This is a blog about my travels. My "regular" life is much too boring to bother blogging about.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Nkhata Bay

I never should have left Kande, I really enjoyed it there. The beach was beautiful, and the people I met were lovely. Tiffany left yesterday as well, but I had also made the acquaintance of three Swiss people with whom I would watch soccer at the local watering hole. They were a riot. One of them, Till, would swear at the television in Swiss German when something happened that he didn't like. They were amazed that I knew more about European soccer than they did, something they conceded after I won 1500 kwachas from each of them after Russia beat the Netherlands two days ago. They gave me the money in the form of vodka shots. I had also come to like the locals. The bartender at the local watering hole, John, was an especially wonderful type. I learned more about Malawi from him than I did from pretty much everyone else I've met here combined.

Furthermore, I was pretty sure that I wouldn't enjoy Nkhata Bay. I inevitably had to pass through here, since the ferry that will take me back to Mozambique leaves from here at 8:00 PM tonight. But I could easily have spent a fourth night in Kande and taken a bus here in the morning. I would have had hours to spare before the ferry left. But I came a day earlier anyway. And lo and behold, I haven't enjoyed the experience. Nkhata Bay is the most touristed place in Malawi. I'm not particularly sure why: it's a small port town, albeit a rather picturesque port town surrounded by hills, but there is no beach here and not particularly much to do. It has built its appeal as a hedonistic backpackers retreat. Hordes of travelers come here to get wasted in their hostel bars, lie around in hammocks all day, then get wasted again at night. As I've gone over already, this isn't really what I'm looking to do this trip. To be fair, I liked the hostel a lot. They offered a range of cultural activities, such as Tonga lessons, and helped guests get involved in community projects. But most guests there are there to drink, smoke weed (a.k.a. Malawi Gold, a.k.a. Malawi Wowie), and consume other miscellaneous drugs.

As you might imagine, there is an army of townspeople trying to sell art, random trinkets and psychotropic drugs to tourists. Locals do not talk to you unless they are trying to sell you something. Often, their sales pitch is rather aggressive. If you say you have no money, they ask if you can trade something; one guy asked to go through my bag to find something worth a trade, and began to reach for it, which did not sit well with me. One guy uttered a quasi-threat towards me when I refused to sell him my shorts (a guy in Kande wanted my shorts too... they really aren't that nice!). The guy was messed up on something much worse than Malawi Wowie. He later heard me tell someone else where I was staying, and he promised to pay me a visit while I was sleeping. Laughable, since the hostel is patrolled by at least five security guards, and a troupe of ornery dogs. Point is, I felt uncomfortable pretty much the whole time I was here. A disappointing end to my time in Malawi, which has on the whole been rather pleasant.

I feel bad about passing through Malawi so quickly, especially because I'll probably never return, but my priority on this trip is Mozambique. Malawi is a very nice country with very friendly people. It is a dreadfully poor country: most of the population here lives on less than $1 per day, unemployment/underemployment is unimaginably high and the country isn't particularly fertile, is overpopulated and seemingly always on the precipice of a famine or food crisis. High world prices for fuel and food are currently exacerbating these problems. What is
most troubling though, is that Malawians seem to be extremely pessimistic about the future. Nobody thinks things will get better, and many people think it will get much, much worse. This is in stark contrast to Mozambique, where people are extremely optimistic about the future.

I'm also alarmed at how tourism has developed in Malawi. Most of the industry is controlled by foreigners, mostly Brits, which is probably inevitable because establishing a scuba shop or a hotel is extremely expensive and 99.9999% of Malawians simply don't have the money to start a venture like that. But I question how much of the profits are reinvested in Malawi - I've heard from more than one Malawian, including an alarming number of the villagers in Kande, that most foreigners involved in tourism invest their money elsewhere. Most galling to me are the employment practices at some hostels. Often, foreigners will be employed as managers, bartenders and in other miscellaneous positions. Surely, in a country where unemployment is easily over 50%, they should be able to find a local who can mix a gin and tonic. I also wonder how much the owners of these places pay their employees. My guess is that they're paid better than the average Malawian (which isn't very much), but much less than the profits of the business should ensure.

So tomorrow I return to Mozambique. I arrive in Metangula, which is on the other side of Lake Malawi (called Lago Niassa in Moz.). Northern Mozambique, where I will be spending pretty much the rest of my trip, is way, way, way off the backpacker loop. I have yet to meet anyone on my travels who has been to the north; most travelers in Mozambique never venture north of the Zambezi River. There are no hostels in the north, with the exception of Pemba (where it is low season and probably empty); accommodation will have to be sought in local cheap hotels, most of which I'm assuming will be sketchy. The roads up north are crap. Elephants and lions roam free and sometimes terrorize local villages. Traditional religion and medicine predominate. English certainly won't help me as much as it did in southern Mozambique; in some Swahili-speaking areas, Portuguese won't help me much either. It's all very exciting; I can't wait.


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