The bus came to a sudden halt as the lights shot on. The man standing behind me fell into my back but I held tight to the rail on the ceiling and kept on my feet. A glance at my phone told me it was 4:00 a.m. The music was blaring too loud to hear what the bus conductor yelled so I poked the woman in a seat below me and mouthed “Nkhata Bay?” She nodded and I left the bus.
The streets were pitch black and empty. I felt woozy from a sleepless night. I had been standing for the previous five hours and wasn’t eager to walk through an empty town looking for somewhere to stay. “Welcome to Malawi,” I muttered. A car pulled ahead of me three minutes later and I asked the driver if he could take me to Mayoka Lodge. He could, but we had to wait for his wife. She arrived after five minutes and had the same tired, ghastly face that I imagined I had. We were too tired to talk. The man dropped me in front of the lodge at 4:30.
I looked around in the morning to see what my new life would be like. I would be working at a lakeside lodge, living in a hut, eating at the lodge’s restaurant, and working evenings at reception. After living in poor conditions for most of the previous three months this seemed too good to be true. The only downside would be reception work. I always enjoyed it, but volunteering is infinitely more rewarding.
Expectations of working reception at the lodge lasted 15 seconds. I found the co-owner of the lodge and sat with her to discuss the specifics of my new job. I typically find work online and agree to an offer without a formal interview, meaning that the day I arrive is often the day I learn what I’ll actually be doing. Mayoka Lodge was the same way. What fun is life without surprises?
“So what did you do before arriving here?” my new boss asked me.
“I’ve been on the road for nearly two years now, working in exchange for lodging as I go. Aroud half of my jobs are at hostels, but I also often work as a teacher or at restaurants.”
“So you’ve worked as a teacher before?”
I explained to her that I have volunteered as a teacher while traveling, but many of those programs stretched the definition of “teaching” and that back in real life I had taught for two years and finished a master’s degree in Education shortly before beginning my travels.
“Oh…” she said. “My husband and I run a school here. I think you would be much more useful as a teacher than a receptionist.”
I met the children the next day on a field trip. We took a boat on Lake Malawi and spent two hours feeding eagles, watching monkeys, playing beach soccer, and cliff diving. I hate heights and didn’t want to jump. One student did. When a seven year-old cliff dives in front of you, you cliff dive.
My class was the equivalent of first grade and had six students. A German volunteer was teaching six students in the second grade. Because the owners of Mayoka Lodge run the school out of their own pocket, there are only two grades. I visited my new classroom and saw more books than I can count, large jars of pencils, notebooks for each student for each subject, and enough space to have circles and games without moving the desks. The owners had lived in Nkhata Bay for 17 years, meaning that the school was locally-funded, locally-staffed (mostly), and sustainable. I worry about project sustainability often when I consider volunteering opportunities.
I spent the rest of the weekend paddleboarding on Lake Malawi, eating fruits and vegetables that I hadn’t seen in months, snorkeling, and watching the animals that live at the lodge: at least 15 monkeys, a family of ducks, several dogs, geckos that lived on every ceiling, two terrible cats, two river monitors, and the most territorial and destructive species on the planet, humans. Mostly though, I thought. How was I so lucky? I don’t deserve any of this. Did I really just find the traveler’s unicorn, a job that offers both luxury living and rewarding work? When will the other shoe drop?
I ended Sunday night in a hut with a large bed and a mosquito net that had zero holes and actually fit the bed. As I turned the light off and waited for sleep to come, the same thought crowded my mind: I found paradise.