Lilongwe turned out to be very quiet for the largest city, and the capital, of Malawi. We spent our two days doing not much more than wandering about the market, with Mads being hassled for showing too much leg (shins are far too provocative.) The highlight came in the form of a black market foreign exchange transaction in the back of a taxi. On the black market US dollars go for thirty percent more than the official rate, making us feel ludicrously wealthy until we remembered how poor we are.
Up before 6am on a Sunday, we squeezed into a minibus (packs on laps) to the bus station to head north. Sharing three seats with a big African Mamma meant we spent the 9 hour journey crammed together, but grateful we werent one of the unlucky standing passengers. 400 sweaty kms and countless police roadblocks later, we made it to Nkhata Bay on the shores of Lake Malawi. Arriving at dinner time the owners of Butterfly Space welcomed us to their communal table for a hearty home cooked lasagne dinner. The "hostel" (for want of a better word) is owned and run by two British expats Alice and Josie, who bought the hillside space and filled it with a collection of buildings housing a range of accom, communal spaces and areas for the local community like an information/Internet center. They host international volunteers (who pay only room and food unlike in most volunteer programs) and run a number of local community based initiatives aimed at educating and empowering local Malawians. The atmosphere of the place is more of a home than a hotel, with meals shared around a big communal table and dinner party games frequently played well into the night. The staff quickly learn guest and volunteer names and seem part of the big eclectic family that made us feel immediately welcome. It was just the break we needed from our rather hasty journey through Zambia. If anyone is thinking about a volunteer stint somewhere, I couldn't recommend this place more!
Monday morning saw us head down to Aqua Africa for our first day of a PADI Open-water scuba course. Rob, our Canadian instructor informed us we were the only two in the course, so basically we were in for private instruction at only $310 each. The first two days were basic skills in and out of the water, as well as some quality late-90's instructional video time.
We soon realized there wasn't much in terms of self-catering supplies in Nkhata Bay, but came to terms with eating huge ripe avocados and tomatoes on thick bread for dinner almost every night. Eating out is much cheaper the further north we go, but you can only eat so much rice and fried chicken before you feel the scurvy catching up with you.
A day off from diving on Wednesday saw us pitching in to help build the new media center at Butterfly, painting and varnishing and being generally handy-people.
Our first open water dive was up next, a full 37 minutes under water to 10m (12m once adjusting for altitude). It's easy to see how people get addicted to scuba - despite not diving on a spectacular coral reef or anything so scenic, the experience was amazing and we are already planning future dives for Zanzibar and beyond. A night dive (after our course was completed on Friday) was definitely the highlight - complete darkness punctuated only by our dim torches that stretched mere meters in front of us and did little to illuminate the all encompassing dark. Gangs of carnivorous dolphin fish swarmed around us in a nocturnal hunting frenzy, preying on small fish,
too slow to avoid them. It was like nothing on earth (obviously!).
A few days of R&R after our exciting dive week saw us to the end of our stay at Butterfly. Sad to go, but excited to move on, we were up early (as usual) to head for Mbeya just over the Tanzanian border - a mere couple of hundred kms away.
Seven different vehicles, a game of speeding road tag with a red minibus, a change of break pads at a mechanics, a lot of waiting around, a rip-off money exchange merchant and zero usable toilets (and a very painful bladder) later, we made it to Mbeya in complete darkness with no idea where we were, or where we were going. To save our sanity, we splurged on a hotel room (with ensuite!!) for 50,000 Tanzanian shillings and dinner - including a few sneaky beers - for 20,000 (a grand total of $50 between us for the night).
Waking up on valentines/birthday day to a ridiculously good mood we made or way to the train station to buy our overnight tickets to Dar Es Salaam for the next day. Splurging $20 for sleeper cabins (men and women are not allowed to share so we're in separate rooms with the locals) we're expecting to spend a lot of time playing cards in the dining cart. We're currently waiting for the train which is already 2.5 hours late - our expected 2pm departure has been pushed back to 5pm at the earliest.
Spent last night in a catholic mission, pitching our tent on a lovely patch of grass and trying to avoid making bad taste religious jokes about sharing a tent out of wedlock.
With Zanzibar, Kili and the Serengeti on the near horizon, we're really looking forward to the next few weeks.