Lilongwei + Nkhata Bay + Karonga, Malawi

Lilongwe, Malawi
October 7th-9th 2010

I took the 4:30 am bus from Lusaka to the border between Zambia/Malawi and after going through customs (and stupidly telling immigration I would be in Malawi for up to 7 days, which they wrote down, when I could’ve said 30 days and it would still be free, giving me options), I took a shared-taxi from the border to Mchinji, about an hour away. From there, I took a minibus (where everyone’s packed in like sardines) to Lilongwe, which took about 2 hours.

(A roadside view…)

(A view from a mini sardine-van)

Stayed at a hostel which had a surprisingly large number of Peace Corp volunteers. Apparently, that hostel is where the Peace Corp recommends their volunteers to stay at while they are in Lilongwe taking care of administrative business. Got to meet several of them and it was fun to talk to them about their experiences volunteering in Malawi. Some volunteered in villages 30 minutes from Lilongwe, others are placed in much more remote areas. They endure rough conditions for about 2 years (no electricity!), when some actually extend their stay, although I met one guy who was leaving about 6 months into his term because he didn’t want to do it anymore. Although they all have their own reasons for volunteering for the Peace Corps, I think some have no clue what they want to do with their lives, which is why they joined the Peace Corps, giving them a chance to live in foreign countries.

Lilongwe was a great chill-out spot. There’s nothing much going on, which is why it’s a great place to hang out at the hostel, watching satellite TV or chatting with people at the bar area, or just walking to the supermarket. It gets dark around 5:30 pm and the sun is out by 6 am. Everyone at the hostel went to sleep very early (around 9 pm) and most people woke up by 6 am.

On my last day, I was at a cybercafé when this Malawian guy came to me and asked me if I wanted to see his art work. I declined, but he kept coming back so I told him that after I was done using the internet, I would check it out, which I did, although I didn’t have a choice since he was right outside, waiting for me. All his paintings were rolled up and he tried to show me a few and I patiently perused them. They all had similar theme and painted in almost the same manner. He tried to get me to buy one and I declined, telling him it was too expensive. He tried to haggle with me but I kept declining, eventually walking away. He came after me and I got pretty annoyed but he was a real skinny guy and he had a very sad face. I felt sorry for him, so I asked him if I could buy him a meal instead of buying his painting. He seemed pretty happy about it so I asked him where the locals go to eat. He brought me to a nearby market, took me to a run-down shack, and told me to sit down. No one was eating there, it didn’t look anything like a restaurant but maybe it’s just the way it is. We ordered some nsima (a traditional Malawian ‘bread’) and some chicken. Apparently, it was his sister’s place. Total came out to 1000 MK (about $6.50) for both of us but I knew this was a bit much for what we got. But for the experience of eating in a hole-in-the-wall and the fact that I knew these people were poor, I didn’t say anything and joyfully paid and ate. The nsima was outstanding! It was served fresh and hot. The chicken was skinny and almost meatless but pretty good, as was the pumpkin leaves and sauce that came with it. Peter (the name of the artist guy) started asking me how much I would like to buy one of his paintings for. I eventually negotiated the price from 4500 MK to 3000 MK (about $20). The painting looked legit, had his name on it, and I figured it would be for a good cause, as most people are poor. As he may turn into a famous artist one day (the Malawian Picasso? Haha!), I figured I better take a picture of him with me and the painting.

(‘The Shack’)

(Nsima and chicken in ‘The Shack’)

(Chip shacks like these are common around Africa. They love their potato wedges.)

(They looooove their potato wedges. Ok, it’s cheap and it fills ppl up. That’s really why.)

Nkhata Bay, Malawi
October 10th-11th 2010

From Lilongwe, I took a bus to Mzuzu. Lonely Planet said the ride would take about 4.5 hours but it turned into a 7-8 hour journey, complete with several roadblocks where everyone had to get off the bus while police searched the bus from illegal weapons. I had a decent seat but in Malawi, luggage is loaded onto the bus, not underneath, so everyone’s crap was piled in front like a small mountain, jamming the entrance to the aisle. And they don’t stop selling tickets when all the seats are taken. They keep on selling until the bus is packed like sardines, with many people standing in the aisles. It doesn’t occur to Malawians to scoot back when more people get on the bus. No, they stand put, making people try to pass them to get into the open spaces at the back. Thank God the bus driver eventually took charge and told people to scoot back. Imagine the logistics of having to get on and off the bus. And along the way, we picked up women with little kids strapped onto their backs. Nobody offered them a seat so I dutifully (but reluctantly I must admit) gave them my seat. This happened twice, so I had to stand for at least 4 hours in all.


(Riding a bus with a chicken)

(This is the usual scene when a sardine-bus makes a stop…hoards of street vendors attack.)

(People selling the stuff they grow.)

(Literally, a hole in the ground. Random rest-stop in remote area. What’s the stick for…? Don’t ask.)

From Mzuzu, took a sardine-bus (That’s what I’m going to start calling those packed run-down minivans) to Nkhata Bay, which is beside Lake Malawi. I have to mention that many sardine-buses in Malawi were formerly owned by China. China’s working closely with Malawi on many business ventures, for whatever reason I cannot imagine, and that’s why there are Chinese-named shops and sardine-buses with Chinese characters on them. Come to think about it, it’s not a bad idea. As the Chinese are upgrading their vans back in the motherland, instead of sending old vans to the scrapyard, they sell them to the Africans. It’s like a career rebirth for these vans.

(Most sardine-vans have Chinese/Japanese writing on them)

I hate arriving late at night because finding accommodation can be difficult. I paid extra for my sardine-bus to take me straight there because trying to find my way through a maze of dark, sign-less streets in a fishing village while carrying all my stuff isn’t something I want to do. The next day, I found out I could’ve saved that money because the hostel was just up the road.

(My patio)

(Lake Malawi in the morning)

Not much goes on in Nkhata Bay and I wonder how some travelers spend weeks there. It’s a small fishing village. Walked to the center of town where lots of people were selling produce and dried-fish along the sides of the road. Visited the immigration office where I found out extending my visa would cost around US$30! (Earlier, I had mentioned I told the border agent that I would be here 7 days when I should’ve said the allowable 30 days. That’s why.) I had some chicken and Malawian rice at a local restaurant. They cook the rice a special way and it was delicious.

(Walking on a main street)

(Man selling dried fish)

(Tomato salespeople)

(This dog started following me around. I felt sorry for it so I bought some biscuits but he rejected them.)

(More fish…did I mention this is a fishing village?)

There’s only so much lounging one can do beside Lake Malawi. Two nights was more than enough for me. I did spend quite a bit of time at the hostel watching episodes on DVD of ‘Ellen’. I never realized how extremely funny she was.

(Creative way of drying underwear)

Karonga, Malawi
October 12th 2010

From Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu was 1 hour on a sardine-van. Then caught a sardine-bus from Mzuzu to a city near the border called Karonga, which took nearly 5 hours. It was getting late and I didn’t want to cross the Malawi-Tanzania border that night as I would have to walk in the dark for 1-2 km from the Tanzanian border to the nearest bus station and I didn’t want to do that.

So I stayed the night at a cheap guesthouse (‘Fukuka Resthouse’), which was one of the worst places I’ve stayed at during my travels. It was a cheap option and it was already dark so I didn’t go looking for another option. Just sucked it up. The streets were pitch-black and there wasn’t much around the guesthouse so I stayed in starting around 6:30 pm (it gets dark around 6 pm in Malawi). The room was like a prison cell. The whole guesthouse looked like a prison. The shower/toilet area was an unspeakable horror. It was filthy, old, moldy, had no lights, and there were roaches crawling around, playing hide-and-seek when my headlamp lit the place. I was scared shitless so I didn’t take a shower or even brush my teeth that night. I just stayed in my room with a lit candle melting on the small table. I sat on a wooden chair and caught up with writing some blog entries. It was hot as hell and I was sweating pretty hard. The candle eventually burnt out and I was typing in darkness on my netbook. Dinner was two bags of Lays potato chips and two bottles of water, purchased at a nearby gas station. The guesthouse turned on the electricity around 8:30 pm so at least there was some light in my room later. Sleeping was difficult due to the heat but at least there was a mosquito net to protect me from Satan’s little minions (mosquitoes). (And doesn’t the name of the resthouse look a lot like ‘Fuckuken’?)

(I dare you to shower here…)

(Or drop a deuce here…)

(My prison cell)