Due to a Malawian Tuesday holiday, C’s school gave the kids a mini-break, a four-day weekend. When we have gone out of town on long weekends here, we have tended to go to someplace on Lake Malawi. We head out to Senga Bay or Monkey Bay. We have also been to Mangochi and Nkhata Bay. We have also been to the Zomba plateau, Ntchisi Forest, or to the tea plantation area of the south. But getting to these places we have long, somewhat boring drives, on crappy Malawian roads, with little change to the scenery. I have often enjoyed these drives and found beauty in them. But I really wanted something different than Malawi.
On other vacations, we tend to go to far-flung locales like northern Finland or Zanzibar and I fill our days with sightseeing and/or activities. That isn’t what I wanted either. What I wanted was a change of scenery, but also low-key. I wanted us to be able to do things we cannot do in Malawi, the things that I imagine the average middle-class family in America or Europe or likewise does in a given week. I wanted convenience.
I opted for a quick trip to Johannesburg. Just staying in a hotel near a mall with a movie theater. That seemed so “normal.” And yet, not at all normal with our every day in Malawi. The normal, but not normal, which, in my opinion, just about sums C and I up.
And wouldn’t you know it, by the time the weekend rolled around, things seemed all the less normal. There is the political uncertainty in Malawi, with the country’s High Court deciding to nullify the results of last year’s presidential elections and ordering a new poll. I am the political officer and this is my bread and butter, but we were all entering an unprecedented political situation, not only in Malawi but on the African continent. And then there is coronavirus pandemic, which has led to another global health emergency, widespread panic, but also necessary Embassy planning sessions. With all this going on I was mentally exhausted. I craved normalcy all the more.
The flight to Johannesburg was normal enough. Three and a half hours with a short stop in Malawi’s southern city of Blantyre. Long, ridiculous lines at immigration greeted us in Johannesburg. I sure hope that is not how they normally do business, but I suppose it is normal enough. Yes, there were individuals with high-tech thermometers, that looked more like a radar gun used by police to check speed, scanning everyone’s forehead but few travelers wearing medical face masks (the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Africa was the day we flew back). Once through all the arrival rigamarole we grabbed some snacks and a taxi and headed to our hotel in Sandton City, our home away from home for the long weekend.
Our first stop then was the Sandton City mall, right off of Nelson Mandela Square, the site of a gigantic statue of the hero himself. There are no shopping malls in Malawi. Well, there is the covered shopping center on the outskirts of Lilongwe (“the biggest mall in Malawi!”). It’s made up of perhaps a dozen stores – anchored by two supermarket chains, which are a shadow of their South African cousins, a few restaurants, a salon, a pharmacy, a dentist office, a bank, the Malawian version of a dollar store, a shoe store, a South African children’s clothing chain, a barber’s, and one or two other stores I have never actually seen anyone in. It might be named “Gateway Mall” but using the word doesn’t make it so. On the other hand Sandton City Mall has around 300 stores!
We ate a late lunch in a South African family sit-down restaurant. The only similar restaurant I know of in Malawi is Wimpy — and there are only two of those in the whole country. Then we did something really quite ordinary for many families in a lot of countries – we saw a movie at the theater. C and I really enjoy going to the movies and we did so regularly in Shanghai. But in Malawi there are no movie theaters.
This was no ordinary theater though — the movie (Sonic the Hedgehog) was shown in a kids theater complete with colorful bean bag chairs and a slide. The popcorn though was not all that normal, at least not compared to U.S. cinemas, instead of melted butter you could top off with there was powdered butter. And not a napkin to be found.
On our second day we woke to a rainy Sunday. C looked out our hotel room window at the uninspiring view of half of the neighboring building and a nondescript six lane road. But what she saw was instead was wondrous. “Mom,” she exclaimed, “look at that! I wish we lived here and every day we could look out on that road. There is no road like that in Malawi.” And she is right. There are only a handful of roads in Malawi’s three main cities (Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu) that are four lane, and those only span a few kilometers at best.
Off we headed to the Sci-Bono Discovery Center, an interactive children’s STEM museum located in a former power station. Wow, this place is cool. When we headed first to a water exhibit on loan from the U.S.’ Smithsonian Museum and there was no one there but us, I worried the museum might not capture C’s attention. Thankfully, I was wrong. We ended up spending four hours there – taking in the planetarium show, filling a small hot air balloon and watching it soar up the four stories to the ceiling, using various displays to learn about circuits and voltage to create electric charges, learning interesting animal facts, trying out PlayStation interactive golf and tennis games, and of course sprinting up the climbing wall. I have taken C to children’s museums across the U.S. and in many places around the world, but there are none in Malawi. In fact, there is only a handful of museums in the whole country – we have been to three and only one was worth a visit.
We spent the afternoon back at the Sandton City Mall having another late lunch (Hard Rock Cafe) and then C picked out her LEGO characters, which I bet would be hers *if* she made it to the top of the rock climbing wall. Despite her fear, she made short work of that wall to get those toys, so I had to deliver. We then had a quite evening just hanging out in the room.
For our last day the plan was to head to the Montecasino bird gardens, but we woke to more rain and a weather prediction that it would last all day. However, Montecasino also had a indoor shopping area and best of all — an arcade. There are few things C likes more than playing a bunch of ticket-producing games and trading in those tickets for cheap toys. I might have to admit I rather enjoy it all myself. So, I went all out. I bought hundreds of tokens and we played for HOURS. Claw games, skee ball, video games, wheel spins, games where we tossed basketballs, bean bags, or ping pong balls to see how many we could get into a receptacle or knock over some pins in a period of time. All in the name of maniacal, obsessive fun so we could get enough tickets to get the prized stuffed lion that had C’s name on it from the moment we walked in. It might not seem like much, and may even seem a waste of time and money on vacation, but we had so much fun. And there is nothing like it in Malawi. (Thank goodness, or I would be broke, our hands would be calloused, and we would have even more stuffed animals than we already have).
Then we wandered the covered mall of Montecasino, which, with its faux cobblestone lanes and ceiling painted and lit like the sky, reminded me much of the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian in Las Vegas. We had our choice of 30 restaurants and 10 fast food joints for lunch. I am not sure there are 40 restaurants in all of Lilongwe. C and I frequent about eight. We had (yet another late) lunch at a Mexican (Mexican!!) restaurant and then called it a day.
Heading back the next day was hard for me; I could have used another night or two in Johannesburg. We hadn’t visited a department store or gone to an amusement park or even a decent playground. But once home I thought our weekend away had, at least temporarily, restored me. It might not be that normal to fly to another country to try to do “normal” things. And honestly, these normal activities we did felt extraordinary because we do not do them all the time. Many people in developed countries take it for granted that they will have wide pothole-free roads to drive on, nice sidewalks to walk on, well-stocked supermarkets to shop in, and entertainment and shopping complexes to go to, and it just isn’t that way for many in the developing world. Don’t get me wrong — I know we have it good. With our privilege, C and I straddle these worlds, living (very well) in one, and with the means and opportunity to travel to another. The “normal” things we (I) miss are not normal at all for the vast majority of Malawians. They are not even that normal for my daughter who has spent most of her eight years overseas.
It’s really something to think about — and as I begin to contemplate where we might head next after Malawi I wonder how well we would do somewhere with all these amenities and conveniences that we often do without? How would we handle being more normal?