Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind - Wimbe, Malawi

Aug 11, 2010
Harnessing the power of wind isn't a new idea, but it can be a meaningful one in a small village. Inspired by a picture, a local Malawian boy in a small village called Wimbe decided that he could re-create the windmill he saw, creating electricity for his tiny house and others in the area. The inspirational story of William Kamkwamba spawned a book (called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind) and a round of appearances on talk shows to share his tale. I was given the book as a Christmas present, and I figured that I should stop by and see his work as I'd be passing near the village on my way back to the capital.

Unfortunately, my stop in Kasungu the night before wasn't so relaxing. I got off the bus in the small station and found a street lined with vendors selling belts, used clothing, batteries and a few other random things, along with a few eager bicycle taxi drivers trying to get my business. I decided to just stay in a nearby cheap hotel, another concrete cell looking place with more than a few mosquitos hanging around. I wandered around town in search of a quick local dinner of rice and beans before heading back and spending a while trying to squash all the bugs in sight before tucking myself into the slightly torn mosquito net around the bed for an early night. It seemed that the nearby bar had other plans, though. Just as I was ready to try to fall asleep, loud music and thumping bass filled my room, and even my earplugs didn't help the situation. Trying in vain, I tossed and turned the whole night, not sleeping more than 5 minutes at a time, finally getting up around 6 in the morning, only 30 minutes after the music finally stopped. Luckily I had been getting a lot of sleep in the last village (there's not much to do after dark), so I wasn't too exhausted, so I headed up to the corner to find a minibus to Wimbe. Another small fight among the drivers took place, but I eventually got in the van with a few others and headed on my way. Only about 30 minutes later, we stopped at another crossroads where the driver instructed me to come with him. We walked down the road, and he found another little shared taxi and told me that it would take me the final few minutes down the dirt road to Wimbe.

Bumping along through the dust and yellow grass, we came to a halt in the middle of this tiny village with just a few cement shops along a hard dirt road. I was told that this was Wimbe, so I got out and wandered along, figuring that I might be able to find the windmills myself. I couldn't really see anything, so I asked one of the locals about it, and he instructed me to wait a few minutes while he wandered off. When he came back, he and a local 20 year old boy told me to follow them, passing through the poor village shacks to an area just outside of town separated by a small field. The next set of five or six houses looked a little different, with solar panels on top and three or four windmills standing tall above them, spinning in the wind that I could already see was frequent here. We knocked on the door of the first house, and eventually another young man came out. As it turns out, both the guy guiding me and the one who just came out of his house were cousins of William. They showed me to the next house, with an older woman coming to greet me. Though she didn't speak much English, the boys translated for me, telling me that she was William's mother and asking where I came from. They showed me around the back of the house where one new, professionally made windmill spun effortlessly next to two others made from wooden ladders and old wheels slowly turned with a bit more resistance. I also got to see the tiny hut in the back of the house where the electricity created by a simple electromagnet attached to the windmill was harnessed. Despite the international press this story has received, the hut is still a small one, filled with basic toys and clothing.

The last part of the short tour showed me the windmill built with the same design as the original one that was first created by William. The first one apparently broke down eventually, being built sometime around 2002, and this one was almost exactly the same. A rickety structure looking precarious on a series of sticks and planks, it stands about 30 feet high, with a bicycle wheel and chain attached to the blades of the windmill, looking like some sort of used plastic fan blades from an air conditioning unit or other motor. Simple enough, this incredible idea and creation of William's was remarkable given the fact that he grew up in such a small, relatively undeveloped place, not letting that stop him from believing that he could make a difference in his town. I was told that he was currently living in the capital, leaving in just a few days for New York City to attend university there. I said my goodbyes to his mother and one of his cousins after signing a small guestbook with signatures from intermittent visitors ranging from Malawian government officials to documentary makers, and then I headed back into town, trying to find a ride back to Kasungu.

William's other cousin escorted me, and we found that it would probably be faster to just walk the 4 km back to the main road and catch a ride from there. The kind young man followed along with me, asking me what brought me to this place along with other typical questions about my lifestyle in the US. Realizing that he was going to take me the whole spite of surely having something else to do that day, I told him that I'd be fine, and he headed back on his way. Near the end fo the road, I was able to hop0 in the back of a pick up truck for just a few minutes before getting to the main road. There I lined up with a few locals waiting for the next minibus or passing car, piling into a small compact car again for the short ride back to Kasungu. Back in town, I hopped on the next bus to Lilongwe, getting inside just before a large rainstorm passed through. On my way back, I couldn't help but think of how amazing it was that a boy in a small town like this had done so much to help his village and find a way to improve the lives of his family and himself through such a simple, yet important, idea.

(Two of the windmills behind William's house. This young Malawian boy saw a picture of a windmill in a book and decided that he could build one, providing electricity for his family and those around him. Pretty impressive.)

(His original design used a bicycle wheel and chain with some large fan blades to create a spinning windmill along with a very basic electromagnet to harness the energy.)

(This rickety structure is actually the second version of his windmill, as his first one eventually broke down - not too surprising given the small pieces of wood that he had to use to create it.)

(It's quite an inspirational story of this boy from a tiny village in Malawi doing so much to help his community. These are some of the few concrete shops lining the dusty road in his small town of Wimbe.)

Chigwere Cultural Village and Vwaza Marsh

Aug 8 - 10, 2010
When the hours of waiting for a truck to Vwaza Marsh finally ended late that morning, I was on my way, bumping along the dusty road to the game reserve situated in the Western side of the country, near the Zambian border. Although it was only about 25 km, the ride seemed to take a little over an hour, stopping here and there and slowly weaving our way through the potholes and ridges. We stopped near the gate to the reserve, though I had told the driver that I was actually wanting to stay at the Chigwere Cultural Village, so I grabbed my bags, and they pointed me in the direction of a tiny dirt path running through the dry farmland, saying that it was about 1.5 km from there, with my only instructions being to take a right when the trail forks. I could tell these next few days would be an adventure as I passed through the plotted land, consisting of dry rows of tiny tobacco plants and maize, with a random large tree thrown in here and there. Following my brown dirt trail that was just barely discernible from the yellow grass and dirt all around, I asked a few children along the way for directions, and they, in turn, asked me for sweets or pens. A little while later, I came upon the edge of the tiny village of about 400 or 600, reaching a cleared plot of dusty red land with two circular huts made from bricks cemented by concrete, a tiny window on each side, a wooden door in the front and a thatched roof above. A large group of young children, mostly boys, were playing in the field, though everything stopped when they saw me. Obviously not too many foreigners make it to this area, as I was immediately surrounded by about 40 children mostly from age 5-9, all curious as to what a mazungu (foreigner) would be doing in their tiny village tucked away in these farming plots.

When I asked for the Chigwere village, two of the older children sprinted off towards the main part of the village, a short distance further up the road, bringing back with them one of the directors of the village/program. While I waited, I had a seat on the edge of the hut, staring out at the cute children who all took a seat in a semi-circle around me, all staring back inquisitively, sometimes whispering and giggling to each other, though shying away when I said hello to them. Slowly as they got more comfortable, some of the braver ones came to sit next to me, one of them even poking me and laughing, which turned into a game of him poking my leg and me doing the same back to him, much to all of their delight. Soon, a man about my age appeared and explained this project in fairly good English, apologizing for the hut not being ready for visitors, as I watched two others carry in a tiny mattress and sheet from the village for my stay that evening.

The Chigwere Cultural Village was designed to give visitors a true insight into a Malawian village, living among the locals, away from any hotels or big cities. The days would consist of following alongside them, helping out with duties, playing with the children and just observing the lives of the people. In addition to offering an unobstructed view of the rural life, the village also supports a group of 62 orphans from their own and nearby villages, helping educate and nurture the children that for one reason or another have been left without any parents. The profits from the village stay go towards buying school supplies and a few miscellaneous toys for the children, so it sounded like it would be a wonderful way for me to interact with the Malawians away from the more-touristed areas.

Soon enough I was settled into my tiny little hut, filled with a super thin mattress on top of a small bed frame and a reed mat on the floor. I spent the first part of the day playing around with the children, mostly watching them play a simple little game with tossing bottle caps at a row of them, trying to knock them out of place (sort of like shuffleboard) or just kicking around a makeshift ball made from wrapped up plastic bags. I was also shown around the other adjacent hut which just had a few bags of supplies and toys that had been donated by a generous sponsor from England who had apparently visited the village a few years ago, though gifts like a set of pencil toppers and painting kit didn't seem like the best idea, since the children didn't really have many pencils nor much to paint on, not to mention some instructions about being careful to not get the paint on your clothing or skin. Even so, they spoke adoringly of Sophie, and you could clearly see the impact she was making in this area.

Later in the day, one of the directors took me over to watch a local soccer match between two villages, so we trekked through more of the farms, stopping off at the large brick house of the other director for a drink. Though his English was hard to understand, he had been chatting with me earlier, showing off his toys and games for the children and now gloating about his large house, two wives and eight children that lived there. It's understandable to be proud of his accomplishments and possessions, but I just got a bad impression from this guy, so I tended to stick around the other leader who had a young boy who played and lived with the other children. When we arrived at the field, we found it empty, and I was told that the other team died (which I later translated to mean that the other team couldn't make it). So instead I was just shown around the local primary school which was just a few buildings built with bricks in an open style, allowing light and air to flow through the simple rectangular classrooms. Afterwards we headed down another road towards part of the village, sitting on the benches outside of a few tiny shops as I met and talked with a few other locals about soccer and about America. One inquisitive and well-educated young man about 20 years old walked back to my hut with me, asking a variety of questions about how things work in the US, what crops we grow, where we live and even what side the sun sets on. Back at the camp, there wasn't much to do once the sun went down, so a few of the older men and I sat around the fire, burning some of the dry grass for a few short spurts of heat and fire. I also was given a very simple local meal of nsima (the slightly corn flavored clumps of molded dough), scrambled eggs and some sort of green vegetable like spinach, though it was hard to see in the faint candlelight. It was nothing special, but it wasn't bad, eating on the floor with my hands, spitting out the occasional rock or pebble that somehow got into the nsima and eggs while they were prepared.

During the morning, I was ready to set off, so the villagers gathered around the hut and gave a demonstration of some of the local dances and songs, pounding away on three drums made from hollowed out trees covered with a tightly stretched goat skin. The first dance was a child dressed up in some baby clothes wrapped around his legs and a huge hood on the top, making it appear to be a miniature person with some sort of huge hat on, jumping back and forth to the beat of the drums. The children all sat around me, anxious to see the dances and, moreso, what I thought of them. I found out that there are only about 6 or 7 visitors a year, so these performances weren't all that frequent. The second dance was more of what I expected, with the women singing and chanting as they danced and marched around in a circle, joined by one drunk man who kept popping into the circle and then being ushered away. (This was about 9 in the morning, but I had already seen him down a few packets of whiskey, sold in a plastic bag that looked like a large packet of soy sauce back home.) The local schoolmaster, an older man in his 50s also showed off the accomplishments of his pupils, lining up an adorable row of about 15 children, instructing them in English to raise their hands, lower them, sit down, stand up and answer a few basic questions in his form of slightly broken English. "Rosie, are you a girl?" "Yes, I am a girl," said the adorable young girl, barefoot in tattered clothing. "Can you say your alphabet letters?" "Yes, I can say my alphabet letters." "Ok, do it." "A B C ....." Though it was just reciting a few phrases over and over, it was designed to help them in English when they did go off to the primary school, reinforced by a little stick held by the teacher who would give them a soft little hit if they refused to answer the questions or couldn't remember the right combination of words.

After the demonstration, I took a few pictures with the leaders, paid for my stay along with a small donation to their cause, and then I said my goodbyes, with everyone waving and saying goodbye as four of the men accompanied me back to the main road and the game reserve. Once I got to the gates about 30 minutes later, I found that the only place to stay in the park was quite expensive, so after some discussion, we actually ended up walking back to the village for another night in the hut. From there, one of the men served as a guide, bringing along with him the mandatory rifle to protect us during the walking safari that afternoon. Winding along the lakeside and into the dry bush, we found another large group of hippos, some antelope, groups of monkeys and even a large herd of water buffalo, staring at us through the trees. Though we saw huge prints, we couldn't find the elephants, and the tsetse flies that cause a few disease were pretty persistent in buzzing around us, so we headed out after a few hours of exploring the scenic park, getting back to the village near dusk. I had another quiet night and local meal prepared for me before heading off again in the morning, waking out to the main road near the school where I chatted with more of the locals and found a spot in a truck heading back to Rumphi that left in only about 45 minutes (pretty good for such a small town). In Rumphi, I was able to pile into a shared little taxi along with five others, plus the driver, as compact cars are not considered full until you have seven people inside (the driver, two in the front seat and four in the back). The good news is that once you're full, you go along pretty quickly, getting down to the hectic bus station of Mzuzu in good time and then finding a bus connection down to Kasungu, just a few hours from the capital, Lilongwe.

(Trekking down a tiny dirt road, I reached Chigwere Cultural Village, a tiny village that allows infrequent visitors to stay in the town and see how daily life works in the area.)

(As I was certainly unexpected (they had only six visitors this year), two children ran off to find the guy who runs the facility while the rest of the 40 or so children all just sat around and stared at me, mumbling the word "mazungu" here and there. That's the local word for foreigner/Englishman/whitey.)

(My hut was the one on the left, with just a small bed and mat in the room. The hut on the right held some of the toys and materials for the children. In addition to providing insight into a local village, the homestay also supports a group of 62 orphan children from villages in the area, caring for and teaching the children.)

(Here are a few of the guys banging on drums and posing for pictures. During the day, after they got over the shock of me being there, they played a few simple games with bottle caps and a soccer ball made from wrapping a bunch of plastic bags together into the shape of a ball. They also had a bag of donations from an English supporter, so I spent one afternoon showing them how to bowl, as they had received a small plastic bowling set, though no one had any idea how to use it. They also had a similar conundrum with a set of ping pong paddles, though they didn't actually have a ping pong ball, so the paddles weren't very effective.)

(Here some of the younger students practice English commands. This one was "hands up." Others included reciting: "My name is Rosie. I am a girl. I can say the alphabet letters. A B C D ...." Pretty cute.)

(Here a few more students attempt to answer questions to the head master. The program leader was an interesting guy who proudly told me about his two wives and eight children living in his large house nearby, interested to try the new games of bowling and painting that I explained to them in their bags of donations hidden in hut #2.)

(With the traditional drums, the children marched/danced around the lone tree in the small courtyard.)

(At the end of my stay, some women from the adjacent village came over to show off some local dances for me and the kids.)

(See if you can spot me among the cute kids of Chigwere Cultural Village. Many of these kids warmed up to me, a few hugging my leg or grabbing my hands as I tried to walk by, though a few still did seem a little scared of me.)

(For about $20 a day, I stayed in the village, learned about their culture, played with the kids and had three simple meals a day. (Plus I gave a little extra donation at the end.) This is the ubiquitous nsima (bland corn meal) with some beans and eggs for protein. Not great but not bad.)

(One afternoon I took a guided safari walk to the neighboring Vwaza Marsh reserve, finding another large group of hippos, some monkeys, impala, warthogs (pronounced war-thogs in this country), and even some water buffalo, though we didn't find any elephants.)

(Given the potential of elephant, hippo, lion, leopard or buffalo attacks, it is mandatory to have an armed guide for ANY sort of walking in the park. Fortunately, he didn't have to use the weapon.)

Up the Steep Slopes to Livingstonia

Aug 6 - 7, 2010
Making our way up, down and around some of the slightly sparsely wooded hills and mountains of the inland part of Northern Malawi, our cramped minibus headed back down towards the coast, offering nice views of the small villages lining the beaches along the Northern stretch of Lake Malawi. The next big police roadblock was actually my stop, getting off in a tiny village/crossroads called Chitimba. The town is simply a few hundred meters of shops along the main road heading North along the coast up to Tanzania, sitting at the crossroads of the dirt road leading back up to Livingstonia. The problem is that there is virtually no public transportation up the steep, windy 15 kilometer road leading from the coast (Chitimba) up to Livingstonia, perched on a sort of plateau overlooking the lake and valley below. After declining a few ridiculously expensive offers from pirate taxi drivers waiting at the junction, I met a nice young man who recommended a tiny wooden shack a few meters down for some food while I tried to make a decision. Ducking under the short wooden doorway, I walked into the tiny "restaurant" to find a dark room with one long picnic table and Rastafarian flags and articles covering the walls. Then a friendly, smiling dreadlocked man named Elijah appeared, and I was able to get a quick meal of rice, beans and beef stew while chatting with him for a while about the basics of his religious beliefs and his thoughts on the state of his country. About an hour later, I needed to make a decision, and Elijah mentioned that a few people before had left their luggage with him for a day or two, making the trek up to the top on foot. Trusting him, we took my large backpack and sleeping bag back into the back room of the restaurant behind a hanging reed wall used to separate the two rooms, revealing his bed and a few of his possessions, and I soon walked off towards the dirt road with my small backpack and just a few supplies for the night.

Knowing that the long walk would be hard and take about 3-3.5 hours, I hurried up the track, passing a few farms and tiny huts as the road began snaking upwards into the thick woodlands up the mountainside. Immediately starting off, I thought I caught a huge break, as a car came up the road, but it was packed full of German tourists, so there was absolutely no room for me to hitch a ride. At this point, it was already getting late in the afternoon, giving me just about 3 hours before sunset, so I trudged along in the hot sun, starting to sweat and hoping a ride would come along, though Elijah had told me that very few cars come up the road, particularly in the afternoon. Passing a series of spectacular views, the road winds up through 20 hairpin, switchback turns before finally flattening out (relatively) for the last few kilometers. As luck would have it, after about 45 minutes of walking hard through under the bright sun and wiping away sweat, I heard the rumbling of a large truck crunching over the dirt and rocks below, so I stopped at one of the turns and hoped for a ride. Though it appeared that it was just going to drive past, the driver stopped a little down the road, and I jumped in the back of the flatbed truck, along with about 20 locals and some bags. It was probably better than the alternative of walking, but the ride up in the back of the truck on the bumpy road was extremely painful, bouncing up and down at every bump and ridge, painfully coming back down, hitting either my arms, butt or back in the process. As my body began to ache, we finally passed the entrance to Manchewe Falls, and I happily paid my minuscule fare to the driver ($2 vs the $40 quoted by drivers at the bottom of the hill) and walked over to the waterfall. Dropping 130 meters (about 440 feet), the narrow falls appears out of the forest, dropping off the sheer escarpment into the valley below. I sat in awe of the falling water at a nice viewpoint for a while before heading back towards the top of the falls for a little exploration before the sun set.

I was told there was a tiny cave under the top tier of the waterfall (about a 30 foot drop), so I walked around until finding a tiny opening and trail down some steep rocks leading to a small cave only about 20 feet deep and 10 feet high, concealed behind the mist of the top of the waterfall. Walking behind the falls was a magical feeling, though the history of the place certainly isn't a cheery one. This was apparently one of the spots that the local people used as a hiding spot when slavers came into the area in the mid to late 1800s, hiding from their prospective captors behind the loud, scenic water falling just in front of them. It was a great spot, but I couldn't really get past the somber feeling as I imagined those cowering in this very spot a hundred years before me.

As it was getting dark, I started up the gradual incline to Livingstonia, hoping I'd make it before complete darkness set in. I passed by a few sets of smiling children, happy to say hello to me, as well as a group of middle aged men dancing to some music blaring from the tiny convenience store/concrete hut isolated along the dirt road. The walk from the falls to town took me longer than expected, so I had to use my flashlight to guide the way for the last 15 minutes, passing by a few tiny houses and possibly storefronts as I asked each of the locals I saw the way to my intended hotel. The village is quite spread out along the hilltop, so I had a hard time finding my spot, though I eventually met up with a nice young guy who was on his way home from a shift at the hospital and showed me the way to the Stone House, the only proper guesthouse in the town. This is also a historical building from 1903, serving as a house for some of the missionaries and early leaders of the country. I was able to share a small room in the historic, colonial style home with two Dutch travellers after a nice local meal of rice and nsima.

Livingstonia itself was created as a home for the missionaries in the region, perched high up on the hillside to potentially reduce the risk of malaria which had caused quite a few problems in the two previous Western settlements in Malawi. Named for the explorer David Livingstone who charted much of the region, the village has existed since the late 1800s, featuring some of the more prominent and historic buildings in the Western history of the country. In the morning, I walked around the place, finding it to just be a few long dirt roads with huge trees lining the way, interspersed with a few very basic shops, a large hospital and one of the six universities in Malawi. Nevertheless, the cooler weather and great views down to the lake below make it a very scenic place, and the laidback attitude also helped its cause. Even so, I had to get on my way, deciding that I'd just walk the 15 km back down the hill instead of trying to add to any of the huge bruises on my back and arms from bouncing around in the truck bed on the way up. The walk down was much more pleasant, allowing me to enjoy the views and talk with a few of the local children who were always anxious to pose for pictures. Three hours later, I was back at the crossroads of Chitimba, hoping that I'd find Elijah and my bags happily waiting for me. Just as I expected, I walked in the tiny restaurant and found him and a few friends chatting. I spent another hour with him talking about politics and religion, also finding an article from the Malawian newspaper on this wall about Rastafarianism, echoing what he had told me before, nearly word for word. (This was also helpful because I didn't understand every word of his English.)

As there is a roadblock in both directions, I simply waited with Elijah and his younger brother, Frank, until a bus came by, and I paid my small fare and hopped on, finding it to be the most uncrowded bus I had seen in the country, meaning that almost every seat was full, but no one was standing in the aisles, so I had a relatively comfortable ride back down the coast for the next few hours, chatting with a few young schoolchildren interested to talk to an American. Eventually the bus came to a stop, and the driver instructed me that it was my turn to get off, pointing me in the direction of the next town. Within a minute, I found a shared taxi (just a small Toyota) with a few people piled in, and we made our way to the small town of Rumphi, serving as the center of the region. Rumphi is situated between a few nice, small mountains, and the flora here started to change with a bit more rock outcrops and boulders dotting the hills, along with the dry trees and shrubs along the way. Though fairly scenic, the town itself is sort of a hectic one-road place with bike taxi, trucks and minibuses all vying for your business. I found a cheap, characterless concrete block hotel room for the night, and then the next morning was spent negotiating with a few of the local drivers, finally finding a shared truck to take me down the dusty road to Vwaza Marsh. Normally transport wouldn't be a huge problem, but it was Sunday, so very few trucks were heading off in that direction, meaning that I had to wait about three hours before catching my ride, thankful that I had a seat in the cab instead of having to bounce around in the back again.

(In the upper tier of the huge Mangwere Falls, there was a scenic cave where you could walk behind the water. As pretty as it was, I felt a strange aura there, as this spot was used by locals to hide from slave traders coming in town to steal away captives about 150 years ago.)

(The 350 foot waterfall slides down the escarpment of the rift valley that runs a few miles back from the lake shore in this scenic area.)

(The historic clock tower of Livingstonia, a city built as a mission named for David Livingstone who explored much of the region in the 1860s.)

(The mission was originally in two other sites, though it moved to a higher elevation and slightly cooler climate after problems with malaria in the first two sites. Much of this city was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.)

(Livingstonia is just a collection of a few historic buildings and local shops strewn along a dirt road or two atop the plateau.)

(A local businessman operating the sewing machine outside his tiny concrete shop, very typical of the shops I saw all throughout the country.)

(Walking back down the 15 km, 3 hour walk to the lake shore, I found the local kids loved posing for pictures.)

(These cute kids also asked for a picture to be taken, anxious to see themselves as I showed them my results on my camera.)

(The 15 km road is rocky and steep, featuring 21 bends, most of which are sharp, hairpin turns, winding its way from the high mountain above to the lake shore below. Fortunately, I caught a ride about halfway up. Unfortunately, it was another truck, and my back was badly bruised after that ride.)

(Frank, me and Elijah. Elijah is an amazing Rastafarian who told me all about his religion, made some great beans and rice in his restaurant and also stored my bags for me for a day while I went up to Livingstonia. Frank, his brother, is also a nice guy and loves posing for pictures.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nkhata Bay - Love It or Hate It

Aug 5 - 6, 2010
Nhkata Bay is one of those places that travellers seem to rave about, touting it as one of the highlights of the area and a great spot to chill out and relax. Conversely, this often means that the place is a little overcrowded with backpackers and bars, all trying to partake of the "relaxed vibe," and this sort of stereotypical hangout was what I was hoping not to find in Nhkata Bay. As I got into town, I found a decent spot at a hostel situated at the end of the first of two lush peninsulas that jut out into the lake, forming a small bay in between. My tiny wooden bungalow sat just a few feet from a few large rocks and the lake below, providing a nice comfortable little retreat. I was also excited to see that, being a sort of Westernized (though not "touristy") area, my hostel was having fajita night, so I might get a tiny semblance of Mexican food, something that I always miss while on the road.

After dropping off my bags, I walked down the hill into town, which is essentially just the piece where the main road runs down past the bay, along with just a few blocks consisting of local houses, a few restaurants, a couple of lodging options and more local shops selling various fruits, breads, fish, supplies and second-hand clothing. Lining the streets were the omnipresent minibus drivers, all trying to guess where you were going and get you to get into their van first, as they don't leave until the vans are packed full of passengers, maximizing their tiny profits. As with most small towns in Malawi, the look (at least during dry season) is a fairly dusty, just slightly chaotic main road surrounded by the shops and many residents out wandering the streets and patronizing the shops. Though this town is adored for the fact that locals and travellers seem to mingle as one, not feeling separated from each other, I didn't particularly get any great vibe from my first few hours around the place, feeling that it was a little too hectic for my idea of a relaxing place to spend some time. I also felt like the people there, though friendly, were a little too quick to try to befriend the mazungu (the local word for foreigners/particularly white people) and then perhaps ask for shirts for their football team or supplies for their school. The main beach in the center of town was mostly obscured by little shops built along the road, as well as possessing a few garbage piles on either end, so I can't imagine wanting to really hang out in that area. Surely down the road on either side would be some nice, relaxing areas, but I didn't get the urge to stay in this area for too long.

Later in the afternoon, I went up a block or two and found the local soccer field, a long dusty stretch filled with the local children. About four separate games featuring children of similar ages grouped and playing together were taking place at the same time, getting their time on the field before the young men and adults took the field for their evening match. I had a great time just watching the children laugh and play for quite a while before I headed back around dusk, excited about the prospect of fajita night back at the hostel. Sadly, when I got back, I was informed that there was literally no chicken left in the entire town, meaning that our fajita night wouldn't be happening, so I had to settle for a basic burger to tide me over for the night. Back in my bungalow, as I was setting up the attached mosquito net around my bed, I noticed a nice large wasp nest just above the net, with two huge wasps tending to it. Unfortunately, there was no way to kill them, so I made a pact of peace with the two of them, promising not to squash them if they didn't bother me, and also hoping that my mosquito net didn't have any holes to allow them through.

In the morning, I packed my bags and headed the few minutes back into the central part of town, assessing my options for onward transport. Though it's faster to jump into the most filled minivan, as that will be leaving first, I tend to opt for the more empty ones if I'm going to a popular destination, allowing me to jump in the front seat for more legroom and less baggage and possibilities of people hanging over me, as it's not often that they try to stuff way too many people in the front. As usual, the drivers argued and fought over who should get the next passengers, but soon enough our bus filled up, and we were on the slow ride up Mzuzu, a hub in Northern Malawi. Within minutes, we were already stopping for new passengers, letting off others at every other hut along the roadside and picking up bags of tomatoes, rice or onions along the side of the road to be passed on to some future destination. Fortunately, I discovered a tasty little bread roll that is essentially just slightly fried sweet bread sold by many little children at any place a bus or van would conceivably stop. On the buses, the children and others hold their goods high, offering all sorts of drinks (Coke, Sprite, Fanta, juices - though you pay more if you don't have an empty glass bottle to be exchanged for the deposit back at the bottling facilities) and food, ranging from bananas and oranges to breads, roasted corn on the cob and not-so-fresh samosas (fried Indian turnovers with some sort of meat mix inside). People hang out the windows calling for what they want, often getting the product and then having to toss a few small bills out the window to the seller as the bus begins to drive off. On the van, things are much easier, as the lower height allows you to get a good look at the goods, providing me with a nice starchy breakfast for a ridiculously cheap price the rolls are about 7 cents each.

Heading into Mzuzu, the ride was mostly uneventful, though I found the city to be a relatively busy place, particularly in the crowded, hectic bus station in the center of town. As I got off my minibus, I was assailed with offers and requests to my next stop. This bus station proved to be particularly crazy, with drivers grabbing bags out of the back of other vans and putting it into theirs, along with pushing, shoving, yelling and locking doors and windows of other cars, preventing the poor passengers from getting into the van of their choice. As my driver yelled and pushed another driver, a few locals stepped in to hold the two angry men back as a fight was just seconds away. Inching our way out, we jockeyed for position among the buses and minivans, finally leaving the crazy bus station behind. The next drive was another interesting one, heading up into slightly more dense vegetation for a while as we stayed inland, away from the iconic lake that runs the length of the country. At one point, we encountered a scenic bridge crossing that proved to be a little tricky, since the bridge wasn't usable at the moment, with crews working to put the wooden planks back across the steel beams below that make up the one lane bridge. Traffic was stopped from both sides, so we piled out of our jam-packed van, where I was stuck in a corner seat with half a television on my legs and a teenage boy facing me, sitting between my legs, crunched up against the wall. It was a nice break to stretch my aching legs, but it was hard to tell how long we'd be at this tiny outpost. About an hour later, the worker's truck finally backed up to allow people to pass through the mostly finished bridge, though another melee ensued as each of the drivers urged their passengers back in and fought for position to be the first across the bridge. A few minutes were wasted as drivers backed up and inched forward, yelling and pointing to fight for their right to be next in line. As ridiculous as this all was, even worse was the fact that when the bridge opened up, drivers from each side of the one lane bridges surged forward, predictably coming to a stalemate at the middle of the very short bridge and standing off for another 10 minutes of arguing before our side finally all had to back up and allow the oncoming traffic to pass. This again altered our spot in line, leading to more childish arguments, though we were finally on our way again, winding up the small mountains along the escarpment formed by the Great Rift Valley of Africa. Coming back down to the coast, we had some incredible sweeping views of the vast lake and surrounding hillsides, dotted with a few villages here and there.

(I had a small thatched hut perched on the water in Nkhata Bay. Though it was nice, I did find a nice little wasp next in the top of my hut just before going to bed, though the mosquito net did its job to protect me during the night.)

(Looking from our lodge on the edge of town into the main beach, flanked by a nice green hill and vegetation, though I wasn't as impressed with town when I walked there.)

(The hectic main road was full of honking minibuses and vendors selling fruit, fish and any sort of random clothing.)

(Though it's just a small place, Nkhata Bay's one main dusty road seemed a little loud and crazy to me, given that I was expecting a laid-back backpacker's sort of town.)

(Strolling down one of the backroads, I found a few local kids playing soccer in the dirt field while the older kids dominated the goals until being kicked off by the older guys playing their evening match.)

(There may be a better beach somewhere around one of the peninsulas, but the beach in central Nkhata Bay is certainly not a place that I'd want to swim with the backs of a few shops and some trash piles lining the way.)

Chintheche - Hidden Gem of Lake Malawi

Aug 4 - 5, 2010
Moving on to Chintheche from Cape Maclear, I had a perfect storm of bus connections, allowing me to travel a relatively long way (using public transport), but it wasn't all rosy. As perfect as those connections were, the bus rides themselves were less than ideal. Granted they did allow me to get further than I expected that day, it wasn't pleasant. The seats in the bus are already cramped, and the luggage is generally just piled up as high as it can go in the first seat or two. In addition to that, other boxes are crammed into any available spot of legroom, along with a sardined row of people lining the aisle, pushing further and further into each other as the bus continued to stop for almost everyone along the side of the road. Every time you'd feel that the bus was completely full, and then you'd see that you can always add one more. Even better, some of the passengers carried live chickens in their luggage, usually a box or plastic bag with a small opening for the chicken's head, staring at the other passengers. At one point, I thought a child was screaming, but it turned out to be one of the chicken's squawking at every passing passenger. I had the joy of standing for this five hour bus segment, being pushed and pulled every time we had to reposition. As if that weren't enough, I also looked over just in time to see the woman in the seat two away from me vomiting all over herself, and it was not just a little bit. After finally depositing her entire lunch on her own dress and the bus floor, she promptly took a piece of clothing out of her suitcase and wiped the vomit from her arms and went on as if nothing had happened. A few more roadblocks and snack stops, and we finally made it up to my next stop, Chintheche. In addition to being excited about the place, I was also just ready to be done with my long, arduous day of bus travel in Malawi (which, by the way, is supposed to be one of the easier places in this part of Africa to travel).

No more than a small spot on most tourist maps, the actual town of Chintheche is basically just a barely paved semi-circle splitting off from the main road, lined with the common dusty walkways, ruts and small shops and markets along the potholed road running for just about a mile. I stopped in for a quick meal at one of the small eateries, trying nsima, one of the local staple foods. The ubiquitous meal is made from some maize flour and water, mixed together into a sort of gooey paste and then steamed to come out sort of like a undercooked tamale in consistency. Though it's not bad, it's also not high on taste, so I was thankful to find some nice chili sauce on the table. Grabbing my bags, I headed back to the main road and just a few minutes down to find a small dirt road leading to the beach and my potential lodge for the night. I passed a few smiling children and simple homesteads before reaching my lodge which turned out to be a really nice place set on a grassy plain overlooking a beautiful beach and Lake Malawi. I ended up getting a whole two bedroom hut and attached bathroom to myself, though I immediately dropped my stuff and headed through the few tall trees to the white sand. Unlike Cape Maclear, the beach here was soft and white, and with the combination of decent sized waves, it truly did look like a scenic spot on any ocean, forgetting that Mozambique would eventually be on the other shore, though out of sight in this widest point of the lake. Besides just having a wonderful beach befitting of almost tropical status, the place was free of tourists. As I wandered along the wide stretch of beach, I passed a few wooden dugout canoes used for fishing, walked through some tall grass leading to another larger beach and came upon just a few locals enjoying the late afternoon sun and hanging a few clothes out to dry. Further still, I came upon the next beach, full of the wooden canoes and fishermen packing up their nets for their evening ventures onto the lake. Thoroughly enjoying the beauty and solitude, I eventually watched the sky grow dark and made my way back to my lodge, excited that I had opted to stop at this somewhat-less visited spot along the lakeside.

Though this Northern part of the lake is less visited, about 40 km South of here is Kande Beach. I'm sure the scenery there would be nice, but after reading how it has become an incredibly popular stop for the overland trucks traveling from Kenya down to Victoria Falls and/or South Africa, I opted to stay away from that spot. As it turns out, there was a huge trance/rave party around the time I was in the area, featuring all night drinking, smoking and pumping music fueling hippies and backpackers alike, so I was glad that I opted for my quiet little gem instead of party central.

In the morning, I simply wandered back out to the beach and chatted with a few young teenagers who gave me a tour of the area and showed me how the fishermen do their work and sell their catch in their makeshift village of reed huts just behind the beach. Again, the Malawians seemed to be very friendly and outgoing, anxious to display their culture and lifestyle to anyone interested enough to make a trip to this area. Soon enough, I had to take one last look at the vast, bright white beach and fishing boats and make my way back up the dirt road into town, ready for my next stop. Though I would have enjoyed staying another day and relaxing, I wanted to continue up the coast, knowing that I didn't have all that much time to see other parts of Malawi. Back in the tiny village, I quickly found a willing minibus driver, taking advantage of the fact that the first person in a minibus gets their pick of seats, so I popped in the front with the driver and waited a few minutes for the rows in the back to fill up and then we were off to Nkhata Bay, only about 40 km North up the coastal road. As is usually the case with these minibuses, a small vehicle is packed full of people, stopping at every corner or hut along the way to pick up another passenger or perhaps drop off some supplies given to them by a friend from a neighboring area. It's fairly typical for the vans to be stripped down to just the metal and a few worn seats in the back, darkened with remnants of random food and packages carried in the strenuous lifetime of the vehicle, often held together with a sliding door that doesn't quite stay on and front doors that can only be opened from the outside thanks to broken inside handles (you can put your arm out the window and open it for yourself). The drivers also like to save gas, so it's common for them to put the car in neutral or even switch it off on a downhill stretch. On this stretch of road, we even ran out of gas at one point, where the driver instructed me to get up, so he could pop up the seat and get to the engine. Once exposed, he casually popped off one of the fuel lines, poured some more gasoline in the tank in the back and then siphoned the gas up the fuel line, spitting some of it back into the engine to give it enough to get started again, wiping his mouth afterwards as if nothing had happened. Then, he just got the van rolling and popped the clutch to get it started, as many of the starters or batteries on these vehicles no longer work, so being able to just start a car this way is much easier.

Luckily, this minibus adventure only lasted an hour or so, passing through the typical light green and brown trees of the country, growing more and more dense as I moved North. The rolling hills grew slightly larger and more lush, even giving way to large groves of huge rubber trees for a little while, though these were obviously planted in nice, neat rows for the local rubber company to cultivate. After another quick roadblock, we headed to the small bay surrounded by two large, fully wooded peninsulas and a small beach in between, revealing the tourist mecca of Nkhata Bay, another spot popular among overland tours or those heading North towards Tanzania.

(A painful moment in the five hours of standing crammed in the aisles of the crowded bus, along with boxes, chickens, and even a vomiting passenger.)

(At one of the roadblocks, people pushing to get back into their spot on the bus, packing an unbelievable amount of people and cargo into the vehicle.)

(Once in Chintheche, I had a typical meal of beef stew on the left, some sort of greens and nsima. Nsima, a staple in this region of Africa, is basically a rather bland plop of corn meal and flour, though calling it corn meal may be a little generous, as that implies a bit of taste. Actually, it's not that bad, but it certainly won't blow you away with bursting flavor.)

(My two bedroom lodge in Chintheche was quite nice, especially given the views in front of it.)

(Moving down the empty beach, I enjoyed the beautiful white sand and fairly large waves, offering the true impression of an ocean.)

(Near the end of the second beach, I found a bunch of fishermen getting ready to go out for the evening.)

(This scenic view was the view stepping out of my lodge, heading down to the quiet, beautiful beach.)

(The wide, white sands were almost completely deserted, and I was certainly the only tourist in the area.)

(More of the heavy wooden dugouts that the local fishermen use to cruise over the choppy water. This is one of the widest parts of the lake, offering no chance to see across the lake to the Mozambican mainland.)

(With the combination of beauty and seclusion, I really had a great time at the picturesque beach of Chintheche.)

Cape Maclear, Chembe and Lake Malawi National Park

Aug 2 - 3, 2010
Leaving Liwonde National Park, it seemed like a smart idea to hitch a ride with a group of young British students who were heading to the same destination - Cape Maclear. It turns out that my logic wasn't quite right. Though it did save time and another painful bicycle taxi, with 21 of us packed in the back of a flatbed truck, along with tons of heavy backpacks, there was very little room for all of us, bouncing up and down in the truck over a few dirt road and some unseen speed bumps along the main paved road. Even beginning the trip, our driver had to make a long stop at the local police office to obtain a permit to carry tourists, so he'd be able to make it through the fairly frequent roadblocks along Malawi's main roads. In spite of the uncomfortable, painful ride, I did enjoy passing through some smaller roadside villages, just a few huts and a store or two lining the main road, with the young children often running out to the side of the road to wave and say hello to the passing tourists. Given Malawi's self-proclamation of being the "Warm Heart of Africa," I expected a lot from the people, and most that I did meet were truly friendly, though not a whole lot more than I'd expect from most countries.

As we arrived in Lake Malawi National Park, a few hills studded with huge boulders began to emerge, signaling the change in landscape as we neared the Southern coast of Africa's third largest lake and the world's third deepest lake. Given the vast size and isolation, many unique fish species have evolved in the lake, and with it's amazing size, it mostly just seems like an ocean, as you can't see the other side. Unfortunately, the last 20 km into the park are along another painful dirt road, bouncing us back and forth, hoping the next bend would be the last. We finally arrived in Cape Maclear (aka Chembe) which is just a smallish village along the shores of the lake, featuring a variety of thatched and cement huts and shacks for the locals along with a few small compounds with small hotels for the tourists passing through. The British group opted for a huge, nice compound that was walled off from outsiders, offering a nice beach and restaurant, though it seemed a little too isolated from the village to me, so I walked along the dusty, sandy road to another small hotel with a few huts right along the water. Most of the area here has a nice golden sand beach, though not the finest sand I've ever seen. The views along the shore are improved by a few mountains in the background, evidence of the Great Rift Valley of Africa where two continental plates are pulling apart, leaving a huge valley (and the reservoir for the lake) in its wake. The views from the shore also feature a few nice islands just a few minutes offshore, covered in dry vegetation and lined with a few huge boulders along the edges which are mostly beachless.

Cape Maclear is one of the top tourist destinations in this small country, and it is a scenic place, though I didn't plan on spending too long there. Along the beach are fairly frequent beach touts trying to sell keychains or paintings, though the resorts have their areas clearly demarcated, and the touts obviously can't enter into the area any more than just a few yards from the water, so you can easily avoid the sales pitch if you prefer. The interesting thing about this village is that just next door to the five or ten hotel complexes, locals still go about their daily lives fishing in the mornings and evenings, splashing in the water and even washing clothes in the clear lake. The bad news about that is that a disease called schistosomiasis/bilharzia is common here, basically a little parasitic bacteria that is common in the water that gets into your kidneys and breeds for life, damaging some of your internal organs in the process. Not wanting to deal with the low risk of this, I tried to avoid the water when possible, especially in the late afternoons when it is said to be more risky.

For my first night, I had just taken a quick stroll along the main avenue of the village, waving and saying hello to the little kids along the way. As I got back, there was not really anything to do after watching a scenic sunset, even less so when the power went out. Nevertheless, I pulled up one of the lounge chairs and stared up in the peaceful night sky, watching the thousands of stars come out and light up the clear sky. Watching the shooting stars and trying to put together the constellations, I spent a few relaxing hours staring up at the sky, thinking about anything and everything, a bit disappointed when the power finally did come back on, obscuring the view a bit and pumping in some music to break up my peaceful moment.

On my second day in the village, I walked to the end of town to go inside the national park, heading over to Otter's Point, a scenic spot of beaches and boulders partially submerged in the greenish water, offering great snorkelling and good views of another offshore island and a rugged coastline. There were even a few more vervet monkeys crossing my path along the water's edge as I made my way in the pleasant, sunny day of the dry Malawian winter. Next, I rented a kayak and paddled my way around the closest offshore island, taking in the views of the fish below and the beautiful water above, offering great views back to the picturesque village setting. After about three hours of on and off paddling, I had made my way around the island and back over to Otter's Point for another view of the scenic area, catching some nice current on the way in before plopping down on a shaded lounge chair to just take in the mix of tourists and locals along the edge of the water. In the evening, I met up with two local brothers who first tried to sell me on some of their souvenirs and then just began to talk as we watched the sun set over the islands, one of the few places on Lake Malawi where the beaches face West, offering good views of the sun going down over the water. Though I enjoyed my time there, I didn't want to stay much longer, so I decided to catch the early morning transport out of there, which was an adventure in itself.

There is essentially one driver that carries people back and forth over the 20 km dirt road leading back to Monkey Bay and the paved road, beginning early in the morning and continuing a few times throughout the day. Trying to catch the first one of the day, I walked out of my hostel at 5:30 am, just in time to hear the incessant honking of the flatbed truck coming down the road. In an effort to pick up all available/interested passengers, the truck driver simply runs up and down the one main road about six or eight times, honking his horn a few hundred times in the process, leaving no doubt to anyone in town of his intentions. Once the truck is adequately full (which is much fuller than you would hope), he finally headed down the bouncy, painful dirt road, sending the passengers, backpacks, boxes of fish, thatched mats and anything else up and down around every bump and bend. By the end of the ride, my back, arms and butt were all quite sore from the bouncing up and down, grateful to finally be at the end of the road. Fortunately, just as I got off the truck, I saw the main bus coming down the road, so I was literally able to just cross the road and flag down the bus, making the perfect connection, as I would have had to wait another hour or two if I missed that one. Connecting a few hours later through Salima, I again had an amazing connection, literally walking off my bus in the station and onto the one in front of us, leaving less than ten minutes later. Though, I'd find out that my day of travel wouldn't be all that comfortable.

(Looking excited about my five or six hour ride in the back of a bumpy flatbed truck. While I enjoyed waving to the local kids along the way, I didn't enjoy the lack of any room and constant bumps.)

(The scenic golden sands of Cape Maclear make it a popular tourist stop in Malawi.)

(One of the draws of Cape Maclear/Chembe village is that it is still a traditional town, not solely based on tourism.)

(The main dirt/sand road, with the huge baobab tree marking the spot of my hotel along the waterfront.)

(A nice sunset with some locals paddling by and one of the two large offshore islands. Lake Malawi is so large that it looks like an ocean in many spots.)

(Inside Lake Malawi National Park, moments after passing by a monkey strolling on the beach.)

(Clear water and huge boulders feature in many tourist brochures for the country, shown here at Otter's Point.)

(Despite being "popular" among tourists, I had the whole place to myself for an hour or two to enjoy the serene beauty.)

(Later that day, I took to the water to experience the lake atop a kayak.)

(At this point, I was wrapping up my three hour paddle around the island and over to Otter Point, catching a nice current back down the coast.)

(Not far over the hills in the background is the border with Mozambique, as the country of Malawi more or less just borders the long, skinny lake.)

(In spite of the tourist industry, many locals still go about their daily lives, washing clothes and playing in the water just a short distance away from the few beaches blocked off by the hotels.)

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