Posted by: Dana | 2010/04/06

April 3 – Low in Altitude and a Little Low in Morale, in Malawi

Total exhaustion has set in. I feel completely fatigued and am feeling the toll of the past two and a half months of daily exertion. Two nights ago, I was the sickest I have ever been in my life, and I think it took a toll, physically and mentally. Having passed the half-way mark both for time and distance, there is a feeling of astonishment of how far we’ve come, but the reality of how far we have left to go is also setting in. There is no question, I am still as happy as can be that I’m here, and psyched to continue. I’m just feeling the drain and hope I wake up tomorrow feeling better.

We arrived in Malawi after a final few days of spectacular riding through Tanzania. We went up and over some big-ass mountains en route to Mbeya, a regional hub and important transit point for travelers heading to Malawi. We had one day of nearly all uphill climbing to get to Mbeya, pampered ourselves by staying in a cheap hotel there, and then enjoyed the next day of a giant descent. Along with two other riders, I took a mutatu (public transit van) into town as our hotel was approximately 9km outside of the town center, ate lunch, struggled to get the internet to work, and then hitch-hiked back to the hotel and was lucky to get picked up by local policemen who dropped us off right at the doorstep.

On the final day in Tanzania we cycled past enormous tea and banana plantations and hundreds if not thousands of men, women, and children carrying enormous loads of bananas on their heads and/or bicycles heading towards or away from the market. We also passed many tiny shops that sell beautiful and colorful cloths that the women wear. Nearly every woman I saw in Tanzania wore these cloths―sometimes they had them tailored into fitted dresses, but more often than not, women simply wrap themselves and their heads, and very frequently have a baby strapped to their back with another cloth. Babies here, as they do almost everywhere in Africa, spend their days strapped to their mothers’ backs and seem relatively content and don’t cry much.

The border crossing at the northern most entry point of Malawi was uneventful. We passed through a typical and sketchy border town loaded with men offering to exchange money and then onto the roads of Malawi where I took special care to observe immediate differences between Malawi and Tanzania. Throughout the trip, I have been amazed by the incredible observable differences between countries the minute we cross each border. In the case of Malawi, the two things I immediately noticed were both of a disconcerting nature. Childrens’ bellies are swollen and protruded, a sign of their hunger and consistent with the image most of us have of children starving in Africa―dirty kids wearing shreds of raggedy clothing or none at all with stomachs disproportionately large for their little bodies. The second thing that struck me the minute we crossed the border was that the children along the roadside in Malawi shouted “give me money” as we cycled past. Children who are too young to understand what money is and can’t speak another word of English know how to beg for money. We haven’t really seen this since Ethiopia. The other thing that marked our arrival to Malawi was extreme heat and humidity―probably the most uncomfortable weather we have encountered to date. Having descended from the mountains of Tanzania, we are now at much lower altitudes and we are feeling the African heat.

Our camp that first night in Malawi was surrounded by local kids who made off with some of our belongings, including several bicycle computers, sunglasses, etc. The staff put up the rope perimeter to contain us and our tents and our belongings, and to keep the children out. As you can imagine, this creates a very uncomfortable dynamic, one which we also have not experienced since Ethiopia, where locals gather and sit just outside of the rope and sit and stare at us for hours. To make things even more uncomfortable, they watched us eat three meals―the soup, dinner that evening, and then they returned to watch us eat breakfast the next morning.

We crossed into another time zone in Malawi and the sun rises early and to avoid the late afternoon heat, we wake up extremely early (4:30AM!) and begin our rides by 6:15AM. On that first morning at the camp I described, I awoke to incredibly beautiful singing, even before my watch alarm sounded. Local women, with children strapped to their backs, had gathered in the darkness in a shack of a building which was their church. It was a very neat experience to be awoken by their beautiful voices.

The following day was a sort of miserable slog. At the lower altitudes with extreme heat and facing headwinds for over 120km, we cycled to Chitimba Beach on Lake Malawi. While the ride was pretty rough going, the Lake was scrumptious and refreshing. It is a huge fresh water lake that stretches some 500km along Malawi’s eastern border and represents Malawi’s greatest treasure and draw for tourists. I jumped right in, still in my cycling shorts and bra top, and it was my first swim since the ill-advised dunks I took in the Nile back in Sudan. It was lovely!

Unfortunately, however, the night in Chitimba Beach did not end well for me. Around midnight, while tucked away in my tent, I started to get the sweats. Immediate pangs of nausea overwhelmed me and within minutes I was disoriented, dripping in sweat, and sick as a dog. I crawled out of my tent and found another rider still awake (but drunk!) who offered to help me but didn’t know what to do. Of course, no one knew where the nurse had set up her tent, so there was no help on that front, either! My condition rapidly deteriorated and within minutes I had to lay down (in the dirt, wearing only a tank top and underpants) and of course―as if perfectly scripted to make this the worst night of my life―the skies opened up and it started to pour. A friend at this point was helping me and wrapped me in a sleeping bag, but I was wet and covered with mud, and was vomiting consistently and pretty uncontrollably for the next five hours. I was in such rough shape it took hours before I could move to a sheltered place, so I simply laid there in a puddle of dirt and mud puking my guts out covered with a wet sleeping bag.

So I think this sick episode (most likely caused by something I ate) really knocked me out. I spent most of the rest day at Chitimba Beach laying around on my thermarest in the shade. Now, more than 48 hours later, I’m still feeling the effects and just feel sort of horrified by the whole experience. It took a lot out of me, my esophagus may never be the same, and I’m embarrassed at having been spotted by several other riders who woke up as a result of my rather unpleasant noises! In any event, I’m also conscious of the fact that exhaustion is catching up to me. Riding in Malawi over the past two days since we left Chitimba has been extremely difficult. Because of a washed out bridge alongside the Lake, we took an alternate route which took us westward and into the Malawi highlands. It is gorgeous out here, somewhat cooler because of the increase in elevation, but tough riding in the hills. Tonight my plan is to go straight to bed after dinner, which should mean I will be asleep by 6PM! I hope another good night of rest will get back back to 100%.

Lots of other riders are also feeling the effects of fatigue, and also suffering a host of other ailments, including one rider who contracted malaria. I have four infected spots on my feet, where I have bug bites that got infected, which apparently is unavoidable here due to the bacteria and humidity. Other riders who had injuries which had nearly healed are dealing with re-opened sores and infections since arriving in Malawi. It’s a weird thing but something that comes with the territory of traveling in one of the world’s poorest countries.

We have a relatively short stretch of riding (4 days between Chitimba Beach and our next rest day, in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, and we are half way through it as I write this. I plan to get a hotel room in Lilongwe, if I can, and will probably just try to catch up on more rest. I also hope to find a post office to send home a super cool hand-carved chair I bought at Chitimba beach, which was a big and odd purchase, but one I couldn’t pass up. Thankfully, TDA staff made room in one of the trucks for it and I hope the cost and hassle of shipping it home won’t overwhelm me!


Responses

  1. As horiffic as your experience sounds, the thing I found most frightening is when you said you had to resort to hitchhiking. Not a good idea to hitch-hike in unfamiliar, poverty stricken areas. We need you to make it back here safely, vomit an all.

  2. The first thing I thought of when you mentioned the African heat was, “It’s Africa hot; Tarzan couldn’t take this kind of hot!” I hope you feel better soon! More than halfway home, what an accomplishment so far!

  3. Sorry to hear about your predicament. Please do not worry what others (those who saw you sick)might say. You need to take care of your self. On the other hand it is a life time experience you are acquiring in 4 months. You will be equipped with a different set of perspective when all is said and done. Be well and enjoy your ride. Take care of your self.

  4. After all you have been thru how could the cost and hassle of shipping that chair overwhelm you? Rest is restorative-get some!!!! Be well. Joan R.

  5. You are an absolute champion. We are rooting for you every day and are sending you all our love and best wishes for a speedy recovery. What an unbelievable experience – SO very proud of you! ps: can’t wait to see that chair!

  6. Is what you will remember most is the hard times and how you got through them. Soon you will start smelling the finish line and that will keep you going.

    Hang tough, get rest and quit eating tacos from the local street vendor.

    Tom Bloch


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