The road to Nkhata Bay is not two lanes. Sure, there is a faded white line down the middle. Sure, traffic is heading in both directions. But this main thoroughfare that connects Lilongwe to Lake Malawi is the width of a narrow driveway. The edges of the road have been eroded by floods and the absence of drainage canals. There are no sidewalks, just dirt paths filled with people: professionals in suits riding bicycles under the midday heat, Muslim men in thwab, groups of Apostolic women wearing impossibly white handkerchiefs, drunk men who smile sideways and wave, older children holding younger children’s hands, and women in bright kitchenge selling piles of mangoes. Wheelbarrows and wheelbarrows full of mangoes.
To avoid an oncoming car on the road to Nkhata Bay, you must ferociously pump your breaks, steer off the road,and hope to avoid the people and the dozens of goats that seem to wait on embankments to jump in front of cars. I am not doing the driving on this trip. I still have crippling anxiety from my car accidents. To survive today’s five-hour drive, I’ve eaten a pill that an apathetic teenage pharmacist said would “relax me enough.” Now I am staring dreamily out the window. “How beautiful.” I coo to the car full of new friends, who must regret inviting the drugged American on their nice vacation. And then, “Donald Trump is the worst.”
We arrive at our destination, Kachere Kastle, at dusk. By then the landscape had changed. Gone are the dusty plateaus of Lilongwe, replaced with the rippling waters of Lake Malawi, the second largest lake in Africa. I am a West Coast American (I remind everyone, constantly) so I’ve never seen a lake this big. It is like the ocean. On the shore you can’t see the edge, just the shimmering point where the sky and the lake meet. It is like the ocean…but with crocodiles.
“Oh don’t worry, there’s no crocodiles on this beach.” My coolest, calmest friend Abbie says. “They’re down there.” She gestures, vaguely south of us, before turning away and running towards the water.
Earlier my friend Becy had gone into gruesome detail on how crocodiles prefer to eat just part of you, hide your body, and return to finish you off weeks later. “I think I’ll just swim in the pool!” I yell to Abbie’s back as she trots confidently into the water.
The next day, I am lounging nonchalantly in the pool wearing SPF 55 when a woman approaches us. “Just so you guys know, there is a plague of Lake Flies coming at us right now. You may want to go to your rooms or at least cover your faces.” Intrigued by the calm delivery of the craziest sentence I’ve ever heard, I clamber out of the pool and onto the beach, where a small group of people are staring at what looks like a cloud of grey smoke on the horizon. “That’s them.” The woman says. “The wind seems to be blowing them this way, but it could change course.” The grey shape shivers in the distance. It is explained to me that Lake Fly larvae are laid on top of the water, and in a fascinating, yet horrifying example of the power of nature, the eggs will all burst out at once and the swarm will commence, often suffocating poor fisherman whose boat has unknowingly wandered into the wrong area of water. After a few minutes of watching, everyone declares that the wind has blown the plague away from us. We return poolside.
About fifteen of us are staying at Kachere Kastle, a concrete hotel that hugs the beach. We have come to the castle (Kastle?) to celebrate the birthdays of three of my new friends. Kachere Kastle is remarkable because it has all the fixings of a real castle: a draw bridge, turrets and a courtyard. The building is made more exceptional by a very old mango tree that sits between the castle and the beach. There is a bench, hammocks and swinging chairs. It is an idyllic spot for serenity: the lakeside breeze, the shade, the lingering smell of the fruit on the wind. Or it would be. But it is mango season. The towering tree is heaving with hundreds of pounds of ripe mangoes. With a rustle and a crack, mangoes can come tumbling out of the tree at any moment. Each mango weigh a few pounds. If one comes careening from twenty feet above you and hits you on the head, you’ll notice.
Despite the imminent threats, the shade of the mango tree becomes the place where we congregate. We drink cup after cup of coffee and tea, talking to each other about politics, life, reality shows, love, and our goals for the next year. There is a semi-permanence to this ex-pat life that I am just starting to understand. One of the first questions you are asked is, “When did you arrive?” and “How long are you here for?” For some, like me, they’ve just touched down in Malawi, but others have been here for years, and before that lived in Goma, Lusaka, Bangkok, Yangon. Some leave next week, others plan to live in Malawi for the foreseeable future. It’s a type of life that is new to the world, being able to travel so quickly to so many places, to set up a home and life in such a wide variety of countries that aren’t your own. It’s a privilege that comes from our backgrounds: our native countries, our socio-economic situation and the opportunities available to us. It’s an immense privilege. It also speaks to who we are as individuals.What drives us to live far away from our families? What kind of difference do we really think we can make?How do we build lives when our future is built on the shifting sand of the next emergency? These questions, that sit heavily with me every day, start feeling lighter around these people. They understand. Throughout the weekend we swim, we dance, we play a strange English baseball game called “Rounders” and we sit under the mango tree.
As the weekend draws to a close, I sneak back to the tree to steal one of the fallen mangoes. I intend to take this back to Lilongwe and eat it standing up at my kitchen counter, letting the sticky fruit and the sweet smell take me back to the shade, the lake breeze, and these people.