Intro to Lilongwe

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Not much to see here folks

Here I am, nearly a year living in Lilongwe and only now beginning to write an introduction to Malawi’s capital city.   Yet it is just recently that I began to truly transition from Lilongwe being just a place I have moved to for work to a place where I live.  I am not a local; I am not a long-time expatriate.  Nor am I a mere tourist.  But I only wander so far; I have my routines.  So this is my introduction to Lilongwe.

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The Bingu International Conference Center and the President Walmont hotel, both Chinese-built modern marvels in Lilongwe

Malawi’s capital city is not particularly large, its population hovers around a million, yet the city is spread out with few buildings taller than two stories.  The tallest building in the city, I think the whole country, is the twelve story President Walmont hotel, located in the City Center.  Well, that is somewhat a misnomer.  Lilongwe’s core is divided by the Lilongwe nature sanctuary/forest reserve.  One one side the older part of the city, where the old town is located, on the other, newer side you find City Center, Capital Hill, most Embassies, including that of the U.S., and areas where most expats live.  The city is literally divided into Areas — all with numbers, a few go by names.  But its a patchwork with Area 10, 11, and 12 adjacent to one another but also next to Area 43.  Area 40 sits next to Area 13, 16 and 19 (and make up much of City Center).  We live in Area 10 and my daughter’s school is in Area 3, but they are across town from one another, 20 minutes by car on a good traffic day, nearly an hour on a bad one.  Confused?  Often so am I.  Sometimes I do not know why I bother to ask someone where they live because if they say some place other than Area 10, 11, 12, or 43, I would be hard pressed to know where they are talking about.

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A jacaranda-lined road in Area 10

Staring out the window of the airplane as we descended into Kamuzu International Airport, I strained to see signs of the city that would become my new home.  I could make out only a few buildings scattered among faded green brush and burnt orange earth.  Soon afterwards as we bounced along the two lane tarmac to town I wondered aloud the whereabouts of the city.  Having already driven a good 20 minutes I had yet to see signs of a capital.   That day it never really materialized as we turned off the M1 into Area 12, then Area 10 to my new residence, located in the relatively leafy, well-to do zone.  Our homes, with high brick walls, often topped with a profusion of barbed wires, and guarded by dogs or security personnel or both, do not necessarily scream “foreigner,” as there are locals and local government buildings scattered throughout these residential locations, but they most certainly project privilege.  Yet even those first days and weeks driving from home to the Embassy or to Old Chipiku, one of the most expat-oriented supermarkets, Lilongwe seemed remarkably unoccupied, provincial.  Only after more time did I expand my driving radius, finding there are in fact crowded, congested parts of the city, yet they remain outside of my usual stomping grounds.

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The monument to Malawi’s first president, President for Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda.  Now you have seen it.  You’re welcome.

There are not many tourist sites in Lilongwe.  Normally when I arrive in a new place, I like to hit the ground running and do some sightseeing as soon as possible.  Certainly in Shanghai, my bucket list was long and I had no time to waste.  Here, I focused more on just getting myself and C settled as a read of my guidebook weeks before had already informed me the touring would take little time.  There is the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, which will give visitors a one hour tour of the facility, though there are not many animals there, especially after their two lions passed away.  They have one of the nicest playgrounds in the city and a pretty good restaurant/cafe.  Sometimes they have concerts and show movies under the stars.  I expect many people might be disappointed by a visit, especially if they have already joined a safari, which is unlikely if they have made the trek to Africa.  But the center is still very much worth a visit as they are a major player in animal conservation in the country.

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Visiting the King’s African Rifles monument

Guidebooks also list the Kamuzu Banda memorial, the WWI / King’s African Rifles monument, and for lack of much else to add, the Parliament building.  The mausoleum of the country’s first president is wedged between Umodzi Park, with the Chinese-built President Walmont hotel and Convention Center and the Chinese-built Parliament building.  I do not know anything on Banda’s thoughts on the Chinese other than the Chinese Embassy assisted some of his political rivals to flee to Tanzania, thus with that he might not enjoy his final resting place.  But it is a quiet and pleasant place to spend 15 to 20 minutes unless Parliament is in session as then the grounds swarm with ruling party supporters.  Banda’s statue also graces the plaza in front of the WWI / King’s African Rifles clock tower, located not far from the Parliament.  Here you have a good chance of someone with some keys letting you inside to climb maybe 300 stairs to near the top landing where one has to switch to a narrow metal ladder hanging over the terrifying gap all the way to the cement floor below.  Our “guide” pushed my then-5 year old daughter up to the final landing and it scared the beejeezus out of me.  I insisted he get her down and she stand flesh against the wall on the stairs.  My heart pounded as I climbed up myself.  The one dingy window on that landing is set too high up for my 5’5″ self to look out so I took pictures holding my camera high above my head and hoping for the best.

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The view from the top floor of the President Walmont Hotel

Our lives in Lilongwe are quiet.  Weekends are generally spent at home, puttering about our yard.  We head to the Lilongwe Wildlife Center to recycle, stop by Old Chipiku for groceries, maybe get a mani-pedi up the street or head to my boss’ house to use the pool.  As one of the Marine Security Guards told me just before his departure — “Lilongwe is a nice enough place to live but if you are between the ages of 17 and 30 it is on the boring side.  There isn’t anything to do.”  Good thing C and I fall outside that age range and thus for us Lilongwe is pretty okay.

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One of my favorite things about Lilongwe are the advertisements on the trees

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Faces of Malawi: Fruit Sellers

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Seventy percent of Malawians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per person a day.   Therefore for the vast majority of the population, life is hard every single day.  I do not understand those who say those who are poor are so because they are lazy.  Here I meet so many people who work really, really hard yet find themselves just keeping their and their families’ heads above water.

Located in Area 4, close to the center of the oldest part of Lilongwe, is the “Old” Chipiku supermarket.  It is called the “old” one to differentiate it from the newer one found in the center of the Old Town.  It’s chaotic parking lot is half dirt and half chewed up asphalt.  At the far end of the parking lot are a few large trees where the fruit sellers have set up their makeshift selling center.  They are not the only fruit sellers in town of course, there are plenty of corners and parking lots where fruit sellers may congregate, but I have found the largest concentration to be at the Old Chipiku.

These are young guys.  They range in age from 20 to 32, and most of them have sold fruit the majority of their adult lives, some even starting as children.  They work from 6 AM to 6 PM, seven days a week.  They have little to no time for hobbies.  Most live in either Area 36, the outer part of Lilongwe proper or in Bunda, rural Lilongwe.  It costs between 500 and 1000 Malawian Kwacha (MWK) (68 cents to $1.37) one way for them to get from home to work.  They live with their mothers, their wives and children, or on their own; none of the wives work.  Housing costs range from free to 8000 MWK ($11.00) a month.  Each week they clear on average 5000-6000 MWK ($6.85 – $8.22).  So although these young men work twelve hour days, 84 hour weeks, they live below the international poverty line.  They do not dream big, they just want to live a bit better, have more stability and regular income.

We talked in English although the majority do not speak it well, just enough to make a sale with English speaking customers.  Those who could understand and speak better assisted with Chichewa-English translation.

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Steven

 

Steven is 22 years old.  He lives with his mother in rural Lilongwe.  One of five children, he has been selling fruit since 12 years of age, for ten whole years.  Basically since he left primary school.  When asked about his hobbies, he was at first very confused as he doesn’t have much free time with twelve hour days and an hour commute each way.  Pressed, he revealed he enjoys playing football (soccer).  If he could do anything else for a profession he would like to be a mechanic.

 

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Leonard

 

 

Though he looks older, Leonard is only 21 years old.  Not only that but he is married with two children, one six years of age, the other one.  He usually sells papaya, but when it is not in season he works on his mother’s farm; she grows groundnuts (the groundnut production in Malawi happens to be dominated by female-headed households).  One of seven children, with three brothers and three sisters, his parents could not afford his school fees, so he only finished two years of secondary school.  He also enjoys playing football in his little free time and would also like to be a mechanic.

 

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Willard

Willard is 32 years old, married with two children.  He has been selling fruit for 17 years!  Willard has a certain aggressive, but charming, method to approaching customers.  It must work as among the fruit sellers interviewed, he reported the highest weekly profit – 20,000 MWK ($27.40).  In his free time he not only plays football but also makes wood furniture.  If he had the money he would like to become a driver and build his own home.

 

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Ishmael

 

Ishmael is 25 years old and has been selling fruit for 12 years.  Originally from Mangochi, he lives in Area 36 with his younger brother.  He is still single because, he says, he is just not ready to settle down.  He too enjoys playing football, but if he were to have another job, he would like to be a “big businessman,” though the type of business does not really matter to him.

 

 

 

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Ibrahim

 

 

Also from Mangochi, Ibrahim is 28 years old and has spent the past seven years selling fruit.  He was the only Muslim among those interviewed, which matches the approximate 15% of the population who identify as Muslim.  He is single and lives alone in Area 36.  He only finished primary school, but has dreams of being a mini bus driver.

 

 

 

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Saidi

Saidi is 30 years old, married with two children.  He is fairly new to fruit selling, having only been doing it for three years.  Previously he grew cotton on his own plot in Mangochi.  In Malawi, cotton is primarily grown by smallholders in the south of the country, but the industry had not been doing well the past few years.  He wishes he could be a freelance mechanic — he wants to take work when available and set his own hours but have better pay.  In his free time he plays “draft” or draught, the British word for checkers.

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Zachias

 

 

Zachias is a 28 year old from Zomba.  He only finished primary school.  Previously working as a manual laborer, he has only been selling fruit for three years.  He is married with three children.  They live together in a single small apartment, what they all referred to as “boys quarters,” with one bed for 2,500 MWK ($3.42) a month.

 

 

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Onesmo

 

 

Onesmo is 25 years old and has been selling fruit for five years.  He is originally from Zomba, in south-central Malawi.  He is married with two children.  Like the majority of the fruit sellers he only finished primary school because his parents could no longer afford the school fees.  (Although free primary education – through the first eight years – was introduced in Malawi in 1994, but secondary schools charge fees).  If he had the chance to do anything else, he would like to be a mechanic.  He said he had no hobbies other than praying.

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Levy

 

Levy is 31 years old.  He seemed the most serious and educated of the group.  Born in Chiradzulu, in the south-west of Malawi, he nearly finished high school when his parents both died in quick succession from an illness he would not name.  With four brothers and three sisters, he had to make a living somehow and packed up his bags and came to Lilongwe.  That was 11 years ago and he has been selling fruit ever since, now supporting his wife and two children.  He would really like to sell a durable good.  Selling fruits is inconsistent, they spoil quickly and there is no guarantee each day how much will sell.  Cell phones seem like a safe bet for him.  In his free time he enjoys playing “draft.”

 

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Francis

*Francis is 31 years old.  He is married with two children.  Unlike many of the other sellers, he has only been in Lilongwe for three years, and only selling fruit for a year and a half.  Previously, he sold hardware but changed to fruit because he makes more.  Before Lilongwe, he was one of Malawi’s many smallholder maize farmers.  In 2015 periods of drought and then severe flooding led to a sharp decline in maize production.  He would also like to be a driver so he could earn more.  Since he has a history of steadily moving into better paying jobs, of all the men I interviewed I believe Francis just might get there.  Francis is the reason I wanted to do this photo-story series.  He is my go-to fruit guy.  He always has a smile on my face.  The day I went to visit the fruit sellers for photos and interviews, Francis had left early to return to Mulanje to bury his mother.

During the interviews the atmosphere was jovial. These men were eager to share their stories and have their photos taken.  They joked and laughed and their spirit was infectious.  But later I felt a sense of anger and sadness overcome me.  The stories so depressingly similar, the dreams so simple, yet deceptively so as they are, for the most part, unobtainable.  My privilege so glaringly obvious as the groceries in the back of my car cost twice their monthly take home.   At 2000 MWK a pop, I had spent 16,000 MWK just on eight bottles of flavored water, what they might net over two and a half weeks.  And I am very aware that my posts on Malawian life are uncomfortably juxtaposed with my vacation and travel posts–activities so far out of the reach of the average Malawian.  These are but some of the faces of Malawi.

 

Malawi: The First Summer Begins

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Sleepover fun with star light

Summertime.  Remember when you were a kid and you looked forward to the hot, leisurely days with your friends through a long school-less summer?  Maybe you even piled into the family car for a drive to the beach for a week?  Spent a week or more at a summer camp?  Or maybe you do not even have to think back that far — you might be on your summer holiday right now.  Perhaps a road trip?  Or spending some time at the lake or at a mountain cabin?  Have your toes dug deep in some sand?  Whenever summer comes around I still associate the season with those long languid days.  I long for Summer Americana.

Foreign Service summers though are different.  In the Foreign Service, summer generally means either you are transferring or you are covering for those who are (or those who have to take mid-tour home leave), and thus watching colleagues, some who have become good friends, leave.  Summer is the end of an era.  One in which you are too busy to mourn until September rolls around.

As this summer gets underway, it feels even stranger.  In Shanghai I did not take any leave between May and September for either of the two summers.  But then again, neither did anyone else — all my co-workers in the visa trenches slogged through the high visa season together.  Here though, in this much smaller Embassy, we are on the cusp of a very busy, and somewhat lonely, summer.

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Sleepovers mean sleeping fun in the living room

OK, hold up.  I know, do not cry me a river.  I DO get vacations.  Absolutely.  I was just in Cape Town last month, Paris in April, and last Spring you would have found me enjoying a not-at-all-shabby seven week Home Leave.  I am not at all vacation deprived.  But indulge me if you will, because while the Foreign Service certainly has its perks, it has its downsides and sacrifices too.  I try to keep it real.

One downside is the transfer season position pile-up.  This is not my first rodeo–summers in the service are always busy, but this is the first time as the sole direct-hire Foreign Service officer in a section at a small Embassy.  I am the political-military officer.  I also cover the economic-commercial office in the absence of that individual, and back-up the Consular officer.  This summer there will be gaps–multiple weeks with no Economic, Consular, or Public Affairs officers.  I am also a social sponsor for an arriving family, an office sponsor for another new officer, and will serve my duty week (when Embassy personnel man the after hours American citizen emergency line) this summer.  And politics in the country are heating up ahead of next year’s elections.

Another downside is the wee bit of mommy guilt that sometimes tickles in the back of my brain.  Here I am giving my kid an international life full of once in a lifetime experiences, but my parental conscience pricks me all the same.  She is the single child, of a single mother, whose job requires us to move every few years.  Maybe “guilt” is not quite the word, but I wonder at times about this lifestyle and the effect it will have on my daughter.  Last year we lived in three different countries on three continents, so while it is a relief to not be moving this year, the goodbyes happen regardless.

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Now that her friends are leaving, C has to get creative with her playmates — she invited our chickens into her play fort.  (the cats are also thrilled at her increased desire to cuddle and play with them)

C just finished up her first year at the international school.  She has 8 1/2 weeks off before the next school year begins.  It is not just that it is the summer holiday and she will not see school friends for awhile, it is more than that.  Several of her friends are leaving, or have already left, Malawi for good.  And now that she is older these friendships mean more to her than in the past.

To help her say goodbye, we hosted sleepovers for the first time at our house for four of C’s best mates who would move away this summer.  I tried my best to make them Sleepovers To Remember.  We had movies and popcorn, turned our rooms into dance clubs with revolving colorful star displays on the ceiling and C’s favorite pop songs “blasting” from my mini speakers, and did fun crafty things like make suncatchers or Shrinky Dinks.  We stayed up late.  We went to the Italian restaurant around the corner in pajamas.  We had chocolate chip pancakes.  The guest child got to collect the eggs from our chickens in the morning.  I repeatedly heard THIS IS THE BEST SLEEPOVER EVER.  Top Parent Award Achieved.

The final sleepover was perhaps the hardest.  C’s best friend is our next door neighbor WW.  Like C he is six, enjoys music, playing for hours, and butt jokes.  He and my daughter are thick as thieves.  I think back to when I was five and six and my next door neighbor Kent was my best friend.  He too moved away after Kindergarten.  Dang, this is going to be hard.

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Ready to walk to “summer” camp in the chill

It is what it is.  A phrase that rolls off my tongue with increasing regularity.  To try to stem the summer boredom and sadness I have come up several ideas to keep C engaged.  She will attend “summer” camp the first week of July (actually one of the coldest months in Malawi with temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit overnight/early morning) with the possibility of additional weeks (the nearby preschool offers up to four weeks for children aged 2-8 at a cost of $5.50 per day).  I am increasing her guitar lessons from once a week to twice.  Recently I started reading chapter books to C, so I bought several books to read this summer such as James and the Giant Peach, The Indian in the Cupboard, and My Father’s Dragon.  One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year is to do more arts, crafts, and activities with C, so I ordered several things to facilitate this (because I just do not have the energy to be a Pinterest mom).  I have art supplies, Kiwi Crates, and an Easy Bake Oven I gifted C as an early half birthday present.   I ordered “American History in a Box” for Kindergarten and First Graders, a great resource for American kids living overseas and attending schools that do not teach U.S. history.

Basically, I have got a ton of things for C to do.  I just wish I could take some time to spend with her doing them, but that is not in the cards for me this summer.  It is certainly not going to be Summer Americana.  It’s more Summer Foreign Service Style.

 

 

Conjuring Paris Memories

Three years ago I knew I would someday soon write this post.  As a teenager I had visited Paris and then thirteen years later I returned while in graduate school.  I thought it would be fitting to return yet again after another thirteen years, this time with my daughter.  Though I missed the mark by three years, C and I did make it this year, and what a trip it was!  So many things that could go wrong did.  I could not have foreseen how either this year’s trip or this post would turn out, especially how digging into my memories would reveal some surprising similarities — it turns out that every trip to Paris has had its hiccups.

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In the Latin Quarter – for some reason the only photo I have of the 1989 trip to Paris

Summer 1989.  My sisters and I spent a month with my aunt and uncle in Frankfurt, Germany.   This was my first time traveling overseas–the trip that would launch all the rest.  For the July 4th weekend we took the train to Paris for a four day holiday.  If you know Paris in summer then you know it is hot and crowded.  If you know your Paris/French history, you then realize July 1989 was the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the start of the French Revolution, and French independence.  Also, the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower.  Perhaps not the best time to visit Paris.  Yet we did.

It has been so many years but I still remember quite a few things.  We stayed in a B&B on Montmartre.  I noted in my journal “we trudged up steep hills and stairways, dragging our luggage…but it [the hotel] is quaint and the owner is a kindly, cheerful man whose wife will serve us breakfast to our room in the morning.” Yet that merry man and his wife later locked my sisters and I out of the hotel.  They did not want to give keys to children and one evening while my aunt and uncle caught a show at the Moulin Rouge, we went to wander the artist stalls.  Returning just after 8 PM we found the front door bolted tight, all the lights off.  What could we do but ring the doorbell?  Again and again, til finally they grudgingly let us in.  We were on their sh*t list after that, but the croissants they brought in the morning were still buttery soft and delicious.

At the Arc de Triomphe we were, for some unknown reason, unable to find an underground passageway so we ran across the roundabout, all six lanes or so of traffic.  Probably not our brightest idea, but it was certainly exhilarating!  We then walked to the Louvre.  It is not actually all that far, but at the time I thought it took forever!  Temperatures were high and we were sweating; the Champs-Elyses and Jardin des Tuileries were lined with flags from across the world as many foreign leaders and tourists were in town for the 200th anniversary celebrations.  I saw a Tale of Two Cities chess set in a store window along the way and wanted to buy it, fancying myself a budding chess player or at least chess set collector (neither of which was borne out).  We arrived at the Louvre to find the line so long we did not even go in!

Also, although we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame, we spent little time inside and did not go up to see the gargoyles or the view.  Instead, we hung out in the park behind the cathedral feeding the pigeons.  At some point, while waiting on a subway platform, we were subjected to tear gas wafting in from above.  That was my first tear gas experience (I had have two more, both in Korea).

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                                         Extraordinary — 2002 but nearly the same view as 2018                                            (and no, I did not check my old photos before my new trip)

Fast forward to Spring 2002 when on a lark I decided Paris would be my graduate school Spring Break destination.  Seeing Paris alone as a 30 year old is very different than as a 16 year old with family.  I am sure that does not come as a surprise to anyone.  And yet once again things did not all go as planned.

Six days was the perfect amount of time in Paris.  I visited the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Musee d’Orsay, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Picasso Museum, the Dali Museum, the Rodin museum, Montmartre, Notre Dame, the Montparnasse and Pere Lanchaise cemeteries, the catacombs, took a river cruise and a bike tour.  I think I covered just about everything. 

2 ParisBut I was so tired when I arrived and then the airport was confusing.  There were signs, but I do not think they told anybody anything.  I changed money at a terrible rate with a horrible charge, and could not work the phones (although truthfully I don’t think anyone could — foreigners were staring blankly at payphones all over the airport), and was treated rudely by some guy at the tourist information counter who surely thought I must be a moron given I was unable to work the phones  Welcome to France!

My visit to the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, and the Musee d’Orsay went off without a hitch.  At Notre Dame I not only spent more time inside the church but even ventured to the tower.  The Louvre though was a different story.

On Monday I went to the Louvre.  It is a really big place.  It is said that if one spent one minute before each of the art works exhibited it would take 200 days, 24 hours a day, to see it all.  I arrived just after 9 AM and took a break at 12:30 for lunch in the Louvre cafe.  After lunch I planned to spend another hour there and was on my way up to the 2nd floor, when a siren went off.  Whir-whir-whir.  Then an announcement: “All patrons should now exit the Louvre immediately.  You will be notified once the security situation has returned to normal and you can return.”  The elevators and escalators were shut off as well as a number of rooms sealed.  [This was a year before the Da Vinci Code came out – but I saw those security doors come down]  What was happening?  When I reached the foyer, people were still being sold tickets and entering the museum.  I asked a guard and he said he did not know what was going on but that it seemed okay to go back in.  I spent another hour on the 2nd floor; there was no other announcement about the “security situation.”

3 ParisAnd then there was the visit to the Arc de Triomphe.  As I arrived in front of the Arc and starting towards the underpass, a police caravan rode up.  Two motorcycles and about five trucks of police.  The police jump out, in full riot gear, with helmets and shields and such, and stand in formation on the circle facing the Arc.  What is happening?  I look around for snipers or a jumper or any situation that would warrant this response.  Nothing.  Just other tourists milling around.  The underpass is closed to I walk to the other side.  The police in the tunnel do not do anything to stop walkers.  Turns out there was a strike of hospital personnel that day and the police were there for them.  After 15 minutes the stairway to the Arc reopens and the police caravan turns on the sirens and speeds away.

A last minute trip to the Cemetery of Pere Lanchaise ended in a frantic rush.  I made it to Jim Morrison’s headstone before two guards approached me to let me know they were closing.  There was still 25 minutes left but they told me at 5:30 the gates were locked and they let the dogs out.  I tried to find the grave of Frederic Chopin with their directions but I was too preoccupied with being locked in a cemetery at night with dogs hunting me, so I just headed for the exit.  And the search for Victor Hugo’s home took far too long wandering small streets only to find out it was closed.

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A beautiful day in Paris — one of my most absolute favorite pictures of me

What really stays in my memory though is my bicycle tour.  I barely remember where we went but only that I loved seeing the city from a different angle.  I had walked, and walked, and walked around the city for hours on end  (Oh how I loved all that walking! I miss being in a walkable city), so a few hours on wheels was very refreshing.  The weather was quite warm for March–I was in a t-shirt–and the sky sunny and clear.

I found myself on the airplane waiting on the tarmac about to head home.  I sat staring out the window.  And then there was this strange sound.  A ticking sound.  Several passengers around me could hear it.  And the flight attendants were looking for something.  The plane continued to sit just a little way past pushback.  Tick. Tick. Tick.  The flight attendants rushed down the aisle.  We sat there a good 10 minutes and we began to move.

Fast forward to April 2018 and as we sat on the airplane bound for Addis Ababa listening to a deportee yelp in the back of the plane, flight attendants rushing up and down the aisles, and concerned passengers looking around and I thought of my past and present Paris trips – of the tear gas, the labor strikes, unpredictable weather, closed for renovation museums, odd airplane events, and other out of the ordinary experiences.  Though heading home again, I already looked forward to the next Paris adventure and hope it will not be so long in coming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Escape to the Cape (Town)

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C jumps for joy atop Table Mountain

Cape Town.  I have long wanted to visit.  In 2010 I visited South Africa.  I was living in Jakarta and one of my best friends was living in Luanda, so we met up in Johannesburg for ten days of Jo’burg, Pretoria, and Kruger National Park.  But not Cape Town.  So after years of hearing about the city that some say is their favorite in Africa, and others say is their favorite in the world, it was time to experience it for myself.

Cape Town.  I have long wanted to visit.  In 2010 I visited South Africa.  I was living in Jakarta and one of my best friends was living in Luanda, so we met up in Johannesburg for ten days of Jo’burg, Pretoria, and Kruger National Park.  But not Cape Town.  So after years of hearing about the city that some say is their favorite in Africa, and others say is their favorite in the world, it was time to experience it for myself.

First we had to get there.  Seems simple enough.  Go to airport.  Get on plane.  Fly to South Africa.  If it is just you traveling, it probably is that straightforward.  If you are traveling with a minor…  Nope.  In 2015, South Africa instituted new laws for anyone — South African or otherwise — traveling with children under the age of 18.  Along with a passport, your child(ren)’s unabridged birth certificate is now an essential travel document.  This is if you are one or two parents traveling together with your kids.  If you are married but not traveling together, you need to have the affidavit granting permission.  And if you are a single parent you are supposed to travel with whatever document gave you that status — a divorce decree, a death certificate.  My status is fairly simple; I have never been married and I am the only parent on the birth certificate.  Yet that fact seemed to complicate things when traveling to South Africa with my child. The year before the American Citizen Services section in Pretoria had said I would be good with just my daughter’s birth certificate.  It was time to check that.

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View of Chapman’s Peak and Hout Bay from SC’s home

We rolled up to the check-in desk.  I smiled at the woman.  She smiled at me.  I handed over our passports.  Then she asked for the birth certificate and an affidavit.  I handed over the BC but said I did not have an “affidavit.”  The woman left the desk with the BC and huddled together with another woman.  They looked at the BC.  They looked at me.  They looked at one another.  What the what?  She then returned and began typing away on the computer – not a word to me.  Were we getting boarding passes or not?  After some seconds that felt much, much longer, I asked.  She told me the BC was sufficient.  Whew.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  But then she stepped away again.  Again some consultations with the supervisor.  She returned.  “I am afraid that we are going to need the affidavit.  Please step aside.”  Oh no!  I pulled out my secret weapon–a notarized document everyone had told me was unnecessary.  She looked it over, told me all was in order, and then printed out our boarding passes.  Crisis averted.  We were on our way!

Our flight took us to Johannesburg, where we cleared immigration (no single parent issues there), and then flew on to Cape Town.  My friend from college, SC sent an Uber to pick us up.  It took a wee bit of work to find him.  Once in the car I joked with the driver that the parking garage at the airport is larger than most buildings in Malawi (though I expect its true).  We wound through the darkened streets from the airport to SC’s home.  Even in the darkness, the development compared to Malawi was obvious.  At SC’s home, a smallish but beautifully appointed condo fronting the beach at Hout Bay, SC and I spent time catching up on old times and new while C and SC’s daughter M got to know one another.

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Norval Foundation sculpture garden

On our first full day we puttered around in the morning in our pajamas having a long leisurely breakfast while the kids played.  We took advantage of SC’s amazing view of the bay from both her yard and balcony.  Then we all headed out to the Norval Foundation to meet a half dozen of SC’s mom friends and their kids for a Mother’s Day lunch.  It was an interesting group, including another American Foreign Service Officer (working at the Cape Town Consulate) and another single mother.

The Norval Foundation is a just-opened (only two weeks before our visit) private museum of contemporary and South African art and sculpture garden, in addition to an incredibly beautifully designed restaurant.  There we gathered for an epic luncheon lasting over three hours.  Part of the reason it took so long was extremely slow service, but it was also the conversation.  And while the moms talked, the kids took advantage of the garden.  I regret I did not walk the whole garden or visit inside the museum!

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C as a squirrel monkey playground

On Monday SC had some morning meetings and M had preschool, so I booked my very first Uber driver to take C & I to the World of Birds (and surprise, surprise, our first Uber driver was a woman from Malawi!).  My initial impression of the place was not favorable.  I thought we might only spent 30 minutes, maybe an hour there.  But I was wrong.  World of Birds may predominantly feature birds, but there are many other animals there.  C particularly enjoyed seeing the guinea pigs, marmoset, servals (mostly she enjoyed that one serval took an immediate dislike to me and growled and hissed at me), and the squirrel monkeys.  The last were the absolute best as visitors can go inside the enclosure, sit still, and if monkeys crawled on you, then so be it.  We easily spent 30 minutes there alone.  C also loved the birds.  She took a liking in particular to the golden pheasant, which she immediately (and correctly) identified as Chinese.

 

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Penguins at Boulder’s Beach

That afternoon we met up again with SC and M, and headed to Noordhoek via the stunning Chapman’s Peak drive (rated as one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world).  There we enjoyed a long, late lunch while the children wore themselves out on the playground.  At 4 SC headed out–she would fly to London that night on business.  The girls and I returned to SC’s house for an evening of play and silliness.

 

Tuesday found C and I saying goodbye to M and her nanny, then Uber-ing to our hotel in the heart of Cape Town.  We settled in quickly and then walked to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront.  There we rode the Cape Wheel, visited the Two Oceans Aquarium, and searched for the best rocks at the Scratch Patch.  These were all fun, but there were also simple pleasures we had missed in Malawi — eating at McDonald’s (please do not judge — there are none in Malawi), walking through a shopping mall, the presence of sidewalks.

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View of the Peninsula from the Cape Point lighthouse

The following day we headed out on an epic tour of the Cape Peninsula.  We were once again blessed with stunning weather.  I had planned for weather in the region of 60-70 degrees but we were getting mid to upper 70s, even 80s.  The sky a dazzling blue.  While some may eschew the group bus tour, I sometimes find it provides just what we need.  This tour took us to Boulder’s Beach at Simon’s Town to see the penguins and the Cape Point National Park, to include the lighthouse, funicular, and the Cape of Good Hope.

IMG_0807This is someplace I had long wanted to visit, but I can not even begin to describe seeing it in person, being there with my daughter.  Everything was perfect.  Well, not everything.  There are downsides to taking a group tour after all.  One being having to wait for folks who are not conscious of other peoples’ time.  There was a walking tour from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope.  The guide informed us all beforehand that the hike would require a level of fitness, i.e. those with heart, back, feet, knee, breathing or other such problems should not join.  And still someone joined who should not have, and we all had to wait an extra hour for that individual to make their way to the bus.  This brought us back to the city late and earned us another hour sitting in traffic.

The obligatory trip up Table Mountain was next on our agenda.  Again, the day broke to reveal another absolutely beautiful day.  We took the hop on hop off sightseeing bus to the Table Mountain visitor’s center.  I had read of the potential long lines at the aerial cableway and could hardly believe our luck to find there was no line at all!  We simply paid and walked right on.  The gondola is large, it can hold 65 passengers, but it too was only half full.  What magic was this?  And then, the car began to rotate.  No kidding.  Although I had read up enough to know the aerial cableway existed, I had not known it would turn.  Mind blown.  And the views.  Wow.

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View from the cable car as it nears the top; a dassie chills out

At the top we took our time.  With the temps in the 70s and us standing 3500 feet atop a near-bare stone plateau, we were in need of some popsicles.  While looking out towards the southwest, with the spine of the mountains directly in front with the ocean against one slope, we caught sight of what appeared to be a large rodent of sorts on the terrace below.  My daughter, being the animal lover she is, identified it as a hyrax.  Turns out locals call them dassies.  But dassie or hyrax they were plentiful and inquisitive, and our visit to Table Mountain turned into as much about spotting these creatures as drinking in the breathtaking views.

We continued on the sightseeing bus back to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront for lunch and then a short cruise of the harbor.  We were sleepy, lulled by the warmth of the afternoon sun and frankly little else we would see that day could compare with Table Mountain, though having Thai food and frozen yogurt at the mall sure came close.

DSC_0068The next day C and I ventured 45 minutes out of Cape Town to the Cheetah Outreach Centre.  C loves cheetahs.  They are her spirit animal.  In fact, she has told me for at least two years that she is half cheetah.  It’s true – that she tells me that.  In researching Cape Town I had found out about this place where one could not only see, but also touch cheetahs.  I had not realized how far out of town it is located.  I began to think it would be easier not to go, except that C would never forgive me.  Though I tried to explain the distance, she looked stricken at the idea of not going.  I had to make it happen.  Part of the problem was that my data roaming, though on, did not work.  I could order an Uber when connected to wi-fi, but otherwise could not.  There is no wi-fi at the center.  I thought of renting a car, but just was not keen.  I thought of pre-ordering an Uber for pick-up but was not sure how long we would need and concerned that without a connection to data, I would not be notified of the pick-up car details.  I took a chance though of just ordering an Uber and leaving it to fate to figure it out later.  And it worked.  The driver asked us how we were getting back and I took down his number and called him when we finished.

Given C’s age we were only able to take part in the adult cheetah encounter (she was too young to pet baby cheetahs, meerkat, or bat eared foxes).  No matter.  It is not every day you get the chance to stroke the fur of a live cheetah.  Though the Uber there and back cost more than the entrance and encounter fees by double, the big smile on my daughter’s face was, as they say, priceless.

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C and a squirrel have a chat

Afterwards, we headed back to town and on to the Company’s Garden.  Originally set up in the 1650s to grow produce for the Dutch East India Company “refreshment station,” where ships restocked on the voyage from Europe to the East Indies, it is now a heritage park on prime real estate in the center of old Cape Town.  And while the site of a beautiful historic garden is a good enough reason to visit, it is also the home to some incredibly hungry, and tame, squirrels.  At the park entrance several vendors sell packages of nuts to feed the very friendly rodents.  We hardly made it ten steps when a squirrel confronted us.  He knew the deal.  He knew we were newbies.  He knew enough to try to get our attention before we even entered the formal part of the garden.  Before we met his many friends.  He lucked out but so did many other squirrels.  I have never before in my life seen squirrels just run right up to people, climb up their leg, sit on their shoulder, and try to pry nuts from one’s hand.  It was so awesome.  I almost forgot that we had pet a cheetah that morning.

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Guinea fowl in Kirstenbosch

For our final day, we headed to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.  Located on the lush Eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch is touted as one of the most beautiful botanic gardens in the world.  Certainly the setting is hard to beat and the dramatic backdrop reminded me of the Limahuli Gardens in Kauai.  Our favorite part of the gardens was probably the tree canopy walkway, which literally snakes its way through the tree tops 12 meters off the ground, so much so that it is referred to as the “boomslang” (tree snake).  Our visit coincided with our first cloudy day, yet the views were no less amazing.  SC and M joined us for another long lunch at the wonderful Moyo restaurant located at Kirstenbosch.

It was not easy leaving Cape Town.  It is easy to see why it is a favorite destination.  I very nearly had to drag C kicking and screaming to leave.  She insisted she wanted to stay.  I could hardly argue; the trip had been near perfect.  We hit so many of the highlights, enjoyed fabulous weather, spent time with friends, and had many, many great experiences with wildlife.   The Cap has spoiled us for upcoming vacations.

 

Packages & Patience

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Monday = Mail Day!

Mail.  Once upon a time, way back when, getting mail was exciting.  As a child my sisters and I would compete for the opportunity to check the mailbox.  We lived in what we called a condominium — I am not sure this phrase is even used any more — but it is basically a townhouse, if not somewhat smaller.  The mailbox was located across the street in a cluster box unit.  Getting hold of the key from my mom was like winning the lottery, or at least on the same level as scoring money for the ice cream truck.  Sure, there was junk mail then, and of course bills, but receiving a card or handwritten letter would happen with a fair amount of regularity.  Arriving at college, mail — letters from friends and family and care packages — also held a special magic.  Even when I lived in Korea and Japan, before the internet and email really took off (dating myself again), I regularly composed and received long missives. Yet these days in the world of instant messaging via smart phones, email, Facebook, and a whole host of other social media sites that I have no clue about, waiting for the post has lost its significance, at least for the majority of Americans.

Not so for the American expat, especially those located in more out of the way places.  First let me caveat all that I write here with the fact that I am a Foreign Service Officer and thus have access to Embassy mail; other expats generally have to rely on the local postal system.  This means I actually have a U.S. address located at a State Department facility in Virginia.  My mail goes to that facility where they then forward it on to our Embassies.  Some overseas missions have the Diplomatic Post Office (DPO), which essentially establishes a branch of the U.S. Postal System at select diplomatic missions overseas.  Here in Malawi we have the former, which is a little slower and has more restrictions than using the DPO.

These days of course I do the vast majority of my correspondence via the Internet, but when it comes to packages, well,  “snail mail” it is.  While folks in the U.S. are getting their packages within a few days, even same day, our mail takes just a wee bit longer, on average three weeks.  At certain times of the year, for instance Christmas, it can take longer as our mail flies “space available.”  There are then no quick last minute online purchases. Last year we received notification in late October that packages should be ordered for receipt at the Virginia pouch facility by November 10, to ensure delivery before the holidays.  When C’s school emails on Monday that Thursday is book character day, there is no way to order something to arrive in time.

Until recently we received two air shipments a week, with the mail being sorted for pick-up on Monday and Tuesday.  But a few weeks back the mail room supervisor notified the Embassy community that shipments would be reduced to once a week, and due to the short notice we would not receive a delivery either that or the following week.  However, overall we are a large mission, with lots of employees.  And, as it turned out, we had quite a lot of mail heading our way.  So, in the second week the decision was reversed — an Emirates air freight flight would arrive Friday afternoon in Lilongwe bringing in our many, many kilos of mail, and to accommodate the large delivery the mailroom would re-open for pick-up between 5 and 5:30 PM.  (This is an especially big deal as we work longer hours Monday to Thursday so the Embassy closes for business at 12:30 on Fridays)

At a quarter to the appointed time, C and I began our drive to the Embassy.  The late afternoon sun directly in my eyes; I felt giddy.  There is always excitement surrounding an out-of-the-ordinary event.  Once in the Embassy parking lot we saw many more of my colleagues’ cars pulling in.  I smiled and recalled a story a fellow book club member had shared when I lived in Jakarta.  The woman and her husband had served in Yemen in the 70s.  Naturally, foreign products were hard to come by, so when someone got word the cargo plane from France was landing, the news traveled fast.  People stopped what they were doing, jumped into their cars, and drove down to the airfield to welcome the flight carrying wine and cheese and other goodies from Europe.

Our convergence on the mail room at Embassy Lilongwe in the Spring of 2018 cannot really compare to dozens of international diplomats flocking to the sand swept Sana’a airfield of the late 1970s.  The latter holds a certain element of romance to me.  And yet, the diplomats of today were likely no less desperate for their delivery as the diplomats of yesteryear; its all relative after all.  Of course we have access to the internet and thus online shopping with our favorite retailers like Amazon and Walmart.  But whether we rush to pick up a package of our kid’s favorite cereal or hoof it to meet a plane with some much desired fromage, we are trying to have a little taste of home while soaking up the culture of afar.  And that Friday the mail room and the area just outside had a festive feel.  Coworkers and spouses gathered around catching up and laughing. For the children, it was as if we had organized a spontaneous play date – several clamoured into one of the mail carts, others ran impromptu races, they played on the gymnastic bars outside the gym.  In the fading light as we awaited our names to be called so we could sign for and carry off our boxes, there was most certainly a sense of shared community and happy anticipation.

Oftentimes when I receive the “you’ve got mail” notification in my in-box I cannot even recall what I have ordered.  Not so much because I purchase a lot but because I barely remember what I did the day before.  Just kidding.  It’s more a function of never quite being sure which order made it into which pouch and plane.  It’s a bit like Christmas every time, sort of a secret Santa gift exchange with yourself.  And while there can be a level of frustration marking time for the arrival of  that one thing I really need (or convince myself I need), I must admit to an overall enjoyable level of satisfaction in the biding of time.

Waiting for the post for weeks does, I believe, teach patience.  In a world of ever increasing desire for the instantaneous – and an ability to meet those expectations –  it is almost refreshing to have to cool our heels in anticipation.  Over time one finds there are many things one (and one’s children) can do without.  If I cannot order some seemingly needed item for the  book character/international day/Star Wars themed event at C’s school, then, well, it’s not really that vital.  We can in fact soldier on quite well without it.  Little by little I order less, I find local substitutes, or my tastes change and I no longer crave those same favorites from home.  Not that I stop ordering altogether mind you, I have a fairly strong, bordering on unhealthy, addiction to Amazon.  I cannot quit just any time.

I miss composing and posting long letters.  The stationery, the stamps, dropping them in a mailbox.  Yet, I love that living overseas means mail still holds a wee bit of mystery – even if it’s just wondering if the package contains the special diet cat food or chocolate Lucky Charms.

 

 

 

Easter Over and Over

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C finally doesn’t run the other way when confronted by an adult in a giant bunny costume (played by one of our fine U.S. Marines)

I did not used to care much for celebrating U.S. holidays while overseas.  In many of the places I lived before the Foreign Service – Korea, Japan, China, Philippines, Singapore – most of the big U.S. holidays celebrated when I was a kid (Easter, July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving) were, while not always completely unknown, not of any local consequence.  Only Christmas seemed to have penetrated these countries to varying degrees.  And that is usually when I went on vacation.

Now that I have a child, and C is of a certain age, building holiday traditions is important to me.  And having her participate in U.S. cultural activities can give her a foundation in “American-ness,” even though she has spent most of her life outside her country.  Yet even though we live in Embassy and expat communities, the translation of U.S. traditions abroad is, well, sometimes, creative.  It’s a combination of what is available overseas, budgets, and local interpretation.

This year we celebrated Easter four times and each time we got something a bit different.

Our first Easter event was that organized by the Embassy’s Community Liaison Office.  The USAID Director graciously volunteered to host the event at his beautiful home, complete with very large – perfect for Easter Egg hunting – yard.  It was a lovely Spring, er, Fall (Malawi is in the Southern Hemisphere after all) day and C was dressed in Easter-appropriate finest.  There was face painting, Easter Bunny photo ops, and brunch potluck.  And, of course, an egg hunt.  Divided into age groups, the Embassy children lined up for their chance to participate.   A huge swath of the yard was littered with eggs.  For the littlest group this was perfect – but by the time even C’s group stepped up to the starting line, the kids were already plotting how to go beyond the little group, to the far end of the lawn.  The rope dropped and they flew past the eggs in front of them, running at full speed.  While there were a few eggs placed on top of large rocks on in trees, all the eggs were hidden in plain sight.  Once the time was up, the children turned in their eggs to receive a prize bag with candy, stickers, tattoos, and pens.  C very much liked her gifts but disapproved of the ease of the hunt.

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C blows by dozens of easy eggs

No problem.  Our next hunt would solve that issue.

One of the (if not the) nicest hotels and restaurants in Lilongwe advertised an Easter event including an egg hunt.  As I had not yet been there I thought it a good opportunity for us to have lunch, check out the hotel, and secure more Easter booty.  C had been sick as a dog the night before, but rallied for a chance to join another egg quest.

Approximately 35 children lined up to participate.  And waited.  Some baskets were handed out.  We waited some more.  Some hotel staff said it would start “soon.”  More kids showed up and needed baskets.  More baskets were fetched.  More waiting.  After awhile it was apparent this event was running on Malawian time.  At last the kids were released.  Almost immediately there was confusion.  The organizers had pointed the kids toward a walled area and said the eggs were hidden in that area…and also the area to the right of the pool…and around the building.  Everyone headed first into the walled garden and we looked and looked and looked.  For a good ten minutes no one found a single egg.  Even parents helping were unsuccessful.  This was an event for children aged 4-12, yet the eggs were hidden so well that the kids might have had a better chance unearthing Jimmy Hoffa, the Fountain of Youth, or the Lost City of Atlantis.

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Hunting in Paris

Finally a few older children found some eggs and a sense of hope resurfaced in the others.  C actually found an egg!  I was so proud of her.  Then the organizers said all the eggs on that side had been found and we should return poolside to look some more.  C found another egg!  But she would not pick it up, requesting I do so, because it was broken.  And then I got a good look at what we were hunting for.  They had not hidden plastic eggs.  They had not even hidden hard boiled eggs.  They had hidden brown, haphazardly painted, raw eggs!!  I asked an organizer how many eggs there were — 40.  Forty brown chicken eggs masterfully hidden in two large hotel yard areas for 35 children with a wide age span.  I tried to put myself into the shoes of whoever planned this life lesson in massive disappointment…

C and a few others had managed to find 3-4 eggs.  An older boy, maybe 10 years old, had found 8 eggs.  Another older boy had 9.  A girl a few years older than C had 13.  She won.  (Later she revealed she had simply asked those sitting next to her to contribute their eggs to her basket so someone would beat the older boys – brilliant)  Most of the kids had found none. Only the top three winners received a prize.  Again C felt disgruntled.  This hunt had been (WAY) too hard.

DSC_1303Our third Easter hunt took place in Paris.  As my friend and I had planned our trip to arrive in Paris just before Easter, it made perfect sense to track down a Parisian egg hunt.  And we found one advertised online at the Parc Andre Citroen for a mere five Euros.  We only had to wait for the tickets to go on sale; we checked online regularly for the release date.  It was like waiting for Taylor Swift concert tickets.   Purchasing opened and we snapped up two, one for each of the kiddos.  Once at the park, we went to the registration booth, showed our tickets, and received instructions.  The kids 3-6 years of age were to find only three eggs- one white, one orange, one pink.   In a field there stood several red cardboard boxes.  Inside were plastic eggs — one box would hold all blue eggs, another box all green, another all yellow, and so on.  So the kids had only to run to a box and if it had the color egg they need, pluck one out.  It never would have occurred to me to set up an egg hunt in this way.

The kids finished so quickly and then turned in their three eggs for a gift bag that contained a juice box, pan de chocolate, applesauce, and Kinder Eggs.  The real thing.  Not that stuff passed off as Kinder Eggs in America, the Kinder Joy, but the real, honest to goodness, banned in the U.S., Kinder Surprise.   Oh boy!  Although C seemed to find the hunt on the lame side, she forgot all about it once she received her reward.

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Find me quickly before the poultry does!

Our first weekend back in Malawi I prepared our fourth and final egg hunt — this one would be at home and based on the at-home searches organized by my mom when I was little.  I filled a mismatched pile of some 37 plastic eggs with jelly beans and miniature chocolate bunnies.  For the largest and most decorative of the eggs, I inserted a piece of paper on which I had written a clue.  Then I hid them in our living room, on the konde (our screened in porch), and the backyard.  Then I called for C to begin looking.  Some eggs were easy to find, some not so much.  My nanny and her sister sat in the living room observing the proceedings with what seemed a mix of amusement and wonder.  After C had found all the eggs, she opened the three with the clues.  One read “I am not a chocolate chicken, but I can be found among my feathered friends.”  C raced off to the chicken coop to find a large chocolate bunny nestled in the wood shavings.  Another clue led her to a drawer embedded in the stairs to her loft bed, and the third to the playground outside.  At the latter two she found gifts to unwrap.

Truth be told — I had never had an Easter egg hunt like that growing up.  As a child, my siblings and I would come downstairs on Easter morning to find our Easter baskets filled to the brim with goodies — always a solid milk chocolate rabbit, jelly beans, maybe Peeps, and some small gifts.  Then we would have an egg hunt in our living room.  But here I was making do, making my own tradition, and C declared it the BEST Easter egg hunt EVER.