18 August 2009

A flash dinner

Our creature comforts have been gradually diminishing as we move further into the heart of Africa, and as our budget takes a beating from all the Savannah (lately discovered South African cider) we drink wherever there is a bar. Hot showers, white sheeted beds and classy restaurants are rarely to be found, and rightly so in a place as basic and poor as Malawi. But occasionally we hit a jackpot, and this one came at an unexpected time and place. We had already spent a night in Blantyre, Malawi's financial centre in the South of the country, on our way to Mulanje mountain, and we were back again to break up the journey to Lake Malawi and for Stuart to meet with the CEO of a financial company to discuss business opportunities. We had stayed in an overpriced and under-cleaned place the last time and had had a long and aggravated bargaining session with another hotel for this one night, spending US$150 for a family room with a toilet that made a noise like an aircraft landing and a TV with only one working channel (our normal camping rates are in the region of US$5 per person, but there is no camping in Blantyre, so our budget was blown for quite a few days). Regardless, we were happy. There was electricity, so I could capture my footage, the movie channel had sound, and I had running hot water to clean the fridge. We had baths with smelly stuff, started cooking dinner and Stuart went off for his meeting. Lovely. But it got much much much better. Stuart returned within 10 minutes to tell us that we had been invited out for dinner. Yes! Merryl and I got dressed in our one non-camping presentable outfit, slapped on some lipstick and perfume, dug round the car for the one pair of ear rings and vaguely matching shoes (we ended up wearing matching tops, we really need to get alternative going out outfits!) and dashed off to meet Stuart and the CEO at reception, feeling decidedly underdressed as we slipped into the leather seats of the brand new Land Cruiser that would ferry us to the restaurant, doors shutting with an expensive clunk as the car automatically adjusted seats and mirrors. Grill 21, the restaurant adjacent to the Protea Hotel, was a time warp back to Melrose Arch for us. Inside was smooth elegance, a haven of luxury with leather couches and glittering candle light, a well-stocked bar and waiters in pressed shirts. We could barely remember the dusty city streets outside lined with faded shops selling nothing very much, peopled by normal Malawians wearing dull coloured clothes for want of a washing machine. Inside we sat at a polished table, choosing Cabernet Sauvignon, discussing tempura prawn starters. It was bizarre, specially as I had the previous day had a discussion with Robert about the school fees he is earning by being a mountain guide in Mulanje, so that he can go to college eventually. His term fee would have been covered by the cost of our main course. A long time ago I would have made a scene and refused to spend the money on frivolous food, but that night I sat and ate and chatted pleasantly, admitting the impossibility of the situation. I also realised how much I needed after almost two months of travel to experience a piece of civilisation, a moment of elegance, a snippet of my previous reality; to get away from badly maintained rooms and cheap furniture, shoddy arrangements and the implicit demands of people who have so much less, from feeling like an alien in my white skin, from being the provider of a week's income at the drop of a bank note.

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