Milk

My last evening in Malawi and I’m welcomed into a small farm owned by Christopher Salangais. As I go about setting up my tent, a crowd of local kids nervously gathers at a safe distance. It turns into somewhat of a performance complete with laughter, oohs and ahhs; I feel like a magician materialising a house out of thin air, the telescopic tent pole is particularly awe inspiring for the kids. The laughter comes when they see how small and how smelly my snug abode is.

That evening I rustle up my usual fare: pasta, Christopher brings me some eggs and insists that I eat them all so one by one all eight eggs are cracked in under the supervision of his keen eyes. After dinner we sit as a small family around the camp fire and roast some maize. Strangely enough it’s the first corn on the cob I’ve had here despite it being the main roadside staple. It’s good but butter and salt would lift it further. But before that I get introduced to a slightly inebriated brother. I’ve noticed that friends often hold hands here and that, in general, personal space isn’t as personal as I would like and I find myself holding hands chatting for quite some time with the friendly brother.

As I continue north towards Tanzania, I can’t help but notice the rather large wall the mountains present; behind a slight white haze, hills rise up from the northern reaches of Lake Malawi bathed in ominous shades of pale blue. Over the border, I climb to new heights of nearly 2500m, is this altitude training yet? I need an excuse to explain why I’m going at a snail’s pace. The steeply sloping mountain sides are a patchwork of tea plantations, clouds caress the slopes leaving a thin film of moisture upon the leaves’ surface and the cool steel of my bike. The air is thick with humidity. In the villages it becomes apparent that the banana harvest is in full swing, great stacks of these still hard and unripe green fruits line the road side organised in waist height stacks, like dry stone walls.

In the city of Mbeya, in the south of the country, I meet a couple cycling through Africa after spending time in Europe. Matt is from the US of A and Larisa a native Spaniard. They met in Barcelona where Matt was teaching at an international school. He had the dream of cycling Africa and, as a result was perhaps cautious with their relationship at first, but three years later he has talked the non-cyclist into the tour of around two years! Good for them, she’s a rare breed!

Following the Rift Valley, and more importantly the tar roads, the route sees me loop south back towards Zambia. In the valleys, Tanzania seems more organised. Commercial scale rectangular fields extend to the horizon, God they love maize. But as the gradient increases, along with the traffic, the cultivation shifts to coffee beans. It’s bizarre. Not 100km away, in the same range, tea dominates. The slopes are less steep here and perhaps drainage has a hand to play in the presence of the rival crop.

It’s not what I expected; lush green fields and rolling hills thick with vegetation, plantations and in the valleys cattle takes centre stage. These cows would make a Viking very envious. The horns on these specimens are enormous and would look great on a Nordic helmet or a make fine horn from which to quaff mead. I was anticipating arid lands and savannah which documentaries portray this part of the world to be made of. The best time to view the wildlife in vast herds or carnivores making a kill is in the dry season, when they are all forced into closer proximity to one another in search of water. I suppose it is logical to assume that this is when documentary makers are in hides, ever watchful, hoping to filming these great spectacles.

The traffic is a tad overbearing and it’s not helped that at times I get stuck in a rut, which has formed in the tar, unable to escape. Lorries are forced to wait their turn. Great trenches as deep as a high curb have formed where heavily ladened lorries have kneaded the road, creating lava flow like ripples in the surface. Vehicles are often a tad excessive in weight and the smell of hot brakes and straining clutches drifts through the air. On a particularly aggressive descent in Malawi I kept my distance behind a petrol tanker for the carriage shuddered, threatening to jack-knife as the smoking brakes strained to check its speed. I feel grim at the end of the day. So much for this being a healthy expedition. If my bogeys are anything to go by, my lungs must be black with exhaust. Dark grime is caped in the folds of my elbows, not dust or mud but deposits from the choking fumes.

My multi fuel stove is playing up so I’ve taken to either cooking by fire or having a substantial luncheon. At a truck stop on a loop south towards the Zambian border I sample a local delicacy, a Tanzanian tortilla aka a chip omelette. With a generous pinch of salt and a squirt of chilli sauce these things are delicious, though it is lacking in the cheese department. There are goats or heifers in every homestead and roadside, yet despite being an excellent source of protein and fat dairy products are no where to be seen aside from UHT milk from as far off as Zanzibar or South Africa. I can’t understand why this potential food source goes unused. I soon find out, not moments after writing words to this affect in my journal, when despite the late hour (8 o’clock) I am dragged from my tent for dinner.

As usual I am being hosted by a local family who, despite watching me eat and even helping me make the fire on which I cooked, beckon me in for dinner number two. In Tanzania, when eating as a group you sit around a gargantious bowl of nshima and share. The men eat first and the women who prepared the food wait their turn. It’s a strange dynamic to me and God knows what will happen when Mark and Larisa spend the night at a farm. I wonder if Larisa will eat with the ladies.

We chat and I hear about their lives and family, they usually live near Mbeya but are here to bring in the bean harvest at their farm. A real treat is brought out, milk brought all the way from the brother’s farm near Mbeya. Poured from what I suspect is a former engine oil container, it has a fair few lumps. I assume this is just cream as its fresh from udder to mouth. It’s dished out in blue plastic cups just like the ones we used to queue up with in junior school to receive our morning break ration of milk. Those were the days.

Bottoms up. I lift the cup to my mouth with great anticipation, I bloody love moo juice. It’s not how I remember it. It’s sour and chewable. Taking the cup from my mouth I am glad that the candle light hides some of the grimace in my face and the vast quantities of sour milk complete with chunks which now coat my beard. I exclaim how delicious it is and utilising my moustache as a filter I drink and chew my way through this dairy treat as quick as possible. They find it hilarious that ample amounts soak into my beard like a sponge. Little do they know I’m relieved that this means less going in my mouth. I assume that the lumps are in fact fat which have formed as the milk has been churned en route in the old oil container.

Milk straight from udder, to a three hour curdling bus ride, to mouth and beard. Delicious.

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