Malawi: A comedy of errors
There is no easy way to fly into Malawi unless you live in one of the neighboring countries. For a country of over 14 million inhabitants, Malawi is conspicuously off the travel radar. I though I was fairly well versed in geography but remember being totally stumped when my first roommate in university divulged that he was from Malawi. My mind was drawing blanks. Sensing my confusion, Misheck quickly chimed that it was a land locked country in Southern Africa. It was at that point I knew I had to make a pilgrimage to his homeland.
With Tanzania and Malawi having contiguous borders, trade is commonplace between the two neighbors. 18 wheelers litter the highway along the border. Majority of the goods that make its way to Malawi do so through the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Even with established trade routes however, travelling between the two requires a bit of effort. Tanzanian minibuses will only drop you about 5 kilometers from the border of Malawi. You then have to jump on a motorcycle taxi to take you the rest of the way. The real fun to be had is going through customs and immigration. I knew something was off when the only two foreigners in the queue gets pulled into a side room. Mr. Immigration Officer then begins fishing for a bribe. Knowing that this sort of thing might happen, I came prepared and did my research on all the documents I needed. I knew the yellow fever vaccination was not a requirement to gain entry into Malawi but I brought my immunization records with me just in case. Upon inspection of said records, the officer tried to move the goal post. Now the issue wasn’t that I didn’t have a yellow fever vaccine but that the booster was over 10 years old. Of course all of this could be swept under the rug if I gave him US $150. I got him down to US $30 by feigning ignorance and acting broke when my travel buddy sabotaged my negotiations by openly volunteering that he had more cash in his backpack. In the end we settled on $50 apiece. You would not believe how livid I was as this was the first bribe I had ever paid in my life. In not my best moment of judgement, I stormed out of immigration practically cursing at everyone that was complicit in the corruption. I am genuinely surprised they didn’t detain me further for that.
Once you go through customs and immigration, the next step is to find transport to the nearest town. Hitchhiking is a popular option that many opt to use but public transportation would definitely suffice. It’s fairly easy to use as minibuses have emboldened signage of the destination on their front windshield. Be warned though, a bus that is licensed to carry 14 is typically packed with over 20 people, each with cargo on their person. With Lake Malawi being a major source of economic activity, many citizens make their livelihood fishing. To get their goods to market, passengers pack the minibuses with crocus bags full of fish. One gentleman even hung a bundle of fish on the windshield wipers. This was definitely one of the more interesting bus rides I have ever experienced. It was filled with so many memorable experiences that it deserves an article of its own. At one point the minibus had become a makeshift ambulance. A sickly old lady was gingerly laid across three unsuspecting passengers on her way to the health center. Her moans eerily permeated the minibus. To be fair, the driver and conductor of the minibus were great guys. They forced us to take seats at the front of the bus knowing fully well we wouldn’t be comfortable in the back with all the overcrowding. They went beyond their duty and took us to a guest house, after we arrived in Mzuzu late at night without any reservation for lodging.
At my old roommate’s recommendation, we made a B-line towards Nkhata Bay, a resort town situated on the shores of Lake Malawi that is popular among Malawians. There are quite a few aquatic activities to keep one occupied such as fresh water SCUBA diving and cliff diving. Because my lodging was on the lakefront, I enjoyed nothing more than bathing in the waters of the Lake Malawi. I also loved falling asleep and awaking to the music of gentle waves crashing on the rocks outside my window. African fish eagle feeding is must do activity that can be done for really affordable prices. For about US $20 per head, your pirogue captain will take you to a spot close to where fish eagles nest. Perched in a tree high above the lake, these majestic animals take flight upon spotting fish near the surface of the water. With the precision of a surgeon, they can dive and grab a fish in one fluid motion. It truly is an amazing sight to witness.
In summary, Malawi is off the beaten path but it is definitely worth a visit for nature lovers. If you are looking for a luxury vacation where you can be pampered like in a resort, Malawi is not the place for you. It is one of the lesser developed countries according to statistics from the World Bank and value for money can be hit or miss. The cost of goods and services in Malawi are comparable to those in Trinidad but the salary of the average Malawian is a fraction of those here. Because of the high cost of living, many Malawians migrate to South Africa in search of a better life and more opportunities. Some return, some stay, such is the life of an economic migrant. One gentleman I conversed with had invested his savings from the 18 years he spent working in Cape Town and opened up the only ice cream parlour in Nhkata Bay. It’s a great place to lime and have a chat if you’re ever in Nhkata Bay. Stories such as his are remarkably common. Malawi may have a long way to go but they’re slowly getting there. I really do wish them well in the future.