“Looking Is For Free!”

The journey through Malawi and Zambia to the half way point of our tour, Livingston, was my least favourite stretch of the entire trip (apart from several good evenings in campsite bars.) This was because I found the main highlight – Lake Malawi – disappointing. It’s the world’s eight largest lake, so on paper it should be interesting, but the water was murky, the beaches weren’t anything special, it was a mosquito magnet, and we encountered the largest, most unpleasant and persistent swam of flies known to Man. To my mind,

the campsites in these countries were those that fell into the ‘pointless stopover’ category.

We did however take the opportunity to hone our bargaining skills at local curios markets. I thought time-share reps in Tenerife were a pest until I met the traders on these stalls! They would try to shake your hand, ask your name, engage you in conversation about London (whether you lived there or not), follow you like a shadow around their stall and generously exclaim: “Looking is for free!” The phrase hapana sante – no thank you – came in handy. Some of the wooden carvings and paintings were stunning but surprisingly not that cheap, even after shameless haggling. However, we discovered that they were keen for part-payment in the form of virtually anything Western, from women’s fashion magazines, hairbands, batteries, clothes and pens. I felt like a complete fraud, touting around an old black hairband and cheap blue biro, but sure enough these were deemed worthy of exchange for a bracelet. Baggage allowance permitting, it would have been sensible to pack an old pair of jeans because clever negotiation could swiftly convert these into a beautifully carved wooden table!

Aside from the Lake, it was nonetheless fascinating to travel through the endless stream of rural communities and see the dwellings change from the tin-rooved shacks of Tanzania to the neat, round huts of Malawi. I had hoped to see something of the urban landscapes too, but the Acacia Africa itinerary only included cursory visits to the country’s capitals, Lilongwe (Malawi) and Lusaka (Zambia), namely to upmarket retail parks on the outskirts. These evidently serve as the recreation and shopping destinations of the privileged. Obviously it is debatable how much we could read into our short perusal of the two cities’ retail parks, but I can say that Zambia was the first place where we didn’t feel like fish out of water. We weren’t stared at for once (there were other white people around), the spoken English was easily understandable to us, and there were even some flashy cars in the car parks! It felt distinctly more international. I was naively taken aback to see these complexes awash with familiar brands that I hadn’t realised were so global – Spar, Subway, Nando’s, BP petrol stations (in Zambia) and numerous Barclay’s Bank cashpoints (differing from those in the UK by the presence of a heavily armed guard!)

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