A New Kind Of Village

Today we leave the comforts of Lilongwe and journey to a remote village some twenty miles outside Nkokoma, wherever that is (I can’t find it on any map). However I don’t expect any surprises because I have considerable experience with village people. I know that village males typically sport moustaches, dance extraordinaire, tend to the gay – while at the same time being quite macho. And I love their pulsating disco music (which I am particularly fond of). Interestingly, village people are well versed in such trades as construction, bartending, soldiering,  cowboying, and police officiating – while bedizened with colorful attire. As you can tell, I’m rather excited.

We drive for an eternity, roads becoming non-roads with mosh-pit bruising ruts and potholes.  I haven’t seen a goat in over an hour, hmm…

Eventually we arive at a World Vision field office. Interesting fact du jour: ‘field office’ can also infer a building with mud walls, dirt floor and a squat toilet. I knew we’d be stopping because it wasn’t long ago that I signed a document agreeing not to hold World Vision responsible for any kidnappings . I understand why they don’t want to pay a pesky ransom but I also agreed to their frivolous background check, which I’m proud to say I passed (due to a ‘statute of limitations’ –  I’ll struggle to explain this technicality to Janet). 

We transfer to World Vision mega Land-Rovers, which host massive air-intake pipes that enable us to transform into submarines. I must assume we’ll be needing this feature – can’t wait. 

It’s another ten miles of bone-rattling dirt roads, with an exciting stop requiring us to exit the vehicle so that the vehicles might navigate the termite-rotting  planks bridging a dried up river. 

Look for yourself, no goats – nor cell towers:


 Up ahead I spot some thatched huts. And there’s a group of villagers excitedly anticipating our arrival. Ok, something weird with this scene. Yes they’re wearing bright colors, dancing and singing, but this is not the ‘village people’ I was expecting. My bad.

I can’t help wonder if it is the Land Rovers that are causing all this excitment – but no, it’s all the white people spilling out of the Land Rovers. Harry doesn’t get this excited when I arrive home. 

We’re welcomed into a ‘home’ where we are to visit one of our team’s sponsored children. In this humble home there is no furniture, no lights, no windows – just a straw mat. I emit a muffled groan as I squat Indian-style in the dark. Would it be impolite to ask for a pillow?

Is that paparazzi outside? And is that young warrior brandishing a spear??

If I had my own sponsored child I would have brought an assortment of sports gear, an electric bike, an IPhone, and perhaps a surfboard. Christy brought pencils, pencil sharpener, a headband, and a rubber globe. Hmm… I need to give this some more thought.

And then the most profound thing happened – ‘mom’ brought out a gift for Christy:

Homegrown ‘brown nuts’ and fresh eggs – probably enough food to feed their family for a month. I’ve got a lot to learn. Is it possible that life can be so simple? I don’t want to leave.

Who’s Teaching Who Here?

It’s 8:00 am Monday morning and the day of my first class on Music Theory. I’ve been planning this course for months now and I’ve attempted to consider all contingencies: what ages will the students be; will the class size be small or large; will the students have any prior musical exposure; will they be enthusastic or have they been forced to attend; do they speak English. I believe I can handle all items except the last.

I’m over-the-top excited and can’t wait to do an outstanding job, teacher of the century, my students will become famous, blah, blah, blah. I’m directed to trawl all my instructional material, percussion instruments, and piano, up to a second floor classroom. As I enter the classroom I halt, frozen – the classroom  is absolutely empty and is the temperature of a sauna. Well, I feel pretty silly standing here by myself. What am I supposed to do now? I keep telling myself not to panic – think positive and remind myself that He is in control.

I begin setting up the piano and arranging all the chairs so that the students will be facing the piano – and me. There must be fifty chairs and I’m drenched as if I just climbed out of a pool. I carefully lay out all the percussion instruments for display and begin second-guessing my teaching strategy. All the preparations are complete and I’m still the only person occupying the classroom. Now what do I do? I wait. And I wait. And I keep waiting.

My waiting pays off when a single solitary boy about ten years of age steps tentatively into the classrom. It pains my heart to see the apprehension on his face – he is obviously feeling more intimidated than myself.  I’m tempted to tell him “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you”.

As I shuffle and reshuffle my teaching materials – a blatant attempt to portray myself as a serious teacher and not just an impostor – a few more children begin to straggle in. In my most authoritative voice I smile and say “welcome, please come in”.

To my surprise the room continues to fill to near capacity as the children begin chatting excitedly amongst themselves. I take a deep breath of relief as I notice that the students are smiling. Yes, these are  my students.

As I mentally prepare to kick off the class, who else but Rocky appears at the door. Oh sweet Jesus – thank you. Rocky steps in and greets me as though I were a long lost friend. He turns to face the class and warmly greets the students, thanking them for their attendance. It appears that Rocky knows each and every student and that he holds a position of high respect. Rocky introduces me to the class and informs me that he will remain present so as to be of any help. I couldn’t be happier.

What happens over the course of the next four hours will remain in my memory forever. I’ll attempt to convey the events but words alone fail miserably.

My ‘lesson plan’ is to assume that these children have had no prior exposure to music theory, and that I will need to start from the very beginning. Although I was prepared to teach up to an ‘intermediate’ level, that would typically take a year or more to accomplish – and I have only one or two days. I figure we’ll take one small step at a time and just see how far we get.

As an ice-breaker I decide that, rather than diving immediately into the grit of  ‘music theory’, I will lead them gently into the shallow end of the music pool. I explain that a large component of music is ‘rhythm’ (I do not tell them that this is something I do not possess). I begin by explaining the concepts of tempo and time signature. I tell one student to clap along with me, beginning at a slow tempo, and he nails it. I gradually increase my tempo and he stays in exact step with me. I retard and he anticipates me without my need to say a word. Lesson #1 complete, Grade = A+.

Now it’s on to ‘time signature’, an intimidating title to say the least. For Christ’s sake it involves the concept of fractions! Most of my American friends don’t understand this mathematical concept. I feel faint of heart.

I write carefully on the blackboard the fraction “4/4”. I regretfully  refer to the top number as ‘numerator’,  and I swear I hear that word reverberating around the room as though it had been spoken by Satan himself. I suppress the feeling of panic and ask the class to count  “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, …”. They have absolutely no problem with this. So I stop them and  change the fraction on the board to “3/4” and have them count “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, …”, again  with no problem. I explain “that is all the numerator means – it tells you how high to count before repearting”. Again, Grade = A+.

The student’s enthusiasm is palpable as they apparenlty realize that there is nothing mysterious being taught here. I then explain the concept of ‘whole’ notes, ‘half’ notes, ‘quarter’ notes, … by passing out the percussion instruments and having the first student count aloud in ‘4/4’ time signautre: “1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,1,…”. I have the next student play the cowbell on the count of “1” – whole notes. He does so with perfect timing. I have the next student play the tambourine on counts “2” and “4” – half notes. Again, no problem. I show the next student how to play the cabassa on the counts “1”, “&”, “2”, “&”,… eighth notes, and before I know it I have an entire percussion section playing with perfect timing – absolutely incredible. In my excitement I decide to push the envelope by having the next student play the claves in a ‘Bossa’ Nova’ style and she nails it! I’ve played with professional drummers and percussionists that did not have such a precise and  innate sense of rhythm. I can barely contain my excitement.

With ‘rhythm’ and ‘tempo’ under our belts I take a big step and move on to ‘music notation’, using such big words as ‘Grand Staff’, ‘Treble and Bass Clef’, lines and spaces, measures, … and with Rocky’s gentle clarifications the students seem undaunted. After exposing them to these terms and drawing each on the blackboard, I show them a printout of a standard Hymn, one that they have sung many times but have never seen the actual sheet music. They seem mesmerized as I sing a few notes of the melody and point these notes out on the sheet music. I sense that they actually begin to see the connection between music that is performed and it’s equivalent music notation.

The students are now obviously  ‘hooked’ and I’ve got them eating out of the palm of my hand. We’ve been going for over an hour and there is absolutely no indication that anybody wants to take a break. To reward them, I move to the piano and the room goes silent with anticipation. I ask them if they have ever heard the melody “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do” and to my surprise most of them raise their hands. I explain that this is called a “Major Scale”. To reinforce this I play the notes of the C Major Scale on the piano – all the white notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A.

Now I introduce the students to the concept of ‘pitch’ as we play and sing notes of varying pitch: high notes, low notes, and mid notes. But here is where I hit them with a doozey: “whole space” and “half space”. With Rocky’s invaluable help (and translation into Chichew) these students begin to grasp the concept and sound of  ‘distance’ between two notes that are either a half step or a whole step apart. I ask them to close their eyes, listen to two notes that I play, and tell me if they are either a ‘half’ step or a ‘whole’ step apart. Within minutes they all have no problem recognizing the difference. Grade: A+.

What happens next astounds me. The students are introduced to the concept of ‘melody’ (single notes played sequentially one at a time) and ‘harmony’ (a chord of 3 or more notes played simultaneously). I play a melody for them and then I play a chord for them. Then I play either a chord or melody and ask which is it? Their grasp of this concept is amazing. I have no recourse left but to move on to the concept of ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ triad chords (chords comprised of only three notes). Keep in mind that two hours ago, these kids had absolutely no training in music theory!

I play a Major chord and show them the number of ‘half steps’ and ‘whole steps’ between each note – and they have no problem with this because they had just learned this. I bring students up to the piano one at a time and have them play a C note, count up four half steps to an E note, and count up another three half steps to a G note. Now I have them play these three notes together and Wahlah! They have just played their first C Major triad. Grade A+.

I repeat the process for ‘Minor’ triads – 4 half steps and 3 half steps – D, F and A. I ask them to close their eyes and listen to me play both Major and Minor chords. I explain how the Major chord has a slight ‘happy’ sound and that the ‘Minor’ chord has a slightly ‘sad’ sound – and they grasp this immediately. I play a Minor chord and they scream ‘minor!’. I play a Major chord and they all scream ‘major’. They are all laughing hysterically at this musical ‘game’.

We are into our third hour and Rocky suggests a 20 minute break. My old body is exhausted at this point so I grab a soda and sit down at a ‘child-chair’. The kids are obviously NOT tired, as they are all huddled around the piano vying for their turn to show off their expertise in playing Major and Minor chords! I’m incredulous.

Break time over and the kids are hungry for more. I’m left with nothing else but to pull out all the stops. The students have a solid grasp of tempo, rhythm, time signature, note duration, melody and basic chords – after only three hours!  So here is my plan…

Not everyone is aware of the amazing technology contained within a $500 Yamaha portable piano, but I am. These pianos possess the capability of performing complete songs while providing all the accompaniment of bass, drums, guitar, strings – you name it. All you need to do is set a Tempo, select a Song Style, and then play a chord to start it off. So what do I do? I bring a student up to the piano and prep him on playing a sequence of C Major chord, F Major chord and G Major chord. Within a minute he has nearly mastered the three chords. I set the piano for a nice upbeat tempo and select a ‘Calypso’ song style – very close to what I had heard in Sunday’s service. I press the ‘start’ button, pause, and tell my student to play a C Major chord. You could hear a pin drop as everyone waits for what comes next. And he plays a perfect C Major chord. And as he does, the piano erupts into a beautiful Calypso rythm to a C Major chord. As I look around the room, all I see is the excitement and amazement that you expect from a child on Christmas morning when he first sees his shiny new bicylce.

As the music plays, I begin counting in ‘4/4’ time and tell my student to alternate between C, F, and G chords on the ‘downbeat’ or ‘1’ count, and he does so. By now, all the students are on their feet and surrounding the piano eagerly awaiting a turn to play their own music.  I step back and begin to dance to the music. Yes, I broke out into dance – clapping and singing a melody to the song that my student is playing. I pass out the percussion instruments and the students begin playing in perfect tempo to the song. I fear I will never experience this happiness again. If I were to die tomorrow, I will die a very, very happy man.





White Men Have No Rhythm

There is an undisputable fact: white men have no rhythm. Yes, there might be a few exceptions (Bobby Caldwell and Daryl Hall come to mind, Bob Dylan doesn’t). I speculate that there is only a finite amount of rhythm available in the universe, and the Lord in his infinite wisdom has found it best not to waste any of it on me.

As a young drummer in the late 60’s I struggle and try to play along to James Brown albums – late into the night, fantasizing that I am Clyde Stubblefield, RIP (if you’ve never heard of James Brown then you’ve stumbled onto the wrong blog, so press the ‘BACK’  icon).  Whilst all my friends scratch there heads wondering why I am always holed up in my back room practicing, they go surfing. Eventually I manage to hire into a ‘soul’ band, because ‘soul’ music possesses the intoxicating rhythms that I yearn to master. We play a few talent shows and fare quite well, probably due to the oddity of having the only white drummer in the competition. I still have a photo of that  band, and I stand out like a – well, I stand out like a white kid.

Before long, and much to mum’s disappointment, it is time to get serious and hit the road. Dance clubs are the rage and our band is a ‘soul band’, racially mixed – three blacks and three whites – and we fill the clubs to overflowing. I spend afternoons practicing ‘funk’ beats to a metronome, while sweating in the back of my VW bus parked out on the backroads. You’re thinking: “wasn’t there a lot of drugs back in the 60’s?”.  Well, I can’t answer that question because I was too busy practicing. Ok, maybe there was a little. But I was always careful – with blazing fast hands and drumsticks flying at the speed of light, an addled brain could result in the loss of an eye! Or worse, the loss of a downbeat.

One day I serendipitously stumble upon a Buddy Rich album, and  my life will never be the same. To this very day I love nothing more than putting on the headphones and listening to Buddy play like I never will. We all have our dreams, and my dream is to play like Buddy.

Now you’re thinking: “what the Hell does all this have to do with Malawi?”.  My first response is to say: “you should probably switch to Decaf”.  My second response is: “Hey, this is my blog, why don’t you go write your own!”. Then again, maybe I should switch to Decaf.

Ok, ok… fast forward to 70’s. I’m a burned-out road musician and it’s finally time to settle down. But I soon discover that practicing drums in a quiet ‘burb’ is a quick way to get yourself killed. My only recourse is to switch back to playing piano. Without the assistance of drugs, and with evenings free to rehearse, my playing improves substantially and I begin gigging locally on weekends. I’m still no Buddy Rich and I’m certainly no Art Tatum, but playing music is my number one passion in life.

Really fast forwarding now, it is May 2017, and I’m on the third day of a mission trip to Malawi. It’s Sunday and in three short days I’ve developed a dozen new friends with names I can’t pronounce nor remember. To assist in relaying what happens next, I’ll need to creatively apply ‘western names’ to some of my new acquaintances.  Amongst them is a drummer (Jason), a bassist (‘Rocky’) and a keyboardist (Ephram). When I first arrived and met these three, I lavished them with all the music paraphernalia I had brought from America: drumsticks, tambourine, cabassa, guiro, claves, kalimbas, cowbell, metronome, music theory books, and last but not least my prized Yamaha keyboard that Janet gave me for my birthday. To my delight they were extremely appreciative. But the thought dawns on me: “have I just tried to ‘buy’ my way into their cirle?”. Please Lord, let this not be a self-serving act.

Being Sunday now, the church is brimming with a congregation comprising five generations: very young children, young children, young parents, grandparents, and great grandparents – all dressed in their finest. I manage to seat myself alongside the band, hoping to blend in, but I still feel very conspicous. I find myself thinking “why again is it that I’m here?”.

Now it begins. M’busa Bizwick commences the service with greetings and a prayer. Then he turns to the praise band and instructs them to begin their first song. Oh Dear Lord – what is happening?!! The church is larger than a college gymnasium, and the music that begins to fill it is reminiscent of a massive IMAX theater. And those voices! And everyone is rising to their feet and clapping their hands. Feeling as though I am the only one still seated, I rise and stand too. Since I am supposed to me the ‘musician from Amaerica’, I too begin clapping – making certain to clap on the same beat as everyone else (a challenging task for many caucasians). The music has what I would describe as a ‘Calypso’ feel and it is infectious. Everyone around me is dancing, clapping, and singing. Well, I’m certainly not going to try to sing a Chichewa song, so there is nothing else to do but begin dancing. I just thank God for those Salsa lessons that someone forced me to take. I analyze the collective dance moves of the choir and attempt to follow, fully aware that I have no rhythm. A funny thing happens when you are swept up in a powerful current that tugs and pulls you, and you are no longer in control. I begin to recognize a repeating phrase that the choir is singing and I try to follow.  What is happening?!!!! The idea of me dancing and singing in an African church is so ludicrous that it makes me laugh. I make eye contact with one of the choir members, who probably interprets my laughter as ‘the Holy Spirit’ flowing through me, so I just go with it.

After a few more songs, I’m feeling giddy. Our church back home never sounded like this.  M’busa Bizwick (‘the Biz’) steps up to the pulpit and delivers, in a baritone voice deeper than Morgan Freeman, a sermon that hynotizes the congregateion, as well as myself. But now it is time to introduce the ‘Brothers and Sisters From America’ to the congregation. This shouldn’t be too awkward – I’ll just timidly raise my hand when the anouncement is made. But no, the Biz wants us all up on stage. Krap, I wasn’t at all prepared for this. So I take up the tail and try to hide behind Christy as the Biz singles us out one at a time. Biz wants each of us to introduce ourselves and tell a little about why we are here. The last time I was this nervous was the last time I got married – and that didn’t go well, so why should this be any different.

It’s my turn now, and I’m in some kind of out-of-body trance. What few words I had haphazardly conjured have suddenly vanished, so I just have to wing it. And I’ll keep it short: “Hello, my name is East and I came to Malawi to teach some music. Thank you”. There, that wasn’t too difficult. Can I go now?

Apparently the Biz isn’t done with me yet. He is striding slowly down to my end of the stage – with his microphone held high. What has he got up his sleeve? He’s staring intently into my eyes as he begins to make an announcement to the congregation: “Mr. East has brought us a gift. He has brought us a piano that was given to him on his birthday.”. Out of the corner of my eye I see Ephram approaching the stage with the piano, and he holds it high in the air so that everyone can see it’s gleaming white and black keys.  Then the congregation erupts into an applause that I have never experienced before.

On trembling legs I make it back to my seat as Rocky, Ephram and Jason shake my hand and call me ‘brother’. Service ends and I am still on a high. People I’ve never met before want to shake my hand and say ‘thank you’. I’m filled with an odd mixture of excitement and guilt. I’ve done no more than take a long flight and lugged along a bunch of music equipment. I have yet to play a note of music nor teach a single music lesson. But I feel like I am surrounded by warm fellowship.

Back at the manse the schedule for the upcoming week is discussed. Of importance to me is that I will be teaching a course on Introductory Music Theory on Monday, and rehearsing with the praise band and choir for next Sunday’s service. Ok, I can do this – I’ve been preparing for this for the last two months. I just hope that my dark secret doesn’t reveal itself – that  I have no rhythm.






Culture Shock

As we drive through the massive security gates of Manse 2, Area 12, Lilongwe, I am perplexed by what I see. Rather than the mud huts and thatched roofs I had expected, we are greeted by a lush garden with a variety of fruit trees, countless chickens and roosters, a driveway large enough to accomodate a dozen cars plus a 40-passenger church bus, and an enticing courtyard that welcomes visitors into a sprawling red brick building. Might this be a mistake?

We are led into the manse and greeted by mai (Mrs) Mecina and bambo (mister) Mecina, the full-time caretakers. The introduction affords me my first opportunity to try out the Chichewa that I so diligently rehearsed on the plane: “Muli Bwanji” (How are you?) and “Ndili bwino, kaya inu?” (I am fine, what about you?). I am filled with pride as mai Mecina smiles toothlessly back at me – she is obviously impressed by my efforts to master her native language. I am determined to continue to win her over with my expanding lexicon of Chichewa phrases. On the other hand, I have also been forewarned that mai Mecina will be cooking for us all, and that the kitchen area is strictly her domain, which she will vigorously defend. I have no intention of encroaching, for fear that a random meal becomes mysteriously laced with a deadly Malawian plant extract.

We’re weary from thirty hours of travel so our hosts grant us ‘a few hours’ to rest. Really? I’ll need more than a few hours just to to pass the toxic Addis Ababa meal still fermenting in my gut. I’m shown to a room who’s door is emblazoned with two placards titled “Jim” and “East”. I guess the old guy will not be getting his own private suite. The room is sparsely appointed – two twin ‘child-beds’ with mosquito nets and a bathroom best suited for midgets. This won’t be as much a problem for me as it will be for Jim, who stands 6′ 6″ and weighs in at around 270 lbs. Translated, this is 2 meters and 123 kilograms respectively. Why do I bother you with this trivia? Because all of Malawi uses the metric system: 1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds; 1 meter = 3.28 feet; 1 kilometer = 0.621 miles; to convert from centrigade to fahrenheit, multipy by 1.6 and add 32. There, you’re all prepared for Africa. Now go book your flight.

First order of business is to shower because I smell very much like a camel. Fortunately I brought soap and shampoo – a quick survey reveals that there is absolutely no washroom accoutrement – no soap, no shampoo, no toilet paper, no towels, nada, zip, nothing – and certainly not the monogrammed bathrobe and slippers that Janet is so accustomed to. But there is a small handwritten sign above the sink: “Do not drink the water”. This causes me to wonder exactly how I’m supposed to avoid ingesting water while showering. I need to think carefully about this because – although I brought an anti-diarrheal, I really don’t want to need it. The solution turns out to be that showering for the next two weeks will be extremely short – due to the fact that we have no hot water. However, I will learn to adapt by leaning forward and soaking only my head. I will use KimWipes as a ‘French bath’. I will also learn to deal with the accompanying dizziness when I stand back upright – as the fine print on my Anti-Malarial drug clearly warns of this unpleasant side effect.

It’s time to climb into my ‘child-bed’. I wish there were instructions on the proper use of ‘mosquito netting’ because I seriously underestimate the contraption’s complexity. It sticks to my body like flypaper – I no sooner get one limb free when the other limb becomes entangled. I finally extricate myself but fear that I might have damaged the delicate netting- thus my nap is spent listenting for the imminent ‘buzz’ of a kamikazi mosquito.

I’m awakened by a knock at the door. A voice beckons me to gather in the living room – we are to be escorted to the home of one of our hosts for dinner. I agonize over the appropriate attire because I was told to bring only a minimal amount of clothing. My only option is to wear my Sunday best. Damn, I forgot to bring dress socks! Do white sweat socks go with black dress shoes? I don’t see why not. Clearly the years spent having Janet make all  personal clothing decisions has left me abysmally unprepared to dress myself.

Our destination is located near the presidential palace. Yes, the presidential palace. The entrance reminds me of the great Land Of Oz. More guards, larger security gates, and a driveway that feels like a stadium parking lot. The only thing missing are those hideous spear-carrying ‘Oz-monkeys’.

Introductions are awkwardly and formal, so I choose not to attempt my newly-acquired Chichewa. The pronunciation of names sounds totally foreign to my ears and I fear I will remember not a single one. The male hosts are dressed in their finest, and the hostesses are absolutely gorgeous – brilliantly colored wraps, glowing skin, and intoxicating fragrances. I find it difficult not to stare, or for that matter sniff. We are seated in massively-oversized lounge chairs in a room that is so large that it produces echoes when we speak. And thus begins the process of getting to know one another.

During this ceremonial gathering I find myself obsessively worrying that I might somehow behave innapropriately. Do I only speak when I am spoken to? Should I attempt to tell a joke? Should I ask for opinions on Donald Trump? Janet, where are you, I need you.

English is spoken by most Malawians, but it sounds rather unintelligible. I find myself mentally translating from ‘Malawi-English’ to ‘Eastman-English’: what sounds like “ahb-eh-nue” turns out to mean ‘urban youth’; “eh-yawh” means ‘yes’; “ah-go” means ‘ago’; “straw-teh-jeek” means ‘strategic’. It’s going to be a long night.

There will be many new and strange customs to be learned on this trip, one of them being that you always wash your hands before eating. A wash basin and vase of hot water is passed between each guest just for this purpose. And just as with the mosquito net, I have not been apprised in the proper usage of a ‘Malawi wash basin’. I of course ceremoniously dip my hands into the wash basin and begin my scrubbing. How was I to know that I was to have the water poured over my hands – and that the bowl was for the dirty waste water. I may need that Cipro after all.

It is time for dinner and I assume that, in Malawi as in America, ‘ladies first’. But I am proven wrong. It appears that there is a distinct separation of men and women, perhaps an unwritten hierarchy. I observe that all the women sit together and that all the men sit together – a respectable distance separating the two groups. If Janet had joined me on this trip, would we be allowed to sit together? I think not. But it certainly would be entertaining to watch our hosts attempt to translate from Janet’s New-Jersey-English: “I come from New Joy-zee, it’s neah Bahh-stunn”.

I choose to wait until most everyone has served themselves before I hungrily dive in. It is a smorgasbord of gastronomical delights. A quarter of the way through the line my plate is full, and I resolve to come back to sample what I missed on prior passes. And what a pleasant surprise it is. There are beef tenderloins prepared with a peanut butter mole sauce, grilled free-yard chicken seasoned to perfection, whole local fish (pronounced “chambo”) with their bugged-out eyes staring up at me, exotic vegetables (including sauteed pumpkin leaves), glue-like maize dumplings (pronounced ‘nSima’) that you pick up in your fingers and use to transport other food items to your mouth; a local drink (pronounced ‘toba’) made from flour, millet and who knows what else; and various fruits. I finish my meal with the realization that I very much look forward to discovering what other foods Malawi has to offer.

After dinner we retire back to the grand living room for conversation. Each of our team members introduce themselves and provide a brief description of why they are on this mission trip. One by one I listen to their impressive credentials, beginning with m’busa Paul (‘Pastor’ Paul). But this is worrisome  – exactly what are my credentials? Panic sets in as I mentally recite: ok, I surf, I don’t have a job, I’m not really a ‘church member’ but a mere ‘attendee’, I love wine and good scotch, and I play a little piano. Ahhh yes, very impressive. I suck it up and pray that the Lord will allow our hosts to see that my intentions are good.

The evening ends with prayers from m’busa Bizwick (pastor of Lingadzi church). I don’t remember much of the drive back to the manse – only the blinding headlights approacing our car from the right side of the roadway. And the many pedestrians and bicyclists that somehow manage to maintain a safe 6 inches between themselves and our speeding caravan. And don’t forget the goats and dogs that are running wild.

It has been a very long two days and I stagger to my bedroom. Brushing my teeth I suddenly realize that I have used tap water to rinse my mouth. Krap, I’m doomed. Rather than fret all night over this oversight, I again avail myself of sedatives. As the drug begins to take effect, I make a futile effort  to disentagle myself from the mosquito net and climb into my ‘child-bed’. The last thing I remember was the incessant howling of wild dogs. Zzzzzzzz…..

It’s A Long Way to Lilongwe

I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about what lies ahead. I’m heading off with seven complete strangers to a place 11,000 miles on the other side of the world. I’ve packed only the bare personal essentials,  allowing space for a myriad of music equipment: metronome, drum sticks, kalimbas, cabassa, guiro, claves, cowbell, batteries, solar panel, soldering iron, solar cookers, and a prized piano that Janet gave me last Christmas – gifts which are my very reason for being on this mission trip, and it’s finally time to embark.

I pull into the church garage, park next to a van that will take us to LAX for our flight, and unload over a hundred pounds of luggage from my car. When I find the conference room I see another 20 oversized bags and wonder how one van will carry nine occupants and all these bags. But more importantly, how will our plane possibly become airborne?

The bags are ingeniously crammed into the van. I, the newcomer, offer to ride in the back – a regretful decision. Facing a three hour drive to LAX, I’m informed that the the air conditioner doesn’t work. So this is how the trip is going to go down? Thirty more hours of surprises like this?

Driving up the interstate, there’s a lot of enthusiastic chatter. But I opt to remain silent, at least until I get a take on the various personalities – I figure that ‘first impressions’ are important and I’d hate to establish myself as a jerk right out of the gate.

Two members of the group have been to Malawi before, and they’re being bombarded with questions, so I listen attentively. Alex and Taylor are in their early twenties, energetic, and eager for the unexpected – while I’ve got fifty years on these two, I’m full of trepidation, and I don’t like surprises.

Dropped off curbside at LAX  we form a caravan of baggage carts and merge with a multitude of international travellers. I’m loaded down like a pack mule, taking up the rear, and breathing hard while struggling to keep pace. I’m already tired from the drive and there’s still 27 hours to go.

I’ve never heard of ‘Ethiopia Airlines’ and find myself wondering if they are legitimate. Where were their pilots and mechanics trained – in a rural African village? Prudence tells me that I should have Googled them beforehand – but then again, what if I were to discover that Ethiopia is  a third world country – what would that say about their pilots and mechanics? I suppress further thoughts on the subject.

Check-in is a chaotic tribulation with much shuffling of bags, weights, sizes, visas, destinations, boarding passes, tags, … I’m just glad that I have my cherished Walt Disney Mickey Mouse fannypack to keep me organized and sane. We finally have our boarding passes and can relax at the boarding gate while awaiting our plane.

It’s time to board and I can hardly contain my excitement. This is it, it’s really going to happen. I’m pleased to see that our plane is a beautiful, sleak and glistening white missile. I am also comforted to see a familiar ‘General Electric’ logo on the massive engines – manufactured in the great U S of A.

It’s takeoff time. After an interminable effort to gain runway speed, our lumbering Boeing 787 defies the laws of physics to make it’s way into the air – and we’re off.  Some ten hours away we will have a layover in Dublin. This leg should be tolerable as I’m carrying enough sedatives to put down a horse. It occurs to me that I might have a difficult time explaining to customs that this amount is for ‘personal use’. My solution, perhaps not the wisest, is that if I can consume enough of it before we hit Malawi customs, I stand a chance of avoiding prison time. The downside of this logic is that I will have little recollection of the flight to Dublin.

I must assume that the flight went well, because we arrive safely in Dublin. A two hour layover is uneventful, as we never leave the plane. Now it’s another eight hours to Addis Ababa and I have no other choice than to load up on a second dose of sedative, but not until I’ve had a meal. My apologies, but I have no recollection of this flight either.

I wake up on arrival at the Addis Ababa airport, which will become a story in itself. Why on earth would they provide an airport ‘smoking trailer’. Perhaps they believe that the smell of stale cigarrette smoke might mask the stench of a thousand weary and perspiring travelers who appear to have set up camp in the terminal. A trip to the urinals finds me forced to forego washing of the hands due to the unnavailablility of sinks –  they are being utilized by men washing their feet. As I make my way back through the terminal, my senses are assaulted by an amalgam of sweat, urine and cigarrette smoke.  I’m definitely not in Kansas.

Our group decides to while away our time with some airport food, thus commencing my first bout of African diarrhea. The flight from Addis Ababa to Lilongwe is spent sans sedative because I need to be alert and ready for frequent sprints to the restroom. This proves to be a forgettable leg of the journey.

Finally we reach our destination – Lilongwe, Malawi.  I know that it is daytime but I have no clue as to the hour because my watch is still on San Diego time.  My phone’s clock is also useless because we will have no cellular coverage for the next fourteen days. Deboarding the plane I hear some excited voices and some finger pointing. High up on a terminal balcony I see a sizeable group of Malawians smiling broadly and waving their hands excitedly. I look around to see who the intended recipients might be, only to find that we are the target of this exuberant welcome. After making our way thorough the terminal we are greeted with heartfelt hugs and handshakes – ‘The Warm Heart Of Africa’.  Our hosts appear to be just as excited at our arrival as we are.

Introductions are made and I soon wish that I was taking notes. Twelve African names that I can barely pronounce will certainly prove difficult to remember. Our group is split into quarters and loaded into SUVs for our drive to Lingadzi, Area 12, Manse 2 – our home for the next two weeks. The sights and sounds of Lilongwe flood my senses – thousands of pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, buses, and animals crowd the two-lane roads. The air is smokey, a condition that will persist for the entire trip.

As we arrive at Manse 2, I notice that it is a gated compound with 12 foot high walls, concertina wire, and a mammoth steel gate entry with a guard standing just inside. A horn honks and the massive doors open. The expansive grounds are filled with dozens of chickens, roosters and birds – but no dogs. Thus begins a mission trip that I will never forget.

Where is Malawi?

It’s early Sunday morning and I’m drinking strong coffee while getting dressed for church. At my age I need the caffeine – not due to a lack of interest but rather due to my annoying habit of drifting off at inappropriate times – like in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

As service gets under way, the first order of business is to peruse the church bulletin. This habit is not for reasons of edification but because I have a morbid curiosity to see if I recognize the names of  any recent ‘dearly departed’,  and It’s turning out to be a good day because we haven’t lost anyone… yet.  But as I’m reading,  a blurb catches my attention: “Mission trip to Malawi Africa”. Really? Where the heck is Malawi? Apparently it is somewhere deep in Africa. I get anxious dining at Mexican restaurants – why would someone willingly travel to a third world country?

But as curiosity tempts me to read further, I stumble upon the word ‘music’.  And I’m thinking, that’s  curious:  ‘Malawi’, ‘Sister Church’, ‘Orphanage for the blind’, ‘sponsored children’, and  ‘music’. I find myself  completely sidetracked, and it becomes difficult to concentrate on the sermon.  When service ends, I sneak the bulletin into my pocket as if it were some illicit contraband, thinking that it will probably just end up in the trash at home.

As time passes, I’m repeatedly pricked by the absurd thought of a mission trip to Africa. I’ve given up doing anything remotely impulsive, because something as trivial as switching toothpaste brands makes me anxious. But why oh why did they have to mention music?  What could possibly be the connection?  It’s like I’ve stumbled onto Pandora’s box. Two more Sundays pass, and two more bulletins – each with the same exhortation: “Malawi Mission trip…  requests help with music“.  Am I being nudged from above?

After service,  we go for our regular Sunday brunch, where I can no longer contain myself. So I drop the Malawi bomb, fully expecting Janet’s eyes to bug out as she chokes on her food. But to my consternation she simply replies: “I think you should go”.  Really? That’s your answer?  That’s all you have to say? That is so deja vu, like the time I hinted at riding a bicycle across America, to which she simply responds: “I think you should do it”. Now might be a good time to tell her that I also want to  become an astronaut.

Janet has now set the ball in motion and I’m powerless to stop it. I still have the original bulletin, and it clearly has a phone number to call. But every time I’m tempted to make the call, I panic and turn to playing piano until  my heart rate subsides. I repeat this sequence for days, and each evening Janet asks the same question: “Well, did you make the call?”.  When I realize the futility of procrastination,  I cave and make an appointment to meet the mission leader and head pastor of our church. It’s like I’m sinking in quicksand – the more I struggle the deeper I sink.

I soon find myself inundated with preparations for the appointment. After rummaging through my closet for suitable apparel, clothes that haven’t seen daylight in years, a sense of superficiality cripples me: why can’t I just wear my comfy jeans, t-shirt and flip-flops? But as usual,  Janet has the final sayso in all matters of my attire.  Janet also sees my argument for not needing  a haircut utterly laughable – so I soon find myself with an uncharacteristic ‘sporty crewcut’, which is in odd juxtaposition to my white beard – which Janet will soon attempt to have me remove.

Then there is the ‘short bio’ that I’m supposed to conjure up. Hmmm, let’s see… “I love to surf and drink wine, I don’t have a job but I love to walk our dog on the beach, I despise travelling, I don’t have a passport, I’ve never been on a mission trip but I do tithe – but not every Sunday.  And oh yes, I’m a newbie to Christ”. That should go over well.

The day of reckoning arrives and I’m a nervous wreck. I’m sitting in Pastor Paul’s private office and wondering if I have sweat rings. Why am I dressed for a funeral while Paul is in his jaunty casuals?  And why is my mouth so parched?  I secretly wipe the corners of my mouth just in case there is that nervouse white stuff there. Then comes the Q&A session. I tell you honestly that I remember absolutely nothing of what I said – it’s all a fuzzy blur. I leave the meeting feeling like I’d just left the principal’s office.  Of course Janet will be eagerly awaiting details, but she will be sadly disappointed.

Surprise of surprises, a few days later I receive email implying that I might very likely be joining the Mission trip. Holy Mother Of God,  what have I gotten myself into?  It soon becomes apparent that much  preparation lies ahead. I begin priotitizing on a small notepad, which is soon replaced by a thick college-ruled notebook. I spend the next three months practicing hyms on the piano – till my hands ache and my ears are ringing. I’ve refinanced our house to pay for the airfare, the Visa application is complete, my arm feels like a pincushion from all the vaccinations, I’ve waived all rights to have the church negotionate with kidnappers in the ‘unlikely event’ that I am kidnapped, and I’ve undergone a background check so that I can visit an orphanage for the blind. My bags are packed with Solar Cookers, hand tools, batteries and musical equipment – and the little room remaining contains a pair of pants, two shirts, and a toothbrush.

It is wednesday, May 10, 8:30 am. Janet has left for work and I am sitting in my chair, feeling a bit lonely while nervously waiting for the time to head to LAX to begin a two day journey to Malawi. I find myself staring at my bag, piano, and Disneyland fannypack – eerily scanty for two weeks on the other side of the world. I consider leaving my phone behind because there will be no cell coverage. No laptop because there may not be electricity. Should I spend the final hours refreshing my Nyanja/Chewa phrases – like ‘muli bwanji’, and ‘Ndili bwino’?  Hmmmm….




Last thoughts on Oregon

  I don’t know that I’ll have a reason to return to Oregon any time soon, unless I get  the urge to buy a titanic RV with a dune buggy and four ATVS in tow, or perhaps my bike shows up in a homeless encampment. But while it’s still fresh in my mind I think I’ll take one last poke. 

   Firstly, there’s one destination you’ll want to cross off your list – Devils Kitchen:

   Why? Because there is  so  much to do here, but everything is forbidden! I counted no less than 40 activities that are verboten. There’s no climbing, no clamming, no campfires, no metal-detecting, no shell collecting, no camping, … it’s as though the only activity allowed is to study this sign of all the activities that are disallowed. And you’ll want to pay close attention to that “Courtesy  Guide” because apparently in order to be courteous there a ten things you must not do.  Wait! Is that a “NO BICYCLE RIDING” clause?  If they come up with one more “DON’T” they’ll need a bigger sign.

   Next on the list is my consternation over their obsession with anything maritime. Take a beautiful home with an unobstructed view of the spectacular coastline, and what would you do? Enjoy the view? Of course not – you go scrounge up a few hundred lobster pot buoys and drape them in such a manner as to distract your eyes from that unsightly Pacific Ocean.

  Now, check out something Mike and I caught a glimpse of, while stopped at an area marked “NO STOPPING”:

Pretty awesome don’t you think? We snapped this beauty just prior to seeing the “NO PHOTOS” sign.

   When in Oregon remember to bring a windbreaker. And while you’re at it, bring extra rope and stakes. Mike neglected his stakes and paid a hefty price:

  That’s his $400 tent doubling as a kite. 

  Lastly, while in Oregon you’ll want to practice up on the social graces.  For example, when travelling with a large group of friends, make certain to engage in lively conversation -paying attention to what each other has to offer. Just like this group at the airport on my way home:

  That’s eight friends engaged in lively social interaction. Or not. 

   Ahhh… home sweet home, where your loved ones are beside themselves just to see you:

  “Harry! Wake up! Don’t you want to hear about my adventures? Harry! Can you hear me?”

Please pray for Mike

  Well, it looks like the end of the ride for me. Turns out someone else needed my bike more than I do. The Lord works in mysterious ways and I have total faith in Him. 

  Woke up from a fabulous night’s sleep in a beautiful campground in Brookings, Oregon. I’m sipping my coffee, getting ready for a new day, when I glance over to where our bikes are locked to a post. In place of my bike lies the pathetic remains of a slashed bike lock. It takes only a second for the reality to take hold – I calmly say to Mike “well, it looks like my bike’s gone”. 

   Police report filed, local bike store closed, and I’m totally crestfallen. Apparently my bike is the only bike ever to be purloined from Harris Beach Campground – according to the ranger. Hmmm, I wonder. 

   Sitting dejectedly at our bench, thinking about the 6,000 miles that my trusty bike has safely transported me, the idea of trying to find an emergency replacement sickens me. You’re probably thinking: “East, but it’s just a bike”. But not to me. It is at that moment that I realize I don’t have it in me to regroup and keep on trucking. So I make the decision to pack it in and abandon Mike to finish the trip alone. I’m going to pray for his safety every day until he is safe at home. At this moment I hate myself for every shameful jibe I’ve taken at Mike, please forgive me. 

   I gift half of my gear to some cyclists in the next site – hopefully they will make good use of it. Then Mike and I have a good man-hug and I wave goodbye.

  As I stand there feeling very alone, I shake my head in disbelief and begin my five mile walk into town where I pray I can find a way home. 

  I walk to the police station, my arms fatigued from carrying the ridiculous panniers (my bike did such a better job of it), and figure out how to take several buses to the Arcata airport for a flight home. I have a lot of time to sit idly and feel sorry for myself. 

   I don’t enjoy municipal bus travel, never had, never will. Compounding my misery is the sight of so many indigents riding bikes around town with all sorts of possessions strapped over their bikes. I can’t help from straining to see if they are perhaps riding my bike. 

   Thirty miles into the bus ride, at a point when I thought I couldn’t feel any lower, I see him. There Mike is, riding through the California redwoods by himself. I feel sick. I don’t know whether to wave at him or hide my head in shame. Where is he going to camp tonight? Does he have enough water? What does he think of me? Then he’s out of sight. Please Lord, help me to understand. 

Nearing the California Border

  Spent a relaxing night in Humbug Mountain Park, tucked high above the RVs in a mosquito laden grotto – my mosquito net coming in real handy. 

   I must commend Mike on his selection of camp dinners he brought for the trip, most of them are scrumptious at the end of a long day. A sound night’s rest and we’re packed and eager to hit the road. And that’s when it happens…

   A female voice from a nearby site calls out “do you happen to have any coffee you can spare?”. Unbeknownst to us the trap has now been set. PHWAPP! Under these circumstances any male will go into ‘damsel in distress’ mode. Compound this with fact that it happens to be an attractive damsel and it’s a forgone conclusion: “why of course we do” comes our reply.  

   Down the hill she saunters, smiling like a Cheshire cat. “Hello, I’m Sunshine” she offers. Now I’m not absolutely certain but I think Mike makes a choking sound. For myself, a strong sense of deja vu comes over me and I’m thinking ‘Run Bambi, RUN!’. And I’m right, it turns out Sunshine has been living in the hiker-biker area for some time, alone! She’s looking for a ‘community’, whatever the Hell that means. In hindsight I think there might have been a speck of white spittle in the corners of her mouth. Now I’m not casting aspersions but what is going through your mind right now?

   It turns out Sunshine has a lot on her mind, and she now has two captive suckers to whom she can unload upon. And so the harangue begins, nonstop for thirty minutes. This space cadet doesn’t need coffee, she needs thorazine. 

   Being the gentlemen that we are, we can only resort to squirming and fidgeting with our bikes, trying to avoid eye contact. Somewhere between telling us about her medical history, offering expert advice on bicycle mechanics, and how she was once impaled on a bike seat post – Mike actually mounts his bike and starts pedalling off. Damned if I’m getting stuck for another hour, so I panic and blurt out “ahhh… we gotta go”. I can still hear Sunshine’s voice prattling on as I round the corner pedalling fast and hard. If she goes off and drinks  all that coffee we gave her – well I pity the next biker that hears the words: “Hi, I’m Sunshine. Do you have any coffee to spare?”.

From Dense Fog to Bright Skies

  Tonight we are camping in Cape Perpetua National Forest, high above the crashing surf, beside a babbling creek, beneath tall pines, dainty little Nymphs flitting amongst the ferns. Ok, the Nymphs are mosquitoes, but that sooo detracts from the picture I’m trying to paint. 

   I’m deep into a nap when I hear Mike talking to a fair maiden, so I of course eavesdrop – as anyone would (you see, Mike is a very gregarious chap who eagerly strikes up a conversation with any hapless soul who inadvertently makes eye contact with him). Within seconds he knows her name, from where she hails, and her destination. In addition, avuncular Mike has invited his new friend to dinner. So I guess I need to haul my lazy butt out of my cozy tent – because we’re having company for dinner. Never mind I haven’t showered in three days, I’ll just stay downwind.

   Veronic, with the ‘a’ mysteriously absent, attired in gypsy pants and Birkenstocks, is a pleasant enough Canadian riding solo to San Francisco. In a very short time Mike has wheedled her life story, and graciously cooked her dinner. Shortly thereafter Veronic, with the gold loop through one nostril, and who generously intersperses the word ‘like’ into every  freekin’ sentence, bids goodnight – and I can finally return to my tent to read… that is unless Mike decides to invite another stranger for an aperitif.

  The following day we cut our ride short to camp at Honeyman Memorial Park. Apparently this site is a popular cyclist destination because today  it fills up quickly with an eclectic group of riders from all over the world. Of course Mike is ecstatic because he has so many new prospects to confab with. Dave from Alaska is a very interesting fellow, a retired teacher with aggressive arthritis – but somehow he gets out there and bike tours like crazy, quite inspiring. And then there is Mel from England who had a tough day because a strap from his pannier got caught in his disk brakes and caused some serious mechanical damage. But Mel is taking it all in stride to remain in high spirits. 

   We take a hike over to a lake surrounded by massive sand dunes. Dozens of kids are ‘sandboarding’ down the largest dune, some even ‘catching air’. Mike goads  me into the water, which turns out to be wonderful – warm and with that earthy smell and taste that only fresh water lakes have. Dried off I sit in my camp chair, feet sunk into the warm sand, and quickly fall into a deep sleep. 

  Observation time: Oregonians are blessed with one of God’s many amazing creations, that being miles and miles of grand wind-swept sand dunes, many rising as tall as a building. They even have a name for tjem: Oregon Dunes National Recreation Center. So what do these Oregonian caretakers do? Vast armadas of RVs with dune buggies in tow engage in daily assaults on their charge – slicing and carving the magnificent dunes like some thanksgiving turkey! Absolutely shameful. 

  Oh but there’s more. Oregonians also possess a highly refined sense of architectural design. Take for example the simplistic style of Seaside motel typically found in southern California, bland and ordinary. However, with an amazing sense of creativity, these Oregonian motel owners have devised something exceptional. I won’t keep you in suspense any longer: they haul an abandoned decrepit skiff from the docks, lay it caterwampus  in front of the motel -as though it had mysteriously been shipwrecked – and here’s the piece de resistance:  they cleverly drape some lobster trap paraphernalia all over the skiff. And there you have it! Apparently the RVers find this irresistible, because there’s no vacancies in sight. I’m still shaking my head at the sheer genius. 

   What the Hell just happened??!! My phone is going off with incoming messages. My inbox is filled with irate comments from friends whom I forgot or didn’t realize have RVs – and they’re not too happy about my castigating their cherished RVs. I guess if I don’t want my blog readership to drop like a rock, I had better change my attitude, kowtow and apologize to my friends. It’s probably just a simple case of sour grapes on their part, what with my boasting about a $5 a night biker campsite vs. their $150 a night, or a mechanical problem that costs them two grand to my $4.79. So I guess I probably should stifle my opinions and just apologize. Or… just be more selective in my choice of friends… hmmmmm, interesting dilemma. 

   I have tons of great photos for you, but they are all of fabulous scenes that lie just behind a thick fog bank. Right now, as I lay in my tent sharing my most personal musings with you, I’m being lulled to sleep by the sonorous sounds of a giant fog horn off Sunset Bay, sounding like some large flatulent mammal. It’s going to be a long, long night.