First Impressions of Malawi

8 hours by car from Reno to LA. 10 hours from LA to London. 1.5 from London to Oxford. 1.5 from Oxford to London. 3 to Rome then 6 to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Wait around for 15 hours). 5 hours to Harare, Zimbabwe and then 1.5 to Lilongwe. The grand total: 36.5 hours spent on moving vehicles in 5 days.

I had been sweating about clearing immigration in Lilongwe ever since we were hassled in London by Ethiopian Airways for only having a one way flight. Every time I would try and sleep on the airplane I would pull the eyemask down and scenarios and stories would run through my head: we are making a tour in Southern Africa of microfinance practices, we'll be in Malawi for 3 weeks then head to Zambia. But what if they notice that Claudia already has two stamps for Malawi? Sweating in an eyemask is not conducive to sleep.

Despite losing months of my life due to stress and sleeplessness, we sailed through immigration, grabbed our luggage and met Patrick, Claudia's jolly procurement officer at OIBM.

The green landscape surrounded us. The oddest thing about the landscape here, is that there seems to be a sparseness to the trees. Everything looks so green, that I would expect jungle to start where the pavement ends, but it is not the case. There are big open areas of green, many farmed, many just "bush", meaning non-tree scrub vegetation.

Our drive from the airport welcomed us to "Real Africa". Women carrying huge items on their heads, 4 year old children tending crops, men with rolled up umbrellas in one hand, and machetes in the other. A white family in a Landcruiser that we had spotted in Addis, zoomed past us in green Landcruiser. This is not the Africa of Lion King, this is Africa as it really is.

Our first few weeks we will be spent at Ufulu Gardens, a sort of African home away from Western home sort of place. It is a very nice fully fitted two bedroom house. I was so happy to see that there were screens on the windows. I had seen pictures of the interior of houses, and all of the windows I saw were made up of rows of 6 inch tall glass that could be rotated to let more or less air in. But I never saw any screens, and I was dreading a years long battle with mosquitoes. But, at least at Ufulu, there were screens and this made me very happy. One can never guess from where comfort will be found in a new place, but the screens were a start for me. Insects outwit screens though, and within hours I had killed a gigantic flying bug.

We slept the day away, and woke up in the afternoon. We had about 10 dollars worth of Kwacha, the local currency, and we needed to pick up something for the party so we ventured into town after Patrick dropped off a little Toyota four door for us to use. Lilongwe is elusive. There are a few concentrations of buildings around, but there are a lot more isolated buildings surrounded by bush. Roads with huge potholes, loads of people walking along, and no buildings in sight, betray the capital status of Lilongwe. We encountered 2 stoplights. Red lights don't seem to imply waiting, which I think I can get used to, but at one point I had a green arrow and cars kept coming and that was unsettling. Oh yeah, and stopsigns don't exist - even at a four way intersection. Good thing I was taught "Defensive Driving" by Mr Clemson, who also happened to be Reno's number one love song DJ, Dick Richards. If he could only see me now. We went to Shop-Rite, an African grocery store chain. Parking was an absolute nightmare - not unlike those sliding picture puzzles, where there is one possible configuration to make the picture look right, but only one tile can be slid at a time. Except that each tile had a mind of its own, and I had no idea what I was doing. Shop-Rite was impressive and crowded, it will be very easy (barring parking) to get just about any type of food we would want here. In fact I would call grocery shopping here a definite improvement over the central Oxford Sainsbury's that has sustained us for the past three years.

We got home around dinner time. Ufulu Gardens provides us with breakfast in our house, as well as daily cleaning. It will be a good way to get used to the concept of having servants around. So we had them make us a little meal for dinner, which was good, but kinda weird to just come out to your own dining room and find a whole meal waiting there for us.

Our first day was New Year's Eve and We had been invited to a party thrown by someone Claudia had met on an earlier visit. It was our first foray into the life of African expats. There were people there from all over the world: the US, Spain, Germany, Lebanon, India. Not a single person from Africa. We had Peace Corps staff, people from relief agencies, a guy that runs a hair extension factory, and some Americans that are pretty much doing whatever they can to ensure that they remain in Malawi and don't have to return home.

It was more social comfort then we found in Oxford in our first 6 months. The food was great, the conversations easy and interesting. It was easy to see how one could slip into a lifestyle of parties at big sprawling homes surrounded by similar minded people. Of course, this isn't why we came, but it is awfully nice to know that it is there when we need it.

The New Year rang in, and with it our new life in Malawi. Would we get Malaria 9 times like one guy I met has? Would we have stories of robberies and swindles? Would we be celebrating New Years in Lilongwe in 2010? Will we even make it to February 1st?

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