23 June 2008
Was a little bit concerned when I arrived 10 days ago that the immigration officer gave me an entry visa of just 30 days. I had been told before I left that since I had a US passport there would be no problem about getting a three-month visa at the airport. To be honest, I had envisioned having to spend all day standing in line at a government office in Lilongwe getting an extension.
But the reality was a lot more pleasant. Spent maybe 45 minutes max at the immigration office in Lilongwe this morning, talking to an immigration official filling out the correct form, going to the cashier's window to pay a 5000 kwacha or $33 fee, going back to immigration official, showing him the receipt and getting the extension. (Church workers and NGO employees get a lower rate.) Very easy. So, in fact, there was no problem—just "no problem" in a way different from the one I had envisioned.
It was also instructive listening in on some of the conversations of the other folks at the immigration office. One Chinese man was finding out about the visa requirements for foreign business investors and workers. Malawi switched its diplomatic relations a few months ago from Taiwan to the People's Republic of China. I haven't seen the masses of Chinese workers that you read about everywhere and that I saw in Lesotho. But that may be coming.
Visited a bit Saturday afternoon with a classmate from Harvard, who had just returned home to her husband and children. Then later that evening with Martha Sommers, an American physician at Embangweni Hospital who has been in Malawi for the past 10 years. Martha had made the four-hour trek to visit with a church group from Oakland and was heading back on Sunday.
Although I am here specifically to learn what Malawians are doing to improve the health care system in Malawi must admit it was great to hear an American accent for a few hours.
I showed Martha my itinerary and she pronounced herself "blown away" by it. Most Americans show up with some kind of printed detailed schedule, she said. That's fine as long as you don't obsess about rigidly following the itinerary. You have to make allowances for life to interfere with your plans. The funny thing was I had thought my schedule was remarkably loose with plenty of open space.
Then we both marveled at how you can create a schedule in the US and stick to it with very minor variations for weeks at a time. And that ease of being able to translate a travel plan from paper to reality in the U.S. lulls Americans into thinking that we have more control than we really do.
Her other, very helpful piece of advice: expect to be embarrassed or confused or caught in an awkward moment. You're navigating two different cultures—the one you brought with you inside your head and the new one you're now surrounded by. Get used to laughing at yourself and chalking things up to experience.