park, it is now making an amazing comeback. Mostly thanks to a foreign consessioneer called the Carr Foundation (No relation). They have been working very well with the surrounding communities to rebuild animal populations, reforest the area around Mount Gorongosa, and generate income for the people who have been living here.

Now Gorongosa is an up and coming National Park that I would recommend to anybody passing through Mozambique. We saw tons of Waterbuck, Warthogs, cCrocodiles, Baboons, Vervet monkeys, Oribi, Nyala, Impala, and Reedbuck. We also saw Lichenstein Hartebeest, and Sable which are very rare in Gorongosa. They are both massive muscular animals. Watching their fluid bounds in between the trees was really like watching poetry in motion. We also saw some amazing big birds like fish eagle, marabou stork, and white backed vultures that were preying on a giant tortoise carcase. It always gives me a big rush when I see big birds like that spread their wings and take flight.

The Safari was worth every penny, and afterwards when we were telling our driver about our trouble finding a guide he told us that there are no organized guides going up yet, because the park is still negotiating with the local communities, but he hooked us up with a guy in Gorongosa town who knows the mountain real well, so tomorrow we are going to back track a bit and go see the chiefs to do the pre-climb ceremony. All we know so far is that we are supposed to bring wine, tobbacco, and cloth as offerings; we can't wear red on the mountain, and we have to do the two day hike barefoot. So that will be our next adventure!

Out The Tail of Malawi, and Over The Great Zambezi

I made my last post in Blantyre Malawi, and we are now in Gorongosa Mozambique, so we have covered plenty of ground since then and experienced a lot along the way.

From Blantyre we rode down another big escarpment to Chikwawa, which was a lot of fun for Wiz but kind of sucked for me because I was testing out my new spare foam tire that is puncture proof. It seemed like a wise purchase because I can't find any spare tubes in Malawi with a small enough gauge to fit into my rear tires rim, but the foam tire is ungodly slow. It's kind of like riding on a flat tire, so it just sapped all of my energy and made the day hell for me. It also didn't help that the temperature kicked up about ten degrees when we got to Chikwawa. We crossed the Shire River and got to Ross Perkins' house. Ross was the last Peace Corps volunteer we stayed with, and he spoiled us like all the other volunteers with a great dinner and hospitality. Needless to say the first thing I did was take off that God Forsaken tire, and put back on my tube.

We were a little worried about biking through Chikwawa and Nsanje districts because they are known for being the hottest and most desolate districts in Malawi. We managed to cover both districts in one long day of riding...but man that was a long day! I'm still not sure how accurate the computer on my bike is, but it showed that we covered exactly 75 miles in one day, and much of that was on dirt roads. We got into Chikwawa around 7:00pm checked into a guesthouse, had a hearty meal of goat and rice after washing the layer of dirt off of us, and crashed out for the night.

The next morning we were pleasantly surprised to see that Nsanje boma was nestled into a beautiful little valley with forests and mountains all along the border, while the rest of Nsanje and Chikwawa were flat as a pancake...I'd say the landscape is very similar to East Texas (I probably also draw the comparison because the main industries there are cattle, cotton, and sugar cane). We had another thirty kilometers on the dirt road before we reached the border. We realized what a podunk border crossing this was when we stopped in one of the border towns for tea and saw how shocked everybody was to see travelers passing through. A crowd of children surrounded our bikes and stared at our katundu, and a guy who we had tea with, said that the last tourists to come through passed in January. The border guards got a good laugh when we told them we were biking to South Africa, and with that we shot out of the absolute bottom of Malawi.

It was just as bush on the Mozambique side, we got the same stares of disbelief from the villagers we passed by. The immediate differences were a lot more abandoned buildings Freelimo flags instead of DPP posters, Bon Dia instead of Muli Bwangi, and beer in a can instead of a bottle. So Wiz and I decided to celebrate our border crossing by shotgunning a Laurintina Negro at ten in the morning. There was nobody around to witness our spectacle, but the dark beer had a much stronger affect on our riding ability than we expected.

We took a break just outside of a large refugee camp to get some shade and eat some bread rolls and peanut butter for lunch. We still haven't figured out what the inhabitants were refugees from but the UN tents were old and tattered, So it seemed like they have been there for quite a long time. Everybody we talked to was very nice, and patient with our limited Portuguese mixed with Spanish and Chichewa (Chisena is the local vernacular and its another Bantu language close to Chichewa).

We got to Mutorara around 3:00pm and decided to stay at a Pension run by a really awesome old couple that took very good care of us. We took an evening walk to check out the Zambezi which we still hadn't seen but knew it was on the other side of the hill. We got off the path that the Senhora at the Pension told us to follow as we followed the sound of a church choir. When we realized we didn't really know how to get back on the path we climbed up a big rock to see where the heck we were.....Bam! holy cow there was the massive Zambezi river in all its glory glowing underneath a beautiful sunset. It was an exhilarating moment, we were overlooking the entire town tin shanties and mud huts mixed with abandoned Portuguese buildings, and modern houses that you would never see in an equivalent sized town in Malawi. Everybody beneath us was carrying out their evening chores; The fishermen were bringing their boats in with the days catch, women were carrying baskets of clothes on their heads they had washed in the river, naked children were bathing and playing in the rivers inlets, and the last few travelers from Sena were pushing their bikes across the 2.5 mile long bridge that we would ride across in the morning.

Most of all we were blown away by the sheer size of the Zambezi river. It seemed to me to be every bit as wide as every section I have seen of the Mississippi. The bridge that spans it is Ponta De Donna Anna. It is an industrial marvel built in 1934 with just a railroad track and a small catwalk. riding our bikes across was a trip; weaving around women carrying fruit on their heads, and having motorcycles weave around us on the narrow catwalk. We stopped every now and then to look for crocodiles and hippos, and just admire the skyline; from the Zambezi wetlands to the Mountains off in the distance. The rest of the day was the long hot ride to Caia, on an empty dusty road.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Malawian Push Bike Tour

We have biked over 260 miles since we left Lilongwe on Wednesday. We are still in Malawi bee-bopping our way down the country staying with Peace Corps volunteers all along the way. The ride has been beautiful, and all of our hosts have been overwhelmingly gracious. Staying with Peace Corps volunteers is the way to go. Everybody has wanted to cook elaborate meals for us and share their goodies from home and booze... It’s great!

Our first day was a late start, which meant that we were stuck riding after sun down on the M1. It was more than a little bit sketchy with the traffic, but we decided to continue on because it was a bright full moon. We were held up even more by a flat tire, so we got to Jason Colvin’s house sometime after 9:00pm. Jason had a visitor and they were kind enough to cook a Polynesian Pork stew that was wonderfully reviving after our rough start. We learned our lesson and certainly will not be riding again after dark.

The next morning we set out after a quick stop at Jason’s favorite tea house. On the road we met a small convoy of travelers that saw our saddle bags and pulled over to talk to us. It was a couple on motorcyclists being trailed by two Australians in a little car. One of the motorcyclists was a Swiss man who had been traveling on his bike for the past 22 months, and had already crossed Australia, and brought his bike by Ferry to South East Asia. He traveled all through Asia, including East Timor, which he said was a very welcoming country where people were just happy to see travelers in their country. It was great chatting, and sharing traveling advice with them. We gave them the phone number for some Peace Corps volunteers in Liwonde, whom they stayed with that night.

Most of the riding trough Dedza was uphill and slow going, but the payoff came when we got to ride down the Escarpment from Dedza to Ntcheu. The view from the top was mind-blowing, you could see all the way to the lake in the North, and to the south was a perfectly flat landscape with scatterings of mountains that really stick out of nowhere reminding me that I’m still biking down the Great Rift Valley. We started down the steep road slow, stopping often to take pictures and enjoy the view, but as we got more comfortable with the idea of controlled falling, we let gravity take over, and enjoyed the ride. It was an awesome sensation flying around hairpin turns, with nothing except the sound of the wind rushing by you. That’s one of my favorite things about traveling by bike; it’s a silent mode of transport. There is something very exhilarating about flying down a hill at forty miles an hour, and not having a motor drowning out the world around you. I still hear the bird’s call above me, the water flowing over the waterfall below, even the sound of the air rushing by. It feels very natural. The closer we got to the bottom the more comfortable we felt letting momentum take control and stopped braking. I guess it felt safer because we didn’t have as far to fall. The fastest I noticed my bikes computer get up to was 48 mph, but I felt like I was going much faster.

After finishing our rollercoaster ride down the escarpment we felt the temperature heat up about ten degrees and moved pretty slow over the long flat stretch to Jenny Keller’s house in Bwange. Jenny is hosting a new Trainee named Jake who will be an environment volunteer in Salima, but this week he is doing a shadow visit at Jenny’s house to see what day to day Peace Corps life is like. They cooked us another great meal, egg and Potatoe soup, as well as some Macaroni and cheese Jenny had gotten from home. As it turned out the night we stayed there was the first night of a drumming festival for the church of Zion (possibly to celebrate Easter but we didn’t really get a straight answer from anybody). It started around 7:00pm and went off and on until about 5:00am. We thought it was pretty cool at first and went to watch a couple times, but it was literally 10 feet from her front door, so it became less cool and more annoying as the night went on. I wanted to go out and ask them, “Aren’t your hands getting tired?” but my Chichewa isn’t good enough.

The next morning we had a short ride to Balaka with the drum beat still in our heads. We had a bit of a crosswind so riding was slow. In Balaka we stayed with Erin who is a Peace Corps Response volunteer (they are people who have already served as regular Peace Corps for two years and do a shorter contract where they have a more specific job). Erin is working with the District Assembly in Balaka to do HIV and AIDS coordination. We had a great leisurely afternoon with gin and tonics along with a late lunch. (Interesting fact I learned from Erin, gin and tonics were invented by British colonialists, because Tonic water contains quinine an anti-malarial, so they just added the gin and lemon to make it more palatable…So I’m even more protected from Malaria then I thought.) We rode our bikes to meet Erin’s friends for happy hour at the four way bar. I was really surprised to see how many foreign nationals are in Balaka. There is an Italian mission in town so Balaka has a lot of Italians, but also an assortment of American and British Professors and Graduate Students doing research in everything from public health to anthropology. We went back to Erin’s house early to cook dinner and bake a cake for Wiz’s birthday the next day.

We got a full day of riding in the following day, with a brief stop off in Liwonde to meet Sarah Swenson and Bryan Payne (Peace Corps volunteers working with the game reserve) for lunch. As we rode across the long bridge over the Shire River Wiz got a great birthday surprise. A car full of women we met the night before in Balaka rode along side us as they all sang him happy birthday. Wiz is sure to be the only guy on his block who can say that he was serenaded by a choir of beautiful women over the Shire River. After lunch it was mostly uphill to the Zomba Plateau where we stayed with D’Lynn a health volunteer in the Boma. We celebrated Wiz’s birthday with D’Lynn, her roommate, Erin Clark (Peace Corps/Nurse), a box of red wine, and left over cake from Balaka.

The next morning I had a bit of a wine headache, but we still got an early start and had a great day of riding. The road leaving Zomba is a long gentle downhill that is lined on both sides by massive Eucalyptus trees. The weather was perfect and it was a fantastic sensation just coasting down the empty streets. There were very few cars on the main roads because it was Easter Sunday. I loved seeing everybody we passed wearing their Sunday best as they walked to church with their families. It was the first day I used my I-pod while riding since there was no traffic. I listened to Guy Clark, Greg Brown, JJ Cale and Robert Earl Keen, all of which seemed fitting for riding on this quiet country rode.

It may sound corny, but I can’t think of any better way to spend Easter Sunday than appreciating God’s creation, and that’s just what we did. The holiday gave me an excuse to notice things a bit more. I feel like I was more grateful than usual for everything around me; the giant granite cliffs and rock outcroppings that surround Zomba, The smell of Eucalyptus leaves under my tires, the green pastures along the road, the sensation of riding with no hands, and every smiling women or child that waved to me as I rode by. I’ll never forget the high I felt as I sang along with Robert Earl Keen “The road goes on forever and the party never ends”, with a grin on my face as I looked across a beautiful landscape that seemed to have no end.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Calypso and the Purple People Eater set sail

It's official I've been approved for a third year extension. I signed the contract for my third year yesterday. I'm really excited to see how I can build on the foundation I have laid over these past two years. But first I'm going on vacation! That's right I have two months of saved up vacation that I'm going to lose if I don't use it by May. So I'm blowing it all in one shot, and joining my friend WIz on his COS trip (close of service).

Our plans are vauge and the road ahead looks long, but we are determined to ride bikes all the way to South Africa. We both bought new bikes; he has a trek 3900 that has been dubbed calypso after the Caribbean goddess of the sea, and mine is a big purple GT hybrid that I bought off a German ex-pat. Wiz rode from his sight to Lilongwe, while I replaced the shifter on my bike, and made some fun modifications with Mike Fong in Mzuzu(now its the frankenbike).

I rode down the Vipya escapment to Nkhata Bay last week to get my Scuba certification. Malawi is the cheapest place in the world to learn to scuba dive, but it is also a fascinating place to dive. during our eight dives we saw all sorts of siclids; like mouth breeders which swim around with there babies in there mouth, only spitting out the school of tiny fish when they want to eat, then when a predator comes they swoop in sucking up all the little fellas...pretty awesome to see in real life. A lot of the things featured on the Lake Malawi section of BBC's Planet Earth, we got to see throughout the course. And now I have my open water padi card, so we can both go diving in Mozambique.

From Nkhata Bay I rode to Dwambwazi to stay with Alex Coburn a health volunteer who hosted me graciously. The highlight of the that ride was flying down the hills in the rubber tree plantations. there wasn't a sole for most of it, and all I could here was the wisping of the wind through trees...hauntingly beautiful. I got stuck in the rain a lot, so the next morning I took an early morning Axa bus from Dwambwazi to Salima, where I started riding again. It was a 100km ride, but the hills made it seem endless. I got to Lilongwe at dusk and took a much needed bath.

We've been here the last couple days, preparing for the journey, but now we are setting out for the big trip south to the coast of Mozambique. I'll make posts when ever I have access, but I'm sure my writing will be rushed and difficult to decipher. So bear with me, I look forward to sharing this adventure, so please check in on my blog every now and then... and enjoy!