Swamp Music (Part 1)

Read Part Two here.

“Going down to the swamp. . . swamp, swamp, swamp, swamp music. . .I ain’t got them big ol’ city blues.” — Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Swamp Music”

Unicorns. Big Foot. Vanilla Ice’s career. What do these three have in common? All are surrounded with tremendous tall tales but none have ever been seen.

. . . (crickets chirp) . . .

All jesting aside, this is how I felt about “The Marsh Adventure”, as my site mate Bob Green had confidently and triumphantly christened it. A lot of talk had been floating around since he initially revealed the plan to visit the marsh back when I found out I would be near him in the southern region of Malawi. According to him, it was something I had to do. A rite of passage. The moment where boy would become man. The trial and tribulation above all others. The Great Bambino of all adventures.

Except, I heard the Great Bambi. Yes, that wimpy deer.

With a naïve arrogance, I didn’t take Mr. Green seriously. For starters, I hadn’t spent much time researching the area. I didn’t know what it could afford in terms of natural beauty and adventure. I had been in Malawi for almost three months. My brain still couldn’t wrap itself around the idea that I was indeed in Africa let alone think ahead to an abstract place I had no cognition of. Secondly, Bob is a real character and is loved and cherished for his zany ideas and off-the-cuff remarks. How did I know that he was actually serious about taking an excursion into the marsh? The best ideas are the ones that are acted upon and I saw no suggestion that it would actually happen. Lastly, it simply seemed like too much of an endeavor trying to balance everyones’ schedule and to save up cash, not to mention the physical energy to actually pick up and go. The trip was dead in the water.

But as providence would have it, the marsh does exist, Bob is a doer and ultimately — against all odds — the cards fell in an accommodating way. I brought it up once over a cold beer and a World Cup game that we should do it over the coming weekend. Bob looked me straight in the eye and without reluctance, jubilantly declared, “Yes”. And that was that. That’s all she wrote. The deal was sealed, signed, and delivered.

I was coming off a bad case of dysentery and was feeling particularly queasy and weak. I had second thoughts about making the 25 kilometer trip on bike down to the marsh trailhead. When Bob and Cody (another site mate) showed up on my front doorstep with zealous and glowing equanimity, I knew there was no way I could back out. I loaded my bike with gear to keep me fed, clean and clothed for three days and we took off, leaving nothing but dust and no regrets in our wake.

Upon arrival in the marsh’s neighboring trading center, we put up for the night at Cody’s place nearby. The boys were back in town and the locals knew it. Three azungus (foreigners) in one place? There goes the neighborhood.

In customary style, we picked up a couple brews and groceries and entertained ourselves the best three men can do: played cards, ate food, drank brew and watched a movie. What’s a little bro-time amidst friends?

We were all pretty fatigued from the day’s activities and in a short time after the conclusion of the movie, I had my hammock hung from a window’s burglar bars. Within minutes I was counting Zs.

The next morning, I got a fire roaring and whipped up a simple rice and tea. I kept looking to Bob for hints into what I was about to get into during the day. What should I wear? What should I bring? What should be my demeanor?

Unfortunately, Bob didn’t give me much of an indication. Bob donned cargo pants, rolled up to the knees along with sandals and conspicuous black tube socks. He had his water bottle and a tent bag full of God only knows. His bearing was nothing out of the ordinary. Thanks Bob. Looks like I’ll just throw on some trousers, bring some H20, and hope for the best. When in Rome. . .

We met up with Cody’s counterpart Lampson who had agreed the night before to act as our tour guide. At about nine o’clock, we mounted our rolling, metal steeds and chivalrously rambled into the marsh land.

Within forty-five minutes, we had reached our jumping off point to where we were going. The place was bustling with locals and was complete with a butchers’ stand, a small vegetable market, and in the water, a line of about fifteen dugout canoes, all of which were approximately forty feet long.

The boats were fascinating. All had an obvious shape and explicit design, fastidiously crafted from some antiquated method using trees that have all but since been cut down. They all varied in size and shape, indubitably constructed for various applications. Many had been patched using plastic containers, the heavy duty type used for twenty liter (approximately five gallons) jugs of cooking oil (you can see the bright yellow patches in the pictures). In the reeds and up on shore there were five or six boats that had been decommissioned. I prayed that the boat we would soon board would not succumb to a similar fate.

I purchased a few mandasi (plain doughnut-type confections) and scrambled to where Lampson was negotiating our fare. Bob came shuffling over.

“Man, I wish I would have worn my tube socks with my sandals like you, Bob,” I snickered, “That way if any crocodiles capsize the boat, I can be prepared for survival.”

Bob smirks and mimics my comment with his lips, making a contorted face while waving his fingers in the air.

“Well, when you jerks get a giant leech stuck to your leg or get cholera, don’t come crying to me. You’ll see man. The marsh is intense. Oh, and if you get water in your mouth, spit it out immediately. I shouldn’t have to tell you this but who knows what that big, dumb head of yours thinks.”

Lampson calls for us to bring our bikes over so the captain and a porter could get them securely stacked on the front of the boat. After some careful maneuvering, the boat was packed. We boarded the adjacent boat to clamor into our vessel.

I sat Indian-style far stern with the captain standing over me. The long pole that he used to steer the craft was now a part of his being, his muscle memory knowing instinctively how to navigate the murky water. He relaxed his face as he stared out into the morning sun. He slowly turned his head from side to side surveying the water for prospective obstructions, his shallow breathing in rhythmic harmony with the proficient plunging of the paddle pole into the water.

We glided through the narrow channels in the reeds, lined with beautiful white, pink, and red floral displays atop lilies and water hyacinths that seemed to just barely keep from breaking surface tension. Little grebes and egrets, gray herons, an African fish-eagle, Black-winged stilts, African black crakes, a purple swamphen, African jacanas, and various guineafowl, doves, pigeons, nightjars, kingfishers and songbirds all found themselves busy hunting down their morning prey.

I found the jacanas to be particularly amusing to watch. With bright rufous on their backs, wings, and underparts, a straight, pale blue bill and long, gray legs with long claws on all toes, they bounced from lily pad to lily pad, stopping briefly then dipping their heads into the water. I find it interesting that the sex roles for jacanas are reversed and that the male is the one to incubate the eggs and care for the young. Females are known to gather several male companions, providing eggs for each of their nests.

This area of the Shire River has been designated a United Nations disaster relief area. The marsh during the rainy seasons has continuously flooded now in ways it hasn’t in years past. The continued deforestation of much of the savanna and mountainous ecosystems up the watershed have led to irregularities in water flow patterns. Because of the squeeze on arable land for cultivation due to population density increases and geographic constraints, many villagers are making life in the marsh more and more commonplace because of the nutrient rich and perennially moist subsoil. This creates the hypochondriacs’ worst nightmare situation. Because the water table is simply too high here, seeing a properly built pit latrine is improbable. Open defecation is common. This all leads to issues related to water-borne illnesses and further exacerbates national concerns related to HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Occasionally a canoe would pass coming from the opposite direction. Because the canoes are so long and narrow, I got anxious as the respective captains orchestrated the dance around each other. Perhaps I wasn’t concerned so much about the captains being able to navigate successfully as I was about the other passengers making sharp movements, sending the rest of us in a panic to keep the craft balanced and upright.

I watched the birds and landscape, asking questions about what I was seeing to Lampson, who would often consult with the captain in Chisena. Chisena is a language influence from years of Mozambican immigrants moving into the area as well as the second language I’m learning albeit painfully slow. We all carried on aimlessly about the Peace Corps, life in Africa, political science, philosophy, theology and Bob’s choice for wardrobe that day.

Read Part Two here.

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