Well, we are in Lilongwe, the capitol of Malawi. We arrived Friday afternoon and considering thirty of us left Washington with tons of luggage, the travel went amazingly smoothly. The only problem was our original bus to the airport was an hour late as it was waiting at the wrong hotel. Funny that the only travel glitch was in D.C., but when it finally arrived, we loaded the thousands of pounds of luggage and set off for Dulles. Those of us going to Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi were flying through Ethiopia and we traveled that far together. From Addis Ababa we went our separate ways; Malawi was another four hour flight.
Landing at Kamuzu airport, a sweet little welcoming committee awaited. Towela, the Malawian coordinator for Peace Corps was there. We’d met her in D.C. so she was a familiar face. Carol, the Peace Corps country director was also there as well as Robin, who is another Peace Corps employee. They stood on the tarmac as we descended the plane and warmly shook our hands welcoming us to Malawi. (The arrival could not have been more different from my arrival in Congo when all I could think of was how to get back on that plane to leave.) They guided us easily through customs and baggage claim, where all our luggage arrived intact. (That seemed a reason to celebrate, as I recalled none of my bags made it to Lubumbashi with me.) We gave a cheer and pushed our carts into the main entrance where a group of Peace Corps personnel and volunteers greeted us with banners and smiles. Smiling all over the place, we walked out into the balmy air to the waiting vans, where we were handed cool bottles of drinking water while the employees loaded all our bags into the vans. Sweet. So far, this has been anything but a hardship.
It was about 2:30 p.m. when we arrived at the hotel and there was a frenzy of activity getting the rooms assigned and unloading the vans of luggage. We were all exhausted and I thought we’d just go to our rooms and crash, but we had an orientation meeting from 3 to 5, so had to be back downstairs straightaway. There was a room set up for us with more bottled water and tea and “snacks” which were more substantial than many meals I’ve had. Chicken wings, egg rolls, scones, and “eggs mayonnaise” sandwiches were laid out on platters to go along with our tea. We had a safety session with practical information and lists of risks and what constituted appropriate behavior. It wasn’t really anything that we hadn’t already heard, except that walking in the city at night is more than discouraged, it’s prohibited. It’s not that we can’t go out, but we have to take taxis, even if we are only going a few blocks. Apparently they have had a few incidents with theft and assaults, and it’s a good thing to cut down on theft and assault, so no problem complying with all that.
Carol outlined the situation in Malawi with food supply. I hadn’t known this, but there was flooding last year in the south followed by drought and consequently the food situation is dire. The prediction is that six million of the sixteen million people living here will experience famine this year. I looked over at the “snacks” and felt a little guilty. It’s expected that there will be more theft and unrest as the food situation worsens. Guess I’ll keep you posted on that one.
After the safety talk, we had two hours to ourselves before dinner. I hadn’t intended to eat dinner at all since we did nothing but sit on our butts for the previous twenty hours being fed carbohydrates and drinks at regular intervals. But, they went to all that trouble and it was fun getting to know each other in our smaller group and it was exciting just getting here and being together in the hotel, so we straggled down after a rest to a rather nice dinner in the dining room. The hotel is very simple but very comfortable. The meals are served buffet style in chafing dishes and have several choices including chicken and beef, a bit like conference food. We’d been warned not to eat fresh salad, but I ate it anyway, thinking I might as well get started on the inevitable diarrhea and get it over with.
Note: They don’t serve beer or wine at this hotel. Must plan ahead.
At dinner someone asked how George and I met and we had a riveted audience as we told the train station story. (Note: Must write that up to send to Amtrak. People seem interested.) A few of them are still talking about it today and two have a movie all laid out. We thought that was cute.
We slept like the dead that night, and I woke up the next morning all readjusted and more rested than I was in D.C. I could not sleep there. I think the air-conditioning in that hotel had some mold in it, or the rug did or something, because I had a hard time breathing at night and my legs became covered in a weird itchy rash. I also got laryngitis! I haven’t had that since college! Now that I’m away from Washington, my throat is clear, my rash is going away, and my only remaining disabilities are the broken toe from a woman stepping on it at breakfast, (and I mean crushed it with her heel), and a bruise on my upper arm from a tumbling suitcase coming off the bus. Other than that, I’m tippy-top again!
The first morning (yesterday) started with a buffet breakfast, followed by forms to be filled out for our bank accounts. This was brilliant. We had all the forms placed in front of us, of which there were many, and a power point presentation was given on how to fill them out step by step. As each new slide went up, we filled in that page. I marveled at the efficiency of this. When we were done, they were collected to take to the bank for our accounts to be opened for us. I shuddered to think what it would have been like to go to the bank to do that ourselves. It would have taken days. A health talk (much of which we’d heard in D.C.) came next, and then a field trip to the phone store where we could buy sims cards for our phones. Ok, this is where they started losing me. Here we go with the technology.
I didn’t realize that in order to have a sims card work in your phone, you need to get your phone unlocked. When I cancelled my phone service (since I wouldn’t be needing it this year), I figured the phone itself was mine to do what I wanted with it. But no, silly me, that’s not how this works. Others, apparently knew this, but I missed that memo. So after waiting in line, getting the card, paying for the data or time or something (I’m not sure exactly what we were paying for; I just went along with what everyone else was doing), cutting the card to fit, sanding the edges with the emery board I happened to have in my purse, rejoicing when it fit, it turns out I can’t use my phone with it because my phone is locked. “Well, unlock it”, you say! Hah! Silly you. That takes years of training and high speed internet and a birth certificate dated after 1986! The younger crowd tried to help, looking on with pity. George’s phone also wouldn’t work, even though he did send in a request for the AT&T gods to unlock his phone five weeks ago. But when we finally got connected to the internet and looked up his unlock request, it was recorded as “in progress”. That’s from five weeks ago. Then I wanted to know why we even needed a phone if we had internet and could email. I told everyone my iPhone works fine with my own sims card. I had texted my daughter, I told them! It went through just fine! One of the kind young nurses looked at me and said, “You mean you i messaged?” I asked, “Isn’t that the same as a text?” Well, no apparently it’s not. I give up. I plan to buy a cheap phone here (Peace Corps requires we have a phone) and use the new sims card in it and leave mine incarcerated. God. Last time I was here we had no way to communicate and it seemed fine. I don’t know what all the hoo ha is about.
After all that, we had medical meetings, then free time for the evening. George and I walked up to the Lilongwe Hotel where I had stayed when arriving in Malawi in 1979. It’s still there, though bought by a big company and upgraded. Walking is not pleasant here in Lilongwe. The traffic is merciless and crossing the street is dangerous. We didn’t have long before nightfall so we quickly walked over to another restaurant to meet up with everyone else for drinks and dinner.
It was a small restaurant with tiled floors and walls, and a big veranda close to the road with outside tables under a tin roof. The sun sets quickly here; there is no dusk, and just as we were all seated, the darkness fell. And it really falls. It takes about fifteen minutes for it to go from day to night. Three candles were brought to the long table the sixteen of us occupied and it was balmy and exotic and worth all the effort of the past months. We talked about where we’d come from and shared stories of other adventures. We drank and ate, and as I watched all the eager faces in the candlelight, I thought of how glad I was to be doing this again. We’re being cared for. We can communicate in English. The experience seems cushier than the last but still exciting and, hopefully, meaningful.
More orientation today and tomorrow, then Tuesday we go to Kasungu village to stay with families there for four days. We’ll do language training in the village as well as cross cultural lessons. This is a new aspect of Peace Corps training since my experience decades ago and I am looking forward to it! I’m struggling to remember some Chichewa. A few words and phrases are coming back to me, but it’s a been a long time and I wasn’t very fluent way back when.
I hadn’t thought I had much to write about, but feel eager to share all the details, even if they seem mundane. This coming week should have more interesting experiences, though I’m not quite sure how next weekend will unfold. The schedule says we spend time at a resort in Salima where I did training with my original Peace Corps group. There was certainly no resort there back then, so I’m eager to see what changes have been made in that village. Then we spend a day at a game reserve near there that must be new as well.
We have met our language teachers. Mine is named Deidrick and showed up for class in a full tuxedo with pleated shirt and black tie. No tails. I feel a little underdressed. Off we go! More next week!
Love to all,