Friday, January 27, 2012

Arrival in Africa

I arrived in Lilongwe last Saturday night, the 21st, after approximately 26 hours of traveling. That's 4 flights, 5 airports, and 3 continents. 

Stairs leading to gate 3
The moment I got off the plane in the Nairobi airport, I knew I was in Africa. No airy glass and metal terminal here, rather a narrow and humid hallway, with a cracked tile floor and a 1970s decor. It was lined on one side by shops selling typical airport fare, and on the other side by benches housing a variety of travellers, including groups of African nuns in full habit. I ducked into the bathroom, where I got to use my first (and so far only) squat toilet of the trip, much to the admiration of the other foreigner there. (I turned out to be on the same flight as that woman, who in turn had run into the woman sitting next to her earlier in the bathroom... this was not a particularly large or busy airport, in other words). 

Past the security checkpoint
I wandered down the terminal and found my gate at the very end of the hall, down a narrow set of stairs that looked more like they'd lead to a restaurant bathroom than to a security checkpoint and boarding area. I was handed a laminated boarding card in exchange for my ticket, went through the 70s-era security checkpoint, and had a seat. The change of pace ("African time", some call it) was evident - no hum of activity at the gate, none of the urgency you'd see in a European or American airport. In fact, aside from the people working the security checkpoint, I didn't see any airline or airport employees around at all. About 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave, the doors to the tarmac were suddenly opened and we lined up, turned in our boarding cards, and walked the 50m to the plane. I cast a brief glance at the passing baggage cart, wondering whether my checked luggage would make it to Lilongwe intact and on-time - accounts from past travellers to Lilongwe suggested the odds were not high.

On board, I found myself seated in front of the two women I mentioned earlier. We chatted a bit about where we came from and where we were going: the woman I'd met in the bathroom earlier was travelling outside the US for the first time, off to spend 5 years teaching at a rural school in Malawi, while the other worked for a Seattle-based NGO and was travelling on to Lusaka for work. As the plane pulled away from the terminal, our conversation was interrupted by an announcement over the PA that they would now be spraying the cabin with insecticide, and though this would not be harmful to us, we were welcome to cover our mouth and nose with a handkerchief. The other Africa newbie and I stare at each other, clearly both wondering if we had heard that right. Now (and bear in mind I toured a handful of WW2 sites in Poland a few summers ago), I immediately pictured insecticide pouring out of the overhead vents, but it turned out to be lower-tech than that: a crew member ran up and down the aisle with a bottle of bug spray in each hand, Africa's version of the de-icing ritual familiar to anyone who has flown in Canada during the winter.

The rest of the flight was largely uneventful, and I arrived in Lilongwe more or less on-time, at 10:55pm. Most days there are only about half a dozen flights coming into Kamuzu International Airport, and we were definitely the last one to arrive that day. Half the lights in the terminal were off (this might be the case during the day, too, but it sure felt like they were just waiting to go home), and customs was not particularly thorough: people wandered back and forth past the desks, and I got my passport stamped without being asked a thing.

About a dozen pieces of luggage were already making the rounds on the belt, including my backpack. Hurray, I thought, my luggage made it! I waited a minute, hoping my suitcase would also show up, until a nearby airport employee informed me (and others) that all the luggage was already off the plane. Sigh. No suitcase. A form was filled out, my hotel's number was left as a contact, and off I went. 

Would you let this
book into your country?
A very cursory search was done on exit by an airport employee (she unzipped my backpack, examined my copy of Startide Rising, and let me go). Two meters further, a pair of police officers stopped me and asked to search my duffel bag. Having heard stories of police corruption from several people, including the Malawian who had spoken to us during CCA training, I was instantly worried. Thankfully, they'd asked to see the duffel bag (containing toothpaste, books, and a change of clothes), rather than the messenger bag (containing my laptop, camera, and all my cash). They opened up my bathroom kit and flipped through my sudoku book before letting me go. Surprisingly uneventful.

Daniel, the IT manager from MUSCCO, was waiting for me outside the security area, and we hopped in his car for the drive into town. It was the middle of the night and there are no streetlights here, so there wasn't much to see, but apparently we passed the site of Madonna's ill-fated development project. Dan apologized for the state of the roads, but honestly, the road leading to the airport was not bad at all. Not as nice as a Canadian highway, but equivalent or better than a large portion of residential roads in Montreal. Now, the alley leading to the hotel entrance was another matter - a dirt road with potholes filled in with bricks.

Bridgeview Hotel
(Courtesy of
Bridgeview Hotel, while not quite Sheraton-level, was clean and spacious and equivalent to any number of budget hotels you'd find in North America. Aside from the fact that I could feel every spring in the mattress, and the shower head came off in my hand when I tried to turn it. (I showered without the head that morning, which is quite fun it turns out: like showering with a warm garden hose). After travelling so long, I wasn't picky - I would have slept soundly on the floor. 

I'll be posting more stories and impressions of my first week over the next few days. More pictures will be coming, too - unfortunately for this blog post, there wasn't much to take pictures of in the middle of the night, and I was worried about pulling out my camera too much inside the airport. (It would probably have been too dark inside the terminal, anyway.)


  1. I can see why Malawi wouldn't want to allow books about dolphin space pilots into the country. ;)

  2. Major flashbacks reading this: The de-licing on the airplane, the feel of the airport, the potentially awkward (or much worse) interactions with the police... all that stuff brings back (mixed) feelings & memories.

    Have fun. I look forward to more updates, thanks for the notification on FB.

  3. Glad everything went so... well? Fascinating reading the details about the airport and the process. Go go go! :)

  4. That airport actually sounds kinda refreshing. Simple, utilitarian, and nonchalant, as opposed to "North American Gattica."

    BTW, what kind of car did he drive? I'm still trying to dispel the notion that everyone in Africa drives 1970's Land Cruisers and flatbed Toyota pickups.

    Thanks for sharing, and keep up the posts!

  5. He picked me up from the airport in a station wagon of some kind, but I think it was a company car or rental or something like that. The other company car we've driven is a Nissan compact pickup. He drives to work in something Corolla-esque, but I don't think it was actually a Toyota... maybe a Nissan too. Sorry to say Toyotas are everywhere here, though. He was amused to learn that I thought Toyotas were the most popular car in Canada, too. :)

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