The Island of Lamu

24 11 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.10.08-9.14.08

Women in black burqas float along the narrow alleyways in clusters. I can’t help but to glance at them and they can’t help but look back at me. I can see their eyes follow me. You don’t have a lot of peripheral vision in a burqa, so their heads turn as I pass.

I am on the island of Lamu, a devoutly Muslim community off the coast of Kenya. The alleyways only allow pedestrian traffic, so donkeys provide the main form of transportation. They carry people and goods: bags of corn, grain, firewood, and building supplies from one side of town to the other. They look better fed than most domesticated animals I have seen in Africa. However, they litter the stone streets with their droppings. As you walk through town, you have to keep one eye on the ground to dodge the donkey landmines.

It is the month of Ramadan. During this time, Muslims fast from sun up to sun down in order to practice patience, humility, and sacrifice. For tourists, that means that only two restuaruants in the whole town serve food during the day (and one is closed on Sundays). But we didn’t come to Lamu for the cuisine, we came to see the culture.

As we walk down the main street of town, I sneak furtive glances through the arched doorways of the mosques, which I am not allowed to enter. Since Muslims pray on mats and not from pews, the men roll their mats out and nap in the afternoon heat as they wait for sundown. If you walk through the main plaza in front of the Old Fort, men and young boys gather around tables and play a local game that looks similar to backgammon.

As sundown approaches, the fasters wait patiently. They hold food wrapped in aluminum foil. As soon as the megaphones cry from the minarets scattered throughout the town, they break their fast. The shops close for thirty minutes or so as the shop keepers join the rest of the town in the streets. People roll out straw mats and share food. We buy fried balls of dough, potatoes, and samosas from the food stalls and eat in the streets with the rest of the town.

As I watch the festivities, I notice that only the men are participating. A few women sell food in the main square, but very few women are in the streets. I generally see groups of women shopping at night, when I am walking back to the hotel after checking email. Each time we pass a group of burqa clad women, I stop to wonder. The thin layer of cloth covering their faces can either be a personal decision or a prison.

When I visit predominantly Muslim communities, I wear long skirts and long sleeved shirts, even if it’s a million degrees outside. As a woman traveler, I have a different experience when I walk around town with Chris than I do when I walk alone. I have never felt threatened, but when Chris is not with me, I notice that mens’ gazes linger. They approach me more often to ask if I need to charter a boat, a city tour, bus tickets, or any other number of things a traveler could possibly need. They simply start conversations. As soon as I mention that I’m in a relationship, they stop talking to me as abruptly as they started. When I walk around town with Chris, it is like I don’t exist. Any business transactions are directed at him, even if I’m buying the  item. I have to admit, I have taken advantage of the situation. When touts try to sell me a tour or take us to a hotel, I simply point to Chris and say he handles all the financial decisions. I walk happily down the street, while Chris is swarmed with people trying to earn commission off us.

Some women choose to cover their faces and hair because of the freedom they feel. After travelling through Africa, I understand the freedom on annonimity. While I struggle to understand the burqa tradition, I am not naieve enough to think that my culture is any better. Western women spend hours obsessing over their bodies, scrutinizing their flaws, and wondering how other people are judging them.  As a teacher I become saddened and frustrated as I watch my students grow from fifth grade to twelfth grade. Their shorts get shorter and their necklines reveal more.  Parents often support uniforms because they say it brings a level of equality. Many Muslim women support burqas for this same reason.

Travel often creates more questions than it answers. I can’t ask these women why they wear a veil. They seem unapproachable to me. When I see them looking, I smile, but I have no idea if they smile back. They float through their lives as I wander through mine, but throughout the day we all dodge the same donkey shit.


Ngorongoro Crater

31 10 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.05.08-9.07.08

Our campsite was perched on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. The crater was once an impressive volcano thought to be higher than Kilimanjaro. Due to an intense explosion a bazillion years ago, the volcano imploded creating a crater 2,000 feet deep with an area of 102 square miles. Today the crater is one of the best places to see zebras, wildebeests, hippos, buffaloes, gazelles, and of course, lions. From our campsite, you could look down at the valley and see the black dots of grazing animals.

We had just eaten breakfast and I went back to our tent because, of course, I wasn’t finished packing. Chris saw the elephant before I did. He had just brushed his teeth and was walking out of the bathroom when the elephant walked out of the trees and towards the tents. Yelling is the last thing you want to do when a wild elephant is standing thirty meters from you, so he just watched it.

I was in packing mode, so I didn’t see the elephant until he was in front of the tent next to ours, about 20 meters away. I only remember looking up at huge tusks. According to Chris, I looked around in panic, then stood up and ran Napoleon Dynamite style with my hands straight down. Once I was a safe enough distance away, I watched the elephant walk through the rest of our campsite.

I shouldn’t have been too surprised. The night before an elephant had walked into our campsite, walked over to the water spigot that supplied the campsite with water, and used his trunk to turn the faucet on. He drank until he was full, the walked off…and left the water running. Running away from an elephant is the equivalent of drinking ten cups of coffee. I was wide awake and quickly finished packing. We piled in our car to drive into the crater.

When we signed up for our safari, we were put in a group with two other girls, both living in New York. Megan, originally from California, is also on an around the world trip (see Mr. Louis other people do this too). Amanda had taken a few weeks off from work to visit Megan while they toured Tanzania. The four of us instantly hit it off. We spent the dead hours in the car comparing travel notes with Megan and cracking up at Amanda’s off-the-wall comments.

We descended into the crater down a steep dirt road. Within five minutes of entering the park we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of grazing wildebeests. The animals were accustomed to the car. A few glanced our way, but most of them just kept munching grass. I had never seen a wildebeest before, not even in a zoo. They are hilarious looking creatures because they all have beards, even the baby ones and the females. The zebras and wildebeests generally graze together, so our next stop was a herd of zebras. Megan and Amanda had been on safari for five days, so they waited patiently while we marveled at the fact that each zebra has a different set of stripes. Chris was snapping pictures like crazy, while Anwar, our guide, kept repositioning the car so Chris could get the perfect shot.

The Ngorongoro crater has one of the highest densities of predatory animals (aka lions). We drove up a small hill, which the lions often use as a lookout to stalk prey. We saw a group of jeeps near the bottom of the hill and figured someone had spotted something. Three lionesses and four cubs were sitting together. As we drove up, two of the lionesses and the older cubs started off to hunt. The others remained behind. We watched the lionesses walk across the grassy plain while the cubs bounded after them. As our expert guide backed the car up and drove down the dirt road to follow the hunting party, Amanda chanted excitedly, “Kill, kill, kill! I want to see a kill!” This cute, energetic girl was cheering for blood. I thought to myself that watching wild animals in the Savannah just brings out the best in people.

The “Big Five” is the name given to a checklist of animals that every safari goer hopes to see. The list includes lion, rhino, leopard, elephant, and buffalo. First of all, I find this list silly. It doesn’t include giraffes or zebras (maybe zebras aren’t large enough). After seeing both leopards and cheetahs, I like cheetahs better. When I first heard this list, I wondered how buffaloes made it into the safari royalty.  Then I watched two lionesses (and two cubs) walk about fifty meters from a buffalo. The sheer size of the buffalo came into context. The hunting pack eyed the buffalo, and the buffalo continued chewing and stared back as if saying, “Wanna rumble?” The lions decided to walk on. I decided that any animal that a lion chooses not to attack deserves recognition. The lions made a half hearted attempt at a small herd of antelope, then walked to a section of the park with no roads, so we were unable to follow them.

Our next stop was the hippo pool, where we watched these giant creatures sitting in the water trying to escape the unrelenting heat. Poor Chris was stuck in the car with three other girls who would cheer each time the hippos yawned and laugh hysterically when they rolled over to cool their backs and showed their pink stomachs. I had asked Anwar to find a baby hippo. When we pulled up to the pool a cute little hippo was floating around.

We ate lunch near a different lake, where we could see hippos in the distance. Chris mentioned that he knew most of the animals because they were hanging on the wall at his family’s farm. After seeing the horrified expressions on Megan and Amanda’s faces, he quickly explained that his grandfather and uncles had gone on a hunting trip in the 70’s (when it was legal). He attempted to explain the hunting culture of the South. They are now both excited to come visit us when we get back to the States.

After lunch we saw another pride of lions taking an afternoon nap, more zebras, wildebeests, elephants, and a hyena before our jeep climbed back up the dirt road and back to our campsite. The sheer number of animals you can see in the crater in a matter of a few hours is amazing, and the scenery is fantastic.

I found out that Amanda was a runner as well, so the two of us went on a run before dinner. Our guide instructed us to stay in the campsite, so we ran around the perimeter. I didn’t mind running in circles because I was so thrilled to have a running buddy. We spotted an elephant at the edge of the camping area and made a detour to avoid getting too close to it each time we passed it. I have dodged puddles, bikers, cars, other runners, the occasional deer, but this was my first elephant dodging experience.

Chris’ mom had sent us Uno cards in a care package, so Megan, Amanda, Chris and I broke open a bottle of wine. After reminding ourselves of the rules, we played a vicious game of Uno. Chris won the game within a few minutes. Megan, Amanda, and I battled it out for second place. Megan fiercely threatened to rip apart anyone who dared to challenge her for second place. She had to settle for third place after I got second.

While safaris are one of the most expensive activities on our trip, it was an amazing experience. We used Arunga Expeditions ( Our guide Anwar Abdallah was fantastic. Please request him if you go on a safari. He was informative and answered all our questions. He would definitely win Mario Cart because he was able to maneuver between other safari cars and get us great views without blocking anyone else’s view.

Due to technical difficulties, we will have a delay in posting our Ngorongoro pictures. These pictures are amazing, so please check back for updates.

A Little Spice!

31 10 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 8.22.08-8.31.08

There is a difference between travel and vacation. Travel is an active endeavor, requiring patience and time. It fills every moment with planning and discussing trip details, internet researching, and budgeting. At the same time you are trying to take in your surroundings and learn about different cultures and people. Now this isn’t to say that you can’t learn about other cultures on a vacation, but a vacation is more self oriented. The purpose is to relax and escape from stress and life. You eat out in restaurants rather than cooking your food in a dingy kitchen and sharing two stove eyes with six other travelers. You have to take mini-vacations during your travels because otherwise, no one would last long on the road.

This is the traveling part of our story. We crossed the boarder from Malawi to Tanzania heading towards the island of Zanzibar. Another traveler had suggested that we take the train from the border town of Mbeya to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. The train cuts through a national park, so it’s possible to see wild life on the journey.

When we went to the train station to buy our tickets, the lady told us that the train was going to be late. Instead of the planned departure at 2:00pm, we would be leaving at 7:30 that night. No problem, good to know. When we show up at the train station at 7:00pm, we are told that the train will not be leaving until 3:00am. This is an awkward time because we didn’t want to leave the train station and check back into our hostel and pay for another night just, and have to get up at 2:00am and get a taxi back to the train station. The hundred or so other people waiting for the train were spreading blankets out on the floor. A friendly Tanzanian showed us an area of the train station with seats where we were able to push some chairs together and stretch out. At midnight, we heard rumors that the train was not showing up until the next morning, but there was no one at the ticket window to confirm this information. We didn’t want to leave and miss our train, so we stacked our bags in the corner and went to sleep.

The train arrived the next morning at 8:30am and we left the station at 9:30am. Our delayed departure time also meant that we would be traveling through the national park at night and miss the animals. Twenty four hours later (note: this is two days after we started traveling) we reached Dar es Salaam where we bought a ferry ticket to Zanzibar to start our much needed vacation.

Zanzibar is old Arab trading port, also known as the “Spice Island” because of it’s exportation of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and saffron. The Arab influence is seen in the winding narrow alleyways of Stonetown and the minarets that announce the call to prayer five times a day. We checked into a nicer hotel than we normally do, then went to get our clothes machine washed (remember we’re on vacation). It is impossible to give directions to anywhere else in old part of Stonetown. None of the alleyways have names and they all look the same. A guy at our hostel was nice enough to lead us to a laundry place. It was at least a twenty minute walk. We dropped our clothes off and our guide started leading us back. I was trying to dodge bicycles and carts in the streets when Chris whispered to me, “I think we’re going in a circle.” A few minutes later, we popped out exactly where we had entered the maze. The guy was very embarrassed and apologized a thousand times. If we get nothing else out of the trip, at least Chris will come back with a sense of direction. Don’t worry, my sense of direction is still the same, nonexistent.

During the day we walked around town dodging shopkeepers who aggressively welcome you into their shops. We sampled coffee with different spices and ate three great meals a day (another sign of being on vacation). At night we ate at the outdoor fish market where each fish vendor sets out a table of fish kabobs: tuna, sword fish, barracuda, shrimp, crabs, lobster, spicy lobster. Then you can also get sides of samosas, coconut bread, and veggies. You point to each kabab you want and the cook throws them on the grill. Then you go to the sugar cane cart. This guy puts a stalk of sugar cane through a grinder, you watch this healthy juice flow into your cup. He adds a hint of ginger, then hands you your cup of sugary goodness. I drank so much sugar cane juice that I gave myself a stomach ache.

No vacation is complete without some beach time. After a few days of Stonetown, we headed an hour north to Kendwa Beach.

Zanzibar is known for its beaches, and for good reason. We chose Kendwa beach because the tide is always high enough to swim. Many of the beaches have such low tide, that you can walk into the ocean for a half mile and be in calf deep water. While there are many upscale resorts at Kendwa, there is also a budget friendly backpacker place called Kendwa Rocks.

Every morning I went for a run to another beach and watched the local women fishing by walking into the water with nets. The early morning has low tide, so they could walk out waist deep. The women were so far out that when I brought Chris back with his camera, they just looked like tiny black dots in the turquoise water. You can go on snorkel tours and dolphin watching tours, but we decided to just sit in the sun. There are also boats to other islands, but I didn’t want to leave our beach. Every time I looked at the water, I almost thought it wasn’t real. The temperature was great so that Chris, who normally can’t sit still for more than an hour before he starts to go into heat stroke, relaxed for hours at a time. We spent three days on the beach, then headed back to Stonetown.

When we were in a bookstore in Stonetown, Chris picked up a Bradt Guidebook to Zanzibar. He happened to read about an island near Zanzibar where they had a turtle sanctuary, which was not mentioned in our guidebook. Prison Island is a thirty minute boat ride from Stonetown and has the world’s second largest species of turtle (the largest is in Galapagos). The island used to have a prison, but it has since been turned into a hotel, a voluntary hotel not a compulsory one.

If you show up at 10:00am or 4:00pm, they hand you a stalk of spinach when you walk in the gate and you get to feed the turtles.  The turtles love this stuff. Now turtles are not the fastest creatures, but when they see you with green leaves in your hand, they all start lumbering toward you and stretching out their necks. The turtles are not indigenous to the island but were brought over from the Seychelles Islands in the late 19th century. Our guide told us they are somewhere between fifty and a hundred years old.

As we walked around the sanctuary, we saw a separate fenced off area where they kept the baby turtles that were only a few weeks old and a few inches long. Once the turtles reach a year old, they move to a different fenced off area. When they are large enough, the turtles roam freely around the sanctuary. You are allowed to pet the adult turtles. You can just walk right up to them and rub their necks.  As a backpacker, I carry everything I own almost everywhere I go, so I have to admit I empathize with these guys. After an hour of taking pictures and feeding them spinach, we went back to the mainland.

We ended up staying in Zanzibar for ten days, a slightly excessive vacation, but worth every day. We took the ferry back to Dar es Salaam and got back into travel mode.



Malawian Hospitality

27 10 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates:8.16.08- 8.18.08

When we got off the minibus in the village of Ekwendeni, a boy walked over to greet me. I was used to the typical conversation, “Where are you from? Where are you going? How do you like Malawi?” But his first question was, “Are you in the Peace Corps?” This question made me pause and wonder where I was.

“No,” I replied, “I’m here to visit a friend.”

“Oh, you’re here to see Donovan?” my new friend asked. Actually that was exactly why we had stopped here. Either Donovan has a lot of visitors or he is the only white person living in the village. I assumed it was the second option.

About twenty minutes later Donovan, tan and smiling, rode up on his bicycle. He gave us huge hugs. As we started walking toward his house, we shared news about Priory, where we had both taught, and gave him a short summary of our travels. It should take about fifteen minutes to walk from the “trade” (the market) to Donovan’s house, but after almost two years of living in a small village, Donovan seems to know everyone. And everyone seemed to know we were in town. Donovan enthusiastically greeted each person with the Malawian formalities. He asked how they were, where they were coming from, where they were going, and inquired about the health of their family. Instead of the typical western answer of “I’m fine. How are you?” We learned the daily routines of each person and the specific ailments of each family member. Just when I thought my pack was getting heavy, a group of smiling kids walked over and started tugging at our bags. They were the children who lived near Donovan’s house. They wanted to welcome us and carry our bags. One kid wanted to carry my big pack, which was about the size of him. I gave him my day bag instead. Chris had his extrememly heavy camera in his day bag and I saw a five year old girl straniing to carry it, so I tried to discreetly lift it to lighten her load. Another boy was trying to figure out how to balance Chris’ guitar. Our procession arrived at Donovan’s mud hut where we met the mother and the grandmother of the family.

Donovan lives in a traditional African mud hut. Each hut is built with a frame of wooden sticks. Next, rocks are packed in the frame to give more stability. Then the whole structure is covered in clay. They are topped with rooves made either of straw or corrugated metal. Corrugated metal doesn’t leak during the rain season, but the sound of sitting under one of these rooves in the rain is deafening. As you travel through Southern Africa, you see these huts in various states of construction or disrepair. Each cluster of mud huts is called a compound and normally houses an extended family. Donovan has his own hut with a small room, a small sitting room with a straw mat on the floor, and a storage area where he keeps his clothes. We rolled out an extra foam mattress and a sleeping bag.

While we were getting our stuff settled, the children who had carried our bags went over to a bookshelf and started distributing books amoung themselves. Donovan keeps about 10 Dr. Suess books on the top shelf. Even though none of the children speak English, they love to flip through the books and look at the pictures. And, like all children, they really love to be read to. I immediately went into teacher mode and arranged a few of the kids in a semi circle on the porch and started reading The Cat in the Hat. Around the page where the Cat in the Hat leaves a pink ring in the tub while mother is out, I wondered if these kids have ever seen a bathtub. We had been showering with a bucket of water and a cup (which is actually preferable to most of the bathrooms I’ve been in lately). They sat captivated while I read.

I happened to glance over at Chris. I figured he was taking pictures. But I saw him sitting with one of the kids and reading to him. Now this might not seem like a big deal, but in Chris-world this is equivalent to a super nova. The only child I have ever seen Chris hold is Lucy (Don’t worry Lucy, I know you’re almost grown up now). I would have taken a picture, but I had two kids sitting in my lap and didn’t want to spoil the moment.

A few minutes later Chris did bring out his camera and the books were forgotten. Chris has fixed focal lenth lenes (or whatever you call them). This lens required him to stand farther away. The kids, giddy with excitement, kept scooting closer to him while he was backing up to try get them all in the shot. Finally, they stampeded him and used him as a human jungle gym.

The kids decided to show us traditional African dancing, so one of the boys grabbed a plastic bucket and began drumming away while the girls ran around the corner of the house to dance toward us. Chris and I sat on Donovan’s porch and watched the performance. When it started getting dark, the children went to their houses and we ate dinner with Donovan. We had nsima (see previous post for description of nsima), greens, and soya (something that provides protein, but I didn’t ask for specifics.)

The next day, we were invited to lunch at the house of one of the women in the village. Lida is a widow who was able to buy a house after her husband died. She lives with her four children, and maybe six grandchildren, maybe more. She had insisted that we eat nsima in her house, so I was expecting nsima and greens. She served us nsima and greens, but also an egg and eggplant casserole, carrots, beans, chicken, beef. I had not seen beef on a menu in a week and I have no idea what lengths she went to so we could eat that dish. Lida speaks English, so we sat and talked for a few hours. She explained to us how she gets up at 2am every day to start making dough for her scone business. She also cooks for her family. Lida is considered well off by Malawian standards. Her house has furniture. She owns a TV, but is still working on getting electricity to the house. As we were eating she offered us coke to drink. This is a routine request at home. But when you are sitting in a house built of sticks, and mud, it’s quite humbling. At the end of the meal, she had made an African cake for us to take with us. As we walked home, Chris and I were amazed at the hospitality we had recieved.

Donovan works in the education section of Peace Corps. So he teaches at the local high school, and at the local college (in his spare time). One of the main goals of most volunteer work is the idea of sustainability. In his other spare time, Donovan saw a need in the community for small business owners, like Lida. So he started a loan service where people apply for loans to start selling goods such as baked goods, soap, or brooms for example. Then he also started a community store where the people could sell their products in town (seriously I don’t know when he sleeps). The goal of the store is to break even, so they sell goods at cost to give people in town a chance to buy discounted products. I was amazed at how well it worked. The morning we left, Donovan took us to his community store to drink tea. We bought some scones and donuts for the road.

We said goodbye to Donovan and the hospitality of Malawi as we began our journey north to Tanzania.

Click Here to see our pictures of Ekwendeni, Malawi.

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

Off the Beaten Path…and Praying to Find It Again

25 10 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel Dates: 8.04.08- 8.06.08

Travel in Northern Mozambique is surely the toughest we’ve dealt with on the trip, and for a combination of reasons. 1) They cram tiny minibuses so tightly that people crawl out the windows to get out, as reaching the door isn’t a viable option. And we’ve taken the chicken buses in Central America, and nothing compares to this. 2) They stop every 100 ft to pick or drop people off. 3) Most buses leave at 4 or 4:30am in the morning, and if you miss it, your stuck for another 24 hours. 4) There’s a good chance the driver is drunk. 5) Your guaranteed to be quoted above the actual price and will need to argue it down before, and even after you arrive. Expect them to try to charge you for baggage at any chance (no one pays for baggage here). 6) The roads–when there are roads–are completely covered in potholes and the drivers actually veer off the road most the trip. 7) It’s hot. Real hot. And locals HATE opening the windows for some odd reason. 8.) You see where I’m going with this…

So given the difficulty of the above mentioned, we decided Ilha was fantastic…and as far North as we could stomach. Instead of 3 more days of solid travel in the above conditions just to get to the next place we wanted to go, I set up a Dhow (local sailboat) to take us across the bay to a secluded white sand beach. Sounds like a better plan right? Oh silly, silly Chris…

At least I got the price argued down ridiculously low, even locals who asked about it raised their eyebrows and commented that it was a good price, and they would not offer lower. We arrive at the dock at 9am, beautiful day, buy some necklaces before the Dhow sets sail and we’re off. Thirty minutes later we dock the boat on the sand and find ourselves walking to what seemed like the beach, and it looked spectacular with emerald green waters. But we kept walking, through a local village, mud-huts abound and children pointing and yelling “Acunya!”  They followed us for a bit till we found ourselves wading knee high in water, dodging freaky crabs and spiked urchins. An hour and half later we finally arrive at beachside hostel named Carushka. Looked fantastic; ok, so it was a long trip and a bit confusing but we made it here. Except they charged over twice as much as we were quoted, and we didn’t have the cash. And the nearest ATM was in Ilha and was broken for 4 days straight (not to mention we’d have to walk back, take the boat, then redo the journey all again, assuming of course the ATM was fixed).

I tried to explain to the guide who had led us to the hostel that we wanted to go to a place called Cabaciera, where there was cheaper accommodation. He said there were places to stay, and he’d take us there. Great. We follow him back an hour and a half to the original village, Laura sure they were leading us into the middle of nowhere to rob and kill us (joking, joking, relaaaax). The guide takes us to a local mudhut and, to the best of my knowledge, suggests it to us a place to stay. “Look, I like you and all, but I’m not sure this is quite what we had in mind.” I sat on the ground, made the guide sit next to me, and dropped our bags. 20 kids were gathered around us in a scene taken straight out of ‘Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.’ The people spoke a local dialect, and a couple knew some Portuguese words. We spoke English and knew basic Spanish. To say we had communication problems is an understatement.

I finally managed to get across that we wanted to go where “cars are.” And food. So, we walk again. In the middle of nowhere passing mangroves, wading through water, passing local women who laughed and stared at in wonder as we passed. Apparently not a whole lot of tourists make it out there. Go figure. Sunburned, starving, and utterly lost we finally spot a restaurant and–finally–white people. At 3pm we order food and I go over and try and ask where in the love of God we are. Turns out we were at a Tourist College where they train locals for jobs in restaurants and hotels, and these people were working here. Carushka, the original beachsite, was 45 minutes away from here. Good to know. This was called Cabaceira Grande, and the tiny village the guide took us to was Cabaciera Pequena. Awesome news. They also informed us of a local ferry that costs pennies and would have taken us closer than the Dhow, which just poured salt on our wounds (and my ego). Granted we could never have found this place, but still. We bought lunch for the poor Dhow driver who carried Laura’s bag the whole afternoon (the other two boatmen fell off along the way), but we were emotionally conflicted since he was the genius that docked so far from the beach only to take us in completely the wrong direction all afternoon.

The owner of the Tourism college asked “did they drop you off in the middle of nowhere?” This wasn’t a rare situation for her. We hung out all afternoon talking with the workers and staying in the shade. Good folks there. They gave us a ride to Mossuril Bay where we could stay for the night and catch a Chapas (local mini-bus) out. For the little we saw of Carushka, it was the most beautiful beach all trip and had no one on it. The walk was also beautiful and truly untouched by tourism. Even Mossuril was a nice spot to relax, though we got stuck there for a couple days before hitching a ride from some of the workers heading to Nampula. In restrospect it was a unique experience: in restrospect. At the time I was pretty sure Laura was going to rip my curls off my scalp and pepper spray me. Oh, and the “Acunya” thing the kids were yelling at us? It means ‘white person.’ “Brothers, Sisters, look: white people! What in the hell are they doing here?” I don’t know kid, I really don’t know.

Click here to see our Pictures of Mossuril Bay, and middle of nowhere Mozambique***

Ilha de Moçambique

19 10 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel Dates: 8.1.08-8.04.08

We jumped off the back of the truck just as the sun was going down in what looked like a city bombed and left for dead, where no one made it save a handful of survivors. Given the difficult travel and our beaten morale, we sat down for dinner at the one place we could find and wondered what in the world we had gotten ourselves into? Was this really why we came all the way here, this almost vacant, war-torn city? Right as we ordered, Laura turns and sees our favorite Danaguese couple strolling in for a Lobster dinner (to celebrate their 4th year dating). Amazing how good company and a few drinks can completely change the mood. They assured us the town looked different in the day and spoke excitedly of their experiences there, which got Laura and me pumped up again. We spent the rest of the night wandering around the blacked-out streets, finding our way to some local bar hidden in the middle of nowhere, discussing the genius of Tom Waits and Viking mythology.

Waking up in a more optimistic mood, we ventured out to see what Ilha de Moçambique was all about. The name translates as “Mozambique Island,” and was the capital for the Portuguese empire in Africa. It’s an island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland with and unused white sand beach surrounding it (though one section is used as a public bathroom because the town is so poor and lacks basic infrastructure, and the locals see the beach as cleaner). Reedtown is about what it sounds to be: a bunch of reed huts grouped together, and is where most of the population lives.

Another section called Stonetown has a New Orleans appeal with old European architecture that’s been run down and left untouched for hundreds of years. Some houses have trees and vines growing in and around the doors and windows. All but a couple streets are dirt and there is trash littered everywhere. At night when you walk through the eerily quiet winding maze of Arab alleyways (there are no streetlamps mind you) you can catch the voices of locals who live inside the torn buildings, amongst the rubble. It sounds messed up and is, but there’s an otherworldly charm to it. Even the beautiful hospital in the middle of town looks untouched, but there are people still inside random rooms.

The setting fits perfectly into a warped Stephan King novel but it’s a deceptive vibe. In truth, the town is almost perfectly safe with next to no crime. 70% of the population is Muslim with numerous Mosques scattered about, and they live fairly harmoniously among Christians and the local traditions. The people are intelligent, respectful, and full of smiles. I spent 1.5 hours walking and talking with some local guy who told me all about town, even his girlfriend and family. When we got back to my hostel, we shook hands and said goodbye—it wasn’t about money or some favor (he never asked once), he just wanted to practice his English. Walking down the main street, we happened upon some parade with locals singing and dancing, grabbing us to get us to join in the celebration. And of course, the children–and I hate children–are beautiful. They just run up to you and hold your hand and want to walk wherever you’re going. Some yell whatever English words they know over and over (usually just ‘hello’) and laugh beside themselves the whole time. The Portuguese influence also extended to food, and here like most places in Mozambique you can get fresh seafood and be confident it will be prepared well. Our favorite is the giant prawns cooked in a garlic butter sauce.

There were many shipwrecks off the shore from the days when the island was a top African trading port (note: the inability for the Dutch to conquer Ilha from Portugal is what led to the founding of Capetown). Much of the wreckage is still underwater, explored only limitedly by archaeology teams and random Europeans that come down to dive. Old goods wash to the shore: pottery, beads, etc. The kids take the beads and make necklaces out of them. They said they used to just go to the beach and they were everywhere, but now they have to dig and look for them. Even as we walked along the beach I picked several pieces of centuries old pottery shards.

At the time of our visit there are a handful of hostels, 2 nice hotels, 2 restaurants (and 1 local spot), 1 hidden bar, and 1 small tourist shop to buy handicrafts. And this is by far the most touristy spot in Northern Mozambique. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and money is being funneled here to build tourism. The secret charm will probably not last all that long, so go now while you can. Ilha ranks up there with Torres del Paine as my favorite place on our trip, and I cannot adequately explain the strange/unsettling/beautiful/fascinating time-warp that is Mozambique Island. Walking in Ilha is like walking into another century—It just doesn’t seem real. Yes, it’s dirty and poor, littered with trash, falling apart before your eyes, and lacks even the most basic human comforts for the majority of the population there–which can be shocking if you aren’t prepared for it.

But just trust me on this one: it’s one of those special places that you search for as a backpacker but almost never find. Most of those romantic images in your head of far-flung and exotic destinations are usually over-westernized, and not all that exotic. Local charm and traditions replaced by organized tourist shows and English brochures, with locals fighting each other to sell you trinkets the moment you step off the bus (often climbing into the bus to get get the 1st word). Ilha isn’t completely undiscovered, but it’s as close as you’re gonna get these days.

So let’s recap: you could get an old run down beautiful colonial place, buy a sailboat and fish for crabs/lobsters/huge prawns/oysters/fish, and take an hour sail ride to perhaps the most beautiful white sand beach we’ve ever seen and be virtually alone. When you get bored, go dive for real life sunken treasure, or have a drink with some of the most welcoming people in all of Africa. Not a bad life.

Note from Laura: If you don’t normally check our pictures because you think you’re too busy, then stop watching your stocks drop and look at these. It’s worth your time. We’ve made it easy. Just click below.

Check out Pictures of Ilha de Moçambique at our Flickr Site***