Monkey Bay

Thu, 14 Aug 2008 15:58:22 +0000

In the Slow Lane Index Back to Blantyre

I had a beautiful night's sleep last night. Amazing what a difference not having to get up at five o'clock in the morning makes. But despite that, I had a bunch of stuff to do. I even made a list: get some money, post a postcard, buy a bus ticket, do my laundry, and finally actually see Monkey Bay.

The post office and the bank are conveniently located in the same building in Monkey Bay. Stamps aren't a problem. Postcards, unsurprisingly, were. I'd have to make do somehow. As for getting hold of some kwacha: the bank doesn't have an ATM, and doesn't change money. I asked where I could change money, and was told Mangochi - at the other end of the roadworks and the dust. Uh, no thanks, there has to be a better way.

As I was walking back, a guy trotted up and told me he'd "heard" that I wanted to change money, and he could show me to someone in the market who would do this. I've decided that people in Monkey Bay are generally on the level, if a bit annoying and persistent. Nevertheless, advertising to the world that my bag is stuffed full of high-denomination US dollar notes and then following a random helpful stranger into the depths of the market is just a step too far for me. I resolved to ask at Hakuna Matata instead. Unfortunately, the only person at Hakuna Matata is a bloke who doesn't speak English. He always tries to come up with an answer, but it never bears any relation to the question. So I gave up on that.

Along the way I happened to pass the bus stop - not that big a coincidence really, there's really only one street in Monkey Bay.

I spotted some guys loitering around, one of whom was an attendant on the bus yesterday. I asked about the Axa bus, and was told that it leaves at 3:30, and that I should just turn up, no need to buy a ticket in advance. The guy also said that the normal service wouldn't be running, as a result of our breakdown yesterday. I'm glad there's two services, who knows how long it takes them to fix buses out here.

I decided it was time to see if I could find this Lake Malawi that I've heard so much about. I'd somehow forgotten to download satellite maps of the area, so I didn't really know where it was. I just randomly explored. One way wound up in a dead-end of barbed wire, so I went the other way. I caught glimpses of the lake through the trees and buildings, but couldn't see anywhere to just sit down and relax, so kept walking. Eventually I got to a place that is clearly military, and was told that I couldn't go through. (Monkey Bay is actually a military facility, which apparently is why they have such a low crime rate.) However, there was a path that led somewhere or other, so I followed that.

The path is not exactly a superhighway, involving quite a lot of scrambling over gigantic boulders. But I have good boots, and it was good to get some exercise after the enforced sitting of the last few days. I passed other people going in both directions, and it turns out that it is the major pathway to three small fishing villages. There was even a map scrawled on one of the boulders.

You get some very nice views over the lake from that path, and I took lots of photographs.

There's also lots of lizards with iridescent blue tails. And there are monkeys. I only saw one going out, and that only because a couple of blokes were pointing at it and trying to provoke it into doing something interesting. On the way back, however, I saw a tree full of them, and there were more scampering around the military buildings.

I bypassed the first village, which lies on a spur of the track, and pressed on to the second. It sits on a very nice beach and appeared almost deserted.

There were a couple of tiny kids playing in the sand, and they came up to try to communicate with me. In this they failed utterly, I'm afraid. It's quite possible I'm the first person they've met who didn't speak chechiwa. It's hard to comprehend how different growing up on that beach must be from my own childhood.

I sat on the beach for a few minutes, but soon decided to walk back. After all, I still needed money. I took the walk back fairly easy, with plenty of stops to watch the lake and contemplate the infinite. But I was soon back in the town.

I went to the bar to see what I could do about changing money, and the barman said he could get my money changed. I handed over ten dollars, and he asked how much I wanted for it. I'd calculated in my head that this should be about 1500 kwacha, and to my surprise this was handed over straight away. Excellent. That's my cash flow crisis sorted out. I ordered a beer to celebrate. While I was drinking it, a guy tapped me on the shoulder and said there was a problem. The rate was actually 140 to one, not 150 to one. Recalculating, I realised this was true, and apologising profusely I handed him 100 kwacha. The incredible thing is that they were so trusting here to just accept what I said as being the correct rate. I'm a long, long way from Cairo now.

Next on the list was doing the laundry. I just need enough to get me through the next couple of days until I can get a hotel to do it properly. So all I wanted was a sink: which they don't have here. Instead I wound up using a plastic basin and a standing tap they have out in the garden. The lady running the place and a couple of her friends were having lunch, and seemed pretty bemused by the sight of a white tourist squatting in the dust, bent over a plastic basin doing the washing extremely inefficiently. But at least no-one can claim that I was floating in a touristy cloud of luxury during my time in Monkey Bay.

For lunch I wandered off to find a decent restaurant. There are several restaurants, but neither of the first two I tried were doing food, and the third was completely deserted. So the fourth, although a little basic, would have to do. I ordered nshima and fish, but actually got rice and fish. I guess an executive decision had been made in the kitchen that the tourist couldn't possibly really want nshima. It was pretty basic food, and the supplied sauce only gave a slight flavour to things when the rice was smothered in it. But it was filling, and cheap.

I followed up with another beer at the bar. Again I was tapped on the shoulder and told there was a problem with my money exchange. It seemed they didn't like the ten dollar note. I couldn't see what was wrong with it, but didn't mind exchanging it for two fives, which seemed to be accepted no problem. Very strange. I got my beer though, and was talked at by a young bloke next to me at the bar. I don't think I understood a single thing he said to me, and he understood maybe a quarter of what I said to him. Nevertheless he seemed to find the conversation thoroughly entertaining. They're a cheerful lot here.

I'm afraid I sat in my room for a few hours watching videos. I'm reasonably comfortable in Monkey Bay, but when you walk around people do tend to accost you in the street a lot. Usually just to say "hello" to the wacky foreigner, but often with the intent to get money out of you. I'm particularly bothered by the young children who, no matter what errands they happen to be on, still say "give me money" as they pass. Just "give me money", without preamble or explanation. I'm all in favour of injecting money into the local economy, but can't we at least keep up the pretence of productive commerce here?

I wandered off to find something to pass for dinner. Biscuits from the supermarket would do. As I was walking along I was passed by the Axa bus from Blantyre. I noted the time: 4:30. I don't know what time they left, but that's the same time I arrived yesterday, so I doubt that the Axa bus is any faster. But it's nice to see that it really exists. I confirmed with the driver that it leaves at 4:00 tomorrow, and that I couldn't buy a ticket in advance. So that all seems in order.

Obviously it has to be an early night tonight. We've had a power cut, just as I was planning to have my shower too. So I had my cold shower by the light of the torch built into my mobile phone. I've read that Nokia specifically designed this phone for third world conditions, and they seem to have nailed it. If they could only build a hot water heater into the thing as well...

In the Slow Lane Index Back to Blantyre