Monday, January 23, 2012

An African Love Affair…

….with Jomo Kenyatta International Airport

I was pretty upset about the prospect of spending Christmas away from my family and decided that if I couldn’t be with them, I should at least be in paradise.

In the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday, I had been feeling very fuzzy, apathetic and out of it. I thought that it was a side effect of the Malaria pills. I would worry about how I was feeling, but then just forget about it because I was feeling so fuzzy.

My aunt Pat and uncle Max had given me a very generous financial gift before I left which I decided to use on a plane ticket to paradise (a.k.a Zanzibar) for the Christmas Holidays.

To get to Zanzibar from Malawi, you must first make your way to Nairobi then Dar Es Salaam, from where you can take a ferry or fly to the island. 

I waited at the Lilongwe airport for a long time – the flight was delayed by over two hours. I boarded exhausted, having not slept the night before due to a friend’s goodbye party and hurried packing. The flight was incredibly turbulent – my butt left my seat for one very terrifying moment. The Irish woman beside me could tell I was on the verge of hyperventilating and told me to ‘close your eyes and pretend like you’re on a rollercoaster’. That didn’t work too well. All in all, I arrived at my stopover in Nairobi exhausted with frayed nerves . I wasn’t looking forward to 6 hour stopover in Jomo Kenyatta Airport before continuing on to Dar Es Salaam.

And then I stepped off the plane and into the airport –

Almost immediately, I spotted a bookstore! I rush in, feeling suddenly excited and energized. I had been craving a bookstore and Lilongwe has little to offer in terms of books. I spent close to an hour in the store, picking up books, touching their pages, reading the back covers and beginnings (try not to judge me but I may have actually smelled one or two – I love books!). The woman behind the counter was incredibly friendly and had impeccable English – she recommended some reputable African literature and smiled as she handed me my bag full of book and magazine purchases. I paid on credit card! (The idea of using plastic to pay for anything in Malawi is pretty foreign. I had to pay for my plane ticket in cash – it took me two days to withdrawal the cash that I needed)

I bounced out of the bookstore feeling more awake and stimulated than I had in quite a while. I floated down the corridor (Nairobi airport is pretty much one long corridor) stopping in shops. There was an incredible variety of stores selling chocolate, jewelry, textiles, make-up…. One store even had cover-up for white people! Even though my stock has yet to run out, I almost bought it – just because I could.

At the end of the corridor there was a restaurant (with a piece of art on the wall!). I was seated at a table with a random man who was also by himself. He avoided eye contact while I beamed at him. I was pleased to see that the menu had many vegetarian options and I ordered a bean burrito. A waitress delivered a delicious looking, frothy coffee beverage to the woman at the table beside me – it was served in a clear, tall mug. I waved her down urgently and asked for one of whatever it was. Minutes later, I was sipping on a latte, devouring my new economist (the bookstore sold the economist! Not available in Malawi) and enjoying my spicy bean burrito. I was so completely and utterly happy that I couldn’t stop smiling. People looked up from their food and gave me questioning looks as I beamed back at them. I have rarely felt so buoyant and elated.

The next hours are a blur as I used the fast-ish internet at the post office, enjoyed washing my hands with the SOAP in the bathrooms, and generally just meandering around on cloud #9.

I boarded the flight to Dar feeling simultaneously satisfied and stimulated – ready for the next leg of my adventure.

I will post later about the following 3 weeks of travel through Tanzania and Zambia, save for a conversation that I had with a Canadian volunteer who I met in Zanzibar:

He listened intently while I raved about Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. When I was finished, he gently said ‘You know Lesley, the Nairobi airport is an absolute dive’.

After my initial confusion, a slow realization crept over me. It was the first time that I had fully allowed myself to acknowledge how poorly developed Malawi is. For want of being optimistic and happy in my new reality, I hadn’t allowed myself to admit how tough a time I was having adjusting. My break from the fuzziness came at the exact same time I left Lilongwe – I had been numbing myself so I as not to have to come to terms with the struggles I was facing. Realizing this has allowed me to move to a happier, more balanced place.

That airport may or may not be a bit of a dive by some standards, but I will always think fondly of my first encounter with JKIA. 

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