My first thought about this new country was that I could see the slums from the airplane. As we landed, I caught glimpses of blue tarp strung across some metal shacks, standing just past the fence that ran alongside the runway. As we coasted to a stop, I looked over at my four friends. “We’re here!” I mouthed over to them as our heartbeats sped with excitement.
As we stumbled up the walkway to the airport, trying to get some feeling back into our legs, the humidity began leaking through the seams of the corridor. We headed straight for the bathrooms. I’d forgotten the night I’d frightened the girls (on accident!) about instructing them how to use a squattie-pottie, so their reactions made me laugh aloud as they exclaimed excitedly to me that there were real toilets in the bathroom!
After a few minutes, we strode across the red velvet carpet toward passport control, taking in the religious exhibits that lined the hallway. Passport control was a breeze (despite the fact that two people lost their plane tickets), and we were soon headed to pick up our luggage. After struggling to get money from the ATM for what seemed like hours (and frustrating the men who were waiting in line behind us), we decided to head out and ask our in-country contacts for help with that later.
Meeting our contacts was interesting. At first, I was taken aback by Kirsten’s* forthright and direct manner. It was almost to the point of being brusque. Michael* seemed a little more laid back, but we didn't get much time to talk. As we headed down to find a taxi, I strode behind Kirsten, trying to figure out how to talk to her. So many questions were running through my head. Did she like us? Was she frustrated by having to wait for us? What was appropriate for me to say? Was it okay for me to ask questions? What kinds of questions should be better to wait until after we were alone in our flat? My confusion and discomfort only grew as Hannah and I split off from the other girls. Michael took them in the car, and Kirsten took us in the taxi.
As soon as we stepped outside into the parking garage, the humidity hit us and my glasses fogged up so that I couldn’t see anything. The taxi was full of mosquitoes, and my first thought was of malaria. Eventually, they died down, and we were able to have some peace. My second thought was that I’d forgotten they drive on the opposite side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right. That took some getting used to! Conversation was so brief. I was so tired that I couldn’t think of what to say, and I also didn’t know what I could talk about in the presence of the driver. In addition, I was caught up in taking in my first sights of our new city.
As we exited the airport, we turned onto a main road that ran underneath the overpass. Right there, I caught my first glimpse of a beggar. I didn’t have time to see much, but I did see her huddled in a thin blanket, bedraggled and dirty, her hair mussed and limp with the rain. I knew it wasn’t cold outside, but the look of hopelessness on her face made me wish I could do something to bring her joy.
Driving on, we encountered the honking of the city for the first time. Horns blaring in every direction, the smell of exhaust hanging heavy in the air, the humidity pressing in on us, and the constant monsoon rain were foreign and overwhelming to our senses. This unfamiliar city with all its peculiarities was a place we would soon came to love.
But as we quickly realized, it was also going to be a challenge.
*Names changed for the sake of security