Tag Archives: World Tour

Malawi Matters

Zambia is the friendliest place I have ever been, so neighbouring Malawi’s high VISA fee and culture of shouting ‘Give me money’ came as a surprise. I stopped for petrol soon after the border. A Malawian man approached me, I knew exactly how this conversation would go. How fast does your bike go? What size engine does it have? Wow, that’s huge. My bike is 250CC. Same conversation every time, they always start with ‘How fast does your bike go?’ like Africa is some sort of Fast and the Furious set.

“What size engine do you have?”

“650CC.”

“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.

“Do you have a bike?”

“Yes.”

“What CC is your bike?” I asked out of politeness.

“1150 BMW.”

I looked at him shocked. That was an expensive bike by American standards, I did not expect someone in a village in Malawi to have one. And I realized that’s what’s wrong with the world – why can’t anyone save up and buy a BMW?

“A man was riding Cairo to Cape Town and his bike was no more in Malawi so he sold it to me and he went home. I ripped out all electrics and fixed it myself. One day I want to do a tour like you are doing but VISAs are very expensive here.”

Lilongwe was a small capital, not much for a tourist to do so I wandered around the local market. I turned a corner to find 30 people dancing. Not African dancing with a beat and rhythm – white people dancing. They were all wearing the same green t-shirts. I took a closer look, they were missionaries. I had ridden my motorcycle from Seattle to a place with African Missionaries. The dancing finished and they formed a semi-circle around a bald, middle aged, accountant looking man. The locals had formed quite a large crowd to complete the circle.

“My name is JJ.” He boomed into the microphone.

The crowd looked on in silence.

“Can you say JJ?”

Silence.

A Malawian man in matching green t-shirt translated his sentence into Swahili.

Deafening silence.

The two Malawian men at the nearest stall asked me, “What are you doing here?”

“I heard there were white people embarrassing themselves so I came right over.”

They both cracked up laughing and slapped my hand.

“I am Chicken Wing and this is Joe.”

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“What’s going on here?”

“They are from the church but they came all the way from America so we must listen.”

“I came from America as well, but I came on a motorcycle.”

“To here? Wow. We will listen to you instead then.”

They slapped my hand again.

The speeches had finished now and upbeat dance music was playing. JJ donned a white blood stained sheet and crown of thorns and ran around silently pretending to cure other missionaries.

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Two teenagers brought out a board and pretended to hammer nails into JJs hands with the tempo and campness of an 80s workout video. America, they’re not sending their best and brightest. Some I’m sure are good people.

I started to wonder why anyone would come to Malawi. I left the underwhelming capital and rode to my hotel in Monkey Bay. After coming hundreds of miles out of my way to see the Lake of Stars, all I could see was the bare assed African man in front of me. This was not tribal Africa, he was from the navy base next door and going for a dip. The South African owners were discussing hotel maintenance.

“And then we need to put all the furniture in the water.”

“You mean in the lake?”

“Yes, they lay eggs that survive for four days underwater so weigh down all the furniture in the hotel and put it in the lake.”

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I took the hotel kayak out on the lake. The peaceful bay opened up into an ocean of blue, the endless lake meeting the clear sky. A small village on a beach was tucked in around the next corner. There was no road to the village, the only way to get there was to walk or sail. A place unburdened by progress. The only other person on the lake was a lone fisherman casting a net from an ancient canoe. It was an image that hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. I can see why people come to Malawi.

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Invader Zim

I had heard that an African border can take anywhere between ten minutes and two days. But I had managed to breeze through till now, so I was foolishly optimistic when I arrived at the Zimbabwe border. Three hours later I was sitting in the head of the customs officials office. Things were not going well. Another three hours of calls to Cape Town and bouncing between customs and the clearing agent hut down the road and I made it through. The sun was setting as I finally cleared customs.

In my overconfidence I had booked two nights in Bulawayo. Hotel rooms are far and away the biggest expense when travelling the world. You could sleep in a tent and save a lot of money but when you have the money, you tend to choose to stay somewhere comfortable; with a nice safe parking lot. I hated the idea of losing more money to lost hotel rooms. I set off into the crisp night air in the direction of Bulawayo. I followed closely behind a truck that would hopefully take me all the way to town. The temperature dropped; you can spend hours on a motorcycle debating whether you should pull over and change into heated gear.  I decided to keep riding and get this over with. I quickly realized the disadvantage of riding behind a truck is that potholes can come flying at you with no time to react. When you hit a pothole at speed on a motorcycle, the seat rises up to kick you in the ass for riding too fast. I swerved around several craters that were large enough to cause serious damage to my bike. My lead blocker truck turned off and headed for Harare, leaving me alone in the middle of Zimbabwe in darkness.

I pulled in and put on a buff. Buffs are those wraparound neck scarfs that can be folded into any head gear you can imagine. I decided against the full heated gear, always leave something in reserve for when things get worse – things can always get worse. I instantly felt warmer, I have learned that buffs are magic. The night was silent, the kind of silence you can only find far away from civilization. Stars filled the night sky, the green hue of the Milky Way barely perceptible. I wondered what kind of wildlife would be out at night in Zimbabwe and quickly hopped back on my bike and rolled out into the night. In the darkness I could just about make out a figure in front of me, getting closer and closer. I swerved onto the wrong side of the road. A lone donkey stood defiantly in the road, he did not react as I blew past him. I counted the minutes ticking down as I weaved between barely visible potholes.

It was approaching 11PM as I slipped through the silent Zimbabwean night. Mangled metal lay on the road ahead. As I got closer I could see it was once a sign that read, ‘Police Ahead’. Out of the darkness I could see six black men standing in the middle of the road. There was no light or even a flashlight to illuminate them. As I rolled to a stop I considered my options, I could gun the engine and go around them but that included the risk of being shot at. I knew there was only one way I could deal with this situation.

The first police officer was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘POLICE’. The man behind him was wearing a hoodie. I realized that these were probably not police officers. I cheerily shouted, “Hello, how are you? I’m just heading to Bulawayo. Come here, I’d better go, it’s getting dark.” It had been dark for five hours. I sped off into the Zimbabwean night leaving police officers satisfied with the minimum checkpoint interaction or criminals wondering what had just happened. Everyone I later asked in Zimbabwe said, “Oh yeah, those were not cops.”

Bulawayo is a lovely tourist town with wide tree lined streets, however I was the only tourist in town. Some of the buildings had an almost Australian looking architecture with thin arch awnings extending to the street. Department stores looked like they had been frozen in time since 1970. The local market was selling individual rolls of toilet paper for 50c each, the first sign of the economic crises in the country. Zimbabwe’s currency had hyperinflated, resulting in the blocks of one hundred trillion notes locals were trying to sell as souvenirs. The country, officially, was now using the US Dollar; but they didn’t have any. To deal with this they introduced Bond Notes, a local currency supposedly equal to the dollar but available for much less on the black market. ATMs had signs posted saying, ‘Sorry, no cash’. The daily queue for the bank extended out the door and around the building. Each person only able to withdraw $40 per day. I burned through my stash of US Dollars, shops apologizing when they gave me change in Bond Notes because they didn’t have any dollars. To get on with daily life, Zimbabweans pay for things with their phones and avoid cash altogether.

After a two day stop over in Bulawayo I headed to Great Zimbabwe, the capital of Zimbabwe in the Iron Age and the source of the country’s name after the fall of Rhodesia. It consisted of a large hill where the king sat, a small village recreated to look like it did in the Iron Age and a huge stone made animal keep. Large baboons now patrolled the keep, long reclaimed by nature. The stone walls looked exactly like the old stone walls surrounding the fields by my house back in Ireland. The same yellow moss growing on both. I pictured our ancestors 5000 miles apart, building the same walls.

I got back on the road and headed for Harare, the capital. I arrived once again at sunset, I did not fancy riding around Harare in the dark so I navigated straight to my hotel. I pulled up to an intersection and suddenly I was swarmed. I hadn’t been swarmed by people since India. They were all shouting questions about my bike, I shouted, “I need to cross here” and broke free from the swarm. On the far side of the intersection a man was setting fire to a bonfire. I turned right into my hotel, safe behind large metal gates.

Downtown Harare is like a cross between Johannesburg and Baghdad. Large buildings falling into disrepair. Bonfires on the corners. But the contrast to the abandoned buildings is the people. Activists hopeful for a brighter tomorrow. They had lived through the reign of Robert Mugabe, lived through the military coup that deposed him and now they were looking forward to a future they could reach out and touch; with democratic elections and foreign investments saving the country they loved. Weeks later, after the fraudulent election, when the army opened fire on protesters and gunned down three people, they began to lose hope.

I got back on my bike and headed towards Zambia. The first stop was Kariba Nature Reserve. That night the manager of the hotel knocked on my door, “Would you like to see an elephant?” An elephant was walking through the middle of town just past the hotel gates. The locals all made a high pitched whistling noise. I guess to warn people about the elephant and direct it away. The elephant continued about its business down the street. I asked the hotel manager where a good restaurant would be. “You go right, you walk three blocks and if you meet the elephants you run away.” I followed his directions and ended up at a bar. As I walked through the bar the high pitched elephant whistle started. I smiled, aware they were mocking me. Everyone burst out laughing.

I scoured the neighborhood but could not find a restaurant that would be safe for motorcycle travel the next day. I gave up and bought some food in a shop. The shopkeeper said, “I also have a motorcycle but I don’t like to ride at sunset. The lions can stand on the road and they are hard to see at sunset. If you hit one and come off, they eat you.” He said this casually as if he was discussing the weather.

At this point I had been through a lot of borders, but few can match the spectacle of Kariba. I had gotten through the Zimbabweans customs when the official said, “Now you must enter the tent and get police clearance.” Any extra steps like this are usually a money making business. I entered the tent with suspicion. The police officer had a peculiar look on his face, I figured I might as well get the shake down over with, “Are you alright there?” He looked at me, clearly trying to decide whether to say something, “Can I try on your helmet?” I handed over my helmet. It dwarfed his Zimbabwean head, we all had a good laugh. They stamped my paperwork free of charge and I headed towards the Zambian side. The border runs across the top of Kariba Dam with spectacular views on each side. The dammed lake and mountains on one side, the green of Zambia sprawling out below on the other side. But, as this was still Zimbabwe, large cracks ran up from the base of the dam – with everyone remaining unconcerned.

Montezuma

As I waited at the border the minutes bled into hours. I had perfected my disinterested border zen but this time I had a deadline looming; my hotel check-in was closing at 8pm. I sat on the ground on top of a fine layer of sand and dirt watching my arrival time tick past 8 while I waited for ‘authorization’. When I finally made it through I hoped that some velocital liberties would make up the 30 minute difference.

I sped along the Costa Rican highway, the light slowly fading. Unfamiliar jungle trees flew by on each side. Google Maps was also fading, losing my position every few minutes. I switched to Maps.ME, an offline maps app. It has an adventurous idea of what constitutes a road and had caused me to traverse mountains on dirt roads in both Iran and Albania but it had also saved me a few times in other countries.

I followed the map to the right off the highway. The spine of Costa Rica rises into ridges like some sort of sleeping dinosaur I was trying to clamber over. Almost on queue the road changed from smooth tarmac – to pothole strewn – to a former road that could now be used to film a moon landing. The last of the light was now gone and I was again on top of a mountain on a dirt road at night. Thanks Maps.ME. The only other traffic was small local vans that looked like they would survive Mad Max apocalypse, they were making the trip between tiny villages that clung to the mountainside. I slowly slalomed from the edge of one crater to the next. Winding my way up the mountain, watching my arrival time slide to 9pm. And then 10pm. I decided when I got there I would pitch my tent in the hotel car park, mostly out of spite for having a closing time.

The well worn road dipped left over a small hill, at the crest of the hill I slammed on the brakes. A large river blocked my path. I peered left and right into the darkness, there was no sign of a bridge. I looked down at the map, it clinically showed the road cutting straight across the river. I consulted Google Maps for a second opinion, it had the same prognosis.

I knew I should wade across the river and check the depth, but with the fatigue you get from months on the road and a long day in the saddle, I just couldn’t get off the bike. I could see the tyre tracks of a 4 wheel drive leading out of the river so I convinced myself that it must be a main route around here and couldn’t possibly be that deep. I slowly rode into the river – mercifully it was about one inch deep, relieved, I accelerated. About halfway across it got deeper, suddenly I was up to my knees in 3 feet of water and the engine cut out. My heart sank, along with my boots.

I looked around but I was surrounded by running water, darkness and silence beyond that. Drawing water into my engine was not a situation I was prepared to deal with. I held my breath and gingerly tried the ignition switch. It started up. I twisted the throttle and could hear the engine roar but the bike didn’t move. The silt on the riverbed was sucking the tyres in like quicksand. The bike was fully loaded and it would take a long time to unload everything and drag it out of the river on my own. I slowly rocked the bike back and forth as I gave it a little throttle, more in hope than in expectation. The tyre caught and slowly crawled up the river bank, the engine screaming in protest. I sat triumphantly on the far side of the river and looked back across the rushing torrent, cursing my long dead GoPro.

Around the next bend the tarmac reappeared and the bike charged ahead as if the last few hours had never happened. I rolled into Montezuma at 11pm and thankfully I was met by the hotel security guard who let me into my room. I took my dripping boots off at the door and headed straight for the shower. It only had one tap, not even a pretense of hot water, but it was the best shower I’d had in months.

Montezuma is an idyllic Bohemian village at the end of the Nicoya Peninsula. At the center of the town is a perfect white sandy beach. Stalls selling jewelry line the streets, everyone in town is a backpacker or full blown hippy. Long flowing hair, man buns and tanker shirts are everywhere, not a sleeve in sight. Dense green jungle trails filled with capuchin monkeys lead to 3 spectacular waterfalls. I had truly come through chaos and arrived in paradise.