Underwater at night…

Lake Malawi is known for its amazing fish population- several thousand types of cichlid and frankly there is no better way to see a lake than from the bottom.  So that’s how we found ourselves our first night in Nkata Bay- at the bottom of Lake Malawi- looking up at the full moon.

Night diving in Lake Malawi was an incredible experience, and for our first night dive it was the perfect place.  As the dive master said over and over again, there is nothing that can hurt you in the lake: no sharks, no rays, no crocodiles (at least not near Nkata Bay!).

As we flipped out of the boat and reassembled our dive group at the bottom I couldn’t help but think that night diving was a really bad idea.  We had done a dive that afternoon to see the lake in the day light and it was spectacular- tons of colorful fish and some beautiful rock formations, so I was expecting to see something familiar at night.  At night though, the Lake was actually rather scary.  It was exactly like the few minutes of footage from Lake Malawi on the documentary Planet Earth.  Dozens of dolphin fish, a little less than a meter in length swarmed our lights, using them to hunt for sleeping cichlids.  Although the dive master warned us that the dolphin fish would swarm our lights and possibly touch us, but not harm us, I was rather unprepared for the sensation of being surrounded by rather large hunting fish.  It was unnerving.

We had been warned to be prudent with our underwater lights, as shining them at a cichlid to get a better view was akin to playing G_d.  Danny, who tried to catch fish the entire time, of course tried to shine his light on some cichlid, but fortunately the ones he chose made it through the night.

Diving in Lake Malawi was unique and different.  Beside being our first dive in freshwater, the lake bottom is also an incredible landscape of enormous rock formations.  It felt like we were swimming along a rocky valley, which is actually exactly what we’re doing.  Lake Malawi is the southern end of the Great Rift Valley- which extends all the way north into the middle east, and one of the only places where the valley has filled with water.  Over time, the species caught in the lake have evolved into different sub-species, making the lake one of the best examples of Darwin’s evolutionary theory on the planet.  Besides being beautiful, we also saw cichlids that swim upside down, eating the algae off the underside of rocks.  It was a beautiful place, and certainly a nice place to dive or snorkel….just do it during the day.

Off to Malawi…

The trip to Malawi was a long one but worth it. We’d have to cross through Mozambique and needed a visa before doing so, which cost $30 at the border or $110 at the embassy in Harare so you can guess which option we chose. Rushing to the front of the bus at the border though quickly caught the eye of just about everyone else aboard with them all wondering why the mzungu (swahili for foreigner) was cutting the line. Having been the first people in the office and the bus still waiting for us a good 10-15 minutes, everyone was soon thankful we’d cut in front.

Once inside Malawi we were greeted by some of the warmest hospitality we’ve encountered on this trip. The minister sitting behind us helped us to find both accommodation and transportation upon our arrival in Blantyre going so far as to walk me to the nearest hotel and allowing me to use his cell phone to call a second when mine ran out of credit. We made it to the one we called on his phone and when it was time to leave had a hard time saying goodbye to the staff, who were eager to see more of our pictures of lions and hyenas…we gave them about 6 gigabytes worth.

The strangest thing about Malawi was the currency, and I say this having just come from a country that printed $100 trillion notes. The exchange rate quoted by the street money changers was between 170 and 180 kwacha to a single US dollar. This was about the same as at the legal and legitimate banks and exchange bureaus in Blantyre, the business center of the country. At the ATM however, we received K150.05 to a single dollar, making the currency about 20% more expensive. Clearly the border rate wasn’t a black market rate given that the legitimate banks and foreign exchange bureaus were giving the same rate- how strange then that the ATM would give such a different and lower rate. Luckily we’d hit the ATM’s in Zimbabwe had some excess USD to change rather than rely on the ATM’s as we usually do.

There was no end to the kindness of the Malawi people though. We decided to send all those stone sculptures home as the post here wasn’t too expensive and the postal clerk gave us her cell phone number in case it does not arrive on time. I’m not sure what she can do, but she just eagerly wanted to help. In posting it took only minutes to find a store owner willing to give us a free box for the shipment as well. I asked one store owner, when he gave me a 5 kwatcha coin as change if he had any smaller ones I could have instead to add to my collection, he quickly produced a full set of coins (nearly impossible to find in circulation because of their low value) and gave them to me. When Jill purchased a photo album from a local development project’s paper recycling/production workshop, her hand was shaken by every person working there…thanking her for her visit and purchase….as we walked out. Although we’ve met genuine and warm people in every corner of the world we’ve been too, the Malawi people as a whole take the cake!

Foodie Friday: Butterfish & Nisima

From Blantyre it was off to the shores of Lake Malawi, something we’d been looking forward to for quite sometime. Aside from diving and snorkeling and looking at the fish, I also wanted to eat some as well.

One of the reasons Lake Malawi is so unique is that just about all 1200 varieties of fish are decedents of one fish specie, the first cyclid from here on known as the “mama cyclid.” In a way that made for a very limiting menu but in another way there was endless variety, not to mention that everything here is completely unique and not found in any other part of the globe.

The butterfish I had was so good that we later purchased two big ones to share with a couple of other travelers we’d met at our lodge over a braai, getting both fish filleted for a total of about $8. The fish though also came with Nisima, the staple starch here in Malawi. Nisima is a porridge made out of maize meal and water, then used to scoop a stew of vegetables into your mouth. The substance itself is basically a big piece of white starch and tastes… like a big piece of white starch.

Nisima is served as the size of a fist and must be broken into little bits, with your hand, for scooping your stew. Several locals got a good laugh at watching us fail at fashioning a proper bite-sized scooper and one eventually came over, with a very big smile, to help us. We continued to fail but enjoyed our lunch anyway before jumping back into the lake to try and ‘catch’ dinner.