"Is this your first country, dear?"
"Actually, I think this is about twenty-four...."
In a surprising turn of events last week, I was graciously invited to Zambia by some Lutheran missionary nurses I've gotten to know here in Lilongwe. These women have been living in Lilongwe for almost two years, driving a beat-up range rover with the words "Ambulance" painted on the side, delivering nursing services, food and support on a set route throughout the countryside. I believe they have a combined budget of less than $200,000/year.
These women are truly amazing. And hysterical.
In fact, it was pretty much the most enjoyable trip yet. The three women (two my age and their intern, still in college) all had Minnesota ties, so culturally and linguistically we got along well. Which was great, because eight hours in the back of a dusty Ambulance can make even the most cheerful of God's servants get cranky. (Oh hey! Who ate all the lefse?)
Malawi is just a sliver of a country. And as such, it doesn't take much to get to the border of Zambia or Mozambique from Lilongwe (about two hours to Zambia, in our case). However, once you cross the border, it seems kind of pointless. I mean, yes, you're in Zambia, but the houses look exactly the same. The hills, the shrubs, the people - for all the trouble crossing (I got the hairy eyeball from the "health inspector" when I told him I forgot my yellow vaccination card at home - he let me go with only minor grumbling...) I can see why most people choose to stay at home.
That being said, I am lucky I didn't go just for the change of scenery (or the new stamp in my passport). The ladies I was with were on their way to visit their mission counterparts in Lusaka. High on their list to do in Lusaka: get checked for malaria, go grocery shopping and catch as many movies as possible (we have no theatre in Lilongwe). High on my to-do list: not be in Malawi. And that is pretty much what we did.
After we crossed the border (which took two hours do to randomness like purchasing Zambian car insurance...) it was another eight hours to Lusaka. I was fairly impressed with the road but it did get a little pot-holey for a 70km stretch. For various reasons (bandits, lack of working headlights for most vehicles, people walking in the middle of the roadthat you can't see) driving at night is very dangerous here. Because the sun sets around 5:30, we had to book it to get to Lusaka before it got too dark.
However, once we arrived, we were welcomed with open arms to a very warm, very Lutheran spaghetti supper. I felt a little awkward, not being a missionary, but my MN status opened doors and soon I was just one of the gang. I was really touched by their warmth and kindness.
The rest of the weekend was kind of a blur, really. We did manage to catch two films (16 Blocks = very good, Mistress of Spices = horrible, even with Aishwarya Rai), visit the Lusaka National Museum, eat a home-cooked breakfast, go to an Irish pub, listen to horrible karaoke, eat Mauritian food and attend a wedding ceremony (I could write an entire entry on that one alone!).
The question at the beginning of this entry was posed to me by a nice missionary lady from Texas who told my friend she had "excellent birthing hips". When I gave my response, she seemed a bit shocked, so I winked at her and told her that we'd have to go get a few beers if she wanted any more information. She hooted and gave me a big hug.
All in all, it wasn't an "exciting" trip - no game parks (although we did see a few baboons scampering across the road) and no late night partying (well, sneaking pastries into the Irish pub counts...), but I returned feeling like it was exactly what I needed to do. While traveling as a tourist provides the opportunity for more "adventure", for me it's infinitely more personally satisfying to be part of a connected group.
Sadly, I now have a "fun"over - and a cold.
This week, I'm off down south (Zomba, Mulanje, Blantyre) to visit Jeff Sach's Millenium Village project in Mwandama and talk with more farmers. I'll write more next week.