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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.