A Travellerspoint blog

Malawi

A happy last morning in Malawi. Oh yes.

For reasons that I never quite understood, Blantyre was absolutely crawling with blighters that can't even crawl, but still make my life miserable. Yes, mosquito b*stards, i mean you. And their continual buzzing presence at night part explains why i was awake by 2am on the morning I left Malawi. The fact that I was already awake at this time still does not hide my frustration at the s*dding Malawian police, who have not exactly added to my enjoyment of the country.

Again, i am not entirely sure why (though i am guessing at keeping unemployment figures down, and allowing ample opportunity to try and solicit bribe), Malawian police are extremely enthusiastic with their road blocks. Whilst this is not always so much of an issue when you are in a private car, on buses it generally means long stops where everybody has to get off, and then bags are then checked: Sometimes at random, sometimes thoroughly and sometimes with such a fine tooth comb as to be utterly frustrating. Especially when they refuse to say what they are looking for, and when you had just emptied your bag on to the sand barely 20ins previously at the last road block and the bus hasn't stopped anywhere in the interim. And at both stops you were one of only a very small number to be searched.

Back to why being awake at 2am has anything to do with police; It mean't that when they randomly raided the mostly empty hostel I was in at 3am, I was already awake. They were not quiet, they were not polite. About 8 barged into our room and though all wore assorted uniforms, not one would identify themselves (except, when asked, to say 'I am from immigration': No sh1t, sherlock, that's why your hat and jumper both say immigration on them in large white letters) or say what they were looking for. Suffice to say that passports were gone over in a fine tooth comb, and then my hand luggage and anything that was left out was scrutinised deeply. They looked suspiciously at my bread rolls and jar of peanut butter. They seemed convinced that Tiger Balm was something entirely different, and for the umpteenth time seemed utterly stumped by my Doxycycline. This is not a new phenomenon: At every check, the thing that has baffled them most is my malaria medicine, and most other backpackers have said the same thing. I don't know why Malawian polie are so uniformly stupid, but surely in an area with a very high malaria rate, mzungu's with malaria medicine should not exactly be a novelty to them any more. But from how they deal with it every single s*dding time, you would have thought i was carrying plutonium pills. Or Licorice...

Half an hour later i was left alone. The Japanese girl who was the only other person in the dorm was not so lucky. She works for an NGO who keep her passport. She had with her a notarised copy (all that i required under Malawian law), but that was not enough. The olice needed to see her actual passport. And now. After chucking everything out of her back to check it, they forced her off to the police station, literally shouting at her to hurry up repacking her stuff and not even letting her dress properly. An American from the next room seemed to be having a similar discussion in the hallway and also disappeared, whilst a third person was also heard to be being removed from the premises. As there were only 5guests that I was aware of and at least 3 were removed, I could only count my lucky stars that i was still there.

The Japanese girl came back about 5.30 (without her bag), but i have no idea what happened to the other guys or her bag as I left at 6.30 to find a bus. Malawi has been pretty enjoyable in general, but it is definitely time to move on.

Posted by Gelli 12:21 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The end of Malawi

I had pretty much decided I loved Malawi within the first hour of my arrival. Firstly, it had the enormous plus point of not being Nairobi or having anything to do with the hospitals. But of more relevance were two small snapshots that I received whilst barreling along towards Karonga in the car we were hitching in.

The first was barely 20minutes in, when the driver suddenly slammed on the breaks and slowed to an almost pedestrian rate. 'What's wrong?' we asked. 'A policeman with a speed camera ahead' he answered. But I quickly saw that things weren't quite right. For one thing, you could see the plug dangling down by the policeman's feet and not, as one suspects is normally required from such plugs, being plugged in. Another couple of seconds and i burst out laughing and told the drive he could speed up again if he wanted to. 'But there is a speed camera ahead' he repeated in puzzled tones. 'No there isn't', i said 'It's a policeman pointing a hair dryer at us!!! In it's way it was utterly brilliant, especially as you know that there had to be one or two real ones around the area, or else people would quickly cotton on and ignore them.

The second incident was another 20minutes or so further on, when in a brilliant display of evolution at it's finest, we suddenly saw a monkey walking along the road towards us carrying a small plastic bag of chips he was eating from, whilst on the opposite side of the road walking in the other direction was a local man carrying a large bunch of bananas. Kodak moments are made of brief snapshots like this, though my camera was sadly not to hand.

Malawi is undoubtedly a beautiful country, and generally, a very friendly one as well. Malawi is the only place in Africa that I have been where random locals would regularly come up to me on the street in the bigger towns and cities – and I am not alone in this happening to me – to shake my hand and welcome me to Malawi, without anting anything from me at all. They would say hello, welcome, shake my hand and walk away. After being in so many places where everybody who comes up randomly to say hello either wants something, or wants to sell you something, it is great to actually feel welcome for being you, and not for being a walking (or hobbling) ATM. A surprising number of the expats and lodge owners I have come across are abut my age, and I have made allot of friends amongst them and other long termers.

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This happy chap had apparently been on the bar all day, and was happily dancing to whatever music happened to be playing. I could have watched him for hours

Other guests/travellers could generally be split into a few small groups: People doing medical electives (EG placements) for 1-2.5months, and just traveling at weekends or for a short period after they had finished, or living in hostel for the whole time. These tended to travel in pairs, and a large number of these were Scottish, Dutch or German. Then there were mid-term volunteers who were mostly settled location wise for 3 or 4 weeks or more: Many had been to Malawi before, and pretty much all of those that hadn't declared their intention to return in the next couple of years. And then there were the backpackers/travelers/holidaymakers of whom there were a surprisingly small number and 95%+ were couples (or at least M/F duo's). I can pretty much count the number of solo travelers I met in the 7 weeks or so I was in Malawi on one hand.

But whilst on the whole I do still really like Malawi, there is much not to like about it, and I leave with mixed emotions. I still love it here and want to come back, but it's not a clean cut as all that. As previously mentioned I managed to prevent a bag snatchingand then got robbed in a dorm. When reporting the robbery, the policeman apologized profusely and said 'this is not normal. You must believe that such incidents are very rare, and Malawi is a very friendly and safe country'. I wanted to believe him. Yet from my experience, it is not and they are not. It has been the most striking aspect of my time here, but more than 50% of the travelers and mzungu's I have met have also been robbed. And that is a heck of a lot of robberies. There is no obvious link - some have been opportunist, some have been professional, some pickpockets, some have been well known cons, scams or tricks. A few have been violent. But the end result has been the same. The thing that intrigues me is that many chose not to report it, or didn't even mention it until they heard that I had been robbed – the attitude of 'these things happen' and 'oh well. I suppose they are so much poorer than me that it doesn't matter' are very strange ones to me. Yes, these things do happen, and yes, the locals are much poorer than the average backpacker. Old fashioned and colonial as I may sound, to my mind that still does not make it right or OK for them to steal.

From personal experience, i would say that Malawi is the one place I have been (and over the years i have been to a few places) where you are most likely to be robbed. And I would never have expected that.

But more than the frustrating but often vaguely amusing TIA moments and more than the robberies, the one thing that really made me think twice about Malawi was an incident at a club in Lilongwe a few weeks ago. A large group of us had piled into back of 2 pickups (much to the amusement of the locals to see so many mzungus in one pickup), and we were going out to one of the more well known night spots in town. We were a fairly diverse group in terms of ethnicity and nationality, and two of the DJ's were friends of at least half of our group. I was looking forward to it. At the club, as we slowly paid our entrance and shuffled in, I heard the (local) bouncers suddenly say 'I'm sorry, this is a private party and you are not welcome here'. I turned to see them talking to Max, a really cheery young guy with a London accent. He protested, as did the rest of us who were still within earshot. This is just not on, we argued. Why is he not allowed in? 'Policy' we were told. The rest of our group was recalled from the club, along with some extras who were just as outraged, and we left on mass, disgusted that such a thing could happen in Malawi.

Why did this p1ss me and everybody off quite so much?

Max is a black Malawian.

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Posted by Gelli 03:09 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

T.I.A

Anybody that works or travels much in sub-saharan Africa comes across TIA. Sometimes it is introduced to them with almost un-African haste. Other times, it slowly grows on them, or dawns. Yet others have their light bulb moment. For some, it needs to be explained to them. But in the end, pretty much everybody comes across TIA.

It's even hard to explain exactly what constitutes a TIA moment. Small things like the drinks delivery truck turning up without either Coke or Green's (Carlsberg green, by far the most popular drink in Malawi) on board. Traffic logjams with no police anywhere, except for 4 all directing traffic at the only junction in the entire city that has traffic lights (which are being ignored by the police). A scheduled bus which is scheduled to leave at 5am or 6.30 or maybe 3pm, or maybe 9am: Basically nobody has the faintest idea what time it leaves, although all agree that it is a scheduled bus and leaves on time. The shipping company that basically takes out adverts to announce that its main ferry is not seaworthy, but continues running anyway; The thieves that stole the double mattress and took half-bikini's but left more portable and expensive items? All incidents of 'TIA'

TIA is used for all those small incidents, issues, problems and kind of 'shrugs. Sh1t happens' moments, and things which just don't make any kid of logical sense, but happen -or not - anyway. Any one incident might happen elsewhere, and bring small amusing stories passed on to friends and families at a later date, but the sheer number of them that you come across leads to TIA. I have had occasion to

To take one small example, i am currently in the Scottish named commercial capital of Malawi, Blantyre. My idea – after the hopeful conclusion of my fight with the Mozambiquian officials, anyway – is to head to Harare in Zimbabwe. It is the next logical destination, and (though I have no intention/interest in avoiding it) to avoid Zimbabwe completely would involve a detour of 6days of solid travel, and significant expense. I really don't have much time left and so could just go straight through to Johannesburg, but as I would still need to pay the required 55usd visa fee to cross Zimbabwe, that seems a little silly. But it isn't as simple as all that. I have so far found nine separate bus companies who operate services between Blantyre and Johannesburg, who offer between 1 and 4 services a week each. Combined, there are at least 20 weekly buses to Johannesburg. All services use the same road through the Tete corridor of Mozambique and then pass through Harare. It is unavoidable. But here's the thing. None of them – not one – offers a service to Harare or is prepared to drop passengers there. I have even offered to pay the full fare to Jo'burg and just jump out early. But none of them will accept that. By now you will have guessed that I haven't managed to find a single company that is prepared to take me to Harare – or offers a Harare service – despite the fact all buses to Jo'burg must go through there, most almost certainly stop there somewhere for a comfort break, or the fact that it is a good 18hours or so closer. Instead, at the moment I am reduced to a trip which at a minimum will consist of 4minibuses and a taxi, 3 currencies, 2 European languages (and countless local ones) in a mammoth of a trip which will probably take me two days. Yup, TIA.

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Ah yes, The Lilongwe to Tayport bus...

And as for the Mozambiquian incident described above, it could become a book in itself. Suffice to say that I had found 4 different locations/addresses for the consulate, visiting of which took me 1.5days to visit, only to discover that 3 of them had never had anything to do with the consulate or Mozambique, and the 4th was the consulate – until 5years ago. No taxi driver had any idea where it was (although two happily drove me at random around Blantyre and Limbe for over an hour each hoping they would get lucky and I would pay them lots. We didn't and i didn't). I eventually discovered the consulate is now in a small office block in the centre of Blantyre (with no sign or flag) and which I had walked past at least 6 times during my previous fruitless searches. If that was bad enough, the fight to get the visa I want (It's only a double entry, which is on their price list and so shouldn't be *that* hard to get) is still ongoing, wearying, and seems oddly unsatisfactory to both myself and the consular officials – it is one of those depressing long running 'discussions' in which the only agreement is that we are all unhappy about what is happening, and can't see an end in sight. TIA. There will be no winners here.

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When tents go wrong...

As an almost unrelated aside, todays Newspaper watch comes from the Malawian Daily Times. In an article entitle Wife cuts hubby's parts, you can pretty much guess the story and what happened, so i'll spare you the painful (especially if you are male) details. It's the sort of story that does come up every few months even in Europe and is not all *that* uncommon. What makes this one special though, is a throwaway comment near the bottom of the story, which states '... Mverani [the Police officer in charge of the case] said Ndilowe [the wife and scrotum cutter] has in the past been arrested on similar charges but was released on demand by her husband...' . Yes, re-read that. The wife has more than once in the past cut her husbands testicles, yet he has demanded – demanded – her release. My guess is that for that kind of leniency, she either has an absolutely brilliant blackmail photo of him, or is stinking rich and he desperately needs her money. And for the record (just in case you were contemplating it), if anybody happens to deliberately cut my balls – especially more than once – i will not be demanding your release back to me: rather, I will be paying people to keep you away from me for much, much longer....

Moving on.

Yup, This is Africa

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Don't know why, but I just like the idea of Solarly.

Posted by Gelli 03:08 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

How not to drown on Lake Malawi

It was a slightly inauspicious start. A lovely but very 'feely' Welsh-German couple (Marcus and Alena), Lisa and I had decided that we couldn't really afford to wait and see if the Ilala ever showed up again, and so would try and leave the following day. Not knowing what time anything (if it ever did) was going to happen, we reluctantly decided that we had to leave early. So we were up at 4am to pack up and walk across the island with all our cr*p, so as to arrive t the 'port' in time for the earliest time somebody had guessed at: 6am. And it was whilst packing up that Marcus managed to get stung by a scorpion. Somehow he also managed to capture it in a plastic bottle. The night watchman was found (amazingly, the first night watchman I have come across in Africa who was not drunk or asleep or both), and the question asked of him 'Is it dangerous?'. 'YES' came the shrieked reply, which did not necessarily have the required calming affect on the happy couple. 'Is it poisonous?' Alena then asked after a short pause. 'Oh no', came the reply from the guard. Apparently, Marcus would live.

Starting the walk in darkness through snake and scorpion infested long grass on a steep hill was not ideal, but we managed to walk all the way across without further incident, arriving at the docking area to discover.... Nothing. The boat was gone. B*llox. I had got out of bed at 4am for this???

A much much smaller boat stood on the other-side, and it was soon ascertained that it was also heading to Nkhata Bay, and at 6 'o' clock. Perhaps our luck wasn't as bad as all that. And having agreed a fare, at the astonishing time of 6:03 (so punctual that by African standards it was at least 2hours early) the Emmanuel headed out with about 30 of us on board. Nobody seemed to have the faintest idea where the boat had come from, but that wasn't really any of our concern.

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Leaving Likoma, blissfully unaware of what would happen next

After a leisurely trip around the southern end of Likoma, we did start to ponder certain other small questions: Was the boat seaworthy? Where the heck did those waves come from and is my head supposed to be getting continually drenched by them? And wasn't that bag now floating rapidly away on the Lake, on our boat a few seconds ago? That sort of thing. To be fair, it wasn't really all that rough by standards of some places I have been. However, when you are on a small boat, being listing by well over a metre and your feet are getting wet - and basically in the Lake - every few seconds, it felt pretty bad. I was sitting on the metal hatch in the centre on the boat, the only person not crammed around its edge or on the (singular) seat, which mean't that I had nothing to hold on to and was thus sliding around like a giraffe on a skidpan: I was petrified that I would accidentally slide into somebody and push them overboard, though at least that would mean more room for me...

An hour or so of increasingly worse bobbing about and some of the people were becoming antsy. Many of the locals were, erm, not that happy at the state of affairs, although the mzungu's – who were not used to boats of any size – were taking it much worse. I was by far the calmest of the 6 mzungu's on board but that is not really saying allot, and the though of traveling another 6-8-? hours across open lake in this wind and waves was not my idea of fun, especially on a small boat with no seats, nothing to hold on to and no safety equipment. Lake Malawi is large enough to get some very bad – and changeable weather – and small boats are lost with alarming regularity. Marcus seemed to be taking it worse, or at least the most vocally, and it was probably by seeing him (Marcus is a former Cardiff Blues rugby player, and thus not a small man), the biggest of the Mzungus so scared and constantly shouting at the captain, that helped them relax a bit. In general terms, providing there is somebody more scared than you, you will be OK and can calm down a bit. And Marcus was very definitely scared.

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Much calmer by now, but stilll some unhappy Mzungu's....

Eventually, it was announced that we were going to go and moor on Chizi to await the wind and conditions hopefully calming down. Whether the captain was going to anyway, I really don't know, but i would say that the threat of physical harm and potential hijacking of the boat by Marcus may have possibly helped his decision making process... So 2.5hours and ll of 11km later, we were back on Chizumulu.

From there, it wasn't so bad. Though it sure as heck was not calm, when we resumed our voyage a couple of hours later (after some very scared mzungu's had almost abandoned and opted to stay on Chizi for as long a needed, and having gained another 15 or so locals to another vocal discussion on overloading involving the crew and certain Mzungu's), our heavily laden small boat made its way back across Mozambique territorial waters to the mainland fairly easily. A few sketchy moments and occasional refreshing wetness to be sure, but apart from being cramped into a horribly uncomfortable small corner for 6hours, not too bad.

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Relaxed locals on the approach to Nkhata Bay

I doubt many people have been so pleased to arrive at Nkhata Bay a some of the passengers on our boat were.

The Malawian shipping company had published an advert in the national papers a few weeks earlier (I had not seen it), basically saying that the Ilala is not seaworthy and that everybody travels on her at their own risk: EG – Don't blame or sue us when it sinks. If and when she does go down (pretty much everybody agrees that it is inevitable, though everybody hopes it never comes to that) it will be a tragedy on a huge scale and there will be massive loss of life. And it will, due to a complete lack of alternatives around lead, doubtlessly, to any number of similar crossings on small boats. Lets just say that i'm happy that i've visited Lake Malawi now, and didn't drown to tell the tale.

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The Emmanuel, our vessel, at Nkhata Bay and (bottom) the remains of that orange thing was the only thing vaguely resembling a life jacket on the entire boat

Posted by Gelli 03:07 Archived in Malawi Tagged boating Comments (0)

Island life on Likoma

I had originally planned to cross from Chizi to Likoma by getting a place on a local Dhow, but barely minutes before i started to walk to the dock, I somehow managed to arrange to hitch a lift on a handily timed passing World Food Program boat. As you do.

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Likoma is a slight curiosity. A small island with a correspondingly small population, it also houses a cathedral that is bigger than the one in Westminster, and one of the largest in the Southern hemisphere. It is very pretty, well kept, and decidedly out of place.

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Though I couldn't tell you why, I much preferred Likoma to Chizi. It was large enough to be able to get a decent walk, with more varied terrain, some good beaches and also some good cheap local restaurants: Rice, beans and veg for about 65p at the Hunger Clinic (and no, i was not spying) became a daily staple. Likoma was also home to hoardes of very friendly young kids, though surprisingly few 'give me's'. Whilst out exploring one day with an English girl called Lisa, we ended up collecting an ever changing mass of kids: At one point I counted 54. All they wanted to do was talk to us in a local language we knew 3words of between us, whilst walking alongside us, preferably (for them) whilst holding our hands. Which meant that I often had one small child hanging off each finger, and a few off my arms as well. At one point, i was convinced I would loose a finger on my right hand to a particularly enthusiastic 5year old. But they enjoyed being lifted up, and just walking with the mzungu's, and even – oddly – stuck strictly to boys to me and girls to Lisa.

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Menu at the hunger clinic. No I have no idea what the spy thing is about either

I would certainly recommend that anybody who has time to visit the islands, but time was something I was now lacking. So I had decided to return to Nkhata Bay and go overland rather than wait for the ferry to next head south. But by now the Ilala was properly b*ggered, and the island rumour mill in full swing. Depending on exactly who you talked to, the ferry was definitely coming; definitely not coming; Coming at least 24hours late or Canceled for 3weeks. Inquiries to friends in Nkhata Bay produced more confusion, whilst phoning the shipping company didn't help either – 10 calls returned 4 different answers and 6 non answered. And the 4 responses all turned out to be wrong anyway.

Eventually, consensus said that whilst the Ilala may or may not turn up late to some degree, there was going to be a replacement service to Nkhata Bay (only) the following day. A much smaller boat had been 'borrowed' from the Mozambiquians (Mozambiquei?) and would be leaving at a changeable time that seemed to be being pulled out of assorted hats. On the plus side, there was a boat in evidence tied up near where the Ilala normally moors, which was bigger than anything else around (although admittedly, that isn't saying much).

So at the moment, we basically have no idea what is going to happen, or when. And I don't just mean in the game of beer-dice, to which I have just been introduced, but is fairly incomprehensible to me. We'll just turn up, pray, and see what happens.

Sounds like a fairly typical Rich journey, doesn't it?!

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Posted by Gelli 03:06 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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