When I was 21, I studied abroad in South Africa. At the end of my year there, I had a few months before I needed to be back in California. So, I decided to see how much of the continent I could cover in that time. A friend had raved about Cape Maclear on the shores of Lake Malawi. He used the word paradise a lot, and 1,500 miles didn’t seem that far when I set out.
I got to Tete, on the shores of the Zambezi in Mozambique, on Thanksgiving morning. I had covered most of the miles, used up most of my money, and lost all of my enthusiasm. Hitchhiking the entire way had taken its toll, and when I managed to find a cafe to call my parents, they could hear it in my voice. They wired me a little extra spending cash and I treated myself to a ‘turkey’ sandwich that was more foul than fowl. I spent the night on a cot on the second story porch of a boarding house trying not to vomit.
I woke up around 7 o’clock in the morning and was already drenched in sweat. I shouldered my backpack, 40-some-odd pounds of clothes, camping gear, and dirt, and walked out into the already-boiling streets. I made it only 300 yards before giving up. I had that little extra bit of money that my folks had sent over, and though it was supposed to be for food, I have never been good at budgeting and decided to get a ride. I flagged down a taxi at a busy intersection, and unbeknownst to me at the time, it would ultimately change the whole trajectory of my trip.
The man behind the wheel of the little sky-blue Opel jumped out to help with my bag and gave me a slap on the back. “Too hot to walk!” I agreed without a sound and told him I needed to go to the border. “Oh, you going to Malawi?” Another nod.
Over the course of the ride, Edwin, the taxi driver, did most of the talking. He was from Malawi, a big city called Blantyre. He told me Cape Maclear was beautiful, but that there were too many tourists. He said I should spend some time with him in town and meet the locals.
I’d heard offers like this before. You want to keep yourself open, but you also know that you have a target on your back with a dollar sign in the bullseye. But when he offered to take me all the way to Blantyre himself, an extra 150 miles, well how could I say no?
By the time we got to Blantyre, he and I had discussed politics, family, the future, and everything in between. “When we get to Blantyre you can stay with me… you’ll see, I’m the king of my hood!” And he wasn’t lying. I guess he hadn’t been home in a while because when we got close to his place, every single person we passed knew him. It was like he was campaigning for office, except he wasn’t, that was just Edwin.
I stayed at his place for a week, and basically had to con him into letting me pick up any tab. In that week, I ate chocolate covered ants, played in a pool tournament where the first prize was a live goat, and generally made merry with him and his friends all over town. Edwin and I are friends to this day. We still talk about him coming to visit me in the U.S. so that I can repay him for the warmest hospitality I have ever received.
I eventually did make it to Cape Maclear. And, he was right, it was full of tourists.
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