Posted by: Caroline | March 3, 2010

Muzungus in Monkey Bay

When we pulled up to the Monkey Bay bus station, we couldn’t even get out of our bus before someone hopped on, asking us where we were staying and telling us to come with him. We explained we had already picked out a hostel from our Lonely Planet guide, but he insisted that it had closed. This actually turned out to be true, unlike many of the things we were told in Monkey Bay. Typically we try not to patronize businesses that ambush travelers, but we were exhausted from another border day, so we went.

The “one kilometer” walk we were promised transformed into something much longer–trekking through enormous mud puddles much of the way–but the hostel was pleasantly situated in the village and right next to Lake Malawi (and a part of the lake reputedly free of the parasitic disease schistosomiasis). The lake was beautiful and perfect for swimming.

Its location within Monkey Bay village was an important asset; it meant we got to speak with a lot of local people and see how they lived. Although Malawians of all ages are famous for their friendly demeanors, the children go spastic when they see a foreigner. Kids flocked to us without hesitation, and each time we looked behind us on our walk to town, we saw more and more children, all shouting “Muzungu! MUZUNGU!” (the Chichewa word for “white person”). The bolder ones grabbed onto our hands (or our arms if the hands were already occupied by other children), singing a half-Chichewa/half-English version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” all the way. We had to be incredibly persistent to get them to go back home after twenty minutes of walking; we decided that arriving in town with 20 Malawian children in tow might cause alarm.

Alex helps some of the kids traverse the muddy road.

Everyone you meet in Malawi will not only say hello; they will ask where you are from, what you are doing here, what your profession is, and essentially extract your entire life story in a matter of minutes. Traditionally this is true friendliness, but at a tourist magnet like our hostel, we discovered it is usually just a prelude to a salesman’s spiel.

At Scammers-in-Training–sorry, I mean Venice Beach Backpackers–a band of local young men had buddied up with the hotel manager enough that they could spend all day under the thatched-roof beachside gazebo spotting and luring unsuspecting tourists into their expensive traps. Over a mere two days in Monkey Bay, we were hassled to purchase beach-themed jewelry, a “free” ride to town where we would be asked for money afterward, and a combination snorkel/fish fry tour to a nearby island that we wouldn’t be allowed to tell our hotel about (because of “jealousies”). The tour would cost $120 plus some of Alex’s clothes (WHAT???). He particularly coveted Alex’s new Mozambique flag shirt and decided this was absolutely the fairest price he could offer.

A key component of all these scams was the relaxed, reggae-style, beach bum, “I’m your new best friend” approach. Our favorite scams included an invitation to a fire/drum party they were having on the beach where we could come take photos for “not very much money” (this did not take place of course when we made it clear we weren’t paying for anything) and one of the guys telling us on our departure day that all the buses had left and we would just have to pay him to take us all the way to our next destination. Actually, there was a bus waiting to leave at exactly the same time as we arrived in town, with dozens more to follow.

Despite the scams, Monkey Bay was a relaxing and enjoyable laze-by-the-beach recovery after our hard days of travel in Mozambique.



  1. I love seeing you with the children! I knew Caroline had it in her to connect since she did so well in Nicaragua. What an experience for you!


  2. […] trail had a bunch of stalls selling basic stuff. No hassle whatsoever, in stark contrast to so many places we have visited before. There was an exotic quality to the place that made these among the better […]

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