Friday, 8 May 2015

Day 1 - welcome to Africa! (8-May-2015)

There's not many photos in this post, so, I'll start with a photo of sunset in Malawi, to let you know where we are going to end up.

We left Switzerland in high spirits - we got an upgrade to club of the flight to Heathrow! nice! The crew were disappointed that we only wanted a cup of tea (although, it was the best cup of tea I've ever had on a flight!) and when they found out we were off on our hols, they pressed two bottles of champagne on me - which we downed in a sophisticated manner (even asking for glasses) in the remaining twenty minutes of the flight.

It was election day in blighty, and the crew on the flight were cheerful as we boarded - refusing to tell us their preference, but laughing gleefully at the fact that a UKIP candidate had been barred from proceedings for behaving like a knob.

My flight planning was all about the cost - so we arrived in LHR SO early for our flight to Johannesburg, I'd proposed that we should head into London for the day. Mike saw through my ruse, and realised that this was just so I could go to wool shops - so instead, we made ourselves comfortable in the first class lounge at T5. There are definitely advantages to travelling a lot, and the lounge in T5 is one of them - food and drink on demand for seven hours, along with free internet and comfy chairs. There are worse places to be.

Being a bit of a spotter, I was very excited that we were travelling on an A380!!! Upstairs!!! The flight was only about half full - so despite being in the "back" of the plane, we had space; the crew were friendly (if the campest crew ever) and all was good. Not much to tell you about the next ten hours - we watched all of Paddington and half of Shawn the Sheep. These two films are my cultural reference for the rest of the holiday. We then tried to sleep...

The A380 is the quietest plane I have ever flown on. This sounds like a good thing. The problem is, on a normal flight, snoring and farting is masked by the overall engine noise. Not on this one!  They are going to have to take the Japanese toilet approach (toilet seats that make noise to mask the sound of your tinkling) to mask the noise of passengers! (and if they could do something about the smell that would be even better!)

We landed in Johannesburg O. R. Tambo International Airport at 7am and groggily negotiated our way through transfers (past a fever scanner), got a boarding pass and made our way to the departure gates. At the SAA counter, we thought we'd met our first example of corruptness. The man looked straight at Mike and said "now Mr Davies, your credit card?" Mike bristled and demanded to know why his credit card was needed. The man seemed to slump a bit - presumably reading our racial presumption and said that it was simply for identification - to see the card that had purchased the ticket. we confounded his sexist presumptions, and I presented him with my card. I felt none of us came out of that interaction unscathed!

The international terminal is a lot like T5 in intention - lots of luxury shops, little in the practical way of burger kings or newsagents. Mike says this is because air travel in Africa is glamourous - but given it's the same as T5 I'm not sure I buy that. Plenty of evidence of the Chinese influence here - including Chinese newspapers in the shops and lots of oriental business people and their families milling around. At the passport control, Mike was particularly amused at the indifferent attitude of a border guard checking a Korean (we think) lady's passport. He looked at the picture, looked at the woman, shrugged (as if to say, "like I'd be able to tell") and waved her through.

After a couple of hours spent stealing internet access from the BA  lounge (same passwords - the fools) we descended what had to be the longest escalator in... well, in Johannesburg airport, probably. Mike thinks that things that are not the biggest / longest / fastest should be labelled so to remove all confusion!

Again, the flight was really quite empty. we had three seats to ourselves... except, when we boarded, there was a woman sitting n Mike's seat. So, I am sad to tell you that one of the first things Mike did in Africa was to evict a black person from her seat! (To be fair, she was in the wrong seat). We didn't have a captain, we had a commander, which is SO much grander. The only other thing of note on this flight was the duty free shop. They only had two alcoholic items in their inventory. One of them was Bain's whisky; "the best single grain whisky in 2013", distilled in South Africa. How could we resist. Not only was it out of stock, but the cabin crew guy looked at the magazine as if this item has never existed in him memory! Oh well, we'll have to stick to the old fashioned Scottish stuff.

 We landed in Lilongwe after disappointing views of clouds all the way. We were bused from the aircraft to the terminal - although it was less than 100 metres. At a stretch I might have even been able to jog that far. Before being admitted to the terminal, our temperature was taken again. At immigration, we queued in the "visitors" queue - but I'm not sure anybody really cared. There were five desks all labeled with a different purpose (Residents, Locals, special assistance, visitors and... South African Development Corporation (?)) but after the first five mins or so, the queues kind of disintegrated a little, and those in the know just joined the shortest queue. Mike and I were not in the know, so we were the last through.

On the other side, some foreign exchange man tried to fiddle me with a low exchange rate (from dollars to kwacha). Mike was affronted - but to me, welcome to Africa! So I stood in the longer queue for the better rate.

Then we had the usual squabble over our bags at the taxi rank. despite the fact that the hard work had already been done (we'd put it all onto trolleys, and were quite happy with our own luggage), fifty or so porters swarmed around us, trying to grab the trolley, and then demanding money for this "help".

After all that, the journey to Lilongwe was long but uneventful. We passed by the largest football stadium in the world (or so it seemed! It stood proud and huge amongst a backdrop of small huts with stainless steel roofs. Also, more evidence of both Chinese and Japanese investment in the region through large, out of keeping, monstrous buildings.

We reached Kiboko Town Hotel. We were so underwhelmed at that we didn't even bother taking any proper photos of it! The hotel is the white building in the background. In front is a whole pile of market stalls selling the sort of tat I cannot resist. Mike panics every time we leave the hotel, because a new stall holder wants to become my best friend, and I go along with it, because it's fun! Today I met Glad and Chico. Chico actually lived in Essex for a couple of years, so has a better grasp on estuary geography than I do.

Anyway, the hotel room is small, the bed is small, the mozzie net is good - but of course oppressive and there was no electricity when we arrived (although there is now - so that's good). Unfortunately, the water also seems to be dependent on the electricity - so no electricity means no water pressure. All a bit underwhelming really. Mike says it reminds him of Cambodia.

After a kip, we took a walk. It's really quite a pleasant temperature in the shade. The roads are scary though! It took quite a lot of resolve, bravery, and remembering that mzungu (white folk) are a rarity in these parts, before we were brave enough to cross one road.

I worried when I saw a man shove a chicken into a van (being driven by a policeman) Mike told me that this was unlikely to be a Paddington-esque abduction of the chicken and that I should not worry.

We bought water in a shop that seemed to be a job creation scheme. there were two men serving behind the counter (only one customer at a time, mind) and two women packing the goods in front of the counter. Nice service, you think, although the bag they packed our water into was actually broken...d'oh!

On every street corner are a few men all trying to flog single pairs of used trousers. One man was selling a belt. Mike was genuinely tempted ("I don't have a very good belt solution") We realised that, given the number of sole traders, we could cause a riot by asking "where could we buy a sim card" or "where do you think we could change some money"... we had this conversation rather too loudly, and subsequently had a trail of people following us up the road yelling "hey, boss" at Mike and "mother" at me.

We wandered off the main street briefly and found ourselves on the edge of a very haphazard market that seemed to specialise in old shoes and bananas. We were away from the main (tarmac'd) road, so the dust was horrible. Maybe on day 2 or 3 we will venture further into scary places like this, but not today. Here's a photo of a Japanese imported car though from nearby. Like all right minded places in the world, Malawians drive on the left of the road (like Japan) so old vehicles from Japan get imported here to live out the rest of their days.

It got dark really quickly at about 6pm. We had dinner at the restaurant under our hotel (called Ad Lib). Mike had grilled goat burger and I had some chickpea thing. It was tasty, and nicely spiced up with some chilli sauce. We naturally washed this all down with lashings of Carlsberg, the local beer ("My country, My Carlsberg" the advert goes).

At the table next to us were three local women who were knocking back red wine. They were having intelligent conversations like "it's all about how you use social media" and "let's think about having a Karaoke evening". My favourite line was when they were talking about a mutual acquaintance "hmm... I'd say coloured - he's definitely not white". the need for gradation I found entertaining. Their conversation was more entertaining than ours - particularly when some boys tried to pick them up. They graciously accepted the wine that was sent to the table - but were ruthless in dispatching the notion that the boys stood any sort of chance!

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