I find myself alone in the bed of a moving truck once again, watching my world blur by me. It was chilly, gray and drizzling this morning on the plateau, but as we descend the sun slits open the sky, revealing a clear and dazzling view across the severe Rift Valley mountains to the distant slip of blue that is Lake Malawi. My clothes are dried by the wind and the white sun as we meander along the curves of the lakeshore road. I am contemplative, wondering how I will manage to leave this country I have so come to love. This is one of my favorite roads in Malawi, the stretch from Nkhata Bay to my house in Chintheche. I try to memorize it as the truck winds along this curvy road cut through the green, knowing this journey will be one that I painfully miss.
The rubber trees of the Vizara Rubber Planatation are manicured and thriving, the canopy cloaking the tapped and plastic-wrapped trunks in dim shadow. Men and boys lounge under the trees, waiting for the opportunity to sell the toys in their hands—bouncing balls made from poached rubber, resembling grimy gray rubber-band collections. Others are in hiding and I can only see their grimy fuel cans marking black market diesel sale. Soon the pristine order of the estate gives way to wild rainforest, the lakeshore jungle, hosting one of Malawi’s highest rates of rainfall. The trees are towers, thick with vines that drape over the twisting road, forming a roped verdant divider between the pavement-bound traveler and the hidden villages, the firewood poacher, the monitor lizard and the black mamba, the mushroom hunter, the mosquito cloud, the hot-blooded teenagers, the charcoal burner, the jungle fever ghosts that haunt the heavy composting darkness.
Soon the shrinking jungle is tamed by the village. Mud and brick huts with thatched roofs replace the tangle of hot-growing vegetation, the surrounding properties swept clean of growth and life, a naked defense against the deadly tropical serpent. The people are here; their laundry hangs on wire lines and they lounge on their front stoops, seeking relief from the heat, snoozing or shelling beans. I flash bo thumbs up to the children—children carrying water on their heads or their little brothers on their backs, girls in torn chitenje balancing bundles of firewood, boys running home from school in their disheveled uniforms, teenaged students balancing their friends on the handlebars of their fathers’ bicycles as they frantically pedal and still try to wave at me in greeting. Between the glossy thick clumps of banana trees I can see the lake, shining silver in the noonday sun light, home of the kampango fish held up in slick sandy bunches on the side of the road by the men who hauled them up from the depths into their dugout canoes.
I watch the hills above the highway, allowing the jade and lime and glass greens to blend into one great rolling blur, wondering if these trees will last another generation as their wood is poached and burned. For now the jungle is small but healthy, unappreciated in its beauty, its majesty, its great looming danger; it smothers the mountains and towers over the subdued lake below.
The earth flattens and I find myself suddenly jogging through maize fields, the once green stalks with their jolly pink tassels now dry and blonde, the small ears of maize hardening, feebly awaiting the harvest. On the other side, cassava fields flourish, the purple-green fingers branching out from their red stems, stretching for the sun, quivering in the moving air. The lack of trees somehow makes me more aware of the sun as it heats my shoulders. Without the many shades of green the sunlight is cruel and angry-white, glaring at me from the glass surface of the lake.
I cross a bridge and assess the river below; the receding rains have left the banks hardening as the flow shrinks, the russet water still, the water plants bursting with gleeful floating blossoms. The next bridge reveals my favorite view: the lake opens the river banks to welcome the tranquil flow from the west, gently lapping at its long lost molecules, the lilies anchored tightly upstream. Net-laden dugout canoes are pulled up on the beach and dry in the sun and the heat as children run naked in the shallow water, shattering the silver sunlight scowl on the surface.
We move quickly, flying past these interesting and beautiful sights, blurring them into a rapid snapshot slideshow. Suddenly I am in my village, the last 5k, and here are my neighbors. Satisfaction settles into my stomach as I review familiar homey sights: steps carved into the red clay hill leading away from the road, a newly painted sign, a recently burned down building (Uncle Justin’s Tuck Shop), men playing bao under a tree on the roadside, a lone cow grazing on the roadside, a shaded tub full of black bananas for sale near their vendor as he naps in a wheelbarrow, groups of women sitting on the ground beneath the mango trees outside a church, a local teacher pedaling his rusted bicycle, women with heavy cloth-wrapped bundles waiting on the side of the road for a ride, children skipping their way south on the shoulder of the road to the market to buy tomatoes for their mothers. I rap on the window at my stop and jump out of the truck bed, pulling my rucksack behind me. I say thanks and goodbye and continue on foot down the dirt road beneath the blue gum trees to my front door as Zen Kitty run-leaps toward me through the tall grass to welcome me home.