Forty thousand feet in the air on a South African Airlines flight looking down at Malawi, you might be surprised to see that it looks like any other place you might have ever flown over. Meandering rivers, green farm fields, mountainous areas, it could be be Pennsylvania, Ontario, or even somewhere over England. At this point you probably don’t know that your camera and/or any other valuables have been stolen from your checked luggage in the Johannesburg airport, or that the washroom at the next airport will remind you of ones at camping sites you’ve been to, except the bugs are a bit more unfamiliar. Everything seems quite like any other flight you’ve been on. The view is nothing like the yellow safari plains you might have stereotyped into your mind (although it may look more yellow during the dry season).
At about 25 thousand feet, things start to change. Where you’re used to seeing greys, things are more reddish brown. Where you’re used to seeing large square farm fields, you see much smaller plots of irregular shapes.
At 10 thousand feet and below you know for sure that this place is different from anywhere else you’ve been. You can easily make out the individual small buildings in communities, you can tell that the roofs are thatched, that there are cows instead of cars in the “driveways”, and that there’s a lot more people walking along the roads between towns than you’re used to seeing.
In the airport it might be like any other airport in a developing country you’ve been to, maybe a bit smaller and with a much more informal customs and immigration officer. (Maybe not as informal as getting off a boat in a completely obscure “port” in Venezuela after travelling over from Trinidad, but still very relaxed.)
In the city you might be surprised that it’s not that hot in Malawi. Mornings and evenings can be a bit chilly and you may need long sleeves and pants. Walking around again it may not look that different from any developing country, even some rural areas in Canada. Except maybe that you see men and women carrying large loads seemingly effortlessly balanced on their heads. The vegetation really doesn’t seem that different, especially because there’s loads of corn planted everywhere.
(Lilongwe: A few minutes walk from the “main strip”)
You may wake the following day and step outside the guesthouse you’re staying at for a few nights, and you may not notice the tons of bed bug bites you’ve acquired over-night. You probably will notice the smell of a wood burning fire that reminds you of camping again. You may have a general overall sense of relaxed optimism, but also really be missing some special person or people back in Canada.
You may not feel like this is much different from any other short trip you’ve been on, but this is far different, and you’ll most likely have to remind yourself and be thinking: “Oh right, this is Africa, and this is the next full year for me.”