Me, on Malawi

Trip Start Apr 21, 2003
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Trip End May 07, 2004


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Flag of Malawi  ,
Monday, June 30, 2003

Well, where to even start. Looking back on the last couple months in Africa is truly mind blowing. All of the experiences we have, and the things we've seen are amazing. It has been just absolutely fantastic and I wouldn't trade this trip for anything. I know I sound like I'm at the end, which is crazy because we still have nearly a month left in Africa (and another 4 or 5 in the rest of the world) and Mozambique is going to be a whole other experience in itself, but we've had some time to chill in Malawi, and think about how great a time we've been having.

I've got some favourite things about Africa so far - let me see if I can articulate some of them...

The obvious is everyone carries everything on their heads - you'd think a loose head of lettuce would be easier to carry by hand, but apparently not. One of my favourites is seeing African women dressed in traditional clothes carrying big Chicago Bulls backpacks and duffle bags on their heads - it's such a funny way western culture has touched Africa. I also love seeing women carrying babies on their backs while carrying everything else on their heads; two days ago we climbed part of Mt Mulanje and there were women in bare feet carrying huge bundles of wood 6 feet long on top of their heads down terrain we weren't even managing in running shoes, and half the women also had babies tied to their backs. I can't even imagine how people are capable of such things.

We also now speak terrible English now - see what I mean? Forming proper sentences is a bit of a challenge as we have begun forming them in pidgin English and asking for things in a less proper way. Where is bank? This makes not very much sense...

Emma and I are also now old pros at bargaining for boiled eggs, bananas and toilet paper out of bus windows. You can buy anything and everything out a bus window in major cities here (eggs, scones, sunglasses, pots and pans, razors, t-shirts, yoghurt...); and most essentials in the villages. At first it's a bit annoying having people hiss at you (their way of letting you know there is something for sale outside your window) but in fact it's very handy. No need to go to the store before a long journey - it's all right there as you take off, and also at every stop you make. This convenience has not exactly helped our waistlines.

We've also started a game - the men on bicycles seem to turn around and stare at us more than anyone, so top prize goes to the first person to make an African man fall off his bicycle - so far no winners yet, but any day now, one of us is bound to perform a silly dance that will topple a bicycle. Another game is that we are now asking children to give us money (because their calls of 'give me money' are, from what we can tell, one third an attempt to get money out of 'muzungus', one third due to the fact that it is their best English phrase, and a third just a game to them), both we and the children think it's hilarious that tourists are asking them for money.

So, Malawi. I know I've said it about other countries, but this is my favourite, yet. It took me about a week to decide this, Emma had already figured it out after about four days. It's inexpensive, the people here are simply incredible, and I had no idea the things to do were so diverse. We've sat at the beach for days, been to an old mission town and climbed the fourth highest mountain in Africa. There are also safaris that are much cheaper than in Kenya/Tanzania, but we'd already spent our safari budget (and then some!).

My last e-mail I left off in Arusha, Tanzania with a disgusting leg injury - I'm pleased to report that after several trips to medical facilities and then several sessions of Emma changing my dressings, that my leg is nearly healed.

Becky decided to come with us to Malawi. When the three of us left Arusha we travelled on one of our longest bus journeys ever - the bus left at 6 am and we weren't in the border town of Mbeya until 10 or 11 that night. When we got there, no budget hotels had any rooms. We were not impressed, nor was the cab driver who we had to bargain fiercely with to drive us around to every hotel for a flat fee. Finally we found a gross little place and had no choice but to stay. Luckily it was only $2 between three of us.

The next day it took us a while to get to the border of Malawi but everything went smoothly - the bus was slow but fine, we didn't have to pay for visas (hooray!) and the border official found a black market money trader for us so we could get some Kwacha at a good rate - he even let us change money in one of the immigration offices so that we weren't out in the open.

Once we were ready to go, a sweet deaf guy helped us find where rides left for the next town. We bargained the price down to 100 kwacha each but when we gave the woman our money she wouldn't give us all our change back - claiming the price was 120. After some good yelling and screaming at her, and Becky grabbing at anything from the money in her hand to the scarf on her head, this woman finally gave us back our change. The other passengers in the bus found it all very amusing. The woman, I think, did not.

Our feelings were mixed about Malawi at this time. We refused to form a bad opinion based on one person, especially as we had heard such wonderful things, and most other people were nice; but it was when I found Diet Coke in the grocery store that I knew I was going to love this place.

The next day we took off for the lake-side town of Chitimba in the back of a pick-up truck. We were planning to catch the first ride up to the quaint mission town of Livingstonia, but as it turned out, rides were few and far between, and there were already many Malawians waiting at the bottom of the hill for a ride the hospital (as it is the best in northern Malawi). What was most amazing to us was that our white faces didn't seem to talk here - our past experience told us that Africans would be falling all over themselves to charge us double or triple the normal price, but here we were just one of people waiting for a ride and if we weren't first in the back of a pick-up, we couldn't go - how absurd, yet refreshing - Malawians seemed amazingly unconcerned with us. We waited by the side of the road for two days before we could catch a ride - well, we had nothing better to do we figured!

The ride itself proved to be a slice of hell. Livingstonia is situated on top of a mountain that can be reached by a steep dirt road with 20 switchback turns on it. Becky had wanted to hike it but because it can sometimes be a bit dangerous, and we had our huge packs, we had waited for the ride - were we ever glad! About an hour and 50 bruises after we got in the back of the pick-up, we arrived in Livingstonia.

Up in Livingstonia it was really lovely, if a bit odd. Most of the houses were made of red brick, and everyone was extremely friendly. When we arrived at the hotel that had once been the first doctor's home in the 1800's a middle aged man came running out to greet us yelling "Hello Hello! Welcome, Welcome to the Stone House! Thank You for Coming!". The warm welcome combined with the fact it was only $2.50 a night to stay in one of the nicest places we had been in months - an old Victorian home with high ceilings and original furniture - convinced us to stay for 3 days.

We met a crazy one-legged German pastor and wife who apparently come for every year to volunteer at a hospital further north. Oddly they knew nothing about the private hospital in Livingstonia - the one that 50 people wait at the side of the road to visit each day. We did learn a nice new motto from them though - "half drunk is money wasted" - well it made enough sense to us.

We were sad to leave our little Utopia but knew, somehow that there were greener pastures to come. At the end of the third day I had had my leg dressed twice with honey and we had secured a ride to Mzuzu with some radio technicians for 5 am the following morning. We had survived Ethiopia bus rides so we knew we could do this. It was hell, but great to at least have a ride instead of sitting at the top of the road for two days waiting to get back down. We got in back of the truck at crack of dawn, watched our second sunrise in Africa (our first being the one over the bus station in Addis on day three) fade behind the clouds and then got rained on all the way down the freezing cold 16k switch-back road. Once we were thoroughly soaked, we hit the highway at 120km/h and were close to hypothermia by the time we reached our first destination of Mzuzu. Our technicians didn't even ask for money, although we ! gave them a tip that was probably closer to an insult than a gift.

At Mzuzu, we balked at the price of 20 kwacha per minute for internet and quickly looked for a minibus to Nkhata Bay - reportedly a backpacker mecca. When we got to the bus station we put on our best "we've been in Africa too long for this scam" attitude and laughed when people hustled us towards buses claiming it was 100 kwacha. The guy selling the tickets just shrugged and said, "sorry, that's the price". We had no other option, and the local Malawians seemed to be paying that price, so on we got (we found out later that in fact everyone does pay 100 kwacha). I am starting to feel that Malawi is set between Eastern and Southern Africa for the sole purpose of throwing tourists off and making them trust Africa again - either they completely redeem Africa, or the people here are bribed by neighbouring countries to be honest and nice in order for Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique to continue to con tourists (! I think by the time we get to Mozambique - hopefully tomorrow - we are going to be so trusting again that we will lose everything to the first person who tries to sell us a piece of bread).

When we got to Nkhata bay we all just fell in love with the place. We bargained our beds down to $2 a night by saying we would probably stay three or four nights. Ten days later the hotel had made their money off us. We literally got stuck, it was such a great place. After seeing the water, meeting some great people the first night and eating shackshuka (the most fantastic egg breakfast in the world - apparently an Israeli dish) - we weren't going anywhere fast.

Becky talked to absolutely everyone who said hi to her so we had friends in the first 3 minutes. By the second night we were already partying in nightclubs with the locals and Glen (an australian guy who's name was Gren in Nkhata due to local pronunciation). On night three our friends Starter Motor, Slim Shady and Ricardo had had enough of our silly western names, so they decided to rename us. Our new Malawi names are Fantastic (Gren/Glen), Sweet Candle (for Thomas our Dutch friend), Easy Go (my new name), Flash Gordon (Emma), and Splash On (Becky). Others locals we met were Mr Punctuation and Brown Bread, so we had pretty much became part of the gang.

Sadly, Becky left us after about a week, and Emma and I took a look at our timelines and decided we couldn't possibly spend more than another three days there (we had to watch the rugby after all, and then there was a local band playing and a birthday party for someone we hadn't met...).

Finally we made our way to Lilongwe and were thoroughly unimpressed. It was a horrible place and I never want to go back. This opinion may be biased because we only saw the bus station and the three blocks to the horrible hotel/brothel we stayed at, but we were well horrified by the town. It didn't help that when we tried to go to dinner the guard of our hotel warned us we shouldn't leave the property as it was near dark. We settled for chicken and the local mush called nsima at the hotel bar.

Next day we couldn't have been off to Cape Maclear any quicker. Or we could have been if we had caught a quicker bus. It took us hours and hours to get to Monkey Bay, and we arrived there so late that we couldn't get a connecting ride on. The hotel that a tout took us to was nice enough so we decided we'd stay and get up early for Cape Maclear (we didn't have much choice, really). We went for dinner across the road and ran into 3 Dutch girls who had found our hotel to be booked and needing a place to stay. We gave them our second 3/4 size bed and the floor and squeezed 5 of us into the room. Not the best conditions but better than them not sleeping anywhere.

Once in Cape Maclear we were hounded by people selling jewellery and artwork If they weren't selling handicrafts the were trying to convince us to let them take us to the island where we wouldn't be hassled - they were hassling us but trying to sell us on the fact that there wouldn't be hassles on the island - what a sales technique! We met two other travellers who convinced us to do some snorkelling in the national park, and that was the highlight for sure. Even still our guides tried to convince us on the way back that maybe they could cook us breakfast the next morning or sell us something else. Really it was sad because it had obviously been such a lively tourist town at one time, and now everyone was just competing for the few backpacker dollars that were there.

Next was Mt Mulanje. We had intended a three day climb but found we were out of money when we arrived there (the prices had been raised as well). This was of no great disappointment to me as I hate walking, and rate climbing only slightly higher on my scale of things to do. I can tell you that even though we only did two days when our guide originally thought he would get paid full price (when other guides were trying to jump their turn and charge less) for three days, he was glad we only did two days as I did some quality complaining - some of my best to date! Every 15 minutes I would ask the guide how much longer, and Emma what time it was (seven minutes since the last time you asked, was her response once). We did it though, and I managed to carry two raw eggs in my jacket pocket the whole way up the 5 hour climb - yes, supplies were limited as we had neglected to shop properly in the town prior to the climb - rice and th! e two eggs complimented our loaf of bread and packet of margarine - another good reason for only doing a two day climb.

When we finally got to the cabin at the end of our first day it was already freezing. The minder of the cabin lit a fire for us immediately and put on some water to boil. We made tea right away (Emma had remembered tea and had carried 25 tea bags up the mountain, just in case I suppose - well, she's English). Then we boiled our rice that, with our superior cooking skills turned to mush - and we enjoyed every mouthful. We could see our breath by the time it was time to go to bed so we stole an extra blanket each off the other beds in the cabin and slept in every piece of clothing we had with us.

The next day I complained a lot less (comparatively), as it was mostly downhill. And the weekend was really beautiful, and enjoyable if you like climbing. In all it is a far better deal than the $650 it costs to climb Kili - this was about $15 for a two day climb, and it really was amazing - about 2,500 metres above sea level according to our guide. Now that I am sitting here and finished, I am glad I did it, but I am also glad it's over.

Now we're back in Blantyre and meeting up with every other traveller we met in Malawi. It is one of the nicest African cities we have been to. Of course we bought bus tickets today to Mozambique and ten minutes later were offered a ride in a car. The owner of the car is a friendly Israeli guy who will give us a ride for free to the border, and then we've agreed to share the cost of gas with him - not a bad deal for us really.

We're hoping it will be warmer there - as I write my fingers are going numb and I hate to think of the beautiful summer you Canadians must be enjoying right now. Still, we really have nothing to complain about, and can't wait to see what's next. We'll write again in a couple of weeks.

Hope all is well with everyone.

Love J
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