Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Home Leave

We had made it to the U.S. from Malawi in the time of COVID. Whew! And now we could begin our congressionally-mandated period of readjustment, reacquaintance, and relaxation in the U.S. known as Home Leave. Unlike Home Leaves past, where we traveled from place to place to place, we would spend the majority of this one in one location, Florida, where, for the first time ever, I own property. Do not get me wrong, I had initially intended another whirlwind Home Leave journey that would take us to multiple U.S. states and experiences on the bucket list, but a combination of timing, getting older (which I hate admitting), bringing our Malawian nanny, and COVID, led me to make some adjustments. Though it was far and away due to the pandemic, and I will admit a continued sense of identity loss with reduced travel, there was something satisfying about slowing down and staying put, familiarizing ourselves with our new U.S. home town, and introducing America to a newcomer.

After successfully emerging from the security and immigration at Dulles Airport, we were met by my sister and then our transport driver, who whisked myself, the nanny, my daughter, the cat, and our odd collection of baggage, off to a nearby car rental. There we were met by my aunt, who took some of our luggage off our hands, and then we were on the road to Florida.

Yes, I had decided to drive to Florida. Sure, we could have flown, but there were all sorts of reasons that made me not want to deal with the 8 1/2 hour layover and boarding another flight. I can distill it down to my deep desire to be on the road and (seemingly) more in control.

And as we merged onto I-95, the main artery linking the American east coast from Miami Florida to the Maine-Canadian border, I felt pretty darn happy. Maybe ecstatic. I felt free. This was not the Malawi roadtripping of the past four years. This was not potholes and missing shoulders, it was not narrow two lanes that double as livestock crossings or pass suddenly through small market villages with people and goods spilling right onto the road. It was six beautiful lanes (actual lanes! with visible lines!) of smooth asphalt. Even when it became bumper to bumper traffic that turned our 2 to 1/2 hour drive to Richmond into an exasperating 4 1/2 hours causing me to let loose some expletives I thought I had reserved exclusively for Malawi driving, I was still thrilled to be driving in America.

That first day’s drive took so much longer than anticipated we ended up stopping our first night in Richmond instead of the planned stop around Fayettville, NC. Already exhausted by jet lag and jacked up with drive excitement, I had to call it quits early. The second day we would not make it to Jacksonville either, making our overnight pitstop in Santee, South Carolina. But what this afforded me was the opportunity to wake up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, around 3 AM, and then drive for hours in the dark along the highway. This, too, was an indulgence I could not pursue in Malawi as we were prohibited from driving after dark outside of the three major cities due to unsafe roads and lack of ambulance and police services. But in the U.S. I could glide along those roads in the pre-dawn hours with little other traffic.

C and her nanny JMC enjoy the candy store, the Jacksonville Zoo, and at James Weldon Johnson Park in downtown Jacksonville

My nanny, JMC, a hard-working and eager 20-year-old, who had described her first airplane flight with wide, bright eyes (“I could feel my soul leaving my body!”) gave our highways high marks. She remarked on the sheer number of trees flanking the road. “Amazing!” she called it all. A good reminder of something many Americans take for granted: an extensive and efficient road system.

I view Jacksonville, Florida as more a place to live than a tourist destination. It has its beaches, of course, and museums and other similar attractions found in large U.S. cities, but it does not scream “vacation” to me. That being said, this Home Leave would be the longest we would consecutively spend in the area and I had put together a decently list of activities for our visit. It turned out that even my plans for Florida were wildly ambitious.

After nearly 18 months of limited (frankly, nearly zilch) activities outside our home in Lilongwe and few getaways, we were not used to having options and found it harder to muster the energy for back-to-back pursuits. The luxury of just sitting around a living room other than the one we had in Lilongwe was so very tempting (Okay, we were not just tempted. We totally embraced it). We were not only jet lagged, but exhausted — by the flights, the drive, the last week of departure preparations. In addition to my list of fun things to do, I also had a list of less-fun but necessary things to be done, from medical appointments that could not be taken care of in Malawi to items to buy (both my phone and my computer were on their last legs) and paperwork (insurance and employment authorization applications for the nanny).

We lived it up – with COVID mitigation measures – at St. Augustine and Disney

And there was the pandemic. I guess I had this odd idea that once we left Malawi, we could also leave it behind us. That was, of course, not the case. We had departed Malawi in the middle of a rising third COVID wave only to arrive in Jacksonville, Florida, which had become an epicenter of the U.S.’ Delta wave. This would slow my Home Leave roll too.

But I still managed to get us out and about. In the initial few days, I took us to the Jacksonville Zoo and to the Museum of Science and History (MOSH). I suppose one might wonder why a zoo after four years in Africa? I know some might wonder this as this is exactly what my daughter asked me when I told her I was dragging her there against her will. Because zoos — well good zoos that support animal welfare and research — can be amazing places to see animals that one might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. Animals that even on a four hour game drive in Africa cannot coax into appearing before you. JMC had been to the zoo once when she lived in South Africa as a child, but her only experience seeing animals at a game park in Malawi was when we took her and her sister with us to the Kuti Wildlife Reserve the year before, and though we had a good time, I’ll mention something I didn’t mention then, that the animals were limited in variety and mostly hid from us. I attribute the fun we had to the fact we were with good friends and that it was the first trip we took after the six months ban on leaving the capital in that first half year of the pandemic. Both C and JMH loved the Jacksonville Zoo. They also liked the MOSH, though disdained the history portion (C: “There is too much to read here. This is boring.”) but embraced the pay-to-experience hurricane contraption.

I also took them to St. Augustine to see the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and eat ice cream while melting in midday 90 degree heat in August in Florida. I like taking C to places of American historic significance, to try to pack in some Americana since she spends so much time outside her homeland. And making her visit a historic place in the height of sweltering summer is, I believe, an American parent-child relationship right of passage. JMH told me that she thought she, an African, would be well-prepared for American summers, but that that day in St. Augustine had proven her wrong.

After our visit to the Zoo and MOSH, I buckled down with my paperwork for about a week and then when I emerged took us all to Disney World. We might be people you would call “Disney people.” We have visited a few parks a few times (for example, here, here, here, and here). C and I wanted our Disney fix and I wanted to give JMC a taste of Disney fun. With COVID, I was a bit concerned. I reduced our planned park time from three days to two – with one day at Magic Kingdom and one at Animal Kingdom – and we kept our masks on all the time at the park, and it worked out for us. Disney was keeping its actual park capacity limits secret, but it was clear as soon as we arrived that levels were still not what they were pre-COVID There were a few rides that were hard to get on but we rode on nearly all we wanted to and had a spectacular time and scored with some really gorgeous weather.

Back in our condo in Jacksonville we slowed down more. I had more paperwork; I joined a gym for the first time in a very, very long time. C and I took walks or drives to capture Pokémon in Pokémon Go, something we could not do in Malawi as my personal phone had not connected to any network away from home. I took them to Sweet Pete’s, a famous candy shop in downtown Jacksonville, for a make-your-own-chocolate-bar and factory tour experience, and then paid beaucoup bucks for giant bags of candy they giddily picked out. We took walks to Target (because it is a destination in and of itself, especially for American devotees who spend a lot of time overseas where there are none) and at Castaway Island Preserve or on the beach, JMC’s first time to see the ocean.

Then suddenly the vacation part of Home Leave was coming to an end. I had opted to spend nearly four weeks in Florida and then an additional two in our State Department provided lodging to get C into school and all of us settled into our new apartment and neighborhood. (PS: the two weeks before my training began were out of my own pocket, but so worth it! The Department only picks up the tab the night before training begins and it is really hard to adjust when starting school and training and life in a new place all at that same time. Oh, that is what we do overseas!)

JMC and C pose at a bus stop in Savannah, GA

I decided I wanted one more shot at an experience sort of like Home Leaves past, so arranged for us to spend two nights in Savannah, Georgia, on our way north to Virginia. I have long wanted to visit Savannah but had never done so and it was sort of on the way… And as the oldest European settlement in Georgia it fit in with a minor theme of our Home Leave (St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in Florida and New Bern, where we would stay a night with one of my best friends, is the second oldest European settlement in North Carolina).

We kept our Savannah visit COVID compliant. We did not join a hop on hop off bus, we did not take a group tour. What we did was walk. And I will tell you that walking is not only a great way to see a town but a glorious pastime that Americans often take for granted. It was here in Savannah that I realized my 9-year-old daughter did NOT know how to walk in a town. I knew that I would need to discuss the finer points of walking in an urban area with the nanny; a good friend who facilitates the visits of foreigners to the U.S. on exchange programs had told me that one major point he emphasizes is that jaywalking is illegal in America. In Malawi, as in many developing countries, it is a necessity, an artform even. There are few to no sidewalks or crosswalks or traffic lights. Unlike myself, who had grown up learning to look both ways before I crossed a street, C had not. Another missing piece in her informal education. In Savannah she just walked off each curb with a blithe confidence that caused my heart to stop.

So we learned some Georgia history, and American history, and life skills during our walking tours of Savannah. Two days was not enough time to cover any of that in any great detail, but we really enjoyed our stay. Next we moved on to a night in New Bern with one of my best friends and her son, a much needed respite from our drive, and then before I knew it we had arrived in Arlington, Virginia, where we will spend the next 9 1/2 months in training before heading on to my next assignment.

This Home Leave may not have been what I had initially planned and hoped for, but it is the one we got in a pandemic and turned out to be just what we needed.

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