By Lara McTeigue
I was woken up with a startle at the airport upon landing in Malawi. I hurried to catch the rest of the group on our way to fill out VISA applications. The tiny space we entered that was the immigration area could be comparable to a large living room back home. There was a big sense of urgency as people came flooding in off of their flights and tried to find a surface to write on. Lines were identified by sheets of white paper with marker reading “cash/debit” and so on. While waiting in line, there were attendants wearing yellow “VIP” vests who ushered an older white lady to the front of the line. Was the man trying to help her because of her age? Soon a pattern developed however that found many people similarly butting ahead of us. I later learned that these guards were payed to help travelers jump the line which in turn caused the entire operation to slow to practically a halt every time. There was no order as 6 guards would huddle around one counter at a time or the man behind the desk would talk on his cell phone as he signed the VISA forms. About a ten foot line from the table to pay, our group waited approximately 45 minutes to get through.
As we collected our bags and made our way to our bus van, we were warned not to allow men outside to help us with our baggage. However, 8 to 10 men soon surrounded us and started loading our suitcases onto the truck. The men were hard to keep track of. Differentiating who was with our group and who were strangers was virtually impossible. Suffice it to say the men ended up getting paid to load the truck. On previous trips taken in the past, I’ve experienced similar scenarios of men trying to help with baggage for tips but these situations have normally been accompanied by close relatives. I noted that maybe one reason for the difference in outcomes this time could have been a result of our group of students not yet being very familiar with each other and our multicultural backgrounds which may have some effect on a varied range of instinctive responses to the situation.
On our drive from the airport to our campus, I was surprised to see so many people. This might sound funny, but for some reason I was taken aback by the practically constant stream of people by the side of the road on the nearly 2 hour drive. There were just so many people. Children, babies, mothers, fathers, friends were seen working, carrying water, playing or selling food. Most of them walked without shoes among the red soil ground cluttered with rocks and litter. Piles of unrecognizable fresh fruit, hanging raw meat under small straw huts and dead mice on a stick were common sights. Men approached our van during a gas stop trying to sell us eggs and used jackets. I wasn’t sure whether to smile, respond or do nothing. I wanted to follow the pace of the group, especially returners among us – keep in mind we were also all delirious from the long set of flights at this point – and they seemed to keep to themselves, so I did the same. Stop signs were clearly more like suggestions and there was no speed limit to speak of so the frequent horn honks kept me conscious despite my heavy eyes.
Kate announced from the front of the bus that we were getting close and I took a breath to try and remain open to whatever we were about to witness. The road veered off to a bumpy, I mean really bumpy, dirt narrow path between tall stalks of foliage on either side of the vehicle. Children’s yelling could be heard from the overgrown field around us but I couldn’t spot them. We pulled past a few decaying houses, I wasn’t sure if they were a part of the campus or not, before we came to a cleared opening where 30 to 50 unknown faces all stood staring and smiling at us. As soon as we got out of the van, strong hugs came from all directions with ecstatic exclamations and laughs. We kept receiving handshakes that had an extra squeeze or movement in it, a unique cultural custom I had yet to learn, as the faces seemed to blend together in the rapidity of it all. I spotted a large group children waiting excitedly to get their look at us foreigners. I waved to them and some waved back, others giggled and some looked away shyly. A young guy who must have been about 8 years old came running towards me to get a high five before we were pulled away and asked to get our belongings into the hostel.
We entered our rooms quickly and then took a rushed walk around the area. We peaked at the shower, washroom, tuck shop, community center, kitchen and security house. Everything moved so fast. It felt like the sun was beginning to set and we had only arrived 15 minutes ago. One young child called out sternly to me “come here” as he sat on a porch with a group of his pals which temporarily broke the fast pace of the tour. I replied that I’d “come back later” because I wanted to catch up to the rest of the group. As we continued, the sea of children following us grew. All of them had big grins or looks of awe on their small faces. Many of them asked my name. The boy who had called out to me earlier grabbed my hand and tried starting a game of thumb war. Or so I thought. I played along. He wasn’t really trying though as I beat him in a couple of rounds before I began to realize that perhaps he was unfamiliar with the game I grew up playing. I wondered if he was shocked that I was playing with him at all or if he was trying to be nice or if his game had a different set of rules. He kept pointing to his eye and my eye and saying “wila”. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say but later when I noticed the children pointing at someone else’s glasses, I assumed that maybe they were talking about eye glasses. I never previously thought of these accessories I wear every day that help me see to be such an exceptional privilege.