30 October 2009

2009-10-30: Butterfly couriers


I departed early for Blantyre, where my main task was to send a package. On the way, I stopped at a bakery for a huge cream bun, and at Chichiri Shopping Centre for a new tape measure and other field supplies. The package is now en route, completely covered with twenty-kwacha butterfly stamps. At Makoka, I rescued a flower spider from the minibus, finished measuring the last of the seedlings at Nkula Field, and was lucky to get a lift to town from Mrs Mkandawire so I could reach the Internet cafe before closing. At home, I ate dinner with my housemates and tried to go to sleep on time.

Main text:

I had to wake up not long after 7, because I was planning to go to Blantyre and Makoka today, a feat I had never before attempted. Success would require an early start. I needed to pick up a gift that I had ordered in Blantyre and mail it to the US; then I would return to Makoka and finish measuring the seedlings at Nkula field.

I was out the door before eight, looking even sillier than usual because I was carrying a large empty cardboard box to use for the package. I'd have liked to sleep on the minibus, but I got a seat in the back and it was far too bumpy. So I just looked out the window for the duration of the hour-long ride. Usually, I do some of my best thinking while looking out minibus windows, but today all I could manage was just staying awake.

* * * * *

We arrived in Limbe a little before 9:30. I got cash at National Bank in Limbe (suspecting the ATM queues would be longer in Blantyre), and then set out to walk to Chichiri Shopping Centre, which is about one-third of the way to Blantyre. It's a half-hour walk; I could have gotten there faster by catching another minibus, but not as much faster as you might think, because of the slow and uncertain nature of minibuses. I noticed darkening clouds in the sky and wondered if I should have brought my umbrella.

On the way to Chichiri, I stopped by Sasha's Bakery for a large cream bun, as has become my habit. I should explain a bit about bakeries in Malawi: In Zomba, if you walk into a bakery, you'll see loaves of bread, and rolls, and... that's it. Bread and rolls. The bread is all similar; it's more or less like Wonder Bread. For someone who is used to San Francisco crusty sourdough, Cheesboard cheese scones, and Neto's chocolate babkas, this does not really do justice to the term "bakery."

The bakeries in Limbe and Blantyre are a step up from those in Zomba. They at least have more variety, and they often have glass cases displaying various sweet concoctions made from leavened bread. No pastries or cakes, alas! But you can get:

  • Fruit buns (I tried one once, and learned that "fruit" referred to the two raisins that were hiding in the corner of the bun)

  • "Doughnuts," which are baked circles of sweet dough dusted with powdered sugar

  • Cream buns, which are sweet bread rolls filled with highly unnatural icing (probably a mix of powdered sugar and vegetable shortening)

At this particular bakery, the best value-for-money is the large cream bun. For K120 (US$0.85), you can buy a cream bun the size of a loaf of bread. It is surely a day's worth of calories. I bought one and started eating it (with difficulty, since it far exceeded the height of my open mouth) as I walked down the highway to Chichiri.

I noticed people staring at me. A man passing me in the opposite direction chuckled and said "That is too big for yooouuu!" A group of ladies, sitting under a mango tree, pointed at me and burst into giggles. When I first arrived in Malawi a year ago, I might have felt offended by this. Now that I understand Malawian culture better, I can share the amusement. Malawians can find humour in pretty much everything, and a minor faux pas or misunderstanding will often catalyse uproarious laughter.

So, this morning, I had to laugh at myself along with them. I did look pretty ridiculous. A mzungu eating a cream bun the size of her head, covered with powdered sugar... you don't see that every day.

* * * * *

I quickly did my errands at Chichiri: I printed the photos I took yesterday of Peter's family (yikes, they cost K70 each! - I thought it was K30), bought a kitchen scale for weighing biomass of seedlings at Nkula, bought a new tape measure to replace my dear departed one, and bought a roll of packing tape to make sure the package would be well sealed. Then I caught another minibus to Blantyre. Oh dear - those dark clouds had indeed turned into big fat raindrops, and I didn't have my umbrella. Well, hopefully the showers would soon pass.

Disembarking in Blantyre, I stopped at Arkay Plastics to buy a medium-sized basin for holding leaf litter (my next task is to measure leaf litter in the Tephrosia plots). Then I went to the crafts stalls and collected the item I had ordered. The craftsman helped me wrap it up, and now I had only to take it to the post office.

Two errands awaited me first, though: I needed to buy some more Mefloquin (malaria prophylaxis) at the pharmacy across the street; I'd never bought Mefloquin in Malawi before, but a friend told me I'd find it there. I also needed to get more cash, since upon further reflection, I remembered that sending packages is always more expensive than I expect.

The Mefloquin was a pleasant surprise: I knew it'd be cheaper here than in the US, and it was less than one-third the price! Each weekly pill cost K280 (US$2) instead of the US$7 that I'd paid at Walgreens in California. Now I felt stupid to have bought a seven-month supply before I left California last year. Had I know it was so easily available and so cheap here, I could have saved myself a couple hundred dollars. Well, live and learn.

I ended up having to wait in a long queue at the ATM, as I suspected. Next time I sent a package, I would remember to get more cash than I thought I would need. Live and learn.

On the way to the post office, I passed a casual restaurant-cafe and wondered if they would let me use their toilet. Public toilets are rare in Malawian cities, and where they do exist, they are usually pay toilets (cost K20). I'd willingly have paid that, but I knew there were no public toilets at all in downtown Blantyre. I inquired at the front counter.

"No," said the proprietor, a stout Indian woman with grey hair. "Toilet is only for customers."

"Oh, okay," I said. "I will buy something then. May I have a Cocopina?"

"NO, we don't DO that," she said scathingly. "You can't just buy a drink. It's only for customers who are eating lunch." She turned away.

"All right, then I'll go," I sighed, and added (too crossly, in retrospect) "And I won't come back." I guess I have been spoilt by the friendly staff at Tasty Bites. Still, I did not like being treated as though my polite request was objectionable and unreasonable. I told myself to forget about it and proceeded to the post office.

* * * * *

I'd never been to the Blantyre main post office before; it is a long grey two-storey building on Glyn Jones Road, with walls of post office boxes painted in a black-and-white chequered pattern. Inside the lobby, I spent a few minutes at the side counter reinforcing the package with additional tape, then I carried it to one of the service windows.

The clerk said, "You must go to the parcel office, we don't accept parcels at this counter. Just a moment. Let me call them."

Parcel office? Why did she need to call them? Was my request that unusual?

After a moment, the clerk told me "Go out that door and turn left. You will find someone waiting for you." I followed her instructions, found a door labeled "PARCEL OFFICE," and was welcomed inside by a plump middle-aged Malawian woman. The sign on the door said "Closed for Lunch 12:00 - 1:00." It was currently 12:25. Oh dear!

"I'm so sorry to disturb your lunch hour," I said. "I didn't realise you were closed."

"No problem," she said as she walked behind the counter and pulled out a black binder. "I saw you coming up the street with that package and I knew you would come here eventually."

She weighed my package - 2.5 kilos - and looked up the cost in her black binder. Good thing I went to the bank again! It takes quite a fistful of kwacha to convey a package to the US.

Since this post office was clearly more sophisticated than the Zomba post office, I wondered if they might have a machine for printing labels with the exact postage amount. But no... the clerk reached for another binder, and out came the stamps. Just like in Zomba, my package was going to get plastered with thousands of kwacha worth of stamps.

Each Malawian stamp depicts a different species of native butterfly. Malawi has a great diversity of colourful butterflies, so they make a good theme for stamps. The clerk was getting out sheets of K20 stamps, which featured a yellow-and-black Charaxes castor on a green leaf. But K20 was not the highest denomination. I asked the clerk why she didn't use K75 stamps instead.

"These ones are easier to count," she said, ripping off 5-by-5 squares of stamps - each representing K500. "You can help me put them on."

So the two of us embarked upon an art project: covering my cardboard box, which was more than a foot on each side, entirely in butterfly stamps. She procured a little saucer of water (missing its sponge) for us to dip our fingers in. Soon the counter was covered with drips of water, smears of stamp-glue, and discarded strips from the edges of each stamp sheet.

Finally the last butterfly was in place and the last kwacha was accounted for. The package, formerly plain brown cardboard, was now swarming with hundreds of yellow-and-black butterflies in grid formation.

I smiled to imagine the butterflies taking flight and lifting the package, each butterfly attached to its burden by a slender thread. Had the butterflies been real, I think there would have nearly been enough of them to lift 2.5 kilos. Go, butterflies, go!

To my amazement, the clerk put a bar-code sticker on the package and gave me a receipt with the same bar code. A tracking number? This was fantastic. I would never send a package from Zomba again. (I wonder if my parents' 2008 holiday package will ever reach them... it hasn't so far...)

I thanked the clerk profusely for helping me over her lunch break. Her friendliness had cheered me up greatly. I smiled as I watched her carry the package into the back room, hoping and expecting that it would arrive safe and sound.

On the way out, I examined my receipt, which said "Department of Posts and Telecommunications." I think it should have said "Malawi Butterfly Courier Service."

* * * * *

As I walked to catch a minibus to Limbe, I stopped by the big Petroda filling station, where they were happy to let me use their toilet. And they didn't even make me buy petrol. Now I know where to find a toilet in Blantyre - live and learn.

Once in Limbe, I had to find a Zomba minibus and wait for it to fill. While I was sitting in the Zomba minibus waiting to depart, there were two notable occurrences:

  1. I wrote an outline of my dissertation (this I had done in my head last week while lying awake jet-lagged, but it was good to get it on paper);

  2. I noticed a flower spider hiding in the window frame of the minibus.

What was a flower spider doing in a minibus? Its round golden yellow body, somewhat smaller than a pea, would have been well camouflaged on a sunflower but looked very out of place inside a minibus. I thought about tossing the spider out the open window, but that would have been a death sentence - below was a barren dirt shoulder upon which minibus tyres crunched endlessly. At a loss for what to do, I left it where it was, and kept reminding myself not to hit it with my elbow.

Soon after I'd finished my dissertation outline, the bus engine started and we were on our way towards Zomba. The rain had stopped a while ago in Blantyre, and had never amounted to much, but as we proceeded northwards I could see that some places had received heavy rain. Had it rained at Makoka, I wondered? Would I be spending my afternoon struggling with wet Tephrosia seedlings as they soaked the pages of my notebook?

When we passed Namadzi, the last stop before Makoka, I finally had an idea that might save the spider. I got an empty small plastic bag and coaxed the spider into it, blew a little air into the bag, and tied the top closed. I tucked this little bag gingerly into the top of my shoulder bag. The spider should be safe there until I disembarked at Makoka.

My plan worked! I hopped off the bus at Makoka to find, as I expected, only faint signs of raindrops on the dirt road. I carried the spider to the nearest yellow flower - a lantana, whose flower clusters had pink centres and yellow edges. I opened the plastic bag and turned it inside out to reveal the spider, which I placed on the yellow part of the flower. There it sat, looking right at home. I bade it farewell.

I have to say, that was one lucky spider! I'm glad I could save it from its uncertain fate as a minibus passenger.

* * * * *

I passed Chiku on the road, and he told me that someone had already done the next task for my swazi bed, which was to raise the layer of grass to give the seedlings more light. I wanted to check on the swazi bed anyway, so I stopped by the nursery. The grass had indeed been raised; it was now lying atop three small logs that were laid perpendicular across the bed. More than half of the Gliricidia seeds have now germinated; I hope the rest soon follow!

On my way to Nkula, I called Peter, but he said he couldn't help me this afternoon (I didn't catch the reason why). No problem, I should be able to finish measuring the seedlings today even without his help. I left my basin, kitchen scale, and my other Blantyre puchases with the watchman, then I unfurled my new tape measure and got to work. It took a bit of getting used to - it was lighter and more easily bent than my old tape measure, and retracted more strongly. But soon I got into the swing of things.

I enjoyed the afternoon; the weather was cool and cloudy after the rain, and very pleasant for working outside. The birds seemed to like it too. I saw a lilac-breasted roller (a gorgeous blue bird somewhat like a kingfisher) winging over the forest, and I got a close-up view of a male blue waxbill who perched on a grass bough close to me and said "Zwee zwee zwee."

As four o'clock approached, and I still had one Tephrosia plot remaining, I realised I'd need to work very fast if I were to have any hope of getting to the Internet cafe before six. So I ploughed through that plot in record time. All by myself, a Tephrosia plot in less than one hour... not bad! Practise makes perfect, and heaven knows I've had enough practise at this job.

"Eighty-two... fourteen. Done." And thus concluded the grand task of measuring 2,376 seedlings. Rather than savour my victory, I tossed my notebook and tape measure into my bag, slung my bag over my shoulder, and hurried down the path as fast as I could without running.

Halfway down the driveway, I heard a vehicle approach and then slow down. This was a good sign. It meant someone was likely to give me a lift. Mrs Mkandawire! She said she was coming from a Mother's Day party at Makoka. Mother's Day was two weeks ago, but this was the best day for the Makoka staff to hold a celebration.

As we approached town, I asked Mrs Mkandawire why the flagpoles had been erected along the main road; flagpoles usually signify that an important government official is visiting. "Tomorrow the President is coming," she said. "There will be a big golf tournament here in Zomba, and the President will attend the festivities at Gymkhana Club."

Mrs Mkandawire insisted on driving me all the way to All Seasons Internet Cafe. It was my lucky day - thanks to her, I had twenty-five minutes to spare, which at least was enough to check my email.

* * * * *

As I was heading home, just passing Shoprite, one of the taxi drivers shouted "Catherine" at me. "Yes?" I said.

"Come here, I want to tell you something," he said. It was Collins, a driver I've used several times.

Collins gave me a long lecture on how I shouldn't be walking home by myself too late because Zomba is becoming more dangerous. He told me about several recent murders (a soldier at the aerodrome, and a street boy at Mponda River). He said that because I was not Malawian, I wouldn't hear about these things. But he was, and he did, and he was warning me.

"Please, Catherine," he said. "You shouldn't walk late at night. You should get taxi."

"Is this late?" I asked. It was ten past six, and twilight had fallen. I wasn't quite sure when, in his opinion, the streets became dangerous.

"Maybe this is OK," he said. "But seven, or eight, or nine, is not so good. I saw you the other day walking home at seven o'clock carrying many jumbo [bags]. That is not safe for you. You should call me for lift."

I wasn't sure whether to trust his advice, since as a taxi driver he stood to directly profit from my apprehensions. I thanked him noncommittally, but that didn't satisfy him, so he reiterated his warnings about the dangers of Zomba. I was quite relieved to finally get away; I don't really like being lectured by near-strangers for ten minutes at a time. Perhaps there is some truth to what he was saying, but hearing it three times didn't help. I will seek a second opinion.

* * * * *

At home, I joined my housemates for dinner and TV. Then, since I'd contributed to the eating but not the cooking, I washed the dishes. I used up the remainder of my energy scrubbing the pot I'd burned last night. So that was my last useful accomplishment for the day - after that, I only managed to read a few more chapters of "West With the Night."

There was a lot of commotion on the streets outside as I tried to go to sleep. People were yelling, cheering, and hollering; horns were honking. I don't know what it was all for. Pre-wedding festivities? End of term at Chancellor College? Excitement about the President coming tomorrow? Whatever it was, I was glad to be home in bed!

Chichewa word of the day: -bwera = to come; abwera = he/she comes


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