First Impressions

By Lina Xu

Sunrise on the plane

Sunrise on the plane

It was on a rainy afternoon of June 5th that we headed for Montreal for the preparation of the early flight the next day. Thanks to the arrangement by our organizers, we were driven to a hotel which provides shuttle service to the airport in the early morning.

The morning call alarm rang at 2:40 am the next morning and we packed and caught the 3:30 am bus to the Montreal airport. Although it was still early, there were many people in the airport. We gathered at the counter of Air Canada at 4:00 am, sticking group labels on our bags and writing down our contact information. Our group took shape at this moment. Fortunately, we arrived at the airport early since we were informed that our flight was an hour earlier than what we were told by the agent. It was a short flight from Montreal to Toronto. During the transition in Toronto, we saw so many Asian faces there and I was somehow homesick. It took us 13 hours to fly from Toronto to Addis Ababa by Air Ethiopia, who provided fantastic service and tasty food during the flight. What impressed me most was the sunrise, which was so marvelous to see on the plane. It was my first time to see the sunrise. Arriving at Addis Ababa, it was completely a different world: the crowded passengers and the out-of-service escalators reminded me of the old train stations in China. There was no toilet paper and you may see some Africans doing make-up in the restroom and some women are well-dressed. It was a hard time for us to transit in Addis Ababa since there was no seats available at the waiting area. We stood for two hours before we boarded on the plane and it took us four hours to arrive at our final destination, Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi.

We were excited on stepping on the earth of the African continent. We were here finally after the long journey. At the entrance of the Customs, an old friend of our program director was waiting for us. He greeted each of us with his big smile; I have already tasted the warm heart of Africa at this moment. The procedure of going through the Customs was tedious. As Chinese citizens, we could apply for visa upon arrival. There are two counters for visa application, one for checking on the application form, the other for payment and issuing the visa. People gathered and crowded outside the counters in line. I assumed 30 minutes was sufficient since there were only five people in front of me. But something weird happened, the number of people who were in front of me was getting large since the staff with VIP vests jumped the queue from time to time. It was also strange that people who came for airport pickup could enter the Customs area. Later, I was told that it is normal as long as you are familiar with the officials, you could come in. In addition, by giving US$5 bucks you would not have to wait in the queue. I was surprised by this for the reason that I believe the Customs is a sacred place, which stands for authority. How could they challenge the authority like this? I did hear about the terrible bribery in Malawi, but I did not expect it happen the minute I walked off the plane. Anyway, it took us over one hour to go through the visa application and the Customs. During our wait in the Customs area, I was also told that the salary for the officials in the Customs was only around US$60 per month. It was a relief to see some people holding names of visitors at the exit and at least we could see some order in this country.

The airport in Lilongwe is beautiful with shops for mobile services, travel agencies and car rentals. Outside the airport, the blue sky and green trees reminded me of southeast Asian countries. Our airport pick-up van was a Toyota, whose front window was broken and there was no security belt. Sitting in the van, holding tightly onto the side rails, I prayed along the way. The road outside the airport was acceptable since they were smooth. Scattered earth-made houses were seen with few brick-made houses. Many local people wandered around their house, and I wonder if they have a job or not during the dry season.

I believe there is a lot for me to discover on this mysterious field,  and I am looking forward to what is to come.

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