Monday, August 8, 2011

The Lake

When I was working with a group of kids at KUCB who wanted to start a radio show, one of them told me that she listens to R&B love songs. That’s the only genre she likes and that’s what she wanted to play. I have to admit that at first I sort of scoffed at her limited interest, but after spending many hours listening to music collections in southern Africa that consist mostly of R&B love songs and loud church music, I think she had a point. R&B love songs are a delightful indulgence. During our fairly uneventful two weeks in Malawi we spent a lot of time listening to music on public transport. Our approach to Malawi was to travel large chunks at a time and then just stay put for a while. It was nice.

Our new rich Indian friend left us in Kande Beach and we made our way to Nkhata Bay with no troubles. The small resort town offered us many chances to hang out and read by the lake, wander through not-so-crowded markets, and eat excessive amounts of very tasty food. We shared a room at a beautiful hostel with our two new friends and traveling companions, Tallulah and Jo, two medical students from the UK. The place was a chaotic maze of steep stone paths linking various buildings and small man-made beaches. Courtesy of their free snorkel gear and life jackets, every day I floated around looking at the brightly colored cichlids. Lake Malawi is known for its diverse fish life, including many endemic species that are easily spotted through the crystal-clear water. 

Lake Malawi from Nkhata Bay
Our room at Nkhata Bay
On one of our four leisurely days there we took a free boat ride to a nearby fishing village. While most of the other guests played games on the beach and Jeanette tried to ignore the feeling that we were on a contrived college kid cultural outing, I found a guy who spoke Swahili in addition to Chewa and he explained the local fishing methods. Their fishing techniques are actually similar to some of those used in rural Alaska. With one type of net they attach old chunks of Styrofoam wrapped in plastic bags to the top as floaters and rocks to the bottom as a lead line. They pull the net away from the shore with one canoe, let it sit while it traps the fish and then pull it back around to keep the fish in and come back to shore. Other boats drag long lines of hooks behind them to catch larger fish, just like long-lining at home. Most fishermen go out on nights when there is no moon and put lights on the fronts of their canoes. The fish are attracted to the light because they think it’s the moon, not a trap.   

From Nkhata Bay we stuck with Jo and Tallulah for a trek up to the Nyika Plateau to the Mushroom Farm, a beautiful campsite/exquisite restaurant perched on a cliff edge overlooking Lake Malawi. It took about four hours to trek uphill to the place. By that time Jeanette had finally come down with my perpetual cold and was not feeling very well. Luckily, she endured and was rewarded with two days of sitting around eating burritos and curries and gazing over a stunning landscape. The other three of us hiked the first day up to Livingstonia, a small mission dating from the 1800s. It seemed slightly incongruous to have nice stone buildings, a technical university, a hospital, and a massive church all in a tiny town on a plateau that’s only accessible via a really long, twisting, steep dirt road with no public transport up or down, but people seem to survive. 

Campsite on the edge at Mushroom Farm. This is where I (Jeanette) had to rough it reading for two days while I was sick.

Sunrise from our campsite.

The walk to the town included a stop at fantastic cascading waterfall with a small enclave behind the water. It would have been nice to just sit and stare for a while, but a troop of children made it fairly impossible. Apparently the new way to make money near Livingstonia is for kids, especially teenagers, to hang out where tourists might go and latch onto white people like leeches. They decide they are your tour guide, even if you tell them to go away, tell you a sob story that may or may not be true, then ask for money at the end. Unfortunately, it often works. It’s turned almost every kid into a beggar. No one wanted to say hello, they just said “give me.” I understand that people are poor, but becoming a nation of begging children doesn’t seem to be a way to solve that. (Protesting poor governance, however, may very well be…. More protests are planned for August 17 and every person I spoke to was very much against Bingu wa Mutharika, the president, so we’ll see…).  
Waterfall sans self-imposed tour guides.


The next day we hiked to the Chombe Plateau, a large table mountain-like area on the other side of the overall plateau. It offered stunning views and a break from frequent hassling – we didn’t see any other tourists and very few people overall. The steep uphill also served as a good test for going up Kili. I think I can do it…

Tallulah and Jo with Chombe Plateau in the background.

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