November 11-12, 2008
One fifth of the area of Malawi is covered by a huge lake with the same name. There are lots of beachy resort towns along the coast. We picked a place called Cape Maclear. It was a pretty ad hoc decision.
It was a pretty long ride to reach Cape Maclear (remember that rough matola ride I mentioned earlier?).
I already mentioned that our 2005 Lonely Planet guide was horribly out of date and we were beginning to ignore most of what it said. One of the things it said is that Cape Maclear is a tiny village with no ATM’s or money changers. Bah, we said. Well, that part turned out to be true. We ended up in this town with enough money for 2 night’s sleep and one dinner. The closest equipped town is Mangochi and to get there and back takes a whole day, once again on the back of a pick up truck, etc. We agreed that if there are no other options, we would just sleep here one night and get the hell out because there’s no way we’re repeating this drive to Cape Maclear.
Luckily there was another option. At the lodge we picked, Gaia Lodge, the owner (Liinu) said that they take dollars and they can even exchange our dollars for kwacha, though at a slightly worse rate. That was good enough for us. By the way Liinu is from Finland. She and her husband have owned this place for a few years. The previous owner was Israeli. One of the rooms still has a Hebrew name on it (‘lolo’). Liinu said that she also avoids the drive to Mangochi as much as possible. She goes there once every 3-4 months.
Anyhow, the lodge was very nice:
Lake Malawi doesn’t have sharks, hippos, gators, or any of the other standard predators you would normally worry about in water. But it does have one nuisance – a parasite called Bilharzia. We’d never heard of it before. Liinu says that it exists in some other lakes in Africa. The parasite enters your body through the skin. It then develops into little ‘worms’ that stay under your skin, feeding on you. To get rid of them the doctors need to basically cut you and pull them out, and from what we hear it’s a painful process. Or you can take pills to kill the parasite before it develops. We’ll go for the latter. Liinu said that we can pick up the pills in the city for about $20, and we just need to take one dose about 1 month after swimming and another 2 months after that.
For the first day in Cape Maclear we didn’t do a whole lot.
First night there we wandered over to another lodge nearby called Gecko. They do free movie showings on Mondays. We saw In Bruges, which was a pretty good hitman movie. While we watched the movie we ordered food. It took about an hour to get our food but it was probably the best meal we had since we started the trip. Nothing too fancy – a curry and a burger. But really good.
During the day we kicked back on the hammocks and read or took short swims in the water. One of the local tour guides taught us how to play that gawo game. We ended up buying our own bawo game set from a local artist. It’s made of ebony wood so it’s freakin heavy and kind of a pain to lug it around, but it’s beautiful and fun. We’ll teach you all when we get back to Seattle.
The guide’s name is Framinga but it was a little hard to tell because Malawians make R’s and L’s sound very similar (Flamingo?). His English was otherwise good and it was fun to learn a new game. From what we’ve seen so far, people in Malawi are really nice.
Time to Fish
First evening there we caught another great sunset. A bunch of kids were fishing along the shalow water. Two of them pulled a fishing net while the rest tried to scare the fish into it, or just generally jumped and screemed for moral support. It was hillarious.
For our one small adventure in Cape Maclear we rented a kayak for the day and paddled our way across to the nearest island, Thumbe.
We do a fair amount of kayaking in Seattle on Lake Union, but this was our first time trying an open-top kayak. I guess the main benefit was that if it tipped over then we wouldn’t need to worry about bailing out the water, though luckily we didn’t tip.
The island has a single beach. From there you can swim a short distance and snorkle. We did that, though we didn’t have a water-proof camera to show for it. There were quite a lot of fish and the water was very clear. However, there wasn’t as much variety of sea life as you might see in salt water – no reef, no eels, no turtles, nothing exciting like that. Still, it was pretty cool.
While we sat on the beach having our lunch, we kept hearing some loud rustling behind us. At first we saw a tiny lizard walking through some dry leaves so we learned to ignore the sound. But then a couple of really huge lizards came out:
When we got back to shore we saw a bunch of kids jumping off the dock into the water. Pnina couldn’t resist joining them…
At Gaia we met a couple of gals who were in Malawi with the peace corps. The younger one, Jesse, was near the end of her 2-year stint as a science teacher. The older one, Susan, had more time to go in her 2-year task to mediate between a game reserve and some villages in the area. The villagers were kicked out of their land two generations ago when the game reserve was created, and they’re still pissed about it. They sometimes cross the border to poach or to collect mushrooms. I can’t imagine how Susan, who hardly speaks the local language, can enter a tense situation like that and help, but she said they’re making progress so cool.
A couple of things stuck out in both of their stories…
First off, the process of getting into peace corps is really long and complicated, especially the medical screening portion. Jesse said that it took her over a year to get medical clearance. Susan said that the Peace Corps asked for tests that her doctor never heard of.
Second, once there the peace corps volunteer is kind of dropped in the middle of nowhere with basically no support system whatsoever. They don’t have phone reception, no electricity, and no other volunteers in their immediate vacinity – just locals. Pretty intense.
At Gaia we met a gal named Johanna who is working on her masters thesis in library science. She got a grant to live in Malawi and study the effectiveness of a small library that was set up with donations from abroad. She said that various research papers recently have shown that these libraries are not effective so there’s a bit of a backlash against funding them. Her claim is that it’s not enough to set up the library and call it quits – you also need spend time encouraging kids to read, and you need to keep the library stocked with fresh books to keep them engaged.