Sam and I had been joined by my 21 year old niece, Juliette, who had spontaneously decided to meet up and travel with us for 3 weeks, from Malawi to Mozambique. It was great to have some company from home; I thought it would be good for her but also good for Sam and me.
The three musketeers arrived in Cape Maclear, on the point of a steep peninsula jutting into the southern reaches of mighty Lake Malawi; a shiny cap on the toe of a pointed boot. A series of eateries, hostels, dive centres and tourist shops, all facing the lake, looked across the coarse sand beach, the sparkling waters with their crayon-coloured craft bobbing here and there, and the offshore jungle- covered islands towards Mozambique.
Dugout canoes and catamarans, dragged up onto the sand, segmented the beach. Skinny blonde dogs trotted this way and that; one of them drank from the waves on the lake. Children did acrobatics on the sand or washed pans. A fish eagle glided across the windswept surface. Hawkers swarmed and wazungu pretended to ignore them, except for Sam, who didn’t need to pretend.
‘Hello, how are you?’
‘Ha ha, the boy that lived!’
Another hawker confused by Sam.
In the village, a tumble of sandy lanes barely wide enough for the very occasional vehicle were lined by concrete verandahs and frangipanis. Chickens darted from small garden plots, and African dance music echoed from a cafe somewhere.
That night it was demonstrated to me why the early Scottish missionaries moved their settlement from here north to Livingstonia. Mosquitoes hovered like planes queued up in the sky over Heathrow outside of the blue mosquito net, all waiting for a chance to sink their probiscises into my blood-rich epidermis.
The Scots, smashed by malaria, went for altitude on the escarpment.
The next day I was able to employ my new resource, Juliette, into Sam’s education and neuroplasticity intervention. Benison had recently sent me an article outlining how opportunistic teaching was a particularly useful and effective way of assisting children on the spectrum to learn. A prolonged game of Scrabble, his first, was a good starting point. Like the pool table and the table tennis, this was an opportunity that presented itself (there was a Scrabble box at the hostel).
Maths, writing exercises, throwing a ball, boxing and chess. All underscored by the soft roll of the waves and backlit by the glistening lake. I was getting the impression Juliette was thinking this wasn’t too hard; that it wasn’t always like this!
‘Uncle James, I think Sam has definitely improved.’ She commented that his speech and social interaction have improved compared to what she has previously observed.
We’ll see, we’ll see.
Juliette played chess against Sam. He insisted she play with the black pieces, which were labelled Slytherin. He was the white Gryffindor, of course. Juliet didn’t mind; Slytherin were very good at Quiddich. Not good enough; Griffindor prevailed.
The next day we booked a trip to nearby Thumbi West Island for Juliette to try an introductory scuba dive and for Sam and I to do some snorkelling. Sam was offered an automatic nine if he managed to complete one minute of snorkelling. The already juicy offer was further sweetened by Juliette offering Sam a bonus GameCube game of his choice from her collection back in Sydney if he managed the challenge. Boy oh boy, the heat was on.
Our twenty-foot canopied river boat chugged across to the island after Juliette and a couple of other scuba beginners. After the scuba students tumbled backwards off the gunwale, a boathand, an English girl, and myself, in the water at the bottom of a ladder, worked on Sam for the next ten minutes to get him into the water.
‘Come on Sam, you can do it. Just start by sitting on the edge.’
‘Just put your hand on your Dad’s shoulder.’
‘Put your foot on the ladder; yeah, just there.’
‘It’s OK. You’re doing well. No, don’t go back up!’
Sam was going through a roller-coaster of determination and then fear. ‘I don’t want to swim with the fish. They’ll bite me.’
‘No they won’t Sam. They will swim away from you.’
Finally with a splash he came off the ladder and landed in the water next to me, clinging on to my neck like there was no tomorrow. To finish the challenge all he had to do was look through the goggles for a few seconds. In sight of the finish line, there was a surge of confidence and he completed the task. It was like Harry Potter grabbing the snitch. Yay!
With the pressure off, I was then rewarded with another snorkel around the boat while we waited for the divers to return. The cichlid were a different collection of species to Likomo, with some crossover. My favourite ink blue and amethyst friends were here, but also a larger purple striped individual with orange blush cheeks, and a luminescent little fellow the hazy hue of a summer sky.
In the afternoon we hired some bikes and headed over to a local market. Sam did pretty well with the bike riding, dodging ducks, women with babies on their back, and a large baobab in the centre of the sandy road. He had had a full day and was getting tired. At dinner we discussed what the nine out of ten meant.
‘I think that counts for two eight out of tens.’
‘Hmm, OK, fair enough. Two eights it is.’
‘How do I make it a ten out of ten?’
‘How about you eat your entire dinner, no compromise.’
We had been served a beef curry and rice, a challenging meal for Sam and one he would normally only pick at, at best. He looked at the plate in front of him, pondering his options.
‘Remember, you get a ten out of ten.’
‘Ten out of ten is worth three eight out of tens.’
‘Ooh, well I suppose so.’
Juliette piped in.‘Come on Sam, you can do it, a ten out of ten, woo-hoo!’
He started to tuck into the food. It was hard work for him, and he tried to get me to compromise on the conditions of the arrangement several times through the meal, wanting to exclude the peas, the rice without sauce, and then the rice with sauce, but I wouldn’t budge. This was for a ten.
He did it, and was so happy with himself, bouncing out of the dining room, shouting to the world: ‘I got ten out of ten!’