“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”-Marcel Proust
At first it’s a tickle, like I’m suddenly allergic to my own pants. Then someone is hammering carpet tacks into my backside. Agony lances through my most intimate regions, and I leap to my feet, yelping with the pain. What the hell?
By the time you realize you’re sitting on top of an anthill, it’s usually too late – and today is no different. As I stand up and brush my assailants off, Paul keeps talking like it’s no big deal – which, of course, it isn’t. More important things are being discussed. Over email, we agreed that I would exchange photos and a short film of his lodge for free accommodation, and now he’s leading me through his requirements. This has become common practice for me now, each place I stay. I know the drill. I trade photos and/or a film for a place to sleep.
But as I pinch the last few attackers off my hip and flick them away, Paul is changing our agreement. Unfazed by my antics, he remains sprawled out on a daybed that overlooks the soft rolling hills of the Southern Rift Valley, and the mesmerizingly smooth part of northern Lake Malawi. He looks as comfortable as anyone I’ve ever seen, in his linen pants, and he talks in the type of English accent I wish I had, “I built this place from scratch over the past 21 years.” He pauses for a second and fondly surveys all that his vision manifested. I look, too, but I can tell I don’t see exactly what he sees which reminds me of the feeling I get when I show people my TravelTall website. All I see is a few chalets and a couple cottages etched into a lush hillside, and some pretty cool winding stone steps that lead my eye to a sandy cove like a trail of breadcrumbs.
I don’t see the blood, sweat, and tears he and his family have poured into this place.
I can’t picture the trial and error he must have fought through along the way, or imagine the difficulty of building anything in the developing world, but what I am starting to see is that even though his hands probably didn’t stack every brick, it’s becoming obvious that his heart did.
“We knew we wanted to build a lodge somewhere in Africa, but we couldn’t find the perfect spot. We would come on holiday every year and travel around in our 4-by-4 looking everywhere. Then on the last day of our holiday in Malawi, we drove into Nkhata Bay by accident and we immediately felt something different. The town had a different kind of energy to it, so we drove up that hill.” He points behind us to what marks the start of his property and is now a very bohemian reception area and restaurant. “When I saw this view I knew we found our home.”
I can see why. From up here the lake is so blue that it’s hard to distinguish where it stops and the cloudless sky begins. Paul collects himself by taking a drag of his cigarette, then speaks as open-heartedly as anyone I’ve ever heard, “So what I want you to do, Eric, is focus on our labor of love. The whole staff here has been with me since day one. With photos and film, I want you to capture the last 21 years of everyone building this place. I want you to capture its essence.”
“Sure, no problem,” I reply, even though I have no idea what ‘essence’ he’s referring to. What I’m actually thinking is that his ‘new’ assignment sounds a lot like the last thing I want to do. I’m still getting over a nasty stomach virus that had me on my back for the past three days. Right now I just want to lie down. I’m also thinking that this guy is a bit crazy – and it’s just a hotel, it’s just like all the others hotel photos I’ve done so far.
So I’m going to walk around and take some shots of the fig and the mango trees, the beach cottages and garden chalets, and the views that should speak for themselves, and then I’ll be done with it and then I can move on.
Yep. That’s definitely what I’m going to do.
Everyone is here.
The Nkhata Bay Choir and most of the staff that’s worked at the lodge for the past 21 years is gathered around my computer screen that’s sitting atop the bar. Paul has called them all over to see what I’ve done.
Hey, no pressure.
I’m busy trying to plug speakers into my computer because Paul wants to make sure that everyone can hear the audio properly. The film that I made of the lodge has the choir I just mentioned signing his favorite gospel song overtop it. As I fiddle with the auxiliary cords I start to get a little nervous and it reminds me of the pre-game jitters I’d get in high school before a big basketball game. Everyone is anxiously awaiting my creation and I’m in the locker room with my stomach in knots, not sure if I can deliver.
Why on earth did I get myself into this?
The answer is simple. Over the last few days, I’ve learned that Paul isn’t crazy. This hotel is much more than a simple piece of developed land. And I’ve started to see beyond what it is to what it actually means.
Following the staff around the property with my camera, and with Paul’s guidance, I began to uncover the hard work sunk deep into everything, the local history built day by day with relentless, hardheaded tenacity. Everything assembled from scratch, sometimes against formidable economic and logistical odds. They made this place what it is, and in making it, they left a piece of themselves in everything they touched.
And this was what Paul was seeing, that day his eyes focused far away as I leaped clear of an ant-hill.
Most of the staff working here have been with Paul since he broke ground, and during the busy season some of them willingly worked as many as 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. This dedicated work ethic enabled most of the staff to build their own houses with solid walls – uncommon for this part of the world – and helped them provide their children with a proper education (also uncommon).
Everywhere I pointed my camera, I put more and more of this human story together. Everywhere I looked, I saw someone rising above their circumstances through sheer force of will.
That’s the ‘essence’ I’m here to capture.
Once I get the wires straightened out, Paul starts the slideshow with the photos I took.
After a few interior shots of the chalets, we get to my interpretation of the assignment – what I think 21 years of hotel history (and ‘essence’) looks like. A photo of Dixon, the waiter, concierge, accountant, comedian aka Mr. Everything slides onto the screen. He goes by the nickname of Mr. Lovely Dovely and is equal parts cartoon and human. I swear his face is made of elastic because of how wide his smile gets every time he talks. To get him to smile for the photo I think I asked him a simple question, like what time is it, and within seconds, he was laughing like he always does and that’s when my shutter snapped.
I look over at Paul. As we go through some more photos of the staff, he starts to beam. He knows them and their families and they know him and his. As his eyes start to well up, it’s obvious just how hard everyone here has worked for him and just how much he appreciates that fact.
The faces on the screen built his dream, brick by brick, and while doing so became apart of it.
More pictures flash across the screen, including my favorite one of a woman named Maggie. I found her hunched over sweeping with a broom she made from scraps of palm leafs. The moment I took her picture she was working harder than most people do in an entire lifetime.
I can feel the importance of these frozen moments in time, feel their impact on everyone in the room. What I’m doing here reaches beyond taking a few photos for a sprawling hillside lodge in east Africa.
And as the film starts, the choir hears their own voice over the footage I’ve complied – 21 years compressed into 2 minutes. They’re watching my work and I’m watching them watch my work. Some people have tears in their eyes. Paul’s arms are raised over his head like he just scored a touchdown, and then out wide, like he wishes he could hug everyone all at once. He’s a proud father of a community built from nothing – and it’s done great things. It’s created a future for itself.
I’ll be gone tomorrow, but these people? They’re here to stay.