We had a rougher time than our planned quick-n-easy drive through the self-styled “warm heart of Africa,” but we nevertheless came away with some pleasant memories.

 
Malawi

Quick Summary

Time in Malawi: October 7 - October 29, 2010

Route: mostly a straight line drive from the center to the north (Monkey Bay, Lilongwe, Nkhata Bay, Nyika National Park, and Chitimba) with 2 weeks in remote lakeside locations (Ruarwe and Chizumulu island)

People: super friendly (from the many cops on the roads to the touts peddling trinkets) and surprisingly philosophical; the Malawians we met seem to have a comfortable life and poverty is not a big hinderance; almost everyone wants to chit-chat and smoke with you for hours on end if given the chance, no matter their level of English (whenever the language fails them, people just smile, nod and give an extended and friendly “yeeessss” regardless of the topic of conversation)

Food: the most challenging we faced our entire trip; despite Malawi’s fertile soil, we could not find anything fresh other than tomatoes and onions; restaurants and supermarkets are much worse than in the neighboring countries; locals seem to eat almost exclusively sardines and maize meal (which is filling but terrible); during 15 days on Lake Malawi, we tried to get fish for every single meal but only succeeded twice

Roads: main highways are tarred, easy, and good but watch out as soon as you get on the secondary roads (dirt tracks, mostly in disrepair); super friendly cops at the road blocks, super expensive gasoline at the pump

Distance covered: 1,487km (924 miles) in TianMa plus approximately 200km (125 miles) by boat

Highlights: “cruising” Lake Malawi on the Ilala ferry (should be a low-light but it’s so bad it’s good), reuniting with travel friends Jo and Abe, swimming and diving in Ruarwe, chit-chatting, Ognen’s birthday “feast”

Low-lights: Ognen’s “jigger-toe”, food poisoning, a string of crappy lodges and even crappier ownership/management, stifling heat, the food, long and hot drives

Impression: travel books dedicated to Malawi lament the fact that it is mostly a transit point for tourists shuttling between the more famous destinations of east and southern Africa and who stop only briefly at the lake. We think the lake is magnificent and easily worth a week of more rather than just a night or two. But there isn’t much else to draw tourists, especially those that also visit other African countries, so Malawi really is mostly a transit point. The friendliness of the people is noteworthy but unfortunately so is the presence of NGOs and “aid” - the country produces little, is overly aid-dependent, and organizations are too eager to pour in staff and money in order to showcase their “success” in this small, English-speaking, and super friendly environment (despite the fact that little of it makes any difference in people’s everyday lives) .