Miles and Smiles
The appetizer: a couple paragraphs about planning, pivoting and redeeming airline miles for this trip, so if that’s not your thing, feel free to scroll down to the good stuff – you won’t hurt my feelings.
This trip (Malawi>Tanzania>Comoros) was salvaged from a bigger trip that I had to cancel. The original itinerary included Angola, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but sadly, I ended up scrapping that portion. That rascally Omicron variant had just now (and so inconveniently) introduced itself to southern Africa, so for obvious reasons, those first four countries were out. Not because I was scared to catch the virus, but because air travel was shutting down in and out of those regions. In usual fashion, my itinerary was super-tight already – it wouldn’t allow for even one canceled or moved flight – but now? Add in a new pandemic-scare to the region and even the most cunning gambler wouldn’t attempt that schedule at the moment. Add to the fact that I felt I was already really pushing my luck with my vacation time at work, and it was enough to pull the plug. I’d just gotten back from my Seychelles–Mauritius trip, and this original, full itinerary had me shoving off again just one week later. I hadn’t planned well at all. It takes a lot to get me to cancel a trip, but I just wasn’t feeling right about this one. I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy myself.
Though I was a little bummed I wouldn’t get to carve out as big a slice of Africa as originally planned, I was so happy I was able to salvage the very back end of the trip. I simply kept my ticket home from Comoros and canceled the original flight into Africa that started in Angola. I’d shelve Angola, Botswana, Zim and Zam for next year. Shout out to AeroPlan (Air Canada’s frequent flyer club) for making it so easy to cancel. A simple click and I received all of my miles back and no fees to do so. All airlines should make it this easy, and I applaud Aeroplan!
My travel luck continued, as I was able to finally rid myself of those 80,000 LifeMiles that’d been sitting around just waiting to expire. LifeMiles is Avianca’s frequent flyer club and it’s one of my least favorites because it’s always so difficult to find an award seat. I must be doing something wrong, because others rave about it, while I’ve always found it next to impossible to find anything when it comes to redemption. (Full disclosure, I’m searching for business class international). And I was only carrying around these 80K LifeMiles because I’d transferred them from a credit card program to fly to The Congo three years ago. That entire flight (from L.A. to Brazzaville) ended up being cancelled and I’ve been stuck with those damn LifeMiles ever since. I was elated to finally rid them!
I guess good things come to those who wait, because this final flight itinerary ended up working out so well. My LifeMiles (surprisingly) scored me a biz class seat on Ethiopian from Chicago, connecting in Addis Ababa and on to Blantyre, Malawi to begin this year-end trip. Even better, I had a credit on AA (that was also about to expire) that I used to go San Diego to Chicago in business. As itineraries went, this one was an absolute winner!
A Merry Little Christmas
My flight from San Diego to Chicago was Christmas night – the same weekend that both Delta and United canceled hundreds of flights due to staffing issues. I felt so lucky that my flight not only “happened,” but was on time. I had only a three-hour layover scheduled in Chicago, and I was taking a chance flying into ORD in the winter in general. One big snow storm and my trip might have ended before it started. But hooray, I landed in Chicago ahead of schedule. Next was the Chicago to Addis flight, and it was no doubt the longest flight to Africa I’ve ever taken, clocking in at nearly 14 hours in the sky. Luckily, I was up front, in “the big chair,” and slept most of the flight away – waking up just once to swallow a meal, and then back to sleep. I needed it, after the morning’s red-eye from San Diego. We were over a half-hour late leaving Chicago, which made my one-hour layover in Addis even tighter, but luckily the next gate was just a couple hundred feet away. It was off that Dreamliner and almost directly onto the waiting 737, where we were wheels-up and on our way to Malawi moments later. I think I enjoyed that last flight the most, probably because I was awake for it and feeling the satisfaction that I’d “made” it to my final stop. The business cabin was nearly empty and the flight attendants were super nice. They rolled out a cart of traditional Ethiopian cuisine, which I enjoyed before my final mid-air nap.
The Blantyre Airport was much tinier than I expected, but that was part of the charm. I was first off the plane, through the health inspection tent, and immigration, and soon rolling to my hotel in a taxi. What a journey, and I’d made it in great time.
I wasn’t aware of the history of my hotel until I arrived: The (Protea) Blantyre Ryalls is the longest established hotel in the nation, built in 1922 when the country was named Nyasaland and under English rule. It was a great pick and my room was extremely comfortable. Maybe a little too comfortable: I didn’t think I needed anymore sleep, but before I knew it, I opened my eyes and it was dark. I’d slept my first afternoon away. Oh well, I was happy I’d recharged my batteries. I took a sleeping pill so I’d be able to slumber through the night, and I sure did. Now I was supercharged for my first day on the town.
Spoiler alert: There is not a ton for a visitor to do in Blantyre. I got that impression well beforehand, when I Googled and opened up the “To Do” lists online: an art gallery, a backpackers bar and a church. That was pretty much it. But that was fine with me, really. I come for the people; to see, hear and taste the local life.
As I ventured out on foot this morning, I immediately caught Lesotho vibes—Lesotho being another African country, nearby, where there isn’t a whole lot to do, but the people are pleasant and everyday life is pretty calm and nice to observe.
First up, a journey to Queen Elizabeth Hospital to take the Covid test I’d need to leave the next night. It was nearly two miles from my hotel, but I opted to walk so I could look around. The early morning exploration included a stop into the Malawi Stock Exchange (closed for holiday, unfortunately), a walk by the central market and then down a long stretch of road out of the center and to the hospital. Getting the test was an adventure in itself: I met a White couple from Zimbabwe (also there for a test) who were very pleasant and a family of three Mormon missionaries. I went into a slight panic when I read a notice on the glass that said tests take 48 hours – I was leaving in 32! After getting the stick jammed up my nose, the man at the admin desk sent me to speak to “the lab manager” to tell him my situation. He was not in his office but the young lady gave me his WhatsApp number which gave me some hope.
Long Walk Home
On the long walk back to the hotel, I stopped into the market, which I absolutely loved. You’d think all African markets would be the same, but they never cease to surprise me. This one was different because there were lots of concrete stairs and paths, and most of the aisles and stalls were covered by tin roofing. It was definitely an African market, but its twists and turns and shaded aisles reminded me of a (Middle Eastern) souk. I would’ve explored more, but I’d walked nearly four miles. I was tired and thirsty. This old man needed a little rest.
With just one full day in Malawi, I couldn’t bear to hang in my room for long; so after I caught my breath, it was back out and at it again. This time, I meandered over to the Blantyre Sports Club. This was one of the handful of places mentioned online. I bought an eight-dollar day pass so I could enter the members-only club; my first stop was the bar for a beer. I enjoyed a local Kuche Kuche and couldn’t help but giggle about the name: Coochie-coochie! Why do I hear Charo in my head? The beer was good.
I walked part of the golf course and checked out the pool, where a group of kids were enjoying the water. No doubt, a big pool in this part of the world is a complete luxury. I wondered who the club’s clientele was. Wealthy businessmen? Politicians? The man at the golf shop invited me to play a round, but one: I don’t know how to golf, and two: waaaaaay too hot!
Take me to Church
I wandered the town a little more before committing to the mile-and-a-half walk to one of the only things left on the “to-do” list online: St. Michael’s and All Angels Church.
The red-brick giant constructed in 1888 was definitely cool to see and almost looked out of place. With an old brick clock tower nearby, green grass and little paths all around, it was like I stepped out of the city and into a scene from The Legend of Zelda. The doors were closed, or I would’ve walked in.
I cried Uncle after enjoying the church, flagging down a taxi to take me back. I’d walked enough that day.
Final day in Malawi. I figured I’d seen all I could see in the city and had almost a full day left open, before my 5:10PM flight. I took my airport taxi driver up on his offer for a trip to see some game. Zinenani picked me up at 7AM and we were off. First stop, Game Haven. About 40 minutes south of Blantyre, Game Haven features a lodge and 500-acre wildlife park. The 45-minute ride through the park was pleasant. I saw zebras, sables, impalas (my favorite), wildebeest and a giraffe. It was nothing crazy, but I enjoyed it.
With still over a handful of hours to spare, Zinenani decided to take me to see Mount Mulanje. I wasn’t sure what the plan was: Was I going to hike it, look at it, have a picnic at the base, ride a burro to the top? I wasn’t sure, but we had time to kill and I was down for the adventure.
Suddenly the landscaped changed: As we left the city, the land transformed into a bright, almost neon green covering of leaves. We were in tea territory. Zinenani explained to me how much tea and coffee was grown in the region, and how important of a crop it was to Malawi. Gazing out over all that green nearly put me into a hypnotic state, as we passed locals bent over harvesting tea leaves into baskets. The vibe was serene and chill…until I opened up the GPS on my phone to see how close Moçambique was to us.
Run for the Border
I’m a big-time nerd when it comes to geography and borders, but you’re on my website, so you know this already. While I’d already traveled to Moçambique–and spent days in the capital–I was absolutely intrigued that the border so close. Really close…like 22 miles-close! I furiously thumbed through my passport to see if my Moçambique visa still happened to be valid. Not even close: expired in 2019. Darn! But either way, I wanted to see what the border town was like, even just the Malawi side. We were already so close, so why not?
I’m not sure what I was in search of – maybe something Moçambicano? Some storefronts with signs in Portuguese? Even I wasn’t really sure, but before I knew it and without warning, we’d arrived at the border. That was quick.
With all the confidence of a local (albeit, false), I told Zinenani that I’ll see him in a bit and jumped out of the car like I actually knew where I was going. I slid into the Malawian immigration office to inquire about my options of movement. The short story was that even though I might’ve been able to acquire a visa on arrival across the line in Moçambique, the Malawian visa in my passport was only a “single-entry” – meaning I’d have lots of paperwork to do just to get back in to the country 15 minutes later. With such limited time (I still had to get back for my flight), the math just didn’t work out and I decided against the formal exit and entry.
I did, however, ask the border officer if I could just take a quick “peek” across…advance a few steps passed the Malawi “line” to look in. He said yes and suddenly I’d walked 100 feet east. Without an officer in sight, I pressed my luck and kept on walking. At this moment I can honestly say I really wasn’t in control of my own body! My feet just kept walking, without hesitation. It was almost an out-of-body experience as I looked down on myself from above, seeing myself almost “floating” towards Moçambique with no regard for any federal borders or changes in jurisdiction.
With big rigs (waiting to cross) on each side of me, I spotted my first Portuguese: the safety markings (avisos) on the sides of the truck cabs. Just seeing that excited me. Soon as I was chatting (in Portuguese) with one of the truckers, as we approached the Mulosa River together. My new friend confirmed it was this river that officially separated the two countries. Without hesitation, I ceremoniously stepped out of Malawi and into Moçambique. Why did this make me feel so warm and fuzzy inside?
By the way, they didn’t know it, but the border guards paid me the biggest compliment they could. I overheard them call me “Brasilian.” No doubt it was my accent (Mrs. Truran, Bezerra and Houston would be proud – my college Portuguese and Spanish profesoras.)
I thanked my new trucker friend before skipping back over the Malawi checkpoint. The officer there gave me the side eye, but I high tailed it right back over to the car before anyone had time to ask questions.
Ramblin’ Tip: The first town across the border in Moçambique is called Milanje, and it sure looks like a neat little village online. If you have time, pop across for lunch, or the night! Let me know how you like it. Make sure to follow all laws when crossing. Just another reason for a “multi-entry” visa, too.
It was back across the border when I discovered my absolute favorite soda in the whole wide world. Zinenani walked me across the street for a cold “Fanta,” however the vendor was actually selling a brand of soda called Sobo. I was hot and thirsty, and these were the kind of chilled bottles that glistened as the icy frost melted away and slid down the glass. I ordered the Coco-Piña (Piña Colada) but fumbled it like a small child, watching the glass bottle fall to the ground and break. It was actually meant to be, because the replacement–a dark purple-looking drink of the same brand–would be the very best soda pop I’d ever drink in my life. The flavor was Plum Cherry and in an instant, it became my favorite soda of all time ever.
I’m sure it helped that it was hot as hell outside and this soda was super cold. But it was the flavor that just sent my taste buds to the moon. A little sweet, a little sour — all of it just amazing.
I ended up having a second bottle just minutes later at the Malawi National Museum, and three more bottles that same afternoon at the airport. I couldn’t get enough. Were five full bottles of soda too much for one human to consume in one afternoon? You bet! But I feared I’d never find this soda ever again. It’s worth a trip to Malawi just to have a Sobo. Who knew???
Sobo Cherry Plum wins the Ramblin’ Randy Award for “Best Soda!”
This entry was posted in Africa