Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Goodbye Mozambique, Hello Lake Malawi!

Greetings from beautiful Lake Malawi! As I mentioned in my last post Mozambique was a major flop, but so far Malawi has more than made up for it. As I sit here on the beach writing, the radio is playing, the sun is shining, I'm watching the locals do laundry and swim in the lake, and I woke up this morning with a two and a half hour snorkel. But I'm getting ahead of myself, so once again I must start where I left off last time, in Vilankulos, Mozambique.

Baobab Beach Backpackers is the kind of place I stayed at in Thailand. I guess it was just my being ignorant to the backpacker scene in Africa but here it was in Mozambique. As I have learned and mentioned earlier, Mozambique ends up getting a lot of South African tourists, particularly young people on school breaks. The result of this is an intensely seasonal tourist network through some of southern Africa and while it has a great deal to offer, at this point it's no threat to SE Asia as a major destination, do in part to lacking infrastructure, higher costs and simply being less well known.

Due to the high cost of diving we did not have a great deal to do in Vilankulos, so it was mostly time to relax. The three of us went snorkeling together, but there was really nothing to see. The water here is amazingly shallow, I seriously think in places you can be 2km offshore and still stand. Anyways, because of these conditions, we were just snorkeling in a few feet of water, seeing some crabs, and just a handful of fish including this puffer fish. I ended up spending most of the rest of the day writing my last blog entry, eating a burger and just kicking back.

Being on the shore, as you would expect much of the local culture, commerce and lifestyle is based on fishing. Every day the fisherman go out and return with that rounds catch, creating quite a scene on the beach when everyone gathers to buy and sell. I didn't see it, but Chris saw and photographed a honeycomb manta they had caught. They shouted 'No photos!' to him as he approached it, because unfortunately it is a threatened species and was illegal for them to have caught.

In the evening, the three of us played some pool and chatted with the other travelers and locals at the lodge. Around 10 or 11, the party shifted to Beach Village, the other main backpackers in town and I followed that way. From there, I was offered a ride in the back of a truck to head to Afro Bar, the local bar and dance club in town. I have to say it was quite the party. Chis and Weon had headed in before getting here, so I spent the night drinking beers, meeting the locals, playing a drum, getting braids in my hair and dancing until 4am.

After sleeping in quite late, I reemerged into the daylight in time for Chris and I to head back into town to do some shopping in the local market. We were looking for a towel, a kitchen knife, some bread and to simply experience some local culture. As happens often, a local came to us and acted as a 'guide' helping us find things in the market and telling us about the place. I was hungry and wanted some local food, so I ate some goat and rice curry which was quite tasty. After we had completed what we set out to do, we returned to camp.

Beach Village had decently fast wifi for a fair price, so I took advantage of their great view while I updated my blog, did some banking, was able to use Skype to call my mom, grandmothers and great aunt and chat with my sister on Facebook.

I guess I made an impression at Afro Bar the night before, because Chris told me people came up to him (remember he wasn't there) and said “Your friend is awesome!” Honestly I'm not sure what I did that was anything special, but it sounded like enough fun that Chris wanted to come out this evening. With two Australians and a very tall Dutchman, we enjoyed some Tipo Tinto rum and danced until about 2am, all having a great time.

Almost a week after this night while in Monkey Bay Malawi, a whole different country, some local guy came up to us on the street and said 'Two Chinese girls were looking for you last night.” I'm not sure how they found where we were staying, but it was them alright. Unfortunately we were in a different town that evening and missed them, but it's funny how you can run into the same people in different countries while traveling.

Without much to keep us in Vilankulos, we returned to the EN1 heading north towards Malawi and hopefully a fresh start in a way. The road was mostly good and we were able to move quickly, though at times we had to almost dodge people standing in the middle of the road selling pineapples and chickens.

We continued up the EN1 until we reached the EN6 where we turned westward. One town we drove through was called Chimoio and I have to say I was impressed. The road was in great shape, there were street lights and for some reason an explosion of bicycles, something I had been shocked to see so few of up to this point.

We passed through to a lodge called Casa Msika on Lake Chicamba and as I think this photo shows it was a gorgeous spot. It turns out this is a popular spot for tourists from Zimbabwe, and the lake is known for bass fishing, but we were just passing through. It had the best shower I've taken in a while though, hot as you could stand, and more water than the monsoon rains. Yes, I took a long shower.

We drove back to Chimoio to fill up on gas and groceries, then headed north again on the 102. Again, the roads were good and the scenery was getting better and better. Finally we saw hills and got huge views of the countryside, rather than being on the flat coast and buried in cocoanut trees as we had been for so long.

One thing I'd always read about when traveling through Africa are the countless road blocks/check points, and often corrupt police or soldiers who control them. Maybe it is just our 'Madiba Magic' but other than being asked for food twice, I can say to this point we have had ZERO problems. That might change in other countries, I've been told Kenya is quite bad for example, but at this point the fear people have seems totally overblown. (just don't let them see you taking pictures ;) )

The 102 took us north through countless picturesque African villages, eventually reaching the large town of Tete where we crossed the Zambezi River. Tete is a town of industry, and while driving we saw international mining companies, processing plants, heavy equipment and even a Ford dealership!

As we got closer and closer to the Mozambique-Malawi boarder the hills became what a generous person could call mountains, the forest became more lush and our anticipation was growing.

We crossed near the town of Zobue/Zobwe, and the road went from the Mozambique 103 to the Malawi M6. The boarder was a bit strange but nothing out of the ordinary for Africa I suppose. We first had to dodge the crowd of people trying to exchange currency, and get our exit stamps for Mozambique, then we drove through I think 6km of who knows what country before reaching the entrance to Malawi. No one here had uniforms so you didn't know who to trust, and again we were surrounded by people trying to sell us car insurance and who knows what else. After fighting through them for a bit we entered the immigration office where after filling out a small piece of paper we were given our free Malawi visas. Weon dealt with the car paperwork, and everything went smoothly for a minute.

The challenge came in with the whole car insurance thing. As you might expect rules are never very clear in this part of the world, and knowing who to trust is difficult. We had to buy insurance for Mozambique so when we were told we needed it for Malawi it was not a surprise, but the price was. At the boarder other than the one guy walking around with a dingy notebook claiming to be some kind of official, there was only one office selling car insurance. They said there were two more but they were either closed our out of business. The price they wanted was 13,000 kwachas, almost $80 for one month. As we went back and forth trying to decide what to do, a well dressed local man came up shouting at them, saying that they were trying to scam us, that they should be treating us as guests and telling us not to buy from them. He seemed trust worthy as he was the only person who had nothing personally to gain in the situation, and while the insurance people sort of threatened us saying that the road block 30k down the road would give us a 5,000 kwacha fine and send us back, we pressed on without the insurance.

It was getting dark at this point but we pressed on to the city of Blantyre. It must be the Madiba Magic, but we sailed through THREE roadblocks without incident, usually just a question or two, a smile and we were sent on our way. In Blantyre we spent a while looking for a place Weon had been on his past trip through the city, but couldn't find it and found this place instead. They gave us a good deal on a room and for the first time in the trip we slept on beds. Well, two of us did.

The next morning we stopped for gas and the ATM was broken. This seems to happen about 30% of the time you come up to a machine, so you need to prepare. Very few places take cards, so cash is king and without cash you can find yourself truly stuck. Anyways, one of the gas station attendants (there were about 7 of them) rode with us into Blantyre to show us where to find an ATM and where to look for car insurance since we needed it but knew the people at the boarder were trying to rip us off. We got to an ATM, and then checked with two or three insurance companies in town. We ended up buying it from Prime Insurance Company Limited, and got one month for 7,000 kwacha, almost half what the people at the boarder asked. Another company offered 3 months for 10,000, but we only needed a month due to our visa length. I have to say I was impressed with Blantyre. People were friendly, helpful, the streets were clean, it had everything of a modern....ish.... town and I even saw people waiting at crosswalks!

We returned to the gas station and had to pile up a mountain of 27,000 kwacha or something to pay for the fill-up. At 380 kwacha a liter gas here is EXPENSIVE and again we wonder how any local is able to afford it.

I already mentioned how beautiful Malawi is, but here is more proof. We drove a few hours on decent paved roads through more small towns, corn fields, signs for foreign aid programs and other 'typical' scenes but we only had one place in mind, Lake Malawi.

CAUTION: We had a nice time, but when we were leaving Venice Beach and trying to pay for our scuba diving through Eddie, the price we agreed on was $150. The exchange rate at the time was 163 kwachas per US Dollar, but they tried to cheat us and say the exchange rate was 265/dollar. That would bring the price from the agreed upon $150 all the way to $241. We refused to pay, and had to sit and discuss/argue this on and off for at least an hour, ending with us making phone calls to the owner Ishmael (who was the most insistent on his inflated price) and videoing the whole exchange incase there were any problems down the line. As a result of this I'd recommend AGAINST staying at Venice Beach and instead staying at Mufasa Backpackers a little farther down the road.

Weon has been through Malawi before and he lead us to a lodge/camping area called Venice Beach, which is just off the town of Monkey Bay. While there is a tourist industry in spots along the lake such as where we are staying, the area is first and foremost about locals and local life. On both sides of our lodge is real, local Malawi. Every day people are fishing, swimming, washing and playing in the lake around us, and it's great fun to go mingle with the people and say hello.

That night we talked with Eddie and A Friend (yes, that is someones name, another guys here is named Cheese and Toast, and another is Tiger), and over beers and a pineapple organized a scuba diving trip for the next morning.

At 9am, we set off for our first dive in Lake Malawi, and the first fresh-water dive any of us had been on. The weather was perfect, the mood upbeat and we headed out to a small island ready for a great time.

In preparation for this trip I bought a GoPro Hero2 digital camera, mostly to use while diving. I won't go too in depth about it (unless someone has questions) but I'm using an aftermarket underwater housing with a flat lens by Eye of Mine, the tripod adapter and then a small vertical handle, meaning I hold it kind of like a lolipop. I also bought the LCD Backpac add-on, but honestly underwater the screen is almost impossible to see, so you really just hold it out, point in the general direction and hope for the best. That said, for my first time using it the results are surprisingly good. For video it is quite good. As a still camera it's not so good, but if you just take HD video (I'm shooting in 720p) of the whole dive and extract images from the footage it works quite well. Also, the flat-lens underwater housing is a MUST. I tried it today with the standard curved 'above water' lens and the video was absolutely worthless.

So the dive. In a word: boring. Visibility was not as good as we expected, but the real problem was there was very little to see anyways. The bottom is mostly boulders covered in silt, a barren sand bottom, and a handful of small fish. It was fun to be diving again (and to do it when I actually felt well) but we were all expecting more when the books say “Lake Malawi is the ultimate fresh water dive!” and other statements.

Edit: Alright, I found a decent internet connection and got the scuba diving and snorkeling video up!  I made a 290mb HD video in hopes of some magic internet connection, at least I was able to upload this compressed 55mb version.

The advantage of diving over snorkeling is of course that you can stay under water, go deeper and see more. The problem here in Lake Malawi that we saw more fish in the first meter or two of water than farther down, so in terms of life, diving didn't really allow us to see anything we couldn't see just using a snorkel. Still, it was a fun day on the lake diving, snorkeling, fishing and playing around and we managed to get it for $25 each person.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, the cylinders were filled by the Malawi Navy. Since eastern boarder is the lake, they have a very small 'navel presence' on the lake that consists of three boats I'm told were given by South Africa, all which can fit on trailers. It was funny to see the “navy”, and right next to it on the beach is locals in dugout canoes.

Back in town buying some bananas and avocados from the produce stands.

Fish fish fish. This is where the days catch is laid out to dry in the sun.

The next morning I set my alarm early to get up in time to watch sunrise over the lake, and it was totally worth it.

The other reason to wake up early was to see the fisherman coming in from the night rounds of fishing. The primary catch is the small ones you saw above on the table, and they are not cheap. I was told a big bucket like the man in yellow is carrying goes for 10,500 kwacha. Every morning the beach explodes with life, between the fisherman, the buyers, the kids playing, women doing laundry and dishes in the lake and others just hanging around, it is quite a scene to witness.

The dugout canoe is still the primary means of water transport here on the lake, pretty amazing. You don't see it in this picture, but they attach paraffin lamps to the canoes to attract fish during the night catch, then use nets to gather the school they encircle.

Not ready to call it quits diving in the lake, we went out with Eddie for a second day in a different spot farther north on the lake.

Again conditions were the same, and aquatic life was pretty minimal. The dive consisted mostly of wandering through boulders on the sandy bottom and getting excited to see a few fish or a solitary crab. Weon is learning to spear fish and brought his gun along, but it's not easy. You can't see it well in this photo but he hit a catfish, but it ended up getting away.

The second dive of that day turned out to be very enjoyable. We went around the base of a massive boulder, which had cool caves, big overhangs fish nests that look like bomb craters and a decent number of small fish.

Once we had used all the air in our cylinders, we spent the rest of the morning snorkeling while Eddie and Weon kept spear fishing.

The most fun I had snorkeling was when I found little caves and tunnels between the boulders I could dive through. I'm still not that great at it since I haven't spent a great amount of time in the water, but it's fun to practice and improve.

Eddies spearfishing catch for the day.

This is the town of Monkey Bay once you get off the main road and into where the people live. Mud-brick homes with thatched roofs, chickens and goats running around, and lots of smiling kids waving to us as we walk past.

Like much of the developing world, regular electricity is no guarantee. This is the “big”grocery store in town.

In the afternoon I sat with Cheese and Toast (yes, again that's his name) under a tree to chat and people watch. We talked about village life, about girls, and he drew me diagrams in the sand of how they catch the fish.

That evening we went to Gecko at Cape Mclear, a thirty minute drive from our place since we were the only guests and it was a little boring sitting by ourselves. It happened to be Friday night, and there was a large group of people who volunteering as nurses in town at the bar that night. It was quite a surprise to see so many other travelers as we had been alone at our place for days now, but it was a good thing and we had a fun night dancing. Again, it felt more like the traveler bars in Thailand than
what I've experienced most of the time in Africa.

After another late evening, we took it easy for the day, with Chris and I walking into town for a bite to eat. This is traditional Malawi food: some vegetable, a fried chambo fish, and nsima. It was fun to sit at the restaurant and people watch, something I miss from traveling in Asia since we have been making most of our own food the whole time.

We went back to Cape Maclear that night, but the place was almost totally empty and we turned in early.

Bright and early the next morning I rolled out of my tent and decided to go for a long snorkel. I went straight to a point that was a ways out, and while it was long and boring getting there, I had a great time wandering and diving down between the boulders. A two and a half hour snorkel is a great way to start the morning.

Weon had gone paddling and fishing with Cheese and Toast the day before and organized a dinner that evening, so we went to the market together to gather the ingredients we needed. Walking through places like this is one of my favorite parts of traveling, and it's about time we start doing more of our own shopping at these kind of markets when we are in town long enough.

Sunset on the beach that night.

For dinner Cheese and Toast cooked us a vegetable stew with leafy greens, tomato, potato and two fish which we ate with bread. It was great to sit out on the beach and help make dinner, and we all agreed it was the best meal the three of us have had on the trip so far. True local flavor.

Next on the menu is to keep heading north up the lake, as well as seeing a bit of the inland Malawi. I have to say, the last week has been excellent, I finally feel like things are going well, that I'm really in Africa now, and that the future is very bright. Goodbye for now everyone, take care.