Monday, September 7, 2009
Malawi - Africa's Friendly Heart
It is truly amazing the effect a border crossing can have on a person. The excitement of leaving one country for another is always mixed with a bit of trepidation of the unknown, but in the end, there is little more rewarding than having a fresh stamp punched in your passport. This was certainly the case for us as we passed from Tanzania into Malawi a few days ago.
We spent an unexpectedly grueling day - our supposed 10 hour bus trip turned into a 16 1/2 hour marathon - traveling through southern Tanzania. The scenery was again, quite beautiful and we even saw a few elephants as we climbed into the highlands before descending back to the hills around the northern tip of Lake Malawi. Other than the length of the trip it was actually quite uneventful and proved to us once again that Tanzania, more than any other country we had visited, truly is on the right track. The roads (other than some construction) are perfect, bus parks are relatively hassle free, and beautiful schools with covered walkways from building to building, line the roadside. Of course, we have no allusions that Tanzania is a rich or problem free country, but it was nice to see the early stages of effective development.
After a very brief rest in a hotel in the small town of Kyela, Tanzania we woke early to make it to the border and hopefully catch a bus. In fact, we were too early, but after a breakfast in no-man's-land (there was a decent stretch between the two border posts) we walked into Malawi. Kudos to Malawi on good first impressions. We payed no visa fee after paying $100 each to enter Tanzania.
The friendliness of Malawi was evident immediately upon entering the country. We were sent in the right direction by some police officers and rode with an ever-laughing cab driver to a nearby town. From there we caught a bus for Mzuzu, about half way to our destination of Lilongwe. The trip followed the shore of Lake Malawi for most of the way before climbing into the arid mountains that line the coast. The landscape was nice, definitely not as spectacular as some of the places we had seen in East Africa, but the people more than made up for it. Our first observation was that it seemed everyone was smiling or laughing. And whats more, not one person tried to rip us off!
Six hours later we arrived in Mzuzu and immediately boarded another bus for Lilongwe. Like Tanzania the roads were great and the towns seemed even neater and more orderly. The only thing that struck us as negative about our first day in Malawi was the massive amounts of deforestation we passed along the way from Mzuzu to Lilongwe. Once we left the lake shore small, beautiful forests gave way to massive swaths of downed timber. As Malawi is a very poor country the scene certainly posed the question of how to go about balanced, controlled and responsible development; a question that all African nations are struggling with. The devastation went on for hours but our attention was soon robbed as the bus driver switched the radio station to the Malawi World Cup qualifying game against Guinea. The people listened intently to the rabid announcer as he switched from English to the local language and back again as he became more and more excited. In the end Malawi won 2-1 and the bus celebrated with smiles and polite clapping.
We finally arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi's administrative capital, just as it became dark and had little time or energy left to do anything but put up our tent. Having not seen much of the town we spent all of yesterday wandering the streets. A guidebook we glanced at in Tanzania had called Lilongwe "the most mundane of African capitals," and we would probably agree. It is quiet, the streets are clean, and the typical hawkers and street vendors are almost entirely absent. So, a suggestion to the guidebook writers: change the entry for Lilongwe to, "wonderfully mundane." We were able to walk around town, largely ignored, eat a great meal and even go grocery shopping at an "American-style" shop; a true luxury at this point and something that we could not have imagined even a few days ago. Today we wandered through the wood carvings market (there are some incredible pieces that we wish we had the bag space to bring with us) and were not pestered more than being invited to look at each person's stall.
We will camp in Lilongwe again tonight, probably lulled to sleep by the laughing of the hyena's that wander right into town, before heading back toward Lake Malawi tomorrow morning. We plan on spending a day or two before heading southwards towards Mozambique. Happy Labor Day to everyone and best wishes to all of you starting a new school year!