The Countdown Begins: 100 Days Left in Malawi

100 days. Oh my goodness. It does not seem like anywhere near enough time, but it is all the time we have left in Malawi. After nearly four years, it is time for us to wind down this tour and prepare for the next part in this grand adventure.

There is SO much to do to prepare! I have been able to already obtain my travel orders, which is the document that lays out all of the employee’s and family member’s costs in moving from Point A to Point B. For me, my travel orders begin with our departure from Lilongwe, time and location of our Home Leave (congressionally mandated time spent in the U.S. reorienting ourselves to our homeland between overseas assignments), training, per diem, the movement and storage of our household goods and personal effects, and finish with our arrival date in Conakry, Guinea. Having my travel orders lets me move forward in obtaining our plane tickets and reserving housing in an apartment that allows for direct billing with the State Department. I have made my requests for both.

This might seem pretty straightforward, but its anything but, especially given so much of the work falls on the employee themselves and much is still mucked up by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, it is about 100 days from departure. I had a particular date in mind and in the before times, when Ethiopian Airlines flew daily it would not be an issue. But at present Ethiopian Airlines flies in and out of Lilongwe only four times a week. This could change in the next 100 days…or not. Hard to say. Therefore I have requested flights to depart on the closest day available to my preferred date. If schedules change, I can change our flights, but if it goes on too long I would just leave it as is because there are other things riding on our flight, such as reserving a spot on the plane for my cat. Organizing international pet travel is expensive, complicated, and involves some tight timelines. I would rather not make it any harder than it already is. (See here for some examples of past pet travel torture, I mean, experiences)

Additionally, right now I have some gaps in my training schedule as our Foreign Service Institute, where U.S. diplomats take the bulk of their training, is taking a conservative approach to scheduling courses. I am eager to fill in those gaps so I do not end up paying out of pocket at DC-level hotel rates, but thus far have not found suitable classes. In one of those weeks there are only three classes available: a State Department familiarization course for locally-employed staff, Iraq familiarization, and an Overseas Building Organization Project Management course. Not of these are remotely related to my current or future work as a political officer in Africa. I still have 100 days for hopefully an appropriate course to present itself, but the time feels short.

That fifth question already has me stumped. #foreignserviceproblems

I need to register my daughter for school for the first time in the U.S. Seems like that ought to be rather straightforward, right? Except I do not have an address in the U.S. I first need one to figure out which school she will attend, and then they are also considered necessary for the registration process. The school district requires an additional two forms of ID with the address on it as secondary residential proofs. As I am not a Virginia resident, I am unlikely to obtain those at all in the course of the 10-11 months I am in the U.S. I am most surely not the first U.S. Foreign Service Officer to move to northern Virginia with a school-aged child, but that does not mean that I won’t be made to feel like I am.

And then there is the preparations for packing up all our things. With a year largely teleworking, I have had a lot more time to look around the house at all the things we have acquired. We have over the past year said goodbye to a few things here and there, but there are many more still in our possession. With what we have remaining, I must determine what to get rid of (to throw away, to donate to the refugee camp or give to staff or others, or to sell) and what to take (either in our suitcase so we have on Home Leave, or place in our Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB), which we will then have shipped via mail to our training address, or pack up and send to storage where it will remain for about a year before we receive it in Guinea.

Every day in my house, everywhere I look, there are so many material things. When I open my closet to dress for the day, I see what I need to parse through — what stays, what goes, what was I thinking? In the cabinets, I see sunscreen and vitamins and toothpaste that all need to be used up, trying to work out the delicate dance of having not too much or too little, but just enough to stretch the next 100 days. Every time I step into my pantry I am greeted with foodstuffs that must be consumed in the next three-and-a-half months. Every room of my house is fraught with decisions staring me down. My Amazon purchases are declining, taking away one of the great pandemic joys of both “revenge bedtime procrastination” shopping and the giddy feeling of receiving our once a week mail delivery.

I am trying to get a head start on this process. I recently thought back to my pack-out from Shanghai and shudder to think of repeating that mess. As the movers packed up C’s room, the living room, and the kitchen, I was madly trying to finish up in my bedroom, including going through a big pile of papers. After many hours the movers declared they were done — except I opened up drawers in both my room and the living room and cabinets in the kitchen only to find items yet to be packed and one of my cats was missing… I feared she had either been packed (it has been known to happen) or had fallen out of one of our 19th floor windows (as I found the window in the guest bedroom where she liked to sit open). Luckily, after lots of searching, I found her wedged between the master bed headboard and the wall; she was not fond of strangers.

We no longer have that cat; we lost her to cancer a year ago, in the midst of the early pandemic. Now, I just have to move one cat, which may or may not be easier. Also, an upside is that we have longer in the U.S. that right now I really only need to work on getting us from Lilongwe, to Home Leave, and then training. Amazing to think that the approximately 11 month we spend in the U.S. will be the longest C has spent continuously in her home country. Our previous stints were mid-April to mid-August 2017 between Shanghai and Malawi and July 2014 to January 2015 between Juarez and Shanghai. This coming fall will be the first we spend in the U.S. since 2014, seven years ago, and spring 2022 will be the first full spring since C was born in 2012. Guinea is on the more distant back end, leaving me a little breathing room before taking up the U.S. to Guinea move.

And I feel I need all the breathing room I can get. Already I can feel the emotional roller coaster of leaving the only place I have lived for four consecutive years since I lived with my parents before college. My almost 9 1/2-year-old daughter has spent nearly half her life in Malawi — she does not remember our time in Mexico, she still talks about our time in Shanghai though it has faded, and the time she has spent in the U.S. is associated with all-fun all-the-time Home Leaves and vacations involving Disney, best friends, and her cousins. Malawi is very much our home.

In recent weeks and months, I have felt a sense of nostalgia wash over me as I drive in Lilongwe or around the country or walk in my neighborhood or around my yard, already feeling a sense of loss for those things I will miss. We have been able to travel a lot around the country, even with the pandemic, and there are many beautiful locations to visit, but even within Lilongwe, one can come across pretty views in all kinds of places.

Left: The entrance to my road, Tobacco Loop, when the flame trees are in full bloom; Right: Light of late afternoon across a maize field in my residential neighborhood while on a recent walk

I will find myself thinking how much I might miss my commute, a particular road or landmark, even if it’s not particularly lovely, but because it has become familiar. The empty fountain at the roundabout on Presidential Way (I think I once saw it with water) that the protestors following the 2019 election spray-painted with graffiti. The guy who sells bananas from a makeshift stone table at the corner of Chayamba and Dunduzu roads. The view of a rock formation jutting out to the east of the city when I hit a certain rise on the road as I head toward the cotton candy pink Golden Peacock shopping complex on my home from the Embassy. I will feel a tug, as I try to commit it to memory for when I am no longer here to experience it first hand. And then some driver will do something ridiculous — like drive 20 kilometers under the speed limit or abandon his/her car in the middle of the road — or I fail to swerve for one of the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t potholes and I will let loose a choice word or two that one should not use in polite company and then I’ll mutter “100 days to go…” and think about what next I need to do to make that happen.

The Somewhat Reluctant Spring Break

Spring Break. Sigh. This used to be a time I really looked forward to planning a getaway, you know, in the before times, before the pandemic. Although the 2020 Spring Break trip had been upended, at the end of last year it started to look like things we turning around. I had begun to have visions of a 2020 Spring Break Redux. But by the time we returned from our Kenya R&R at the end of 2020, travel again seemed to be in jeopardy.

COVID-19, naturally, continues to throw a major monkey wrench into any sort of international travel. Malawi’s second wave, though subsiding now, had been much more disruptive and deadly than its first. But the indirect effects, the fewer flights, testing regimes, and other restrictions are still in place. Malawi has never been a major hub; before the pandemic there were daily flights to Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, and Nairobi, and less frequent flights to Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, and Harare. Now there are just the Addis, Jo’Burg, and Nairobi flights, and they are less consistent. Friends of ours were to fly to South Africa the previous week and the airline cancelled a few days before without reason.

Malawi’s newest COVID-related billboard featuring the President touting the “Three W’s,” i.e. Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands

Though honestly, I love travel so much, that I was willing to go through the flight, COVID testing, and mitigation measure gauntlet, but we had another problem: passports. Last fall I noted our diplomatic passports (we hold both diplomatic and tourist passports) were expiring in the summer of 2021 and thus we would need to renew before the new year as many places frown on or even outright disallow travel during the final six months. As the Acting Consular Chief (a post I held for six months during 2020), I diligently applied for our new passports at the end of October. Our paperwork was FedExed to the State Department on November 4. And then, it seems, we got tangled up in the whole U.S. election mail issue / COVID-related mail issue and was lost. (Luckily for most American citizens this is NOT how we do tourist passports overseas and its much faster and more reliable!) I did not know this until by the end of January I wondered what had become of them. We had to apply again. Though we received our new passports by the end of March, it was not in time to plan a vacation outside of Malawi’s borders.

One of the cats of Norman Carr Cottage living her best life

That left a trip within Malawi. And I was torn. With nearly four years in country, even with a pandemic mucking up domestic travel for a good five months of 2020, C and I had already covered most of the major sights and lodging on my Malawi bucket list. Yet, the thought of spending another staycation hanging out in my living room, lounging on the tired dung-colored State Department-issued Drexel Heritage sofa was too much to bear. We needed to go somewhere. Well, truth be told, *I* needed to go somewhere. I am afraid my formerly world traveling companion kid had grown a bit too comfortable with couch surfing. But if I did not get out of my house, I thought I might go mad.

The two major places left on my bucket list seemed out of reach because they were either quite far (two days driving or one really long day for those with a penchant for torture) and still on a self-catering basis (and my desire to drive really far to just cook the same stuff in a different kitchen is at an all time low) or required a charter flight which would trigger an Embassy-imposed stay at home order upon return. And while I was uber-productive with my telework the first six to eight months, my at-home productivity has most certainly waned after a year. And that my friends is actually the understatement of the year. “Working from home” has become an oxymoron as I tend to just stare into the abyss when confronted with this option; I make every effort to go into the office.

With this in mind, I booked two nights on Kayak Africa’s Mumbo Island and one night at Norman Carr Cottage.

With the Mumbo Island transport departing Cape Maclear at 10:30 AM, I was not keen to depart Lilongwe just after sunrise, and thus Norman Carr Cottage, located just south of Monkey Bay, would give us a nice overnight stop and ensure more relaxation. (Note: Embassy employees we are not permitted to drive after dark outside the three major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu for safety reasons)

Norman Carr’s original lakeside cottage (left); The beautiful carved bed in our room (right)

Norman Carr was a British conservationist who in the 1950s and 1960s helped launch the first national parks in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (then the British protectorate known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) and started the first walking safaris in these countries. In the 1970s he built himself this idyllic lakeside cottage where, reportedly, he wrote several of his books. I love me a little history with my vacations and this bit of Malawi history suited me fine.

We did not do much here, but that was rather the point. We arrived and had lunch. And then my daughter promptly broke one of her flip flops — because she had carefully selected the oldest, on its last legs, pair despite my having presented her with brand new ones a month ago. Sigh. Thus, we found ourselves driving into the thriving metropolitan (just kidding) village of Monkey Bay in search of replacements. We parked at a small grocery store, but they did not have any shoes. They did have soft serve ice cream (will wonders never cease?) and as the young man whose job was to serve this up was preparing to do so, I asked if he knew where we could get shoes. He pointed at a makeshift wood kiosk across the street and we walked over (well, I walked, C hopped on one foot). The small shop sold a random assortment of goods such as clothes detergent and a limited selection of fancy ladies slip ons. I shook my head — these looked like adult sizes — but C said she would try them and in some odd African village version of Cinderella, they fit perfectly.

A view of our eco-chalet from the cove entrance

On our second day, we drove 30 minutes north to Cape Maclear on the Nankumba Peninsula where we boarded a boat for the 10 kilometer (6 miles), 45-minute ride to Mumbo Island, located within the Lake Malawi National Park (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Mumbo Island is a small, only one kilometer in diameter, uninhabited island and the eco-“resort” covers only a small part of that space. Five of the six thatched chalets are perched high on rocks located on an even smaller island connected to Mumbo by a wooden walkway. There is no WiFi, no cellphone signal, and no electricity. And it is beautiful.

After an extremely rainy March, we had perfect weather – temps in the uppers 70s and sparkling azure skies. The lake waters lapped against the sandy shore. I never tire of how the lake seems like the sea.

We disembarked from the boat and were shown our chalet, where C immediately claimed the hammock strung across our porch overlooking the Lake. And there we just took a little time to soak in the atmosphere. For the first time in weeks I really could feel myself relax.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Douglas, the Mumbo Island chef, in the dining area on the main island. We watched a pair of hornbills alight on a nearby tree and a chatty bulbul waited impatiently on a ceiling rafter hoping for any of our leftovers. Monitor lizards crawled through the underbrush beneath the floorboards and sunned themselves on the rocks by the water. Afterwards, we relaxed in the room, on the small beach, and swam in the lake. Around 5 PM we headed out with Marriott (one of the other Mumbo Island staff) for a circumvention of the island by boat and a sunset viewing. Writing now I was sure we had done more that day, but thinking back, that was all and yet it was full. After dinner, we snuggled together in the hammock watching the stars. With the vast expanse of Lake Malawi lit with only a few fishing canoes, the sky overhead is at its darkest and the stars at their most brilliant. Though the 19th century Scottish explorer David Livingstone reportedly named it the Lake of Stars for the way the fishing lanterns reflected on the evening water, its the incredible view of the night sky that is more arresting. I am quite sure we could clearly see the swath of the Milky Way though I am far less sure of the constellations. Regardless, we talked until we grew sleepy and then we crawled into our beds, letting down the mosquito net but leaving the doors and windows open so we could hear the waves all night.

Early the next morning C again commandeered the hammock, lazily rocking back and forth, flipping her shoe casually from her toes. Exactly as I had asked her not to. And wouldn’t you know it, but as I got up to tell her to stop, one of those shoes we had only just bought at Monkey Bay was launched from her foot, sailing over the edge of our porch to the waters below. Sigh. Luckily, we could see it floating below. I told C to put on her suit and I would put on mine and we would swim out to get it. But then realized we could take a kayak to retrieve it. And as luck would have it, one of the Mumbo Island staff was willing to make the rescue. I may have had some choice words regarding her lack of footwear care, but told C one day (in fact later the same day) we would laugh about it. She said I should call this blog post “The Shoe Incidents.”

An extraordinary tree along our Mumbo Island hike and the view from Pod Rock

It is a good thing we located that shoe as after breakfast we headed out on a hike around the island. Not that those fancy lady sandals were the best shoes for a hike, but they were far better than nothing. Our sweaty hike around Mumbo must have taken about an hour though I am not entirely sure as my watch stopped working early in the pandemic and I have not yet bothered to replace it. The hike afforded us incredible opportunities to experience nature from three to four foot monitor lizards scurrying from our paths, symbiotic trees, the high pitched cries of the African fish eagle, and a gorgeous view across the Lake from atop Pod Rock.

C gets her zen on

We spent the rest of the day alternating between reading flopped on a bed or swinging in the hammock (you can guess who got the hammock again) and lake activity. We kayaked around the small island, swam, and together steadily worked up our courage to leap off the wooden walkway into the water. Eventually, C made friends with the 9-year old daughter of a visiting French family and the two of them spent the rest of the afternoon in one another’s company swimming and giggling, heads together in deep conversation. I sat on the beach in the warm sunlight reading.

We had another nice dinner but headed to bed a bit earlier than the evening before; the hike, kayaking, and swimming surely had tired us out. I had another great sleep lulled by those lightly crashing waves on the rocks below our chalet, and dreamed of rain.

It was hard to leave the following day. I could have stayed another night, maybe two. I meditated on the boat ride back, the warm sun on my face. And before driving back to Lilongwe, we stopped at another small historic site in Cape Maclear, the grave site of 19th century Scottish missionaries.

This may not have been the Spring Break I had initially hoped for but it turned out to be exactly what C and I needed.