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It is noon and I am in the cramped bathroom of a dusty petrol station vomiting my insides into the sink. I haven't eaten very much in days, and so fortunately there is little volume to the upchuck. It's mostly bile, burning at my throat, stinging my eyes. I steady my shivering body against the wall and examine my grey complexion in the cracked mirror. This was a uniquely terrible idea. One should not be riding a bike when one is recovering from malaria.
We made progress, at least. Despite the sweltering heat and the unrelenting sun and the searing pain in my abdomen, we cycled thirty kilometers along the flat, tarred roads of Lake Malawi's southern coast. And then came gravel. The spine-rattling, stomach-shaking kind. I lasted just ten meters before leaving Lauren with the bikes and rushing into this swampy outhouse at the junction.
We are stuck. I feel physically unable to get back on the bicycle, let alone get back on and pedal it another seventeen kilometers across unsealed roads and over a small but notable pass. Lauren sits in the shade outside the petrol station's small shop while I lie on the cement nearby, taking deep, melodramatic breaths. She gets up to buy us some cold water, and I drink what I can. Suddenly I am very cold, trembling in the 100F heat, and I must go sit in the sun to stop myself from shaking. I close my eyes and rest.
We need help. I need help. Not a doctor, I'll be fine in time. Just a ride to Cape Maclear, seventeen kilometers north of here.
Lauren searches for a ride. The minibuses that roll through the station are all too small and crowded to fit our bicycles. She meets a man who offers us room in his truck for forty thousand kwacha, roughly sixty US dollars. It's an absurd, exploitative price, a considerable fraction of what the average Malawian earns in a year. Yet I'm almost desperate enough to accept, and he knows that. Almost desperate enough, but not quite. I send him away with a scowl.
Time passes. I sit up, return to the shade, and rest my head against a wall. I close my eyes and drink more water. Lauren suggests I call Jen, the manager at the backpackers' we're headed to. Maybe she can help. I give her a ring and explain the situation. Is it possible to send a taxi?
Within moments, Jen springs into action. She tells me to text her our coordinates and deploys Duncan, her boyfriend and co-manager, to come get us and our bikes in his Landcruiser. She says he'll be there within the half-hour. She looks at her reservation books, shuffles a few things around, and upgrades us from the (free) campsite we'd been promised to a (free) private room where we'll be more comfortable. She tells us to just hang tight; help is on the way. I hang up relieved, and deeply thankful.
Duncan arrives a short while later and we couldn't be happier to meet him. He and Lauren load the bikes into the back of his truck as I stand around uselessly. We all cram into the front seats and take off. We bump along about seven kilometers of rough gravel and climb another five or so up a steep, winding hill, and I'm reminded what a foolish idea it was to think I could bike this in my state. This would be tough cycling even on a good day.
Our Landcruiser pulls into the Funky Cichlid. We clamber out and meet Jen, who's just as warm and friendly as on the phone. She and Duncan show us our room. We drop our things and I lie down in the bed for a bit, very grateful to be here. I close my eyes and sleep.
The Funky Cichlid is a lovely little place. It's planted right on the shoreline of Lake Malawi, with a big shady patio planted right atop the beach's powdery white sand. There are hammocks and couches and plenty of places to recline under the airy thatched veranda. During our stay in Cape Maclear, I sample them all.
Reclining: that is my primary activity these next three days. I start, horizontal, feeble, prostrate on the couches. By Tuesday, my body is an obtuse angle, pillows propping up my torso to get a look at the beach. By Wednesday, I am at ninety degrees. I am sitting at tables. I am eating food.
Eating: this is my secondary activity for the week. My body is frail, depleted of energy. I'd eaten almost nothing this weekend and thrown up anything I had stomached. I've lost weight. My appetite is still poor and particular, and even the thought of certain foods brings nausea, but the entrees here are delicious, and I take my time eating what I can. At first it's just fries, but then half a veggie burger. A little salad. By Thursday, I nibble my way through a full plate.
There's a nice social scene of friendly backpackers rounding the lake. I'm too fatigued to make many friends, and most nights I'm asleep before any socializing really gets started. Mostly I read, and write a little. Lauren and I play cards, and Lauren takes a few walks into town.
We do go kayaking one day. We borrow a pair of kayaks from the lodge and paddle out to an island. It's pretty, and there are colorful fish in the water around us. But I'm a little seasick from the choppy waters, and my day's energy has been spent from the short row over, and it's quite hot. We don't stay long.
We watch sunsets. They're really beautiful here, rich and golden. We listen to the gentle waves of the lake, and at sunrise each morning I get up to lie on one of the couches by the water. I begin to feel human again. Capable of standing. Of moving. Of biking.
And then it's Thursday. We've decided to catch the ferry north, to Likoma and onwards to Nkhata Bay. It leaves port, twenty kilometers from here, at 8AM tomorrow. And so in the late afternoon, once the sun dips behind the mountains and we're blanketed in cool shade, we set off on our bicycles for Monkey Bay.
We survive the ride. It's lovely, really. It's every bit as bumpy and hilly as the way in, but quite scenic, and it's nice to be using my body again. We arrive in Monkey Bay at dusk, sweaty and invigorated, and camp in the ferry terminal's waiting area.
The Ilala feels cozy and familiar. We lock our bikes on the front deck, dump our panniers on the top deck, and grab our old seats in the shade. We meet our fellow passengers for the thirty-one hour journey to Likoma. There are some Malawians, and some traveling Brits, too, and soon after we sit we're approached by a pair of pannier-wielding French cyclists. Bike tourers, just like us!
We spend the bulk of the next thirty-plus hours doing what traveling cyclists do when they meet each other on the road: we compare everything. Not in the competitive sense, mind you. Just for curiosity's sake. What bikes are you riding? What type of tires do you have? What do you cook? What's your pace? And, of course, the old where-are-you-coming-from and where-are-you-going.
Matthieu and Quentin are a terrific pair. They're cousins. They cycled from France to Morocco, caught a flight to South Africa, and have spent the past few months riding north along southern Africa's other coast. Their trip will last a year, and with the help of a few planes, trains, and buses to speed things along, they'll continue north (a bit more quickly than us) to Ethiopia, Iran, then India; later, South America.
We compare gear, and they're positively kitted out. The duo is documenting their journey with the help of a DSLR camera, multiple lenses, and a drone, plus a laptop to edit the shots and splice the footage together. As the Ilala makes its slow journey northward, they show us some of their photographs and videos. They're gorgeous, with sweeping aerial shots of the two camping on rugged European cliffsides and pedaling down quiet African byways. Lauren and I eye each other and think, should we get a drone?
So, we talk. We talk and later we eat. Lauren asks if it'd be okay to use our campstoves on the boat, and the captain kindly, if hesitantly, agrees. Just please, don't burn down my ship. We cook cinnamon toast and coconut vegetable curry and popcorn. The French make crepes and pasta, and tell us about the marvelous things they've managed to bake while camping. Twelve hours in, as the sky begins to darken, Matthieu and Quentin string the hammocks they're carrying across the deck. They climb into their cozy cocoons while we find ourselves a rectangle of space on the weathered floorboards. The ship arrives at its final port of the evening, and it, too, rests until morning.
Day two on the Ilala. We wake early and return to our usual table. We make breakfast. We read books and talk a little more. The ferry chugs on.
In the afternoon, we arrive at Likoma. Likoma is a small island, population nine thousand, strangely home to Africa's second largest cathedral. Back in Senga, we'd heard its beaches were some of the most beautiful in the world.
The Ilala is scheduled to dock at Likoma for seven hours. Of course, the notoriously tardy ferry is already arriving late. The captain tells us that if we're not back onboard in two hours, it'll be leaving without us. We're skeptical that this ferry could do anything in two hours, but after asking the bartender to keep an eye on our heap of panniers and luggage in the corner of the deck while we're gone, we hustle off the ship anyway.
Us, the Brits, our fellow cyclists, and several dozen other passengers cram into an overloaded, under-equipped lifeboat. We're shuttled out to Likoma and left to wade the remaining five meters to the shore waist-deep in the tepid lake. As we trudge through the sand, residents of Likoma rush out and take our place on the dinghy. The arrival of the Ilala is something of an event here, and we're told locals enjoy spending a few hours onboard at the Ilala bar while the boat's in the bay.
We walk around Likoma. We see a few beaches and explore the crumbling cathedral and admire the gnarled baobabs towering above the rocky coastline. It's all pretty enough, though nothing extraordinary, and two hours seems like an adequate amount of time. We return to the ferry.
Incidentally, and perhaps expectedly, we don't actually leave for another five hours. In the interim, Lauren discovers she's left her Nalgene on the island. She boards a lifeboat, returns to Likoma to find it, retrieves it, takes another lifeboat back, and we still have time to make dinner before the ferry's horn roars through the harbor to signal its departure.
It is 2AM. Lauren and I are asleep atop a box of lifejackets when we're woken by the next growl of the horn. The Ilala has entered Nkhata Bay. This is our stop.
Lauren gets up to survey the situation downstairs. The stairs and corridors leading to the lifeboats are barricaded by enormous sacks of maize and flour and fish. One by one, these sacks will be unloaded into two narrow lifeboats, puttered out to the shore, and hauled onto dry land. This operation will take time. Hours. We can use this time to sleep. We don't really want to be getting off a ferry in the middle of the night, anyway. This crate of lifevests is comfortable enough. We doze off, intermittently, until dawn.
Lauren checks the hull again. It's emptier now. What's headed for Nkhata Bay has mostly been unloaded. The rest is traveling along the lake, further north to Chilumba, with our French friends. It's time for us to go.
We gather our panniers and backpacks. I head down to the front deck to unlock our bikes. I look down and notice that my rear light is missing. I look over and realize that Lauren's is too. Our lights have been stolen.
I'm annoyed. I'm annoyed because these were our things and someone took them. I'm annoyed because they weren't just things, but safety measures used to keep us visible on the road. To keep us from getting run over if we get caught cycling at dusk. Take my bottle cage if you'd like, fine, but I hate the idea of continuing down the road without visibility lights. I don't even know where we might find replacements, as this isn't the type of thing you see around here, lights like these. Which, I guess, explains why they were taken in the first place.
I'm annoyed, too, because I had thought to check the bikes just last night. I'd woken and remembered that we hadn't actually seen our bicycles in two days, and that our lights are quite easy to remove, and that there are many passengers roaming about this ship. I thought about getting up to retrieve the lights, just for good measure.
And then I thought about how safe we've felt these past four months. How often we've left our bikes unlocked outside of markets without trouble. How literally nothing has gone missing. I trusted they'd be just fine below deck until morning, and I went back to sleep.
I was wrong. And so, finally, I'm annoyed that our trust has been violated. That from this point forward, we're going to feel a little more nervous, wary. It's a little thing, these lights. Physically, financially, it's trivial. But emotionally, it leaves me a little less trusting of the people around me, and I don't like that feeling.
I return to the upper deck to tell Lauren the bad news. She's equally dismayed. But there's nothing to be done now, so we grab our things and start for the stairs. On the way we run into Quentin, who seems up and about far earlier than he needs to be. These guys aren't getting off until Chilumba.
"We're heading out," I say. "But you may want to be careful with anything hanging from your bikes. We just discovered our lights are missing."
"I know," he responds solemnly, a little frantically. "Our laptop. It's been stolen."