Published: September 6th 2012September 6th 2012
Well we certainly left Lilongwe on a high note last night. Everyone came out to Harry's for the Olympics opening ceremony. It was wild watching with electricity in the air as Malawi came on screen amidst a jam-packed bar full of locals, ex-pats and aid workers going crazy, cheering with pride. Though as I write to you now I gotta give a shout out to Penn State Crew as an old friend and teammate of mine Ms. Natalie Dell brought home the bronze medal for the Women's Rowing 4 event. Let's Go State!
A little later in the night, Alex and I ran into Francis, the founder of MEJN, who revealed to us that he was just hired as MEJN's outside consultant to begin the evaluation of all the projects we've been researching and that we'll be assisting him in conducting the field interviews at the project sites across the country starting the week we get back from Zambia. This is amazing because we'll actually get to meet the project directors and grantees themselves and really understand whether the organizations were able to successfully achieve their proposed goals.
Just shy before midnight, Sebastian shows up as well with his roommates to both touch base about trip logistics and remind us that his birthday, tomorrow, will be spent 19 hours in total on our bus from LLW, Malawi to Livingtone, Zambia. To make him feel better, I felt it my duty to get up on the DJ stand and get the entire bar to sing "Happy Birthday" to him. Practicing my best Chichewa, the official language in Malawi, I only realized shortly after that I got everyone's attention by mistakenly saying, "Good Afternoon" haha. Anyway, we thought it a good idea at the time to stay out as late as possible thinking that we'd just sleep the long bus ride away. But by 4 a.m. Alex and I leave to get our 1 hour of sleep. Sally was sweet enough when we woke to roast a huge bag of peanuts and pop home-grown kernels of corn for our trip before dropping us off at the bus. By 6 :20 a.m., Alex, Sebas and I are off!
In under an hour we arrive at the Malawi/Zambia border, cross with surprisingly no problems and exchange what Malawi Kwacha we have left on the black market for Zambian Kwacha. This is important because every public "bathroom" (read that hole in the floor) in Zambia charges equivalent to $0.20 to use but don't worry, they give you a toilet receipt for your purchase to which I joke I'll be keeping to claim on my upcoming tax return. We also got to meet Melissa and Kelli, two Canadian volunteers in LLW who are headed for holiday at Victoria Falls as well.
Twelve hours later we all arrive into Lusaka, Zambia, our overnight layover. Our eyes widened while gazing at the large neon signs lighting up the city that's filled with tons of restaurants, orderly traffic and huge shopping malls. Definitely a bit of culture shock coming from rural Malawi. Not much sleeping was able to take place so we quickly buy our bus ticket from Lusaka to Livingtone that's needed the following morning while looking forward to grabbing a proper meal and finding our hostel for the night.
Since Zambia only accepts its own currency or US dollars only my first stop is to hit up an ATM. But oh yes, this wouldn't be a Lindsay Miracle trip if the adventure didn't start with some kind of hitch because the awesome Barclay's ATM just ate my ONLY debit card I have. Letting out one big exploitive I then say to myself, "don't panic, there's a solution - just think." Luckily, Seb's phone is able to access internet so I'm thinking okaaay, I'll just call their service line....ha ha ha. Come to find out from the store owner adjacent to the ATM that the service man only works M-F (naturally). The scary, sinking feeling of being in freaking "middle of nowhere Africa" with no money starts to set in. Just then, I realize that Fletcher is of all places staying in Lusaka, ZM for this week. I text him my situation and ask to borrow enough money to get me through the next few days. AMEN! Twenty minutes later he shows up with money in hand and his cab driver friend who takes us to our hostel, Flinstones. Eternally grateful and heart attack averted for now we say goodbye to Fletcher, shower up and pass out.
By 5 a.m. we're out the door, backpacks on and trek back to the bus station. It's during these 7 hours that a priest climbs aboard to give us a Sunday Sermon that ironically centers around "finding a Miracle", our snack bag full of our week's long supply of food is stolen and I begin to learn that Sebastian really IS serious about bungee jumping off the Victoria Falls bridge...hmmm...
Finally! We've reached Livingstone, ZM, home of the 7 Natural Wonders of the WORLD. We drop our bags off at Jollyboys Camp, shop for our lost supplies and settle for some Greens around the campfire listening to all the backpackers exchange stories and travel tips. My holiday has offically begun....
7/30 - "IF all your friends jump off a bridge then would you too?"
Why yes, yes I would. Specifically off of one of the world's highest bungee jumps. But first we take the bus from Camp to the Falls entrance and are greeted by a slew of baboons of which we were warned are notorious in the park to attack tourists who carry any kind of food and steal entire backpacks. The White Devil wasn't taking any chances, folks.
We're then pointed in the direction of the Victoria Falls Bridge, heart racing. The cool part is that the bridge itself connects both Zambia and Zimbabwe so we have to pass through immigration in order to cross onto it. Walking on the bridge I get my first glimpse of "the smoke that thunders" as the Falls are known to the locals, set in front about 1/2 mile between two mountain ravines.
After delaying the inevitable with a few pictures, Alex, Sebastian and I get weighed, fitted in our harnesses and sign our lives away. Alex signs up to do the "Flying Fox" or zipline across the canyon while Seb dishes the extra money to do all 3 jumps: zipline, bungee jump and the gorge swing. Situated across the canyon, I take pictures of Alex and Seb lunging into the Flying Fox. Once safely on the other side and unclipped it's now time for Seb and I to bungee jump but I make him go first!
Well he jumps and I can immediately feel my legs go hallow. "Lindsay Miracle is next!"...They seat me 2 feet from the edge but facing away so as to I'm pretty sure not freak you out for what awaits. A large towel is wrapped over and under my ankles followed by the rope. Final safety check, I'm then turned around at which point I'm now staring out into the canyon perched 364 ft. above the wild rushing, crocodile-infested water below me. The same ledge that a woman last year jumped off of when her rope snapped. Soothing..."Take one hop...a little closer...a littler close." This is really happening - sorry Macken! Upon instruction, arms are now raised out like a bird. One last quick goodbye to Alex on my left and Sebas below who are both video taping this. "5-4-3-2-1-BUNGEE!!!!" .... There's a 10-second delay on me letting out one terrifying scream because I completely lost my voice on the way down. What seemed like forever, a rope master pulleys me up. Body and voice completely shaking I say, "I love you" once he's in sight. "How was it?!" "Absolutely horrifying." I'd go skydiving 100 times over again but one bungee jump in my life was enough - TRUTH.
After Sebastian's last jump, we admire our feats of the day over some hard boiled eggs we packed with the view of the falls in the distance. By this time it's already mid day and since you have to pay $20 each time to enter the park we decide to save our full day at the falls for tomorrow and head to a crocodile farm for our remainder of the day.
7/31 - Angel's Pool
I forgot to mention first thing yesterday morning I went to the Barclay's bank branch in Livingstone to see if they could intercept the bank driver who goes around to each ATM in Lusaka and collects all the foreign cards that get eaten by the machines. Apparently their policy is to immediately destroy them all once they make it back to headquarters so fingers crossed my desperate pleas for help the the bank manager worked. Upon my return, we catch the complimentary 10 a.m. bus from Camp to the falls entrance again. Along the ride, we meet and invite Oicin (O-Sheen), an Irish lad from Gallway who's currently volunteering in Swaziland as a teacher, to join in our day.
Now last night we received advice around the campfire to start our hike at the "Boiling Point" since it's known as the roughest terrain in the park. Oh yeah and to stay together because one of the Spanish woman travelers we spoke to did the hike yesterday by herself and got attacked by a huge baboon. She said she was walking along the lone dirt path near the bottom of the point when a massive baboon jumped on her back and began smacking her head. Though hard to understand spanish at 100 mph, she had us in tears visualizing her in the middle of the jungle running and screaming at the top of her lungs with a baboon wrapped around her head. So we made sure to only pack some boiled eggs and the other essentials: a bottle of red wine and some Greens :)
The hike down to the Point is so lush in greenery and tropical with trees of all kinds. In the distance, we can see the towering Vic Falls Bridge we jumped off of yesterday (still recovering from that btw) and arrive at the foot of large black and gray boulders that we must climb over to reach the bottom of the canyon. Once at the boulder peaks, the view of the canyon's mouth becomes strikingly clear and draws me to a standstill.
We hop over the river bank rocks of the Zambezi, put our feet in the cold water and pour some wine for everyone. Now this is living! Grace, I mean Alex, climbs out on the furthest rock for me to take a picture but just as she stables herself I watch the cell phone fall out of her pocket in slow motion plopping right into the rushing rapids surrounding us. "NoOOoOo!" I cry dramatically reaching out my hand followed by us all succumbing to bellowed over laughter. Seriously, what is next?
Itching to get our full taste of the falls we decide to hike out of the canyon and hop on the Photographic Trail. The roar of the raging falls gets louder as we peer through the wooded trail. I'm now standing before one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen getting completely drenched in the process by the mist of the falls and loving every second of it. Utterly amazed at the powerful force before me set against the largest double rainbow ever, I climb on the falls border fence doing my best Titanic pose, close my eyes, take a deep breath in and recite to myself how blessed I am to be standing right here in this moment. Every picture we take literally is THE BEST picture. At the end of the trail is a lone picnic table that's set with a panoramic view of the falls. As if it were reserved just for us the group decides unanimously to break for lunch here and set the camera timer for a classic group photo.
The day here is just too amazing that we reschedule our arranged sunset cruise for the following evening. The original plan was to then hike to Devil's Pool, where you actually swim out to the falls but due to low water levels (It's dry season) the natural (expensive) attraction is closed. I remember that yesterday after running into Melissa and Kelli at the bungee jump place they talked about finding an unofficial guide who was going to take them to Angel's Pool, a place where only the locals know about and is not advertised anywhere... and for good reason. So we set out in search for some perfectly good stranger. Crossing over one of the connector bridges by the falls I ask Sebastian to take a picture of Alex, Oicin and myself. Right as he's about to click the camera, a massive baboon hops onto the railing right next to where my arm is resting. Speaking softly with clenched teeth to Sebas I say, "Take the picture already." An older lady points to us in amazement that a baboon just non-chalantly photo-bombed us haha. I can't wait to show you all that picture.
Now walking along the falls side, hugging the river's edge, we come across a couple of locals. One introduces himself as "Mr. Zambezi" a.k.a. Mr. River. THIS is the guy.....After negotiating a price ($10 each) the group of us get changed in our swimsuits and are told to leave everything unessential behind...hmmmm... We entrust all of our cameras, money and other valuables in one bag with Mr. Zambezi that he'll carry as he instructs us to make an African Chain. Interlocking hand to hand, we cross over the dam to the rapids careful to take synchronized small side to side foot steps due to the power of the water thrusting against our shins. Next are the five series of class 3 and 4 rapids we have to swim across, which in the middle of Alex decides it's a good time to inform me that she's not a good swimmer. Already a half hour into the trek though it's too late for her to turn around. Oicin himself only makes it a 1/4 of the way btw before he calls it quits and says that he'll just wait for us where he is. Pushing through the final rapids, Alex, Seb and I finally reach the mossy river rocks, where Mr. Zambezi is waiting for us, that we need to hop and climb over to make it to the well anticipated Angel's Pool. And then...there it was. Standing at the top of a 25 ft. waterfall I'm now overlooking Angel's Pool below. And the only way to ge to it says Mr. Zambezi is to jump! But you have to react quickly once you land in the rapids pool because the lip of the falls is just 10 ft. away. So you literally have to swim as hard as you can against the current. One by one each of us goes off the ledge. I scream, "AFRIICCCAA!!!" as I plummet into the water before making it safely over. This definitely wouldn't be allowed to happen back in the U.S. but what do we say here? That's right, T.I.A.! Alex's turn is up but the guide decides it's safer if she climbs to the part of the pool with the shortest swim with Seb and I waiting on the other side for her I climb out to the furthest rock to reach for Alex as she swims furiously over, with eyes as wide as the canyon I hold my breath as she's now literally 5 ft. from the edge being sucked into the current. But she clasps my hand just in time and I pull her in. A little too close for comfort. But now we all get to enjoy taking pictures of us hanging off what could perfectly suffice for the edge of the world in a small naturally made hole only big enough for 1-2 people at best.
Racing against sunset and a dramatic drop in temperature we have to high tail it back now exhausted shivering through the same rapids we had just come from. Slipping now all over the river rocks I have a hard fall at one point and one of my toe nails rips completely off....which....felt....awesome! 45 minutes later we see Oicin's outline back on land. Annnd I've just experienced one of the most memorable days of my life...............
Morning comes and the 3 Amigos agree to take it easy from any death defying attempts today by embarking first on the town's free walking tour where I learn that there's no local dialect word for rope maintenance and another woman's rope broke 2 months ago while bungee jumping here
followed by our own sunset dinner cruise in the evening where I spotted my first elephant in the wild, large-mouthed hippos and of course the best sunset one could imagine as it looks like a big sunkist orange above the tree line. What could possibly come close to topping this?
My first safari!!! 7 a.m. came too early but nevermind because I'm now in 4 corners of the world via river boat crossing the intersection of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia off to catch our jeep ride across the Botswana border where we have to be checked for Foot and Mouth disease first by wetting the bottoms of our shoes before starting our journey on the Zambezi river in Chobe Park. Our fellow passengers include a family from Poughkeepsie, NY and Lancaster, PA of all places. I never thought I'd be happy to see a NY Giants logo in my life but it oddly made me feel like home was with me as I got to witness a herd of elephants crossing the Zambezi River literally a few feet from me.
After 3 hours on river safari, we landed back ashore for the most satisfying lunch by far this summer. They kept us moving along though as our off-roding jeep arrived an hour later to take us on the land safari part of our trip. You cannot believe how many elephants there are here...over 100,000! More impalas then there are deer in PA, warthogs, large giraffes towering over the Acacia trees and the awkward baby giraffes learning how to bend over to drink from the water pools. Although we didn't get to see any predators we had an exciting time chasing a leopard that was spotted in the remote bush. Right out of National Geographic the last thing I wanted to do was leave but sometimes I think it's best to leave when it seems like nothing could get any better because that feeling will stay with you til' the next moment arrives, making you more appreciative and hopeful than the last. A running theme this summer for sure.
Come Friday, we. are. exhausted. Especially after receiving news that my debit card was indeed destroyed. But don't worry, I demanded that Barclays allow me to call my home bank from their office (annnd family back home). Thanks goes out to my bro for the help in canceling my card! Naturally though Citibank was incompetent and not only closed out my debit account but the ONLY OTHER credit card I have with me in Malawi. So now I can't access or withdraw from either account and send a panic email back home that I may need to have money wired to me in bumble**** Zambia. All I can say is thank God for PayPal, my intuition to pack my checkbook and Alex's sense of humor to keep me from breaking down. At this point, a pool day and some writing is about all the exertion I want to assert for the rest of the day. Except for catching my very last breathtaking Zambian sunset at the Royal Livingstone Hotel.
Alex describes this place perfectly as if it was modeled right off of the Titanic. No really, I'm sippin' on a cocktail by candlelight at sunset on the hotel's outside veranda when a flutist nestles behind my chair and serenades everyone who's come out to watch the last visible mist of the falls rise into the soft sunlight. I'm definitely experiencing how the other half lives here in Africa. But that feeling is surpassed by the realization that I have not experienced the trip of a lifetime but rather ....FIVE lifetimes.
8/4 - 8/5
For good measure, this is the part of the return trip where Alex and I come to understand that we've been away from home too long. Our bus layover en route to LLW takes us back to the crazy City of Lusaka, where our mouths water over the sight of a coffee shop called the Mugg and Bean that serves REAL non-fat chai and soy lattes AND blueberry muffins as big as our heads - no lie.
After 2 rounds of these hand-crafted delicious hot beverages, we are on cloud 9 feeling rejuvenated to return to Malawi life.......that is until we go to catch a minibus back to our hostel for the night when some sketchy guy I've been peering back at over my shoulder launches for Alex's bag as we're climbing aboard. Luckily Alex (as if I had any doubt) fends the mugger off but not before whiplashing us back into reality that we're still in Africa and have to be on guard 24-7! So if you're counting correctly, the damage total comes to 2 destroyed bank cards, 1 submerged cell phone, a missing toe nail (had to throw that back in) and one attempted mugging. And I'd relive it all over again for another chance at a trip like that. But at 6:30 p.m. the next day we make it back to LLW where we're thankful to actually be returning to its own level of crazy.