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Published: June 25th 2010
My bus ride out of Zimbabwe is an excellent indicator of the sort of reception I will be getting in Malawi: a thoroughly warm one. I chat at length to my plump (why do I never seem to sit next to anyone petite) and friendly neighbour, as we speed along to the sounds of Abba and the omnipresent Shania Twain. Another guy who I chat to periodically throughout the 14 hour journey insists I join him for a beer when we arrive in Blantyre. As far as first impressions go, the Malawians do a damn good job.
Poor Blantyre doesn't get given much of a chance. I arrive at almost midnight and am gone by 8am the next day; I have not come to Malawi to see its cities. I must however pass through one more, the capital, before heading further north to enjoy the country's major attraction, Lake Malawi. On the journey to Lilongwe my fellow passengers and I are treated to the preaching of a neatly suited and booted man of God who claims to have survived AIDS when it wiped out the rest of his family. He also claims that some of the passengers, though only
a small minority (praise be to God), are invoking evil spirits to make us crash - conveniently alleviating the driver of any blame should we do so - and we must pray to God for protection. And pay this guy. Of course. The language he uses is aggressive, apocalyptic, full of fire and brimstone, which makes for excellent entertainment. My fellow passengers lap it up and I find their eagerness a touch concerning. They are certainly more enthusiastic about it all than the Zambians who were subjected to the same sort of tosh on my Lusaka to Livingstone bus.
The next morning on the ride out of Lilongwe there is another preacher. This time he is haranguing the enraptured congregation in Chichewa (Malawi's official national language) so I'm not sure exactly what he is saying, though I can hazard a guess:
"You're all going to die in a flaming, bloody bus crash brought on by devils within you and spend an equally fiery eternity in hell. Unless of course you pray with me then hand over lots of lovely, delicious cash. Mmmm, cash. Amen."
I notice a number of women withdrawing money from their
cleavage - the preferred method of carrying your cash around here - and hand some over to him. Judging by the clothes of the last guy and the receptions accorded to both men, religion might be quite a profitable business here. What's new eh? Christianity is certainly as widespread and overtly aggressive as in any country I've seen so far in Africa. Our bus is apparently "blessed with the blood of Jesus Christ." Reassuring.
I'm joined on this lengthy but beautiful 9 hour bus to Nkhata Bay along the shore of the lake by a Swedish girl, J, who ends up as my Malawi travel companion for the next four weeks. She also gets photo credit for the majority of shots in this and the following blog, mainly because my camera's broken and she's too stingy to lend me her SLR for long. At one of many stops I'm offered some 'Obama buns' by a hawker. I'm told by an NGO worker that until two years ago these were fondly known as 'Osama buns'.
Nkhata Bay is difficult to leave. Picturesque, relaxed and cheap, it's a microcosm of Malawi. I end up spending a week there,
drinking, swimming, chit chatting with the various short and long term travellers who inhabit the place, drinking, playing poker, watching the entire Band of Brothers series on DVD and drinking. There's only one night where anything even remotely eventful happens. I'm playing pool at a local bar and miss the catalyst for the conflict, but suddenly turn round to discover one of my drinking companions, an American NGO, G, and a local guy squaring off right in each other's faces and screaming "F%*K YOU"s at the top of their lungs. It's comical in its childishness as they blow testosterone out their ears and continue to hurl abuse. Eventually we calm G down but my attempts at diplomacy are fruitless with his lunatic adversary. He continues to howl in rage, brandishing a pool cue at one point and even threatening to "get his gun." It's all posturing, he has ample opportunity to take a swing at G but doesn’t. I've noticed that African guys tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves, leading to some pretty impassioned arguments, yet through all the volatile confrontations I've seen, rarely have I witnessed any serious physical violence. J intercedes with some feminine tact and
succeeds in calming the guy down enough for us to leave unhindered.
Back at the hostel we go for a late night swim in the lake. A guard comes over part way through to warn us about potential crocodile attacks. We laugh this off, not believing that one would come around here. The next morning I ask a resident South African about this supposed croc. To my horror he says that there IS a big and notorious one in this area. They almost shot it last week but it managed to escape. In the light of day I see there's even a sign carved into some tree bark on the way down to the water saying beware of the crocodile! Oops.
J and I tear ourselves away from Nkhata Bay in order to head north for a couple of days. We stop at Chitimba, literally just a few huts along a long stretch of beach, using this as a base to visit the famous old mission station of Livingstonia. It's a hefty hike of remorseless uphill to reach the tranquil and balmy plateau on which Livingstonia is situated. After the gruelling ascent under Malawi's sadistic sun
neither of us have much energy for exploring the town, but we give it a shot. To be honest there's not that much to see, though I quickly develop a fondness for the place simply because it is so different from anywhere else I've been to in the last five months. Founded in 1894, I can't imagine that Livingstonia has changed much during more than a century of existence; everything is so well preserved - the hospital looks like it belongs in an old black and white war film. It feels like a town that time forgot. People certainly seem to have forgotten about it too. The place is almost deserted. We find just one spot to eat and the market is tiny. The only inhabitants seem to be the usual brigade of women with accompanying baby in shawl on the back and sack of something on the cranium, and even these African ever-presents are few and far between. Recharged from lunch and the cooling breeze as we stroll around, we decide to power back down to Chitimba in the same day, eventually reaching it in time for dinner. In total we walk about 35km of up, down and around
in a day. Jelly legs are an inevitability.
Tot: 2.909s; Tpl: 0.024s; cc: 13; qc: 30; dbt: 0.0276s; 2; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb