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Welcome to Malawi

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James welcomes me to the warm heart of Africa: Malawi (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

At first I saw green—a blanket of green land stretched out to the far edge of every horizon. My heart was happy and my mind took a picture. Here was a new country and my glimpse down through blue sky and broken clouds was our first real meeting.

Meeting a country for the first time is like meeting a new friend—you remember all those first impressions for the rest of your life. Stepping into Malawi brought me the comforting African smell of wood smoke in the morning, the cinnamon scent of the pinkish dirt and the honeysuckle air of flowering acacia trees.

Ireland may be the Emerald Isle, but central Africa has emerald moments, too—especially when it’s raining. For half the year, the sugarcane, maize and trees all glow green with chlorophyll, life and sunshine. The green of Malawi feels even brighter and greener from the red-pink dirt of the land that sifts like dry and sandy graham cracker crumbs but after a single downpour can turn into red and mushy strawberry mud.

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Entering the green blanket landscape of Malawi (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Malawi may be quite small but it is also very grand. Here in the capital of Lilongwe I am just a few hours from the borders of Zambia or Mozambique and only 10 hours from Tanzania. And yet after arriving in this pocket-sized African country, I am surrounded by the silhouette of indigo mountains, the unbroken green landscape of rainy season, and a gigantic blue lake that feels like the edge of some magical sea of glass.

Like so much of Africa, the land is raw and inspiring but it is the people who are the most memorable. Those who know and love this continent know and love the Africans who live here.

So if you’re ever feeling too well-traveled, then come to Africa, because Africa is endless. Nobody will ever run out of countries or people to meet in Africa. Fifty-four different countries comprise the continent—and I have not even visited a fourth of them (despite constant claims from readers that “I’ve been everywhere.”)

I always try to visit at least one new country a year. New countries keep you on your toes—nothing quite beats the thrill of entering a country you only know by name and then forging a relationship with that place, knowing how and why and what it is.

This year I have chosen to discover Malawi—to see Malawi and the people who call this place home. As I’m told again and again, this truly is the warm heart of Africa—already I have met so many new friends, old and young.

Yesterday, on a dirt road ten miles outside the town of Salima, I met James—a six-year old boy wearing a white shirt and a timid smile. His family was too shy to emerge from their mud brick home, but this brave little boy came up and introduced himself, shook my hands and asked for a peek into my camera. He laughed and within seconds, it seemed the entire village had surrounded us, amazed and amused by this very tall white man and his phone that now carried a picture of little James with his infectious smile.

We all chatted, we shook hands, we smiled. I told them how happy I was to be in Malawi and they warmly welcomed me into their country. I feel so honored to be here now—amazed to have so quickly jumped from the adventure of the open ocean to this new African adventure of thatched-roof villages and banana plants, lurking wildlife and beating drums.

I am happy to be in Malawi, and so I pass on the words that so many have said to me:  Takulandirani—Welcome—to Malawi.

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