After a week in Nkhata Bay and two successfully completed scuba certifications behind us (that would be Chris and Ben), our little crew was ready to move onward to our next step of the journey. On Monday we awoke bright and early at 6am to hike down the hill and catch a boat to Likoma Island. We had been told by a few people a local cargo boat would be headed to the island on this morning and passengers would be able to pay for a ride. Our plan was to head to the island and then catch the MV Ilala Ferry a day and a half later as it journeyed southward. But this genius plan would soon change, as plans tend to do (especially when traveling in Africa). By the time five of us had reached the boat port at 7am, we had come to learn that the captain of the boat wasn’t now sure if he was going to be leaving for the island today. This could have been due to the storm which was rolling in rapidly—Amanda had been watching the lightning move over the lake since 5am, and now the wind and thunder was picking up quite nicely—or just due to the fact that maybe he wanted to drink today with his friends or possibly because an hour away in Mzuzu the new big Shoprite store had opened and it was possible to get all kinds of new items that were previously a day’s drive away. This was how things worked in this part of the world and, eventually, you get used to it. By 8am the locals had 90% certainty that the boat would not be leaving today, and the storm was beginning to get traction.
Stranded and without a plan, we headed to our trusty second home – Aqua Africa. Here we set our bags down, grabbed coffees, and together regrouped on what we could and would do now. Since we wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon, Chris called Izzy to come join us for coffee. Not long after she arrived we had another surprise guest appearance. Gareth (whom Chris had met in Ruarwe/Zulukhuni and the rest of us met at Mushroom Farm) was in town hoping to find someone with a truck that he could borrow to get some supplies out to Usisya where he was living and helping to build a new hostel. This is what being a backpacker or an ex-pat in the world of Malawi feels like. Sooner or later everyone knows everyone and you are never more than five steps away from crossing paths with someone you know. By the time we all caught up and downed some coffees the rain was coming down hard and the power had now been out in the entire town for almost two hours. We had gathered some local intel from our good friend Matt (the manager of Aqua) as to what route he would take if he was in our shoes. The possibilities were discussed over some Special Brews (remember the last post? this was the good stuff introduced in 1983 in Malawi to replace Carlsberg Gold) and finally we came to the decision to make a trek down to Kande Beach.
We would spend a couple days there and then catch the ferry from the port just south, Nkhotakota. By this point Chris had convinced Izzy to come with us for the night and we planted the seed in Gareth’s head to join us as well. Three beers and a trip to the grocery store later all of us were in a mini-van headed south. Kande Beach here we come!
The ride to Kande Beach was an interesting one. Revved up from a long morning, a couple coffees, and many beers– the entire crew was a bit giggly and full of stories. Gareth especially entertained people with his bizarre stories he had to share with us on the way south. After a few stops and almost two hours we reached the tiny roadside village. From here the road to Kande Beach is a windy dirt road about 3km. This would be the last place to get any supplies needed so Ben stocked up on some charcoal for cooking and about 5 kilos of sweet potatoes, all for less than 75 cents.
When we finally did reach the gates to Kande Beach we were greeted with about a dozen locals all waiting to offer some good they had for us to purchase or service that we may need, like having our hair done into dreadlocks. Kande Beach is a popular truck stop for ‘overlanders’ and the locals usually are nearby and waiting for the trucks as each one offers ample business opportunities, which are hard to come by in Malawi. (Note: By trucks we do not mean the kind you usually see on highways, instead these are large firetruck-like passenger trucks that people pay to travel overland in Africa in. Check out more info here to understand. We too were confused at first, but the term ‘overlanding’ trucks becomes more popular as you venture southward in the continent of Africa.) While Ben avoided the entire group of local touts as much as he could, Amanda took the opportunity to grab a number from a local guy by the name of Slim Shady (yep, another one of those fun ‘Malawian’ names) and ask how much it would be for us to have dinner at his home. Knowing there would be nowhere to buy food, that we would be sick of beans and sweet potatoes after three meals, and having heard the food served at Kande was overpriced and not so great she was thinking ahead on how to get a good meal at a good price. After collecting his phone number she promised a call in an hour to confirm that we would all be joining Slim Shady and his family for dinner.
Amanda and Chris then hung around outside the gates with the local young entrepreneurs while the rest of the group tried to go score a bungalow. We weren’t sure if there was a limit on how many people were allowed in the bungalow so we thought we would try to be sneaky and have only four arrive to check in and the other two come join once all was secured. The plan seemed to work well. Our little group of six was soon claiming beds and checking our our new beachfront home for the next couple of nights. What had started as an early morning headed to an island on a fishing boat had turned into quite a different day. But as we sat together on the beach (right in front of our hut) and watched the sunset no one could argue that sometimes maybe plans are meant to change.
With the sunset and feeling settled into our new home we were all ready for a large home cooked meal. Amanda had managed to strike a good deal with Slim Shady since we were such a large group. We would each be paying about 1000 kwacha (just over $2), which was a fraction of the cost of anything on the menu at where we were staying. Slim Shady meet us at the gate as promised at 7pm and we then followed him down a series of dirt trails to his family’s home in one of the villages (which was just a scattering of tiny homes) nearby. They were excited to have us and had set up mats on the patio of the home outside for us all to dine on. The meal that came was amazing and more than we had expected. They had prepared a delicious chicken dish with local spices and a nice sauce, nsima (which is the same as ugali) made with cassava, rice, and mkhwani ndiwo (cooked pumpkin greens).
** Another side note: While food in Africa can be a bit repetitive sometimes we actually really love a good home cooked African dish. This site gives a good summary of Malawian food specifically and is worth taking a look at if you are interested.**
Dinner was followed by bananas for dessert. Slim ate with us for dinner and we talked about his life and life here for the villagers near Kande Beach. Slim himself was a young artist. He did many paintings for travelers as well as designing shirts for the overlander truck groups. He had gone to university in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, and was now back home. Like most of the locals he offered any service he could to make some money for himself and his family. We were happy to share our night with him and his family and we were happy to offer them money for such a wonderful meal. After a couple months in Africa it is moments and people like these that are why we came. Connecting with people in this part of the world and getting even the tiniest taste of what their culture and life is why we are here. Here was a young, eager, educated and talented Malawian, but with no work (a study showed that 80% of secondary school graduates in Malawi return to their villages every year because they can not find employment). Befriending tourists is a means of subsistence for him. And for us, it was refreshing to be immersed in a local family again, even if it was just for a night.
While most the joy was experienced during our days in Kande Beach we can’t leave out the small but fun-filled nights. Since we had our own bungalow we also had the luxury of having a kitchen. This allowed for us to cook ourselves a feast of sweet potatoes and beans for our second night’s dinner. It also gave us a great gathering spot where we could hang out and have a few beers before heading the 100 meters outside our hut to the bar. Because we were staying at the only place there is at Kande Beach, and because it is such a remote location, there isn’t any ‘nightlife’ per-se other than the nightlife of those who are staying at Kande Beach as well for the night. On most nights, this was generated by those that had arrived by whichever overland truck groups that were passing through for the evening. These people were always an interesting bunch and hearing the different stories from each person could sometimes provide entertainment in its own rite. Even more fun than listening to their stories was to make up new identities for ourselves and play out these identities with the overlanders for the entire night. The more beers you add to that game the more fun it got because not only did we have to remember everyones ‘new identity’ and play along with it but we could also embellish these identities with new made up stories as the night went on. Occasionally at these overland stops you would find the rare ‘non-overlander’ – much like ourselves. This was the case for us on the second night. On this night the only others staying at Kande Beach happened to be a family that had arrived that morning. They were from New York, although the father was Irish originally (which gave him and James an automatic connection). By day he ran three of the largest Irish pubs in Manhattan, and as a side project he and his wife were on the board of an organization involved in micro-finance in Eastern Malawi. The family was in Malawi to see how some of the agricultural systems were working and meet some of the farmers the organization had invested in. The family was nice and we were happy to share our friend Slim Shady’s number with them and suggest they share dinner with his family as well. Between all the getting to know people over beers some members of our group managed to fit in some dancing on the bar and late night skinny dips. Even though Amanda played party pooper both nights and missed out on these shenanigans, she was able to relive the moments with everyone’s stories each morning.
Swimming to the Island
Since the moment we arrived we had all noticed and commented on the beauty of the small island just off the shore from our little beach hut. On our second day at the beach, Amanda and James had the brilliant idea to swim out to the island. It didn’t seem that far out and they thought it would be good exercise and fun to explore the island. What at first was going to be a casual swim for the two of them quickly turned into a group activity. One by one we each entered the water and began to swim away from shore and toward the island. It was a funny scene to those locals who were watching us. A bunch of muzungus scattered amid the water, apparently swimming to this island off the coast?? About ten or fifteen minutes into the swim, local kids started to push their homemade carve-out canoes off the shore and paddle by our little spread out pod of swimmers. Each one of them looking more puzzled than the prior. In some ways it reminded us of when we were kayaking in Naivasha and the hippo watching boats that made detours to come by us so people could take photos of the rarely seen kayakers. The kids in their canoes were headed to the island as well, only they arrived much faster than we did. It was a long swim for us, a little over a kilometer. By the time we all got there we were tired, but it was totally worth the effort.
The island itself was pretty crap. Mostly rocks, shrubs, and dried human shit (yes as in poop) everywhere. We think the boys come out to fish near the little island, and when they need to release some of their mango breakfast, they just find the nearest rock. But the views and the waters around the island were stunning. Chirs and Izzy made their way to make-out corner while the rest of us each went off on our own to enjoy and explore.
Amanda soon found herself making friends with a couple of the local kids that had canoed out to the island. Many of them were there to catch small fish (such as Matemba) which were then dried and eaten in household meals. For many families in Malawi these fish provides inexpensive and accessible nutrition in addition to a livelihood for an estimated 1.6 million people in the country. Amanda soon found herself sitting on one of the canoes with a local kid while he demonstrated. He took a fish and put it in her hand. Then as she held it he put a tiny hook through the lip. Finally he threw the fish out a ways in the water and handed her the line, motioning for her to pull it slowly. Still confused, Amanda gently pulled the fish in, wondering if this small fish (the size of her hand) was to lure a bigger fish. When she pulled it all the way back up out of the water the kids around her started clapping, “yay! You got a fish!”. She smiled understanding now they were just playing with her. Soon we learned that they actually use bugs from the ground (termites) that they collect in the morning and put those on the hooks to catch the fish. After her mighty fish catch the kids urged her to follow them up the rocks where they proceeded to run and jump about 20 feet down into the ocean.
The more she hesitated the harder it got for her to get the nerve to jump. She did however succeed in calling the rest of the group over and convincing Chris and James to take the plunge. The kids were fearless. They couldn’t get out of the water fast enough to run up the rocks and throw themselves off again trying out new poses as they jumped. Eventually, after one last jump, we stayed in the water and decided to start our swim back to the mainland. This time we all paced ourselves, knowing it would be a long trek back.
Kande Beach Smiles
After the swim Amanda decided to take some time to herself and do a little meditative walk up the beach. The beach-front along this part of the lake was completely different from the lakeside town of Nhkata Bay. This part of the lake had long stretching white sand beaches that went on for many kilometers. The beauty was matched with a laid-back feel. It was rare to find many tourists or backpackers on this part of the coast due to it’s remoteness and difficulty to access via public transportation. For these reasons, Kande made for some really awesome interactions with the locals, who usually just wanted to know more about you rather then only see you as a possible sale. This was even more true along the beach, which was almost exclusively locals from the nearby villages. The only tourists seemed to stick nearby to the Kande Beach stop we were at. After a couple kilometers Amanda stumbled across a large half built resort-like structure. She guessed it had begun to be built and had most likely been abandoned. Seeing the nice shady areas the half built walls provided she found a comfy spot to sit, relax, absorb the beauty, and do some meditation. Twenty minutes later she saw a group of four men walking along the property, one looking like a security guard. Maybe she had been wrong about this being abandoned?
Yep, she had. The nice security guard came over later alone and asked the typical string of questions almost all locals would ask: “Where are you going? Where are you from? What is your name?”. Once those were done and he realized she was just chilling out and wasn’t leaving in a hurry, he sat down and joined her. She learned that the building was actually in construction process. It was going to be a huge resort and the entire construction process was going to take ten years. Yeah, these kinds of projects are on a totally different projected time-frame here. He then talked about his life: his two kids, his brothers and what they did for work, where he went to school. He wanted to know about Tanzania and Kenya and if they were the same as Malawi. It was a very pleasant conversation and again nice to just talk to someone without feeling the pressure of them trying to sell something.
After almost thirty minutes of hanging out with the security guard Amanda decided to make her way back down the beach back toward the hut. The guard asked her to come back tomorrow if she was still there, enjoying having some company to break the day up. This was only the beginning of the warmth the locals expressed along the beach. Mid-day, the beach was filled with the scene of kids paddling canoes toward the island (off in the distance now from ashore), people washing cloths, others just relaxing in the shade of the trees. An old man walking in the opposite direction came right up to Amanda and gave a big toothless smile taking both her forearms in his forearms and squeezing tightly while laughing and smiling the largest smile she could have imagined. This was followed by a couple of young boys not far behind him who came up and gave her a mango, urging her to eat it because it “is tasty”. Then they gave her another one and told her to take and share with a friend. At this point Amanda was pretty overwhelmed with a feeling of joy from all the genuine happiness that had been shed on her in the past couple of hours. It was only two days we spent at Kande Beach but the authentic and heartfelt experience of happiness among the locals was enough for anyone to realize why Malawi holds the nickname of “warm heart of Africa”. It was like a lakeside version of our laid-back experience in Livingstonia only with a large bungalow instead of a tent this time around.
Leaving Kande Land
After two nights and days in Kande Beach, we were ready to continue on our own over land trek. At this point, we had chosen to abandon the plan to take the Ilala Ferry (so is life in Africa where plans are always changing). Our reason for taking the ferry was to visit Cape McClear, another well known lakeside town in the southern tip of the lake. With our time at Kande Beach we were starting to feel that we had gotten a good of Malawi time in and were looking forward to getting to the capital of Lilongwe so we could make a big Thanksgiving dinner – which was only a day away now! So we packed our bags and went to the gates of Kande Beach at 6am, where James had arranged a taxi through Slim Shady to take us the 3km back to the one dirt road to town. The owner of Kande had told us there was a 7am bus we could catch on the road that would take us all the way to Lilongwe, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss that bus. When there was no taxi or sign of one showing up at 7:15am we began to walk opted to walk, while Chris and James waited for the taxi. We walked with Izzy in the cool morning air (complete with some drizzle) toward the main road. Along the way, we gained an adopted family of several young children on their way to school. They enjoyed walking with us and were curious about all the bizarre things we carried, and they gave us entertainment while showing us the shortcuts and right way to go.
As we approached the road, we heard loud music blasting – of course, there was a bottle shop/bar that was still full of local men drinking at 6:30am. We also were surprised to see that near the school, almost all the children were bent over or on their hands and knees collecting insects – mostly the enormous, winged termites that are abundant in the soils after the rain. These were collected fresh each morning the ground was wet and full of these bugs because they could be used as bait for fishing that day. Apparently every morning the children and women scavenge for bugs before the school day starts for the children, and the fishing day starts for the parents. When we had reached the road, we realized we hadn’t seen any taxis coming to pick people up from Kande Beach. Concerned we would miss the only bus to Lilongwe, we called Chris and James who reassured us they too had began walking shortly after us, and were just a couple minutes behind.
Shortly after, we all rejoined as a group on the main road where we put our bags down to wait on the edge of the tarmac. Nothing was open yet, but there were people out on the road, so we were able to ask about a bus to the capital. Several people confirmed there would be one passing through, but after asking about six people, the average time we were told the bus would arrive was 8am. A little after 7am people started opening their shops, and the first street food vendors began to appear. Eager to get some breakfast after our walk with the bags, Chris and Ben made their way over to get a bunch of food for the group. Unfortunately, though, the local rate was not available to us. Ben watched a woman pay 80 kwacha for four rolls, and then when he tried to buy two, was told to pay 100 kwacha. He tried to explain that we should be able to buy the food for the same rate, but the woman seemed to notice our European-like complexion, and insisted we pay more. Frustrated and not wanting to support discrimination on price for food, we returned to the group without any buns. We knew we would eat soon, and sure enough, within a half hour another person started selling food for the same price to all human beings, and we got our breakfast.
As we sat on the road at about 8:30 am nibbling on our yummy breakfast rolls (still no confirmation when the bus would be coming), a local drunk guy in an outfit of cutoff jeans, a tank top, a furry hat, and ankle high boots, took a shining to us. Give me money, he slurred. I am poor, give me money. Obviously he was drunk (this really goof hunch was soon enforced when he drank a tiny plastic pouch of rum, yes.. the rum is sold in plastic one serving pouches here). He was insistent that we give him money, as he was poor and we were rich. This was uncomfortable for us for several reasons. First of all, by this point we had seen a lot of extreme poverty in Africa. We were well aware that Malawi was one of the poorest countries, and this man may be homeless. Yet at the same time, this man was not the first person we would want to hand money to.
As Americans, we too have homeless on our streets. Very similarly we often feel uncomfortable giving them money directly for the same reasoning. Even though they may very well go buy food with the money, we are always more satisfied handing them food rather than money they could use on a bottle of booze. We were friendly with our new intoxicated friend but we didn’t give him any money and eventually he moved on elsewhere.
The combination of these two events are not things we were unfamiliar dealing with in Africa. These are also things that make you start to think about poverty, systems, and how you fit into the bigger picture. Poverty is not something that as simple, it has many layers and exploring these layers is something that hopefully is inevitable to any traveler in this part of the world. Experiences like these (or even those at home) hopefully bring awareness and cause us all to look at, discuss, and involve ourselves in the greater world community of tackling the harder questions like:
So as we moved on from Kande Beach, we were given the opportunity to reflect on these warm hearted moments of the locals combined with the rough around the edges true life confrontations of Malawian poverty. Going to Lilongwe, we knew this was our last view of the beautiful Lake Malawi we had spent the last couple weeks engulfed in. We’d had quite a surprising time at the beautiful fresh-water beach of Kande Beach, and were happy the universe had guided us there, and for all the experiences we had being able to meet locals and families, as well as the grittiness of our closing encounter.
For sunrise photos, and more from Kande Beach and the Island, click HERE.
Confused on where exactly these places are in the world that we have been talking about? No worries, most people wouldn’t have a clue where Malawi is. This map is to help clear some of the fog.