Archive for September, 2008

A Brief Update and More Monkey Tales

September 30, 2008

Yesterday, I made a step forward:  I got access to the campus library, complete with its wireless internet network.  This means that I have a place to work now (before I was working in my room in the guest house), and that I don’t have to bug the American professor to use his office for all my email needs anymore.  So, while I still can’t Skype (it is a library, after all), I should be a little better at answering email – or at least I won’t be able to use not having the internet as an excuse.

The library pales in comparison to Cornell (but then, I hear most university libraries do), but it is a nice place to work.  It’s all one big, long building, with work spaces around the outside and the stacks in the middle.  It reminds me a little of the physics library at Cornell – it’s about that scale and vintage, I would guess.  I think the study spaces may fill up in the afternoons and evenings, but in the mornings there are few people around.

I also met yesterday with my supervising professor (briefly) and with the Vice Principal, who is analogous to the College Vice President in the States (I think).  The highlight of the day, however, was when I went back to the guest house in the afternoon.  The gardener was there watering the flowers, and the monkeys were out playing in the water spurting out of the leaky hose.  I took a few photos, but the internet refuses to upload them for your viewing pleasure.

A look at this morning’s New York Times says that the US is going to hell in a handbasket.  Thoughts?

No witty title this morning

September 29, 2008

To those of you who have remarked that Malawi doesn’t seem all that different from the United States – well, it is, and it isn’t.  My experiences so far have been pretty sheltered as I’ve been shuttled between the nice parts of Lilongwe and Bunda, which is as affluent, at least in relative terms, as college campuses in the US.  While I’m complaining about not having hot water (and oh, how glorious was that hot shower), there are many people in Malawi who don’t have hot water, running water, or access to potable water at all.  Though the statistics for potable water are improving, I believe that something like 20 percent of the population still lacks access.

Malawi is small and land-locked.  Approximately 65 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line and 30 percent live in extreme poverty.  The average life expectancy here is only 37, and it is declining due to HIV/AIDS, with about 13 percent of the population infected.  The GNI per capital is around $160 USD.  This means, basically, that even given my relatively modest (in US terms) fellowship stipend, I am a rich person in this country.

Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa (about 13 million people in a land area the size of Pennsylvania), but most of the population remains rural.  (Whenever I read that particular statistic, I wonder exactly how “rural” is defined.)  Most people don’t have a cars, so you see people walking and biking at all hours of the day and night.  Those who have bikes have a platform over the back tire to hauling things – from produce to firewood to goats to tin roofing sheets.  I saw a kid with three cases of Coke strapped to the back of his the other day – and we’re not talking cardboard cartons of aluminum cans, but plastic cases of 24 glass bottles each.

Only about 10 percent of the population is employed in industry, but many people earn extra income by selling things on the street or in the market.  As a white person perceived to have money, I am often approached on the street, especially if I’m not looking busy.  I usually refuse, but sometimes, depending on their persistence, my tiredness, and how good their story is, I buy something.  I got a bunch of bananas for K200 on Saturday.  I’m not sure if I overpaid – I’m never sure how much negotiating is required in these situations – but it was a nominal sum of money for me.

Due to power shortages, we experience rolling blackouts from 6-8PM (or so) some days, though there’s no indication that the electricity will be out until it’s out.  I’ve discovered that the power shutdown here sounds the same as in horror movies – that soft and ominous FOOM as everything goes black and silent.

The mosquitoes here are smaller and trickier than in the US.  I’ve yet to see one land on me or anything else, though I’ve been bitten many times.  They are only minorly deterred by my concentrated DEET.  I sleep under a bed net, but they still get quite a few nibbles.  (Yes, Mom, I’ve been taking my anti-malarials…)  We’re still in the dry season, so I’m sure the mosquitoes will only get worse.  According to the locals, the rains are supposed to start in November this year.

Despite the extraordinary poverty, I am surprised by the degree to which some parts of Malawi are westernized.  Stores in Lilongwe sell clothes similar to what you’d find in the US.  The music here is a mix of local stuff and hits from the States.  They also seem to have a particular fondness for Shakira.  Our cable is back up and running in the guest house, and I was surprised/delighted to find that CNN carries…The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  If I weren’t so happy to hear snarky-but-accurate news coverage, the irony may have killed me.  (It’s not the regular broadcast, but the “global edition,” and I’m not sure how frequently it comes on – I just saw it on Saturday.)

I also caught a rerun of the debate, and don’t have much to say about it that hasn’t already been said.  I thought Obama had some opportunities to shine that he didn’t take, I’m tired of listening to McCain talk about earmarks as if THAT is what’s bringing the country down, and I’m glad to see that neither of our presidential candidates can pronounce Ahmadinejad without stumbling or choking.  I also thought Gail Collins had a fairly amusing description of McCain in her Saturday op-ed:

One thing we now know for sure. Electing John McCain would be God’s gift to the profession of journalism. A story a minute.

Imagine what would happen if a new beetle infested the Iowa corn crop during the first year of a McCain administration. On Monday, we spray. On Tuesday, we firebomb. On Wednesday, the president marches barefoot through the prairie in a show of support for Iowa farmers. On Thursday, the White House reveals that Wiley Flum, a postal worker from Willimantic, Conn., has been named the new beetle eradication czar. McCain says that Flum had shown “the instincts of a maverick reformer” in personally buying a box of roach motels and scattering them around the post office locker room. “I can’t wait to introduce Wiley to those beetles in Iowa,” the president adds.

On Friday, McCain announces he’s canceling the weekend until Congress makes the beetles go away.

Barack Obama would just round up a whole roomful of experts and come up with a plan. Yawn.

Though I may not be getting an “authentic” experience in some ways, I am grateful for the small luxuries (hot water, refrigeration, internet access) available to me…and wish that one of those small luxuries could be a washing machine.  I tackled laundry Saturday morning, and I have never missed the spin cycle more.  It wasn’t the washing that bothered me so much, and the rinsing seemed to go okay, too.  The wringing, on the other hand, means my clothes may never be the same again.  (They also may never be dry.)  There’s a clothesline in the back of my house, but no clothespins.  Fortunately, it’s in a walled courtyard, so things that flew off were at least in a contained space.  I may come to regret my ultra-light clothes-packing strategy.

This seems to have gotten quite long today, so I’ll sign off for now.  Coming soon, or whenever I can channel trauma into humor:  Amy eats a pig’s head – or part of it, at least.

Failed pioneering

September 26, 2008

I idolized Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child, and I used to think I could have been a pretty good pioneer.  I’m cool with candles, I can lift heavy things, and a sod house on the banks of plum creek wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world.  It took me a while to realize what the deal breaker would have been – no hot water (and, you know, lack of a time travel machine).

Since I arrived, there hasn’t been hot water in the guest house.  Sure, you can heat it on the stove, and I do, but you can’t just turn on the tap for instant, warm gratification.  (For the record, I have perfected “showering” with a small tub of warmish water.  My secret  is using a glass, so as to emulate a shower with very inconsistent pressure.)  To be honest, it hasn’t been THAT bad, it just takes more effort and longer prep time than hopping into the shower at home.  The weather is pretty warm here, so there are worse things to do than stand around soaking wet.  I probably could have even done a cold shower, but memories of the boiler going out at Telluride…on the weekends…in the dead of winter…left me too traumatized to even think about it.

All of this is to say, I am pleased that the hot water heater is apparently back in commission, though I still have to turn it on before I shower and off after.  This being a recent development, I haven’t tried it to find out how long it takes to heat up, and if the test run while the electrician/plumber dude was here, I have extraordinarily low water pressure to look forward to, but: hot water!  I have hot water!  (I hope.)

The seasons are stuck in a funny place – the trees have bloomed as if it were spring, but nothing will really turn green until the rains start in October or November. As I gear up for my second summer – temperatures are in the high 80s and 90s here; the sunshine is endless – I can’t help but miss fall, crisp evenings, and the Ithaca Farmers Market when the apples are piled high and it’s just cool enough to need a jacket.   I think I may have been meant for a more temperate climate.

Thursday morning musings

September 25, 2008

For anyone concerned about my interrupting my sleep schedule with presidential debates and (likely) ensuing rage, rest assured:  the cable in the guest house has disappeared, so there will be no debate viewing for me.  My housemate, who has been here several months, reports that the cable goes out every few months.  She has already began fighting to get it back, though I’m not clear if the problem is on the college’s end or with the service provider.

I met yesterday with my supervising professor.  It wasn’t a long meeting; he basically handed me a thick document on poverty reduction and told me to come back on Monday.  We did work out some logistics, though:  I now have a mailing address at the college (email me or comment if you want it), so I can receive package mail and letters where I am living.  (This will require international postage, though.)  The professor will also write me letters of introduction to various campus entities, including the library.  I can stay in the guest house as long as I want, provided I let them know how long I’m staying: we decided that maybe I should stay at least a month, so as to get settled.  I’m still weighing the benefits of living in town versus living here.  I imagine that a car will eventually become necessary for my research, so it’s really just a question of which way I want to commute.  Though everyone at the college has been very nice, intergration into the ex-pat community (in Lilongwe) may be more conducive to staving off homesickness/making friends then living here.  Expect more rumination on this in the coming month.

Yesterday also marked my first foray into local fruit.  I came back to the guest house around noon, and the housekeeper was carrying a strange, shiny, green fruit:  paw paw.  (I actually knew that there was a paw paw tree outside the house, but my housemate had reported that the monkeys swipe the fruit just as it is getting ripe.)  The housekeeper offered me some, so I took her up on it.  After it was cut up, it looked like mango, but tasty kind of like papaya – maybe with a little stronger flavor.  (Obviously, I can only describe it in terms of what I already know – I was going to post a photo, but the internet is too slow today.)

I also realized the great key of living inexpensively here:  buy local.  (I know, I know – this probably should have been obvious earlier.)  I mentioned to the American professor that I needed something to use as a yoga mat, and he told me he’d ask his houseboy to look at the local market.  This morning the American professor appeared with a mat made of woven grass (or maybe palm fronds?), probably 5′ X 2.5′.  How much was it?  K300.  (A little over $2.)  It’s already making my room smell nice, and should work pretty well for yoga.  I may put a blanket under it for a little cushion, but it will solve my main problem:  slippage.  (The floors here are concrete – the very smooth and slippery kind.)  The most interesting thing about the mat is probably that it came rolled up and tied with a little piece of very tough black string, which is actually a piece of tire tread.  The vocational school outside Lilongwe (and probably other places, too) shred (untread?) worn out tires into long strips and sell the rubber to use as string, fencing, etc.  Malawians obviously have confidence in its strength; yesterday on the way to town, I saw a man on a bicycle with probably 12 dozen eggs (in flats) tied to the back of his bicycle with two pieces of the same rubber.

Though the various tourist guides I have caution that many Africans feel that conservation is luxury they cannot afford, they are great recyclers – and, it seems, often recyclers of discarded first world goods.  I had to smile a rueful smile when I saw a man on a bicycle wearing an 80s nylon Wisconsin Dells jacket, because I doubt he could locate the Dells on a map or had ever visited.  Rather, it was likely a castoff of some American thrift store.  This phenomenon creates an interesting and sometimes jarring contrast: it’s common to see t-shirts with “Brat” emblazoned across them worn with traditional skirts, and American 5K race t-shirts 6000 miles from home.

Security…or something

September 23, 2008

For a country that has a relatively low reported crime rate, Malawi is obsessed with security. My guest house, for example, which is located on the edge of the college campus, is surrounded by a high (though certainly scalable) fence and has a gate that is locked at night, as well as locking front and room doors. Additionally, there are two security guards on duty around the clock, who, as far as I can tell, do little besides open and close the gate for entering cars and pedestrians. There are uniformed security guards throughout campus, too, most of whom have posts (generally folding chairs next to buildings), and who seem to serve similar functions.

I’m not sure if the presence of security is rooted in theories of deterrence, paranoia, or job creation, but it is prevalent throughout the parts of the country that I’ve seen so far (admittedly, not that much). Grocery stores and hotels all have their own security forces. Grocery stores and some shops also have turnstiles to enter, and security gates (like the ones that keep you from stealing books from the library) to exit. There are frequent police “roadblocks” along the main road, which mostly show the vehicular traffic who’s boss, though I’ve heard that the police occasionally check insurance or overloaded minibuses as well.

For all that it has a prominently displayed presence, though, the security is pretty idiosyncratic. The police (reportedly) don’t work at night. My security guards fall asleep on the job in the evenings and rarely wake up until after I’m through the gate – and I’m not trying to be particularly quick or sneaky. I wasn’t allowed to take my cell phone or laptop into the Embassy, but when I set off the metal detector, the guard made no attempt to figure out why, just handed me a visitor’s badge.

This is not to say that there are no risks in Malawi, of course; I take precautions against petty thievery and remain vigilant. Most places are not terribly well-lit at night, and I tend to stay inside after dark. Still, I’ve not felt particularly unsafe here. Street vendors are eager to target white people, but, at least so far, have tended to back off when disinterest is clearly stated. I’ve certainly had more frightening encounters in DC.

My official security briefing is tomorrow, and I’m sure I will have further thoughts on the subject then.

In other news, CNN will be broadcasting the US Presidential Debate live at 3 AM on Saturday morning. I am seriously contemplating watching, if only because I want to see if Obama can follow Maureen Dowd/Aaron Sorkin’s lead and do some rhetorical ass-kicking.   Fingers crossed!

Guest house

Guest house

This is the guest house (or, half of it – my room is to the right of the photo), surrounded, obviously, by the security fence.  Yes, there is a little mountain behind my house.  No, it is not Bunda Mountain.

New site, settling in

September 22, 2008

The weekend passed sleepily here at Bunda.  I spent a few hours each day at Robert’s house, mostly because he felt obligated to make sure that I was eating and the restaurant was closed.  He has a lovely little porch area that overlooks the sports fields, so we sat out there.  On Saturday afternoon, there were many students on the field, playing basketball, hand ball (a girls’ sport that appears to be like basketball except without dribbling, and with smaller hoops – something I might actually be coordinated enough to play), and volleyball.  No one was there on Sunday, though they may have come later in the afternoon.

We drove to Lilongwe for dinner on Sunday and had pizza at one of the few restaurants open.  It was relatively inexpensive – K1200 for a large “extravaganza,” which was topped with two kinds of meat and several types of vegetables.  It was dark by the time we left the restaurant, so there wasn’t much sight seeing along the way.

Driving here is an exercise in speeding and dodging, it seems.  Though there are a fair number of cars on the road in Lilongwe, the vast majority of Malawians do not have cars – so the sides of the road are filled with walkers and bikers, many of whom pay little attention to oncoming traffic.  Add this to the erratic driving and frequent stops of minibuses (which are privately-owned vans that provide a kind of public transportation) and the fact that traffic laws seem to be gently suggested rather than strictly enforced, and you get quite an obstacle course.  I haven’t ridden far but have already had a few heart-stopping moments.  Apparently market days are only worse.

We returned to Lilongwe this morning and I did some exploring and grocery shopping while Robert had a few meetings.  The downtown area is relatively small, and I walked a good bit (though not all) of it before stopping in a little restaurant near the Shop Rite to have a cup of coffee.  I was surprised to find that I had paid K200 for a cup, milk and sugar, a small teapot full of hot water, and mysterious brown powder – turns out people here drink instant coffee.  I had no idea how much powder to add to the water, but managed to make something drinkable, and sat for quite a while reading my Malawi guidebook.

After, I did my grocery shopping, and got a week’s worth of food for $30 or so – similar to or slightly less than what I was spending in DC, probably.  One thing I find surprising about groceries here is that the pricing scheme bears little resemblance to that in the US.  Fresh vegetables are much cheaper than packaged or canned produce of any type; the cost of fruit varies considerably, I assume according to how far it has to come and how long it can be kept.  All milk here is of the ultra-pasturized, unrefrigerated variety.  Several feet of the refrigerator case were devoted to margarine products, but butter was almost nonexistent and quite expensive.  The cheese I got was my most expensive item (right in front of a set of 5 plastic hangers – which cost almost $5), and it was a generic variety of cheddar.  Meat is less expensive, but beef is much more similarly priced to say, chicken, than it is in the US.  Pasta and rice are similarly priced to the US, but the cheapest pasta sauce I saw was over $5 (I didn’t get any).  I’m guessing that the prices are a reflection of the cost of transportation and storage – as a landlocked country, Malawi gets a lot of its supplies overland from South Africa, Mozambique, and Tanzania (Dar es Salaam is the nearest port).  Still, it’s funny to see things priced how groceries in the US maybe should be priced – as a reflection of the input and fuel costs.

The drive back to Bunda from Lilongwe passes through several small collections of houses (most made of mud bricks with thatched or tin roofs) and several roadside markets.  It’s the dry season, so the landscape is largely shades of brown.  The dirt here is a reddish brown, and most families make bricks for building from the soil on their land.  According to Robert, this is a real problem because the top soil is relatively shallow here, and in a matter of a few years families can render their lands completely infertile.  The land is relatively flat, with a mix of fields and trees.  My favorite parts of the nature here so far are purple trees and monkeys.

At first I thought the purple trees were that way year-round, but it turns out that I just arrived in time for the flowering season.  Though I’m slightly less impressed now, they’re still very pretty.  The only type of wildlife I’ve seen so far, besides ownerless dogs and varieties of farm animals, are the monkeys.  There is a family that lives outside my guest house, and I passed by a tree of them elsewhere on campus also.  Several of them have babies right now, which they carry around in their pouches.  As someone who has never seen monkeys outside of a zoo before (I remember we tried in vain to see some in Costa Rica but failed), it’s quite amusing to pass by them on my way through campus.

And now, for your viewing pleasure:

Malawi Arrival

September 20, 2008

The trip from Johannesburg to Lilongwe was not particularly eventful.  I discovered that South African Airways serves food even on 2.5 hour flights, and that their food is somewhat more edible than Delta’s.  Though I had feared a rough ride on a prop plane (a la the Detroit – Ithaca flight), it was a jet, and it was full of passengers.  Upon landing, we had to bus from the plane to the terminal, and then queue up to go through immigration.  I got my passport stamped, collected my baggage (yes, it all arrived), went through customs, was subject to a cursory search of my suitcase, and entered the fray of anxious family members and taxi drivers.  Fortunately, it did not take me long to find the Embassy representative who had come to pick me up, and we were on our way.

On the way to the “lodge” where I spent the night, we stopped to get cash from an ATM (which I later discovered that my bank charged $3.50 for, even though I’m not supposed to have ATM fees) and a SIM card for my phone.  I checked into the lodge – which seems to be somewhere between a hostel and a nice hotel – around 4.  Pleased to find free (if incredibly slow) internet access, I caught up on email and read for a while.  The lodge was in a pretty residential neighborhood with completely unmarked streets, so I didn’t venture out or wander around.  Though I think they had some dinner options available, I dug into my stash of snacks and went to bed around 9…only to awake around 11 and be unable to go back to sleep.  (Guess my body thought the 9-11 thing was an afternoon nap – it would have been 2-4 PM in Iowa.)  I was awake for several hours before I finally fell asleep again.

Friday morning I got up early, because the driver was supposed to come for me at 7:30.  After packing everything back into my suitcases, I ventured out to breakfast.  The offerings were fairly standard – fruit, cornflakes, and drinks, plus eggs, toast, meats, and baked beans to order.  After breakfast, with no sign of the driver, I began to feel ill and promptly threw up.  Strike one for Malawian food, I thought.  (Actually, a similar experience this morning makes me think it’s actually taking the doxycycline – my anti-malarial drug – on an empty stomach.  The directions say that taking it with food may decrease its effectiveness, but I’m planning to try that tomorrow, since I doubt that vomiting every morning increases either its or my effectiveness.)

My driver eventually showed up around 9 AM and delivered me and my luggage to the Embassy.  I met with the acting Ambassador, stopped by the Consular’s office and registered, and met the staff in the Public and cultural Affairs section.  After lunch with the Public Affairs officer and the Cultural Affairs officer, another driver collected me to take me to Bunda College of Agriculture, where I’ll be based.  We stopped at two grocery stores along the way so I could pick up a few things.  Not knowing what the food accomodations would be like, I got some bottled water, fruit, peanut butter, jelly, bread, soup, and tea, as well as a power strip with a voltage meter and a fused plug converter.  (I’m hoping not to fry my computer while here.)

I was surprised to find that groceries were similarly priced to what you might get in the US. I imagine I may be able to find cheaper produce, etc., in markets – the supermarkets were relatively nice and probably cater to the ex-pat population.  The bread was about a dollar, 5L of water about $3, and peanut butter $3.25.  The jelly was a big ticket item – K703, or about $5.  The currency here is the Malawian Kwatcha; the conversion rate is roughly K140 to $1.  The largest bill is K500, which means that to buy anything you need to carry around a big stack of money.  The bills are also larger (dimension-wise) than USD, and don’t really fit into my wallet.

After the grocery stops, it took about half an hour to get to Bunda.  My supervising professor has class on Friday afternoon, so the American professor (who is here until December) came to greet me.  He helped me get settled into the “Forestry Guest House,” which is where I’ll be staying for now.  My room reminds me a little of Telluride, actually, in that it is furnished with a variety of miscellaneous furniture and mismatched sheets of indeterminate origins (but that are surely clean).  There are two single beds, a desk, and a large east-facing window, which I hope will help me adjust to Malawi time.  I have my own bathroom and shower, though there is currently no hot water.  (Apparently a filament burned out in the hot water heater, and will cost K15,000 to fix.)  There are four guest rooms (and bathrooms) in the house, plus a central living room, kitchen, and laundry room.  There’s cable TV, but no washing machine, electricty, but no internet, and an electric stove and refrigerator, but no oven.  Currently, there is one other long-term guest in the house, a woman from Zambia who is working in the research center until December, plus two older gentlemen who came last night and who I assume are here for a short time.

After class, my supervising professor came to meet me and showed me around some of the campus.  He had actually booked me a different room in another part of campus, so we went to check it out, but I decided to stick with the Forestry Guest House.  The other room didn’t have (as far as I could tell) access to a kitchen.  After, my superivising professor went back to town (he lives in Lilongwe), and I watched TV for a while with the other house guest.  The American professor came to get me around 6, and we went to the campus “restaurant,” where he takes most his meals.  We had fried chicken, rice, and a couple sides (a green that tasted like spinach, and a salad with tomatoes, lettuce, and onions) for about K500 each.  He reported that the food there is generally good, but gets repetitive.  I imagine that I will do most of my own cooking once I get settled, but it is nice to have the option.

He showed me a little more of campus, though it was dark.  (The sun had set by 6.)  We passed by a group of students singing hymns (I think), but no crazy parties.  Back at the guest house, I watched some more TV (Big Brother Africa, which is just as bad as Big Brother in the US) and retired to my room.  The award for best advice so far goes to Linda, who told me that I should bring DVDs of a TV series and watch them whenever I felt that everything was too foreign or lonely.  After an episode of Everwood, I went to bed around 9 and (thankfully) slept all night, to be awakened by the sun and strains of American pop music a little after 7 AM.  I know that some of you may have been worried that I wouldn’t get enough Justin Timberlake now that I don’t live with Andrew, but let me assure you, it is alive and well and LOUD at the student center here.

This morning, I unpacked, took my doxycycline (and got sick about 45 minutes later), managed to trip the circuit braker plugging in my computer power cord, and had a peanut butter and jelly breakfast.  I’m not actually sure how I managed to trip the braker, as I was plugging the power cord into a power strip socket that was supposedly turned off (each socket has a power switch), but it made a big spark and then none of my outlets worked.  Fortunately, the fuse box was not hard to find.  I will be more careful from now on, though if any of you electrical types have advice to offer, please do.

This afternoon, I’m hoping to do a little more exploring and find some internet access.  There is internet on campus, mostly in the offices and perhaps in the library.  (If you see this, I guess you will know that I was successful.)

Halfway there

September 18, 2008

I’m in a hotel in Johannesburg and my body isn’t sure what time it is. It’s 6:30 AM here on Thursday morning, which means it’s 11:30 PM in Iowa, but I’ve just slept for eight-or-so hours.
The journey so far has been relatively uneventful, if you call 10,000 miles and 20 hours in airplanes uneventful.

I left for the Kansas City airport at 6 AM Monday morning. I thought this was rather early to leave for my 10:45 flight, but it turned out that it was a good idea because check in at the airport took me over an hour. Some computer system that Delta uses to check the validity of long-term travel plans (or something) was down, which meant I couldn’t check in, which meant I spent quite a while agonizing about poor beginnings in the waiting area in Terminal B, right outside the men’s bathroom. Eventually a Delta employee found some code that allowed her to bypass the system (or something – none of this was very clear to me) and checked me in. Though my travel agent had indicated that I would have to collect my bags in Johannesburg, they were checked through to Lilongwe, so I am hoping they arrive there in one piece. (More updates on that to follow, particularly if my baggage was pilfered in transit.)

After a teary parental goodbye in Kansas City’s security line, an older gentlemen behind me who tried to calm me down by showing me all of HIS passport stamps, which made me simultaneously feel a little better and three. I cleared security as the plane was boarding and read most of the way to Atlanta. I had a couple hours between planes in Atlanta, which gave me plenty of time to wonder if this was actually a good idea and snuffle my way through a few last phone calls. The plane was late because of a mechanical problem – exactly what you want to hear when you’re about to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

We boarded eventually, and I got acquainted with my seatmate and the very small space I would be occupying for the next 20 hours. Despite first appearances (he was dressed in a combo of West West and Safari Hunter), my seatmate turned out to be delightful. He was the sort of larger than life character that makes for good stories, and he was quite a talker. Fortunately, all this required on my part was attentive listening and the occasional comment. Over the course of the flight, I heard all about (in no particular order): his childhood, his time in Vietnam and the shrapnel in his knee, his cabin in Wyoming, all the drugs he has done, his two marriages (both failed), fishing and hunting in Alaska, his drinking habits, his plans for this South African hunt, his political leanings (though I tried valiantly to avoid this) and his opinions on community organizers, his book collection (30,000 and counting), his lady friends, his truck, river running in Colorado, his guns, and his puppy. In a twist of fate that would have delighted my professor who taught the class about the West, my seatmate was a rough and tumble frontiersman – who made his fortune in an office building in Denver as a regional director for the USPS and retired at 55. Though his chatter may have annoyed me in another situation, I was really grateful for the entertainment. True to the frontiersman myth, he was the consummate gentleman to me, called me dear and darling, invited me to stop by his place if I’m ever in eastern Wyoming, and generally rescued this damsel in distress.

After take-off, the plane ride was marked only by mediocre food and our landing in Dakar. We were flying too high to be able to see anything by clouds (when it was light), and landed in Dakar in the dark. We weren’t allowed to deplane in Dakar, but Senagalese security came on board, matched carry-ons to passengers, and, in a time-consuming but sort of pointless exercise, checked under all the seat cushions (for contraband, I suppose). After Dakar, all the packaging on the food was in French, but that didn’t make the reconstituted eggs taste any better. This was the first time I had ever been fed on a plane, though, so I suppose I should be grateful for what I could get. I slept a little on the plane – for a few solid hours between Atlanta and Dakar, and then some dozing between Dakar and Johannesburg.

We landed in Johannesburg about 4:30 PM local time. By the time I went through immigration, double checked with the Delta baggage people to make sure my luggage really was checked through to Lilongwe, found my hotel shuttle, and checked in, it was 6:30 or so, and getting dark. After getting to my hotel room (which looks like pretty much any other hotel room in the industrialized world, except it has no clock,) I caught up on the financial crisis (which dominated the South Africa TV news that I saw), checked email, talked to my mom online, and went to bed.

Today, I fly from Joburg to Lilongwe – only about 2.5 hours of flying time, though international passengers are supposed to be 3 hours early to the airport. I am supposed to be met at the airport by someone from the Embassy, who will take me to the guest house where I’ll spend the night. Tomorrow morning I have some meetings with Embassy officials and then will be driven to Bunda College of Agriculture, my temporary home. Fortunately, my contact at Bunda did finally get back to me, so it appears I may have a place to sleep beyond tonight.

Thanks to everyone who has commented, emailed, and sent good thoughts/prayers/vibes my way. So far, so good, but the adventure has just begun!

Bags are packed, I’m ready to go

September 16, 2008

I was going to make an insightful and witty pre-departure post, but packing, preparations, and goodbyes have left me behind schedule and a little worn out.

I depart for the airport tomorrow at 6 AM. Wish me luck!