Excerpt from Mefloquine Dreams - copyright 2004 by Chris Farrell

Monkey Bay to Likoma Island on Lake Malawi

Malawi, Africa


Hanging out in Malawi's capital city, Lilongwe, one night, I conked out while Paige sat outside swatting mosquitoes and giant fire ants getting to know a couple of Canadians who were also staying at our hotel. Larry & Audrey had just moved to Malawi to build and start a private girls school out in the bush somewhere in Northern Malawi for a year through a privately funded Christian organization in Canada. It appeared that they were thinking of heading to Monkey Bay on the southern shores of Lake Malawi like us, so Paige convinced them that the four of us could share the cost of a private taxi and avoid the chicken bus. After a brief rundown of our chicken bus experiences, they realized they wouldn’t stand a chance. But they liked the taxi idea because they had already foolishly attempted to purchase minibus tickets from two random Malawi guys hanging out on a corner who gave them fake Anglo names: Paul and Chris. Larry and Audrey stupidly gave them cash on the spot for a ride the next day, and of course no one ever showed up. Can you say, “gouge whitey?”

The next day, Paige and Larry went to town to find a taxi and negotiate like never before, soon cornering a bunch of drivers at an upscale hotel and finally getting one guy to come down to K3,000 (about $75), which was a really economical price for the long ride in non-chicken bus transportation. Especially since the driver would have to drive back from Monkey Bay to Lilongwe without a fare. Although prepped to be a three-hour ride or so, as with most things in Africa (except minute rice and sex), it took a hell of a lot longer. Seven hours to be exact.

Paige, Larry and the jovial driver pulled into our hotel lot in a compact taxi. We stuffed our packs in the trunk, having to jam a couple inside the cab with the five of us, and somehow fit three people in back and two in front. That cab was inches from the ground with all that weight, but the driver was obviously thinking about the fact that he’d just made his Kwacha quota for the next 6 months with this one fare. He asked us if we wouldn’t mind if he stopped off at his home to let his wife know that he’d be gone overnight - no problem.

After he got out of the Lilongwe city limits, he turned off on a heavily populated dirt road, turned off on a few more dirt roads, and finally stopped the car in the middle of a random shanty-neighborhood. On a dirt road. Within seconds he’d hopped out of the car and dashed away, disappearing among the handmade bamboo fences saying, “I’ll be right back!” Four confused white people sat in this tiny beaten taxi in the middle of this poor African dirt road neighborhood...we quickly drew a LOT of attention.

People were peering at us from every dusty corner, behind every skeleton tree, from every open window. It took a 5-year-old girl to muster up enough curiosity, gumption and innocence to slowly and shyly make her way over to our car and plant herself at my window for an up-close view of this unusual sight. We made her laugh and she ran away, meeting up with her friends hiding out on a porch and relaying the story to them. We sat there like that, smashed together in that tiny car for a good 25 minutes until the driver suddenly appeared out from the fences, crawled in, and we were off again.

This time, in comparison to the Zambia ride, the scenery was much kinder: rolling lush hills, beautiful multi-colored trees and bushes, and gorgeous small grass hut villages peppering the hills and valleys. We hugged the Mozambique border for a while with a spectacular view for miles as the thick overcast sky heavily contrasted with the blindingly bright sunlight along the roadway. We were in awe... the stark midnight blue of the sky next to a vivid burnt orange landscape.

At one point, we had to pull over to check a recurring squeaking sound that was driving us all crazy. We got out to stretch our cramped and aching legs while the driver got underneath the car, and within seconds about 50 people (mostly kids) suddenly appeared on the rise from seemingly out of nowhere to watch the four white foreigners hanging out in their neck of the world. We’d wave and they’d wave back with squeals of laughter, and when we took a picture of them they began screaming with joy, like fans at a football game cheering for a touchdown.

The car was OK, or at least, the driver didn’t think the squeak was going to hinder our progress, so we got going again as dusk began to settle in. The road turned from “halfway decent” into a “pockmarked hell,” alternating from a paved wasteland, to dusty gravelly deathtraps, and the tiny taxi labored hard throughout it all. A good 20-30 km stretch was completely unpaved and lined with similar looking potholes to Zambia; the taxi had to slow down to nothing and ease his way around them (or through them if there was no other option) due to the weight inside our car. We were thoroughly dizzy and our asses throbbed in pain.

It was pitch black when we arrived in Monkey Bay around 8:30pm, and we were all dying to get the hell out of that car. We again had no idea where to stay, so I took it upon myself to run from one lodge to the next with a growing group of locals trying to “help” me while the rest of the crew stayed in the taxi, but unfortunately every place was totally full. Shit, this was starting to look like a repeat of the other night. I was determined to find a solution.

Back at the taxi with the rest of the group (who were getting very nervous due to the large group of locals who were actively trying to make new friends), we watched as a few of the locals tried to weasel their way into our taxi (“to help you out!”) while a few others were pulling at us to lead us down the road. It was chaotic. I had had enough, and yelled at our group, “OK, all the people who came in this taxi, and ONLY the people who came in this taxi, GET IN NOW!” We gave the driver an extra K100 to help us drive around and see if we could find a room – any room, although Monkey Bay is a pretty small place. At that point we were solely concerned with our safety.

As luck would have it, down the dirt road a short ways away, we saw a sign for a government rest house and pulled in. I ran up to this cesspool of a place, and the manager annoyingly showed me the last room that he had available for the night: a tiny concrete cell with 2 small cots, bloodstains and holes in the walls, no fan, no mosquito net, no blankets, vermin visibly jumping on the paper-thin mattresses...it was the greatest sight I ever could have imagined at that moment. Knowing that we had absolutely no other option besides sleeping outside in the dirt, I excitedly told him, “We’ll take it!” before I remembered to ask how much it was.

Figuring I had just dug myself a grave and preparing to whip out a wad of Kwacha for this guy, he proceeded to look at me slyly, took a long breath and finally said, “20 Kwacha.” I just about peed my pants as I realized that four people would share this pocket-draining amount of about 48 cents. You just gotta love Africa. Granted, they should have been paying us some serious cash to stay in this prison cell, but we were just ecstatic to have a roof over our heads and a lock on the door.

I generously treated the group to the room and we all dumped our packs inside, crashing out on the disgusting mattresses. Larry and Audrey barely even knew each other, let alone knew us, so it was going to be interesting for them to sleep together on the tiny cot. Perhaps the beginning of a very interesting year for them... I had noticed that the rest house had a small noisy bar attached to one end, and told everyone to stay put while I went and grabbed us some celebratory beer.

I walked into a Unabomber-sized bar where a barmaid was serving beers and two locals were getting thrashed to some loud music. I was in a good mood, since we now had a room, and enthusiastically said, “Sixteen please.” She gave me a confused look. The locals watched in amusement. “Greens - sixteen of them please.” (Malawi has two beers: "Greens" - a Carlsburg lager with a green label, and "Browns" - a Carlsberg "dark" with a brown label) She shook her head – no English. OK, I pointed to the refrigerator and said, “Greens!” She smiled and took out a beer. I motioned for her to keep them coming. She pulled out another one and I kept motioning. By the time she had a half dozen on the counter, she was really perplexed, but I kept motioning for more. Finally at sixteen I smiled and motioned for her to stop. She just shook her head, probably wondering how in the hell I was ever going to drink sixteen beers. I enjoyed the attention as she got out a piece of paper and a pencil and went to work calculating the immense wad of cash she was going to make over this insane transaction. The total? 208 Kwacha, exactly 13 Kwacha per beer (about 30 cents). What a deal. I left, but only after shaking the hands of the two locals who obviously were pleased by my show of beer lust.

The four of us proceeded to get drunk in our cell, laughing and telling stories, blocking out the nightmare of the guesthouse. It was brutally hot and humid in our cell, and Paige and I found a precarious way to hang our mosquito net over our cot when it was finally time to try to sleep. Talk about cramped and disgusting quarters. Thankfully, the alcohol helped a bit, at least until 6am when the place erupted with blaring Christian music and terrible karaoke-style singing as the local guests got up to shower.

Unable to sleep and suffering from severe alcoholic dehydration, we slowly got up and got dressed to head out and try to find something to eat. Larry and Audrey were taking off that morning to head to a touristy resort area they’d heard about, but Paige and I were planning on taking the boat out to Likoma Island, not yet knowing when it left. We walked down to a shantytown shack restaurant (shackstraunt?) for some tea, nsima (same as sazda in Zimbabwe - boiled white maize meal) and nkuku (boiled chicken & sauce). It’s not like this place had a menu or anything; we walked inside the dirt-floored hut and pretty much startled the group of barefoot kids in dirty tattered t-shirts and shorts. One of the kids spoke a little English and set us all up with plates of food and weak tea. Everything was dirty, the food was questionable, but as an ant the size of my pinky finger emerged from the depths of the sugar bowl, we hungrily dug in.

As we picked over the food, the group of kids became mesmerized by the four of us. They practiced their English, and we all were able to find brief areas of communication (names, country, married...) as we quickly realized that although we were hungry, we just weren’t THIS hungry. We offered our plates to the kids and they lunged at them, greedily sucking the chicken bones and scooping up the nsima. To Paige, the meal had been traumatic: from the second the first nervous forkful reached her mouth, she was convinced it was seething with vermin. As we left, she was sure we had contracted an irreversible disease; she began to feel physically ill and stumbled away in the hot sun back towards the government guesthouse. She didn’t make it, and had to dash around a corner to vomit the food back up, dry heaving in pain for a good five minutes after the deed had been done. This was not exactly a shining endorsement for the rest of us who had also eaten the same food; we decided to lie down for a while and rest.

Larry and Audrey, although very nervous about how the food would affect them, decided to chance it and headed off for Cape McClear by bus while Paige and I mutually agreed to stay another night in order for Paige to feel better before we took the long boat ride. I left her back in our cell room as I went back out to search for another guesthouse that might be cleaner, nicer, less horrific, and with a bathroom en suite so that Paige wouldn’t have to brave the scores of bare-chested locals walking up and down our hallway every time she had to run to the toilet. Luckily, one of the guesthouses I had checked out the night before now had a room available (unfortunately not 20 Kwacha anymore - now we’d have to pay K80), and I went back to get Paige and our luggage, which we dragged across the dusty town in the insane heat.

A few hours of napping and relaxing in addition to a cold bath seemed to help Paige’s stomach and mind, and by late afternoon she was feeling well enough to come with me to go find out about the ticket situation for the boat. We located the jetty and found a lady inside one of the offices that sold us 1st class tickets (cabin & beds) to Likoma – about a 36 hour ride leaving at 8am the next morning. We stopped off at a local grocery store to stock up on peanut butter, jelly, bread, water and toilet paper, and then retreated back to our room to build up our strength before whatever dinner we’d have to endure.

Eventually, the tinny music sounding like a 33 1/3 record playing at 78 speed blaring from the guesthouse/bar next door drove us out...not to mention the scores of pheasants, chickens, dogs and random rabid beasts commingling their violent screeches together directly underneath our no-glass window. We were hoping to relax until around 8pm (which appeared to be the time most locals eat), spending the time lounging about in peace, but it was just impossible. Where was a comfortable couch, a rerun of Fantasy Island, and a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos when you really needed them?

We walked out into the non-paved, dirt everywhere, non-lighted town of Monkey Bay knowing that our food options were limited. No way were we going back to the shackstraunt that generously gave Paige a vomiting fit, but there just didn’t seem to be any other options. We were absolutely drained - mentally - from being in Monkey Bay for the past 24 hours. Every time we showed our white faces outside our room the locals besieged us. Some would hassle us by trying to get us to change money with them on the black market or buy drugs, but by far the vast majority were just being nice...in their own way. It’s just that their culture tends to be a little overwhelming to ours: the no personal space thing...we were in their town, they felt it was their right to extract every bit of information out of us as to why.

After exhausting the non-existent choices for food, we were at a loss about what to do for dinner. Yes, we could have PBJ’s, but I was damn sick of peanut butter and jelly. For the first time in my life I realized that the American safety net of 24-hour fast food availability (whether you ever used it or not) was suddenly NOT an option. It makes you feel so helpless and alone..and that was really sad. And sick. It’s just the underlying knowledge and comfort that food (greasy, heart-clogging food) would be there if and when you absolutely needed it. It made for a weird sensation. God help me, but I would have gladly eaten a McRib sandwich at that precise moment.

So instead of “PBJ’s” or “nothing,” we went into this ruinous shack (a different ruinous shack than earlier that morning) with an empty, dirty room selling beer and blasting warped Bob Marley-pirated tapes, and found they would be happy to whip us up something in back. We agreed to the sole choice: chips and eggs, and went out back to sit on a piece of cement and play cards while we waited for the food. The chips were greasy, the eggs were anty, but the Cokes were ice cold and we were just happy that something hopefully non-disease ridden was going into our stomachs. Ants are loaded with protein.

Sleep was not really a possibility as the chickens, pheasants and other shrieking domesticated birds were squawking and clucking right underneath our window a full two hours before sunrise at 4am. We couldn’t WAIT to get out of Monkey Bay - not exactly a tourist haven. We reached the boat dock about a half hour before it was supposed to leave…and the waiting game began. We found a quiet spot away from the scores of locals and their piles of baggage and farm animals where we could play gin to pass the time. By noon (4 hours late), the boat workers had gotten to know Paige very well due to the frequency of her checking exactly when the Ilala (the boat’s name) would board. Finally, and probably due to a combination of the fact that we had reserved cabins (the most expensive) and that they may have just wanted to get us off their backs, they allowed us to board (and just us) to wait inside our cabin, although it did seem like most everyone else was crammed together by the ticket office with a potential to be resentful of the two foreigners getting special treatment.

OK, now comes the intimidating point when I attempt to do justice in describing our cabin. Once, the Ilala was probably a very luxurious boat; I believe it had actually been in commission for something like 80 years. Imagine an 8’ x 10’ space (2 single beds and a sink) inhabited by generations of seething cockroaches...literally thousands. Literally. This is no joke, and we knew that we were the ones impeding on their turf, not the other way around, and they were not happy about it. At any given time, twenty or so would be scurrying around on the floor, all four walls would have adequate roach representation, and even a few bold roach revolutionaries would be delving onto the beds and/or ceiling. We attempted to justify this by saying, “At least they’re not mosquitoes,” but you just couldn’t help but think of that scene in the movie “Creepshow” where the guy is overrun by a sea of roaches.

It was somewhat tolerable (because we knew we had no other choice) until, lying on our beds, we both watched a two-inch cockroach crawl up my wall, venture onto the ceiling, and work its way out into the middle of the room until it suddenly dangled precariously as a tightrope act, to fall directly onto my bed. Images of roaches dropping kamikaze-like onto our faces and into our snoring mouths exploded in our minds, and still...there was nothing we could do about it - except spend most of our time outside. This wasn’t such a horrible thing anyway because there were no working portholes, and it was incredibly stuffy and ungodly HOT. The temperature did not change throughout the entire trip.

A group of kids, fresh out of school (meaning barefoot, dirty and happy), were wandering around the empty ship and ended up hanging out with me for a few hours while Paige decided to wait back on shore. They totally made the day worthwhile, absolutely fascinated by the answers I gave to their never-ending stream of questions, and wanting to know everything about me. The four of them, two nine-year olds and two fourteen-year olds, peppered me with inquiry after inquiry.

“What’s that for?” they asked, pointing to my wedding ring. I explained about wedding rings and marriage and asked them if their parents had rings too. “No,” they said, confused.

“Then what do people in Malawi do to show that they got married?” I asked.

One of the nine-year olds answered matter-of-factly, “They have a baby.”

This nine-year old in particular, Christopher, was more interested in the proceedings and had a better grasp of English than the others. He asked to try on my glasses, where did I get my shorts, where did I buy my shoes, how many people in my family...and then he became serious and said, “Do you think that maybe when you get back home you will tell your friends about me?” He was tickled pink when I answered “Definitely!”

Christopher was also confused about the fact that he spoke English but I didn’t speak the local Malawi language, Chichewa, and we attempted to rectify this with a long lesson in a bunch of words. He also wanted to know what it was like having a wife - none of his or his friends’ parents even lived together. I showed the boys our laminated sheet of pictures from home and they were overwhelmed with awe. Christopher made me write down my address and gave me his before he finally had to take off, yelling back, “Don’t forget about me!”

But still the boat wasn’t ready to leave. Paige returned back to the Ilala just as the boys were leaving, and we stood by the railing for another few hours just waiting. Finally, 11 1/2 hours after it was scheduled to leave, the Ilala wondrously departed. It took a lot out of us, and combined with the physical and mental stress of Monkey Bay, our bodies reacted: our first pretty major case of traveler’s diarrhea. Hey, it’s not like I’m bragging or anything. Suddenly those “brown and green” descriptions were hitting a little too close to home.

Soon after getting under way, we were informed that the first class passengers (of which we were two of a total of three - obviously everyone else knew about the cockroach situation) and crew were being served dinner. It felt so good to be eating a “real” meal, and we scarfed our nsima, chicken and greens. Spent, we sat on the top deck gazing out into the stars for awhile and talking about this wonderful freak show that had turned into our life until we decided to brave Roachland and try - unsuccessfully - to get some sleep.

The boat did have three classes: cabins (total of three people), top deck first class (no beds but people just laid out a blanket or something to sleep on - total of six people, all German backpackers), and Economy on the lower level in the midst of the boat’s fumes where the remainder of the 300 passengers sat cramped together in cheap transportation hell. The “chicken-boat” class. It was definitely odd, but the price-swings were huge for Malawi standards, although we still felt we were paying next to nothing for our cabins. We laid there with the light on sending out our mental waves in our futile attempt to keep the roaches off our bodies at least, with both of us feeling really nauseous and sick.

When we woke the next morning (Saturday), we knew that we still had almost another 24 hours to go. Lake Malawi is so huge, it was like we were out in the middle of the ocean; no land whatsoever in any direction, no other boats or people, only dark blue water. We tried to pass the time by reading and napping, but the room was so hot, stuffy and roachy that we could only stand to be inside for a few minutes before we were driven out. We were still feeling so worn down and sick - all we wanted to do was get where we were going and lay down in a clean bed. Upstairs on the top deck there was a bar serving soft drinks and beer, which we would have been using to ease the pain, but our incessant bathroom runs were preventing us from indulging. Is that too graphic? Tough, you’re along for the ride now too.

By late afternoon we finally got word on our estimated arrival time for Likoma Island: 3am the next morning. Oh joy. This news didn’t exactly slap a couple of smiles on our faces. After another decent dinner that we could barely keep inside long enough to do any good, we tried to get some sleep, knowing that we were in for a long night. The boat had been making stops about every 6-10 hours, and we had a general idea of what we’d be in for. Apparently the only dock around was in Monkey Bay (at the southern-most tip of Lake Malawi), so at each town we stopped in, we’d kill the motors out in the bay and drop the safety boats in the water. Then all the passengers getting off would fight like hell to get on first, loading all their baggage on with them, and only when the boat was at three to four hundred percent capacity would they take off for shore. I could only imagine what it would be like at three in the morning.

We were overly anxious as we hit the sack early that evening, again trying unsuccessfully to sleep with the lights on in defense of the roaches. At one point I had been drifting off when I felt a gentle caress on the bottom of my foot. My brain made no connection, and I kind of twitched like a sleeping dog. But then another caress, and a tickle, and another tickle...in my hazy state I suddenly kicked out intending to forcibly remove the annoying object, when my brain kicked-in and I remembered where I was. I sat up quickly and there at the foot of my mattress was the single biggest roach-beast I had ever laid eyes on, the body was easily 4 inches long. But it was the antennas, each a good 3-4 inches themselves, that were so actively searching for its next victim, probably sizing up my bare foot for possible consumption or some kind of freaky festering gestation thing... The Godzilla of roaches had graced us with his presence; there would be no more sleep that night.

A little past 2:30am, the Ilala stopped in the darkness and word trickled down in a hazy chaos that we had arrived at Likoma. In the pitch dark with our packs strapped on our backs, we tiredly made our way around to where passengers were crawling down in a fierce battle into the transport life boat in eerie, early-morning silence. We had arrived later than everyone else (who had obviously been waiting there for hours), and were forced to physically battle our way onto the already way-too-overcrowded boat, precariously balancing through the waves and attempting (but not very hard) to avoid stepping on or into other people or their belongings.

Nobody cared at all about making any amount of room for anyone else, in fact, quite the opposite. People went out of their way to screw you. One lady planted her fat ass right on the steps of the boat, “claiming” her territory, while twenty more people were still waiting to battle their way onboard. Her “seat” was directly plugging the sole path and she wouldn’t budge an inch, plus she would get furious that people were stepping on her and tripping over her, although I for one would have supported (and joined in) a deserved fat-ass kicking. So, strategically elbowing mamas with babies strapped to their backs, and plowing head first into the seething throng of people so thick they were like a meniscus in the small lifeboat, we crashed our way onboard. It was amazing that these people would get angry at you for stepping on their thoughtlessly placed bags or using their head for balance when it was so blatantly obvious that there was just no other way. But at least they didn’t hold grudges.

The entire bay did not have a single light anywhere. I guess that made sense since Likoma didn’t even have electricity. Still, we were rushing towards some assumed pier or shore or something that we couldn’t see on a boat 500% overloaded with people and bags in some weird limbo where our lives appeared to be in nobody’s hands, least of all our own. If we went down, it was every man and mama for him or herself.

The boat noisily motored up towards a darker-than-the-night shape that slowly turned out to be some kind of wooden thing jutting out from the shore. I say “thing” because this was no pier, instead it appeared to be a 20’ x 10’ rotting wooden plank falling into the water but somehow still balancing on stilts, and completely covered with people waiting to get on our lifeboat for the trip back to the Ilala. In the pitch dark. Every damn square inch of that plank-pier was taken by someone seething to get on our boat...where were we going to get off?

As we approached, not a soul moved, well actually, that’s not quite true. Everyone moved directly in the way of where the passengers were to get off in blind ambition to get themselves on. It was no use trying to tell these people that they couldn’t get on until other people got off. To them, you were only an annoying nuisance standing in their way to get on board.

The boat pulled up to the plank and immediately the plank crowd started violently pushing their way onto our meniscus-laden boat. I guess the people on our boat were used to this, because it didn’t faze them and they simply plowed their own way through the dark mass of people and bags and somehow onto the plank. We immersed ourselves in the throng, Paige first, and as she reached the edge of the boat I gave her a hearty push and she was up and on the plank. I nervously followed, jumping up from the side of the boat, kneeing an old man out of my path and giving a hard shoulder to a young girl who was trying to do the same to me. I balanced precariously on the edge of the plank, pinwheeling my arms for balance as my heavy backpack attempted to lure me backwards into the water, until someone gloriously gave me a little shove and I was “safely” up. We bumped and prodded our way through the plank crowd in the pitch dark to the end, at which point we noticed that it was just that: an end to the plank. And I’m not talking about an end that gently slopes down to the sandy shore. A sheer drop-off end with water lapping down below.

What can you do? We took a leap of faith, not caring if we ended up in the water and just desperately wanting to get to shore, but instead surprisingly finding ourselves on a rotted wooden box down below. We teetered nearly out of control, but negotiated our way across the piles of strategically placed garbage, rocks and wood like stones across a stream until we had made it to the beach. Believe me, this was not an easy thing to do in the dark with 35 lb. bags on our backs. We quickly made our way up the beach through scores of other people hanging out at 3 in the morning, found an open spot on the sand, and threw our bags and our bodies down to take stock of the situation.

We sat there in the sand watching and listening to the invisible chaos as numerous shadows battled to get on and off the boat for the next two hours. It was surreal. Most people getting off simply planted themselves on the beach (like us) and fell asleep waiting for daybreak. We thought that was a great idea, considering we had no idea where we were going to go and no light to get there anyway. We had seen a posted flier for a backpacker’s beach back on board the Ilala, and lacking any other options we were sold on the idea. Our LP barely even mentioned Likoma, let alone recommended somewhere to stay or even if there was somewhere else to stay. Finally around 5am, the Ilala unexpectedly pulled away and disappeared, leaving the fifty or so people who had planted themselves on the beach in tired groups sleeping and/or waiting on the sand for sunrise.

Unfortunately, this was the precise time when my bowels clenched in yet another bout of traveler’s diarrhea, and I dashed up into the nearby brush to take care of business. Thank god for the pitch-black night, because at that particular moment I really didn’t have too many options or too much time to explore them. By the way, the term “traveler’s diarrhea” is really deceptive. The apostrophe is in the wrong place. It should be “travelers’ diarrhea;” lord knows everyone gets it. Repeatedly. Someone had to say it.

Soon we started to notice the light change from black to charcoal gray to a weird hazy luminescence, and I nudged Paige awake so that we could get an early pre-heat start on our hike across the island. And to share the unbelievable African sunrise over the water.

The advertisement flier for Kaya Mawa (the backpacker’s beach) had indicated that they would greet us with cold beers after the 5km walk across the island. Although 5 km was a good distance with our packs on our backs, it was a gorgeous morning, peaceful and quiet, and we were in high spirits. Roachland was already a distant memory.

We set off from the beach along the water down a dirt path when we caught sight of a single carved wooden sign indicating “Kaya Mawa – 5 km” and an arrow pointing in the general direction of where we were heading. A good sign. But as we turned inland on the path passing grass huts, enormous mango trees and dry desert-like landscaping with not a soul in sight, we longed for more signs. Twice we came to forks in the path, and strangely enough these were the only times we saw anybody. It was perfect; we stood there confused and reluctant to take the wrong direction when suddenly a local would appear and say, “Kaya Mawa?” and point one way or the other. The landscape was rocky and desert-like with either lush mango trees spotting the hilly area or ungodly huge skeleton-like baobab trees anchored around. We took pictures of the sunrise through the trees, laughing and enjoying the early morning experience.

Finally we reached a crest in the landscape and saw the other side of the island with the lake stretching out forever in the distance. We passed by more grass huts with chickens pecking around on the dirt outside until we finally saw the beach we’d been searching for. Isolated, white sand, aqua and deep midnight blue crystal clear waters, waves crashing, grass huts set back on the sand near the upper beach line...it was all totally breathtaking.

Since it was only a little past 6am, we plopped down under the central mango tree on the beach where a bar and grass thatched roof had been built to load up on strong coffee and hearty egg and bacon sandwiches. It was all we could do but stare mesmerized out across the water, shocked at the polar change in surroundings we’d just encountered. Local women were down at the water’s edge washing clothes and dishes while children ran around naked helter-skelter. Slowly, guests at Kaya Mawa woke and joined us under the mango bar for breakfast.

We met Will, one of the “co-owners” of Kaya Mawa (along with his buddy, Andrew), who was a 25-year-old Brit, and he gave us the full scoop on the place. We knew we had found exactly what we were looking for when he explained that “Kaya Mawa” means “maybe tomorrow” in the local language. They actually had a huge group the previous night from the mainland and every hut had been full (a total of seven). Everyone was horribly hung over, but most were leaving that morning back to the mainland and Will explained that they’d have a hut ready in an hour so we could crash out and take a much-needed nap.

Once inside, we fell even more in love with this strange place. The huts were perfect: a bed and mosquito net surrounded by four grass-woven walls and a woven roof with sand as the floor. The “door” was a grass mat that rolled up and down - this was primitive at its best, but perfectly suited our miniscule needs. We crashed out to the luring sounds of the waves for most of the morning until the midday sun proved too difficult to sleep through.

The rest of the afternoon was a daze; we were so happy to be there, but it was all so different and foreign, we were having a difficult time soaking it all in and simply finding a way to relax. We sat on the beach, took a swim, read, played a couple games, and drank a few greens and browns until the sun started to go down and the tiki torches were lit for dinner. The food was fantastic: a different meal every night and an excellent local chef to boot. Everybody staying at Kaya Mawa ate together to the sounds of a car battery-powered stereo, drinking cold beer (cold from a generator powered by solar panels) with lots of conversation.

We woke the following morning still in our daze to the sounds of the local women and children down at the water’s edge. We slowly made our way to the mango tree for strong cups of coffee and special ordered breakfasts, where everyone slowly appeared in an attempt to shake off hangovers and wake up at the same time.

Likoma is a relatively small island with no electricity, no roads, no doctors, no phone, no irrigation, poor farmland and approximately 3,000 locals. John had lived there for three years teaching locals farming techniques and dietary nutritional standards for the undernourished children. He explained that 15% of children under five died of malnutrition, and you couldn’t even teach the people how to grow food because then they’d be responsible, culturally, for every other member of their extended families (upwards of 30-40 people). It just wasn’t worth it to them. Plus, witchcraft is a way of life there, so facts and education have little effect in the culture.

The huge gap between males and females (respect, understanding, social status) was also really difficult to comprehend. The women do ALL the work and raise the children while the men may fish, but basically do nothing. It’s a severely impoverished island, but the people are extremely friendly and always greet you with a wide smile and the saying, “Muli Bwanje!” (“hello, how are you?”) to which you reply, “Ndili Bwino!” (“Fine, thank you!”) The words seem to roll off the tongue like perfectly crafted tongue twisters.

We'd be on Likoma for two weeks of sun, sand, crystal clear waters, and incredible Africa, and although all we had were four palm-thatched walls, a bed and a mosquito net to worry about, we had no idea that our world was just about to turn inside out...


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