13 October 2009

2009-10-13: Airports all the way down


After a tiring but uneventful passage through five airports (Oakland, Washington DC, Rome, Addis Ababa, and Lubumbashi), I arrived safely in Lilongwe around mid-afternoon on the 13th. Maxwell, the ICRAF driver, met me there and took me to Sunset Lodge, a reasonably comfortable motel. I settled in and did a few errands before having a typical Malawian meal of egg and chips, and falling asleep exhausted.

Full text:

I'm not exactly sure where today began. Starting with the evening of Sunday the 11th, it was airports all the way down.

Oakland, CA --> Washington, DC

I should have slept on the JetBlue red-eye from Oakland to Dulles, but flipping through the channels on the in-flight TV, I came across my favourite show, Futurama. Since this would be my last chance to see it for seven months, I stayed awake for three episodes. But I did manage to close my eyes for an hour or so before - bump! - we landed at Dulles Airport.

Dulles has become like a home away from home. Not only is it the US hub of Ethiopian Airlines, I have family nearby, so this was my eleventh time here in the past year. After baggage claim, I hauled my suitcases to a familiar Starbucks (one of the few places in the airport open at 5:30 AM), enjoyed the last chai latte and chocolate chip scone that I would have for a very long time, and caught up on all the e-mails I'd been too busy to send before I left California.

When I checked in for my 10 AM Ethiopian flight, I was told it was running nearly an hour late (as usual). I took advantage of the extra time to do some last-minute gift-shopping, and was quite exhausted when I settled into my seat on the half-empty 767.

Washington, DC --> Rome, Italy

As the plane's wheels lifted from the tarmac, I couldn't help but think about what I was leaving behind. The past five months in the US had been so hectic that I felt as though I had scarcely even been back; I hadn't spent nearly enough time with family or friends. In that respect, I felt ill-prepared to set out on this journey.

But, I reminded myself, I had a lot to look forward to in Malawi. This time I knew what to expect, and how to run my experiments more-or-less properly. And I had friends and colleagues and a home awaiting me there. It might not be such an adventure as last year when everything was new, but nor would I encounter as many roadblocks. Or so I hoped!

I stayed awake long enough to watch the North American coastline recede into the haze, and then slept most of the way to Rome.

Rome, Italy --> Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The midnight stop in Rome was just for refueling and reprovisioning; no one left the plane. I found it easy to sleep through this too. Thank goodness I continued to sleep through "dinner"; I'd already had far too much airplane food. I wish Ethiopian Airlines served Ethiopian food instead of mushy beef lasagna accompanied by chewy pasta salad. (In anticipation of this, I'd had lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley the day before!)

By the time I awoke, a few hours had passed and we were over Sudan. As always, I marvelled at the starkness of the Libyan desert - flat brown sand from horizon to horizon, broken only by occasional lifeless rocky outcrops. This dull matrix made it all the more surprising when the Nile River appeared, and alongside it, an emerald fringe of irrigated fields.

The northern border between Sudan and Ethiopia is clearly visible from the air. Ethiopia begins where the mountains begin. What a beautiful country it is! I hope someday I have the chance to visit it, instead of just flying over it.

Here is a picture I took as we were descending into Addis Ababa. It nearly puts Ireland to shame, if you ask me:

As we taxied along the runway, I was pleased to see big grey herons hunting in the grass, and pied crows swooping around the terminal building. Pied crows seem to be Africa's most ubiquituous, most enterprising bird. When I was at the World Congress of Agroforestry six weeks ago in Nairobi, Kenya, pied crows disrupted several of the plenary lectures by perching on the roof of the lecture hall and cawing louder than the loudspeakers.

Once the plane reached the gate, I forgot the peacefulness of the scenery as I and other passengers dashed to catch connecting flights. My flight to Lilongwe was to have boarded half-an-hour ago. The ground staff at first seemed unsure what to do with me, which made me wonder if my flight had already left, but eventually they directed me to an airport bus which took me (and quite a few other delayed passengers) to a 737 waiting on the tarmac. Well, I had made it. Would my luggage?

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia --> Lubumbashi, DRC

"Welcome to Ethiopian Airlines Flight 871," said the loudspeaker, "with service to Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo..."

Argh! I thought. I'm on the wrong flight!

"...with continuing service to Lilongwe, Malawi. Our flight time to Lubumbashi will be approximately three hours thirty minutes."

I was relieved but still surprised; my itinerary hadn't mentioned the stop in Lubumbashi. I'd never even heard of the city before. I dug out my in-flight magazine and looked at the map of Ethiopian Airlines destinations. Lubumbashi seemed to be somewhere in south-eastern DRC, but no country borders were shown. Well, this should be interesting! I thought.

Unfortunately there were no in-flight maps, so I didn't know which countries we were flying over. First was probably Northern Kenya, where I saw this incredible sight. I'm guessing it was Lake Turkana. Look closely - in the lake there is an island with three lakes on it!

These photos don't do it justice. The large lake (Turkana?) was a dull brown in colour, whereas the small lakes on the island were a brilliant turquoise. Oh, I wish I could visit that island someday...

The landscape remained arid for awhile, then trees began to appear - first as a linear scattering of dots along watercourses, then expanding into forests and even rainforests. We must have been over Uganda by that point. Sure enough, an endless blue lake-ocean appeared - the mighty Lake Victoria.

The parade of lakes was never-ending. Several smaller (but still huge) lakes passed beneath us, and then came a vast lake that must have been Lake Tanganyika on the Tanzania-Congo border. Soon thereafter we began descent into Lubumbashi.

The countryside looked similar to Malawi's - semi-arid, with open woodlands, obviously in the midst of a dry season. The population density seemed much lower. With no crops growing, I couldn't discern much about the agriculture, but I did notice some fascinating diamond grid patterns in farm fields (with each diamond a metre or two across). What were they for? Your guess is as good as mine.

I would have taken some photos of Lubumbashi airport, but taking photos of airports is often illegal in Africa, and I didn't want to end up in a Congolese jail. Suffice it to say that it looked like most other African airports I've seen, albeit scruffier (with weeds growing through cracks in the asphalt runway), and with signs in French instead of English. I also noticed a UN plane parked at the terminal, which made me reflect upon the ongoing challenges faced by the UN as it tried to help bring stability to this vast country.

We sat on the runway for an hour while passengers got off and on. Then, finally, the engines roared to life again. Next stop Malawi!

Lubumbashi, DRC --> Lilongwe, Malawi

Our transit over Zambia was bathed in bright sunshine and shrouded in smoky haze. During the dry season, the southern African landscape is dotted with countless small fires, most intentionally started by farmers to clear their land. I don't know whether this practice has net benefits for the individual farmer; it certainly has negative externalities in the form of air pollution, carbon loss, and damage to wildlands (many of which I think are not adapted to such frequent burning).

As we approached Lilongwe, the landscape changed from vaguely familiar to utterly familiar, right down to the colour of the soil and the shape of the mango trees:

Bump! Touchdown. Well, here I am in Malawi again, a year later and at least a little wiser. Now I have seven months to accomplish something worthy of a dissertation. I hope that this time I am able to strike a better balance between field work and other aspects of life.

* * * * *

I stepped out of the plane into a dry, breezy, baking hot atmosphere. I had tried to remind myself how hot Malawi gets in October, but it was still a bit of a surprise after the chilly fog I'd left behind in Berkeley.

Immigration was uneventful; unlike last time, I didn't have to present my "Letter of Invitation" and "Letter of Collaboration" from ICRAF. I hoped that Customs would be equally uneventful, but the young woman at the Customs desk asked me probing questions, and I had to pay duty on the two computers I was bringing into the country.

When I left the Customs area, I was surprised and pleased to see Maxwell, the ICRAF driver, waiting for me! He'd gotten the email I sent at Dulles requesting pick-up. My Malawian phone wasn't working (I'd lost the charger), so e-mail had been my only hope.

Soon my bags were in the ICRAF minibus, and we were on the way to town. I explained to Maxwell why I hadn't been able to call him. "Even if you had your charger," he said, "your sim card wouldn't work. They are deactivated after three months."

"I didn't know that," I said. "I want to keep my phone number, it's a good one. Can I reactivate my old sim card? Or must I buy a new one?"

"I am not very sure," he said. "You must go to Zain* and ask."

* My telecom service provider, and a major provider throughout much of Africa.

As usual, Maxwell and I found plenty of things to talk about. He told me that the presidential elections, which had taken place on the day of my departure (May 19), had been laudable in their honesty and peacefulness. "After other elections, there was always some violence," he said, "but not this time. It went very well."

A tall, swift dust-devil swirled along the roadside, as they are wont to do this time of year. "What do you call those in Chichewa?" I asked Maxwell. "Someone told me last year, but I've forgotten."

"Chimvulumvulu," he said.

"We call them 'dust devils' in English," I said. "Because they look like spirits."

"Even in Malawi," Maxwell said, "people think the same. It is said that if you throw a stone through the middle of one, it will disappear."

When we passed a police roadblock, Maxwell mentioned that the Malawi police were cracking down on marijuana, which was often transported in disguise amongst bags of maize or other crops.

"Marijuana?" I said. "I didn't know it was grown here. Do Malawians actually use it themselves?"

"No," Maxwell said. "It is all for export to South Africa. It fetches a high price there."

It struck me as ironic that Malawi's main source of foreign exchange - tobacco - is also an addictive drug, and if anything a more harmful one than marijuana. Yet tobacco production is staunchly promoted by the government while marijuana production is punished. Ah, the contingencies of history.

"You want to make marijuana legal in your state of California. Isn't it?" asked Maxwell, who is an avid follower of foreign affairs.

"Uh," I said, wishing I knew more about it. "It's very controversial." My tired brain didn't seem to be up to a conversation about the pros and cons of legalising marijuana.

* * * * *

Maxwell dropped me at Sunset Lodge, the motel where I stayed the night before my departure in May. It has a lovely location on the banks of the Lilongwe River, over which you really can watch the sun set. For K2500 (US$18) per night, you get a private room, ensuite bathroom with shower (AND soap AND toilet paper!), and a fan and a TV that may or may not work. After one too many experiences at nearby Crystal Lodge where the blankets smelled like repeatedly-unwashed underwear, I've decided that Sunset is well worth it.

I asked at the front desk where I might go to buy a phone charger; it was approaching 5 PM and I didn't have much time before the shops closed. The receptionist, Teresa, called for the manager, Anton, who in turn called for the errand boy, Thomas.

"Thomas will buy one for you," said Anton. "You just give him your phone, so that he can find the right charger. He can get you one for five hundred kwacha. But you, you would have to pay more."

"Yes, I know," I said. "Always a higher price for the mzungu."
I remembered my arrival in Lilongwe last year, when a mob of teenage boys had offered to do exactly the same thing for me but charged me K1500. At least now I knew what things were worth.

Though I hated to take advantage of the staff's generosity, I added, "I want to buy one other thing. I need a plug adaptor from US to African plugs. I know those also cost about five hundred. Can I show you the plug?"

I did, and Thomas said he could get an adaptor. I left my phone and computer power cord in his hands, gave him K1000, and asked him to leave the items at the front desk for me when he returned.

You're probably thinking, "You've never met this kid before, and you're giving him cash and your phone? He'd make much more money if he just ran away with it!"

But I think I've spent enough time in this country to have a pretty good idea when to trust and when not to trust people. So it didn't even occur to me to worry as I went about my errands.

First I checked my email at a nearby Internet cafe (where the proprietor begrudgingly agreed to give me an extra 15 minutes for free, since the network connection was so slow I had spent 30 minutes sending one email). Then I bought some bottled water at a supermarket next to the splendid sand-coloured mosque, which had just finished the evening prayer call.

On the way back to the hotel, I accidentally walked across a nearly-but-not-quite-dry concrete footpath. Of course there were no signs or barriers indicating that the footpath should not be walked upon. (Perhaps, as Malawi's legal system becomes stronger, the multitude of hazards for urban pedestrians will decrease!) Both I and the concrete-pourers were rather unhappy at the marks I had made, but there was no undoing them. So my footprints are now immortalised on the streets of Lilongwe.

Sure enough, when I returned to Sunset Lodge, the plug adaptor and phone charger were awaiting me at the front desk, along with my phone and power cord. So in this case, the motto "The Warm Heart of Africa" was fitting.

* * * * *

I tried sending a message from my now-charging phone, but it didn't work. Maxwell had been right; my sim card was deactivated. Well, I couldn't do anything about it tonight.

After a much-needed shower, I dawdled for awhile watching the geckoes on the bathroom wall. (I missed you, geckoes!) I knew I should go have dinner, but I was more tired than hungry. Why was I so tired? It seemed as though all I had done the past 36 hours was sleep, or try to sleep.

Finally I managed to drag myself out of my room and into the hotel restaurant for dinner. The restaurant is an empty room with some tables; if the chef is there, he will cook you what you ask for, as long as you choose one of the few things in stock.

"Egg and chips?" I said.

"OK," he said. "It's five hundred kwacha." That seemed expensive to me, but beggars can't be choosers.

I fetched a journal article to read because I knew the wait would be long. The article was by several ICRAF colleagues about profitibility of agroforestry technologies in southern Africa. I was glad to see the authors quantify what I knew from experience: assuming the farmer can afford the input costs, mineral fertiliser (especially if subsidised) is usually more profitable than "fertiliser trees" in maize-based systems. That's not to say there isn't a place for the latter, but the positive impact of cheap fertiliser shouldn't be dismissed.

After forty minutes, my dinner arrived. To the chef's credit, it was a pretty good egg and chips. I got two crispy fried eggs and a nice salad with finely chopped green capsicum and onions. By May I'll be tired of it, but for tonight it tasted good!

* * * * *

After dinner I was so tired all I could do was lie down and leaf through the Malawi tourism magazine on the bedside table. Even that didn't last long, and I fell asleep with the magazine in my hand. I awoke a few hours later, brushed my teeth, and debated untying the mosquito net but decided against it (since the windows were screened and I hadn't seen or heard any mosquitoes).

As I tried to go back to sleep, I hoped that I would be coherent enough tomorrow to have a good meeting with Festus and the other ICRAF scientists. The Lilongwe staff rarely come to Zomba, so tomorrow would be my best chance to get one-on-one advice before my second and final field season.

If only Malawi were closer to my family and friends, I'd be completely glad to be here. Well, for better or for worse, I think the next seven months will go by quickly.

Chichewa word of the day: chimvulumvulu = dust devil; whirlwind


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