Malawi: The Arrival
So I’ve made it through my first week in Malawi. My travel here was as painless as two days of traveling can be. I did almost have a minor heart attack at the airport in Baltimore: the ticketing agent mistakenly put “international visa required” on my boarding passes, and security wouldn’t let me through without the visa (which I didn’t actually need). Eventually the security folks decided that I could pass through for the flight to Atlanta and could sort of the South African leg at the gate. And, indeed, at the gate, the agent confirmed that I did not need a visa for a stay of less than 24 hours. (When I passed through South Africa’s passport control, they didn’t even ask how long I was staying---they just issued me a temporary visa).
I had another small bump in the road when I checked in for the flight from Johannesburg to Lilongwe. South African Air weighs all your bags---carry on and checked---before letting you up to the ticket counter. My carry-on bag was about 5 kilos too heavy, and my baggage, which was well within the weight limits for international flights from the United States, was a smidge overweight.* I did some last-minute shifting, and eventually they let me through just to get me out of the way.
All of my luggage arrived in tact in Lilongwe, and I was greeted by a representative from the U.S. Embassy, who escorted me to the guest house that had been arranged for me. I felt very official! The guest house is lovely---very comfortable---with hot showers and high-speed Internet and satellite television. The only downside is that I’m the only one here. It’s only recently opened, and the proprietor is counting on word of mouth to find guests. I feel a bit colonial, having this nice house with a full staff all to myself.
My first day was full of meetings and errands to get set up. I have an official embassy badge! Which generally won’t do me much good as I’ll be several hours from the minibus for most of my stay.
Part of the first day was a security briefing, which was interesting if not terribly useful. The gist of the briefing was that Malawi is a dark and dangerous place, filled with desperate people who cannot be trusted.** We, however, can lift them out of their desperation and civilize them by employing them in menial labor.
I also got a glimpse of how the other---ex-patriot---half lives. The others at the security briefing were all foreign service officers and their families, who live in embassy housing, with full staffs and “safe haven” rooms and cars and such. Part of me is rather judgmental of their lifestyle; it seems a bit excessive in one of the poorest countries of the world. It’s no wonder that they are targeted for home invasions and carjackings and such. A more sympathetic part of me thinks, I only have to endure deprivation for 10 months. This is their life; they will be here for several years; most of them have come from positions in other poor nations; many of them will go on to similar positions after this. In the meantime, I’ll return to my comfortable home in the States.
Still, I failed to be terribly sympathetic when I ran into two of them today as they discussed the difficulties of bringing in trampolines and household supplies. (Um, perhaps go to the market to buy your household items so you can support the local economy rather than spending a fortune in government dollars to ship things from the States.)
So this update is going very long. And I still have to tell you about my adventures with “African Time” and the wedding weekend. But I think I’ll end here and post the rest in a day or two.
* Despite some last-minute packing panic, I did an admirable job of packing for 10 months. I did wind up with two checked bags, but one was only 40 lbs and the other about 25 lbs. Of course, I’m already regretting some of the things that I left behind, as well as some of the things that I brought (note to self: check that the elastic in one’s skirts has not gone before packing).
** For what it’s worth, I’ve yet to have any security problems in Malawi. I’ve occasionally been unnerved when I get caught out after dark or a drunk and/or crazy person targets me for his attentions. But I’ve more generally found that Malawians are as friendly, helpful, and trustworthy as people anywhere, and that someone will invariably come to the rescue of a lone, white woman who looks as lost as she feels.