Author’s note: This is a new version of an earlier story. I appreciate your feedback. Please note that this story has multiple pages. Click on the number at the bottom.
“We’ll be landing soon. Please fasten your seat belts.”
It was the pilot making an announcement. I open my eyes, sit upright and look out the airplane window. The plane has started to descend and it is low enough for me to see the ground below. The bright sunlight displays small city streets, mini vans and buses on unpaved roads spewing clouds of dirt. People walk along the streets with bundles on their head. An occasional ox cart makes its way forward slowly. The land looks plush with trees, water on one side and mountains on the other side, and for a moment it feels like being in Florida, if it weren’t for the mountains. I have reached Lilongwe, Malawi, Africa, on my mission to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s going to be a culture shock for me — a new country, people alien in looks as well as mode of living, a language completely different from English. Am I going to survive? What will happen if I get sick or don’t like the food? I haven’t the faintest idea. When I was serving in Vietnam we followed orders without thinking. We moved together in a platoon and established close bonds. We cried when someone died in combat. I hope to have a challenging experience here and maybe find new friends.
We, eight boys and two girls, all in our early twenties, walk out of the airplane into a small airport. A summer-like hot breeze blows past our faces as we wait outside the baggage carousel for our coordinator, Roger. He arrives soon to receive us.
“Welcome to Malawi,” he says. “I know you all are tired after the long flight and want to rest, but bear with me for a while. We’ll go to the orientation center where I’ll brief you about where you’ll be staying, and the rest of the program for the coming weeks.”
Roger leaves to get the transportation. Our luggage is piled up behind us. That’s when I notice a young girl dressed in jeans and a pullover looking around the luggage with eyebrows crinkled and frowning. Go help the distressed girl, a voice in me says.
“May I help you? Lose something?” I say, approaching her. I jump over a piece of luggage and land right next to her. She looks so innocent and vulnerable with her pale white face and troubled looks.
“Oh, it’s right here. Shoot. I was so worried,” she says picking up a backpack. Turning to me, she adds, “I’m sorry. You were saying?”
“You looked like you lost something.”
“I couldn’t see my backpack. It’s right here. Thanks.”
“No problem. See you later.”
Her ponytail bounces as she walks. When the van comes, we drive a short distance to the Peace Corps briefing center. I want to sit close to “the girl” and get to know her, but she has already taken a seat in the front, right behind the driver.
Roger is brief. “Each of you will stay with a host family during the pre service training,” he says “Staying with the locals is part of the assimilation with the Malawi culture. At the end of the training you will be assigned to locations where you will stay for the duration of your assignment.”
I am to stay with the Aguda family who live in the Northwest part of the city. I want to know where “the girl” is going to stay, but miss or don’t understand what was said.
The Peace Corps doesn’t waste any time. The three-month pre-service training starts the next day. The classes cover various topics, including technical, cross-culture awareness, local language, personal health and safety.
I spot “the girl” sitting in the second row. The long floral dress makes her look slim. I want to talk with her but am not sure the best way to do it. Maybe I should wait for an appropriate moment. At one point she turns her head towards me and I half raise my hand to say “Hello” but she has already looked away. I am not sure if she remembers me from the airport incident.
At the break I walk up closer to her and say, “Hi.”
“Hi,” she replies.
“I’m Owen. Remember me?”
“Yes, I do. You’re the one who offered to help me yesterday? That was nice of you.”
“Thanks. And you are?” I ask.
“Nice to meet you, Rachel.”
I don’t know why I feel so happy talking to Rachel. It’s time for us to get back to our seats. Spotting an empty seat I move over and sit next to her.
“You mind?” I ask before sitting.
“No. Go ahead,” she says with a smile, which I like.
I reflect on my days in Pauls Valley. I dated a few girls growing up there, and when I was a student at the university in Norman. None were as beautiful or appeared to be as mature and charismatic as Rachel.