Tuesday, April 21, 2009


If there is one thing I have noticed about Mozambique, it is that aforementioned grimy, weedy opulence. It's mostly a feeling when you look at the abandoned buildings, and it says that once and not so very long ago, things were a lot, lot better around here. And then they stopped being that way. Overnight. The decadence has contracted, and now we're seeing the flotsam, the high tide line. Mozambique is filling it in slowly, but it's not there yet. It is a fascinating feeling.

And now I'm in Gorongosa National Park, central Mozambique, soaking up the free internet. Hence three updates in one day. Dan and I took a game drive this morning- saw lots of antelope, crocs, hippos, that most charismatic of savanna creatures- the warthog, plus tons of cool birds. We're staying in a plushish camp in the middle of the park- Chitengo camp. We're camping, and the entrance fee was waived, so we are still practically on a Peace Corps budget! Tomorrow we go to climb the sacred Gorongosa Mountain.

On another note, my traveling companion Dan has a much more interesting blog than I do. He is also better at updating it in general, and also at writing the juicy details that I'm sure you guys at home would savor. His address is www.malawidan.blogspot.com Enjoy!

Have you read Song of Myself?

No? Well. Go out a read it.

Snippets from my journal:

Dirt roads pretty much the whole way today, following the Shire down. The river was to our left, the railroad was to our right, and for some distance the M-1 was in such bad condition that we rode on the footpaths alongside it, which was actually a very nice change with all the zig-zagging and lack of open space ahead of you. Plus I got to sneak up on cows and goats.
There is plenty of end of the Earth feeling here.
This is where my trip really begins, where I slip into vacation/traveling mode and that thought alone already makes me happy.
We checked into Nsanje Discovery Lodge (only 600 kwacha for the two of us! Although Dan doesn't get a bed... but still! $2 each! With electricity AND running water!) and then we took showers (dusty. as. hell.) and went over to the restaurant where our waiter spoke only Portuguese. We were sitting in this pretty open airy turquoise restaurant, both doors open with a perfect breeze coming in ruffling the crazy rainbow colorful plastic crap hanging down from the walls drinking a cold beer and it suddenly felt very exotic, very latino, and I became very happy.

The border crossing was one of the most chill ever. When we asked the immigration officer if we could exchange money in the town of Vila Nova da Frontera, he said "Black market, just near," and then pointed us in the right direction. Now that's a helpful border official! And there is this cavernous old building, which must have been left over from when the Portuguese pulled out in the seventies. It had that grimy, weedy opulence that reminds me of Bokor Hill Fort in Cambodia.

After two and a half days of dirt roads, tarmac is a gift from the biking gods. We flew. The sun went under the horizon and the sky went pink and purple, I yelled that I love Mozambique and then after a little hill I saw the sign for this place, M'phingwe Camp.
This place in unreal. It feels like Yellowstone or something. We have a little chalet that is clean and cheapish and perfect. It's about 2kms down a great dirt track in a beautiful singing forest. They have hot water and an awesome menu, and I saw my breath at night.

You've probably already read this...

Don’t have time? Here’s the quick version!
I’ve completed my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer! I got Malaria and
said goodbye to my village! I’m riding my bike with Dan down Malawi, along
the Mozambican coast and into South Africa, where I’ll go to Capetown and
then fly to Dubai! I’ll be home soon!

Long day in the cubie? Here’s the it’s-this-or-youtube-clips version!
I haven’t sent one of these in a very, very long time so I am very much
out of practice. Therefore, if I skip bits you find interesting, or forget
pivotal details or commit a grammatical error or (worst of all) bore you,
please let me know. If you think you like getting emails from me, I
sincerely promise it is even better on this end.

Where to start? I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer! I have
successfully completed my two years. The village goodbye was said, the
parties were had, the ticket home has been bought. (June 9th, in case you
are wondering) I am now in the noble city of Blantyre, the largest city in
Malawi and set deep in the south. It took eight days to bike here from my
house. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

My final weeks at my house were nothing but goodbyes and giving things
away. I had a little goodbye party with my HIV group, and a little goodbye
party with a natural resource committee/women’s group in a village I worked
in a lot. In case you are wondering, a little goodbye party means that
everyone shows up in their nice clothes and we all sit around and talk and
exchange contact information. Someone asks me for my bike. I take a lot of
pictures. At some point I go down the line and shake hands with everyone
Malawi style, bending at my knees and grabbing my right elbow with my left
hand. Finally the night before I set off all of my neighbors come over with
a bounty of food and we all cram onto my front porch and eat our delicious
curried chicken and sima and rice and avocados, I made spaghetti, and
chatted and chatted by the candlelight. My chief gave a short speech, then
my friend Bayani turned on the sound system and we danced. It was pretty

I should note that I got malaria with less than a week to go in Tukombo.
Malaria is a truly awful disease and I was laid out in bed on and off for my
last five days. It’s a very cyclical disease, and so I would have bouts of
insane fever and nausea, and seriously the most extreme exhaustion you could
imagine. And then 12 hours later I would pretty much feel fine. Then my
red blood cells would re-explode with malarial parasites and it would all
start over again. I shuffled around my meetings/goodbyes and by the day I
had to go I was fit as a fit person.

I have been wanting/planning/hoping to take a big bike ride on my way
home almost since I got here. Traveling by bike is pretty much the best
possible way to travel ever. I get to see details I would miss in a bus or a
car, and I get to stop whenever I want for whatever reason. I talk to
people while I’m riding, and I can smell when to stop for good food. I get
the satisfaction of using my own locomotion to actually get somewhere. And
going down an escarpment on a bike just can’t be beat. Mostly though, I’m
convinced that human beings generally find happiness in movement, and I’m
simply indulging myself.

So I bought a bike and saddlebags and the morning I left I rode away from
my wonderful lakeside village with my neighbors waving and my dog barking.
I had just met the child I got to name for the first time (Taylor) (funny
cause Malawians have a hard time with Ls and Rs) that morning too. I rode 35
kilometers to my sitemate’s house and had dinner with three other
volunteers. The next day I rode to another volunteer’s house, riding
through Nkhotakota Game Reserve and feeling very alone in the wilderness, it
was a very cool feeling. So I rode for four days down the lakeshore road to
Lilongwe, where I did all my final paperwork and officially closed my
service. I met up with Dan, another Peace Corps Volunteer who I had talked
into wasting his vacation time to ride his bike with me, and we were off! I
we spent five days biking to get here, staying with Peace Corps Volunteers
(usually even more than one at a time) the whole way down. I swear on my
turquoise, purple and pink saddlebags that staying with Peace Corps
Volunteers pretty much can’t be beat. We would call the morning we were
planning on showing up and invite ourselves over. They don’t have a lot but
they give you a lot- everyone wanted to cook a meal for us and we even got a
chocolate cake for breakfast one morning. It was my birthday so it made more
sense, but still.
So we have begun the Big Bike Trip! 730 kilometers so far, with at least
another 3000 to go. Our plan is basically to bike to the very bottom tip of
this country and cross the border into glorious Mozambique. From there we
follow the Zambezi river to the coast, and then simply bike down along the
coast. We both got scuba certified in Malawi, so we are just going to bike
and dive and bike and dive and stay in a place when we want to and move on
when we want to. We’ll be hitting up a tropical island national park to
dive with whale sharks and manta rays and dugongs! We’ll be biking along the
beautiful coast! We’ll be staying with Peace Corps Mozambique volunteers and
couchsurfers! Then to Maputo, then on and on crossing into South Africa and
stopping somewhere in there- we will go as long and as far as time allows.
Dan and I will part ways and then I’ll be spending time in Capetown before
flying out of there to Dubai. And because I like an adventure, I have a 12
day layover in Dubai to toot around and achieve a life-goal of visiting Abu
Dhabi. Then home to California, my real once and future home, a
peoplemindstate I plan on re-acquainting myself with intimately and wholly.

I’ve seen some different stuff here. Working as a Peace Corps Volunteer
here has been life, and nothing less. If you asked me what it was like I
would say, pick a word, any word. So keep in touch, and I’ll see you on the other side.


Born between roughly 1982 and 1988? Here’s the Oregon Trail version!

Name: Matt “Jebediah Phiri” Wisniewski

Occupation: Farmer

Salary for provisions: Meager

Traveling with: Dan Carr

Lena who punched me in third grade

That annoying kid

Seymour Butts

Rate: Grueling

Rations: Moderate

Start date: March 28. Still heavy snow on the ground.

*Stares at 14 pixel image of us on bikes*

Beep! Matt “Jebediah Phiri” Wisniewski has contracted Malaria! Do you wish
to wait or move on?

[Move on]

Beep! The M-5 lakeshore road has been washed out just below Nkhotakota! Do
you wish to: Ford the river? Caulk the wagon? Pay 20 kwacha for a hastily
constructed footbridge that somehow manages to be useless looking and scary
looking at the same time?

[Pay 20 kwacha for footbridge]

Beep! Matt “Jebediah Phiri” has popped a tube just outside of Dedza!
Luckily, you have a spare.

Dan Carr has gone hunting and has come back with six hard boiled eggs! He
used 748 bullets.

You have reached Blantyre! Do you wish to rest or move on?


[Save game now]
[I am so stoked]
[I miss you all terribly]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

...just like a gmail account.

As a Californian it pains me greatly to say this: crappy weather really does make you appreciate the good weather more.
I stepped outside to burn my trash this evening and the stars shocked me with their indecency.
I went inside and grabbed my constellation book. I found for the first time Columbia (the dove) and Lepus (the Hare), and rediscovered a number of others. A couchsurfer recently theorized that my interest in constellations is a straightforward outgrowth of my obsession with geography. True, but that’s only part of it. I know now why they were so important to seafarers back in the day: navigation, sure, but also a familiarity that borders on friendship. You build up a rapport with the sky, and you can take that anywhere...

Reading waka

Two days ago a boy was staring at me as I lay reading on the beach. This is nothing unusual. I ignore him. Eventually he greets me. I respond and we make small talk, with me slipping in English, under my breath and directed towards answering myself, in the manner I always do whenever I am slightly annoyed. Astoundingly he understands all that I am saying in English. His name is George and he speaks the best English of anyone I've met in Tukombo. He is nine years old. I gave him a book, some magazines and a snorkel.
Today was an absolutely beautiful day. Kuwirwi was crystal clear. The trees looked like mold or algae on a rock, begging me to smoosh it down with my thumb. I could not take my eyes off the mountain today.
Reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I actually think that the dated socialist jargon and concepts (Praxis! Liberation! And that most dreaded sentiment in serious hoity-toity social science: love.) are what make it sing to me.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Yes We Can (We Shall, We Did)

From the journal:

Wow. I wrote that last on on election day. It's from a song we made up in 4th grade- I had it stuck in my head. A lot has changed since I wrote that. I have a black president for at least the next four years. Democrats increased majorities in both houses. It is again illegal for any two people who love each other to get married in my state. Construction will soon begin on a bullet train linking the major cities of my life: San Francisco and Los Angeles.
So, lots of change.
Election night. Huddled around Fornoffs shortwave radio after dinner, wondering how best to run an environment camp while hearing everything we want to hear. We decide to sleep early, and then wake up at 2:00 and meet down at the soccer pitch.
Picture it: Dan, Fornoff, Emily, Rob, and after a while Amalia and Gracie. We are laying on our backs in a line under the stars, switching back and forth between BBC and Voice of America. We've got one sleeping mat underneath us, an open sleeping bag laying across all of us, and shooting stars, many of them that evening, racing through the sky. Two of them were so bright that they left a visible trail for a few seconds. I spat on the ground after seeing the first one, a Tumbuka custom I just learned, to ward off hexes.
I had made a large map of the United States on some flipchart paper. I brought blue and red pencils and colored in each state as the numbers rolled in.
We would chat, point out constellations and freeze as soon as an important announcement came on. State by state we colored in the future- northeast states going blue by blue, with Kentucky the first aknowledged thorn in our side. Pennsylvania was an important moment, but I was banking on it anyways. Mom, Taylor, Katie all texting me, Sivan trying to call but not getting through.
The point where the reality of history dovetailed with my dreams was when Ohio rolled in. They announced the delegate count to that point. It was in the low 200s. With California's 50-something, plus Oregon, Washington and Hawaii- well, I felt a knot in my stomach leave forever. I had been holding that knot for a long, long time.
The sun was rising over the Kandoli mountains, gorgeous and orange and striped and crimson. What a perfect start to a new begining. I got choked up. We all hugged each other.
Waiting for breakfast I had nothing to do, so I started washing some clothes while listening to the radio. McCain's speech came on- I listened, rapt. It was really happening, outside my head.
Waiting just outside the kitchen door a little later, Barack Obama came on to give his acceptance speech.
My words will fail me in my attempt to convey my feelings as I listened to him. In his first speech as a national leader, he asserted the legitimacy of everyone in American society, very unneccesarily. I teared up, not for the last time.
When he talked about people huddled around shortwave radios in the forgotten places of the world, I got goosebumps. He was talking to us, and especially the dozen or so campers huddled around us. I wanted to point at them and tell them that the future President of the United States was adressing THEM, live at this very moment, on the other side of the planet in a big party in a park. But I didn't- I didn't want to miss the speech.
And then with the look back at history that somehow didn't sound cheesy, the 106 year old black woman who voted for him, the Yes We Can.
Oh, God. It was so beautiful. That moment, when I felt my pride sweep in from some unknown place.
There was a time when I thought that I would almost rather have McCain win. Then I could rest easily in my cynicism and comfortably reside in Californian provincialism.
But this feeling- oh my God- it is so much better than that.


Also culled from my journal:

"It truly appeals as paradise."
(Rs and Ls are interchangeable in Malawi)
I was sitting next to Kamata Banda in his living room stuffed with knicknacs, ceramic dogs and more than one unopened bottle of salad dressing.
For display. You know.
Kamata Banda lives on the shores of Lake Malawi. And not in the way that I live on the shores of Lake Malawi. He lives on the beach. Sitting in this living room you look out onto the ultrafine sand beach littered with boulders sprinkled in aquamarine water, with verdant forest to the right and the great hulking body of Kuwirwi mountain descending straight into the water, like a giant Malawian diving into the lake.
Perfect. Ten.
"It truly appeals as paradise."
Kamata Banda was not talking about the view from his living room. He was talking about Los Angeles. I had just given him a photo book of my one-anda-half-removed hometown, since publishers don't seem to think there's a big enough market to publish glossy picture books about Arcadia.
Beautiful? Can be. Lively? Undoubtedly. Paradise?
Not the word I would have chosen.
"You know, many people in my country would look at this place and call it paradise."
But that's like him telling me LA is like heaven on Earth.
As Malawians say, we are both used.
We are both used to what we see every day, as is only natural among live human beings, whether we like it or not. It also helps that our communities are polar opposites in many, many ways.
Thus this place stopped being punch-to-the-gut exotic. That aquamarine lake strewn with boulders and ultrafine sand beaches? That's just my bathtub. Sometimes with snorkelling. For a long time now I haven't said to myself "I'm bathing in the lake!" I just strip down and lather up, and get really annoyed when there's too much sand on my bar of soap.
Concieted? Sure. So is complaining about traffic.
"It truly appeals as paradise."
It's funny, cause I don't even know what he is saying with that.