Setsubun – Hoping Fortune Comes Our Way

Fortune and Demon – the Representatives of Setsubun

Today, February 3, is Setsubun, the Japanese festival to celebrate the end of winter and welcome Spring. I remembered this because I have a Japanese car here in Malawi and every day when I start her up, she chirps a welcome to me in Japanese akin to “Today is such and such day of the week and date. And here is an interesting/random fact about today.”

I am still writing up my blog posts for our R&R to Kenya and generally dislike posting a random post while still not done with a series, but we are in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Malawi and I am just feeling down. I am tired of the teleworking and the distance learning (I know, who isn’t?) and am suffering some pretty severe bouts of insomnia that is leading to headaches, exhaustion, and exacerbating the pandemic fatigue. Even though I knew that a flip of the calendar would not magically waive the pandemic away, here I am a month into the new year, deep into the Malawi rainy season, and I could really use a pick me up. So, when I got into my vehicle today and it chirped it its forever optimistic female Japanese voice, “今日は2月3日水曜日です.その節分,” or “Today is Wednesday, February 3. It’s Setsubun,” a waive of nostalgia swept over me. I was immediately transported back to when I lived in Japan and celebrated this holiday with my friends. Back to when I was younger and not a parent and not living in a pandemic.

My friend Bill has embarked on a pandemic lockdown inspired daily writing exercise — to stretch his writing chops, entertain friends and family, and perhaps pave the way into some sort of post Foreign Service career. While he is closer to retirement than I am, I too have found myself, especially when in the pandemic isolation doldrums, to flirt with my one day, perhaps sooner than expected, retirement dreams. I have long wanted to write about the years I lived in Japan. I figured I would take C to Japan and write about that trip and then as companion pieces, revisit aspects of my three years there. But a good look at the very long, minimum three flight trip, with either very short or very long connections, that would take us from Malawi to Tokyo, flattened my resolve; COVID-19 killed it. I still plan to one day write those posts. So with a combination of inspiration from my friend Bill and my Japanese RAV-4, here I am writing about Setsubun.

In July 1997, I arrived in Kogushi, a small fishing village on the San-In coast of Toyoura-town, Yamaguchi prefecture in the western part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. That makes it sound really romantic. In fact, if you literally translate most of it, Yamaguchi means “mountain’s mouth” and Toyoura means “rich bay,” and that sounds even more beautiful. Only Kogushi 小串 is not as lovely. It means “little skewers” as you can see the character “gushi” resembles a stick with two pieces of meat on it, like a kebab. I thought “little stick” more fitting, as in “I live in the sticks” or way outside the city.

The view from Akiko and Isao’s house during an evening party

I was an English teacher at the local high school through the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program through the Japanese Ministry of Education and Sports. To cut a long story short, I was plopped down in the middle of this rural area to teach English to less than enthusiastic high school students. As the only gaijin (obvious foreigner) in town, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Parents would force their children to sing me the alphabet in the supermarket and people wanted to invite me over to their houses for the sheer quirky fun of having a real live blonde American in their home, but honest to goodness friendship was hard. The other teachers in the school stayed clear of me, largely because they did not speak English well themselves and the English teacher was a bit of a creep so I didn’t want to hang with him anyway. It was not easy to make friends and after the initial excitement of the honeymoon period passed, I found myself pretty lonely.

In stepped Akiko and Isao. A couple in their 60s who lived a few towns over somehow got word to me that they would like to meet me and discuss the possibility of starting up an English course for adults that would be run out of their home. Akiko and Isao would be my saviors, they did so much more than open their home to me. They gave me adult conversation, even if in broken English (and my even more dismal Japanese), they gave me friendship, with them and with the other adults who joined the class. They introduced me to Japanese customs and celebrations. They visited me in the hospital when I had my appendix out (an odd but amazing experience to have in small town Japan). And they even had my mom, aunt, and aunt’s friend stay with them a few days when they visited Japan, to give them an authentic Japanese experience (and me a break from four adults staying in my small two tatami mat room flat).

I started my three times a month lessons for adults in Akiko and Isao’s living room in January of 1998. They had a beautiful traditional Japanese home perched on a hill overlooking the Sea of Japan. It looked like a miniature of a Japanese castle — all white with a grey tiled roof, with eaves that turned up at the ends, with animal figurines dancing on the roof spines to the edges. Inside they had tatami mat rooms, fitted with traditional recessed alcoves with Japanese shrines with photos of ancestors, dolls, and old pottery, befitting the home of the granddaughter of a Samurai, which Akiko was. It wasn’t all traditional though. The heated toilet seat with about 20 controls for all kinds of toilet experiences, was a modern treat. And the jazz musician paintings that took center stage in their living room still fit perfectly. I was overwhelmed to be invited to teach here and almost cried when I came home from the first class.

Just a few weeks after I started, February arrived and Akiko and Isao offered to host a Setsubun party for the class. I had no idea what that was but was grateful for an invitation that would have me doing something other than sitting alone, cold (my apartment, like many Japanese homes, had crap insulation), watching Japanese television I could not understand, for an evening.

From left to right: Akiko and Isao with my mom, aunt, and aunt’s friend in Shimonoseki; Me with Akiko, Isao, and some of our other adult evening English class students; Me with Akiko and two other English class students at Toyoura-cho’s marina

Setsubun is sort of like Japan’s answer to America’s Groundhog Day. Though its origins are also old (8th century for the former and 4th century for Candlemas, the precursor to Groundhog Day) and around the heralding of spring, but do not involve anyone waiting around for the appearance of a fat rodent. Instead, it involves two people dressed up like an ogre of misfortune (oni) and the personified appearance of fortune (fuku) and the tossing of troasted soybeans. That sounds way more fun, right?

Arriving at their home after dark on a cold February night, I was a little surprised by the festivities. Neighbors dressed up like Fuku and Oni, looking a bit like a scary versions of Cookie Monster and Elmo, burst into the house as we threw the roasted soybeans (fukumame or “fortune beans”) at them with silly abandon while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out! Fortune in!). I am pretty sure I shrieked a lot. I had no idea that a Japanese celebration would be so fun; I had expected sedate.

Following this we headed in to Akiko and Isao’s house, where they had transformed the living room into a sort of dining room. Around the room where multiple kotatsu, low wooden tables with electric heat sources built into them for cold winters, each with an electric hot plate and a ceramic bowl perfect for cooking nabe, the Japanese version of the hot pot, the perfect dish for a cold winter’s night. Set out on the tables were various hot pot ingredients: cabbage, carrots, thin white Japanese mushrooms called enoki (the only mushrooms I have ever eaten), and various proteins such as tofu, shrimp, chicken, and beef. The dashi (broth) of kombo (seaweed), sake, mirin, and soy sauce already simmered and small bowls of ponzu (a light watery citrus-based sauce with a dash of soy sauce) and ground daikon (white radish) sat ready for dipping our cooked food in for added flavor. It was all very delicious, but it was the laughter and camaraderie that really warmed my heart.

Left: There is some fuku in the house! Right: Me enjoying my first nabe party

I will forever remember that night as one of the best of my three year’s in Japan. We recreated it each of the three years, but it was that first setsubun that was the best. Never before (and I struggle to think of a time since) had I felt so welcome overseas. That class became more than just a class. They were my friends.

Tonight, what I would really like to do is throw the shit out of some roasted soybeans while surrounded by friends shouting Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Because we could all use some major fuku fortune right about now. Am I right?

R&R in COVID Part 3: Lake Naivasha

The third in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

Sign ahead of the Lake Naivasha “marina” with boats to Crescent Island

Next stop after the Maasai Mara was Lake Navaisha. While I was ultimately glad for extra time our COVID-related flight change would afford us in the Mara, I was less thrilled with the loss of time at Lake Naivasha. My former backpacker self would be ashamed at my impatience. When I backpacked, a bus might not show up, or it would break down, or take five hours longer than scheduled, and while sometimes annoying, it could also be somewhat amusing and even at time exciting; I did not expect to get places on time. But while I had built in rest time on our Kenya R&R, I wanted very much to be the decider of down time, not a transportation glitch. Yet, there was nothing to be done for it but accept the schedule change.

To reach Lake Naivasha, we returned to Nairobi via small aircraft and then a driver, arranged by the same travel agent as our flights and Mara accommodation, would meet us to make the trip to our Lake hotel. But our 8:30 AM departure was changed to 11:45 AM and this time we would make one other airstrip stop before returning to Nairobi, thus returning us famished to Wilson Airport at nearly 1 PM. I had already notified our driver in advance we would need to stop at an ATM (so I could pay him in cash) and then on somewhere we could grab food. With those stops it was 2 PM before we were on our way to the Great Rift Valley Lodge (GRVL). My initial plan had to be there by noon for lunch. (Deep breaths. It’s okay T. Let it go. Let it go.)

View of the valley from our balcony at the Great Rift Valley Lodge; Steve the zebra wanders the GRVL golf course

The GRVL is situated on a cliff of Eburru Mountain, which the Maasai call Ol Donyo Opurru or “Mountain of Smoke,” has gorgeous views over the Great Rift Valley. I decided to stay at the GRVL largely because of a single photo I had seen online of the Lodge perched on the escarpment edge, dwarfed by the forest, hills, and sky around it. But the photo did not do it justice (and neither does mine) of the sheer grandeur and beauty of that view.

A sampling of flora at the Great Rift Valley Lodge

Unfortunately, our late afternoon meant we did not time for any activities, so we took a walk around the property, starting with following Steve the resident zebra. We don’t know the zebra’s real name, but I thought he looked like a Steve (I don’t even know if Steve is a he) and it stuck. Even our assigned personal concierge William told us that he liked the name Steve and perhaps the hotel will call the zebra that from now on (oh, I hope so!). C had spotted Steve from our balcony, and thus we found him there, grazing beneath the thorny acacia trees. He led us along a pathway through a thicket, up past the Lodge pool, through the parking lot, to the golf course, where he interrupted a few guests practicing their drives. While golfers might forgive an errant zebra on the golf course, they were not going to put up with two humans in pursuit of said zebra, so we then left Steve and spent the rest of our daylight meandering along the Lodge’s pathways flanked by its wild and unusual flora, with an emphasis on succulents. It grew dark and chilly quickly; we had dinner and went to bed.

On Lake Naivasha

Early on our second day we met William who had arranged transportation and a tour to Crescent Island. The island is a private sanctuary where one can take a walking safari, passing close by zebra, giraffe, impala, waterbuck, warthogs, and other such non-predator species and a dizzying array of birdlife. Unlike most walking safaris I have seen elsewhere, such as “walks with lions” or “walks with cheetahs” that often come with a 16 years of age and older label due to the predilection of big cats to find small humans more appetizing, C could participate.

Before getting to the island, we would first experience a boat safari on Lake Naivasha. We were really backing in the safaris this trip – safari by jeep, hot air balloon, boat, and our own two legs.

There is still room for a few more – cormorants at Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha is one of Kenya’s major rift valley lakes. It is the home to an abundance of bird species like African fish eagles, giant kingfishers, herons, cranes, pelicans, ospreys, and more. Especially cormorants. So many, many cormorants. The Lake is a popular breeding site of cormorants and it must have been the height of the season as there were thousands of birds perched on nearly every available branch. A water safari offers an up close and personal view of many of these birds and even some hippos. As seems a prerequisite to any lake visit in Africa where African fish eagles roam (at least Malawi and Kenya), our boat driver acquired some fish, positioned the boat within sight of an eagle and whistled. But I am not sure I could tire of the sight of one of these eagles taking flight and then swooping in, talons first, to grab the proffered bait off the surface of the water. It is pretty magnificent.

After about 20 minutes on the Crescent Island is a private sanctuary located on the eastern side of the Lake. Many sites online, including Lonely Planet, note that the island is actually a peninsula and you can reach the island either by boat or across a causeway. Not any more. Rising water levels at the Lake (and other rift valley lakes) have swallowed up the bridge, tourism facilities, and more. The makeshift marina had been relocated from its previous, but now underwater, location. As we motored out, we saw concrete buildings with just barely noticeable words (“ladies”, “gents,”store”) and signs (“car park”) just under water, as if they were desperately treading water. As we closed in on Crescent Island, a line of electricity poles, half submerged, marked the location where the causeway should have been. I was glad to hear the government had turned off the electricity. If we had not seen a few other boats out on the lake, I could well have believed this was some sort of post-apocalyptic world, which in a global health pandemic really does not seem so farfetched.

Crescent Island

We landed at Crescent Island and our GRVL guide paid for our entrance fees, then we set out, up through the bush to the highest point on the island, which was not all that high but did provide a nice vantage point to see much of the wildlife and then the shimmering blue lake and the darker blue hills beyond. Our guide, and many online resources indicate scenes from Out of Africa were filmed on the island, that the animals were brought there for the film and then left to enjoy the island in safety from predators afterwards. That may or may not be true as I could not find information on websites dedicated to the film of Crescent Island being among its filming locations. Still, the ability to walk so close to these wild African animals, to a herd of zebra or impala, to startle a waterbuck munching away in the bush next to you, or to stand five feet away from a grazing giraffe still captures the essence and awe of the movie. However the animals got there, I enjoyed our 90 minutes walk and hope C will always remember it.

Once back to the Lodge, although I really wanted to see more in the area, I made good on my promise to include rest and fun time. C and I headed to the pool for where C quickly made friends with the other children; I swam some and read.

The next morning we had some more time to look around the grounds — to see the resident peacocks and tortoises — before our driver would pick us up for our return trip to Nairobi and our flight to Mombasa. Though I had hoped for more time in the area, what we got was pretty darn good. Initially, I had considered a day tour from Nairobi, though because of COVID I could not imagine being on a tour bus with a bunch of strangers for a full day. So COVID giveth a two night plan at the GRVL, but taketh some of that time due to flight rescheduling. C’ est la vie. Or rather, hakuna matata.

R&R in COVID Part 2: The Maasai Mara

The second in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

Giraffes on the Mara with the hills of Tanzania in the background

Arriving at our hotel in Nairobi, the impact of COVID was immediately apparent. It was late afternoon and we were hungry, its a pandemic and we are in a new town, so I had no interest in leaving the hotel until the following morning. All I wanted to order room service, but there was no room service menu to be found. When I called down to the front desk I was informed that there was nothing in the room – no menu, no hotel information booklet, no pad of paper, no hotel pen – that could be left behind for another guest. An attendant brought a menu to the room, but I saw it was really limited, with nothing that appealed to us. Another call to the front desk revealed the hotel had been closed for three months during the early part of the pandemic and when they reopened, they pared down the menu significantly. But the hotel was so eager to please, the manager, chef, and a room attendant showed up at the door – all masked – asking what they could make us.

The next morning, we headed to breakfast in the hotel. We took the wrong elevator and ended up in another part of the hotel — all the lights were off, there were no staff around. When we backtracked and got to the dining room it was also poorly lit and we were the only people there. Some food was set out but there were no staff, no other hotel guests. As we checked out, I asked the manager about this and he told me that they had closed off an entire wing of the hotel due to low occupancy; of the 200 some rooms, they had only 44 guests.

Off we headed to Wilson Airport, the domestic small aircraft terminal. We were there earlier than expected as our flight to the Maasai Mara had been moved from 10:30 AM, then to 8:30 AM, then to 8:00 AM due to limited flights (aka limited travelers) during the pandemic. So far these signs — the oddities in the hotel, the changes to our flight times — only served to remind me, rightfully, that while we were on vacation it was still during a pandemic.

But once checked in – despite socially distanced from our few fellow passengers and masked-up – we began to feel excited. We would be taking our first flight in a small plane and landing at a really small dirt landing strip just five minutes away from our accommodation. Well, let me say that I was excited; C was not (at least not about the small plane flight). But once in the air, she was good. And although we were not in a propeller plane, I did feel a wee bit like I had been transported back to the flight seen in Out of Africa as we departed Nairobi, with views toward the Ngong Hills, then across flat green plains with little settlement, and finally with a view of the winding Talek River along which our lodge, the Mara Intrepids Camp, lies. The touchdown, along a dirt landing strip, pulling up to a three shack airport — with a small covered waiting area, a Maasai Mara National Park information and ticket booth, and a restroom block — was exciting.

Despite our early arrival, the Camp staff gave us a very warm welcome. We were set up in a comfortable and rather high end “tented” room with a porch overlooking the Talek River and they ushered us to the dining room where they had prepared breakfast. This was a treat after the rather sterile and zombie apocalypse-like feeling to our quick breakfast earlier. Although my booking included three game drives a day, my intention on the trip was to have some great experiences but to also relax after the past nine months of working and distance learning in Malawi during a pandemic. Thus, we were in no hurry. We did not rush to get on a 10:30 AM game drive. Instead we lazed around our room, sipping drinks on our porch, and breathing in the sounds and smells of the Mara. Then we had lunch. And only afterwards did we head out on our first game drive.

Cheetah cubs!

Again, another sign of the pandemic, was our personal game drive. We were assigned a driver/tracker, Dennis, and had our vehicle all to ourselves. One highlight of a pandemic I suppose. Right off the bat we sighted stripped mongoose and a hyena — an animal that after three and a half years in Malawi and game drives in Majete National Park and Liwonde National Park and South Luangwa National Park (Zambia) – we had not sighted. Our previous closest hyena encounters were the on-occasion high-pitched giggle we heard on quiet nights in Lilongwe. C was thrilled and immediately named the hyena her newest favorite animal. We caught site of a pair of ostrich and some giraffe, and then soon enough were on the trail of a mother cheetah and her four cubs. After some 20 minutes of watching the cheetah and her cubs sidewind through the grass, Dennis asked if we wanted to head on to look for lions, but hey, it was just us in the vehicle, so I said no. And as luck and perseverance would have it, we got some good looks at the sleek cat and her cubs. We requested an early dinner and prepared an early bedtime with the whoops and cries of the African plains rocking us to sleep.

We had a very early morning wake up (4:00 AM) on our first full day in the Mara as I had booked us an adventure of a lifetime — a hot air balloon safari. By 5:00 AM we were being whisked through the park and adjacent lands in the dark, seeing the occasional animal — a hippo, a rabbit, a dik dik, a jackal – in the headlights. After an hour of bumping over the roads we arrived at the launch site. We checked in — mask and temperature checks in addition to the usual — and were assigned to our balloon. I meant this to be a very special occasion for C — I have been waiting until she hit the minimum age of 8 for most hot air balloon rides — but she was very nervous. As we sat crouched on our backs, legs drawn up, hands clutching rope handles, waiting for take off, I saw C was shaking. I asked her if it were the chilly morning air or fear and she confirmed the latter.

It is handy to take off with another balloon to get the best photos

However, as the balloon filled with the last bit of needed hot air, the basket righted, the aircraft lifted, and we were on our way. We first watched the sun break across the cap of a distant plateau and light spill across the plains. Unlike my only other hot air balloon experience in Cappadocia, Turkey, where we rose high above the rocky formations, this time we hovered over the savanna so that we could see the wildlife. We floated over herds of impala, Thompson gazelle, and topi. One topi in particular seemed to literally be stopped in its tracks staring up at us, its mouth agape as it watched us pass overhead. We came a family group of elephants; the largest bull blocked the baby, stood its ground, ears out and flapping, preparing to charge our threatening approach. We watched a hyena zig-zag across the grass trying to outrun us. The whole flight was extraordinary. It is hard to describe; it felt surreal, and magical. We had only an hour in the air, but it felt longer (real talk: C got a bit tired of it and at 45 minutes sat down in the basket; we also did not see as many animals as I had hoped, but we were in a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara!!).

Following the flight, there was a nice breakfast in the bush with the passengers and pilots of both balloons. Afterwards we had the hour drive back to the Mara Intrepids Camp, which also served as another game drive. Again, our lodging included three game drives a day, but with an early morning balloon safari and wildlife spotting there and back, we were content to just relax for the rest of the day. We enjoyed drinks on our porch and watched baboons treating the adjacent tent’s roof as a trampoline, and headed to the swimming pool where from its platform above the river we watched a hippo submerged in a pool, a large monitor lizard slip languidly into the water and then saunter out on the opposite bank, and mongoose scamper across the out-of-order suspension bridge.

Some birds of the Mara

On our third day, we finally had a morning game drive. Six in the morning does not seem quite so early when your wake up call was 4:00 AM the day before! Again, guided by our trusty driver, we quickly came upon giraffe strutting distantly but picturesquely across the savanna, with the early morning sun behind. A few minutes later we came across a hyena directly in our path, stumbling home from an evening of whatever hyenas get up to, along the dirt track. He walked right past our vehicle–we could have reached down to pet him had we been so inclined. This hyena, unlike the scruffy, muddy specimen of his kind we had seen our first day, was, dare I say it, cute and fluffy. We did not see many other animals — though we did come across an eland, the largest antelope, and located the cheetah and her cubs again, though she remained further from the track and largely hidden in a bush — but no matter. With another, and better, hyena sighting, C was more than satisfied. Me, too. We were on a game drive in one of the premier destinations in the world, the weather was perfect, and we were together and healthy. It would be hard to be disappointed with that.

Stunning sunset on the Mara

Our afternoon drive was far more successful in the animal sighting department. Right out of the gate — well, literally at the gate of our lodge’s grounds — we spotted a dik dik, the second smallest antelope species. We came across an extraordinary tableau: In the middle of a grassy plain stood a lone tree. Atop the tree, two large secretary birds sat upon their nest and at the base of the tree a single hyena circled, hoping for whatever scraps might fall. Gazelles grazed in the background. From there we headed on to our prize – a pride of some ten large lions napping lazily in the grass. They must have recently had a large meal as most could not bother to raise their heads or open their eyes. Except for one lioness, who did sit up and fix her eyes upon me in such as way that caused me to back up in the vehicle. On our way back to our camp we were treated to an extraordinary sighting of a lone jackal, who could have run off quickly but kept stopping to look back at us, and an incredible sunset over the Mara.

Predators of the Mara: A surprisingly cute hyena, a still-hungry lioness, and a very curious jackal

That evening in the dining hall we were one of only two families eating. The younger kids of the other family conked out and then we C and I were the only ones there except for staff. Except after a few minutes I noticed we were no longer alone. A genet had crept into the dining hall and slipped beneath the now-gone other family’s table. A genet is a similar to a civet. Its often believed to be in the feline family, but its not. It is sleek and spotted and has a very long tail — it looks a bit like a mini, skinny leopard mated with a lemur. That would have been amazing in and of itself. But then, drum roll, a black bushbaby made its way into the dining hall, expertly walking along the ceiling beams like a trapeze artist, and then sliding down the vertical pole to steal a bun from the abandoned bread basket. The evening’s entertainment was still not yet over, as a second genet joined the first and the bushbaby demonstrated interest in the crumbs beneath the other abandoned table. Naturally this led to one of those scenes generally seen in National Geographic — the bushbaby standing on two legs, arms up, attempting to look menacing and the genets looking positively puzzled. Best diner show ever.

Another COVID-related change led to our return flight to Nairobi to shift from 8:45 AM to 11:15 AM and then to 11:45 AM. Although this would complicate our afternoon plans, it did allow us one more sunrise over the Mara, another game drive. We saw a pod of 20 or more hippopotami wallowing in a stream, tracked two lion cubs through the tall grass, and then caught sight of the lioness possibly tracking us, and at the very end, with just minutes left before we had to head back to the camp and on to the airport, we were lucky to catch sight of a leopard among the foliage in a ravine.

There are just not enough superlatives to describe the Mara. I have been on game drives before but never with such beautiful endless distances across the savanna and the number of wildlife encounters. It was not easy to leave.

R&R in COVID Part 1: Decisions & Preparation

C is tested for COVID-19 at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe

How do you decide where to go on vacation during a pandemic?

Overall, for me, it was a somewhat wrenching, but ultimately easy decision.

R&R, i.e. “Rest and Recuperation,” is a “travel benefit that provides temporary relief for employees and eligible family members from posts with distinct and significant difficulties.” The State Department (and other federal agencies with presence overseas, like the military), set the number of R&Rs an employee and their family are eligible for from each location overseas. If you serve in Australia or Hong Kong or even on the Mexico border with the U.S., you are not eligible. If you live somewhere like Malawi, you are granted one R&R for every two years you serve.

But in 2020, the pandemic halted many (most?) R&Rs. Here in Malawi, international commercial flights were halted from April 1 until September 5. And even once flights resumed in September, they were limited in number. But Embassy personnel were still restricted from taking flights out of the country, unless in an emergency or with special circumstances, until late October.

I have traveled to over 100 countries and territories and been on more flights than I can count, but the idea of being on a long plane ride at this time filled me with a great amount of anxiety. I desperately wanted to travel outside of Malawi — the living room staycations and the long drives on the same pockmarked Malawian roads were just not doing it for me anymore. I needed the kind of vacation that involved stamps in my passport. Yet, I just could not stomach going somewhere really far away. If you know me or have read my blog travels, you know that in usual times, that does not concern me. It is the destination, not how long it will take us to get there. By the time she was three, my daughter would ask how many planes it would take for us to get to our destination. This time, I wanted it to be just one.

One reason that COVID-19 came to Malawi later in the game than most (it was one of the last countries in the world to record a case), is that it is not on many tourist itineraries and it is a destination point, not a transit point. And just as few flights arrive here, few depart. In non-pandemic times, we could fly direct from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe to six locations: Johannesburg (South Africa), Harare (Zimbabwe), Lusaka (Zambia), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Nairobi (Kenya). However, once commercial flights resumed we were limited to just three: Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi.

Initially, South Africa seemed the most logical choice as I still held an airline credit with Ethiopian to Johannesburg and a hotel credit at a lodge in Lesotho. Except, Ethiopian had not resumed flights to Johannesburg; only Malawian Airlines (though 49% owned by Ethiopian) was running that route and their track record was less than stellar. Although Malawian Airlines had announced daily flights to Johannesburg, on average, only two of those flights were actually taking off each week. Not the kind of odds you want to bet your vacation on. Also, to visit both South Africa and Lesotho, we would likely need negative PCR COVID test certificates a few more times to cross another border and back, and even the lodge, which had only partially re-opened (and not the more expensive rooms I had previously booked), advised me not to travel given the challenges of testing. South Africa was out.

I only briefly looked at Ethiopia. There is a lot to see in Ethiopia and I have wanted to visit for awhile, but I did not think the sights conducive to travel with an 8-year-old. And although the daily reported COVID-19 cases for Ethiopia were, in late October and early November, lower than in both South Africa and Kenya, there was also the worst locust plague in 25 years and the beginning of the government conflict with the northern state of Tigray. Ethiopia also requires arrivals, even with a negative PCR COVID test result, to self-isolate for seven days. A week of our vacation would be spent sequestered in a government-designated hotel. Ethiopia was out.

And thus our vacation destination was clear. Nairobi is just over two hours by plane from Lilongwe and there is no quarantine or self-isolation period on arrival as long as you have a negative PCR COVID test result. Bonus points: neither C or I had ever been. Well, hello Kenya.

It was great to know where we were going and there was a sense of the old fun in vacation planning, but there was still a lot of stress related to making sure I dotted all i’s and crossed all t’s in the COVID department. Kenya requires a negative PCR COVID test taken conducted within 96 hours of travel. Malawi also requires a negative COVID test to depart, the timing is less clear on this, but the test must be completed by a government approved testing facility, and there are only three of these. Though the guidelines are constantly changing. The third hospital was added about a week before our flight and the good news was they would make a house call. But just as that seemed the best option, the government announced new regulations requiring additional stamps on the test certificate that the third option did not have. We then went with Kamuzu Central Hospital, the easiest of our options.

It was not a great experience. We went with friends with kids that C knows so they would have one another to lean on. There were patients and others loitering around the hospital grounds, almost none wearing masks. We had to ask the person administering the tests to put on a mask. (He did put on the mask and PPE to conduct collections). After waiting about an hour for the slow procession of testing, he ran out of forms. Once we finally went in, it was really uncomfortable. C, holding the hand of one of her best friends, cried. I might have stopped on the ground and said “Oh, come on!” when it seemed to take a bit too long.

We then had to wait several days. The hospital — no matter when you take you test — only allows pick-up of the results the day before your flight. Talk about pins and needles, wondering if you are in the clear or not, if you can fly or not. Our bubble has been so small since this pandemic began. A very small subset of the already rather small Embassy community. Still, the what ifs sit in the back of your head.

Three of us went to the hospital to pick-up the tests for our group of 14. Pick-up was not straightforward either. I offered to help rifle through the results looking specifically for the names I recognized because it was taking forever, just the three of us standing in a small room crammed with a desk, two chairs, some shelves, and tons and tons of papers. Thank goodness we were all negative (and while you might think — if any of us had been positive then, surely, the hospital would have informed us. But, I have it on good authority that is not always the case)!

With negative COVID test results in hand, a fair amount of the anxiety seeped away. Still, for me that was just step one. Step two was surviving the Lilongwe airport gauntlet – checks, double checks, and triple checks of our negative COVID certificates and multiple temperature checks. Step three was the flight — only two hours long, but after no flights for nearly a year, it felt so much longer. Step four was the Nairobi airport gauntlet — COVID certificate checks, immigration and e-visa checks, health surveillance form checks, and temperature checks. It was not until we stepped out of the airport and were on our way to the hotel that I could really relax. We were on vacation!

Malawi Signs

A woman and her baby stroll by beautifully painted advertisements in Area 3 Lilongwe

Signs. I have a thing for them. I don’t know why. Maybe everybody does? But in my travels abroad, I have found myself photographing quite a few signs. Street signs were my thing in Indonesia. There were so many child or person crossing signs — some with very skinny stick figures, some with chunky. In China, I think it was the signs of rules translated to English that got me the most. There were so many rules and so many that were amusingly lost in translation. I have taken pictures of so many different kinds of animal crossing signs from horses, cows, and ducks to kangaroo, penguin, and warthogs. In the U.S. we have so many, many signs that tell us what to do and what not to do (park here, don’t park there, go this fast or this slow) and what to buy. I find that signs reveal much about the environment, culture, and interests of a society.

Although there has been an increase in billboards and other physical advertisement signage in the three and a half years I have lived here, Malawi still has relatively few. There just is not that much money to advertise, and not that many persons with money to buy what is advertised. The signs one sees stand out because there are so few. When driving between cities and towns, you can go for 50 miles, maybe longer without seeing a single sign. That may not sound like much given distances one can drive say in Texas, but Malawi is densely populated — the 10th most densely populated country in Africa — and the sixth poorest in the world (by one index).

If you need some assistance, these guys are here to help

The first signs to catch my eye were those posted around the neighborhood advertising various services. Most are for house services such as electrical, plumbing, lawn mowing and such. It is hard for me to pick my favorite. I am a big fan of the handwritten signs nailed on to tree trunks. But then the toilet seat attached to a dead tree trunk advertising plumbing maintenance is kind of genius. Still, Doctor Mutaka and his miraculous cures and potions has got to be an all time favorite. I am not sure how much business he would get in my neighborhood of expats and wealthy Malawians, but he has put up signs all over, so he is at least hopeful. And I sort of respect that. I might feel less respect for those that seek out his services.

Staples on sale

The next signs I really started to notice were those for staple items. Most are hand painted on wood or cement billboards. I appreciate the time and patience someone took to paint them, and there is an artistry to them, but I am less clear why the advertisements are necessary. Soap, detergent, long-life milk, sugar, cooking oil, juices, maize seeds, TNM and Airtel (the two national telecommunications networks), cement (for housing), steel (basically corrugated steel for roofs), soda, and Carlsberg beer (fun fact: the first Carlsberg brewery outside of Denmark was set up in Malawi in 1968; its sort of Malawi’s unofficial beer), these are the basics. At the store there does not really seem to be so many brands or variety and my guess is most buyers in Malawi are going to get the cheapest they can find. But the advertisements are there nonetheless.

Society “Be Better” Signs

Another popular theme of Malawian signage is to present positive societal practices. Child labor, child marriage — especially for girls — and the exclusion of women in decision making are all issues in Malawi, and therefore there are signs to promote ways to combat these issues, generally paid for by international organizations or businesses. I think there is something to be said for aggressive societal campaigns to eradicate issues through education and indoctrination. When I visited and lived in Indonesia in the early 2000s, there were still vestiges of the very successful “dua anak cukup” (two children is enough) policy campaign from the 1970s. Mostly in the form of statues of the perfect family of two parents and two children, though some written materials and billboards still existed. The thing though is that the campaign was in the local national language – Bahasa Indonesian. Most of the signs encouraging certain behaviors in Malawi are in English and though it is the official language, I would not be surprised if many of the persons for whom the signage is aimed at, struggle with English. This begs the question of who then are these signs for? I appreciate them, but then, perhaps, I am part of the target audience?

You have been warned!

Another favorite of mine — though not generally so easy to find — are the hand painted warning signs. I have only see a handful, but when I do see them, I usually pull over to the side of the road to capture them on my SD card’s memory. I came across the dangerous bridge warning on the M5 maybe 30-60 minutes north of the town of Nkhotakota. I expect the nearby villagers had become tired of speeding motorists taking the turn and then the narrow bridge too quickly. I found the “Beware the Dog” sign while on a walk near the Luwawa Forest Lodge – and though I approached the sign with caution, I had a feeling I knew the subject, and though very large, the canine in question had spent the previous afternoon in a game of fetch the ball with my daughter.

Campaign billboards

As a political officer, I cannot help but notice politically inspired signs. With national elections occurring here twice during my four year tour (May 2019 and June 2020), I have had a chance to see my fair share of political signage. Mostly it was just the parties’ political flags flying from a tree or electricity pole. Larger signs varied from those that encouraged voting eligible citizens to get out to the polls (usually sponsored by international donors), while others (though fewer), extol the virtues of a particular candidate, paid for by the campaigns or sponsors. I had to hand it to the re-election team for the former President Peter Mutharika for its optimistic billboard with the inspired hashtag #OperationLandslide. Depending on the politics, the billboards may be built to last or suffer the political tides. The Mutharika billboard on the left was ripped down by vandals even before the 2019 election. The Atupele Muluzi campaign billboard for the 2014 election was still there — at least in part — even in early 2018. And just a month ago I came across a perfectly intact 2019 campaign billboard for a third party candidate who did not run in 2020. I have seen other well worn signs — beaten by weather and age — still standing silently alongside the road months or years after the event it advertised has passed.

Nothing to see here

By far the greatest number of “signs” I see in the capital are signposts lacking in signage. There are so many of these sad skeletal frames missing their purpose in advertising scattered across the city. For at least a year, my favorite billboard had to be the forlorn Welcome to Lilongwe sign on the M12 as one would come into the city from Zambia. Cracked, peeling, greyed with age, and absolutely empty, it seemed to say, “just keep driving, nothing to see here.” Do not get me wrong, I very much like living in Lilongwe and Malawi, but there is just not a lot of externally provided activities. This is very much a make-your-own-fun kind of place. But maybe, I could look at it another way — Lilongwe is a blank space, where its up to you to decide what to make of it?

As I begin my countdown to leaving Malawi (eight months to go), I find myself thinking a lot on what this place has meant to me and what I will miss. For the most part, my life in Lilongwe is pretty small, confined to an area of approximately five square miles. Those streets have become so familiar to me, and the landmarks on those streets as well. These signs I have seen have marked the territory of our lives for the four years we have made Malawi our home. I cannot say that they have necessarily passed the message to me that was intended, but I have noticed them and thought about them and stopped on my journey to take a picture to remember them.

Something Like Normal

Normal. It seems hard to know what that is anymore. We have been told to adjust to a “new normal.” A normal where face masks are a required fashion accessory and obsessive hand cleansing and avoiding other people with our newfangled edict on “social distancing” is how we get through the day. At first it was novel. Difficult, but doable. I might even say I was not only productive, but jazzed by the new situation, even more so than usual. But as time wore on, the reduction in social interaction, the rise of teleworking and distance learning, and the inability to travel began to take its toll. I think back to nearly nine months ago when we took our last trip beyond Malawi’s borders, a long weekend in Johannesburg aimed at doing activities that many Americans and others in developed countries take for granted. In other words, doing what I thought was “normal.” Instead it turned into the trip just before the end of all the pre-COVID normalcy. I didn’t know what normal was until it was gone.

But slowly, gradually, over the past few weeks, there has been a lightening, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It really began with the lifting of restrictions on travel outside of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe. A city where, in normal times, even with a lack of amenities, is enjoyable when one keeps busy at the office, doing work activities and meetings, and spending time with friends and family at simple events like meals out or small gatherings. But in COVID times, with limited interactions outside the home, became suffocatingly dull. I was glad to be able to get out and about more, but still weighed down by pandemic fatigue, the vacation glow dissipated quickly.

A week after my daughter’s school’s “Fall Break,” I broke. I felt caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On one hand I could keep my daughter at home, limit her exposure, but to do so we would have to continue the distance learning program, which was declining in quality, damaging our relationship, and affecting my work. On the other hand I could send her back, but as the Embassy-provided school bus was no more, I would have to make the dreaded 30-minute drive to the other side of town twice a day. Desperate for a path back to normalcy, I chose option number two.

I coordinated with another Embassy family with kids the same age to alternate morning drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups. Sure, the first day or so seemed odd — seeing the face-masked kids shuffling into school in socially distanced lines and being greeted by thermometer wielding staff in personal protective equipment — but the return to school has changed our lives for the better. There is a lot less yelling about schoolwork because I am no longer in charge of it. And, unexpectedly, I feel more engaged as a mom driving my daughter and her friends to or from school. Additionally, as the Embassy has moved to “Phase 2” of a three phase system, I can spend time in the office, which is so much more conducive to my getting work done than the well-worn groove on my sofa.

My little Pokemon enjoys a socially distanced Halloween

Halloween arrived soon after C returned to school. At the beginning of October, it was not clear we would have any celebration of the holiday at all, but two weeks before, a team of Embassy volunteers and our Marine Security Guards began began planning an awesome socially distanced, pandemic-approved Halloween. Unmanned decorated tables were set up around the expansive lawn at the Ambassador’s residence and the Marines turned the gazebo into a haunted hallway.

It was not the usual U.S. Halloween by any stretch of the imagination, but then overseas the holiday has rarely looked like the American-style trick or treating. In Juarez, trick-or-treating was room to room in the Consulate. In Shanghai, we zig-zagged up and down floors to designated apartments whose residents had agreed to hand out candy, though the sweets were much different than one might typically receive in America. And in Malawi we have had three years in a row of trunk or treating. This was just another creative Foreign Service holiday. Though it did feel a bit odd to don face masks and just to two of us walk around to collect candy from unmanned tables. Well, that is how it started. But the kids gravitated toward one another and soon C was with several friends. And at the end several families gathered at the Jurassic Park stop, where a few of our colleagues were dressed in dinosaur costumes. For the first time in a very long time we were around more than one other family. It felt decadent, like we were getting away with something.

The following week – the first of November – gave me an almost daily dose of feeling I was on at least the normalcy. On the Monday, I received my handshake for my next assignment in Conakry, Guinea. I took Tuesday off to sit at home and watching the nail-biting results of the U.S. election. On Wednesday, my daughter’s tutor let me know she could begin immediately as my full time nanny – and for the first time in seven months I again had consistent help around the house. On Thursday, my request for time off to take our long-overdue Rest and Relaxation trip was approved. I could begin planning our first significant trip outside the country for nearly a year since our last big trip to Finland and Paris. We rounded out the week with a COVID-approved birthday party: an outdoor gathering of no more than 20 people only among Embassy personnel whose kids had returned to school. Another first such gathering in more than six months.

It was as if a dam had broken. The year has been so hard. I know I am not alone but sometimes the circumstances of the extended isolation has made it feel so.

I know things are not back to normal. The pandemic is still here; our lives remain altered. There has been a resurgence of COVID-19 in many places and previously lifted restrictions are being put back into place. When I found myself in a busy open-air shopping district surrounded by persons not wearing masks, I felt uncomfortable. When I am approached by others, I instinctively shift a good meter away so as to let them pass. Yet, even with these oddities presently entrenched in our daily lives, I have taken these recent signs of pre-COVID times to heart. We may still have a ways to go until we emerge from this pandemic, but at least for now it feels we have turned a corner.

Here I Go Again — Bidding in the Time of COVID

Has it already been four years? I don’t mean those four years, like for the presidential election, but four years since I last bid for a new assignment in the Foreign Service. The answer is it has been though I tried to put it off for as long as possible with my two consecutive tours in Malawi. Yet, here I am again playing another game of Where Do I Go Next?

The last time, in 2016, was my first time to be introduced to the highs and lows and general confusion of mid-level bidding for the U.S. diplomat. The first two tours of a U.S. diplomat’s life are directed by Career Development Officers. We get a list of available Posts and we order them high, medium, or low, and can write in comments as to why one place might be high (I speak the language) or low (they do not allow pets in housing and I have two cats), and then we are assigned. That might seem impersonal to some, but believe you me, after going through how we do the mid-level bidding, many of us are nostalgic for those good ole straightforward directed assignment days.

Previously, I compared mid-level bidding to the mayhem of a small high school dating pool trying to suss out who does and does not get a date to Homecoming and with whom. But I am a bit older now and, forgive the pun, but I have already done this dance.

A colleague of mine says he compares our diplomatic job search process to buying a house. I have actually never bought a home, but I have watched a few of those house search shows here and there, and its an apt description.

So, you are looking to become a homeowner. You have some ideas in mind – maybe you want ranch or colonial? You want a certain number of bedrooms and baths. You want to be off the main street, maybe on a cul-de-sac? You want to be able to walk to grocery stores and restaurants.

And this is how it begins with bidding. You have certain criteria in mind. For myself, I wanted some place with a good school for C. I’m no Tiger Mom, so it doesn’t have to be Harvard, Jr, but a decent place where my daughter can get some much needed individual attention and a good education fits the bill. I also preferred a place where she would not have a long commute to school as in Lilongwe she is on the bus (when we had a bus) for 30 minutes at least each way. She says she doesn’t mind as she likes to chat with her friends, but I thought a shorter commute was in order.

I wanted a place where I could import pets relatively easy. It’s never easy to move overseas with pets, and this is why some people will not have them in this lifestyle. But for some, like me, having a pet makes life better. Still, I can make things somewhat easier on myself and our furry family members by not bidding on a place that has a long list of import requirements and/or a multi-month quarantine.

I wanted a language-designated position. I love living overseas. I love experiencing culture and history and all the in-between of a place from the vantage of residency vice tourism. (Though I love me some tourism too!) But language training also gives me and C some much needed time back in the U.S. C has not spent much time in her homeland, and the longest (six months) was from birth until our move to Mexico. I am desperate for Tex-Mex, salads, a good gym, and sidewalks.

And I wanted a place where I was not the sole political officer. Malawi has been a life-changing tour and the opportunity to head up a section both challenging and rewarding, but I wanted the chance to learn from someone else as the chief, with occasional stand in roles.

There were also a whole host of other little criteria — commute times, housing types, climate, the number of flights to and from the country (and where), post differential (how much additional money one receives for hardship), number of R&Rs, and so on. And I took these criteria and reviewed the projected vacancies list and then built a spreadsheet of the places I intended to bid. As one might put together a list of criteria for a house you want to buy. And as soon as bidding began, it was all upended.

OK. Hold up. Actually, my intended bid list was upended before the official bid season went live on September 21. COVID-19 struck again. Due to the pandemic, hundreds of Foreign Service families overseas opted to accept the Department’s generous offer of Global Authorized Departure (G/AD). This allowed those with preexisting conditions or with family members that had conditions that might make them more susceptible (including family in the States) or were in locations with poor medical care, or all the above, to return to the United States. After months of being on G/AD, some officers saw the writing on the wall; they were not going to be able to return to their Post anytime soon and thus they took advantage of a no-fault curtailment. With that, their jobs, that were on the bid list for a summer 2022 arrival after language, became NOW jobs — those that need immediate filling. I watched as two positions at the top of my list were suddenly no longer available.

Its like I had my eye on some nice properties — I saw the for sale sign out front and imagined those were the homes for me and I figure they will be on the market for a little bit when suddenly there is a quick sale and that’s it, my dream home is gone. And then you have to go back to the listings and find something else.

You might find yourself outbid. Maybe you go for one of those seriously heavily bid places like Paris, with some 50 people gunning for the same job? Or maybe you just find that a place you did not expect to be popular is? I found myself in this position this year, interviewing for two jobs that hit the 20 bidders mark. On one I felt I had a shot; on the other I quickly realized I did not.

On others, I just wasn’t the person the Post was looking for. I know I “looked good on paper,” had very strong academic and/or work experience specific to the country or the issues, and yet, I found myself waived away very early, encouraged to bid elsewhere. Try a few roads down, in another part of town. Discouraging? Absolutely. Angry? A wee bit. But that doesn’t get me another assignment. It’s back to the classifieds.

I found myself making all kinds of adjustments to my criteria. I did not want to be somewhere with a long commute — but hey, this position looks good, the country new and exciting, I get the world language training, C gets a good school, so I can maybe live with a 45 minute drive to and from work? I did not want a position where I was the sole political officer — but this other position, its somewhere I have regional expertise in, the commute is short for myself and my daughter, its warm year round, so maybe I could be the sole officer again though its also really complicated and costly to import pets? My daughter has said repeatedly she doesn’t want to go to college, so why not use that saved tuition for pet importation?

On House Hunters, persons in the market for a new home prepare a set of criteria and then an agent finds three candidate homes that mostly meet their requirements. Almost every single home has something they did not ask for, something that does not fit the criteria. The dream home of your imagination, is very often not the dream home of your reality. You make the best of what you end up with, you compromise and embrace.

Over the course of the four official weeks of bid season, the list I started with on Bid Season Eve was almost unrecognizable from the list I submitted on the final day. My top five spots were an eclectic mix; my top two completely a surprise.

Lo and behold, I was the number one for two places. I receive the coveted Bureau Leading Candidate email (Pro-tip: bid places with few other bidders!); and then I had to make a difficult choice. I wanted to go to both my top two. Heck, I wanted to go to every place in my top five. I had sold myself on the adventure to be found in each place. But in the immortal words from The Highlander: in the end, there can be only one — but perhaps one of the others next time? After all, we will move again.

Next assignment: Conakry, Guinea, summer 2022 via French training

“Fall Break” in COVID Times

View of Lake Malawi from the Makokola infinity pool

There are days during the pandemic when things feel almost normal. And then I wonder if it means I am getting used to the “new normal” or if things really are returning to a sense of normalcy? But I am unconvinced of the latter and still find myself struggling with restrictions and the mental strain of entering our eighth month of this (and I cannot even articulate well what “this” is). Having gone through SARS in Singapore in 2003, I had been confident the pandemic would end in July. When July came and went I felt a pretty solid sense of having been let down. Yet, I convinced myself that by mid-October, by C’s school break, that probably, maybe, things would have returned largely to normal. Wrong again.

On September 30, C’s grade returned to in-person classes, but C did not return to school as there are no longer buses to take her the 30 minutes to and from the campus. As a single working parent, I did not see how I could spend upwards of 15 hours a week (to account for traffic and waiting in the complicated pick-up line) chauffeuring C back and forth and keep up with everything else. I would trade the frustration of online learning with the frustration of hours in Lilongwe traffic.

Seven schooldays after the majority of children returned to the international school (I was not the only hold-out), Fall Break began. But I figured I have to call it “Fall Break” in quotes because it is never the cool autumn of the U.S. and, frankly, I could not really put my finger on what it was a break from. Yet, I knew, once again, that if I could take off some days and get out of Lilongwe, then I needed to do that. Still, as hard as I tried to consider taking the entire week to travel around Malawi, I could not stomach it. There are many lovely places in this country, but most of them are at least three hours away according to Google Maps, which when you factor in police road stops and getting stuck behind a slow moving truck on a two lane road (and they are all two lane roads) or a person driving 20 kilometers below the speed limit for no apparent reason, it is always more on the order of four hours.

One of Malawi’s road travel challenges: eighteen wheeler accidents on the road – the first on the way back from Makokola and the second on the way to Luwawa

I broke our holiday into two parts, each visiting a new location on my Malawi sightseeing bucket list: We would first head south for the three-day Indigenous Peoples Day weekend to spend time at the Makokola Retreat on the lower end of Lake Malawi. After a two day respite back in Lilongwe, we would then turn northward to spend a four day weekend at Luwawa Forest Lodge.

Our first mini getaway was to Makokola. At first the drive was pleasant enough, but 2/3 of the way in (i.e. about two hours) I had had about enough of the endless monotony of scrub brush alongside the potholed tarmac. I have driven that particular route one too many times and it does not get more interesting. But at last we arrived at the lush lakeside retreat. Due to renovations under much of the older part of the resort, children are, at this time, allowed to stay in the newly built lakeside suites. And they are lovely.

Our mini Retreat condo — water features are rare in Malawi (in fact I don’t know of any other place with them)

After the monotony of the Malawian roads, pulling into the lush, landscaped grounds of the Makokoka Retreat was a noticeable physical and mental relief. The grounds are beautiful, even with portions of them churned up for renovation. As we were walked over to the Lakeside suites, our home away from home for two nights, I was struck by how much it reminded me of a model American condo subdivision. There were sidewalks and water features. Water features! I think I have seen one other water feature in all of Malawi – a fountain at a roundabout in Lilongwe – but never once has there been water in it!

In pre-COVID times, I heard that the Makokola Retreat had a bunch of watersports like wakeboards and water skis and those floating banana things. However, although speedboats were on offer (only $200 to rent!) there didn’t seem to be anything attached to them in pandemic times. And that’s okay — I am not really the speed on the water kinda gal. C and I were keen on just lazing about. The American development feel gave a sense of really having gotten away. COVID-19 measures meant our meals would be delivered to our room. Walks along a beach (albeit a lakeside beach) or through the gardens, slow laps around the infinity pool, and leisurely meals in our room or on our patio while reading — that is exactly what C and I needed.

And then I had to drive home. Just like after our recent trips to Satemwa and Liwonde, the return trip winds back the relaxation clock. At least this time, we would have two days at home — still on leave and off school — before heading out again.

The sign on the M1 indicating the turn off to the Luwawa Forest Lodge

The drive north to the Luwawa Forest Lodge turnoff was not so bad. Not because the road quality or drivers were better, they were not, but it was a new-to-me route. I had only driven north on the M1 once, when we visited Ntchisi Forest Lodge, but an hour into our journey we had already passed the familiar behind.

There was nothing special about the first three hours, but after turning onto the red dirt road into the Brachystegia woodland and riverine forest of the Viphya Plateau’s highlands, it was as if we really been transported somewhere else.

Grassland, marshland, forest, and fresh air

At Luwawa I had booked a self-catering cottage. I was not sure what to expect, but I found the slightly musty two-story cabin, with its small fridge and retro-style mini gas oven, under the wooden stairs lounge area, and large loft-like upstairs, homey. It reminded me of my grandmother’s house. We unpacked, made and ate sandwiches for lunch, then took a look around the property. We met Bob, the Lodge’s massive, yet playful, Saint Bernard; C played on the playground, and I wandered the garden. Then, with the assistance of the Lodge, trudged up the narrow steps of another cottage, and in another musty room designed for studies when the schools use the dormitories for their “Week Without Walls” programs, with chairs haphazardly stacked along the walls, we played the worst, yet hilarious, game of ping pong.

Luwawa Forest Lodge has an impressive range of activities from canoeing and kayaking on the reservoir, trail walking, abseiling, bird watching, fishing, archery, and a few guided tours. I had plans for us to do several of these over the course of our three days, but our first morning we had a one hour horseback ride lined up.

Luwawa Nature: a bejeweled locust and a rainbow of berries

C loves horses. Unfortunately there are no public horse riding stables in Lilongwe — nor were there any in Shanghai that would not have taken us less than two hours to get to — so I have always looked for horse riding opportunities when we head on vacation.

What a treat that there are stables just a 15 minute walk from the Luwawa Forest Lodge and they are run by the wonderfully patient and kind Maggie, who worked as a medical practitioner at the US Embassy for 30 years. She took us on a lovely ramble along trails and through the woods surrounding her property. Along the way, she told me about being born and raised in Kenya, studied in South Africa, and then after her degree she relocated to Malawi where her grandfather had purchased land in the early part of the 20th century. We passed ripening multi-colored berries, caught vistas of misty covered rolling hills, and breathed in the fresh air. C was in her element.

Immediately after our ride, C asked if she could have another ride that afternoon. Maggie said she had some siblings, one of which was a precocious 7-year old she thought C would hit it off with, scheduled at 1:30 that afternoon.

The horses return to the stables on their own

Boy did they hit it off! H and C became fast friends. After the ride — reportedly full of giggles — C wanted to spend more time with H. They hopped on an ATV with Gift, one of the stable hands, and headed up to the stables to muck them out and prepare for the evening feeding. Yes, my daughter volunteered and happily mucked out horse stables!

The following day C signed up for two additional rides with her vacation best friend. As C rode the trails around Luwawa, I walked them. I used to be a great walker. I love to walk, but there are not many places to do so in Lilongwe; there are few sidewalks and no trails that I know of. In Luwawa I had hours to myself to walk and meditate in nature. I have not had such time to do so at any other time in Malawi. We didn’t do much in Luwawa; C rode horses and I walked, and we relaxed in our little cottage. But it was just what we both needed.

Once again, a few trips out of Lilongwe restored myself and C just a wee bit. It was not the fall break I had initially planned on pre-COVID or even as I kept hoping the pandemic would end sometime in the summer months. But while it wasn’t perfect, it was unexpected and unexpectedly good.

My COVID Birthday – Liwonde National Park Getaway

Liwonde’s riverside savannah at dusk

Earlier in the year we had a great plan for August with our friends from the U.S. Of course, the best laid travel plans have a habit of being disrupted in a pandemic and these were no different. Like many travel and tourist related companies caught in the pandemic spiral with cancellations right and left, I was issued a credit, not a refund, on our deposit.

As Embassy domestic COVID-19 restrictions eased and we could again travel outside the capital, stay overnight in lodges, and dine in limited exposure situations, I began to plan a trip. After days and weeks morphing into months (six of them) doing nearly everything — working, schooling, cleaning, reading, writing, eating, sleeping, child care — in my home, I was incredibly motivated to not spend my birthday weekend in yet another COVID staycation, if I had options to do otherwise. So, I contacted the travel company and booked two nights at the Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park using our credit to cover half the costs.

Ulongwe Village entrance to Liwonde National Park

Liwonde is an approximately 4.5 hour drive from our part of Lilongwe, despite what my map app said. First, its always surprising to me that it takes about half an hour winding through the warren of narrow, overused roads of the capital til finally breaking free at the round-about on the M1 south from the city. I had just barely emerged from the capital’s chaos when I had to take a pre-arranged call. It is early in the official bidding season, when those of us transferring the following year are taking interviews with potential future posts. The hiring manage had one day and one time available, so I had to make it work. It was hardly ideal having an interview while on speakerphone in the car, but the pandemic has turned everything upside-down, so I gave it my best. But the interview helped the first half of the drive go by quickly and once it was over, we cranked up the tunes and sung our way south for another hour.

At Balaka, where we turned off the M1 and headed east on the M8, we moved into unfamiliar territory. So often driving in Malawi requires just going along the same roads again and again and again, but as we headed down a new-to-us road — even one as pockmarked with potholes and with sides eroded significantly that in some places the two lanes became one as this one — and drew closer to the park, I could feel the stress of the past several days (weeks? months?) ebbing. We spent some 20 minutes on a new, nicely paved road named after the President who lost the landmark court-mandated new election in June, and then meandered through dusty dirt roads through small villages until we reached the end of the village of Ulongwe and the back gate to Liwonde National Park.

Our ride across the Shire River from the Ulongwe side to Mvuu Lodge arrives

Liwonde National Park is neither Malawi’s oldest or largest park (both of those honors go to Nyika National Park), but it is Malawi’s most accessible, and thus most popular. Just five years ago, Liwonde was a park in extreme decline; decades of poaching had left more wildlife snares in the park than wildlife. That year, 2015, Africa Parks, a South African non-profit conservation organization (and whose President is Prince Harry), took over the management of Liwonde. Africa Parks has turned Liwonde around, cleaning up snares, developing a top ranger force, and providing key community awareness to mitigate human and wildlife conflicts. In 2016, Liwonde was the source of one of the world’s largest elephant translocations when Africa Parks moved over 300 elephants from the park to another of its Malawi parks, Nkhotakota. And in 2017, predators were re-introduced, first with lions and later cheetahs, as Africa Parks works to restore the park and animal populations. C and I had visited Nkhotakota and Majete and had saved Liwonde for the last of Malawi’s Africa Parks’ run national parks.

To reach the park from the Ulongwe side we registered at the park ranger lodge and notified the manager of Mvuu Lodge of our arrival. We drove a short distance further to the banks of the great Shire (pronounced “sheer-eh,” not like the homeplace of the Hobbits) River, which is the only outlet of the massive Lake Malawi and flows to the Zambezi. There Chifundo, our guide, met us with a small boat to pilot us ten minutes across the river to our accommodation. The exchange from car to boat had to be made quickly, as almost as soon as we parked, we saw antelope, monkeys, and most ominous, a troupe of baboons emerged from the brush to circle the clearing. Chifundo would take my car keys and after dropping us off at Mvuu Lodge, return to drive our vehicle back to the ranger station (you do not want to know what baboons might do to your unattended vehicle).

A White Headed Black Chat captains our boat; Malawi’s national bird the Fish Eagle surveys the river

Immediately, we could spot wildlife from the boat. Hippos lurking near the river’s edge. Elephants on the shore or in a bath party in the river. Antelope grazing on the river banks. And birds swooping alongside the boat or perched on branches – from slim reeds to massive boughs — nearby. A crocodile lazily swished through the water.

We disembarked after a 20 minute ride, including a short detour to see elephants, then climbed aboard a jeep for a short drive to the lodge. We were served lunch in the main building, built above a beautiful spot with views over savanna, marsh, forest, and the river, where in a lazy woman’s safari we could already make out seven types animals without any effort — warthog, bushbuck, baboon, hippo, waterbuck, striped mongoose, and a crocodile.

After a lazy lunch and an even lazier layabout in the room for an hour, it was already time to head out on our sundowner game drive. It was just C and I, our guide Chifundo, and a park ranger. It took literally seconds to spot more wildlife. Impala, bushbuck, warthogs, and baboon were the most plentiful, but the occasional rarity such as a southern ground hornbill or a tree squirrel, would make an appearance. It is October now, the tail end of the dry season, and the daytime heat is intense. But driving in late afternoon to evening in an open safari vehicle, feeling a delicious breeze as the African sun dips and the air is suffused with a rich, golden light, is magnificent. It was hard to believe that morning I had been in the capital. We felt a world away.

The next morning – my birthday – we were up at 5 AM. C and I have not seen that time of day in a long, long time. We are natural night owls, and the COVID experience has accentuated and cultivated our late evening tendencies. Amazingly, both of us, refreshed by an undisturbed sleep beneath a large white mosquito net canopy, the lulling sound of the ceiling fan, and the sounds of nature, woke up easily.

We were on the hunt for predators — cheetahs or lions or both. Cats are naturally a big draw for game drives, but even in a well stocked park like Kruger in South Africa, catching sight of the big cats is never a guarantee. Liwonde has a total of eight lions (though ten were introduced in 2018, battles for dominance among males has already reduced the population). The cheetahs — seven of whom were introduced in 2017 — have fared better, with cubs born each year more than doubling the population.

Monkeys, lions, and bushbuck, oh my!

We spotted the usual suspects, but also hippo grazing on open savanna in the early light, a herd of sable, another of eland (the largest antelope) some hartebeest (the fastest antelope), and zebra. And as luck would have it, the eagle eyes of our ranger caught sight of a lion in the distance. We arrived at the bank of a dry riverbed where two lionesses were snoozing. It was exciting to see two of the eight, though they made sure to be as absolutely boring as possible, and C quickly asked if we could drive off. But wouldn’t you know it, a male was lurking nearby, behind a dry ridge of earth in the riverbed. He popped his head up a few times to give us a look–Who had disturbed his nap? And then he rose majestically, standing on the ridge, his head raised as if sniffing the air, and began to saunter with purpose in our direction. And that is when C lost it. She began saying in a stage whisper “Oh, my gosh, oh my gosh, its coming, its coming, let’s get out of here!”

Of course, that lion lost interest in us very quickly, and languidly stepped over to the ladies and flopped down beside them. The excitement over. We drove for another hour or so, enjoying being together away from home, with our reverie occasionally interrupted by a wildlife sighting, but there were not more cats.

We had a light breakfast and lunch, and several more hours of lazing about in our room or sitting on our balcony, which faced a marshy plain backed by tall trees and attracted all manner of wildlife. I felt more content than I had in a long while. Then in the late afternoon we headed out on a sundowner boat safari.

A safari from the water is an entirely different thing from a game drive. The pace is slower (and far less bumpier — as my very first Malawian game driver called it “The Malawian Massage”). There is just as much a sense of excitement with a lick of danger — just as C was sure the male lion intended to leap across the ravine, up the bank, and dive into our jeep to eat us, she was wary of crocodiles and hippos, sure they would upset the boat. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t) Again, an abundance of hippos, crocs, and bird life, including, unexpectedly, four wayward flamingos, on the water and elephant and antelope on the banks. And as the sun set on my birthday, we were treated to the quintessential swift but deep red African sunset; I felt as if I were in the movie the African Queen.

Sunset from the Shire – A very happy birthday to me

The following morning we opted not to take advantage of another included game drive as we had seen so much wildlife and preferred to a lazy lie-in along with the sounds of the African bush. I wanted to hang on to that languid relaxation as long as I could before making our way back to Lilongwe.

But all good things come to an end. And just as the sense of calm had increased the closer we got to the park, the stressful feelings returned the further we drove away. Liwonde was wonderful, but a short weekend away was not never going to be restful enough to reverse the past seven months of pressure, frustration, and melancholy. We were still in Malawi. And we love Malawi, but it can still be a challenging place. And as I drove home, I could feel my irritation grow with the piles of bricks lying unused by the sides of the road in villages where people work hard yet barely eke out a living, with maddening drivers (too fast or too slow or too), with the poorly maintained roads…and when I was pulled over by the police (for the first time ever in Malawi) and the traffic cop tried to extort a bribe, the weekend’s spell was completely broken.

Still, there are certainly far, far worse places to be, and Liwonde was a great birthday getaway. I have also used up one of my COVID travel casualty credits, only three more to go.

Mini Getaways in the Time of Covid

Twenty-one weeks after the Embassy went on alternative telework as a Covid-19 mitigation measure and 24 weeks since we last took a trip outside of Lilongwe, we were once again able to venture outside the capital for day trips. We still needed to limit our interactions, liberally wash our hands or apply antiseptic, and wear face masks, but for a first time in a long time we could drive further than the exciting (dripping with sarcasm) 10-20 minute drive to the supermarket. For those in developed countries this simple change in our restrictions might not seem like much. For those that have access to national, state, and city parks near your home or other venues such as skateparks, waterparks, amusement parks, cultural parks, indoor parks, cinemas, shopping malls, museums, playgrounds…or even those ubiquitous things in developed cities and suburbs where one can stroll without being in the street, you know, sidewalks. Well, just imagine if none of those were available to you. Then you might get an idea of what it might be like to hang out in Lilongwe — not just in a pandemic, but all the time.

Sable antelope eye us warily at Kuti Wildlife Reserve

And then suddenly after half a year we could leave the city, do more than work and school from home with occasional outings to the office or the grocery store. I immediately set about organizing a day getaway to Kuti Wildlife Reserve with good friends. And we were like horses chomping at the bit eager to bolt at the starting gate. We packed up our picnic items and headed out on the 90 minute drive along the M14 toward to Salima. At Kuti, we drove through the reserve looking for animals and came across a few baboon, bushbuck, and sable antelope. We didn’t see many animals but we had a lot of fun anyway. Back at the reception lodge we unpacked our coolers, bought some drinks, and sat back with each other in their open-air dining area for some lunch. We were just so happy to be somewhere other than our own homes in Lilongwe.

Just before leaving the Reserve, we popped over to the Sunset Deck (even though it was not sunset – as we are not allowed to drive outside of the capital after dark), as it overlooked a watering hole. There were a few birds but nothing else…until my friend AS looks out in the distance, and, I kid you not, spots the Reserve’s sole giraffe at least half a mile away in a treeline. We drive over, park, and after a short walk through the trees emerged onto grassland standing some 15-20 feet from a herd of zebra, sable antelope, and the giraffe. Icing on the cake.

A room with a view: Chawani Bungalow, Satemwa Tea Estate

After that weekend, the Embassy announced we would be able to take overnight trips again, though still with restrictions (only self catering or takeaway), and I knew I had to find something, somewhere for the Labor Day weekend. A little over a year before, friends and I had planned a getaway to the self-catering Chawani Bungalow at the Satemwa Tea Estates over the 2019 Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately, the lead-up to Malawi’s general elections that year made it quite clear that in my position, I would not be going anywhere at the time (indeed I ended up working nights and through the weekend). I talked with my friends and they were game, then checked with the Estate and it was available, and I began planning again.

It is a five hour drive from our part of Lilongwe to the Satemwa Tea Estate in Thyolo District, in the deep south of the country. Previously, when I made the trip with my aunt we made a few stops along the way, yet this time we made only one short stop at the Chikondi Stopover – a well known shop and bathroom break approximately halfway between Lilongwe and Blantyre. Otherwise, we were on a mission! And after only those short drives to the store or the Embassy for months on end, that five hour drive to the tea estate went by in a flash.

A brief late afternoon walk on this path behind the bungalow – restorative beauty

C and I had been to Satemwa before, but our friends had not yet been, so we were eager to share this wonderful place with them. The Chawani Bungalow, an historic tea planter’s cottage, is nestled within the heart of the Satemwa Tea Estate, between tall trees and verdant rolling hills of tea shrubs. Its expansive gardens full of flowers and its lawn a massive tree perfect for kids to climb.

We did little. We made and ate meals together. The kids ran or biked around the yard and jumped into the pool — even though a final Malawian winter cold snap had dropped the temps to not-pool-weather-chilly. We went for walks along wooded paths, along the red-dirt lanes, among the tea. We gathered in the main living space before a warm fireplace with tea and chatted. We fired up the braai (southern African for grill) for a family-style picnic. We had high tea on the lawn of Huntingdon House and took the kids on a scavenger hunt. The kids climbed trees and fed the fish at the Huntingdon House pond. We got to know one another.

Satemwa trees — kids in a climbing tree; kids dwarfed by giant Blue Gum trees

For the first time in a long time I felt “normal.” Seeing and being with other people face to face (not on Zoom or Google Meet calls), without masks, just enjoying one another’s company. And, of course, being away from Lilongwe, having a change of scenery.

Returning to work that week I did feel let down. That taste of almost pre-Covid normalcy, of a holiday, that had been so sweet on my tongue over the weekend turned a wee bit bitter. I longed for more. I had not had more than a single day off since our winter wonderland trip to Europe the previous December, and pre-Covid feels so very long ago.

Our super fabulous Superior Family Cottage

Luckily I anticipated just such a post-getaway pandemic funk and had organized yet one more mini vacation with friends for the weekend after. This time, we headed to Blue Zebra, a small lodge on Nankoma Island, part of Marelli Archipelago, within Lake Malawi National Park. Just 15 minutes by speed boat from the shore, its like a world away.

Bumping along the choppy waves — and yes, Lake Malawi has waves, its a huge lake (3rd largest in Africa and 10th largest in the world) — we laughed and felt a carefree-ness we had not felt in awhile. I had booked the largest guest chalet on the island for myself, my daughter, her tutor, and tutor’s sister (who all live at my friend’s home — the daughters of her housekeeper — thus within our Covid isolation bubble). We had been so few places this year I was fully embracing the “go big or go home” philosophy. The large cottage has two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and wrap around porch with another large dining table. With all these tables we were able to have all our meals together at our Cottage instead of in the Lodge’s dining area. The things we have to think of to travel in the time of Covid…

Blue Zebra Views — (left) the view from our Cottage porch and (right) the view from the pool to an exclusive lakeside dining area

We tried to make the most of our time — trying to find that balance between relaxation in a new setting (just listening to the lapping water) and having fun. We spent time at the pool, hung out in the game room playing billiards (well as well as one can with adult amateurs and children) and trivia, talking and game playing at meals, and kayaking. We had just over 24 hours on the island — arriving around 11:30 on one day and leaving at 2 PM the following. It was too short of time.

It was a great getaway– absolutely. Even just the two hours in the car each way singing to our CDs (yes, CDs, because I have a 2006 Japanese vehicle that picks up only one Malawian radio station, and internet data roaming is poor), was wonderful. But I will say that the Monday after that last trip, my mood dropped precipitously. To take these trips I took no time off.

A spectacled weaver (?) in the marsh grasses around Nankoma Island

Limited commercial flights returned to Malawi on Saturday, September 5, the first such flights since the borders closed to all but special charter flights or buses since April 1. But restrictions remain — limits to the number of interactions with others, mandatory mask usage, and no dining-in at restaurants domestically, and Covid testing and quarantines for international arrivals, for example. I am so grateful that we did have a chance to get out with friends, though I am desperate for more travel freedoms. Still, we may not have sidewalks or amusement parks, but what Malawi does have is pretty spectacular.