Lake Malawi

27 10 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 8.08.08- 8.15.08

Before we arrived in Africa, Chris’ dad insisted that transportation did not exist on the continent. After two days of traveling from Nampula, Mozambique to Cape Maclear, Malawi, I almost agree with him.

Our first day, we took a ten hour train to the small town of Cuamba, Mozambique. While trains are not as crowded as minibuses, they still leave at 4am, go very slowly, and are uncomfortably hot. We met a local Malawian woman on our train. Normally locals can help you with directions and make sure you’re not getting ripped off. While our new friend was incredibly nice, we soon realized that she didn’t travel much. When we went to get a hostel for the night and a minibus for the next day, we were getting better prices than she was. She had so much luggage that she couldn’t carry it all, and Chris ended up carrying her incredibly heavy suitcase a half mile from the train station to the hostel, while SHE kept asking, “How much farther? It’s so far.”

The next day, we took a three hour minibus ride, to the border where we discovered there is no public transportation for the 17 kilometers (about 10 miles) of no-man’s-land between the borders of Mozambique and Malawi. Please note that this is a major border crossing between the two countries. We had to hire guys with bicylces to pedal us down the dirt road. Fortunately, unlike middle school days where you sit on your friend’s handle bars, these guys have seats on the back. But you have to hire one guy to transport you and another guy for your bags. Half way through the ride, the guys stopped and demanded more money or they would leave us in the middle of nowhere. Since we had no other option, we agreed to pay, then stuck to the original price once we got to the next town. We had four and a half more hours riding in the back of trucks. Once we arrived at our destination, we had a two kilometer (a mile and a quarter) walk to our hostel.

On our third day of travel we smashed into the back of another pick up truck to get to our final destination, Cape Maclear, a small backpacker town at the southern tip of Lake Malawi. The driver was flying down a pot hole filled road with no regard for the fact that he had passengers in the back. It’s normally better to look down when you’re riding in a truck because if you look at the road you inhale clouds of dust. But when the driver slammed on the brakes, I looked up just in time to see us barely avoid hitting a group of baboons running across the road. A few minutes later, we pulled into the main dirt road into town and saw another baboon munching fruit and sitting next to a goat who was eating grass. While the baboons never came into town, I saw them every time I went running.

Our truck arrived without losing any passengers and we found a hostel on the lake. Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest lake in the world. It’s a great place to hang out after a few days of rough travel. However, the price of hostels is much more expensive than the rest of Malawi and the “beach” we had heard so much about is small strip of rocky sand. But the water is completely clear and has great freshwater snorkeling. The town has no paved roads, just sandy streets lined with small huts, tourist shops, and a few bars. The local Malawians are incredibly friendly. More of them simply want to know where you are from and welcome you to Malawi, but a few still want to sell you dhow trips or snorkle tours. We spent two days on the beach watching the women wash their clothes in the lake every morning and the men row their dug out canoes up and down the lake.

When we walked around town, a string of children would gather around us. I often felt like the Pied Piper. Some would come up and hold your hand, while others asked to have their pictures taken. They love seeing themselves on the camera. These kids live in houses with no electricity and no running water, but they know exactly how a digital camera works. They would sit patiently and smile, but as soon as you take a picture, they race over and push each other out of the way to see themselves on the screen.

Even after two relaxing days at the lake, I refused to ride in the back of another truck, so we took a bus from Cape Maclear to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. We needed to restock our food bag so we went to the grocery store to buy the traveling essentials: peanut butter, pasta, and Snicker’s Bars. We quickly learned why the Europeans recently held a Summit to discuss the soaring food prices in Africa. A bag of pasta which normally costs .99 in the US was selling for almost $5. Pasta sauce costs another $6. A three pound bag of frozen brussel sprouts was almost $8. We purchased two bottles of water and a bar of soap, and decided we’d eat out for dinner.

Nsima (pronounced See-muh) is basically the national dish of Malawi. It is made from processed corn, contains very little nutritional value, and is eaten by every Malawian at every meal. It looks like white mush and tastes like nothing. Nsima and greens (similar to collard greens) makes up most local meals. If you eat in a local restaurant your options are nsima and greens, nsima and beans, and if your lucky nsima and fish. After a few days of this diet, a $5 bag of pasta does not sound so bad.

We left Lilongwe and passed through Mzuzu, the largest town in northern Malawi on our way to Nkhata Bay, another lake town. Our consistently innacurate Lonely Planet guidebook had praised the beach at Kupenja Hotel. When we arrived we found that the hostel is built on a steep hill with no beach to speak of. The room that they showed us had some random guy sleeping in it, but they assured us they would clean the room. While we waited, one of the hotel workers taught us how to play Bao, a local game played by dropping pebbles in holes on a wooden board. We spent the rest of the afternoon in fierce competition. I would like to add that I am currently the Bao champion.

Our second day in Nkhata Bay, we were able to get in touch with Donovan, a teacher who worked with me at Priory and is currently in Malawi working through Peace Corps. He invited us to come stay at his village, so we hopped on the next minibus and headed to Ekwendini.

Click here to see our pictures of Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay

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