4 years ago

Ballin’ on a budget | Lilongwe Golf Club, Malawi

Adult summer camp!

It’s truly the perfect way to describe the week and a half I unexpectedly spent living (in my 28 square foot plastic home) at the Lilongwe Golf Club.

I learned a lot, had a ton of fun, hung out with locals, was taught the proper way to prepare and eat nsima, took in one craft beer festival, got invited to a golf tournament party (free beer!), had a bad religious experience every morning, enjoyed a Nigerian hip-hop artist, wrote a bit, read two books, and pitched my tent only once. Whew.

Needless to say, it was a great time. Staying and playing at the Lilongwe Golf Club was undoubtedly one of the best, most random decisions I’ve made on the trip.

I originally planned on a two night stay, but what’s kept me here are the wonderful people. And the prices.

It started with a brief chat with Adam, the golf pro who’s been working here for nearly 20 years and plays for the Malawi National Team. I let him know that, except for mini golf, I’d never played golf. Didn’t know how to grip, stand, swing, putt, and that the only iron I was familiar with was my Shark, which for years took out the wrinkles on my clothes with its fantastic steam power. Nothing.

I also met with Henry, who heads up the tennis programs and groomed Adam. I revealed to him that I taught myself tennis a few years back, had no form or footwork, but that, on occasion, I could hit the ball over the net and very much enjoyed being on the court.

Golf was something I’d always thought about trying out, as everyone and their mom plays. But it was never an actionable idea because I’m competitive and frugal. Risking pride and money simultaneously was risking too much, even among friends. But, in one of the most unexpected twists on this journey, I shed my risk aversion to golf in the relative safety of Lilongwe, and committed to an afternoon intro lesson with Adam later that day.

My boy Mikey, who played a big role in me going on A Great Journey, would’ve been proud. And laughed his ass off.

One lesson led to five lessons in each sport because I don’t like being bad at things. Not that I’m any good now, I’m just less bad. I got into it, enjoying the set-up, the weather, my instructors, and seeing progress. Thus, two days led to ten at the Lilongwe Golf Club, aided in small part by a weekend craft beer festival.

Rollin' at the Lilongwe Golf Club

My tent was 100 meters from the driving range and 40 from the tennis courts, and 20 from the 10th hole. Lessons were less than 10 dollars each, with 80 cents per basket of balls on the range, 2 bucks to rent a tennis court, or hire a caddy/ball boy. Plus tips, of course. Finally, as a camper, I was considered a member and didn’t have to pay the daily membership fee. Truly, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So I didn’t, and took full advantage of the facilities.

I even got into a little routine, with daily, cool sunrise walks to the driving range, followed by a tennis or golf lesson. It was the first time I’d gotten into a semblance of life rhythm since spending 2+ weeks in Buenos Aires, running almost every day.

I usually finished with some more action on the court, range, or course most days. It was quite nice staying at the Lilongwe Golf Club, except for a terrible religious experience.

I never planned on being showered, dressed, and ready for the day by sunrise. But, thanks to the local mosques, the nearest of which is more than a half-mile away, I was forcibly awakened at 4 am. Every. Single. Day. Even with custom earplugs and a double-dose of sleep meds on two mornings!

Camping in Lilongwe Golf Club
Nope. Didn’t work.

So, beautiful, melodic, obnoxiously loud prayers I wish I could understand blasting from different minarets in quick succession at an absolutely ungodly hour became my reality. It’s truly the only complaint I have about my time at the Lilongwe Golf Club. Well, that and the lack of a kitchen, but for 5 USD a night in such beautiful, sporting surroundings, it’d be unreasonable to gripe about it. Huge, dollar-fifty avocados on freshly baked bread topped with salt made for a damn good dinner, anyway. Except when we had nsima and relish for lunch; there was no need for dinner then.

Lunch at Lilongwe Golf Club
So good!

After a couple sleepless nights and tired days I forced myself to bed before 9 almost every night. This helped me avoid being a red-eyed zombie trying to learn new skills that require alertness and hand-eye coordination.

After so much camping and visiting many little towns and big cities, you get used to arising 5ish, with the birds, the chickens, the donkeys, the hippos, the dogs, the honking cars, the drunks, or the sun. It’s always something, it’s always earlier than you want, and you always learn to enjoy an early start and carry on. But 4 am is downright ridiculous and completely inconsiderate of the local religious leaders, especially when only 13% of Malawians are Muslim. Whomever is in charge definitely watched Spinal Tap.

I’m atheist, but respectful of people’s right to worship; to each, their own, I say. I have backpacked through 26 countries, so I’d say I’m quite culturally adaptable and perfectly fine to adhering to local customs, too. But I like my sleep.

I had no such issues in Egypt, where I didn’t camp, but had a mosque (or several) across the street every single night. Call me an infidel if you’d like; I’m simply intolerant of any organization, religious or otherwise, which blatantly disregards the basic rights of others, like sleeping at 4 am, while carrying out their mission.

Luckily, the clubhouse had GREAT local coffee for a buck, which helped matters. Mzuzu in a tiny French press sure as hell beats the powdered variety I’ve come to rely on quite often during A Great Journey.

Mzuzu at the Lilongwe Golf Club
Daily life-saver.

The handful of golf lessons eventually led to me throwing caution completely to the wind and actually braving the course with Adam and Christopher, our caddy. Adam was fantastic, as was young Christopher. A generously let me use his clubs, provided constructive criticism before & after swings, and, every once in a while, when I actually got things right, praise. He also allowed me to wear the decidedly non-golf shoes I have. Tucking in the shirt was non-negotiable.

We even shared a few meals together in the caddy area, and, before I left, Adam invited me to his home to introduce me to his family and his wife’s cooking. Those will go down as some of my most cherished meals and memories in Africa.

At less than 10 USD for 18 holes, I promised myself I wouldn’t leave until I made par on a hole. But after bogeying a bunch my last 18, I just couldn’t manage it and had to hit the road with sore and blistered hands.

Lilongwe Golf Club
First time on the course. Wish Mikey could’ve seen me; he would’ve laughed hard.

Those blisters kinda impacted my ability to play as much tennis as I wanted to, but Henry’s lessons were useful and his patience with me admirable. Kudos to Ernest, my ball boy, too. He earned his money and was a worthy opponent once, too (I lost). I got some great things to work on and some useful pointers I can use once I leave the life of a vagabond behind and can get on the court again.

Lilongwe Golf Club
A little bao at the caddy shack.

I’m still no good at either sport; too inconsistent, too little touch. But I had an incredibly fun, enjoyable time learning from Adam, Christopher, and Henry, and challenging myself at my improptu Adult Summer Camp.

I have a finer understanding of the basics of both sports, and newfound respect for golfers. It’s not easy to kiss Malawi with the club and keep the shot straight. If trees could talk, they’d probably be as irate at me and my driver as I was at the mosques and their speakers.

Walking out of the Lilongwe Golf Club for the final time, backpack strapped and ready for a new part of my adventure, I got a little sad. It had inadvertently become my home.

I got to know and appreciate the staff. They always greeted me with a warm smile, and even a sir, despite the fact that I was not really a member, just a camper who stayed far longer than he ever imagined. I’m too young to be called sir, too, of course. They warmly welcomed me into a tight community of diligent workers and good people.

The crew on the course who took note of my improvement and mentioned it. The guys ready for me at the range way too early, when no one else could see my terrible hits and misses. The kids rolling and marking the clay courts. The guys handwashing laundry by my tent, who were kind enough to lend me their tools when they were finished so I could take care of my stuff, twice. The young lady who knew it was Mzuzu, milk on the side, as soon as she saw me. All the caddies I shared Nsima with in an area members seldom see or go to. Lester, the older gentleman making the security rounds at the campground, where I was the only camper, except for one night.

And, finally, the cashiers with whom I had daily interaction and smiled every time I went back after saying that the previous time would be my last. I just couldn’t quit.

I left a better person than when I arrived. And not just on the court or the course.

Thank you, Adam, Christopher, Henry, and everyone at the Lilongwe Golf Club!

You’ll be missed.

The crew sent me off at the bus station my last day there.
Cape Maclear boda boda
Next stop, Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi.
Cape Maclear Sunset
Its a nice place, Cape Maclear.

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