It started, as my African travels often have, with a bus ride. I had begun the day nearly 12 hours earlier, waiting for a public bus to get full enough to start the drive from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay, on the shores of Lake Malawi. The usual vendors came on the bus selling newspapers, sodas and lollipops. My favorite was a woman who sold some very convincing Afro-style wigs. At one point a preacher came on the bus. Unlike the response he might have gotten on the New York City subways, there were many “Amens” to his “Hallelujahs,” and several passengers joined him in a song or two at the end of his preaching. I talked first with a nurse who was on her way to Mzuzu and then with a young man named Gift. Gift was in his 20s and said he was a teacher but was now studying clinical medicine. He was traveling to Salima, where he would then rent a bike for the final 12 km to visit his family. He asked me about my hobbies and said he liked running and going to church. “I am a Christian,” he said. Touches of the religion are often evident. I’ve met others named “Gift” and many with names like “Innocent” or “Patience.” I saw stores with “Amazing” or “Blessings” in their names. One drug store in a village I passed had a sign painted, “We provide drugs. God Heals.”
On the bus we passed farms and towns where people sold tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage and peanuts. People were quick to smile and I thought about how Malawi is called “the warm heart of Africa.” About an hour outside my destination, the driver suddenly seemed to lose control of the bus–whether it was his fault or the bus’s, I’m not sure. We soon came to a slanted halt in a ditch on the opposite side of the road. I was both shocked at the sudden swerve and grateful that we had been able to stop.
As has happened so many times in my bus travels in Africa, a fellow passenger took me under his wing, telling me to get my things and stay with him. Meanwhile, a crowd from the nearby village quickly surrounded us, with one man declaring, “I knew there was something wrong with that bus!” Another young man stood in front of me staring at me and giggling. I often catch people in Africa checking me out. I take it as curiosity–the same way I am curious about them–but in this case I was uncomfortable. I stuck out my arm at waist height and shook my hand, the signal to hitch a ride, until a tractor trailer finally stopped.
My bus companion negotiated a ride for us. I hoisted myself up the high steps into the cab of the tractor, handing my stuffed backpack to a man in the passenger seat who motioned to me to climb into the small slot behind the driver. As I stepped over him, I was surprised to see another woman already folded into the pocket behind the passenger seat.
Her name was Margaret. She was a mental health nurse on her way to Karonga, near Malawi’s border with Tanzania, to visit her sister for two weeks. Upon hearing how I got there, she said, “I am sorry for the inconvenience of the bus accident.” People often say “sorry” in Africa seemingly more as an expression of empathy rather than an apology for something you did, such as the time I misjudged the height of a curb and stumbled off, only to hear someone from across the road say softly but audibly, “Sorry!”
I was still alarmed from the accident when I got to the lodge later that night, but no one else seemed surprised. Apparently, it was nothing unusual.
The next morning I went to breakfast not quite sure what I would do that day. I ended up talking with a Canadian woman for two hours about her volunteer work in Nairobi with HIV education. I thought about how this is one of the luxuries of traveling long-term–relaxing into a conversation without worrying that I’m missing time to do something else. From there, my days in Nkhata Bay often had a mind of their own. I joined a hike one day that ended up with us bushwhacking through shoulder-height grasses on steep mountain sides and gingerly scrambling up seams of rocks after we lost the trail. Another morning I planned to read for the day but was invited to go canoeing and snorkeling with some others at the lodge. After some tough paddling, we got to the snorkeling spot, but the currents were too strong for me to snorkel, so I sat on some rocks soaking in the sun. Seemingly out of nowhere a smiling Canadian man named Dave popped up on the rocks. Dave had been traveling–often by bicycle–and living in Africa for years. He was now living in Zambia but also considered Nkhata Bay home and was there for one of his regular visits. He and I shared many a long, intense conversation, culminating on the last night when–yes–he predicted my Myers Briggs score. Didn’t see that coming, did you? Neither did I, though I have to admit I think he was on target.
On some afternoons I ate at One Love restaurant, chatting with the gentle Rasta owner, Kelvin, about his religious beliefs and plans to build lodging connected to the restaurant. Lunch took about an hour and a half to prepare, so I would come by earlier in the day to put in my order, then come back later for my meal–beans, rice, chopped greens with a nutty sauce, warm bananas, sweet potatoes–and some unhurried conversation. I loved that we could have comfortable blank spots in the talking–just staring at the view of the lake–and not need to fill it.
And still other days I repeatedly ran into a young man I met on the first day in Nkhata Bay who had made a T-shirt for me. One day he told me he was on his way back from a funeral for a friend who had been killed in South Africa in connection with the xenophobia attacks there. It struck me how this was a part of someone’s life rather than the detached story on the news that it was for me.
On my last night in Nkhata Bay, I went to eat at a local restaurant in town with a blue picket fence as its front exterior wall. I sat in a plastic chair at a table with a group of African men watching a football match between Malawi and South Africa (Malawi won!). For dinner, I had the standard meager portion of chicken with the standard oversized portion of chips. When I arrived the waitress said that Dave, who was also a friend of hers, had just texted her to make sure I got there ok. When I got back to my lodge that night a band was playing and Dave mentioned that the guitarist had helped the singer get his songs on iTunes. Another traveler told me how he had spent the day talking with a worker at the lodge and learned that he gave his days off to building a secondary school in a nearby village. And the day I left Nkhata Bay, a young man working at the lodge mentioned he wanted to share the taxi I was arranging into town. I thought I was doing him a favor when I invited him to breakfast with me–my treat–at the place with the blue picket fence, until it somehow got clear that the owner had asked him to go with me to make sure I found my way to Mzuzu. I got the sense of how people, at least in this part of Nkhata Bay, quietly took care of each other. It wasn’t just service from a lodge. It was how people treated each other like family.
I spent the next four days in Livingstonia, Malawi, hiking steep mountains with supposed “shortcuts” that seemed even steeper, and walking through small villages and farms. I ate fish cakes with “Irish” potatoes at an outdoor restaurant with a small one-room kitchen using mud and water to cool bottles of soda. On a hike one day, I passed a family that had set up some sort of idol outside their home on the recommendation of their traditional African doctor. The hiking guide I was with shook his head and laughed, mentioning with some concern that this sometimes gets in the way of people getting the medical treatment they need for something like malaria. One Sunday morning, I went to two churches to hear music. As the guest at one of them–the one-room Livingstonia Assemblies of God church on a hillside–I was asked to read several passages aloud from the Bible. And in the evenings, I talked with a lodge owner originally from the Congo and now living in Malawi. He told me about his love of woodworking, and we talked about our mutual enjoyment of quiet and exploration of unusual places. He mentioned that the kids who act as guides for tourists at the local waterfall often take the money they get and buy small bottles of liquor that they mix with Fanta, or at the least are leaving school to get money from the tourists. It left me glad I had not given them any money and also left me thinking about how we can have unintended effects as tourists.
Nkhata Bay, Malawi
Getting there: I traveled there by bus from Lilongwe. I took the slower bus up the coast. The more recommended (read faster) route is to take a bus to Mzuzu and then get a shared taxi to Nkhata Bay.
Lodging: I stayed at Mayoka Village Beach Lodge. It was a great place with free canoes and snorkeling equipment. They also organize a free boat ride once a week. Fun!
Food: I often ate at the Mayoka Village Beach Lodge restaurant, which has very good food made from ingredients from their garden. I also ate at One Love restaurant and a local place in town with a blue picket fence. Sorry, I don’t know the name of it, but it was good and cheap.
Getting there: I took a shared taxi from Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu, where I got a minibus to Chitimba and then hiked to where I stayed that night (roughly 10 km up a very steep mountain (I hired a guide to carry my bags)). I took a minibus on the way down. You will need to give yourself plenty of time if you decide to get the minibus since they do not necessarily come often. I waited about 45 minutes, and I think that was fairly lucky.
Lodging: I stayed one night at Mushroom Farm and then three nights at Lukwe EcoCamp. Both are great places, but Lukwe was the better place for me since I wanted total quiet. The name Lukwe means “a place of natural beauty,” and it really was. Both places have delicious food from homegrown ingredients, though again, I preferred Lukwe.
Food: Often, I ate at the places I stayed, but I also had lunch at Manchewe Forest Restaurant, which was good local food.
Hiking: I went to the Manchewe waterfalls one day. You can do this on your own, though it is helpful to have someone show you where the caves are located. I also hiked to the Chombe Plateau. I used a guide and was glad I did. You may be able to find your own way, but you could also easily make many wrong turns going through some of the villages/farms along the way.