An early start today. Contrary to my preconceptions about laid back African living, Malawi seems to be an early to bed early to rise kind of place; perhaps not surprisingly when it goes dark (and by dark I mean pitch black as there are no street lights; even city dwellers rarely have electricity) soon after 6pm.

An early start today. Contrary to my preconceptions about laid back African living, Malawi seems to be an early to bed early to rise kind of place; perhaps not surprisingly when it goes dark (and by dark I mean pitch black as there are no street lights; even city dwellers rarely have electricity) soon after 6pm.

Our first meeting is with the Civil Service Trade Union. Both the general secretary Pontius Kalichero and his treasurer are smartly dressed and hold or used to have government jobs. But even they have to have a second income; Mr Kalichero has a small farm a few hours drive away. Other colleagues have to make terrible sacrifices to make ends meet; Mr Kalichero tells us of women civil servants driven to sleeping with their bosses for money. None of this helps the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS....

Driving around Lilongwe between appointments there are women with babies tied to their backs, shawls seemingly everywhere and numerous markets selling curios - although so far I have seen about two tourists. I am also surprised by the small number of beggars and hawkers, although some barefoot boys, a girl who looks like she might have learning difficulties and a man with twisted limbs are a constant presence on one traffic-clogged road.

Phone booths with with the sort of phone you would expect to find in a house or office line the streets, staffed by young women, although mobile phone use is also common. Road side shops sell everything from coffins (customers pay extra for a glass pane to see the deceased) to cane furniture..

Patrick changes some money for us. You get about 145 Malawian kwacha to the dollar (or about 267 to the pound). He hands us thousands of notes, many in denominations of 500 kwacha. There are few coins. Maths was never my strong point and it soon becomes all but impossible to keep track of what anything costs...

Upon leaving Lilongwe to head to the second city of Blantyre I am struck by.how quickly the city ends and the open countryside begins. There are no suburbs or shanty towns.

Nor is there much industrialisation. Ninety per cent of the land has been deforested for charcoal (huge stacks of which are sold illegally by the roadside) and there are no factories. There are bottling plants for the ubiquitous Coca-Cola and Carlsberg. All the supermarkets and big shops employ Malawians but are run by Asians or other foreigners.- widely assumed by Malawians to all be rich, and they are probably right. All packaged food is South African.

Although 80 per cent of the population still lives in the countryside, agriculture continues to be operated on a terrifyingly small scale, without machines or even animals to help cultivate the land. The weather can be unpredictable and variable, and droughts are common. The last 'hunger' (food crisis) was just two years ago.

Mineral resources are all but non-existent. There is talk of uranium being found in the north but the main hope seems to be plans for a port, although heaven knows at what environmental cost.

I am glad I'm not driving because in addition to the constant stream of pedestrians - women with babies on their backs, men, women and children with loads on their heads ranging from pails of water to huge stacks of firewood - small children constantly run to the edge of the road with vegetables and live chickens for sale. There are also a lot of bicycles around; in areas with few cars these include many which work as a taxi with a passenger perched on the back.

An astonishing 80 per cent of the population live in the countryside and we pass many villages. Some are made of mud, some of mud bricks. Some have windows and other shutters. There are also several churches and a surprising number of mosques; the Central region in particular has a significant Muslim population but they live peacefully alongside Christians.

We are driving too fast for my camera to work so I try to take pictures in my head. A man walking along in a woven grain silo so big that he cannot see out of it. Small boys selling roasted mice (Patrick assures us they are delicious). A woman lifting her baby in and out of a dish of water......

We pass a long street of people coming from a village onto the main road. Patrick explains that it must be a funeral as the whole village has turned out and 'they look sad'. If they had looked happy it would have been a wedding..

Our long way round to Blantrye (including a stop off at the airport to get our luggage which has thankfully arrived) includes a quick trip to Lake Malawi, Malawi's biggest tourist attraction and the source of a national dish, the chomba fish. We are astonished to find that the lake is tidal, with waves lapping onto white sand dotted with palm trees. This is where the ex pats come to chill out though there are some wealthy locals (we bump into Patrick's boss, who has a weekend cottage nearby) enjoying the surroundings too.

Karen and I are amazed to hear a Northumberland accent; the woman's husband works for DFID and they have been here for nine years.

Incredibly, nights at the hotel whose beach we stand on only cost $40 a night; still far beyond the reach of most Malawians.

On the four-hour drive to Blantrye we continue bombarding Patrick with questions which he cheerfully answers, although he struggles to always understand mine and Claire's accents (she is Australian and I am from Northern England). He is incredibly well-informed about Malawian life, politics and culture - far better than any tour guide and funny to boot.