Tales of a
21st Century Gypsy

April 6, 2006. The Ryalls Happy Hour and Internet Café

I stay at a hotel called the Ryalls. It’s a nice but stuffy place, nicely decorated rooms but not much fun to hang around in. The dining room is stodgy, the food pretty mediocre, the menu uninspired, the coffee served in individual French presses, but still not much good. At the close end is a kind of lounge area for people talking shop, at the far end a bar and another set of couches to relax on. Past that is an enclosed cement patio with high walls, metal chairs, and no landscaping at all to alleviate the stern feel of a prison yard. It’s trying to be a serious, adult kind of restaurant, I think, but all it really manages is to have very little charm.

Until recently, that is.

At the close end, on the other side of a wall from the lounge area, is Alan’s office. Alan is the manager, a friendly young South African married to a gregarious French woman, and father of a baby who was very sleepy the day I caught him on camera. Alan’s office has wireless internet access. When I first stayed here, no one seemed to know that, though Alan did mention it to me one day. But now word has gotten out. The dining room at the Ryalls has become Blantyre’s hippest wifi hotspot / happy hour / schmooze fest / place to meet the rest of the hotel’s guests. And for the price of a beer or a pot of tea – a lot by Malawian standards, but not much for the expats – anyone in town can bring in their laptop and surf the net.

It’s a delight. At breakfast the hotel guests check their email in a hurry before dashing off

to their first meetings of the day. During the day the place is mostly empty – except for me, that is. To do my work here, I’ve needed internet access and lots of it, and the connections at the office are worse than awful. So the Ryalls dining room became my office. Some days I just stayed all morning, and people returning for lunch would laugh about having seen me there hours earlier.

By evening, though, the place fills up. Some people work seriously, and our end of the dining room, on the couches nearest Alan’s office, can be as quiet as a library as we write reports, grade exams, and review our work in emails. But some evenings it’s a raucous buzz-fest, people laughing and joking, introducing themselves, and keeping up a dozen running conversations while they check their email or surf the web or make purchases on e-bay or check their airplane reservations.

The other night I returned from the office to find the place so crowded there was hardly a spot to put down my computer and settle in to work. My colleague Eric was talking to Joe, a consultant from the Treasury Department who’s trying to reform Malawian tax policy. Joe is a slow-talking Texan who’s retired to Albuquerque, but once he and Eric got onto US politics they were both going a mile a minute. Then a big bearded man who lives in Dar es Salaam but considers eastern Washington his home chimed in with his frustration with the administration as well. Coming from eastern Washington, that was a surprise, but he assured me that he’d lived on the left side of the state for a long time. When he and his wife wanted to move to the country and open a B&B, they had to move to the right side, but it was hard to adjust to the change in political climate.

From there, of course, he made us all promise to stay at his B&B if we made it to eastern Washington. He sent us to his website, and all at once five or six of us were looking at pictures of cozy bedrooms, a nice fireplace, and the man and his wife smiling out at us.

An English fellow who felt outnumbered by the horde of Americans around him started teasing us, pretending not to know where Washington was, or to understand our English – which, of course, the Brits don’t consider “English.” But when I referred to him as a Brit he said that wasn’t right, that was only the name the IRA used to target them. He worked for Celtel, one of the two mobile phone companies operating in Malawi. The B&B owner living in Dar was a contractor for Celtel, as is a tall shy Indian man I’d been saying hello to for weeks.

But Rochelle and Chuck, another pair of Americans frequenting the internet café are also AID folks; they are working on clean drinking water issues. And Robert, from the Isle of Wight, is a psychiatrist doing a one-year rotation at the mental hospital in Zomba. I met him and some short-term colleagues of his a few weeks ago, when they were having a marathon session to correct the final exam papers of the students they were teaching at the medical college here in Blantyre. The short-

termers have left by now, but Robert comes by every few days to do his work on the internet. Rochelle and Chuck are leaving soon too, but Joe’s tax colleague Steve has arrived and now they are busy every evening talking about tax issues, and about Steve’s search for a house; he’s here for a year.

I’ve finally found what seems to be the Blantyre version of the kind of coffeehouse I like. The coffee is no good, the atmosphere is far from funky, but it serves the same purpose. Internet access and community. I like it. Too bad I’m leaving Blantyre tomorrow, I’ve finally found my spot.

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