There was an unexpected benefit at the backpacker hostel in Lilongwe – it’s sited near to a mosque, which means that everyone is woken up at six in the morning by the call to fajr (morning prayers). It’s quite peaceful in the evening when the sun is setting and the call to asr (sunset prayers) goes out.
Foolishly trusting both a fellow traveller’s guidebook and the Malawi Tourist Authority map, I went in search of the British Council library, amply stocked with newspapers and a good internet connection. After two hours of wandering around Lilongwe, going first to the place where the library used to be, the British High Commission and a place where there should have been a road but wasn’t, I eventually collapsed into their cafe seriously considering trying to cause an international incident. On approaching the desk, I discovered that they weren’t offering internet any more and that the newspaper subscription hadn’t been renewed chiz*.
Still fuming, I caught a matola out to the delightfully chilled-out Nkhata Bay and almost immediately tried my hand at paddling a dugout canoe on Lake Malawi. Despite all my vast kayaking experience, it proved incredibly difficult and by the time I could paddle it around without falling off every few seconds a small crowd had gathered to watch my efforts. I also took advantage of the free snorkelling, and will now definitely have to preemptively take bilharzia medication in a couple of months chiz chiz.
The local board game here is called bau, which consists of moving lots of pebbles in and out of lots of depressions in a wooden board. It requires ridiculous amounts of planning several steps ahead, and both me and other backpackers were soundly beaten by the locals. We later found out that we were playing the “women’s” version of the game and not the “men’s” chiz chiz chiz.
We were also fortunate enough to hit the lakeshore during the full moon, which in Malawi seems to be an excuse for huge parties. The first night we got invited out to see some locals play something that looked like a huge one-stringed guitar (hit with a drumstick using a beer bottle to fret) and a home-made drumkit. The following night we were out on the beach – them with drums, me with my guitar. The final night, the Black Missionaries (a Malawian reggae outfit, the group of the late great Evison Matafale) were playing down the road – so how could we have stayed away? The word “funky” doesn’t really do them justice (maybe doubleplusfunky?).
The major irritant on the lake was the huge number of midges (better than mosquitos, but not by much). One day in the market, I bought a small cake that looked a bit like a cowpat. It smelled a bit like one too. Walking away, some of the locals were laughing a little (alarm bells). We then bumped into a local we knew from the hostel, who also started laughing when we asked him what the cake was. It eventually transpired that it was made of thousands of midges, compressed and fried. There was never a better time to be vegetarian.
Joining up with two medical students on their way to Zanzibar, I headed out to Livingstonia and my final (planned) night in Malawi. Sadly, the hostel owner’s Land Rover conked out halfway up the escarpment road and we had to miss the wonderful views. We did manage to score a lift all the way to the border in the morning, though, even if it was in the back of a bakkie. The border crossing was quick, although we spent a while on the Tanzania-to-Malawi side of the immigration post before someone told us to go round. The bus that took us to Mbeya smelled like it was on fire the whole time, which I assume was the clutch burning as we struggled up the (not very steep) hills at five miles per hour.
I am now in possession of a second-class train ticket to Dar es Salaam, which promises to be a thoroughly enjoyable journey as there are great views and I have food, my guitar and an unread copy of On The Origin of Species. On to Zanzibar!
* A chiz is a swiz or a swindle, as any fule kno.