The Ship Has Sunk


In the remaining twilight, we survey our surroundings. We don’t see people. We don’t see houses. No one is going to find us if we stay here. We have three choices. We can go south, toward the end of the island, but we’re practically there already, and we’re not convinced we’ll find much life that way. We can go east, further inland, but we’re afraid that we might get lost and just wander aimlessly if we do that. Plus there are a few too many poisonous snakes on the island for much shoeless wandering. Our final option, and the one we choose, is to go north. That’s the direction of our lodge, and so we know that there is life that way. Plus by staying along the shoreline, we’ll at least have a guideline, a way to know that we’re continuously moving in the right direction. And so we pull ourselves up from the rocks and start moving before darkness completely overtakes us. It’s no walk on the beach but is instead a clamber up and over boulder after boulder. We each take a paddle and use it like a blind person uses a walking stick, poking it out in front of us and feeling our way forward.

Jeff falls first, slipping into a crevasse between rocks. There is no light anymore (not even moonlight), so we can only make out the vaguest outlines of shapes. Each step is a guess. Jeff guesses wrong. I scramble to his side, wondering what the heck I am supposed to do. What if he broke something? I certainly can’t carry him. I’d have to leave him. Try to find help on my own. Luckily it doesn’t come to that. Jeff gets up, scratched and bleeding but okay, and we continue on.

I fall next, stepping on a rock that rolls and then flips over onto my leg when I fall. I’m pinned down, and I’m not sure the state of my leg under the rock. Jeff hurries back and removes the rock. I take stock of my state. Like Jeff, I’m just bloody and bruised. We’re lucky. But we’re beyond frustrated. Our progress is so slow, and at this rate, one of us will end up good and hurt. It doesn’t seem there’s anything we can do but keep pressing on through the darkness that makes it nearly impossible for me to even see Jeff directly ahead of me.

But then, my brain unfogs for a minute. I remember that I saved the daypack. I grab it from Jeff and feel my way through it.

Though one Nalgene bottle floated away when our boat sank, there is still one in our backpack, and if I remember correctly it’s the one I want. Once upon a time Jeff bought a Nalgene lid that with a press of a button illuminates a light and turns your Nalgene into a lantern. I made fun of him for it then. But now, I swear to take it all back if only the light will still turn on after its long dip in Lake Malawi.

I find the bottle. I press the button. For a moment, nothing happens. But then it flickers on. It works! The glow it casts is small, but it’s enough. We can see where we’re stepping. Slowly, slowly, we continue on, our feet cut up, our bodies exhausted. We stumble where we shouldn’t, our coordination not up to par.

I also remember that my whistle, the one I take with me when hiking, is attached to the front of my backpack. I grab it and begin blowing, hoping that someone will hear it and come investigate. At one point, I think I see a light, and I start yelling like crazy. No one responds. Turns out it’s just a glowing plant. I keep whistling, but no help comes.

We walk for an hour. At least. It feels like forever. And then finally we see a flicker of light ahead, which we soon realize is a fire. We move with renewed energy. The boulders give way to beach. We hurry through the sand to the fire, around which a group of men is gathered. When we approach, they all stare, jaws unhinged. In front of them stand two white people, soaking wet, dripping blood, and carrying paddles though there’s no boat in sight.

Jeff takes charge, asking if anyone speaks English. No on answers. He repeats the question. No answer. We don’t have another language to fall back on, so we just speak, slowly, clearly, trying to explain our situation. Blank stares are what we get in return. We gesture toward their boats, all still lined up on the beach. “Fishing tonight?” we ask, casting out imaginary lines. Every other night we’ve seen the lights of boats blinking from the lake. “Can you take us?” we ask. “Motor us back to our lodge. We’ll pay,” we say. Finally, a man steps forward. In broken English he says, “No fishing tonight. Lake too rough.” We should have known.

On to plan B. “Does anyone have a phone?” we ask, pantomiming calling someone. They exchange glances. Then one of the men runs off, returning shortly with another man, who speaks better English and has a phone. He hands it to us. We stare at it. Theoretically it should be of help, but we don’t have any numbers. Who are we going to call? We ask if anyone knows the number to Mango Drift. Silence is the response.

I am completely exhausted at this point, my body wrecked. I am also being stared at as if I am an alien, as if I just shot down from a hovering spacecraft. I collapse into the sand. I sob. I am overwhelmed, uncertain how we’re going to make it back, but mainly I’m overwhelmed by the realization that we’re okay, that that we’re going to be okay.

The people are trying their best to help us, but they don’t know much more than we do. “You should just stay here tonight,” they suggest, gesturing toward my cuts, still dripping blood. “You’re tired. You can sleep here with us, and then we’ll take you back in the morning.” I thank them. I try to smile. They are warmhearted and generous. But we can’t stay here. We have to get back. They’re expecting us back. They expected us long before the sun set.

We return to the phone. There has to be someone we can call who can help us. “The police,” I suggest. “Ask them to call the police.” Jeff hands the phone back to the owner and asks him to call the police for us. He dials.  We wait. He hangs up. “No one answered,” he says.

Shit. Now who? I rack my brain. “Call the hospital,” I suggest. There’s a British-run hospital on the island, and we had met some of the workers earlier in the week. “They speak English,” I say to Jeff, relaying my chain of thought, “and can call the lodge.” The man with the phone dials the hospital. Again the phone rings and rings, but no one answers.

There’s no one else we can call at this point. We stare at each other, blank, not knowing what to do. Finally, we ask if they know where the hospital is. In chorus, they shake their heads yes, and point in a general direction. “Will you lead us there?” we ask, and again receive a chorus of nods. It’s not close, a couple of kilometers, but closer than the lodge. We also don’t have shoes. It’s going to be a long, painful journey. But at this point, we don’t see what choice we have. We start walking.

But we only make it about 200 meters before our guide stops and enters a house. He returns, then gestures for us to follow him in. I have no idea what’s going on. I hope he’s not trying to get us to stay there for the night. We can’t.

Jeff and I look around at the house—a very nice one for the island with couch and TV, a dining table, separate bedrooms—and try to figure out what’s going on. Then a man, nicely dressed and speaking excellent English, addresses us. He’s the mayor of Likoma Island. We’re in the mayor’s house. I feel like Dorothy when she finally makes it to see the wizard. I only hope that there’s no curtain.

He immediately tells Jeff that he knows Mango Drift, that he goes there often for a beer, and that he’ll call them as soon as the man who was leading us returns with a card for his phone. It’s low on money. Then he begs me to have a seat. I decline. I’m still wet, blood’s dripping from my elbow. I don’t want to sully his furniture. He insists until finally I relent. Then he offers me dinner, asks us to eat with him and his wife. I look at the steaming bowl of cassava and know that there’s no way I can stomach it right now. I decline. When I agree to eat a banana and have some tea, he accepts this. He asks what happened, listens to our story, tells us that we are lucky, so, so lucky, that so many people have died on the lake when the weather suddenly turned.

Then the man is back, and suddenly Jeff is on the phone with Josh and Becky, the managers at Mango Drift. In ten minutes, Josh is at the door, laden down with blankets, chocolates, cookies. He keeps saying how happy he is to see us. How they’d kept watching and watching the water waiting for us to return. How when the sun set and we weren’t back they called to the lodge on Chizimulu to see if perhaps, if hopefully, we’d decided to stay there for the night. How they’d called everyone they knew on the island, asking if they’d seen a kayak, if they’d seen two white people. How they were sending out the rescue crew just as we called. We express relief that we caught them before they pulled out the big guns, say how happy we are to see them too.This adventure gone wrong, oh so wrong, is over.

I snuggle close to Jeff in the car as we ride back to the lodge. My mind keeps replaying the events of that afternoon. But already the day has become grainy. Already it’s become unreal. Already it’s become nothing but a good story.

Thank heavens.

Onboard a Sinking Ship

Ferries and other passenger ships in the developing world have a terrible habit of sinking. Far too often, reports of such ships show up in the international news. In fact, while we were on Zanzibar, a ferry from Dar Es Salaam sunk just outside the harbor, resulting in the death of many passengers. So every time Jeff and I boarded a boat, I paid close attention to the safety briefing (if there was one), scouted out my exits, and snagged a life jacket (if there were any). I was prepared for an incident that though not likely wasn’t improbable. Where I failed was in considering the possibility that a boat I myself was piloting could be the one that sank.

On our third day on Likoma Island–a place we wrote about earlier in regards to its warm, friendly people–the sun rises bright and clear, and after a big breakfast at Mango Drift, the backpacker lodge where we are staying, we push one of the lodge’s kayaks through the sand and into the warm, deep waters of Lake Malawi. Our destination is the island of Chizimulu, 13 kilometers away. According to the lodge managers, no other guests have made the trip during the few months they’ve been there, but they see no reason why we can’t.

The trip starts out as nearly all of our kayaking trips start. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. I don’t like taking orders, and when you’re the person in the front of the kayak, as I always am when I’m with Jeff, that’s what you have to do. I eventually get over it, and we find a rhythm and have a good time.

But about 20 minutes into this trip, I pull my oar into the boat and turn to Jeff. I’m feeling uncertain about continuing on. Though we still have about 2 hours of paddling left in front of us, I’m already feeling like we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s just us and a lot of water. It’s a little bit scary. And I’m starting to think that maybe we ought to have life jackets, a thought I share with Jeff. He reminds me that this is Africa, that life jackets aren’t standard equipment, that people who can’t even swim go out in boats every day without life jackets, but he also offers to turn around, either for good or to inquire about life jackets. I turn down his offer. I’m not a quitter. And if we go back, I’ll probably end up staying. Paddling 13 kilometers across Lake Malawi is freaking hard.

We forge on. The sun beats down, and we roll gently with the bobbing of the lake, which at 26,900 square kilometers might as well be the ocean. I paddle 100 strokes and then I break. There’s no hurry, and after about two hours of paddling, we land on the shores of Chizimulu. A coalition of cute kids greets us, and then they lead us to the island’s only tourist lodge, where we grab lunch, snorkel, and relax.

Around 2:30 p.m., we’re back in our boat. The African sun sets at 6 p.m.. It took us two hours to get across. To be safe, we’re giving ourselves an extra hour and a half to get back. More than enough time, we think.

But anyone who’s spent any time in nature knows that it’s not always predictable, not always willing to adhere to your time schedule. When we get outside of the sheltered area near the island, we find the water to be a bit choppier than it was on our way in. By the time we we get a few kilometers out, when we’re afloat in the no-man’s land between the islands, where going back or continuing forward will take approximately the same amount of time and effort., things get flat out rough. The wind picks up. Whitecaps surround us. It really is as if we’re in the ocean. In a kayak that’s meant for tranquil lake waters.

We know from rafting through the Grand Canyon in an inflatable kayak that you’re most likely to flip when a wave hits you on the side, so we turn the kayak ever so slightly so as to head directly into the waves while still aiming for our lodge, a landmark we can’t see yet but know thanks to the cell tower behind it.In order to keep the boat oriented properly, Jeff must paddle only on the left side, a balance to the wind. Soon, I too must join him. Paddling properly is futile. We’re not kayaking anymore, we’re fighting.

We can’t take a break. We just paddle, ignoring the burning muscles. We paddle and paddle and paddle. I scream with each stroke, angrily yelling at the wind and the water. Jeff, usually the optimist, starts talking about how we’re not getting anywhere, that we’ll never make it. I yell at him too. I’m the pessimist, not him. That’s my job, not his. And in this situation, I need positive. I am celebrating every meter, every missed wave.

Unfortunately, for each missed wave, there’s a wave that gets us. I’m soaking wet. There’s a few inches of lake water in the bottom of the boat. At one point, I try to bail, but it’s futile. I have no bucket; with a snorkeling mask, I can toss out a cup or so, but without me helping to hold the line, more water comes in than I can get out. There’s nothing to do but keep on paddling. The sun certainly isn’t holding still; it’s continuing its westward arc, and we’re now racing it.

Eventually, we find ourselves about 1 km from shore. We can make out the lodge, swear that we can even see a few people. It looks like we’re going to win this fight, this race.

Ha, nature responds. It’s not giving up so easily. Instead it ups its game. The wind comes harder. The waves break more frequently. With land in sight, we give up the battle to land straight up on the beach at our lodge, and aim just to get to land, period. I’ll drag the kayak back if I have to. We have to focus our energy.

The wind pushes us harder and faster than we’d imagined. In no time at all, we’ve been pushed nearly the entire 8 kilometer length of the island. Unfortunately, at the same time, we’re not a whole lot closer to land. Time after time, we’ve spotted a great landing area, pushed with all our might, and then watched as we were swept right past it. We’re going nowhere, and I don’t understand why.

But Jeff’s got it figured out. Over the wind he calls to me to turn around. Though there’s only a few inches of water around my feet, in the back of the boat, behind Jeff, the water has nearly filled the boat. We’re too heavy to go anywhere. We must bail. It’s the only way we have a chance. And so we both drop our paddles and furiously throw water overboard. The lake returns the favor by throwing it right back in. We’re in a losing battle.

And at that moment, for the first time, we both realize that we’ll never make it to shore in the boat. Jeff looks at me and says “What should we do?”. I, with a calmness that surprises me, say “Well, I guess we better swim.”

With that, we roll out of the boat and into the lake. I again wish we had life jackets. This is fresh water; we’re not buoyant. And the wind and waves mean the water is regularly going over our heads. Plus the sun, well it’s about to touch the lake. In a matter of minutes, it will be gone.

I grab the small daypack we took with us and try to hold it over my head. I lunge for one of my flip-flops, as the other along with a water bottle, floats away. I take a quick survey of the sun’s position. Not good.

I kick hard to stay above water. Jeff meanwhile dives under.

“What are you doing? I yell to him.

“I’m trying to right the kayak,” he yells. I think we both thought we’d slide out, flip the boat over, and then hold on to it and kick into shore, but the kayak has other ideas. It’s gone Titanic. The front points straight up, the back straight toward the bottom of the lake.

“Screw the boat,” I yell. “There’s too much water. You’ll never get it up.”

He agrees. But then goes underwater again.

“What are you doing?” I yell again.

“I lost my sunglasses,” he replies.

“Screw your sunglasses,” I answer, thinking that he’s lost his mind. It’s nearly dark now, and we’re still a few hundred meters from shore. We have to start swimming. And most importantly, we have to stay together. If we’re still in the water when it gets dark, we’ll never find each other if we’re separated. Staying together is number one on the importance list. Getting to shore is number two. Luckily, while evacuating the boat, I had the good sense to hold tight to the paddles, the only slightly buoyant items we have, and so I thrust the a kayak paddle toward Jeff. He grabs ahold of one end, I cling to the other, and together we start kicking.

Fortunately, we’re both good swimmers. But still we struggle. It’s not easy.

Fortunately, we also both keep our heads. Our boat is gone. We’re in an angry lake that is hundreds of meters deep right up until you reach shore. We’re on the cusp of darkness. But we know what we have to do: swim. We know that’s the only thing there is to do. We know it’s the one thing we can’t stop doing. We’re focused.

My life doesn’t flash before my eyes; I think only of how it would kill my mom if I drowned here in Lake Malawai. I’m not brave; I’m just determined. In fact, I say more than once to Jeff, “I’m scared,” but always calmly, detached, as a statement of fact not emotion. Jeff has left his pessimism behind with the boat and is only reassuring: “We’re almost there. We’ve made it one rock (referencing a peninsula we could still see further down). We’ve made it two rocks.”

And then, after what seems like the longest swim of my life, there’s solid ground under our feet. We pull ourselves up onto the big boulders lining the shore and take big gasping breaths. Our kayak is gone. And with it, the light. Darkness has come to Likoma Island. And though we’ve made it on to land, we’re nowhere near any signs of life. The nightmarish adventure isn’t over yet. We still have to make our way back to the lodge.

(To be Continued…)

In Review: Our Top Ten

Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.

1. Hiking Torres del Paine

Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.

2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.

3. Cruising the Galapagos

This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.

4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires

An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.

5. Going on Safari in southern Africa

We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.

6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia

Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.

7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island

Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.

8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.

9. Learning to Scuba Dive

Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.

10. Exploring Rajasthan

India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.

Likoma Island in Photos

As I noted in the previous post, the people of Likoma Island were what made the place really special. They’d approach us at every opportunity, and the only thing they ever asked was for us to take their picture. They just loved to see themselves on our camera screen. They’d get so animated, dance around, make faces, and do poses. It was hilarious. Here, in full color, are a few of the people we met.

Likoma Island

Sometimes when traveling through the developing world as a white Westerner, you feel that the local population looks at you and sees nothing more than a dollar sign. Some days it feels like the entirety of your interaction with locals is limited to requests for you to give them money or buy something from them (at highly inflated prices). And though you know you are fortunate, though you know that you do have so, so much, though you know that what may be a pittance to you is a fortune to them, you can’t help but sometimes grow weary. For me, this was certainly the case in Mozambique.

Thus our entry into Malawi, known as the warm heart of Africa, was a welcome change. Here the bumper sticker saying is actually reality. The people of Malawi are among the most friendly, helpful, genuine, and generous we have met. They certainly don’t have more than those in neighboring countries–they very well might have less–but they do not see themselves as unfortunate or in need of help. When they approach you it is usually not to ask for a handout, but to ask your name and to tell you that you’re welcome in their country.

And though we’ve found this to be true throughout the country, no where has the beautiful nature of Malawians been more clear than it is on Likoma Island, an 8 km x 3 km piece of paradise in Lake Malawi. Here, thanks to a history of good relationships with “colonial powers–” who actually left a positive legacy on the island, including health and education systems that are among the best in Malawi–as well as a limited number of visitors, travelers to Likoma are greeted with overwhelmingingly warm welcomes from each and every person encountered.

Adults wave to us from their porches and call out hello. Women gathering brush for their fires accompany us down the path, scattering away snakes (real and invisible) with a mix of singing and whistle-blowing. Men stop to shake our hands. The mayor of the island welcomes us into his home and gives us bananas and tea. But it’s the children, tiny tots to budding adolescents, who really make us feel special.

To them, we are wonders. Upon sighting us, they burst into squeals and shouts of “mzungu, mzungu.” They use their school English lessons to greet us with “Hello. How are you?” They sidle up to us and ask “What is my name?,” meaning in fact “What is your name?”. They jump up and down on their stoop as they watch you approach and then run out and swarm you, giggling madly as they grab for your hand. The tiniest ones run up to you arms up, ready to be picked up and carried around. They stop as they walk home from school in their uniforms to pull out their exercise books and show you what they learned in class, hoping for a few words of praise. They accompany you as you walk around the island, fighting over who gets to hold your hand, pointing out everything you pass—manioc plant, papaya tree, goats—until they reach some imaginary boundary at which point they say goodbye and head back home. They ask if you can be friends, and really, who could say no, especially since they ask for nothing else except the occasional balloon (I’m not sure who introduced the kids to balloons but they love them).

The children of Likoma Island are joy personified. And though I certainly loved Likoma’s sandy beaches, turquoise waters, colorful aquarium fish, impressive cathedral, waterfront market, stately baobabs, relaxing backpackers lodge (Mango Drift), and carefree attitude, what really made the place so magical was  simply walking with the island’s children.