Schifanoia : Escape to the land of not being bored

In mid-February I had an opportunity to escape for a little while a life that has become too mundane and routine of late. Thank you to Florence, Siena, Pisa and Como. To K. Krohn, E. Galdini and ‘Westie’. To Ali Smith and her incredible novel ‘How to Be Both’, which I quote below, and to Francesco/a del Cossa whom I have not met.

“Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.”


Libreria Piccolomini // Siena duomo


Inside Siena duomo



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Mary Magdalene, the most real and human I have ever seen (Luca Signorelli // Uffizi gallery)



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Tuscan rooftops in the rain // Siena

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Lean in.

“Cause roads that look set to take you in one direction will sometimes twist back on themselves without ever seeming anything other than straight…”

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Infinite shades of blue // Lake Como


An Indelicate Balance

Gran Canaria. Officially a part of Spain but so close to north Africa that it feels strange to hear Spanish spoken. Like so many beautiful places, the island relies heavily on tourism, often at the expense of the environment and traditional ways of life.

And yes, people do live here. Actual Canarian people, many of whom want complete independence from Spain. In Las Palmas, they live in little sea-facing apartments with tiny balconies overlooking the Playa de Las Canteras, or in swanky white villas draped with pink bougainvillea. On the outskirts of the city, they live in brightly colored, slightly ramshackle houses on the cliffs – houses which the Atlantic ocean beats relentlessly on one side, while laundry flaps in the wind on lines stretched across roof terraces.

Just outside the harbor at Las Palmas, foreign oil tankers and trawlers sit and wait for repairs and maintenance before heading out again to the west coast of Africa. One of these ships, a Russian trawler, caught fire one night and was promptly towed away from the harbor to burn and spill its oil far from the cruise ships that happened to be there that night. The fuel that leaked from the ship affected coastline and wildlife.

In the south of the island, the tourist emporiums cling to the volcanic earth like barnacles. Or like some kind of skin disease. Cancer, shingles scabs, eczema. The hotel complex we briefly visit is all whitewashed concrete and glass. Empty shops advertise Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Ray-Ban. Muzak tinkles. I am terrified. I feel like I’ve been sucked into J.G. Ballard’s Cocaine Nights. In Maspalomas we pass a hotel called Palm Beach on our way to the dunes. Behind its fence, tourists lie sprawled on sun loungers. I wonder if it makes any difference to them where they are. And then I feel bad for looking down my nose at people who have just earned their right to relax in the sun.

We run for the hills, literally. First to La Aldea de San Nicolas de Tolentino, where we stay in a hostel run by an environmental conservation activist. She tells us about how the hordes of tourists who flood the island have little respect for the environment, littering and trampling the dunes at Maspalomas, a protected natural heritage site, and how the local government isn’t very proactive in educating people.

At La Playa, we climb to the top of a cliff and watch a man scamper over the slippery rocks beneath us with a bucket, looking for shellfish or crabs. The wind blows ferociously but the plants and shrubs growing out of the rocky ground barely flinch.

We drive up a steep and winding road, past hidden lakes and rivers, to Tamadaba Natural Park. Here the climate changes completely. We are in the clouds and white mist swirls eerily between the pine trees. It’s amazing how evocative smells can be: I roll down the window and smell Norway, where I haven’t been in over 15 years.

In the tiny town of Artenara, we sit in the town square and Rosario serves us fried cheese and chorizo. She chats to us about the various hiking trails in the area and encourages us to flip through a guidebook she keeps behind the bar. We finish our food in the company of several old men and a cat. The air is crisp but the sun is shining and for a few precious minutes it is utter bliss – until several busloads of French tourists arrive.






















Ramen for the Soul

ramenMy curiosity about Japan and Japanese culture has gradually grown into a mild obsession. I think it really started when I read Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. It’s a dark, depressing little book — and beautiful, because there is beauty in melancholy. I felt the same about Norwegian Wood, which I read a few months later. After that, I knew I was hooked on… something, I’m not quite sure what. Maybe the mono no aware – that gentle sadness – that permeated the characters’ lives in both books.

I feel like every aspect of Japanese culture that I have come across has had this perfect balance of sadness and and beauty, and this balance fills me with a sense of joyful calm. In modern Western culture we are so accustomed to excess, sweetness and complexity that we have forgotten how deeply satisfying simplicity can be. We recently discovered Tamago, a small Japanese restaurant in Canterbury, and the meal we had there reinforced my love of the Japanese simplicity and balance. I had a bowl of spicy ramen with kimchi, bamboo, seaweed and perfect, perfect fresh pork. The ramen was so beautiful that I didn’t want to eat it and destroy the presentation. Let me add that this was my first ever proper ramen, and I never imagined that simple noodle soup could be so aesthetically pleasing and exciting to eat. To drink, we ordered iced green tea, which we thought was going to be sweet (Western expectations!) but wasn’t. It was surprisingly delicious and delicate. For dessert, we had goma (black sesame) ice cream, which, again, wasn’t as sweet as the ice cream we were used to. Instead, it had this subtle nutty flavor that went really well with the tea and was the perfect way to end a meal without overdoing it. We left feeling satisfied in both body and spirit.

Lessons From Malawi

I like to think:

That I am less ignorant now than I was two years ago.

That I know what it’s like to live with less–to live without these things we think we need–and that happiness in its essence comes from material lightness and a richness of spirit. I know, also, that to be able to recognize this is a sign of my privilege.

That I understand that I can apologize all I want for the privilege that comes with my skin color, but it won’t change the inequality that exists in the world.

That in order to really learn, we must sit back and observe without judgement.

That I am wiser because I’ve made an effort to be.

That I have so much more to learn.

I want to know:

Why the word ‘azungu’ made me so angry.

If the negative perception of white people will ever change in Africa (and will white people do something to change this?).

If I am allowed to talk about race.

If I will ever wake up to the same kind of bird cacophony again anywhere else.


A Lilongwe Symphony

I wake to the urgent allegro of a house alarm piercing the pre-dawn darkness. My pounding heart is a kettledrum solo that jolts me into alertness. I am programmed to remember that 3:30 AM is when most break-ins happen; a time when everyone is sure to be deeply asleep. Even the night watchmen in their booths, bundled up in their too-big, second hand winter jackets, their fires dwindling to silent embers, are not likely to be awake.

Somewhere nearby, six desperate men have scaled a barbed-wire wall and destroyed a door with a sledgehammer. Six men desperate enough to beat a groggy man till he bleeds, then tie him up; desperate enough to push his wife against the wall with such force that she hits her head; desperate enough to terrify two small children in their bedrooms, not knowing if they should run to their mother’s side or hide. All this for a couple of laptops, a phone and a wallet.

Behind a wall of barbed wire, behind a splintered door, a mother of two sits trembling and asks Allah why. ‘What have I done to these men?’ Allah is silent, but if she had asked one of the men, he would have said: Done? It is not about what you have or have not done. You yourself are irrelevant. My children need to eat and yours won’t starve for want of a laptop.

The alarm stops its accelerated portamento shriek and I let my head sink back into my pillow. The recorded muezzin starts his call from an empty minaret, letting me know that I have one hour left to sleep. The droning adagio slithers down from the mosque on the hill and dozens of street dogs join in in response. Their anxious howls sometimes match the pitch of the prayer call, and sometimes diverge from it. Somewhere in the distance another mosque pipes up with a different chant. Two voices interlaced with a dog chorus mark the beginning of a new day in Lilongwe.

The sun makes a quiet entrance, sending out its messengers first to push back the black sky with gradients of indigo, azure, pink and yellow. With daylight comes the sound of car horns — used so liberally here — impatiently commanding the traffic to keep moving. The lights are merely decorative. They change from red to green to red; signifiers abandoned by their signified.

Later in the day, the cars will return to their iron gates, each one beeping out a unique monotone Morse code, demanding to be let in. They keep up their klaxon allegro until an overall-clad houseboy-guard-gardener, on the tenth hour of his twelve hour shift, begrudgingly unbolts the gate with a series of clangs. They drive in: proud, invincible, shiny, white Land Cruisers. Behind tinted windows a foot presses the accelerator. A majestic roar of the engine, a cloud of exhaust, a widening gap.


Area 2, Lilongwe, Malawi

The Great Divide

This is the best thing about expat life I have ever read. I love this post because it expresses so well the contradictory experience of living in a place, and trying to be a part of the place, but instead just finding yourself involuntarily sucked into or pushed into a bubble of familiarity.

The Squeaky Robot

For our purposes let’s steal a casual definition of dissociation from Wikipedia: “a mild detachment from immediate surroundings.”

The expat community in Hanoi is so large there is nothing I can confidently say about it, other than it is small. Meaning five thousand expats have only a few well-known places to congregate on Friday nights when the state curfew takes hold and the xe oms and cabbies belong to a different state, the one known as red-faced inebriation. It is no surprise, then, that in the confines of Hanoi proper, white people collide with each other on dance floors, in restroom lines, waiting for drinks at bars. Even on the road, I kid you not, I was once driving north on Au Co and an acquaintance caught up on his bike, gave me a nod, and zoomed off.

In the beginning they ask me about my marital status, and I…

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Upon Mount Mulanje

Mulanje-5As we approach, Mount Mulanje looms before us like the Wall in Game of Thrones, simultaneously comforting and intimidating. It rises high above the smaller hills and mountains dotted around the area, and disappears enigmatically into white clouds. I am excited about the prospect of climbing into those clouds, but relieved that we will not be climbing the massif’s highest peak and the highest point in central Africa, Sapitwa, which in Chichewa means ‘don’t go there’. This is my first significant mountain climb and I am suddenly daunted by the size of Mulanje.

We will spend three days exploring the east side of the plateau that rests beneath the massif’s twenty peaks. On this plateau, leopards are rumoured to still live, though one has not been spotted in years. I wonder whether what William Atkinson saw when he climbed the mountain in 2011 to retrace the steps of Laurens van der Post was a leopard or an equally elusive serval cat, also said to inhabit the plateau. During van der Post’s 1949 Mulanje expedition, forester Fred France, who lived on the plateau with his wife and daughter, died tragically when he fell from a precipice. His cabin still stands and can be rented by visitors. Another fascinating story is that of the Batwa people (known locally as Akafula), pigmy-like hunter-gatherers who were the first inhabitants of Malawi and created some of the rock paintings at the Chongoni rock art site in Dedza. The Akafula were gradually exterminated by the Chewa people, but reportedly still lived in small numbers on the Mulanje plateau into the nineteenth century.

It is early May and bushes of huge yellow daisies spring out at us from the side of the road. The cassia trees are also in full bloom, their branches laden with upward-facing bunches of yellow flowers, like children holding ice cream cones. While northern hemisphere seasons are marked by the sharp changes in temperature and the cycle of life, death and rebirth, in Malawi, nature lets everything have its turn in a never-ending cycle of bloom. It seems that every season here is decorated with the colors of its flowering trees: purple jacaranda in September, red flamboyant in November, pink bougainvillea in January, and the explosion of yellow in April and May.

As usual, I am filled with mixed feelings as I sit in the car and watch the landscape slide past. Two years in this beautiful country and it hasn’t grown on me. I have not been able to get used to the array of colors, the heat, the sun I yearned for so much in Europe which I now find oppressive. Two years I have spent pining after what I call ‘real seasons’: the tangible transition from summer into autumn; winter relinquishing its chilly hold and yielding gently to spring’s warm nuzzle. I harbour a vague sense of unease and frustration, a feeling of distance, like there is an impermeable boundary between my soul and Malawi and I’m not quite sure why it’s there. Yet, another part of me is in awe of the unfamiliar beauty of this country. The way it works in a way that is completely different from what I am used to—which can be infuriating but ultimately commands respect. There is a reassuring serenity in rural Malawi, a feeling that everything functions because it has to, and although it is unfair and ignorant to say that there is happiness in the comparative simplicity of life, I wonder if we would be a little happier in the industrialized world if we weren’t burdened with materialism.

Our plan is to take the Skyline path up to Chambe Hut, spend the night there, then continue across the plateau to Lichenya Hut. We will begin our hike at Likhubula Forestry Station at the base of the mountain. Upon our arrival at Likhubula, we are accosted by porters looking for employment and vendors selling wooden walking sticks. ‘Do not buy them,’ my friend warns. ‘They’re made out of the endangered cedar wood and it’s illegal to sell them.’ At 1000 Kwacha apiece (£1.50), it’s hard to resist, especially when one considers how far 1000 Kwacha can go for a rural Malawian family. I can see why the walking sticks are an attractive souvenir. The clean, light brown wood is carved with beautiful designs and has a distinct, sweet, woody smell. The Mulanje Cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) can only be found on the Mulanje Massif but has been seriously depleted due to timber felling. The vendors are aggressive and argue that the wood was given to them by the government, but we are too indoctrinated with Western environmentalism to allow ourselves to support this controversial trade.

We spend the first night at the CCAP (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian)-owned Likhubula House, where we bathe in the nearby rock pools, into which ice-cold water rushes over igneous boulders from high up on the mountain (‘If you think this is cold, wait till you get up there,’ our guide says, pointing up).

The next morning, we set off up the mountain at 7:30am and enter a forest of slender pine trees, which lifts my spirits. For some strange reason I have been dwelling on the fact that I have not been able to connect with Malawi’s trees. The Brachystegia woodlands of Malawi just don’t resonate with me the way coniferous forests do. I know this is silly, but being in such a drastically different environment has made me realize how deep my connection to the land of my childhood is. Among the pines are smooth eucalyptus trees, called ‘wax trees’ by the locals. We climb up a steep path of packed red dirt, with grass on either side of it so high and dense that you can only see the person in front of you for a few seconds before they are swallowed up. The path is scattered with pine cones, lichen-covered sticks and pieces of bark. Occasionally, a small cluster of yellow daisies greets us shyly—they are nowhere near as large and populous here as they were on the side of the road, probably due to the limited sunlight.

As we climb higher, the air becomes cool and crisp. The boulders are pleasantly cold to the touch, and covered with furry green moss. The ascent becomes steeper and rockier, at some points the rocks form steps which we have to scramble up. We hear the gurgling of water and drink from a tiny waterfall trickling down the rocks, half hidden by vegetation. The water is cold and refreshing, with no unpleasant taste, unlike the heavily chlorinated water in Lilongwe.

After a four-hour climb we reach the plateau, which lies approximately 1,830 m above sea level. Up here, purple, green and yellow make up the color palette. We wade through feathery purple grasses gently swaying in the wind. Among these grow clusters of yellow ‘everlasting sunflowers’ (Helichrysum asteraceae), which I have seen in abundance in Poland. Another pleasant surprise.

Near Chambe Hut, directly across from the renovated and quite charming France’s Cottage, is an abandoned village. Rows of white huts stand amid rusting machinery, their windows and doors agape. Our guide informs us that the village was built for Chinese (or Japanese, he isn’t sure) workers who were going to start mining for minerals in the area but the project was abandoned. We return to poke around the village before dusk and the atmosphere is eerier than it was in the early afternoon. The sun is going down and a cold wind rustles some dry maize stalks growing in a small patch next to one of the huts. Suddenly, we hear a loud clanging, as if someone is banging on one of the corrugated metal roofs. We look around but the place is deserted save for a few abnormally large crows tearing aggressively at some maize husks on the ground. More crows swoop in and land on a roof, their talons making the loud clanging noise we’ve been hearing. These crows have a menacing, territorial presence and they are not intimidated by us being there. We peer into some of the huts and see the remains of three-stone fires and rudimentary straw bedding. Someone had clearly been using them for shelter. Behind the village, a mysterious plastic greenhouse flaps in the wind. It is intact and the door is held shut by a small stone. We feel like Mulder and Scully as we push it aside and slowly open the door. Expecting to find what? Marijuana? A secret laboratory? Nothing as exciting, it turns out. We find rows of cedar seedlings, their little plastic pots huddled together. This is most likely part of the cedar reforestation effort by the Forestry Department. It’s good to see a conservation effort first-hand.

That night, we sleep outside on the deck of Chambe Hut. The temperature drops significantly, to only a few degrees above 0˚C. This is the first time I see so many stars in the night sky in Malawi, and although most of the constellations are unfamiliar, I can identify Orion’s Belt and that’s enough for me. As I lie in the darkness, I think about the nocturnal leopards and serval cats. Maybe if I stay awake and really quiet, one might wander close to the hut. Wishful thinking. Elusive leopards, like the elusive snow leopard in Peter Matthiessen’s book. I suddenly remember that he died not long ago and this makes me sad. I stopped reading The Snow Leopard halfway through and never returned to it. I wish I had it with me now. It would be the perfect companion for this trip.

On the hike to Lichenya Hut the next morning, there is plenty of time to reflect on the emotional journey that living in Malawi has been. Our stay is coming to an end, and for the first time I am starting to feel sad about leaving. I have spent all this time trying to adjust to new rhythms, a new climate and the stark inequality of Malawian society and the world, that maybe I haven’t taken the time to truly appreciate the privilege of being able to live here. That’s one way of seeing it, I guess, if I want to make myself feel guilty. But then, I am an imperfect human and this has been an intense journey of self-discovery. I have not always reacted with patience and poise to the challenges Malawi has thrown at me. I have spent a significant amount of time letting myself be unhappy. I have cried, a lot. Although these two years haven’t been perfect, I got most of the answers I was looking for when I set out on this journey. I am excited that in six months’ time I will be sitting in a heated flat wearing a thick sweater and staring through a rain-streaked window at a monochromatic world, because it will be familiar. But I will probably cry because I will miss the flamboyant, the jacaranda, the bougainvillea and the yellow, yellow cassia. New journeys, old journeys, new journeys… A season’s end is never truly an ending but a slow turn of the eternal cycle. What I see now that I didn’t see before is that the same cycle exists everywhere, it just reveals itself differently. I found flowers from my childhood on a Rift Valley mountain. Perhaps I will find a new color in an old place.

I already know that I will return here, with wiser eyes. Next time, also, I will climb Sapitwa.


Mama Afrika, Forgive Me

An excerpt from a story I wrote for an anthology published by Casa Africa, a Spanish online resource for Spanish-African diplomatic and cultural relations. The idea came to me as I was sitting on the beach in Senga Bay one day, watching a newly-arrived American volunteer being chatted up by a Malawian boy. How did I know she was new here? After a while you just know these things. I remembered when I first arrived in Malawi, brimming over with enthusiasm for a new culture and new experiences, eager to learn, mingle, and make new friends. At first I was amazed by how friendly the Malawians were: people would stop me on the street just to say hello and ask me how I am; one guy, about my age, would even walk to work with me, talking to me in a way that at first seemed very genuine. But with time came the realization that most of these people’s intentions were not altruistic at all.  The cultural exchange I had been hoping for does not exist here, at least not in the way I had expected. We come to Africa, assuming that we have something to teach, something to give, and that people will eagerly take a piece of our culture in exchange for a piece of theirs. A piece of culture may be valuable to us but it is worthless currency here. People in Malawi live day to day and do what they have to do to feed their families and survive.

It’s a truth that is difficult to see by many Westerners but it’s a truth I urge everyone to accept: Africa never belonged to us.

Mama Afrika, Forgive Me

© 2013

From the shade of the flame tree I watch them arrive at the spot Innocent and I agreed on. I am shocked. The mzungu he has brought is hardly a mzungu at all! Her skin is darker than the others’, like tea with milk, and her hair is short and frizzy. She has Mama Afrika’s blood. I curse Innocent. What was he thinking? We cannot steal from a sister. I almost turn to leave but curiosity stops me.

They sit down on the sand, with Lake Malawi and the blue mountains of Mozambique in front of them. The girl removes her chitenje wrap to reveal a skimpy bikini.

‘I can’t believe I’m finally in Africa!’ she says, loud enough for me to hear. She takes a camera with a big lens out of her bag. ‘Do you mind? It’s for my blog.’ She points it at Innocent, who stretches his lips into a gap-toothed grin.

[click here to read the rest: p. 51-52]

Hello Blantyre



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Taking advantage of a long weekend, we spent a few days down in Blantyre. Javi had some interviews with people he’s writing articles about, and I tagged along just to get out of the house. Compared to Lilongwe, Blantyre is great. It’s a bigger, busier city and has life pulsing though its veins. Lilongwe seems to be in a permanent state of hibernation. Here are some fun things we managed to do, although I’m sure there are a lot more.

Things to do:

Visit La Caverna in Mandala House for lunch, coffee and a browse through the arts and crafts shop. The food in the cafe is to die for, the coffee is real Italian espresso, and there’s even gelato.

Eat dinner at Casa Mia, an Italian restaurant on Kabula Hill. Just don’t go before 9PM, which we did, and found ourselves to be the only customers, with the waitresses breathing down our necks.

A burger and a dance at Blue Elephant. There’s a great vibe in this lively bar / restaurant and the classic ‘Ely Burger’ is surprisingly good. Again though, don’t go before at least 8:30PM or you’ll be the only customer(s).

Spend a day lounging by the pool in La Hostellerie de France. This place is run by an eccentric and hospitable Frenchman. It’s a little piece of provincial France in Malawi- a very strange sensation but pleasant. Be sure to order the Basque Chicken or Chicken in Red Wine Sauce for lunch / dinner. We were blown away. After some disappointing meals at Chez Maky, we couldn’t believe our luck when we found La Hostellerie.

Go for some live music at Mibawa Cafe, opposite the Protea Hotel. This is a really nice local club with an outdoor seating area serving grilled meat.

Drink garlic and ginger tea at Alem Ethiopian restaurant. Sit outside on the terrace and people-watch.

Two Weeks on Likoma Island

This Christmas break we spent two weeks on Likoma Island–enough time for it to work its strange magic on us. There is something peaceful yet claustrophobic about the isolation and remoteness of the island. It didn’t take us long to adapt to the relaxed atmosphere of Mango Drift backpackers lodge: we swam, kayaked, snorkelled, read lots of books, ate dinner on the beach and learned how to dive. Likoma is a beautiful, wild tropical island paradise. In our tent at night, we fell asleep to the sound of lapping water, the eerie calls of night birds and the scuttling of strange insects.

Likoma has its own micro climate that it shares with Mozambique, as it is actually closer to Mozambique than to Malawi mainland. We would often hear thunder and see lightning, but it very rarely rained. There’s also a strange phenomenon that takes place on Lake Malawi during the rainy season, and we got to see it up close for the first time in Likoma. This phenomenon looks like plumes of smoke hovering over the surface of the lake, but those plumes are actually columns of tiny lake flies swirling in vast black clouds many miles from the shore. It’s not known why the flies do this, but it is an important function for the lake’s ecosystem. The flies eventually die and their bodies fall to the water, where they are eaten by fish.


We were observing one such cloud from the beach one day, when the wind picked up and the cloud started moving closer and closer. Suddenly it was upon us and we just barely managed to zip the tent closed before we were surrounded by millions of frantic midges. But just as quickly as they had moved from the lake to the shore, they disappeared over the mountain behind us.


Getting there:

We’d been dreaming of taking the Ilala ferry from Monkey Bay to Likoma Island since we got to Malawi in 2012, but the Ilala was broken and undergoing repairs and we didn’t know when it would be finished. Then, finally, in summer 2013 we heard that it was up and running again. We started planning our trip for the Christmas holiday. THEN, two weeks before we were due to leave, the damn thing broke down again. One of its brand new engines stopped running as it was leaving Nkhata Bay and it had to be towed back to the port. HUGE disappointment. The trip on the Ilala is supposed to be amazing. Luckily there were other boats going to Likoma from Nkhata Bay. We had originally planned to go on the Malungu but the captain had told us the boat will leave around 8:00 so we should get there for 6:30. We decided to be safe so we got there at 6:00 and the boat was already full and leaving. That’s when we found out about the Mwande, a much more comfortable boat- a bizarre, metal double-decker with two engines. The whole trip took about 10 hours but that includes 3 hours of sitting on the boat waiting for it to actually leave.

Travel tips:

For the benefit of other travelers wanting to visit Likoma, I want to provide some information about getting there. With the Ilala broken down again, it’s difficult to find information about the other boats. Here’s what you need to know:

The best way to reach Likoma from the mainland is from Nkhata Bay. Go to the port (bay opposite Aqua Africa dive shop) and ask for boats. At the time of writing there were three boats leaving at least once a week. The boats:

Malungu- If you’re on a budget and want an authentic Malawian experience, take this boat. It’s supposed to leave Nkhata Mondays and Fridays (leaves Likoma for Nkhata Wednesdays and Satrdays) but it’s best to double check with the boat operator (Phone: 0999700295). The Malungu is an old wooden double-decker boat and if you get there early you might get a seat. If not, you will find yourself crammed on the floor or on a stack of drink crates. Fare is 2500 Kwacha.

Mwande- A nicer and slightly more expensive alternative to the Malungu. This boat also has two decks but is newer and made of crudely welded metal. You will recognize it by its boxy shape. It has green canvas flaps that go down on all sides to shield passengers from the rain, which is a good thing, but they do play really loud and annoying music throughout the ENTIRE journey so bring earplugs or an iPod. On our trip they played Lucky Dube’s ‘Remember Me’ 11 times (I counted). It’s a good song but hear it 11 times and it becomes torture. The Mwande is more comfortable than the Malungu but is lacking in soul and character. It is also very unreliable. We took it to Likoma and planned to take it on the way back too. The day before we were set to leave, the lodge manager called the boat captain, who assured him that the boat would leave Likoma at 9:00. When we got to the bay the next morning, the Mwande was nowhere to be seen, so we hopped on the Malungu (which was actually a much more interesting and culturally enriching experience). When we arrived in Nkhata Bay that evening, guess who was hanging out all casual in the port? Yup, the Mwande.
Fares: Bottom deck- 2500 to Chizumulu, 3000 to Likoma; Top deck- 3500 to Chizumulu, 4000 to Likoma. Do NOT let them charge you any more if you are a mzungu. We met some South African girls in Likoma who had paid 17,000 EACH because the woman collecting the fare money decided she was going to charge mzungus more that day!

Chambo- I haven’t actually seen the Chambo, but we heard about it from Chris, the owner of Ulisa Bay Lodge in Likoma. He described it as even better and faster than the Mwande, with more comfortable seats and a proper toilet. If you’re after comfort and money is not an issue, ask around Nkhata Bay for more information.

For your listening pleasure, here’s Lucky Dube. This song will forever remind me of our trip on the Mwande.

First stop: Nkhata Bay


Before departing for Likoma, we spent two nights in Nkhata Bay’s Mayoka Village, where we had stayed for about a week exactly one year ago before traveling to Zulunkhuni River Lodge. It was nice to come back to Mayoka because it’s a really cool backpackers’ lodge (and the food is awesome). We decided to try the ‘Mayoka Challenge’, which we were too embarrassed to do last time we were there. In order to complete the challenge, two people must get into a traditional Malawian dugout canoe, put their legs inside the canoe and without falling off paddle to and around a raft some 30 meters from the beach, and paddle back. If you succeed, you get a night’s free accommodation. Well, we tried, and failed for about an hour, with the Malawian bar staff laughing at us. It’s an impossible feat for westerners yet the Malawians do it with such ease and grace.

Attempting the Mayoka Challenge on my own (and doing it wrong)

Attempting the Mayoka Challenge on my own (and doing it wrong)


Beach Life
When we finally arrived in Likoma at around 16:00, we were picked up by the Mango Drift manager and driven to the lodge. First impression: Stunning. There were no gates or walls or anything. We simply strolled along the beach from the vehicle, walked past a barely noticeable wooden sign, and suddenly the chalets of Mango Drift appeared. The lodge is set on a beautiful, tranquil stretch of pristine sandy beach. We pitched our tent and breathed a deep sigh of relief. As far as we were concerned, this was the most beautiful place on Earth.


Diving in Lake Malawi
I finally mustered up the courage to do the PADI Open Water Course and Likoma was the perfect place to do it. The lake is pretty calm here, there isn’t a lot of swell, no strong currents and the visibility is good. Ever since I came to Malawi I have been curious about what is down there, underneath that glittering blue water. The lake is just teeming with colorful cichlids; it’s like diving in an aquarium. There are no coral reefs obviously, but there are some very cool rock formations. Courtesy of Ben, the diving instructor at Mango Drift / Kaya Mawa, I have this little video of my first real dive. This was filmed at the Honeymoon Island dive site, which is part of the luxury Kaya Mawa resort.

Music: “Accralate” Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Video highlights:

3:08 – Blue male cichlid

3:40 – Ancient underwater rock carving. Not much is known about this. It’s probably so old that it wasn’t actually under water when it was created. Over the years the lake expanded and covered the carving. According to my dive instructor, similar carvings have been found in Ethiopia but little is known about their meaning. I would love to find out more but couldn’t find anything on the Internet.

4:12 – Mouthbrooder cichlid mama fish collecting her babies in her mouth. Don’t worry, she’s not eating them; she’s taking them into her mouth to protect them from the weird goggle-eyed, bubble-emitting monsters that have appeared out of nowhere.

4:58- Blue crab!

The way back on the Malungu

We grumbled a bit when we found out we had to take the Malungu back to Nkhata Bay, but in retrospect I’m glad we did. It was a hilarious experience, with all the mzungu passengers complaining that the boat is over capacity and the Malawians laughing and saying everything will be ok. At one point we even had two live, squealing pigs on the bottom deck, but they were offloaded in Chizumulu.



Malungu passengers disembarking into rowboat shuttle. Photo: J.Dominguez

Life with Guineas: a love-hate thing

A month ago, Marie and Antoinette came to live in our garden. We built them a coop out of old pallet planks, and an outside enclosure out of bamboo. We’re… still getting used to each other.





I didn’t even know what guinea fowl were before I came to Malawi. The first time I saw them was when we were driving through the countryside to the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve on the Mozambique border. They were running around on the side of the road outside a village. I thought they were the coolest looking birds I’d ever seen. We originally planned to raise turkeys, but I was so curious about guineas that we got them instead. They are so awesome but SO UNBELIEVABLY NOISY. They squawk and shriek and bark and bray so loud that sometimes we just want to wring their necks and shove them in the oven already.




These birds are a source of constant entertainment. Last week, as I was trying to get them into the coop for the night, Antoinette decided to go for an evening stroll. She pushed past me and scurried into the garden. I chased her for ten minutes but she was too fast for me so I went into the house hoping she would get bored and wander back to the coop. But no. She flew over the wall, over the neighbor’s property, and onto the street, where we could hear her squawking. Javi and Jackson, our night watchman, managed to shepherd her closer to our house, but then she flew up into a tree and refused to come down. It took almost an hour of swinging a makeshift net on a long bamboo pole to catch her and put her back in the coop.