Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Silhouetted in Malawi

Travel is an integral part of a jobbing actor’s life, a theatre tour to the dusty old theatres of a country or a film contract that takes him away from his base. When he is working the actor is usually paid a per diem, a daily allowance and is given a roof over his head and sometimes gets a free meal or two if he is actually on the film set.

The allowance varies greatly and depends on the budget of the production and all producers of both theatre and film love to use the expression, “It’s a low budget production so we . . . . . .”

I have during my illustrious career been in over four hundred theatrical productions and been involved in at least one hundred and fifty television or movie shoots. A good fifty percent of these have been classed as “low-budget”. But a few times I’ve been chauffeur driven and provided with my own air-conditioned trailer. On these occasions I have lived the life of luxury and Toddie has always been full.

On many of these film shoots I have been unaccompanied and they have taken me to numerous countries, India, Namibia, Mauritius, Germany, Malaysia, and Malawi to mention a few. On the latter I was accompanied by my third lady-in-wedlock, Felicity or Flee for short. Thus I was able to combine work with pleasure and have what civilians call a part-paid-holiday.

Our first trip together was in nineteen eighty five to the shores of Lake Nyasa in Malawi, which was still under the Presidential thumb of Dr Banda. Like all neocolonial countries I have visited the remnants of the colonial occupier have been clearly evident, like driving a car on the left hand side of the road, round-a-bouts, four way stop streets and tarred roads between the major towns.

 However in Malawi as in India,the roads are now shared with elephants, pigs, pedestrians, chickens and vehicles of assorted sizes and shapes. The traffic lights are defunct; the storm water drains and gulleys are blocked, and the roads are riddled with pot holes, some large enough to seriously damage the vehicle you are driving.

Malawi was no different, however with practice, a degree of caution and following the old adage “when in Rome”; you soon follow the natives and take the detour through the adjacent field of mealies, cotton, tea or coffee thus avoiding replacing a tyre on every journey you make.

We were staying at Nkopola Lodge right on the southern shoreline of the lake which offered excellent accommodation and what can only described as a dual menu choice for main meals, a choice of either chicken or Chomba. Chomba is the local fish from the lake, very like freshwater bream and is very tasty, but after six weeks of having it cooked every way possible the yearning for juicy piece of prime Scotch fillet began to rise. However the local alcoholic beverage was superb. Malawi gin and their locally made tonic became our tipple from sunrise to sunset.

My third weekend was free.

A change over from night shooting to daylight, this required that the crew have what is know as “turnaround-time”, so we had Saturday through till Tuesday morning free. Flee and I decided to sample the tour excursions that were on offer and picked a visit Cape Maclear National Park which was about forty kilometers away.

We signed up with a tour company that advertised what seemed an excellent deal. We had to bring either a blanket or a sleeping bag, an ample supply of mosquito repellant, a torch, and we would be accommodated and fed and watered for the two day excursion.

Departure in a converted three ton army truck was scheduled for eight o’clock on Saturday morning.

Flee and I arrived punctually to be greeted by the tour operator Johann and his two assistants Unlimited and Battery. The assistants were muscular wiry men who were lying on their backs under the rear end of the converted 3 ton army truck. It was jacked up and supported by two heavy logs while they changed the wheel.

“Better safe than sorry”, said Johann “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

With a huge grin exposing his toothless gums he continued, “Good job I noticed it. It’s a hell of a mission to change a tyre on the road.”

 “Why?” I asked.

“Ruts” he said.

“Rats?” I enquired.

“No man Ruts! This time of the year with the rains and wet ground they can be over half a metre deep. Can’t jack the dam thing high enough.”

“So how long the delay” I asked.

“Depends on the other three ladies who are booked to take the trip.”, he said as he heaved a huge cooler box off the back end of the truck.

 “Take a seat and help yourself.” he said as he opened the box which was full to the brim with Carlsberg Browns. We laid out our blanket and sleeping bag on the Lodge’s gravel forecourt and opened ourselves a beer.

Little did we know this delay was going to be a daily routine.

After our second beer we took a look inside the truck. Two old four seated metal park benches had been fitted to the floor. They were cushioned, with one facing forward the other facing towards the rear; the canvas sides each had a large clear plastic window. The central area was piled high with other large plastic containers.

Finally at about ten o’clock as Unlimited and Battery finished changing the trye three rather plump middle aged ladies arrived. We were introduced to Gladys, Emma and Aletta, three Afrikaans English teachers from Benoni, a town near Johannesburg.  They apologised for their lateness and we climbed into the truck. The three teachers took the forward facing bench while Flee and I sat facing the rear with the cooler box at our feet.

It was a slow bouncy drive. Unlimited, who was driving seemed to have mastered the knack of keeping the truck in the ruts, helping to keep the ride reasonably smooth. Johann kept informing us when a really bad atch was approaching.

 “Grip the benches and keep your drinks secure between your thighs. Better still knock it back and have another when we’re back on a smooth bit of the road!”

At a quarter to one the truck pulled up outside what can only be describe as a hotel which looked as if it was about to collapse. It was another dilapidated relic of the colonial days but as Johann told us it was still functioning, so we had a choice either in a room, or in a tent that Battery would erect for us. Flee and I immediately opted for the tent and willingly let the Benoni lasses take the luxury of the fall-down-hotel.

The consumption of several Carlsberg Browns had over extended our bladders so we set off in search of a latrine. Round the back of the hotel we heard music; it was coming from a small wooden doorway.

Entering we found a bar. One normally associates a bar with a toilet.

“Hi, good-day.”, was my standard greeting to the seven or so guys that were in the bar. It was sparsely furnished, 3 tables, one with only three legs, some benches and the smoke filled atmosphere was illuminated by a solitary globe precariously hanging by its wire from the blackened ceiling.

There was a nod and grunt or two of greeting from the occupants.

Walking up to the bar I asked the barman, “Where’s the loo?”

A stoney face stared at me.

“The toilet,” I explained.

 A general laugh filled the room and in unison all the occupants pointed to the doorway.

“Nearest tree.” said a voice from the corner.

“And for the lady?”

“Next to the tree, she find it there.”

Flee darted out the door, “I’ll find it.”

I reckoned I could squeeze my cheeks and hold it a little longer.

 “So how about a drink.” I asked as my eyes now fully accustomed to the light took in the environment. Behind the bar was shelved, but not as you’d expect with drinks, but with groceries. Cans of baked beans, pilchards, various jars of Atchar and I spotted some cans of Fray Bentos corned beef nestled next to an assortment of both sweet and savoury biscuits.

The barman broke the dwall I was in. “What you like?”

“Two double gin and tonics please.”

He reached under the bar and plonked two brown bottles of the local tonic water on the bar. With dexterous ease he opened them by catching the rim of the metal top on the edge of the bar in a downwards motion.

He smiled benignly at me with a look that I interpreted as I must now do some thing.

“How much?” I asked.

No reaction just the continued smile.

"So where's the gin?"

Slowly the occupants began to laugh and the same voice from the corner, who’d given the direction to the loo said, “You must take a drink from the bottle.” The barman continued, “No glasses, you drink from the bottle, I fill with Gin.”

Flee reentered as I was taking my second slug of tonic water. I passed her the other bottle and explained, “No glasses, so you must drink the tonic a bit and then he’ll tot it up with the gin.”

“No bloody toilet either! A long drop! Stank to high heaven, so I squatted in the bushes.”

Placing her tonic water on the bar, the barman filled it to the brim with a generous helping of gin, “Thanks,”, she said, “I’ll see you at the beach.”, and departed.

Fifteen minutes later Flee and I were sitting on our blanket on a pristine beach with a hazy afternoon sun glistening on the majestic lake. Securely anchored in the sand were eight double gin and tonics in their brown open bottles. On a flattened out Carlsberg Brown box lay our mid-afternoon snack, slices of corned beef neatly arranged on cream crackers with a small green cocktail onion balanced on top.

Towards seven o’clock the sun began to set over the shimmering lake and fishermen began to drag their hewn-out-of-logs vessels up from the shore line. One explained that it was low tide and they had to get heir boats a safe distance from the water. Yes, the great inland lake has tides and its depth varies greatly from season to season.

You always live and learn on your travels.

As darkness encroached we headed back to the hotel to find our tent erected about four foot away from the hotel’s front patio. Johann greeted us and asked if we’d like the evening meal of freshly caught Chambo and chips. We declined the offer and climbed into our tent which was lit by a small Cadac lamp.

We zipped up tent, finished off our corned beef and onion biscuits, and another supply of  G & Ts, then settled down to a quiet night of nuptial shenanigans.

Dawn broke around five thirty. We were awoken by Unlimitted, who brought us a cup of tea and informed us that breakfast would be at six thirty on the hotel’s front patio.

As punctual as ever Flee and I emerged from our tent to rapturous laughter and applause. Seated at a table on the patio were the teachers who were clapping enthusiastically.  We made our way up the steps and sat at the table next to them. It was the three-legged table from the bar which was now supported by a column of bricks.

“A good night?” enquired Aletta.

“Fantastic.”’ I replied.

“Us also.” said Emma as the three giggled softy.

Unlimited and Battery served the breakfast of excellent breakfast of bacon, two sunny-side-up fried eggs and toasted mealie bread. We were told by Johann that at eight o’clock a catamaran would be arriving and we were going out scuba diving round Downe Island about twenty kilometers into the lake. They would take a packed lunch, drinks, beverages and all the necessary equipment. All we had to bring was swimming costumes, a towel and some sun-tan lotion as the reflection of the mid-day sun off the lake could cause serious sun burn. Luckily for me Flee had packed some.

Then a complete surprise. On the dot of eight the catamaran arrived and we all embarked on our cruise for the day. It was idyllic. The destination of Downe Island is what Malawi is about. We passed several local fishermen who greeted usand told Battery and Unlimited which part of the Island had the best snorkeling place of the day.

It took us about forty minutes to get there. In we plunged in to see the most beautifully coloured fish of every shape and size you can imagine. I am not the most accomplished snorkeler in the world and it was only after my third attempt that I mastered the art and stopped reacting like a drowning hippopotamus spouting the water out of my mouth.

Johann suggested we actually go onto the Island, telling us that there no dangerous animals and the place was uninhabited. We should pack our lunch and what we wanted in a plastic “Checkers-bag”. The teachers declined and stayed on the boat enjoying their drinks and continued giggling every time they looked at us.

“Back at four.” said Johann as we dived into the lake getting away from the constant giggling and headed for the island’s shoreline.

“What the hell are they laughing at?” asked Flee, “every time they look at us? It’s starting to annoy me.”

“I’ve no idea.” I said. “Must be something you or I said yesterday."

We found what we thought was a cosy little hide-a-way that couldn’t be seen from the boat and settled down. Flee basked in the sun and I read a book I’d managed to bring with me securely wrapped in the “Checkers” plastic bag. This also contained some bottles of tonic water pre-mixed with gin. I’d mastered the opening and closing of the metal top so that no contents leaked. After about ten minutes we suddenly heard a whistle, follow by a voice that we did not recognize.

“You want Gold?”

Flee sat up immediately quickly covering her boobs.

“Malawi  Gold?” said a tall lanky man who was now standing right next to us, seemed to materializsed on the uninhabited island.

“Dagga?” asked Flee.

“Yes.” said the lanky man smiling ear to ear.

“Very special, good quality. I roll especially for you, only five Quatcha.”

“We’ve no money with us.” I said.

“No problem. You toss in lake from boat when you swim back.”

He extracted from his plastic “Checkers” bag a sheet of the Malawi national daily newspaper and laid it neatly on the ground. Tearing it in two he asked, “Half or quarter?”

Flee and I were mesmerized.

“A quarter.” I said not knowing what I was buying.

“That’s good.” he said, “Five Quatcha, half is ten.”

He then proceed to pour a flakey green mixture from his bag onto the quarter page of torn newspaper and roll the most gigantic joint I’d ever seen. He licked the page as he finished and sealed the joint. “You have to smoke quick, or she fall apart.” He said as he lit it and took a drag.

I have been stoned a few times in my life and indulged in a few social drugs but for the following five hours I felt as if I was walking on water. The colours of everything seemed to take on a distant shimmering quality and time seemed to stand still. Thank God I was Flee as we swam back to the catamaran. It seemed to take two days.

As we boarded the vessel Johann gave us a knowing wink and the teachers giggled even more.

“Five Quatcha.” Said a voice from the water.

Flee quickly took my now empty “Checkers Bag" and stuffed a five Quatcha note and an full tonic bottle into it. Tied if off and hurled it towards our floating drug dealer.

“Thank you. I see you again tomorrow?” our dealer said and swun away.

By this time I’d lain back on the central canvas and was fast asleep.

We arrived back at Cape Maclear as the sun was setting, and were told that tonight we were having peri-peri chicken and chips. Flee and I were ravenous and even though she’d run off to the bar to buy some Kit-Kats for the munchies we were suffering, we both decided we would partake of the meal scheduled for seven o’clock.

I left our tent to stock-up on our G & T supplies and left Flee to tidy up for supper. When I returned to the patio the three ladies were seated at their table and were still giggling whilst looking at our tent.

“We were out here last night.” said Gladys. “Having a night-cap.” She continued as the three of them burst out into hysterical laughter.

“What a performance!” said Aletta, “You said you were an actor!”

I glanced at our tent and saw a clear silhouette of Flee combing her hair.

The Cadac lamp had provided the ideal setting for a “Hand-Sprung-Sex-Show!”


Маргарита Гуминенко said...

This is a very interesting story! Thank U!

Маргарита Гуминенко said...

This is a very interesting story! Thank U!

Sir Cess Poole said...

thanx for reading the blog. I ahve a facebook page. send a friend requestplease

Маргарита Гуминенко said...

I tried to send the invitation. I hope to get lucky.

sinead meaker said...

Very entertaining read!

Sir Cess Poole said...

please http://www.blogger.com/profile/16435583739542881498 think that you Mapranta. please send another friend request I can't find the one you sent. Go well

Маргарита Гуминенко said...

Yes, this is my site. Unfortunately, I can not send you an invitation as a friend on facebook. I guess in my profile, this function is disabled. Here's a link to my page: https://www.facebook.com/margaret.guminenko
If you want, you can call me Maggie. Thank you.