Zomba & the Lake

Two weekend getaways two months apart in two of Malawi’s most extraordinary places.

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A view down to Zomba town through the trees of the Plateau

Just a few weeks after arriving in Malawi our social sponsors, the family that prepared and eased our transition to the country, whisked us off for the Labor Day weekend.  Our destination: Zomba, the colonial capital of Malawi.

Early on Saturday morning, N–, S–, and Little N, their 5 year old daughter and already one of C’s favorite new friends, arrived to collect us.  N– did the driving the four plus hours from Lilongwe.  Having only recently arrived and only driven myself from home to Embassy or home to supermarket and back, the drive was an eye-opener.  It is hard to capture in words the changes from Capital City Lilongwe, where most of the expat community lives, with its large, high walled compounds, through the neighborhoods of the everyday population, where one steps directly from a simple brick home right onto the bright rust red earth alongside the road; chickens and goats roam freely.  Then a turn onto the M1, the main artery that stretches from the very northern border with Tanzania to the furthest tip in the south into Mozambique.  One might expect a major road with such a prominent name to be something of significance, yet there is no marker, no sign, to indicate that the two lane asphalt road is anything special at all.  Then at a large roundabout N– mentions that this is the borderline of Lilongwe.  There is again nothing to mark this change.  But soon the signs of urbanization fall away and although Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, there are times when there is no sign of civilization as far as the eye can see.

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The lovely Embassy Cottage

The scenery is unexpected.  The country is more undulated hills than flat.  I had expected flat, though I cannot say why.  We alternate driving on high plateaus and in valleys, past traditional villages, and thriving market towns.  Though there is more greenery than I expected, especially at the tail end of the cold and dry season, and more trees despite deforestation, the scenes are mostly sparse and dry, particularly in the latter half of the journey, after we have passed the town of Ntcheu, skirting the border with Mozambique, and left Central Malawi for the Southern region (the turn off which again gives no indication taking that right would lead you soon to an international border).

We arrive at Zomba but our actual destination was up, up, up the winding road of the Zomba Plateau, which rises some 6,000 feet above the Shire Highlands.  Near the top we stop, just past the famous Sunbird Hotel, at the U.S. Embassy cottage.  I had heard the cottage previously served as the summer retreat for the Ambassador when our Embassy was located in Blantyre.  The rustic wooden three bedroom cottage, seemingly to have escaped the worst of 1960s architecture, is built into a hillside; the front of the house just peeks over as you drive in and in back opens onto an expansive sloping yard.  Several baboon scurried away towards the trees as we approached.  There was quite a lot of greenery and the air was fresh; the altitude contributed to a cooler clime.  We were still in Malawi, but felt very far from the capital.

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Berry goodness

After unpacking the car and selecting the bedrooms, we made lunch in the cottage kitchen and ate out on the back patio.  Then S– and I and the two girls headed out for a walk toward the Plateau Stables to look into horseback riding for the following morning.  At the cottage gate hopeful berry sellers waited; they must have seen us pull in as there were no other residences at the end of the bumpy dirt drive.  I suspect Embassy folks are almost always good for a sale.  We did not disappoint as we not only bought strawberries and raspberries but also arranged to buy strawberry plants to take back to Lilongwe.

The Plateau Stables are just a 10 minute walk from the Embassy cottage, or a good 20 minutes if you walk with two five year olds.  No matter.  We had little planned but walks and relaxing and getting to know one another.  Along the path — deep orange dirt and jutted, wide enough for cars though surely a challenge during the rainy season — we came across baboon.  They strode forward purposely and though I tried to act nonchalant, as though I come across large primates on walks all the time, I doubt I was fooling anyone, least of all the baboons.  I eyed them warily as they too eyed me and we all kept on walking.  We arrived at the stables and while S– set out to organize our ride for the next day, the girls and I headed into the pasture in search of horses.  Little N had been before and had a particular horse in mind, C just wanted to see any horse, and then of course to pet a horse, and then of course to ride.  The scene was idyllic, green grass, tall trees, crisp mountain air, horses grazing…and baboons running around.  You know, the usual.

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Just another mom and child out for a stroll

It was not easy tearing the horse-crazy girls away from the stables, but after some time we walked back.  We prepared and sat down to dinner and then the cottage caretaker prepared a bonfire in the stone pit located in a gazebo in the backyard.  S–, the consummate host and planner, had brought music and the makings for S’mores.  The wood must not have been right for a bonfire as it smoked terribly.  Not being particularly woodsy myself, I could not have pinpointed the problem, but we all made do.  The girls and I did a lot of dancing to some Disney favorites and whenever the smoke made its way toward us, we shifted our dance location.  The cottage is stocked with movies and N– tried valiantly to set up the DVD player for some Disney classics selected by the girls, but it was not to be.  In the end the girls settled for some kids TV and us adults ran off to do what adults do when kids are distracted (shower without interruption!).

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The following morning we slept in and then enjoyed a homemade breakfast of eggs and toast and bacon.  Then S–, myself, and the girls headed off to our horseback riding adventure.  It was a cool morning, the temperatures perhaps in the upper 50s.  Mist hung over the plateau.  We rode the horses first across the Mulunguzi Dam.  With the dark green hills of tall pine, the nearly white overcast sky, and the steel grey waters, I felt as though I were somewhere in Europe rather than central Africa.  I half expected the Loch Ness Monster to rise from the waters or, at the very least, a crocodile to remind me where I was, but only the wind disturbed the surface of the lake.  Once across the reservoir, our guides lead us up into the forest.  With the exception of our own chatter and the occasional small group of women carrying bundles of branches on their heads (deforestation is a huge problem in Malawi–the wood is used to make homemade charcoal for cooking) to whom we called out “Muli bwanji” (“Hello” in Chichewa), the forests held a quiet stillness.  We only rode for an hour but it was a soul nourishing hour.  Or at least a soul-nourishing 50 minutes.  And then my rarely-in-the-saddle behind began to insist on getting down.

We regrouped at the cottage and then headed up the road to the Sunbird Ku Chawe hotel for lunch.  The weather was still chilly and we sat as close to the fireplace as possible.  Then an after lunch rests at the cottage — I indulged in a mountain cottage nap.  In the afternoon C and I met a guide who took us on an hour long mountain walk.  Initially, it looked like C might scuttle the walk complaining loudly in the first five minutes how incredibly far the walk had already been, but soon enough (thankfully) she got into the groove, looking for flowers and monkeys, or at the very least gave in.   Occasional forced walking in nature is good for children.

We spent another lovely evening at the cottage.  A quiet dinner, a fire in the fireplace.  Some board games.  I slept perhaps the best I had since arriving in Malawi.  The next morning after an early breakfast we packed up the car and by 7:30 AM were on the road back to Lilongwe.  Though it was just a day and a half and two nights, the plateau getaway had been restorative.

Two months later I pack up the car for our first self-drive trip outside of Lilongwe; our first Mommy and C trip in Malawi.  This time we headed east to Senga Bay, the closest beach on Lake Malawi.  I admit that I was a little apprehensive about the drive but I had been told it was very straightforward: head north on the airport road, turn right after the Carniworks store (a prominent butcher/grocery) on the only road that goes to the right, and then take that road all the way to the Lake.  An easy peasy 90 minutes.

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Its a lake that looks like an ocean

Well, perhaps not quite.  Everyone had told me an hour and a half, but it took me 2 hours.  Maybe it was that one wrong turn?  Or driving behind the truck piled high with people, standing room only, for way too many miles?  Maybe there was an extra police stop or two? Or maybe people just like to round down?  By the time we arrived at the Sunbird Livingstonia, at the very, very end of the road, I was tired and cranky.  Did I mention it is the super hot season in Malawi?  And also I still have not replaced the air conditioning in the car, inoperable due to someone stealing the relevant fuses somewhere between Durban and Lilongwe?  When my daughter tells me her armpits are melting, I tell her I did not have air conditioning in my cars growing up, but I actually really, really want to get those fuses replaced.  I just have not found the time just yet.  A hazard of being a single working parent in a new country.  But at long last we did arrive, maybe more than a bit sweaty, and I was underwhelmed.

At first.  Then we went for a walk along the beach – and it is a beach – as the sun set.  My daughter had asked to change into her swimming suit and I told her it was not necessary because we were just going for a walk.  I should know my daughter by now.  She had to walk in the waves.  And jump.  And skip.  And fall in.  On purpose.  She was so happy and it made me happy.

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Good Morning Senga Bay

It is dark early in Malawi.  By 6:30 all traces of day are gone.  We had an early dinner at the hotel and then headed back to our room – a cute little round chalet.  There was no air conditioning as the power does not support it (power is a continual problem in Malawi) but the hotel had provided a rotating fan.  I opened the windows and turned on the fan and we fell asleep to the sound of the waves.  Again, some of my best sleep in Malawi.

When we woke and opened our front door I was confronted with a dazzling view.  The whitewashed gate to our chalet stark against the hotel greenery, sunlight glinting off the blue lake waves.  Rainbow skinks skirted across the sidewalk.  Large glossy black and white pied crows, soared from palm to frangipani tree.  Wow.  I was both immediately glad I had booked two nights so that we would have an entire day, and simultaneously sorry we did not have longer.  C was ready to get down to business and demanded we eat breakfast as soon as possible so she could *finally* put on her swimming suit and properly get into the lake.

On the beach C ran at full speed across the sand, leaped repeatedly over waves, and could not seem to decide if she should have her pool noodle or the inflatable ring or neither.  She collected shells.  She lay on the beach staring into the sky.  She covered herself in sand.  At 2 1/2 hours I said we needed to go in and clean up for lunch.  We are very fair skinned folks; I usually try to limit our beach and pool time.  But I let her play a long, long time (and as a result we ended up with her first ever sunburn — though with such fair skin I am amazed we made it nearly 6 years without a burn).  Her laughter was too infectious.

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The Goat Herder

We drove to another hotel known for its extensive menu of Indian and Chinese dishes for lunch.  Along the way, we drove through a village and C declared that she very much needed to pet a goat.  I asked that she wait until after eating for the goat experience and she reluctantly agreed.  Following lunch I parked across the street from the hotel entrance, near where we could see some goat kids playing.  C declared that it would be quite easy to catch a baby goat due to their small size and her incredible speed.

The goats proved more resourceful and speedy than she anticipated.  Fairly soon, the sight of a blonde child running after goats in the village drew the attention of a crowd.  Several children approached me but I could not answer their questions as they did not speak English.  But soon enough a woman stepped forward as translator and I explained my daughter’s desire to pet a goat.  This was communicated to the group of children, who hooted with laughter and then set off to catch one.  One boy managed first to rope a large goat and dragged it over to my daughter to the seeming delight of everyone.  C was pleased and shyly pet the goat.  The boy then set off to capture a baby goat to also offer up for for some hugging.

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Beach boulders – even the bird crap looks cool

Back at the hotel we had some pool time (and by “some” I mean another 2 hours!) and C quickly made some friends with some other children.  Most of them were also from Lilongwe and also attended the same school.  We then took another sunset walk on the beach — I wanted to head over to some rock formations at the far end.  They did not disappoint.  The large boulders, the sand, the water, the darkening sky with just a hint of pink: it was beautiful.  C was initially skeptical about the walk and the rocks, but soon enough she was crawling on them and leaping off.  She even posed on all fours, facing out to sea, head raised in a roar — she told me this was Pride Rock and she was in her “Lion King pose.”  Walking back she actually ran right into a classmate from school and I had a chance to talk to him mom while the kids played.  It seemed all of Lilongwe had come to Senga Bay for the weekend.

I suppose if I had grown up around one of the Great Lakes, I would not be so surprised and taken with a lake that looks like an ocean.  The waves that roll along a sandy beach, the whitecaps as the wind whips up the water.  And a horizon in which one does not see another shore, only perhaps an island.  And yet without the salty smell of the sea.  Of course I grew up in Northern Virginia instead, but I am sure Lake Malawi would be impressive anyway — the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest lake in the world.

Two weekends away in Malawi.  Extraordinary.

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C looks out at Lake Malawi

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South Luangwa, Zambia: The First Safari

3Safaris.  African animals large and small.  It’s one of the reasons I bid to come to Malawi.  My daughter is at an age where she loves to run and explore outside and she loves animals (When I ask her what is her favorite animal she replies “all of them.”)  Shanghai was good for us in many ways, but playing outdoors was not one of them.  However, given my daughter’s age, there are actually not that many safari experiences she can participate in.  But there were opportunities in Malawi.

Soon after arrival I learned the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO) had organized a 2 1/2 day safari to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia for the Columbus Day weekend.  I signed us up immediately.

Departure day arrived.  Two months into our Malawi sojourn.  I wish I could say we were settled, but we are not quite there yet.  The house and yard are still works in progress as is my gradual learning about all things Malawi.  In this frame of mine I really needed a change of scenery, a new perspective, and some quality Mommy and C time.

We met our fellow Embassy safari enthusiasts at a central location bright and early at 7:15 AM on Saturday morning and from there boarded our Kiboko Safaris shuttle van for the trip.  The 90 minute drive to the border went quickly.  The scenery repetitious – two lane road, bicyclists, walkers, goats alongside.  Occasional village scenes.  And then we arrived at Mchinji and disembarked for immigration proceedings.

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Our South Luangwa camp accommodation

It was dusty and colorful.  There were lots of large trucks idling and parked in the space between the two immigration buildings.  Lots of people moving seemingly unencumbered between either side.  This was C’s very first land border crossing and at first she seemed annoyed to have to get off the bus for the formalities.  She has been through passport control many times in her young life, but never by land, and never quite like this.  As I already had my visa and C, as an under-16 minor did not require one, we completed immigration rather quickly on both sides.  At the Zambian immigration office I presented our World Health Organization immunization cards to prove we had been vaccinated for Yellow Fever.  Though not really an issue in either Malawi or Zambia immigration officials nonetheless ask and one can be denied entry or fined.  But on this day the official told me her Yellow Fever certificate colleague was not at work and thus it was not required. Of course not.

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A beautiful bee-eater in the park

The next three hours too were not eventful, which when you are careening down shoulder-less paved roads where goats and bicyclists and villages come out of nowhere is how you want your trip to be.  The smooth drive was punctuated by stops for random traffic police checks and poorly marked speed bumps, both of which Zambia has in common with Malawi.  The big surprise though was the Zambian border town of Chipata. Just 20 minutes from the border, Zambia’s fifth largest city is about half the size of Lilongwe, but it stood out in developed glory.  Parking lots with clearly defined parking spaces and no pot holes!  Four lane roads!  With curbs and sidewalks and even bike lanes!  My eyes bulged in wonder.  It had already been two months since I had seen such order and it seemed strange and foreign and magnificent.

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Neighbors

We arrived at our camp just outside South Luangwa National Park around noon.  C picked out tent, one of the closest to the river bank, and we unpacked and relaxed.  We had a few hours before 3:30 tea time and the 4 PM start to our evening safari drive.  C enjoyed the pool and I caught up on some reading.  We also met some of the other guests at the camp, which included antelope, monkeys, baboon, and white frogs.  In the river sSeparating our camp from the park, which at the height of the hot and dry season had shrunk a good 100 meters from the bank, wallowed several hippos and most likely hid more than a few Nile crocodiles.  On the other side of the camp, several bachelor hippos stood submerged in a grass-chocked pond.  At our 3:30 tea break we were informed that upon return from the four hour evening and night drive, we could no longer freely roam the camp.  Flashlight wielding sentries were posted outside our tents to escort us to and from the ablation block and cafe/bar because hippos, elephants, and other wildlife have been known to wonder through the camp at night.

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He stops on the hunt to pose for pictures

As we headed out on the first drive both C and I were giddy with excitement.  About seven years ago I had spent five days at Kruger National Park in South Africa, so this was only my second safari experience.  I had been looking forward to doing this with C for quite some time.  Within minutes we saw the hippos and elephants and antelope and baboons and cranes.  We passed over the bridge to the park and spotted more hippo in the river, then a warthog and giraffe.  All within ten minutes of starting.  Thirty minutes in and our driver’s radio sparked to life.  A leopard had been spotted!  We picked up speed and bumped over the dirt roads and across a grassy plain to a ravine where he lay out of sight of several zebras, antelope, and waterbuck.  He picked his way through the ravine, alternating between stealthy runs, picture perfect poses, and languidly laying about.  Though we had hoped to watch a kill, or at least a chase, he could clearly wait us all out.

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Safari C.  I could barely hide my pride at how well she handled herself

We went on to see more animals as the sun set over the park, including a herd of Cape buffalo.  In the night our “spotter” stood in front of the jeep scanning the darkness for animals with a spotlight.  Though we did see a few animals C and I were tired and would have liked to return to the camp early.  But the night sky stood clear and bright.  Overhead we could make out the Milky Way, Orion and other constellations, and the International Space Station as it made its way across the night sky.  The radio again crackled, news of a lion far across the park.  C, on my lap, and I, sitting in the back of the jeep, held on to the seat bar and closed our eyes, turning the zig-zagging, bumping, drive into a kid-friendly roller coaster ride.  At last we arrived, the lion far from the jeeps, barely visible in the spotlight even with binoculars.  A bit anti-climactic.  All the jeeps turned quickly and sped toward the park entrance — we crossed the gate threshold at 7:58, just two minutes before the park closed for the night.

The following day began bright an early with a 5 AM wake-up call.  5:30 AM we had breakfast and by 6 AM we headed out on our early morning safari drive.  Immediately after crossing the bridge to the park we were greeted by monkeys and lioness!  We spotted a tree squirrel, a family of warthogs, giraffes, zebras and more.  At a watering hole in the shade of a giant baobab tree we saw massive stork, cranes, guinea fowl, an African Fishing Eagle, hippos, crocodiles, and impala.  As a group, our jeep decided to return to the baobab tree for sunset that evening.

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While C hung out with other kids, I made a friend of my own

Back at camp at 10 am we again communed with other guests of both the two and four footed kind.  C joined with other kids (the next youngest was 11 years old but she wanted to spend some time with them rather than her mom) to play a card game.  We had lunch.  C swam in the pool.  We both took a lovely mid-afternoon nap in the heat of our tent, cooled only with the slow rotating movement of an electric desk fan.

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Sunset at the baobab – storks and their nests in the branches

Tea time and then out again for another sunset and night drive, our third and final safari.  We headed across the park towards the massive baobab tree.  Across a grassy plain we watched impala and giraffe meander together.  A warthog running nearby.  Alongside the river, high on an escarpment, hundreds of brightly colored bee eaters soared and darted from their nests in the bank.  In the water dozens of hippos bellowed and a Nile crocodile cut smoothly through the water.  An old, very tall giraffe later grazed on high branches above our jeep.  And still later a bull elephant stood firmly across the path, and we waited him out.  But soon behind we found his his young male scion and his mate.  Finally we arrived at the baobab for tea and the languid sinking of the African sun.

After dark the safari was uneventful.  Note to self: in the future, when safaring with a young child, see if there is an option for a 2 1/2 hour sundowner drive.  The four hour ones were too long for us.  C fell asleep.  I too might have been able to close my eyes, despite the rough and bumpy road.  I cannot recall eating dinner upon return, just an early lights out.

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My Zambian acquisition – an exquisite wall hanging

On Monday, the holiday, we were able to sleep in until 6:30 AM.  Breakfast at 7 and we were all off for the return to Lilongwe by 7:30.  Thirty minutes into our journey we stopped off at Tribal Textiles (http://www.tribaltextiles.co.zm/), where hand painted batik-style fabrics are turned into beautiful handicrafts for the home.  After a short tour of their processing facility they took us to their amazing shop.  Bright, bold colors and gorgeous designs popped off beautifully crafted fabrics.  I could not help but by something for our new home.

As we headed back to Malawi, C asked me “How long to the border?”  I stopped myself.  Just two days before when I explained the border crossing, she had no understood a land border.  Now she understands, at least in part, the imaginary line that divides two countries.  She took her own passport and confidently handed it over to the immigration officials.  She stood at one point approximating half her body in Zambia, half in Malawi.  She’s five.  We may not quite be settled here in Malawi, but I was reminded of why I wanted to come here, to expand both mine and my daughter’s horizons.  And to safari.

Car & Driver Lilongwe Edition

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The entrance of the road where we live

One needs a car in Lilongwe.  Well, wait, let me back up a bit already.   A large percentage of Malawi’s approximately 1 million residents do not own a vehicle.  They get around on foot, by bicycle, keke, or mini bus.  But for the expat community a car is pretty much essential.  Due to safety/security issues we are generally either high discouraged or even barred from taking the mini buses and taxis, as you know them in large cities, are non-existent.  So, prior to our arrival I needed to go about acquiring a vehicle for  Malawi.

The Acquisition Saga

I had two options for buying my car: either purchase at post from a departing diplomat or buy from Japan and have it shipped to Malawi.  After some consultation with my predecessor and colleagues I opted for option B.  Information provided by the Embassy indicated I would need to start the process early as it could take as long as four months from beginning to end, so in late February of this year (2017) I contacted IBC Japan to begin my search for my dream Malawi car.

Why buy from Japan?  Well, in Malawi we need a right-hand drive vehicle as the country drives on the left, i.e. the opposite as the US.  Japan is a huge market of used right-hand drive vehicles.  I recall from when I lived in Japan that the Japanese have to pay a vehicle tax every two years that as one’s car depreciates can quickly become more expensive than people are willing to pay on an older car.  So, the Japanese have a tendency to unload their used vehicles once they are over six years old.  With an excellent local and long distance train network, Japan also does not really have a “road trip” culture, so personal cars also generally have low mileage.

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My ride.  Her name is Stella.

I decided on the type of car I wanted–a Toyota RAV4 (the ubiquitous Toyota brand means parts are more readily accessible, cheaper, and more mechanics are familiar with them (though I still bought FOUR spare tires, extra oil filters, and high quality oil to bring with me); a RAV4 for the road conditions)–and searched through the IBC Japan database for one within my price range.  I was connected with an agent.  By the end of March we had agreed on a car and a price.  So far, so good.

Payment was tricky.  I had the option to do a bank transfer or, if I wanted to pay by credit card, to pay through PayPal.  I opted for the latter.

I should not have been surprised to receive an email notification of “unusual activity” from PayPal immediately after submitting payment.  It was not so much surprise as a long, heavy, resigned sigh.  Because it is odd to have an American PayPal account with an American credit card, purchase a vehicle from Japan, to be shipped to Africa, while using the Internet in China but through a VPN saying my location is Canada.  That probably does not happen every day for good reasons.  But it can be the reality for Foreign Service Officers.  Luckily a quick call to PayPal, a few good chuckles over my situation, and a little hoop jumping to prove I was who I said I was and the payment went through.

Stella – my sweet silver 2006 Toyota RAV4 – began her journey from Kobe port in Japan to Durban in late April.  By late May she arrived in South Africa — I have little doubt happy to get off the boat.  I too was glad to hear of her arrival as the flurry of emails regarding her paperwork during my Home Leave was a little nerve-wracking.  The Japanese company had mailed all the documents but unfortunately, although they always do this in every other case, had failed to scan a copy to email to me.  The Embassy could not locate the original documents and thus would be unable to clear the vehicle through customs.  Eventually they were located (misplaced in the mail of another agency) and Stella rolled off the boat to freedom.  Well, to waiting until a truck could be filled to capacity and then driven to Malawi.

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A “station” for the ubiquitous mini bus.  It seems random, but I expect the stations are not–this is near the city market.  Mini buses are known for being overcrowded, in poor repair, and driven recklessly.  But they get most people from Point A to Point B.

I received occasional reports of her journey.  The truck has left the port.  The truck is at the Mozambican border.   The carrier is at the Mwanza Border under clearance to Blantyre, will then proceed to Lilongwe once offloaded in Blantyre. Your car has arrived in Lilongwe.  The last happened sometime in late June or early July.  There were further clearance and registration processes for the car before she could be released.  Just a week before my arrival I received notification that Stella was cleared but she had a flat tire, a dead battery, and an empty gas tank.  They would run diagnostics.  I nearly had a nervous breakdown — after all Stella and I had been through… I had visions of having to scrap her and buy yet another car.  I called Lilongwe, six hours ahead, and learned that it is very normal for cars to arrive in this condition as they have been chained up in boats and trucks for months, have not been driven, and gas tanks were kept low for transport.  A quick test and Stella roared back to life.  When I arrived she was sitting pretty in my driveway at my new home.

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The keke – Malawian version of the tuk-tuk

I wish I could say that was the end of it.  That Stella and I lived happily ever after.  Stella is Japanese after all and we have had more than our fair share of communication issues.  Her manuals are all in Japanese.  Initially, whenever I started the car, a voice chirped in an overly-caffeinated voice a Japanese greeting informing me to “insert my card.”  That is until in a wee bit of a fit I might have ripped out the cord attached to the card reader.  The radio only goes to 90.0 FM and thus plays only one Malawian station, sometimes.  The automatic windows have to be raised incrementally to close or they will only roll themselves half way down again. The second key — not a key, but a “smart key” fob — was misplaced for a few weeks.  The folks in South Africa didn’t have it, the Embassy didn’t have it, it wasn’t in the car… Until it was found in an envelope in a file drawer.  As the temps have raised with the change in seasons from the Malawian “winter” to summer, I found the A/C only blows hot air.  A colleague checked and deduced the fuse was missing.  Another colleague, with a mechanic background, took a look.  He said it is common sometime during transit for parts to “go missing” and his own A/C fuse had experienced a disappearing act.  He confirmed it was gone and also informed me my two large headlight bulbs had been stolen as well.  <sigh>  A friend who had served in another post in Africa though was less sympathetic — she told me to look at the bright side, they could have stolen my engine block.  Very true.

Getting Around

Before arriving in Malawi I had tried to Google images of Lilongwe roads to have a sense of what was in store for me.  Frankly, I found little.  No surprise there, roads are, in general, not the most photogenic of subject matter.

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Lilongwe Roads

I am not quite sure what to say.  The roads were both better and worse than I expected.  They are paved.  Some have center lines.  There are streetlights and traffic lights.  But I also found that the edges are often eroded in jagged lines — as if a giant animal had gnawed off huge chunks.  There are frequent potholes and even, surprisingly, some speed bumps.  The holes are often visible — filled with rust colored dirt.  The speed bumps on the other hand have few markings and can catch you by surprise.  There are rarely shoulders other than dirt — so cyclists (often with loads of sticks or straw several feet wide) and pedestrians generally choose to walk on the asphalt.  The streetlights rarely turn on and the four traffic lights (that I know of) are often dark, not functioning.  Not so surprising in a country where only 10% of the people are connected to the power grid — electricity is a luxury.

roundabout and traffic light

The roundabout on Presidential Drive (left); City Center with broken (again!) traffic light (right)

I found driving initially difficult, not because I was driving on the left side of the road, but because I was driving an SUV, which I had not done before.  Stella’s top left corner seemed very far away and I found it difficult to gauge where I was in relation to the side of the road.  When possible, I give the pedestrians and cyclists a very wide berth.  Driving at places where there are traffic lights and they are not working, which more often than not seems to be the case, provides an extra level of difficulty and sometimes seems like a game of chicken.   The roundabouts, which are more common than traffic lights, appear straightforward.  Arrows indicate which lane go get in if you want the first, second, or third turn off.  But almost daily I have to battle it out with a local driver who seems to think all lanes of a roundabout lead wherever they want to go.

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Not so legible street signs mixed with advertising

Additionally, I found it difficult to find my way around.  Lilongwe is not a particularly large city and in the eight weeks I have been here, I have now learned the basic routes to and from work, to the various supermarkets, to key points of interest, and to my colleague’s homes.  It is compact enough that two weeks ago my five year old directed me to her school from memory of the route her school bus takes.  (a very proud moment for me).  Street signs though are uncommon and when they exist are not always easy to find or easy to read.  I often use landmarks instead — turn right at the T-junction where there are tires under the tree or take the third exit from the roundabout and then turn left a the store with the big blue letters.

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Rush hour and traffic light on Kenyatta Drive is out (again!) leads to a Lilongwe-style traffic jam

One cannot really do relaxed driving. My defensive driving course comes in handy here.  Besides the pedestrians and cyclists and other things that might run out on the road (maybe a hyena), the other drivers keep you on your toes.  As a gross generalization, Malawians are not good drivers.  Again, there are not that many people driving, and many may be those mini bus and keke drivers.  There are a fair number of people who seem to have licences but are not very good drivers.  The newspapers are full of front page stories of car accidents; I saw an accident on my way to work today.

As a working single mom with a school aged child, I realize that I probably need a back up driver.  My nanny, a young woman, also the single mom of a 5 year-old, with a good head on her shoulders, has a driving license, but is not a confident driver.  To her credit, she admits this (as I have heard from others the tendency is to over inflate one’s driving ability).  To boost her driving confidence, I have enrolled her in some remedial driving classes, and on occasion I have her drive C and I somewhere, such as to the Embassy to visit the clinic or to the gas station.  She is slow and careful, which I rather prefer.  There are times though it feels as if I am a parent of a daughter with a newly-minted license, and it struck me that I am old enough to be my nanny’s mother.  In fact her mother and I are the same age.  I hope however the courses and practice give her, and me, the confidence in her ability to some day drive my daughter to school functions on her own.  My colleague’s experience with this, does give me pause.

Eight weeks in and I am fairly confident with the car and driving though still trying to figure so much more out.

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For those who complain about gas prices.  It works out to about $4.28 a gallon

Travel to and Arrival in Malawi: On Bugs, Hyenas, Darkness, and Home

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Our new home! A view of our backyard our very first morning in Malawi

We made it to Malawi!

And when I say “we” I mean myself, my daughter, our two cats, and all our luggage.  There were more than a few times I thought this day would not come.

Departure Comes at Last.

Those last few weeks before departure are madness. I find myself questioning my choices regarding packing — I seem to have kept back way too much clothing for the final two weeks, and odd choices at that.  We eat out more because the food supplies at home are dwindling.  And the procedures for another international cat transport move into high gear.

Oh boy, the cats.  I love them.  But nothing tests that love more than when it comes to crunch time before the move.  To get the cats to Malawi I need to first have reservations on the flight.  That was hugely challenging because the Ethiopian Airlines call center appears to have no idea what I want.  It took a month of emails and phone calls to finally get the cats a reservation.  A little more than two weeks out, in desperation, I call Ethiopian Airlines at Dulles Airport where someone in baggage answers.  This person gives me the same number I have been calling repeatedly with no result for weeks.  When I lament this turn of events he says, “What if I gave you the direct number of some international ticketing supervisors?”  I, sir, would nominate you for Man of the Year.  Two of the three supervisors lines when direct to voice mail, but the third, a hero in my book, not only answered her phone but had corrected my problem within 24 hours.  But then the fun really began.

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The money is going to take some getting used to.  I needed this stack to open up my Internet.

In order to transport the cats internationally, I must have a USDA-APHIS certified vet conduct an examination certifying they are healthy enough for travel.  For Malawi, this must be conducted no more than 10 days before the flight.  Those examinations and paperwork, to the tune of $210, must then be scanned and emailed to Malawi where a Ministry will issue me an import certificate.  That takes a few days.  And then those docs are mailed back to me.  I receive them three days before departure.  Stress nearing critical mass.

Also three days before departure I am notified that the housing we had originally been assigned is now unavailable due to necessary upgrades.  The housing I had the pictures of since April.  The housing I had purchased items for since May.  Nothing to be done about it.  Oh, and I also receive an email informing me my car – bought and shipped from Japan – has a flat tire, a dead battery, and no gas.  I must take a deep breath.  Several. Its time to be Foreign Service Flexible again.  As always.

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A restaurant around the corner from my Malawi home.  I am highly likely to become a regular

Finally, it is the eve of departure.  I am in training until 4 PM.  I pick up C from her final day of international preschool, we ride the shuttle home, and the final packing begins in earnest.  As I fill suitcases to the brim I take them to the car.  C — trying to be helpful as we catch the cats to put in their carriers — somehow locks the bathroom door.  I then have to go to the front desk to see if their is still a locksmith available after 5 PM.  Luckily there is.  Packing the car proves troublesome.  I had a Honda Civic — a loan from my father.  There is the car seat in the back.  And two large cat carriers.  And four suitcases – two small, one medium, one large.  And a stroller.  And two backpacks.  I pack one of the two apartment keys somewhere…thus incurring a US$50 fine in our last hour at the apartment.  We had arranged dinner with my family at 6:30 PM near Dulles Airport, near the hotel where we would stay, 45 minutes away from our apartment.  We finally depart at 6:45.  We miss dinner with the family though they buy us food and meet us at the hotel.

Departure day: 11 AM flight.  We have to check in around 7:30 AM with the cats.  We are up at 5:30.  Around 6:30 AM my brother drops off my dad, who will take us to the airport in his car.  We determined the night before we cannot go in one car, so my aunt loads the cats in hers and we caravan to the airport.

And then suddenly it is happening.  Cats’ flight fees paid.  Cats’ examination by TSA and then they are whisked away.  We check in.  Security.  And off we are to Addis Ababa.  There I ask to see the cats, as we had been told at Dulles we could see them in transit.  We are told no.  Boarding in Addis is hectic and confusing.  But when I ask a flight attendant on our Malawi flight about the cats, she confirms with ground staff they are on board.  I make her confirm they are also ALIVE.  Four hours later we are landing in Lilongwe.  As the plan descends, I can see no proof from the air that a city is anywhere nearby.  But there is an airport.  Blurry-eyed we deplane.  We are met by P from the Embassy.  I have been in contact with him for months.  It is so good to see a friendly face.  He helps whisk us through customs and immigration.  He helps at the baggage carousel, where I am surprised to see two large pet carriers with mewing cats come along.  They made it!  Our social sponsor and daughter met us outside to whisk us to our new home.

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Sterilizing fruit

First impressions and challenges.

I have traveled to approximately 100 countries around the world, but the vast majority of those have been in Asia and Europe.  Next would probably be Central America and the Caribbean.  On the African continent I have visited only Tunisia, Egypt, and South Africa, for 10 days as a tourist in 2010.  I am not sure anything compares to Lilongwe.

The moving process is never easy.  No matter how many times I have done this, arriving at a new home, filled with Embassy-provided furniture, and a welcome kit of pots and pans, bland towels and sheets, but devoid of anything personal, never seems to get easier.  Our social sponsor had filled our fridge with food essentials, drinks, and prepared meals.  Yet this is the first time I have arrived somewhere I could not just go out on my own to shop on day one.  I felt very out of sorts.

Buggy Friends

Our place in Lilongwe is about as different from Shanghai as can be.  We traded in a small, but swank high-rise apartment, on one of Old Shanghai’s oldest, and happening, streets, where we are surrounded by luxury stores and international supermarkets, to a large single ranch style home on approximately a half acre of land, which though located in one residential nucleus of the new city, there are few buildings over two stories in the city.  We went from the largest city in the world with a population of over 24 million people, to a city of approximately one million.  In Shanghai we had little interaction with bugs.  I am sure there are plenty of insects in the city, but rarely did we encounter them.  Never before had I received this email: We have been notified there is a swarm of bees at your house and we are sending someone. Or this phone call: Ma’am, your guard informed us there is a swarm of wasps at your house; we are sending someone. Nor did I have to submit a housing work order like this: There is a termite nest on my property; please send someone to take care of it.  In our four weeks, we have also had ants, crickets, beetles, and cockroaches attempt to make our acquaintance.  The last, unfortunately, has been a source of glee for C, who after seeing the Disney movie Wall-e believes roaches to be pet material.  She named the first one, no kidding, “Dead.”  And I agreed it was a fitting name.

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Seems romantic but our nets are a necessity

There are of course also mosquitoes.  Though we encountered these in both Juarez and Shanghai, this is the first place I have lived that is critical for malaria.  C and I take malaria prophylaxis daily and we sleep under nets.  Our arrival coincided with the cool season so we have not yet had many mosquito sightings, but as the hot and wet season comes, this will change.

These however have been the extent of our bonding with nature’s creatures thus far.  Well except also for a few lizards.  I do not mind them at all.  It is the snakes that I worry about.  And the hyenas.  Lilongwe is one of, if not the, only African capital where hyenas roam.  One colleague pointed out a corner where hyenas like to congregate, not far from the US Embassy.  Another told me of a recent evening when he came across an injured hyena, who had been struck by a car.  I have yet to hear their high-pitched sounds at night, but I expect it to be only a matter of time.

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Believe it or not but this is a main thoroughfare in the capital.  The streetlights though are for show.  They do not come on.

A Place for Early Risers

I am a night owl.  My daughter is a night owl.  Malawi is probably more a place for early birds.  The sun rises around 5:45 AM and sets 12 hours later, before 6 PM.  C’s school begins at 7:15 AM and her bus picks her up around 6:30.  I wake her up at 5:30, before the sun has risen.  I wake up 15 to 30 minutes before.  Embassy hours begin at 7:30.  We wake up and go to sleep in darkness.  And it gets very, very dark here.  I appreciate the lack of light pollution.  In Shanghai night was never truly dark.  From our window there were hundreds of thousands of lights visible throughout the night.  Here, it is pitch black by 6:30 PM, with little light to pierce it.

We once walked from our home to a nearby Italian restaurant, located around the corner, at 5:30 PM.  Many restaurants and businesses operate out of people’s homes and are located in residential areas.  I generally would say 5:30 is early for dinner, but of course 15 minutes later the sun went down, and by the time we began our walk home an hour later it was like deep night.  Though we live just around the corner, less than five minutes walk, we stumbled blindly back.  There are few streetlights, and the only light that cut through the darkness were the security lights from my own property, projecting just a little over the high wall of my property.

Security

Embassies take security of their personnel seriously.  I am used to living with bars on my windows and concertina wire around a property.  I am used to regular tests of our Embassy-provided radios to ensure we know how to operate them to contact and be contacted by Post One, usually the Marines but sometimes the Regional Security Officer, in the event of an emergency.  We take part in drills.  It is par the course as a Foreign Service Officer and their family members.  Shanghai though was different.  Living in a leased apartment in a high rise, we were without the window bars, without the radios, without the concertina wire.  Now we are back to that and more.  As this is my first time to live in this kind of housing, it takes some getting used to having a guard on the property 24/7.  To have the floodlights scattered around the yard.  And to have so many, many locks.   All told I have something to the tune of 43 locks: 16 door bolts, 12 doors with keys, and 15 locks on closets and cabinets.  This does not count the locks for the garden gate, the garden sheds, the garage.  We are certainly security conscious.

Just the beginning

It is a little hard to believe we have already been in Malawi a month. I struggle daily with not knowing things– not knowing how to drive to places, not knowing where to buy things, not knowing so many aspects of my job, not knowing many things about the city and the country where we now live.  Yet with each day I know more than I did the day before.  And there are so many more adventures to be had.

 

 

 

 

 

The DC / NoVA In-Between 2017

The Home Leave honeymoon is over.

And now I am in purgatory.

Just kidding! Well, sort of.  Leaving Shanghai was An End.  And when we depart the US to move to Malawi that represents A Beginning.  The majority of Home Leave was a lovely interlude, a chance to see friends and family, have quality mother-daughter time, re-charge after the previous months of frenzied departure preparations, and see more of our incredible country.  But now we are in the DC area and it feels like neither a beginning nor an end.  It is an interregnum, an interim, an intermission.

We are in the in-between.

I have struggled with writing this blog post because I have struggled to define how I feel. There are just so many things all wrapped up in being back here temporarily at this time.

Nostalgic in the Moment

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C’s first time buying from the Ice Cream Man – so MUCH more selection than when I was a kid!

A few weeks after we moved into the temporary apartment in Arlington, we set out for a stroll to a nearby much-lauded playground.  I enjoyed the walk and C very much enjoyed the playground.  C also enjoyed a Spongebob Squarepants creamsicle from the Ice Cream Truck.  I felt transported back to the summers of my childhood when the familiar musical chimes of the truck in my neighborhood had me scurrying back to home to beg my mother for ice cream — and the change to buy it.  I usually went for a Push-Up, an orange creamsicle concoction in a cylinder that you pushed up the tube as you ate, or a red, white, and blue American rocket popsicle.  These days the Ice Cream Man has much more selection and accepts credit cards yet he seemed no less the symbol of a suburban Americana summer.

On the walk home, in the fading summer light, along tree-lined sidewalks, some brick-laid, past the chic residences, restaurants, and stores that make up the mixed-use development area where we live, I suddenly felt sad.  I thought, “I miss this.”  And the thing is I did not think I will miss it, but that I already felt a wistful yearning for what was right there in front of me.  And it is a sensation that has cropped up again and again.

We are in the DC area for a total of twelve weeks (ten weeks of training and the two final weeks of my Home Leave).  While it is the shortest amount of time I have been in the DC area since joining the State Department, it is not an insignificant amount of time.  As an actual chunk of time it is neither short nor long.  Or maybe it is both? I have not been able to decide.  I have swung from feeling that the time is nowhere near long enough to do everything I need/want to do and then to feeling as if the days are far too many.  A few weeks back my daughter summed it up pretty well when she announced Mom, we have been in this apartment hotel TOO long!  It is keeping us from getting to Malawi!

Bucketlisting

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The unstoppable C makes her way across a wood and cable obstacle at the Adventure Park

In part due to that sense of nostalgia–the feeling of needing to cram in as much Americana as possible, to enjoy the things that were we in the US longer we might come to take for granted (like sidewalks, world class museums, the DC metro)–I have tried to squeeze in as much fun for us as I can.  Despite that we are moving to Africa where safaris abound, I took C to the National Zoo.  It is free and it is amazing and it has animals from all over the world.  C loved it.  We visited the Natural History Museum, a place I visited often as a child on school trips or with my mom and siblings.  Just like me, C wanted to seek out the dinosaurs, Egyptian mummies, and insects.  She still, out of the blue, remarks how the largest and most beautiful of butterflies, the Blue Morpho, landed on her arm in the butterfly exhibit.  My intrepid 5 year old bravely faced the tree-top climbing and zip line courses at the Adventure Park at Sandy Springs.  During my training in West Virginia, C spent the week with her two cousins.  At the end of the week we all met up for a drive-in movie theater experience in Stephens City, Virginia.  My sister and brother-in-law are drive-in movie buffs but it was both C’s and my first time.  Americana.  After I posted a video of C dancing to her newest Shimmer and Shine DVD, a friend mentioned that the following weekend, just days away, AwesomeCom, DC’s answer to ComicCom would be in town and Shimmer and Shine, the twin genies in training that have captured my daughter’s heart, would be there.  I bought us tickets and a few days later we stood in a giant hall in the convention center surrounded by costumed enthusiasts. Next time, C told me, we will also dress up. We attended a baseball game at Nationals Stadium and spent the evening of July 4th watching fireworks over the Washington Mall from the Iwo Jima Memorial in Virginia.  We had dinner with a long time friend of mine at Medieval Times – eating chicken and bread and corn with our hands while watching knights jousting.  Sure knights and princesses are more a European thing, but watching them in this day and age as dining entertainment has got to be Americana, right?  C and I also braved some wall climbing at the very unique Climbzone in Laurel, Maryland.  Despite being one of the smallest climbers, C again tried an impressive number of climbs.  We also enjoyed one of the Cinema in the Park experiences that abound in the DC/VA/MD area in summer. Before the movie, Moana, C had the opportunity to learn hula dancing and get her picture with the Polynesian princess herself. Each one of these experiences have been priceless.

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It might have been cloudy and there was a large tree in the way – but still the view…America!

I have also tried to pack in time with friends and family. We had a special half-birthday for C. Though I started the tradition several years ago given either our lifestyle or C’s January birthday might make it difficult to celebrate on her actual birthday, the half birthday has thus far been a low-key affair. A cupcake with mom and a single present. This year we celebrated the half-birthday big time with a specially ordered cake and a party with her maternal grandparents, grand auntie and grand uncle, two aunts, an uncle, and two cousins. It isn’t often we can celebrate with family.   With friends I have had lunches and brunches and dinners, and when those are not possible, squeezed in conversations in the halls of the Foreign Service Institute or phone calls while we are in the same time zone for once. One of the best parts of being back at FSI is seeing all the familiar faces – former teachers and classmates as well as colleagues from Juarez and Shanghai. And I am incredibly grateful to a group of fit and friendly women from the Sunday morning step aerobics class at the local YMCA who invited me & C to their weekly after-exercise Starbucks gathering. Moving around as much as we do it is rare for me to find a group and much less to be so invited and welcomed.

Killing Me Softly with Bureaucracy

The majority of my time here is spent in training at FSI.  Unlike in the past I have no language training; it is all functional training in courses spanning from a single day to 3 weeks.  Some of my training has been amazing.  Some of it felt as if it were purposely designed around my greatest weaknesses.  Though some could have been better, I certainly have learned a lot and am better prepared for my next assignment than I was when I began in June.  But in all of my training I wish I had had more time to focus on the training itself and less on what I often refer to as my part time job: Moving.

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A picture from our Medieval Times dinner.  Just a little jousting.  It is not about bureaucracy.  Or is it??

Preparations for our second intercontinental move of the year has involved all manner of things from scheduling vaccinations, having my travel orders amended to accommodate new training, getting passport photos required by the Embassy in Malawi, and organizing our flights, which includes the cats.  International pet travel is no joke.  None of these things is particularly difficult in its own right – well except getting the cats to Malawi – but in true bureaucratic fashion none were made easy either.

For instance let me tell you about renewing my Department identification.  I work for the State Department.  I have a current badge.  I am in the system.  One might think obtaining a new badge would be straight forward.  But it is not.  One cannot just walk in with a current badge, have someone check in the system that you are in fact an employee in good standing, and then voilà! a new badge.  Our bureaucracy laughs at this naiveté.  Instead we need a form signed by someone in HR.  I obtained the form and headed to the badging office in Arlington.  But I was unsuccessful.  Why?  Because the form had been signed electronically and not with a pen.  I could not get my badge the following week because I started training at FSI – and at the time there was no badging at FSI.  I could not return to the Arlington office or go to DC because the offices are open 9-4 and my training at FSI was 9-5.  Also according to one paper the form signature remained valid for five days, while another form indicated it would be valid for 30, but the badging office told me both were incorrect – it would be valid for ten days.  In the end with a mixture of perseverance and luck I did obtain a new badge, but the ordeal to do so is indicative of how many of my necessary tasks went down.  Do not even get me started on what I went through to get my cats reservations on our flights.  I shutter to recall.

I absolutely know I am not alone in this.  I have stated it before and I will state it again – every single Foreign Service Officer puts a huge amount of effort into getting them and their things, and, if they have them, their family and pets, from Point A to Point B.

Shopalooza

In addition to soaking up America, training like a ninja, and working my tail off to get us to our third country of the year, I spent a lot of time, effort, and money in another endeavor: shopping til I dropped!

Your order of Skywalker Trampoline and 47 other items has shipped

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The consumable stockpiling.  Will 850 freezer pops really be enough? Inquiring minds want to know.

That is an actual recent email I received.  It would be impressive in and of itself, but it is more so given it was followed in quick succession by:  Your order of Tide Pods Laundry and 48 other items has shipped and Your Body Track Glider and 49 other items have shipped.  You might wonder what possessed me?  Why am I buying out all the things from Amazon? No, I did not suddenly come into an inheritance.  One, Malawi is a Consumables Post, where local conditions make it difficult to obtain the usual consumable items an employee and family would use.  “Consumables” are items that are used up rather than worn out. Consumables are items like food stuffs, household maintenance supplies such as laundry detergent, and personal care items such as shampoo or bubble bath for the kiddo. It can also include items for our furry companions. Two, I had not maxed out our HHE (Household Effects) and given we are moving from Shanghai, where we had a smallish 19th floor apartment, to Malawi where we will have a large home and yard…Well, I wanted to take advantage of our time in the US to purchase a few items, such as a bicycle and trampoline for C (often listed among the top things to bring to African posts) and a rowing machine and FOUR spare tires for myself and our “new to me” car from Japan.

At Consumable Posts employees are authorized up to an astounding 2,500 pounds that can be divided into two shipments, provided they both are shipped within a year of arrival in the country. I have no doubt that some larger families can meet this amount easily. For just the two of us it felt like a challenge. I would find myself in Target or a supermarket pondering questions such as “how much salsa DO I eat in a year?” At first it was kind of fun, but overtime those kinds of decisions grew exasperating. C lost all interest in going to the store with me. I get it; small children have a hard time delaying gratification. These are things we are not only NOT using this summer but would instead only receive 2-3 months after arriving at our new home. That is a long time to wait.  But C even began to beg me to get her a babysitter so she would not have to go with me. Believe you me — I did not want to go shopping anymore either.  And I think it is due to this shopping fatigue that I failed in my pursuit.  Somehow I only managed 555 pounds.

Time to Say Goodbye, or Rather, Hello

We are now just days away from departure. The to-do list is basically done. We are no longer shopping. What we have now has to fit into our suitcases. We are no longer trying to fill hours seeing friends and family or trying out a new activity. I do not have the bandwidth for it. We are instead eating out at our favorite places or eating up the last of our supplies at home. I am having last-while-in-the-US calls and chats with friends and family.

Last Saturday we took another stroll down to that playground. On the way home, in the twilight of another beautiful Northern Virginia summer evening, I came to the realization that we are both now ready to leave. I will of course still miss so much about this part of the US, just about being in the US, but the feeling of nostalgia had been replaced.  What I miss most now is working (instead of training), of being settled, of having a home. There is a sense of excitement (and nervousness) about what is next.  I think back to a few weeks ago when I heard my daughter singing an original song in our temporary living room:   Goodbye America!  Goodbye America!  I really love to live here but I really need to leave.

It’s time. No more in-between. Time for yet another new start.

The 2nd Home Leave Part 2

For whatever reason I have found it difficult to write this blog post.  And yet I knew I had to write it for if there were a Part 1 there had to be at least a Part 2, or in this case if there is a beginning to the Home Leave there then needed, eventually, to be an end.  Perhaps it is because this second part of the trip felt so much longer than the first?  From Charleston, SC we continued on with our trip – traveling from SC to Orlando, Florida, on to Lexington, Kentucky,  then to Salamanca, New York, and returning to northern Virginia – all told some 2,500 miles by car.  Or maybe because all of these miles driven have provided me ample opportunity to think on so many, many topics ranging from career trajectory, life choices, the meaning of family, an appreciation for things in the US often taken for granted (such as our incredible highway system or our extensive candy selections)?  Or because we have wandered through so many states, and different climates, and interacted with so many people?

Following Charleston, SC I drove us south to Orlando, FL.  It was time for more mother-daughter time.  Although I had of course made sure to include C-friendly activities in Charleston (the aquarium, the children’s museum, the horse carriage ride), it was on the itinerary more for me than her.  So I booked six (yes SIX!) days at a very kid-centric Waterpark Resort hotel.  Our room included a small kid’s room with bunk beds, bean bag chair and even a TV where C could watch Disney Jr–and I could actually watch my very own shows and news in the other room.  Be still my heart.  As C watched the giant bucket fill with water spill over the massive water slide center she jumped up and down and hugged me.  I had done good.

Our days there were filled with sleeping in and staying up late, playing games in the arcade, frolicking in the pool, playing a round or two of miniature golf, and challenging one another to races to the bottom of water slides.  We only left the resort twice — once so I could attend a timeshare presentation (oh indeed, I got suckered in, again!) and then the second time to SeaWorld to use those free tickets I had earned fending off the timeshare professionals.  It rained once briefly but afterwards C breathed deeply and declared the air even fresher and more beautiful than before.  The joys of not having to check the Air Quality Index!  We even had wildlife encounters with C delighting in spotting the anhinga (waterfowl) and turtles and fish that made their home on the resort’s pond.  Together we found a baby orange ringneck snake near the pool and a raccoon crossed our path one night as we walked the resort grounds.

I did realize one glaring mistake – the lack of child care!  I was sure when I booked this family friendly place that it included parent-friendly child care.  It did not.  As a single parent it meant I was “on” all the time.  C swims well but is still too young to swim or hang out in an hotel arcade unattended.  I thought back to the glorious resort we had stayed at in Thailand where C was finally old enough to play at the Kids Club without me.  I had all that free time to myself.  I was envious of the dual parents who could split child minding time.

From the waterpark resort we drove just a few miles down the road to the Art of Animation Disney hotel for more Florida fun.  My long-time (nearly a quarter of a century) friend CZ and her son met us there for single mom and kid fun at Disney.  It was at times hectic.  Despite us being two adults with two children it still sometimes felt we were outnumbered.  And yet we were able to tag-team parent in ways we on our own are unable.  One could get lunch while the other watched the children.  One could take the kids on a kiddy ride while the other could sneak off to enjoy a ride where the height restrictions were over 48 inches tall.  During a very brief moment both children were wiped out asleep in strollers and we grabbed a drink together at a poolside bar – my one drink of the year.

After five days we said farewell to CZ and son and we turned back north.  After an incredibly long and frustrating drive we stopped in Suwanee, GA to stay the night with my friend SG, who had been one of my roommates in Singapore where we had both been graduate students over a decade before.  This was not initially on our itinerary but SG had reached out to see if we would be passing by and when I checked our route I found it worked.  I struggle to describe how extraordinary social media can be to maintain linkages with friends from across one’s life.  But the ability to see someone in person and meet their family, even if for a short time, is unparalleled.

Our destination after Florida though was Kentucky, just south of Lexington, where C’s father lives.  C would spend four days and nights with him and his wife.  C was so incredibly excited, chanting “daddy! daddy!” the last few miles in the car and bouncing from one foot to the other as she stood on his front step after knocking on the door.  For me it was a little bittersweet.  Four days is the longest C and I have been apart, yet I know it is important for her to have the connection with her father.  After thirty minutes of catching up C desperately wanted me to leave so she could have her dad to herself.  I drove to a nearby hotel lobby to figure out what in the world to do with all of my free time.

Over the course of the next few days I visited the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park and Mammoth Cave National Park.  At the latter I took a two hour very non-5-year-old-friendly historic cave tour and 45 minute surface walk and talk.  I watched a non-animated film at a movie theater.  I went to a spa for a facial.  I toured Ashland, the Henry Clay estate.  I stayed in a historic hotel.  I listened to NPR in the car as I drove around and did not once have to hear how my backseat driver was tired of listening to all that talk, talk, talk.  I watched adult television shows without hearing a complaint about how boring it all was and could we now switch to kid TV?  On Facebook I took pictures of myself for a change and my friends noted I looked refreshed. I missed my chatterbox and caught myself numerous times pointing out cows and horses alongside the road to an empty backseat, but I also savored the quiet.  As an introvert I can say one of the things I miss most as a single mom is silence.

After picking C up at her dad’s we headed for Ohio.  We were on our way to New York but I had discovered in looking at our route we would pass by my cousin Lucky’s place.  I had messaged her and she was glad to have us stay with her for a night.  Lucky and her husband are accomplished artists and extraordinary people.  Their home, for lack of a better description, gives off an aura of happiness and positivity.  We enjoyed dinner out and breakfast in, and an impromptu art session on the living room coffee table.

Our next stop was upstate New York where C’s paternal family lives.  I again struggle for the right words to articulate how fortunate we are that they embrace us as they do.  Her father and I were never married, our pre-C relationship rocky and short-lived.  But his family welcomes us–they welcome me–openly.  We met with her grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin, whom we had met before, but also met another aunt and cousin for the first time.  Her grandmother’s brother stopped by to see “the girl” he had yet to meet.

From New York we returned to Virginia, to my aunt’s home for a few more days.  We collected the rest of our things and the cats and then moved into an apartment in Arlington to stay in through the end of my training.

I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to take a journey like this – to have both the time and the means.  All the gushing about Home Leave in the beginning piece is very much how I feel.  Not to say that somewhere around 2.5 weeks into this I had just about had enough.  I did, at times, find the driving monotonous.  I tired of hauling around our suitcases from one hotel or home to another and longed for some semblance of continuity and routine.  Yet for every thought about how nice it would be to just get some place and stay more than a few days there were ten or twenty thoughts about how I wish we had more time to see more of the country, to spend an extra day or two or three with a friend or relative.  Home Leave is the closest I get these days to my former backpacking self, who would spend weeks on end traveling around a country or from country to country, moving every day or two, sometimes deciding the next destination on a whim.

Still this home leave did feel more difficult than my first in the summer of 2012 for three reasons: child care, the timing, and politics.

In 2012 I, smart cookie that I was, arranged child care for then-2.5 year old C at most of our locations.  This included taking C daily to the Sheraton Waikiki daycare while we were in Hawaii, to the incredible drop in child care center in New Bern, NC, a community gym with child care in Pigeon Forge, TN, and friends and family who minded C so I could run in San Francisco, South Dakota and New York.  For some reason I neglected to work out anything this trip except when C was with her father or the one night she spent at her grandparents in NY.  This was a mistake.  I needed more downtime.

My first Home Leave lasted an amazing eight weeks after which I started 19 weeks of language training, then a week of consultations/pack-out/administrative tasks, to prepare for heading to Shanghai, where I would continue visa adjudications as I had in Juarez.  This time I had seven weeks of home leave, five of which I spent traveling, two I am spending in the DC area, before either seven to nine weeks of functional training, and then head to Malawi to take up a completely new position.  During the course of my home leave I fielded emails regarding the maritime shipment of my newly acquired car from Japan to South Africa then on to Malawi, the air delivery of my UAB (Unaccompanied Baggage) from Shanghai to Virginia, and reviewing advertisements, contacting references, and interviewing for child care in Malawi, among other things.  Truth be told I sometimes felt resentful these things encroached on my Home Leave.

Finally, this time the political climate is also different.  At this point I will remind the reader that my blog comes with a caveat – that the viewpoints expressed here are mine and mine alone and do not represent the State Department or any office of the Federal Government.  My blog is not political; I have strong opinions on things but I rarely state my views on social media.  Yet it would be disingenuous to say the current state of affairs does not directly and indirectly affect me–it does.  I have never been so attuned to political news in my life as I am now.   During my Home Leave I have consumed news and political commentary at an alarming rate.  It has been stressful.  And also strange because I am not currently at work.  But what I did do was to introduce myself and what I do to people I met along the way.  Not out of the blue mind you, but when asked “where do you live?” I answered honestly: That is not such a straightforward question.  I am a US Foreign Service Officer and currently between assignments.  I just returned from Asia and will soon be moving to Africa.  I am on my Congressionally-mandated Home Leave traveling around the US with my daughter.  And this opened the door to some incredible conversations.  Some did not know what a diplomat is or what they do.  Some thanked me for my service.  Some asked how they could become one themselves.  Outside a restaurant in Charleston I met a young man, waiting for a table with his wife, mother, and infant child.  His dream is to become a diplomat.  I gave him, a couple from New York I met at the Disney hotel pool, and a waitress at a pizza place in Bowling Green, KY my contact information.  At each National Park I thanked the Park Rangers for their service.  At Mammoth Cave I discovered one, a former Army Officer, also spoke Chinese.

It was an extraordinary five weeks.  Stressful.  Fun.  Tiring.  Eye-opening.  So many things come to mind.  Having now written out the trip I think the biggest thing I feel is gratitude.

The 2nd Home Leave Begins

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C at the USS Yorktown at Patriot Point in Charleston, SC

After months of planning my second Home Leave finally is here.   Okay, really, after saving for, daydreaming about, and plotting my Home Leave from my arrival in Shanghai (and only finalizing after securing my onward assignment), the Home Leave arrived!  Well, before it could begin I would have to clear one more hurdle: the PCS trip.

PCS=Permanent Change of Station, i.e. the trip that moves you from one assignment to another or to the US for home leave or training at the end of a tour.  It sounds fairly simple I guess.  Well it is and it isn’t

Now I want to be clear here.  I know there are people facing far more difficult challenges in their lives than the government paying to fly them from Point A to Point B.  I might not be a complete news junkie but in my particular line of work I am, of course, aware of news and world events.  And no one made me have a child, get two cats, or pick this career.  That was all me. But now here I am and, with all things being relative, I do not want to forget the stress and discomfort experienced with this move.

So just try to imagine yourself embarking on an international flight that will consume approximately 24 hours of your life door to door and take you across 12 time zones.  Sure, no problem, you are an experienced traveler.  But add in your 2 checked bags and 1 carry on suitcase.  And a good-sized carry on backpack.  Still with me?  Add in a 5 year old child.  A good one who is also experienced at flying, but nonetheless is still 5.  And gets a checked bag and carry on allowance but who claims her 10 pound miniature backpack is making it hard for her to walk more than fifty feet.  SHE IS SO TIRED!  Also the car seat — you can check that too, for free, but you still need to bring it as you will need it as soon as you arrive at your destination.  Oh, and a stroller.  It folds up and you can check it at the airplane door.  But wait, I am not done.  You are also carrying two cat carriers because, why not?  They will fly in-cabin, under the seat in front of you.  So your 5 year old does not really get to sit in the stroller — the cats do.

There is no way to get to the check in counter, to the gate, or board the plane and look anything close to a suave, experienced flyer, diplomat.  Nope.  The flight attendants see me moseying up to the plane with the grace of a drunk penguin, hair askew, a cat cage on each shoulder and they peg me as the first time flyer I have GOT to be.  “Ma’am, can we help you find your seat?” they ask me slowly, enunciating each word.  I want to tell them that I am pretty sure I can figure out that row 25 comes after row 24 but I just smile.  A strained, crazy smile.

So the crazy parts:

1. I fly this particular airline quite a lot and my profile has me always in a window seat.  Yet for some reason we are booked for a middle and aisle seat.  And also for two in-cabin pets.  Every single aisle seat has a weird box taking up half of the space under the seat in front of me.  Where a cat needs to go.  I alert the flight attendant.  After surveying the situation she suggests I move one row back.  To a middle and aisle seat.  Yes, the exact same seats one row back.  I look at her quizzically.  Is she kidding?  She isn’t.  I point out that will not solve the problem.  She says one of us can just take the window seat and surely that passenger will switch.  I am extremely skeptical.  In fact said person has just arrived and is adamant that will not happen.  He says he doesn’t want to be a jerk, but… I say no problem, I get it.  He figures out two cat carriers will fit under the middle seat.  Problem solved.  Passenger ingenuity.

2. I spent a lot of time previously deciding between the midnight flight with on-demand entertainment on in-seat TVs and the noon flight that had personal device and way-overhead no-choice-of-movie movie.  I went with option 2 and downloaded the app to my daughter’s Kindle (you have to download before the flight or use the expensive wi-fi on board to do so in flight).  The app had not downloaded properly.  I could not access wi-fi for three hours due to Chinese airspace.  Then I purchase the overpriced wi-fi for one hour. But the personal device entertainment system malfunctioned.  As did the “no-choice-screens-from-overhead” entertainment — it was stuck on the welcome screen.

3. Flying from the US to China even with one stop was easier.  Returning, not so much.  Think customs and immigration at the first point of entry, picking up all checked bags, then re-check bags and then go through security again.  Scroll back to my list of stuff I traveled with and my travel companions.  FYI – pets need to be taken out of their carriers to go through security.  Yes.  Think about it.  Oh yes it was just about as much fun as you can imagine.

4. I am SO glad I did not opt to take the 2 checked-bags each we were allotted per government PCS travel regulations or the 3 checked-bags per my airline status.  For some reason the luggage carts located in the baggage claim area, before customs, seemed ridiculously small.  Remember the list of stuff we were traveling with?  It just would not fit.  Even with all my experience playing Tetris.  C pushed the stroller with one cat and her backpack through customs to re-check.  She is 5.  If she had been 3, the age she was when we PCS’d to China I would have been SOL.  She really stepped up.  Thank goodness.

But it was only 24 hours.  And honestly the worst parts were maybe 2-3 hours of my life.  The getting through security with the cats (in Shanghai I used pillow cases to bring one cat through at a time, which inexplicably caused my daughter to cry; in the US after some confusion by TSA, we were led to a private room where the cats were removed from their carriers so those could go through security and one cat might have hidden behind some boxes in that room in an attempt to escape, which might have made my daughter laugh hysterically and me expect I made the TSA agents’ weirdest passenger of the day list).  The boarding and disembarking.  The whole immigration and customs and re-checking of luggage.  Other than that it was just fine.

And THEN my home leave could begin!

Within 24 hours of landing I was in attendance at one of my best friend’s wedding.  As a Foreign Service Officer, often overseas, I miss so many life events.  Had her wedding been a week or even a day before or a week or a day after I could not have attended.  Newly arrived and jet lagged, with my parents watching my daughter, I headed in to Washington, DC to witness this beautiful event.  And during the reception I was seated next to a married couple with ties to Africa who had a friend moving to Malawi in six weeks.  Kismet!

The following morning I drove to my aunt’s home.  It was Easter.  My daughter had her first real egg hunt on the lawn — though without competition of course.  But oh was she happy.  For such a simple thing.  I was happy too.  American traditions re-created overseas are important (and often very creative and so necessary to our community) but naturally cannot quite be the real thing.

Two days later we drove — well I drove, 5 year olds are terrible drivers — to Charleston, SC to begin the first phase of our Home Leave holiday.  I had decided early on I wanted to spend some time in South Carolina on this trip, having only previously driven through the state on my way to college outside of Atlanta many, many years ago.  I hemmed and hawed about where.  Hilton Head?  Greenville/Columbia?  But settled on Charleston.  I know I made the right decision.  The purpose of Home Leave is for employees serving overseas for extended periods of time to reorient and reconnect to the US.  I see it as a time to see more and learn more about my country.  Charleston is beautiful and it has strong ties to just about every major historical period in our nation from the colonial period, early Republic, to the civil war and present day.  So it has plenty for a history and museum oriented mom and also children’s activities for fun-loving 5 year old C.

We visited the Children’s Museum of the Low Country and the South Carolina Aquarium. C enjoyed them both.  I think she was particularly struck by the aquarium’s bald eagle named Liberty as she kept asking me for the name later so she could use it during her imaginative play.  We also took one of the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriage tours.  C loves horses and has talked about it for days.  A visit to the Charleston Museum was also in order.  I was not sure if C would like it but she was struck by the giant whale skeleton (from the late 1880s), the dress up hoop skirts, some silver spoons shaped like shells, and the Egyptian mummy, purchased by one of the city’s early prominent men.  Purchased no less from one of the US’ first Vice Consuls to Egypt.  (I am in no position to purchase priceless artifacts at this time).  In addition, one could visit two period homes belonging to the museum, which we did along with strolls through the historic district.  We took a ferry out to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War rang out and visited the USS Yorktown located at Patriot Point.  At Magnolia Plantation, founded in 1676, C liked the train ride, petting zoo and mini horses and tolerated our garden walk.  A friend of mine and her family drove down from another part of South Carolina to lunch with us and visit Charles Towne Landing, the original site of the first permanent settlement in the Carolinas.

So we have seen and done quite a few things.  But what is it really like to be on Home Leave?  Honestly?  Well, this is only the first two weeks (we are required to take a minimum of four) and it feels very much like a vacation.  It also feels surreal – a jet-lag-fog fueled holiday, except one in which I know at the end of we do not return to our home in Shanghai.  It is no longer our home.  It feels wonderful to have this time to spend with friends and family in the US and the ability to travel around to wherever we would like in our country during this time. But it is also feels a little weird.

It isn’t cheap.  I know cost is one of the biggest complaints about Home Leave.  And that is true.  But I start my Home Leave savings account as soon as I arrive to my overseas post.  And this Home Leave I am lucky that my father loaned me a car for the 3.5 months we will be in the US and my aunt is watching my two cats for the five weeks we are traveling.  That saved me a bundle in rental car and kennels/hotel pet fees.  It does not mean I do not feel a little twinge of panic as the hotel, food, gas and entertainment bills roll in, but the time I get to spend with my daughter together in our country is priceless.

C is taking some time adjusting.  For these first two weeks she could not stop breathing deeply whenever we stepped outside.  As soon as we stepped out of the airport she took a gulp of air and declared it was “so fresh and smelled good!”  Yet whenever we are in a public place and need to use the restroom she says “I hope they don’t have the squatty potties!”  After Shanghai she is not used to such fresh air and all sit down commodes.  It is such a novelty.  Oh and the candy aisles.  They are presenting a bit of a challenge.  It has been a year since we have been in the US and she does not recall such a dizzying array of sweets.  She also often says “I miss Shanghai!” though when I ask her if she is sad it she says no, she is looking forward to our new home.  That seems a surprisingly mature answer for five but I will take it because the alternative would come with a side helping of mommy-guilt.

I too am taking time to adjust.  I have difficulty completely relaxing.  I have received emails about upcoming training with tasks that need to be completed and emails regarding the vehicle I have purchased from Japan and am shipping to my next post.  I think through all the things that still need to be completed before we take the next steps for our move to Africa: plane tickets, shopping for consumables, arranging pet travel to post, finding a nanny, and more.

Despite this I am so grateful for this time.  And just might already taking part in some preliminary plotting about the next Home Leave.  There are so many places to visit in our beautiful country, it is so hard to decide.