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How We Traveled Malawi 2015

How We Traveled Malawi 2015

Traveling in Malawi was definitely outside my comfort zone.  I like lots of information. I like to sort through it, reject some of it, and come to a conclusion about what I can expect and what remains unknown. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in Malawi.  There are a few tidbits of information on the internet, all vague or outdated. We would have to rely on advice from other travelers and hostel bulletin boards.

Of course – considering I’m here writing about it all – we figured things out. Not without hiccups (stories for another day), but by the helpfulness of friends, strangers, and a few taxi drivers, we were able to experience the best of Malawi. In the spirit of paying it forward, I offer the details from our Malawi trip to the internet.  I hope it satisfies a google search or two.

WHAT TO DO IN MALAWI:

There are three main things to see in Malawi: Lake Malawi, Mt. Mulanje, and wildlife. The cities in between are just launch points. We had just come from a safari in Zambia, so we skipped the wildlife.

OUR ITINERARY:

Entered Malawi in Lilongwe

Bus from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay (via Mzuzu)

Bus from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre (via Mzuzu and Lilongwe)

Mini bus to Mulanje, taxi back to Blantyre from Mulanje

Flight from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (12 hour layover in Lilongwe)

Screenshot (9)

Lilongwe (arrived from Chipata, Zambia)

We arrived in Lilongwe from our safari in South Luangwa National Park. Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, and also had the largest airport. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, recommended to us by travelers we met in Zimbabwe, as well as some of our safari compatriots. As most people will tell you, Lilongwe isn’t much. Many of the other travelers at the hostel were volunteers or working for NGOs. The city is a bit spread out, and you have to take a taxi (or bicycle taxi) most places. We did have a delicious dinner at Bombay Palace – an India restaurant downtown. It is expensive for Malawi, but not expensive for fantastic Indian food.

Lilongwe Malawi Travel

 

THE LAKE:

Nkhata Bay

There are a number of places to visit Lake Malawi.  Monkey Bay and Cape McClear are in the south and have sandy beaches.  Nkhata Bay is in the north and has rock cliffs.  There are many places in between as well.

We got to Nkhata Bay from Lilongwe by bus (to Mzuzu) and taxi. While it’s possible to take a mini-bus, we opted for the safer, big-bus option. AXA is really the only game in town when it comes to reliable, safe, timetable buses. Other busses don’t leave until their full; AXA sticks to a schedule. But the AXA bus doesn’t depart from the main bus station. It has a ticket office in City Mall and that is also where the buses arrive and depart. We bought our ticket in person the day before, but you can also buy the day of or on the bus (not recommended). The ticket cost about 6,600 kwatcha ($12) per person.

Malawi Travel AXA Bus

Once in Mzuzu, we took a taxi to Nkhata Bay for 12,000 kwatcha ($32). Again, you can also take a mini-bus for about 900 kwatcha, but it was getting dark and we decided to splurge on door to door service. The taxi ride was quite a trip. Many people walk along the narrow roads, so the taxi swerves around them, honking a warning to watch out.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 02

Nkhata Bay is a veritable paradise. Situated on Lake Malawi (the world’s largest freshwater lake), we stayed at Mayoka Villiage – a hotel/hostel that consists of a group of wooden chalets, stone cottages, and winding walkways. Mayoka is built into the side of a steep hill that ends in the lake. There are several rocky points to enter the water, and people frequently utilize the kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes. We met up with our friend Rachel there.  It was a blast.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 03

We considered taking the ilala ferry from Nhkata Bay to Monkey Bay.  It takes 2.5 days and criss crosses the lake. We chose not to because of windy conditions and the fact that we didn’t have a tent. The first class deck is open air (they have mattresses), which is nice, except that it was stormy while we were there.

On our way from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre we spent one night in Mzuzu. The AXA bus from Mzuzu to Blantyre leaves early in the morning. We originally wanted to stay at a hostel called Joy’s Place – but it was booked. We ended up at a place called Mzuzu Zoo. It was quite inexpensive and had a decent restaurant and bar.

Blantyre

After the 10 hour bus ride to Blantyre, we found ourselves at Doogles – a popular accommodation for western travelers. It is next to the bus station (though not the AXA bus station) and has cheap, clean rooms, and a nice restaurant/bar. Blantyre has more of a downtown than Lilongwe, but not much. I was able to find contact solution at the pharmacy on the main drag – a product that had alluded me since South Africa.

Many people walk in Blantyre, though it is not a pedestrian friendly city. We started out taking taxis, but soon switched to walking – especially to our favorite restaurant there, Veg-Delight, a tasty Indian joint. We also prepared to visit Mulanje while we were in Blantyre, stocking up on food and leaving most of our stuff at Doogles while we were on the mountain.

 

MULANJE:

Mt. Mulanje was a highlight of our time in Africa – but we’ve already written about it. You can check it out here. We spent 5 days in Mulanje, 3 nights on the mountain.

Mt. Mulanje path

Blantyre-Lilongwe-Dar Es Salaam

We decided to fly from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam to save time. The overland travel would have taken several days, cutting down on our time either in Malawi or Tanzania. We had also heard from other travelers that the buses in Tanzania were particularly bad. We ended up having to pay for the plane ticket in person, in cash, at the Malawian Airlines office in downtown Blantyre. All fligths to Dar included an overnight in either Lilongwe or Johannesburg. We spent one more night at Mabuya Camp and had one more dinner at Bombay Palace before saying farewell to Malawi.

 

TIPS:

Cell phone

Malawi has two major cell phone carriers: airtel and TNM. We went with airtel because it was widely recommended by other travelers. In order to use the sim card (which cost 3000 kwatcha, or $6) you have to load it up with “airtime” or “talktime.” You buy these little vouchers for certain denominations of money (from 100 kwatcha to 1000 kwatcha), load them onto your phone using the instructions (you have to dial a number and punch in a code) and then dial a different number to purchase either data GB or voice time. It is confusing at first, but once you figure it out, it becomes easy.

We used the data on our phone a lot, but our voice time would not load correctly onto the phone. We would put a significant number of minutes on the phone and then it would only give us one or two calls. If this happens, I recommend abandoning voice and trying to stick to internet or having the hostel make a call for you.

Internet

Malawi has a national internet service called Skyband. You can buy GB and use Skyband at certain hotspots (some hostels are hotspots.) This is an okay solution, but is not always reliable.

Recommended: Turn your phone into a hotspot if you can. We loaded our iphone 5c up with data (4GB for about $12) and used that. It was great. It was reliable and could handle our internet needs. We even used it to Skype. We did the same thing in Tanzania.  It was not more expensive than Skyband.

Money

Most places in Malawi only take cash. Also, the largest denomination currency equals about $1.80. So, get comfortable making multiple withdrawals at a single ATM stop.

FINAL THOUGHT

If you can, approach Malawi as a camping trip.  Every place we stayed had camp grounds and we saw a few people cooking their own food on camp stoves. None of the hostels had kitchens, so having a camp stove is really the only way to cook for yourself.  You can save a ton of money, plus have all the gear you need for Mt. Mulanje and for taking the ilala ferry in comfort!

Malawi is a beautiful country with wonderful people. We are certainly not experts, but questions are welcome!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Museo de la Memoria (Santiago, Chile)

Museo de la Memoria (Santiago, Chile)

I had no idea, entering the Museo de la Memoria, that Chile shares September 11th with the US as a day that lives in infamy. On September 11th, 1973 the military coup that would place Chile under dictatorship for 17 years ripped through the nation and resulted in the executions, disappearances, and torture of thousands of Chileans.

The museum is dedicated to telling the story of the coup, dictatorship, human rights violations, and citizen resistance. I went into the museum only knowing that there had been a military dictatorship and that some people said the CIA was involved. I came out with more questions than answers – wondering, thinking, and feeling many different things.

As we entered the museum, we were greeted by life-sized cut outs of individuals who had disappeared, holding up their identification cards.  These cutouts continued throughout the museum. One of my first reactions was surprise at how little I knew about these events. Even Will, who received a Latin American History certificate in college, knew very little about the coup and dictatorship. Both of us moved through the first major room – dedicated to telling the story of the coup – astounded by what happened in Chile. We repeatedly used surprised tones to exclaim to one another “and then they bombed the presidential palace?!?”, “wait – Salvador Allende (the president) shot himself?!?”, and we huddled around the screen that showed his final radio address.

Chile1973

What struck me second was how honest and thorough the museum is in describing the human rights violations and honoring those who suffered. These exhibits are particularly powerful because they do not hold back detail and frequently involve first hand accounts of torture, which also makes them hard to stomach. This is an approach that we’d never see in the US. Here is a beautiful museum dedicated to telling the story of human rights atrocities that were committed by the government. Even our civil rights museums focus on the struggle of the oppressed rather than the wrongs committed by the system. It’s inspiring that Chile wholly owns and mourns these events at the same time.

 

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This is an approach that we’d never see in the US. Here is a beautiful museum dedicated to telling the story of human rights atrocities that were committed by the government.[/pullquote]

 

We got kicked out the museum before we were finished – right as we started to learn about the clergy, women’s

groups, and worker’s groups who began to protest and question the mass disappearances. We had been there 90 minutes but hadn’t reached the end by closing time. I left wanting to know the history of Allende’s elected government, more information about who Pinochet (the military dictator) was, and details on who disappeared and why (it’s implied in the exhibits, but I wanted to know more.) We speculated on how involved the US had been in the coup and dictatorship and talked about the destructive cold war anxieties of our government. We talked about how the military dictatorship ended with an election rather than more violence – and why that is not what’s happening after the Arab Spring.

Museo de Memoria is powerful, disturbing, and inspiring. It tells a story that raises so many questions and thoughts about Chile and the greater world. If you are in Santiago, please go. Just get there at least two hours before closing time. You’ll need it.

Note: The featured photo is attributed to Francisco Javier Cornejos here and is under this Creative Commons license with some rights reserved. We used some minor cropping to fit the photo to our site.

Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks): San Pedro de Atacama Day 2

Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks): San Pedro de Atacama Day 2

The thing about a desert is that it is very hot during the day, and it’s that much colder at night.  At daybreak, we paced the street outside our hostel to keep warm, waiting to be picked up by the tour bus for Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks).  The bus was late, and we ended up watching the sunrise over our street and the volcanos in the distance.

San Pedro de Atacama sunrise

On the way to Piedras Rojas, we stopped for breakfast and to see an old church with multiple cactus wood features.  This wood is made from cactus that had been dried for a year.  The panels are connected with cactus fiber.

San Pedro de Atacama cactus wood travel

When we arrived at Piedras Rojas, the tour guide cautioned us not to let our emotions overwhelm our experience.

San Pedro de Atacama Piedras Rojas Travel

We could see why she warned us.  The red rocks were created from volcanic lava and ash.  The lagoon that had collected was frozen over and looked blue green.

San Pedro de Atacama Piedras Rojas Travel

The mountains in the back ground are either volcanos or piles of volcanic ash.

San Pedro de Atacama Piedras Rojas Travel

We gazed out over the lagoon…

San Pedro de Atacama Piedras Rojas Travel

Will felt so great, he thought he could take off.

San Pedro de Atacama Piedras Rojas Travel

But he settled for a little meditation.

San Pedro de Atacama Piedras Rojas Travel

Next, we headed to one of the highest lakes in the world.  On the way, we saw a family of Vicuna, which are an endangered relative of the llama.

San Pedro de Atacama Vicunas Travel

We had to walk to Lagunas Altiplanicus from the entrance because snow had blocked the road.

San Pedro de Atacama Lagunas Atiplanicas Travel

So Will took advantage of the situation.

San Pedro de Atacama Laguas Altiplanicus Travel

We stopped in a small town for lunch and the bathroom.

San Pedro de Atacama Salt Flats Travel

Then we headed to the Atacama Salt Flats, created (of course) by volcanic ash and the evaporation cycle of these lagoons.  How many flamingos can you find?

San Pedro de Atacama Salt Flats

We got to hold a flamingo egg.

San Pedro de Atacama Salt Flats Travel

And see a number of flamingos.

San Pedro de Atacama Salt Flats 11

We strolled along the salt flat.

San Pedro de Atacama Salt Flats Travel

And enjoyed the close of the day and the ride back to San Pedro.

San Pedro de Atacama Salt Flats

Stayed tuned for more tomorrow!

Check out pics from our other days in San Pedro:

Day 1 Petroglyphs and Rainbow Valley

Day 3 Cathedrals of Salt

Day 4 Valle de la Luna

Elizabeth & Will

Lima to Cuzco by Bus: A Great Decision

Lima to Cuzco by Bus: A Great Decision

Confession: we were completely freaked out by the thought of taking a bus through the mountains of South America. Will even cited it as his greatest fear on our journey. I binged on negative TripAdvisor reviews and created contingency plans in my head if we were robbed or in an accident. When buses crash in Peru, they sometimes fall more than 1000 feet.  But we wanted to see the Andes, and we didn’t want to pay the high cost of flying. So we took the bus. In hindsight, we are so happy we decided to travel this way because, not only were we safe the entire time, we got to see the countryside of Peru and some awe inspiring scenery.

When you hear “traveling South America by bus” you usually think of a rickety bus with the luggage strapped to the roof. While that is definitely still an option, South America also has some beautiful buses with big leather seats, on demand movies, and meal service. Given the treacherous nature of the Lima to Cuzco route (there was a US travel advisory about this route in 2013), we decided to take one of these very safe, more comfortable companies that tracks their buses by radar and has two drivers who take shifts. While more expensive, it was still about a third of the price of flying (if you count the hotel room we didn’t need to book.)

We arrived at the Cruz Del Sur bus station in Lima at 4:45pm for our 5:30pm bus. In Lima, each bus company has its own station, so you must go to the right one. We checked our bags at the central desk and waited in the cafeteria for boarding to begin.

Boarding was quick and easy – they checked our passports and inspected our carry-on bags. The whole bus was loaded in about 15 minutes. Heading out of Lima, it got dark very fast. We unfortunately didn’t have much to look at as we departed. This is what our seats looked like:

Cruz Del Sur bus Seat Lima to Cusco by bus

Everything was smooth sailing down the Pan-American highway. We settled into our leather recliners and each watched a different movie on our entertainment screens. After about 4 hours we tried to go to sleep. That was around the same time the road turned into an amusement park ride. Back and forth, up and down mountains. Just when we thought we’d hit a stretch of straight road, the bus would turn again. I’m not sure when I dozed off.

I do know I woke up at 6:30am high up in the mountains with a terrible case of altitude sickness. Will stumbled to the bathroom as the bus followed the swerving road. “I just almost threw up.” He reported. I ate one of the rolls we brought from Lima and started my regimen of Pepto Bismol tablets and Advil. This is also when we noticed the breathtaking scenery – the reason we took the bus. We wanted to see the Andes Mountains. Please note, most of these photos were taken through a dusty bus window, while in motion.

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Right after Abancay (a very small city), perched on the side of a hill, the bus came to a stop and the doors opened. Several people got off. Curious, Will and I stepped outside to find one of the two drivers feeding a stray dog out of his lunch container. Will asked him what was going on in Spanish. He replied, “It’s the middle of the day,” and gave an emphatic shrug. We saw that we were in a long line of stopped vehicles. Suddenly a boy selling soda and a cart selling oranges appeared, going from stopped vehicle to stopped vehicle. People from the vehicles in front of us were walking up and down the road, chatting, smiling, buying oranges. Will and I took some photos and chatted with a French couple for about 30 minutes until the driver called, “Amigos!” and motioned for us to get back on board.  The title photo shows the view from the road.

Lima to Cusco by bus pictures

We arrived in Cuzco around 4:30pm. After picking up our luggage from the check desk, we hopped in a cab with a couple from Italy and were at our hostel in 10 minutes.

The truth is: there are some risks associated with bus travel in Peru, but many of those same things (motor vehicle accident, robbery) can happen when you are living your life at home. The route from Lima to Cuzco is extremely winding, and you feel it even on a good bus.  But if you can handle sitting in a recliner and watching movies for 20+ hours, you can handle this bus.  The payoff is seeing all of Peru, and hours of priceless views!

Cheers,

Elizabeth

P.S. Prior to this trip, I searched all over the internet for information about bus travel from Lima to Cuzco.  I hope this is helpful to others!  Feel free to reach out with questions.

Our First Destination: Travel Anxiety Overcome

Our First Destination: Travel Anxiety Overcome

On the eve of our first flight, Will went to bed congested, and I woke up with a knot in my stomach. When the alarm went off, I sat up and asked him how he was feeling. He said, “In love,” and I poked him in the ribs. He smiled and asked if I was sure I still wanted to do this. I couldn’t believe he was asking me that when I felt like I wanted to throw up. “Of course,” I said, “Let’s go.”

Over the past year, our departure date has grown to mythical proportions. We’ve repeated the phrase, “On August 4th we fly to Peru” hundreds of times. But as we actually set off for the unknown – knowing we wouldn’t return for 10 months – it was scary.

I started out a nervous ball of energy, feeling homesick, anxious, and a little weepy. Flying south with the east coast of the U.S. in the window, I tried to sleep off the urge to cry. When we landed at the Panama City Airport for our layover, my nerves downgraded to mild. The Hub of the Americas reassured me with its early 1990’s décor and ridiculously high end shopping. Just like when I first moved to Louisiana – I realized that in many new places things are different, but not that different.

Once we landed in Lima, most of my nerves were gone. The airport was bright and friendly. Immigration and customs were a breeze. We got our new SIM cards and hopped into the hostel car service. We’re staying at The Healing Dog hostel, which is complete with its own Peruvian Hairless Dog, Pisco. We decided to start out in a 6-person dorm to see if we could handle the cheaper option. Verdict: it’s okay, with earplugs. We have private rooms for the next two cities.

Day one was filled with travel gaffes. First, we spent way too many soles on coffee. Then we went on an odyssey around a high end mall to get our Machu Picchu tickets reprinted (I lost the reservation number.) Then we got ripped off by a cab driver. But the day was also filled with good food, new scenery, and general settling in.

Day two left us more empowered. We took off from the hostel early to meet with Ensena Peru (a Teach for America cousin) and visit with teachers and students. We will post about this experience soon – in short, it was wonderful and energizing. The visit reaffirmed that visiting schools around the world is the right thing for us to focus on. My ball of nerves is nowhere to be found.

There are some great blog posts out there about dealing with travel fears, filled with excellent advice. The trouble is that none of that perspective actually eliminates the anxiety, it mostly assures you it will pass. But this is okay, because I don’t want to eliminate the fear, I want to overcome it. When you are scared, or homesick, or worried and that feeling passes it is transformed into freedom, empowerment, and a smaller, more familiar world. This has now happened once, and I look forward to it happening many more times in the coming months. Thank you, Peru, for being my first anxiety transformed.

Cheers,

Elizabeth