Published: April 13th 2009October 21st 2008
After a rigorous trek across the Nyika Plateau and a few days of licking my wounds in Livingstonia, I’ve slumped back to Mzuzu in time for a cold drink, a hot meal, a hearty welcome - and, after a couple of days, an equally hearty farewell. It’s been a lovely and laid-back fortnight in this pretty, jacaranda-studded city, but at the risk of missing the ferry to Likoma - and having my backside firmly planted on the bar stool at Mzoozoozoo for another week - I’m off with a few cheerful waves and adieus, leaving the convivial scene at the ‘Zoo in the capable hands of Paul, Charity, Gerard, et al.
I’ve spared myself the hassles of the bus station and ordered a taxi to Nkhata Bay - a taxi which, at a well-spent 25 US bucks, gets me to the coast in just under an hour. When we arrive in town the streets are packed: village women carrying bananas and tomatoes to market, mothers bundling babies to their backs, men crouching over piles of flip-flops and second-hand blue jeans. It’s a scene of such gorgeous, colorful chaos that I regret not giving the town - an infamous backpackers’ haunt
- more than just this single afternoon. In the end, though, it’s just one of the many places I’ve been forced to compromise on my travels. And compared to the coming week on Likoma Island, it’s a trade-off I’m more than willing to make.
The driver drops me off at the end of the ferry terminal, and it’s only after he’s wagged his hand and driven off that I realize the ticket office is about a quarter-mile back in the direction we just came from. It is a long walk back. I do not, as a rule, travel light, and my ever-growing haul includes not just my backpack and daypack - both crammed with an impressive traveling library - but a market bag: a big, durable plastic sack that is the bag of choice for Malawian women hauling their abundant crap across the country. I stagger into the booking office and buy a ticket for the Ilala
, then hobble off in the direction of town, hoping for a bite to eat. In a busy bar beside the bay, where dozens of Malawi’s young and jobless jostle around the pool table and hip-hop blares over the speakers, I settle into
a plate of goat stew and stare dreamily at the water. Kids in varying states of undress splash along the shore, smiling and squealing ecstatically, wet briefs hugging their little black bottoms.
Before long two young guys in slacks and neatly buttoned shirts ask if they can join me. They are both employed by some of the local hostels and dive shops, and we sit, drinking and hollering over the music, waxing rhapsodic about Malawi. Soon Simon and Ramik are leafing through my Lonely Planet
, asking about my travels in Kenya and Tanzania, my plans for southern Africa. Simon raps on the book’s cover and pokes fun at the picture of the two yawning hippos, their gaping maws wide enough to swallow the three of us whole. “Do you know about hippos?” he asks, offering to tell me a story.
When God created hippos, he says, they were made to live on the land. But the hippos protested. “‘It is too
hot on the land,’” says Simon, in his best hippo voice. “‘We want to live in the water instead.’” But God was wary of putting them in the water, where they might be tempted to eat the
fish He so lovingly created. So the hippos promised they would not eat fish, and reluctantly, God agreed. The hippos made their home in the water, reveling in the delicious coolness that rolled off their backs whenever they went to waddle onshore. And when they came out onto the land, they would yawn their big, gaping maws to show the Lord that there were no fish inside their mouths. “That is why when they shit, they spray their shit around with their tails,” says Simon. He makes a little wagging motion with his hand. “It is to show God that there are no bones in their shit.”
It is, I admit, a fine story. We finish our beers and they walk me back to the Ilala
, a rusted hulk of scrap metal which looks about as seaworthy as a dishrag. There is still time to kill before the ferry chugs off, and the guys come onboard to have a drink and ogle the female backpackers. A dozen willowy blonds are gathered on the deck, chattering away in some northern European dialect. A look of nameless grief passes over Simon and Rafik’s faces. What other unknown pleasures might the Ilala
have in store? Finally the ferry gives off a few mournful whistles, and we exchange parting words. The lights of Nkhata Bay twinkle across the lake’s surface, and soon we pull into the broad, dark waters of Lake Malawi, the fishing boats with their glowing reed flares smoothly sweeping by.
It is a long but uneventful night. Tormented by mosquitoes and other night critters I don’t manage to get any sleep, sitting Indian-style on the deck and rocking to the tunes of my iPod. Already my thoughts have turned to Likoma, to my much anticipated stay at Kaya Mawa - the island’s luxury lodge - for my Africa Geographic
story, to the different ideas and angles I might want to pursue. I am, in short, in Writer Mode. While I plan to give myself a full week on Likoma, I know enough about the effects of tropical torpor on my fragile emotional equilibrium to suspect that the sooner I launch into the thick of things upon arrival, the better.
Dawn breaks over the lake in bands of orange and violet and blue, and by the time we reach Likoma - its gold and brown hills dry and sun-blanched,
its rocky shore evoking certain Mediterranean coasts - the day is already terrifically hot. Again, approaching the harbor, comes the great mournful whistle, and soon the lighters are being lowered into the water, the passengers tossing down their bags and bundles, ready to be rowed to shore.
There is a speedboat from Kaya Mawa circling the ferry, a tricked-out pontoon drawing envious stares from the other passengers. A ruddy guy with windswept hair waves from the wheel. He’s trying to communicate something with obscure little hand gestures, tracing circles in the air with his index finger and pointing, first, here-here
, and then, there-there
. I flash him a thumbs-up, as if to say, “I have no fucking clue what you’re saying, but count me in!” Pushing through the crowd, vaulting over sacks of maize and sugar, I make my way to the edge of the ship. The captain has brought the pontoon as close to the Ilala
as the choppy waves will allow, a distance which, to a guy with 20 kilos on his back, seems woefully insufficient. The pontoon draws closer; then the waves push it back. “You just have to go,” he shouts. “Just go for it.” And
I do. I plant an awkward foot aboard the boat - $1 flip-flops, don’t fail me now! - and then wrench my back out as I swivel to safety. It is as ungraceful and inglorious an arrival as you could possibly imagine. Then we putter off in a great big half-moon turn and start shuttling to shore.
James, the captain, give me a manly hand pump and introduces me to a young Frenchwoman “from Figaro
,” the French newspaper, which quickly makes my Africa Geographic
credentials seem distinctly low-rent. Her partner is busy photographing the locals onshore - I can see him decked out in head-to-toe khaki, crouching and snapping away - and James is waiting to retrieve him before heading back to Kaya Mawa. But there’s been a slight hitch in the plans. The problem, says James, is that there have been some last-minute arrivals on the island - paying customers, goes the implication, who take precedence over free-loading travel writers. Instead of taking me straight to my luxe eco-paradise, James will be pawning me off for a few days on Mango Drift - a little backpackers lodge that’s run by the same management team as Kaya Mawa. Once
they’ve found a spare room, he’ll be happy to retrieve me - a fact that, given my utter unhurriedness here on Likoma, suits me just fine.
Onshore he hands me off to Deon, a tall, husky, effete South African who manages Mango Drift. We wait in the shade while James goes off to hunt for Bernard, one of the lodge’s employees, who was also on the ship and is supposed to be bringing another guest to shore. It is early, and terrifically hot. I’m suddenly feeling the effects of my long, sleepless night aboard the Ilala
, and a heavy heat-stupor washes over me. There’s nothing I’d like more right now than a cold shower, a bowl of muesli, and a long siesta in a shaded hammock pitched between two mango trees. Deon lights a cigarette and stares emptily toward the lake and wonders what the fuck could be keeping Bernard. A half hour has past, and the scene on the beach remains unchanged. Dozens of villagers are gathered with their suitcases and duffel bags and chickens bound at the legs. Two rusted rowboats paddle back and forth to shore - a meager fleet, given the enormity of the task of shuttling so many passengers to and from the Ilala
. At this tortuous rate, it will be afternoon before the ferry can continue its slow passage to Monkey Bay. I do not envy the husky old women in their church dresses, the lean men in their Sunday suits, sitting patiently with battered suitcases tucked between their matchstick legs.
Finally we see Bernard, sweaty and heaving, with a great sack of potatoes weighing on his head. The other passenger - a photographer from Peru - hasn’t materialized, but there is still a week’s worth of shopping for Deon to claim. We load the back of the truck with rice and maize flour and other necessities shipped in from Mzuzu and Nkhata Bay. Then Bernard hops into the backseat, and the engine sputters to life, and we’re on our way to Mango Drift.
It is a long, hot drive across the island. The road is rough, and the aging Kaya Mawa Land Cruiser - its driver’s-side door held in place by Deon as he steers - is in no condition to handle it. We pass old men sitting in the shade and women walking with colorful parasols propped against their shoulders. The land is scorched, barren: October, as I’ll soon learn, is no time to visit Likoma. After 20 minutes we stop outside a primary school, its walls colorfully painted with murals of schoolchildren learning their ABC’s. This is, as Deon explains, the end of the line: the road tapers off in this scruffy village, and we’re forced to huff it the rest of the way on foot. It’s a brutal walk to the beach, my $1 flip-flops still performing admirably as we scramble down a rocky hill. The sun is fierce, and my shirt is stuck to my chest, and I’m cursing the fact that I’ve apparently brought half of Mzuzu with me. Packing light, I can say with some authority, is a skill I have yet to master. By the time we reach Mango Drift, I’m wondering why I bothered leaving cool, jacaranda-shaded Mzuzu to begin with.
It’s not until I’ve soaked under the shower, put on a fresh shirt and propped myself beside a mug of Mzuzu coffee that the absolute idyllicness of the scene sinks in. The beach is long and golden and studded with flower blossoms, the lodge’s thatched bandas shaded by mango trees and draped with bougainvillea. In the distance, village women scrub their pots and pans in the water, their naked kids splashing nearby, the high notes of their laughter carrying like birdsong. The blue-gray ridges of Mozambique loom across the lake. It is, as backpackers’ haunts go, about as much as you could hope for. I sit in a dreamy reverie and think about good fortune, my life, and the marvelous confluence of the two. The coffee is excellent, and I polish off the pot before settling into my seat and staring abstractedly toward the distant shores.
A short while later I’m joined by Benedicte, the reporter from Figaro
- a petite, pretty, chain-smoking brunette with handsome little wrinkles etched around her eyes. She’s finishing up her assignment here in Malawi - tomorrow she’ll be on her way back to Charles de Gaulle - and we both marvel at the sort of work that could bring us to a place like this. Talking about our lives and travels, I’m quick to recognize a kindred spirit. She is, in many ways, the sort of person I’d like to become, having spent ten years traveling and freelancing before settling into her full-time Figaro gig
. Now married, with two children, she’s happy to have a stable job and a regular income - with, of course, the added bonus of frequent trips around the world on Figaro
’s dime. It must be pretty good to be Benedicte, I suspect.
Soon we’re joined by Stephan, her photographer, a tall, athletic, improbably handsome man who probably couldn’t cross a room without tripping over a pile of pussy. He looks less like a photographer than the sort of man a Hollywood producer would cast as a photographer - the muscular forearms, the salt-and-pepper beard, the air of having fucked other men’s wives in strange hotel rooms. We share a few raucous tales about the perils of the freelance life before exchanging email addresses and parting warmly. They’re off for one last night at Kaya Mawa, while I - despite my best efforts to stave off sleep - slouch back to my banda for an afternoon nap. The room is hot and stuffy, but it only takes minutes for me to collapse in a tired heap. Later I wake for long enough to have a beer and a plate of spaghetti, making sleepy, incoherent small talk with the other guests. By eight o’clock I’m out for the night - geckos scuttling across the wall, waves crashing on the beach, and pale beams of moonlight chuting through the window.