Our time in Nkhata Bay, in the north of Malawi and on the shore of Lake Malawi, was a bit mixed: the beginning of our stay was relaxing and exciting, but by the end we found ourselves bored and frustrated. Let me back up.
After a bus ride from Zomba that managed to take "only" ten hours--for the first three we seemed to stop every five kilometers; picture taking a local city bus from DC to Philadelphia--we arrived at 3am, walked the two blocks to our backpackers' and promptly passed out. We woke up to find ourselves in the "Castaway Cabin", a cozy little shack perched precariously over the edge of the lake. Although small and a bit shabby, it came with a lovely breeze, breathtaking, unobstructed lake views, and the sound of waves lapping at the shore to lull us to sleep every night. It was also half the price and considerably more comfortable than our comparable accommodation in Mozambique, and we enjoyed swimming in the lake, sitting on the docks, and eating fresh mangoes from the many trees on the property.
We spent the next two days walking around the small town and neighboring coves and beaches, and while Claudia never quite warmed up to it (too much dried, smelly fish for sale on every corner, and too many drunk locals, from whom Malawi's famous friendliness is less appealing), I rather enjoyed our time in Nkhata Bay. I had the sense that it was a town near the beginning of its tourism life, therefore the place wasn't overrun with tourists, nor the resentment, elevated prices, and diminished service that invariably follow; instead we found many helpful and friendly people, as well as one good restaurant, and one internet cafe. What more could we want for a few relaxing days in a sleepy, lakeside town?
After the first night's three-course Thai dinner, we were approached by an American woman and a Malawian man. The American said that her boyfriend didn't believe that she could tell that we were also Americans merely from overhearing our accents in our hushed voices over dinner, and we struck up a conversation. Before we knew it, we were on our way to a concert put on by their friends. We headed down an unmarked alley to a nameless bar overlooking the lake where the five-man reggae band was tuning up. Reggae isn't usually my favorite type of music (or maybe I'm just sick of hearing the same four Bob Marley songs at every backpackers'), but I'm sure I had a huge smile on my face for the entire concert. Everyone there--both the band and the small crowd--was simply having a great time. The band was a little rough around the edges, missing cues and having to restart songs, but they clearly loved making music, and the fans clearly loved hearing it, dancing freely and authentically and without any of the pretense, self-consciousness, or "cool" that we're used to at shows back home.
The next day we took our one big outing in Nkhata Bay: Claudia got to use her SCUBA certification for the first time in a new body of water, and I came along for the ride and did a bit of snorkeling. One of Lake Malawi's claims to fame is that it was included in the BBC series Planet Earth, and before the ride we were shown the clip, which was mostly filmed in Nkhata Bay, to familiarize ourselves with the types of fish we would see. The majority of fish in the lake (over 1000 species) are in the Cichlid family, and most of these are endemic to the lake, all reputedly descendents of a small number of ancestors who became trapped inland. Claudia enjoyed the new conditions: the entry was much calmer than in the ocean, the visibility was better than she expected, and she swam through some rock tunnels. The highlight, of course, was the wildlife: we both saw many beautiful and colorful varieties, and Claudia saw the special and aptly-named Upside-down Cichlid, which spends its whole life swimming upside down to feed on the underside of rocks.
The other animal the lake is famous for is the Lake Fly, which we were lucky enough to observe most of the mornings we were there. During the rainy season, after the rains taper off around dawn, the fly larva come to the lake's surface and hatch by the millions, spend a few hours mating, then fall back into the lake. The result is enormous columnar clouds of the insects which look like smoke from on the horizon, but were quite difficult to capture with our camera.
On our third day, we were planning on leaving on a weekly ferry to head to two islands, Likoma and Chizumulu, a few hours' journey away. The islands sounded incredible to us: the type of remote, relaxing, slow lifestyle that's the promise of every tropical island, they were probably the destination in Malawi we were most excited about, and we skipped most of the central and southern parts of the country in order to have enough time to visit them. A few hours after packing our bags and checking out of our room in anticipation of the evening's ferry departure, we were told that the ferry was having some mechanical trouble and had not left its previous port as scheduled. Since the last stop is at least 12 hours away, and it was already mid-afternoon, we realized we weren't going to leave that day, although everyone we asked assured us it was a minor problem and the ferry was sure to leave in a few hours. We checked back into the backpackers', and planned on a departure the following morning, which wouldn't have severely affected our plans.
However, the next day we heard much the same story, and we began to get anxious. We still had enough time to be flexible, but we were getting a bit bored with the town's limited options for food and activities, so we spent the day concocting a back-up plan. We found another lodge on the mainland, an eight-hour boat ride north in a very secluded location near a small fishing village on the lake. The lodge's owners said that they knew of a local boat going north that was scheduled to leave the following day at noon. We decided that if the ferry hadn't left by the end of the day (putting it at least two days behind schedule), we would abandon the islands and head to this lodge instead. We didn't feel ready to give up on Malawi yet and still wanted to get to know this friendly country.
Predictably, the ferry to the islands still had not left its previous port when we woke up the next morning, so we once again packed our bags, did some food shopping, and headed into town to await our 12pm departure. The 12pm departure, however, turned into a 2:30pm departure, which turned into a 4pm departure, which was when the boat's captain postponed the trip until "maybe tomorrow". At this point, dejected with our bad luck and with a mounting case of cabin fever, and sick of checking in and out of the same backpackers', we decided three days of waiting for boats was too much, and we had to get out of town, so we hopped into a minivan headed to Mzuzu, the region's transport hub, to make plans for our next destination. We weren't quite sure where to go next because we were already so far north (the direction we're heading so we can be in Tanzania to meet our friends), so we didn't want to backtrack and go back south within Malawi, adding a few days of bus travel in each direction. However, we had only been in Malawi for nine days and felt like we had barely scratched the surface of a country we had been really excited to visit.
Throughout the trip, when we've had experiences like this, when things get frustrating and we're in our lowest spirits, we're still aware of how lucky we are to have this opportunity, and wouldn't trade our experiences this year for anything. In fact, it's often the case that the times that challenge our patience, our comfort, and even our sanity are what make the good times all the more enjoyable. There would be no point if it was easy all the time, right?