Monsters and Dust

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Day 2

The road to Blantyre is lined with people. Children no older than five toddle alone or lie in the tall grass that borders the asphalt. Older kids walk, talk, chase goats in front of their homes, which are usually concrete with a thatch roof. Men on bikes carry their families: wife riding sidesaddle over the rear tire, baby swung on her front or back. I see a tall man in a navy suit and red t-shirt walking with a woman. Two hours later, I see him walking back. There are women and girls with all manner of bundles on their heads, from piled-high plastic buckets to coveted firewood. The bikers fashion ingenious cargo-holders: ladder-like braces for sacks of potatoes; one has woven a giant parabola basket, taller and wider than the bike itself. The primary modes of transport here are bikes, feet, and the ubiquitous minibuses. The rest of us are just tourists. Madonna's lawyer, referring to an opponent, is quoted in this morning's paper as saying “I don't think we're on the same minibus.”

Because it's harvest season, the cost of bikes has gone up; sellers are aware when tobacco and fruit farmers are turning a profit. Feet are fine, but very slow. Moses, our driver for the day, is emphatic about bike ownership. Not being able to afford one means a ten to 15-kilometer walk to the nearest hospital, carrying your sick relations on your back, or delivering babies roadside. Moses works for a car-hire company and walks two hours to work on the days he doesn't have bus fare.

Watching TV in the hotel tonight, I note that they censor the word “God” but let the protagonists of Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion say things like “shit.” I flip through the channels: a wonderfully low budget local soap opera, where the sound echoes in too-empty rooms, and a documentary about the brutal rape of women in the Congo. Already the so-called reality of New York is beginning to feel very unreal and far away.