Friday, 12 June 2009

Things you see a lot of in Malawi: people pushing, or in some godforsaken cases, riding bicycles piled with logs, rsj's, bananas, coconuts and Christ knows what else - almost always at least 10 feet high; tiny children herding hump-backed cattle along roads that barely do justice to the name; a shit-load of empty buildings - some with corrugated iron roofs, many more with straw or tarpaulin, all held down with stones to prevent them from flying off; many of these are or have at some time been businesses - a legacy of Hastings Banda's deregulation of the economy. They are pretty much all closed their faded signage and once-gaudy paintwork all that's left. Brilliantly, the catchy name and strapline have made their mark on Malawi - the former ranging from the comically prosaic ("Up & Down Engineering") to the cutting-edge entrepreneurial ("New Ideas Electronics"). Straplines betray a charming innocence as yet unsullied by late-stage capitalism - "Muli Brothers Haulage - Slow, but Sure", "blend in with the trend that's in" on a ladies' fashion shop, "we always try to outdo ourselves" on a restaurant that basically serves only one dish.
Things you don't see a lot of in Malawi: old people. In four days I haven't seen more than a handful of people over 40. The average life expectancy here is 37 - a figure that takes some getting used to, but is noticeable by the fact that the roadside upholsterers and carpenters all have signs that say "Furniture and Coffin Maker". Death isn't so much cheap here as practically being given away as part of some macabre promotion.

Swathes of land are planted with either maize or tobacco - the former a hybrid strain not suited for eating off the cob but that is ground down to make mealy flour - the staple diet of a vast proportion of the population. On the drive up from Lilongwe to the farm near Bolero the native trees were gradually replaced by first fir trees and then imported eucalyptus, making the countryside oddly redolent of Australia. In the fir-tree areas, the disproportion between those areas already harvested and those that have been re-planted is stark, leading me to think that the principles of forestry management, and indeed most other types of management are a little way off.

What you see everywhere are people either sitting at junctions or walking between the towns and villages. I'm guessing only a tiny percentage of the people here, particularly out of the major towns, have jobs so walking or just sitting seem to be reasonable ways to spend the day. The walkers either can't afford, or have wisely chosen to avoid the minibuses that ply up and down the roads, waiting until they're full before leaving and then getting progressively more full as their journey continues. Watching one empty its load of passengers at one of the police checkpoints is like watching clowns come out of a Volkswagen - as if everyone's trying to break the record for the number of people in one vehicle. The other option is hitching - flat-bed trucks fly along the roads with people jammed into the back, sitting on the edges or even on top of the cabin with a cheerful disregard for Health & Safety that would make your average British bureaucrat weep with frustrated indignation.

Malawi has its own Highway Code, adding to or improvising a theme on the British one. Breakdowns, which are everywhere, are signalled occasionally by the standard red triangle, but more often with three or four groups of branches laid out in the road either side of the stricken vehicle. This works fine in daylight, assuming you know what the branches mean, but is less successful at night - branches lacking the distinctive reflective quality that makes such signs worthwhile. Although I guess if you've run over two or three clumps of branches in the road without thinking you might want to slow down, you deserve whatever's coming to you.

More idiosyncratically, indicators are used almost constantly, but virtually never to indicate the vehicle's about to turn. Indicating right can mean "I'm about to turn right" but more usually means "don't overtake me". Left can mean "I'm about to turn left" but its main meaning is "It's OK to overtake me". Given that out of the towns there are practically no turnings on either side of the road, it's usually safe to assume the latter meaning. Usually.

The mere fact that such a system exists is all the more cheering given that Malawi barely has highways that justify a highway code. While the main roads between cities are all tarmacked, the rest are effectively a series of axle-breaking potholes linked together by a lattice of red clay and rocks. If the life span here was any longer, nearly everybody could be employed as osteopaths to great effect.

Had I arrived here with just a guidebook and no local contacts, the last few days would have been entirely different. I'd have spent them on the beach at Nkhata bay and missed everything. Nkozi farm is 6 hours north of Lilongwe and is one of Africa Invest's biggest projects. 600-odd hectares of land at the edge of the plateau that marks the southern end of the Great Rift Valley. It's a couple of miles out from a village called Bolero and you can bet your bottom kwatcha that this wasn't what Ravel had in mind. Bolero is on my guidebook map but otherwise it has nothing to say about it. The country must be full of places like this. The markets in these towns tell their own story. A labyrinth of shacks selling a whole lot of not very much, but then not very much is what almost everyone has. What there usually is, in a grim reminder of the plethora of coffin makers is at least one stall selling second-hand boots and shoes. Lots and lots of them. Mind you, everything here is recycled, and usually in a much more straightforward way than at home. Bottles aren't crushed down to make road surfaces (although by Christ they could do with some) but are re-used as bottles. A crate of beer is a third cheaper if you return the empties in a charming echo of the England of my youth. Stacks and stack of tyres too - they're bound to fit something that limps by sooner or later.

If you'd never seen it, the Bolero Plaza conjures an inspiring image. A place in the centre of town where you can shop and then eat in its dappled courtyard, that has five designated car parks all within easy reach of the main entrance. The reality of this cathedral to consumerist utopia is slightly different. The whole place is about 30 square feet, but they do serve you a drink once you've bought your shopping. The car parks, each clearly signposted 1 to 5, hold a total of 1 car. It's true about the courtyard though.

Bolero's premier, indeed only, nightspot is the Malaika Sports Pub and Restaurant, although considering it opens at 6am and stays till the last person leaves every night of the week, perhaps nightspot is a misnomer. And it doesn't serve food. But it is most definitely a sports pub, in that it has a pool table in constant use (yep, from 6am)and a lot of pictures of Beckham-era Manchester Utd on the walls. The place is run by James, a genial, relaxed man of about 24 who claims to have been a professional footballer in South Africa. Something must have gone awry,.

Like every other bar in the country, the Malaika sells Carslberg in several varieties. Here, there's Green, Brown and Special Brew. People all over the world will recognise Green. Brown I've not seen before but it's a slightly sweeter beer and both come in at just under 5%. Special Brew isn't quite the same as it is in the UK, thank God. For one, it's sold in bars and not just off- licences near train stations. The livery's exactly the same but mercifully the whole thing's been downgraded from the 8% so beloved of the UK's unemployable to a still-competitive 5.7%. Perhaps the Danes, an eminently practical race, figured that to unleash an 8% beer on a country with already stratospherically high unemployment would be commercial suicide. Either way, Special Brew is popular here, and if a bottle didn't cost more than the average Malawian earns every day would doubtless be more so.

If your tastes stray to the exotic however - and by ginger mine do, there is an alternative (discounting the still-Carlsberg-brewed Kucha Kucha beer - its name translates roughly to "all day" but whether this is a nod to its cooking lager status, an exhortation based on the same or a combination of the two is unclear). In addition to western-style beer in more-or-less western-style bars, you could, should your constitution be up to it, have a crack at the fantastically-named Chibuku Shake-Shake which handily combines both a brand name and instructions and is Malawi's national drink. In common with other African "beers" it's made with maize, has the consistency of either gruel or liquidised wood-chip wallpaper depending on how charitable you;re feeling and is breathtakingly foul. The taste is both sour and noticeably alcoholic combined with a milky, cereal quality. The overall effect is akin to making porridge with four times the recommended quantity of sour milk and then adding a shot of cheap vodka. This unholy concoction is sold by the litre and James tells me it's not unusual for the connoisseur to get through ten or twelve litres in a single sitting. I don't know whether to be awed or appalled. I secretly think I'm both.

For a country that gives up such a lot of its land to tobacco, surprisingly few people smoke and those that do seem to prefer menthols. Anything to take away the taste of mealy flour I reckon. The hardy clientele at the Malaika had never seen roll-ups before and were intrigued by the idea, particularly the filters. They instantly assumed we were on the local grass, perhaps not the wisest idea since one of them was called Bright, was the local policeman and looked, if I imbue him with a gravitas that wasn't really there, boyish. The policeman don't just look younger here, they are - for reasons that should by now be obvious. It occurs to me that a policeman who can't tell the difference between tobacco smoke and grass smoke, particularly one called Bright, may have chosen his profession unwisely.

Talking of ill-chosen things, I'd brought a cigar with me, the idea being to smoke it in a suitably unlikely location - it being a suitably unlikely cigar (Hawaiian & flavoured with coffee). Justifiably, on its production at the Malaika Mobile Bar (or the back of Nick's truck), it was generally agreed that to be its owner I must be a very rich man. In Western terms, newly unemployed with no debts but no real savings, this is a laughable idea. From a rural Malawian perspective, my very presence there, and on something so trivial as holiday confirmed me as rich beyond the dreams of Croesus. Buoyed by a couple of hours on the Special Brew in the afternoon, and emboldened by memories of Cuban examples lasting for hours, I boasted that the cigar would certainly last all night and conceivably into the next day. Half an hour later, with an unravelling inch left between my chastened fingers, I was at least pleased to have been the subject of good-natured hilarity twice in one day. And it tasted a lot better than the Chibuku.

The farm itself is massive and grows a mixture of paprika, tobacco and maize. the current project is to irrigate the whole thing from the river that runs along one edge of the estate. This would be a big job by any standards but local conditions make it a Herculean task. Pump stations have to be built and, in at least one case, torn down and re-built, this time to the specifications provided. With such a massive level of unemployment, finding people willing to work is easy. Finding people trained and able to do the job is significantly harder. Malawi is a make-do-and-mend country and the ingenuity of the people to improvise effectively is astonishing. Unfortunately, this admirable attitude doesn't really cut it when confronted with state-of-the-art pumping equipment and the laws of physics. Eventually the whole farm will be irrigated, and then there's just the minor job of rigging in overhead electricity.

Dotted around the farm are the huts that serve as the farmhands' accommodation. Sometimes these are on the sides of the paths that criss-cross the farm, other times they seem to be right in the middle of the tobacco crops. They're usually made of dried mud or corrugated iron and in every case are heart-breakingly small. Suddenly I realise why there's always so many people walking on the roads or just sitting down. The concept of hanging out at home just doesn't exist here. The huts are just places to sleep and prepare food - there's no space in them to do anything else. One room, split into two areas is all these people have, which explains why every town, however small comes alive at dusk. Every market and trading posted is swamped with people for a few hours.

It's difficult to think of Lake Malawi as a lake at all. The "Calendar Lake" is 365km long and 52KM wide at its widest point. In other words, it's massive (Africa's third largest lake) and from any point on its sandy shore it looks like the sea. The fresh water is really the only clue to its true nature. At some points it's really astoundingly deep too - 200-300m in some places but apparently all the life is in the top. I've seen too many horror films to believe this for a moment. A vast array of chiclids inhabit the water, not to mention the occasional crocodile. Nothing lends a spot of snorkelling an edge of frisson like the knowledge that somewhere in the same body of water is a dinosaur that would view you the same way you view a chicken kebab.

The southern shore of the lake from Monkey Bay to Mangochi is fringed with plush apartments (although not so plush as to be immune from Malawi's endemic power cuts). Some, including ours, are fenced off from the beach. It's still a beautiful sight to come out in the early morning and see twenty metres of grass, ten of white sand and then limpid water as far as the horizon. The water warms up quickly too, from being bracing at 6am to warm and comforting at half 8. News of our arrival travels fast. By 7am on our first morning a mini-market has set up on the beach outside our gate. There are several stalls, all selling the same thing, in the way of tourist markets the world over. Here it's wooden jewellery; bracelets made from porcupine skin; elaborate reedwork tractors, cars, houses; some quite shoddy watercolours and an array of carved ebony. These last range from tacky fish with "Malawi" carved on them to sleek jewellery boxes and expressionist figures of warrior heads and women teaching children to walk. Each stall also has an ebony nativity scene for sale - unsurprising in this predominantly Christian country but a little jarring to see in the middle of April in 30° heat.

Cape Maclear used to be one of the big traveller congregation points in Africa, but from what I saw, the action's gone north to Nkhata Bay. There's still a lot of guesthouses but I mostly saw locals. Maybe they're all sleeping off last night's party, but somehow I doubt it. We eventually settle in a newly refurbished lodge at the souther end of Cape Maclear. A little surprisingly, this turns out to be run by a man from Cardiff. Taffia connections pay off and we get a discount on a catamaran trip out to snorkel around the islands. This is preceded by a brief encounter with Elephant beer ( so that's what happened to the UK Special Brew - scrub that earlier bit about the Danes)and a straightforward lunch given the predictably unpredictable Malawian twist. In this case, the cheeseburger has no sauce at all, but the accompanying side salad comes drowned in ketchup. It's these nearly-but-not-quite-what-you're-expecting touches that make eating here such fun. The catamaran trip is fun, no-one gets eaten by a crocodile and we see sea eagles swoop down to catch the fish the guy steering the boat has thrown onto the lake for just this purpose. Touristy, yes - but undeniably majestic to watch.

The trip back to the cottage is bumpy - the track to and from Maclear off the Monkey Bay road is an absolute shocker. We also need charcoal and the petrol station is closed so it's time to test my skills at the trading post. As it's sundown the place is buzzing and I've been out of he car a good thirty seconds before someone asks me what I'm after. Ten seconds later and it transpires that my good samaritan is Isaac, the guy who sold us fish this morning. He clearly has an aptitude for turning up at the right place at the right time. This morning, Nick had barely finished the sentence "Now all we need is someone to sell us some fish" when Isaac appeared in the garden with three dozen or so fish straight out of the lake. I bought ten for 1500 kwatcha, or about 70p each.

As an aside, "kwatcha" means "sunrise" in Chichewe and their constituent parts, tambale, mean "cock crows". So 100 cock crows makes a sunrise, which certainly gets one over euros and cents in the poetic stakes. I'm far from convinced that tambale actually exist. There are approximately 240 kwatcha to the pound, meaning one kwatcha is worth considerably less than half of one penny. Yet a one kwatcha coin is still minted, which surely must cost more to do than the finished coin is worth. Hence my suspicion about tambale.

Anyway, Isaac, the serendipitous fishmonger also knows where I can buy charcoal - from a lady whose stall appears to be the front yard of her house. Enough charcoal for a barbecue costs 40 kwatcha, or about 18p. Showing an admirable grasp of economics, I pay the asking price for the charcoal and then tip Isaac about twice that amount for helping me find charcoal in the dark - a task for which I would be woefully ill-equipped alone. The fish is good, if bony.

At the bus station in Mangochi I briefly feel like the whitest man alive. Dropped off outside so I can go to the Liwonde National Park while Nick, Tabs and Megan drive back to Lilongwe, I am instantly swamped by people asking me where I'm going. They all appear to be willing to take me to Liwonde and in common with everyone else are fascinated by the concept of roll-up cigarettes and assume I'm on drugs. Given the state of the minibuses I can see, I wish I was.

My Whitest Man Alive experience starts almost immediately. Ideally, I'd like to get a big bus, but there are none to be seen. When I tell the assorted bus boys in front of me that I want to take a big bus, they laugh and tell me the only one of the day went hours ago. Several people are trying to get me into their minibuses - it's the way that a lot of young men try and earn money so I have a crack at re-gaining some semblance of control and ask where I can buy a ticket. Hilarity ensues. I don't need a ticket. No-one ever needs a ticket; you just get on a bus and pay when you're on your way. After a couple more minutes of fundamentally misunderstanding the dynamics of an African bust station ( pretty lame really as the exact same system operates in Indonesia and I had no problem working it out there), one of the drivers decides to take the bull by the horns and says "Come with me, my bus is nice and it's leaving now. 500 kwatcha to Liwonde". What he neglects to mention is that his bus is clearly already full, but that doesn't seem to be a problem, particularly as a kid of twelve or so and his accompanying toddler are just pulled out of the bus to make room for me. This makes me feel uncomfortable for several reasons, not least because the twelve-year old was cramped in there and I'm about three times his size. I don't really have time to protest before being pushed into the minibus and we're on our way.

90 minutes later I'm still in one piece and at Liwonde Barrage bus station waiting for the transfer to Chinguni Lodge. Street food is now a cinch so it's samosas all the way and I pass the time chatting to a guy called Jim. He's 19 and good-natured, curious about me and England and it's while talking to him that the 37-year average life span really takes on a human dimension for me. The thought that he's got a decent chance of being half way through his life makes me feel unutterably strange. I give him 500 kwatcha when my lift arrives because I don't know what else to do.

Chinguni Hills Campsite was my second choice of places to stay but I can't imagine my original choice (Mvoo) being any better, just fantastically more expensive. By about £150 a night. It turns out that I'm the only person staying here ( it comfortably sleeps 100) so it seems my choice of activities may be limited. I'm informed by Pious, the lodge treasurer in Adamski spectacles that I can do a walking safari or a canoe safari, but not the driving or motor boat ones as there's only one of me and the latter two options need a minimum of three people.

After dropping off my bag at the tent and being surprised by a fantastic lunch, I opt for a walking safari. We see waterbuck, lots of impala practising their mating rites, a couple of warthog and a small group of velvet monkeys. I've never been a to a safari park but this feels like I imagine one might feel like - non-threatening animals at a fairly safe distance but this is the real thing. In a strange way, the reality feels more like a simulacrum than a park would. It's the only time in my life I can say I've even come close to grasping one of the fundamental points of French post-modernist thought. I wish I hadn't as it leaves me feeling uncomfortable in a vague but nearly tangible way.

The first night on the camp is very strange. Not only am I fed a 3-course meal that would comfortably serve two or three but I'm the only person here and there's no electricity. Consequently it's very dark, apart from the stars which are a revelation and the most I've seen in the sky in ten years. What it most definitely not is quiet. Apart from the constant chirrup of insects there is the extremely disconcerting sound of hippos grunting what sounds like feet away. Sounds obviously travel a long way but one thing at which hippos are rubbish is creeping up on people. At least, this is true on land. While the grunts sounds like they're coming from the next tent, there's no accompanying rustling - at least nothing that my untrained ears would think of as hippo-sized rustling.

The next day is down in my head as half reading and half canoeing - that being the only other option available to the sole occupant of the camp. But help is at hand. About an hour after my (again, 3-course) breakfast (where do they get this food from?) Lisa the manager finds me and tells me there's another guest now and she wants to go on a driving safari. If I go too and we split the cost of the third person we're on. So we're on. Rosetta turns out to be a lovely woman - a missionary from South Carolina who claims the Lord told her to move to Malawi and work as nurse in Blantyre, the country's second city. So she's deluded. But nice nonetheless. She is, as I predict, disappointed not to see lions ( I'm not even sure there are lions in Malawi) but we are both thrilled to see elephants. I'd been told they were close but didn't really expect to see them. We see about 15 or so. Paul the driver takes us off-track and gets us as close as he thinks is safe. One of them stares at the Landrover. It's by far the most exciting thing I've seen here. I'm also fairly convinced that my photos will turn out to be rubbish. We also see Kudu, as well as more impala, waterbuck and warthogs.

My canoe safari is scheduled for half two. I feel a creeping sense of trepidation for two reasons. Firstly, whenever I go canoeing I remember how much hard work it is - it's knackering. Secondly, I'm very scared of crocodiles. I feel a canoe, however brightly coloured, would not fare well against a prehistoric reptile with a bite that exerts pressure close to one ton per square inch. But if it's a canoe or nothing I'm fucked if it's going to be nothing so I pack my stuff ( taking care to leave ID behind should I get eaten - no, seriously), brace myself and head off. But what's that? Voices? Irish voices. A couple called Liz and Jody have just arrived and are keen to do something this afternoon. This opens a world of possibilities, if that world consists of the option to do a proper boat trip in a proper boat. It takes about a second for me to decide to ditch the canoe and go on a hippo safari with these guys instead.

We get a lift back to Liwonde Barrage and then a boat up the Shire (pronounced Sheera) River. This is much more like it. We're out from about half three so the temperature's perfect, there's the prospect of a short but spectacular sunset (this close to the Equator the sun shoots up at 6am and shoots back down again at 6pm) amiable company and there are hippos afoot. Travelling on the river is very relaxing and reminds me of Malaysia and leaving the Tama Nagara by the same method. The first half hour chugs by pleasantly if uneventfully. Then the guide points out something on the left and there it is, briefly. A pair of eyes, then ears, appear above the waterline. Gabriel the driver manoeuvres us into the reeds and suddenly those eyes and ears don't belong to a single hippo but to a whole raft of them. There's probably about 8 or 9 of them 30 feet away, all in the water but coming up for air and a good yawn. Why do hippos yawn so much? It's not like they do anything or are forced to get up early. Happily, their yawns are not contagious. Hippos are very odd to be around. They seem gentle but are said to be completely unpredictable. Needless to say, they're also huge. Just a couple of them could swim under the boat and capsize it if they wanted. Thankfully, they seem content to eat reeds, yawn, and have their own how-long-can-you-hold-your-breath-under-water competition.

The ride back to the barrage is peaceful and the sunset is glorious. I like the way that they're spectacular and short, like the sun knows that it's got all the tricks but doesn't stay around hogging the stage like a Vegas has-been. We see the eyes of a crocodile, but not the rest of a crocodile and that suits me just fine.

The next morning while I'm waiting for my ride back into Liwonde to catch the 7am bus back to Lilongwe, Rosetta offers me one of her family of carved wooden hippos. I accept, knowing that Tess will secretly be thrilled despite her protestations. The bus is supposed to leave between 7 and half past so I get there just after 7, congratulating myself on not only getting a big bus, but getting there in time to get a couple of donuts for breakfast. I am feeling less self-congratulatory at half nine, with the bus still sitting exactly where it was before, being filled with ever more people, bags, chickens, sacks of corn. I am impressed that even the swankiest-dressed ladies don't mind clambering over everything to get to a seat. I try and smile at everyone with whom I make eye contact. Usually I get about a 75% smile-back rate but on the bus it's closer to 50/50. The two people who sit next to me on the journey do not flicker from their expressions of blank indifference. One of them strokes a duck for the entire time she's on the bus. You don't get that on National Express.

When we get back to Lilongwe, I run the gamut of taxi touts at the bus depot, none of whom believe I've got a lift coming. A drunk kid comes up to me and says "give me money". I say no. He says "One day, I'll fucking kill you." I laugh, because I'm not sure what else to do, and it seems like a reasonable response to a man who looks like he'd have trouble tying his own shoelaces. He leaves. I eat a samosa that might be chicken or at a stretch, might be fish. Given how far we are from the lake, I hope it's chicken.

Once the rains stop on my last day I go to the central market. It's a huge, sprawling affair that straddles the river and looks like a Brazilian shanty town. I'm reliably informed that if something exists in Malawi, you can get it here. It seems to be split roughly into fruit & veg on one side and everything else in existence on the other. A lot of what I see is flip-flops and jumble. This isn't a tourist market at all - it's where the ordinary people come to buy their stuff, so walking around it, even dressed like a twat in a cagoule after the rains have stopped, no-one hassles me to come and look at their stuff or try and sell me rubbish souvenirs, although that's bound to happen later. After a while I come across a few guys selling sugar cane, and once I notice that, I notice it's everywhere. It's 20 kwatcha for a foot and a half so I get one and ask the guys to show me how to eat it. You strip off the bark and then chew on the soft middle part. You don't, or can't use your hands to do this. Once I've established that my teeth won't disintegrate during the stripping, it's delicious and then something interesting happens. Now that I'm eating what seems to be Malawi's national snack, people are interested in talking to me. A cobbler tells me that white people don't usually go around eating sugar, and applauds my attempt to get diabetes the local way. Just walking around eating it attracts attention, smiles and good-natured laughter. This makes me feel good, and the cane is surprisingly juicy and refreshing. I also manage to buy a several chindeche (like an African sarong) so my job here's done. I'm out of the market for five minutes before I'm approached by some guys who want to chat, smoke, and inevitably, sell me watercolours. I relent in the end, I'm out of here tomorrow.