Sunday, September 23, 2007

Malawi: Life on the Lake

To many travelers, Malawi is all about the lake. And it’s easy to see why. Crystal-clear waters, abundant fish, gorgeous sunsets, and a laid-back lifestyle. For Eric, this was also where he got his first mints since leaving California; a notable event for a man who used to burn through several Mintz tins a week at home.

Our first stop was Nkhata Bay, where we pushed our way onto a crowded mini-bus, hugging our packs on our knees. Kathleen was perched on half of a seat with no back rest, with only one foot on the floor and another hovering above a sack of rice, ever fearful that the door would fly open at any moment. But arriving in Nkhata Bay erased all discomfort, as we stepped foot into Mayoka Village. Our hut was perched above the lake, swaddled in bougainvillea and boasted fishbowl windows. We wished we could have transported all of our friends and family to come join us for snorkeling, hammocking, trampoling, and a game of pool. We raised a glass of hot chocolate and amarula to you all.

But to truly appreciate Malawian lake life, you need to take a ride on the MV Ilala Ferry. For lakeside and island communities, the ferry is a lifeline. It’s been plying the waters since 1957, and it’s one of the only ways that locals can transport food, furniture, family and farm animals around. Clambering aboard, we made our way over sacks of potatoes, rice, breast-feeding women, and a veritable morass of humanity, bathed in sweat and diesel fumes from the engine. Truthfully, it felt a bit odd to push our way through the extremely overcrowded 2nd-class compartment to reach the open-air first class deck. The lines were fairly clearly drawn between Malawian locals below and mostly-white travelers above, which lent a bit of a colonial feel that we didn’t like. That’s not to say that the top deck didn’t have it’s own fair share of resident cockroaches. We grabbed deck chairs and silently cruised into the warm pitch-blackness under a blanket of stars while trying not to get seasick.

We disembarked around midnight on Chizumulu Island. There is no dock large enough for the ferry, so everyone piles off with their goods into a lifeboat to be paddled to shore by moonlight. We reached our atmospheric island paradise lit by kerosene light. But the lack of electric lights is not all eco-friendly; electricity (fueled by diesel that sometimes runs out before the next ferry arrives) is only available to the island from 9am-noon and 2-8pm. And even this is a recent addition, given as a reward to the island for voting in majority for the UDF political party. Funny. Either way, the approach is beautiful, as is the island. Except for the cockroach on the bar, the mouse in the outhouse, and the musical frog in our sand-floor reed hut. Although that might just be Kathleen talking.

All heebie jeebies were erased by morning, as sunlight streamed over the island, and we awoke to the laughter of little kids jumping in the water by the fishing boats. As the only guests on the island, we had the run of the place and we plugged our ipod into the stereo system, moved the furniture to our liking, and relaxed with the dogs. Amazing sunsets prevailed , along with funny and surreal nights with our host, a British expat whose been living on the island for at least a dozen years and definitely needing a break. After two days wandering the island, we felt like locals, and the little children would run and grab our hands as we walked down the dirt roads. You begin to feel like the Pied Piper as they all run after you. The island mostly consisted of fishermen, and walking around we’d see rows and rows of silver fish being dried in the sun. The highlight was the older women and naked babies seeking shade under the fish racks, clapping and singing to pass away the time. That, and the massive and distinctive baobab trees that dotted the island.

But more adventure awaited us, so we decided to hitch a ride over to Likoma Island. A local choir group was headed to the island, so they let us sail over with them. But first we all sat under a tree waiting for the wind to change. Literally. It truly felt like island life. Our dhow was typical of the region, with a sail pieced together from bed sheets, maize bags, and other odds and ends sewn together. Someone was in charge of bailing water continuously during the 2-hour journey. The choir group started the trip off with a prayer (hopefully not needed to keep us from sinking!) and then proceeded to drum and sing the whole way. Including a rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In for our benefit. Not bad for a 75-cent trip. When we disembarked, we promised to come watch their choir performance at the local school.

Our new home was the Mango Drift, a series of beachside huts where you could virtually dangle your toes in the water. It was true paradise except for one disturbing incident when Kathleen found herself face-to-face with a snake in the outhouse. The snake had not bothered to lock the door while he was in there, so Kathleen had walked in and was picking the toilet paper roll off the ground when she noticed the privvy was already occupied. The snake was long (maybe 4 feet) and had supported its body in the air while swaying about. Kathleen scrambled to give him some privacy, but the doors were barn-door style (top and bottom), so she was having trouble maneuvering during her fright. She was panicking, the snake was panicking, and all-in-all it was not a relaxing experience. Kathleen eventually ran from the bathroom, t.p. still in hand, and managed to not have to go to the bathroom for the rest of the trip. Later we learned that the snake was likely a black mambo, as they are one of the few snakes that can support their body weight in the air like that, and they normally strike in the chest. They are also one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and most humans die within 15 minutes of being bitten. Ahem.

On a happier note, the island was full of friendly locals and curious kids. Numerous children tote their younger siblings on their hips and backs, causing us to note that in the United States little girls have dolls to play with, but here they actually care for their siblings. We managed to walk virtually every inch of the island while we were there (most on purpose, sometimes because we were lost), chatting with villagers, buying local bread and produce to make sandwiches, and going to a malipenga dancing competition. This was an incredible thing to witness as men played gourd-like instruments and drums and danced in a line. We wish we knew more about the origins of the dance, but it’s popular along the Mozambique coast as well. For all the local kids, we seemed to be the entertainment. They would stare shyly at us at first. Then when we would bust out the little Chichewa we knew, such as ‘Muli bwangi?’ (how are you?) and ‘Dzinu lanu ndani?’ (What’s your name?) they would scream with laughter and in minutes were climbing all over us.

Likoma is an interesting place. Technically it’s in Mozambican waters, and the views across the lake to the looming mountains of Mozambique are incredible. Oddly, the island is also home to St. Peter’s Cathedral, one of the largest churches in Africa, on a scale with Westminster Cathedral. Once the headquarters of the Anglican Church in Malawi, the island proudly boasted a 100% literacy rate in the early 1900s. A rarity in Africa at that time. The church is set in Chipyela, which means ‘place of burning’ as this was where witches used to be burned to death by suspicious locals before the church intervened. These days poverty is still the norm, but there are several wonderful programs in place to help educate kids, house orphans, and teach locals sustainable farming and business techniques. It’s quite inspiring and many of the programs were introduced by the staff of the luxury lodge, Kaya Mawa, that operates on part of the island. As a result, Likoma residents tend to be better off than your average Malawian. And while the Mission stills operates a well-run hospital, they compete for business with a highly-regarded witch doctor on the island, who attracts clients from as far away as Tanzania.

Returning to Nkahta Bay on the ferry, we board around midnight. By 3am, we finally take off after more people, cars (!), grain, and household items are loaded on. We rented a sleeping mat to share, and curl up for the trip home.

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