November 26, 2019

The Power’s Out in Malawi and I Feel Fine

By Alex Korchinski

When I asked travelers about their favorite country in Africa, their eyes would glisten and they’d coo, “Malawi,” as if recalling a former flame.

I knew that Malawi was a country in Africa. That’s it. But since I was in adjacent Tanzania, I decided to visit this land of the breathless recommendations. Now it’s my turn to be out of breath.

Getting to Malawi was an adventure. I knew I wouldn’t have cell service, so I planned my route in advance: five minibus transfers in all. After weeks of riding the Kenyan matatus and the Tanzanian dala dalas I assumed I was well prepared for the Malawian minibuses. I was not.

I am not a small man — traveling on public transit is like squeezing a bulldog into a breadbox. My first seat companion was a chicken wrapped in a blue blanket who would squawk when we hit potholes. My next seatmates were breastfeeding women who sang along to Malawian radio. The bus smelled like hay, dirt, and sweat. We stopped every ten minutes to pass a police check or to pick up the 20th passenger in our 12-seater (in Africa, there’s always room for one more). I kept my gadgets in my backpack, staring out the window as the countryside zoomed by — rusted dirt, lush trees, houses made from mud, wood, and straw, and dilapidated green Airtel kiosks.

By the time I arrived in Chitimba, ten hours and $10 later, there was no longer shared transport to my final destination up the mountain. With the sun setting, I could’ve either braved a three-hour hike, hired a taxi for $50, or stayed the night in the African Teacher’s Lodge for $6. I picked option three.

That’s where I started to feel what life was like in Malawi. I tried to charge my phone in my room, but the only power outlet didn’t work. Wouldn’t be the last time. Didn’t need my phone for dinner anyway. While scarfing fish, rice, and beef stew — $2.50, and my first meal of the day — I heard cheers a few houses down.

Of course… the World Cup Final.

I followed the noise to a large hut, people packed like sardines, their faces illuminated by the blue hue of television. Based on how full it was, it had to be one of the only places in the area with a TV reception. I watched France take the lead on Croatia, crammed into a corner with eighty sweaty Malawians, head scratching mud off the ceiling. I don’t remember where I was for other World Cup finals, but I’ll never forget that one.

I found an English couple later that night who were also headed up the mountain, so we pooled the taxi fare up to Mushroom Farm. The Mushroom Farm was mystical, an eco lodge nestled on a cliff near Livingstonia overlooking Lake Malawi and the Great Rift Valley. I’d heard whispers of it since Kenya. It was totally off the grid — no WiFi or electricity, except for a solar-powered USB charger. We got there at night. The dining room was lit by candles; Mars and Venus shone like fireflies.

The last time I was without regular electricity was California’s rolling blackouts decades ago. I’ve worked in Silicon Valley for seven years — I battle my phone for control of my life like it’s the autopilot from Wall-E. Except in the major Malawian cities, of which there are two, WiFi is nonexistent. Electricity is not a given. But as far as I could tell, Malawians didn’t let technology phase them. I had yet to see a laptop, but everyone had a cell phone, buying data and minutes on scratchers that littered the land like leaves from a literal money tree. I saw people on their phone, mostly talking, but I rarely saw anyone lost in it the way I saw Americans.

Not having service was the least of my concerns in Livingstonia, though. The sunrise from my tent was stunning — lake shimmering and stretching with the horizon; the cliffs below dotted with trees and shrubs. I spent my days hiking to mountaintops and waterfalls, kids waving and smiling the entire way, and my nights hanging with people from around the world, watching the starry night. With no light pollution or electrical distractions, I slept like a baby.

That’s not to say I loved not having service — it was hard not speaking with friends and family. So on the trip to Nkhata Bay, I broke down and got a SIM card.

Nkhata Bay is nestled alongside Lake Malawi, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, famous for its crystal clear waters teeming with vibrant orange, yellow, and purple cichlids. It’s got lovely beaches and lovelier sunsets and it’s one of the best places to scuba dive in Lake Malawi.

It also had terrible service. Electricity was off for a scheduled eight hours a day — during which phones wouldn’t connect to cell towers. Or at least mine wouldn’t. I was so frustrated. How will I update my Instagram? How will I check my email? How will I call my parents? I spent so much time fiddling with my phone, turning it on and off compulsively, that I missed the beauty right in front of me.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s also one of the friendliest. People looked me in the eye and smiled. Like real smiles, the kind that give you chills and fuzzy feelings. Kids waved and waved and waved, “Hello! Hello! Hello!” And yes, I know that I’m a big dumb tourist, but they treated each other with kindness too. I wondered what effect that would have on a country — to live acknowledging the human in front of them instead of the screen.

At any rate, when I let go of the wild lottery for 3G, I had an incredible time. I started and finished a scuba certification, cruising along the depths and watching bubbles float to the surface. I built a sandcastle on the beach with friends and kayaked on the lake as the sun set. One guy had a birthday and his girlfriend and I wrapped presents in printer paper from the snack bar, planning a celebration with cake and Carlsberg (which bought the beer rights to Malawi, go figure).

I showered and got ready for the night. I checked my phone: 3G was on, miraculously. I took the opportunity to call my friend Greg. “How’s Malawi?” he asked.

“I’ll put it this way: the power’s out, I just took a cold shower in the dark, and it was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.”

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