Gradual boat down, quick boat up

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Contribution to the Travel Writing Award

By Helen Lunn

“I seem to have a chicken,” he mumbled apologetically, “would you like it?”.
I had never been greeted like this before, and a little confused, I answered yes. Three hours later, when there was still no sign of the bird, we decided to have another dose of rice and gunge.
I was on Likoma Island for four days. It was a beautiful place eight hours by boat from the mainland in the middle of Lake Malawi. My plan had been to take the down boat one day, spend three days on the island, and then take the up boat back. My visa was coming to an end and there were other places I wanted to explore before leaving the country.
The village of Likoma was on the hill from where the boat landed, but it was worth the climb. It was beautiful looking down at the lake and the village itself was lovely. At least that’s how it seemed to one visitor who was free to leave. The people were materially poor and the diet was bland and monotonous. For children the place was a playground. The lake was clean and safe and the sun was shining. There were no cars. School mostly took place outdoors. People lived hand to mouth, although women sometimes rode a boat to the nearest town to sell food and handicrafts. They made a little money from the few tourists that came to the island.
We tourists agreed that Likoma was very nice for a few days. We swam in the clean, warm water, one of the few bodies of water in Africa free of disease or crocodiles. We liked eating simple food and sitting on the floor. The water we were offered tasted burnt and smoky but we knew it was safe. Paraffin lamps were a welcome change from the glare of fluorescent tubes, and paraffin lamps never had blackouts. The whole atmosphere of the place was warm and welcoming.
I started with a walk to the hospital every morning as I had foolishly allowed some mosquito bites to get infected. They had to be squeezed and tightened. He said they were getting better but urged me to return to the mainland soon. He was happy when I told him I was booked on the next boat.
The next morning Steve, one of my fellow passengers, came with me to the hospital. He was surprised to wake up on the floor, his shoulder throbbing with pain. The night before, he had dreamed of getting into a fight and running away from knife-wielding thugs. The dream was so vivid and his need to escape so great that even though he was asleep he had thrown himself through his mosquito net – there was a big hole in it to prove it. His shoulder was dislocated and the same doctor who squeezed my pimples told him he needed treatment on the mainland as well. Steve was a little frustrated because he couldn’t swim or play volleyball. At least the sun was shining and he could enjoy that.
The next day we were ready to leave and packed everything for the boat. We thanked our hosts and said goodbye. We didn’t worry when the boat didn’t arrive as we were used to “African time”. The dock was busy with potential travelers chatting happily, undisturbed by the delay. The mood changed a bit when we were told that the boat would not come at all that day and nobody knew when the next boat would go down. There was a problem with the engine. “The boat will depart after it arrives,” we were told.
While most people, after grumbling, accepted that they were going nowhere, there was one woman who had good reason to be unhappy. She was due to get married in a few days, and her future husband should have arrived on the boat. Her family urged her to throw the party anyway. The goat was bought, the venue booked, they couldn’t afford to cancel. Tourists were delighted to be attending a Malawian village wedding, albeit not entirely orthodox as the groom would be absent. The bride tried to make the best of it.
We vaguely wondered what had happened to the chicken. The next day, the man sneaked up on me again. “I seem to still have that chicken,” he said. I pondered what condition it would be in by now and, with some hesitation, agreed to take it from him. It arrived a few minutes later, very much alive and kicking. I felt a little squeamish about killing and preparing it, but a man who had just finished his time in the Israeli army had no qualms. He grilled it on a tent peg and we made a fire. It was delicious.
We were glad we stayed for the wedding reception and chicken but the delay of the boat was now worrying us. Other people were also nearing the end of their visas and Steve and I wanted to go to a hospital. Drastic measures were required. I heard a police boat is coming. If we asked nicely there might be space on it. Steve and I knocked cautiously on the chief’s door. We talked for a long time. Eventually he said he could fit all six of us. We were very happy. Likoma was nice, but it was even nicer to leave.
The next day we tumbled happily into the boat, crammed tightly together. It was a lot quicker than getting there, but a lot less convenient. Glad to be back on the mainland, Steve and I set out to find the hospital. We’ve had enough island living for a while.

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