Dear Mom,

I know I’m the kid who you called Cautious Cathy. I know I used to have to see what was at the bottom of the slide before I would go down, and I wanted to sniff the spoon before I would taste what was in the pot. Over the past eight years, I’ve been on a slow path of rediscovery. I’ve outgrown that timid outlook on life and stretched myself in ways that must have stretched you too. Like the solo backpacking trip through the Lost Coast…yes, it’s true that not all of my adventures have gone quite the way I planned! But now, here I am in sub-Saharan Africa. I know you’re worrying about me, and I’m asking you to stop. Because I’m officially loving every minute of it! The transformation is complete.

All my love,

A.

I am currently sitting in the back of a truck that is barreling down the highway at 100km per hour. Locals call this matola; it’s a common way to hitch a ride. I’ve got a leg wedged between the cab and the wheel well, and an elbow on the side of the bed.  The sun is shining like there’s no tomorrow, and the breeze over the cab is tousling my hair over my glasses. The kids walking down the roadsides grin or laugh with surprise as we pass. Our gear is piled in the middle and one of my colleagues is hanging onto the frame bracing on the other side of the bed. The car we were taking to pick up our last arrival from Blantyre broke down on the side of the road, and it was fortunate that the Forestry Research Institute of Malawi could send a relief vehicle so quickly. An hour later, we were back on the road…in the back of a single cab truck piloted by fellow scientists, and having the time of our lives.

When we aren’t out in the field or handling logistics in the city centers, I am falling in love with the market in Zomba. It’s like a food co-op met a flea market, and they decided to share the ruins of a building. The brick pillars, foundation stem walls, short staircases, concrete walkways and dirt floors are preserved under a partial roof of scrap sheet metal. The numerous booths and stands are united by a labyrinth of plank walkways and makeshift tables, shelves and hanging racks that showcase everything from loofah sponges and handwoven baskets to sides of raw pork, crates of live chickens, folds of traditional fabric, handmade furniture, piles of used clothes, long rows of fruits and vegetables, and piles of dry rice and beans.

Everywhere the merchants are smiling and calling to passerby. Groups break out in laughter and cheers when we greet them in Chichewa: “Moni; muli bwanje?” (Greetings; are you well?), and I’m getting the hang of bartering for food. I find that when we visit the stalls in pairs or individually, carry a market basket instead of a backpack, and speak in the local language as much as possible, the fanfare, swarms of peddlers and price hikes that usually surround the arrival of tourists dissipates. These are just warm, friendly people trying to make a living for their families, and happy to welcome outsiders who want to be more than passing visitors. We’re here to stay for a while, and building relationships with the community can only help our work grow legs.

For more photos from our team’s adventures in Africa, don’t forget to follow us on social media at @landandlives.