2022 Home Leave: Out West Adventure Part 1

C jumps for joy with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop

There is always something new to experience with the Foreign Service. I have done a long Home Leave (8 weeks after my first post – not a usual thing but I had extra home leave days from serving abroad with the Defense Dept before joining State). I have done a mid-tour Home Leave between my two consecutive tours in Malawi. And now I am experiencing my first split home leave — when one takes part of Home Leave immediately after returning to the US and prior to long-term training and then again after training and before heading to a new assignment.

After the end of my language training, my daughter C, my aunt CW, and myself flew out to Bozeman, Montana to begin the second half of my Home Leave. This trip was a true labor of love for me. I *love* to plan travel and for the past nearly two-and-a-half years I have not really been able to plan trips. C and I lucked out with an R&R to Kenya in December 2020 just before the second COVID-19 wave hit and we had a few mini trips during the first part of this HL in August 2021, but otherwise travel has been especially limited not only due to the pandemic but also regulations that do not permit foreign service officers in training to take annual leave.

I had asked both my aunt and my daughter if they could go to one National Park then where would they want to go and both mentioned Yellowstone with the Grand Tetons a close second for my aunt. As luck would have it, being back in the US this year was fortuitous because all fourth graders in the U.S. are eligible for a free National Park Pass (the Every Kid Outdoors program) that lets them, other children, and up to three adults in with them for free. This was a great opportunity to see a bit more of America before we returned to Africa.

A brief foray into Idaho so we could enter Grand Teton from the south via the Teton Pass

Travel remains complicated! I have seen various articles reporting this summer’s travel season to be “crazy,” “chaos,” and “mayhem,” because of continued staffing shortages across the travel industry coupled with lots of people taking those long-delayed trips. I spent hours on the phone changing our refundable late afternoon flight to early morning as I had heard those were less likely to be cancelled, only to have our flight cancelled. We were then rebooked on a flight where myself, my 10 year old daughter, and 74 year old aunt, were seated in middle seats around the plane. No amount of pleading could get us seated together so we made do. I at least had eyes on my daughter for the duration of the flight. On arrival in Bozeman, the car rental told me the sedan I had reserved months ago and reconfirmed the week before was not available and my choices were a 4×4 Tacoma truck or a Camaro!! I had a hard time seeing us tooling around the National Parks in either. As “luck” would have it, a sedan “just happened” to be returned at the very moment I was reluctantly checking out our options) and I jumped at it right away.

I manage a money shot of the John Moulton Barn at the historic Mormon Row

We stayed a night in Bozeman and the next day my friend CLK met us bearing gifts for our journey. With an upcoming move to tropical West Africa, I was not very keen on holding on to winter coats to pack not only for this trip but also to take up limited space in our suitcases. Thankfully, CLK lived nearby and just happened to be dropping her siblings off at the airport. She came through big time with a box of coats in several sizes and of several weights and a few snacks to feed us along the way. We then got on the road for the three hour drive from Bozeman to West Yellowstone. On even that short drive we happened to see a moose and some bison! Then once in West Yellowstone, the western gateway to Yellowstone, we visited the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center and took a short drive into the park just to get a taste. The weather was largely great (just some scattered rain showers) and it was a wonderful start to our vacation.

The following morning we set out from West Yellowstone for the Grand Teton National Park via Idaho, the Teton Pass, and Jackson, Wyoming. It was a beautiful drive through fantastic vistas beneath a deeply blue sky. The Teton Pass hits an elevation of 8,431 feet (2,570 meters) and we were a little surprised to find a good bit of snow pack on the mountainside despite temperatures in the lower 70s. We had lunch in Jackson and then drove into Grand Teton.

The vistas were breathtaking! The weather report had not been all that favorable for the parks and given the predicted low temps and regular rain, my aunt and I had even considered canceling the trip. Yet here we were with the best possible weather we could have wished for.

At Colter Bay Village’s Swim Beach

We drove on to Colter Bay where we would be staying for two nights. In 1959, my uncle had spent some weeks as a summer hire in Grand Teton between his freshmen and junior years of college. My aunt mentioned it after I had started planning and I had already booked our accommodation. Imagine the luck when we discovered it had been Colter Bay Village where he worked, just two years after the lodging had opened. We had only an old photograph of my uncle’s cabin captured by chance behind his car, which he cared more about remembering for posterity, but we drove around and think we might have found it or at least close to it, and my aunt left some of his ashes there. He had always wanted to come back with her.

Once at Colter Bay, we had a chance to walk around. The marina, and all of Colter Bay in fact, was dry, the result of historic low water levels, but luckily swim beach, though also at lower levels than usual, still provided a great view of Jackson Lake and the Tetons. And there is also where I saw the fox. Almost as soon as we arrived on the rocky beach I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye about 50 feet away near a picnic bench. No one else on the beach seemed aware, and at first I thought it was a dog, except I caught sight of its bushy tail and knew it was a fox. We had already seen signs warning visitors not feed the foxes, but I had not expected to see one.

Some wildlife in the Grand Tetons

On our second day in the Grand Tetons we drove down to the Jenny Lake loop. Here we got up much closer to the mountains and lakes. We stopped briefly at Jenny Lake Lodge to find workers from the Teton Raptor Center giving an educational talk on the lawn with some of their rehabilitated birds. At one of the lake overlooks we encountered the first of very many rather forward chipmunks. I have certainly seen chipmunks before on the East coast, but in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, I saw them with great regularity. And I am a fan of chipmunks. Who isn’t?

We went on to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center where we walked around some and C and I decided we wanted to take the ferry across the lake to the west shore and a short, easy hike to Hidden Falls. My aunt opted to hang back on the East Shore to wait for us, so it was a quick out and back. Frankly, once we got to walking I wish we could have gone on to Inspiration Point and walked back around the lake, but besides my aunt waiting for us I had not planned for the unexpected boat trip at all. We had no water and I was carrying a large handbag! Maybe next time we will be prepared for actual hiking! Though lucky us we happened to catch sight of more wildlife — a marmot!

Our last view of the Tetons across Jackson Lake as we drove north to Yellowstone

The next morning we said farewell to Grand Teton National Park as we headed north to Yellowstone through the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. I felt pretty grateful we had had this opportunity to spend the time with my aunt and daughter, to provide a special tribute to my uncle, and see an amazing part of the United States.

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Our Nanny Heads Home

Last week our nanny, JMC, headed back to Malawi after nine months with us in the United States. It was a bittersweet moment at the airport as JMC and my daughter C sobbed as they hugged goodbye just outside of airport security. We didn’t have a whole lot of time as it had taken a bit longer to check in as one checked bag and one carry on bag were too heavy by Ethiopian Airlines rules and we had to make some last minute adjustments on the floor in front of the check-in counter that ended up with JMC checking FIVE bags. There was a lot to take back home to remember this time in America by.

We met JMC in the Spring of 2020 just as the pandemic was beginning. She lived with her mother (also a single mom) and her sister in the staff quarters at a close friend’s house, where her mother worked as a housekeeper and nanny. My friend had hired JMC, who was set to finish high school shortly, to start tutoring her young daughters in several subjects. When the pandemic first hit, I juggled home schooling and teleworking, but when summer arrived I hired JMC to help C with reading and preparing for the new school year. JMC and C really hit it off. Maybe because they were closer in age than most kid/nanny relationships? And JMC was also just a really good, thoughtful, and helpful person. By November JMC had finished her national high school exams (which had been postponed from the previous Spring due to COVID) so I asked if she would like to work for us full time to make some extra money until she received her exam scores and decided on her after high school plans. A few months later, I also asked her if she might be up to joining us in the US for the time I would be in training and she enthusiastically said yes.

Bringing a nanny to the US is not a super straightforward process. There are a lot of steps! Passport, visa, plane ticket, employment authorization, health insurance, social security number, payroll, taxes, and more. Sometimes the administrative parts felt overwhelming, but I felt it was worth it, and I know now how very much it was.

JMC is an extraordinary young woman. At 20 years old she agreed to head nearly half a world away to a place she had never been to help my daughter and I navigate school and home life during the ongoing pandemic. She approached absolutely everything with a positive attitude and a willingness to try new things. As we took off from Lilongwe on her first ever flight, she told me she could feel her soul leaving her body as the plane climbed to its cruising altitude. When we drove from Virginia to Florida for Home Leave at the beginning of our sojourn and I asked her her first impressions she told me that the highways of America were amazing! (So clean, straight, wide, with few potholes, and often lined with so many, many trees). At Disney World as we rode the Barnstormer, her first ever rollercoaster, she screamed in delighted terror, but never once said she wished she had not tried it. She coined what would become her signature phrase “America has done it again!”

If we went to a restaurant and she ordered a hot dog and a milkshake and they brought out a foot long dog and a milkshake a foot tall, she would laugh, shake her head, and say, “America has done it again!” When we went trick-or-treating at Halloween along a top decorated street in Arlington, where the neighbors compete hard for the biggest and best decorations, she once again said, “America has done it again!” She might say this when riding the metro (“Are you telling me this train is going under the river? America, you have done it again!”) or when she saw the swimming pool on the roof of our building or ate at a teppanyaki restaurant for the first time (which, I had to point out, was actually something Japanese).

When we moved into our apartment in Arlington, Virginia, where we would reside through my training, we discovered it was probably the most dog-friendly building in an extremely dog-friendly area. JMC, however, has a huge fear of dogs that stems from being attacked and bitten as a child when she lived in South Africa. Owning a dog as a pet is not common in Malawi and often when Malawians own dogs it is for security, not companionship. While there were some stray dogs in Lilongwe, I found it a much more rare occurrence than in other countries where I have lived or visited like Indonesia and Romania, the latter where I myself was attacked by dogs. While I am not 100% comfortable around large dogs, JMC was downright terrified. Imagine when on one day we visited my aunt out in Winchester and strolling along the walking street came across an Irish Wolfhound, a Tibetan Mastiff, and a Great Dane. Then in our building in Arlington people are riding the elevators and casually strolling through the lobby with dogs big and small. I felt badly that our building posed so many opportunities for her to feel scared. But like everything, she took it with a huge dose of humor and grace.

Strolling together in Arlington

She really was game to give nearly everything a try and to approach it with excitement and wonder. When we went to see Disney on Ice she cheered and laughed with unbridled joy (with far more enthusiasm than my daughter). In late November, we met my friend CZ and her son Little CZ at King’s Dominion on a Winterfest evening, JMC agreed to ride the Delirium, one of those pendulum rides that also spins, with C and DZ, while I sat it out with Little CZ. (I never liked those kinds of rides, ever) Breathless after the ride, her eyes sparkling, JMC again reported her soul temporarily disconnecting from the rest of her. Later when she and our kids were invited to join in the dancing of a winter parade float, JMC grabbed the proffered tambourine and started dancing while C hid behind me refusing to participate. Experiencing her first snow fall, she agreed to head out to play with C though she really dislikes cold weather. I watched them from apartment window making snow angels and throwing snowballs. She willingly tried ice skating (and quickly got good at it) and indoor skydiving (she kept trying to swim toward the exit).

JMC and C in Colonial Williamsburg (they even switched shoes as they wear the same size)

I tried to have a mix of activities this whole nine months in the states — mixing American history (the National Air and Space Museum, the African American History Museum, Mount Vernon, the National Mall, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Savannah, St. Augustine, Harper’s Ferry), and culture (Cherry Blossoms, the Nutcracker ballet, a baseball game, a small town Christmas parade), to fun activities (Disney on Ice, ice skating, indoor skydiving, the International Spy Museum, the Baltimore Aquarium) and Americana (like a massive corn maze, trick or treating, Disney) and more (see here, here, and here). It is wonderful to experience America with my daughter who has spent far more time abroad than in her home country (and this was her longest time in the States), but to experience it with JMC made it all the more special. Sometimes my daughter just took some things for granted. But JMC did not ever. She regularly reminded me of all the wonderful things that America has to offer – not by saying so, but by just living her experience to the fullest.

It feels strange without JMC – she has been a big part of our family the past two years, in both Malawi and the United States. Her departure is another reminder of how our interregnum in the US is coming to a close and we soon head off to our next overseas adventure.

The Final Stretch: PCS Preparations and Making the Most of America

Preparing to Leave Again

Sigh. I really and truly just let out a big sigh as I began to type. Here we are about to move yet again. Sigh. There is another one.  You might think we would get used to it – the constant moving – in this career. However, I think it is only getting harder the older I become. And as my daughter gets older too.

When we arrived in Arlington, Virginia last September for my training, we met another single parent Foreign Service Officer. Her older son and C became fast friends. They walked to and from the bus stop together, rode the bus together, and had hours and hours of playdates, and even more hours online chatting and playing Roblox. He and his family moved to the Dominican Republic a month ago. It was the beginning of the end.

This happens every year. Even when we are not moving, there is always someone in our Foreign Service Community who is leaving. Unfortunately, the frequency of people coming into and out of our lives does not make the goodbyes any easier.

We too are focused on our own approaching departure. I am always saying that in the last few months before our PCS (permanent change of station) that it’s like picking up a part time job with terrible, unpredictable hours. While trying to keep doing one’s day job, whether that is serving as a political officer or a French language student, you must also take care of other things related to the move. These tasks include enrolling your child in school in the next country, applying for visas, preparing to move your pet, having final medical appointments, hiring childcare in the new country, and purchasing a vehicle for the next Post. These tasks require leg work, internet research, emails and/or calls, filling out forms, and so on.

We have received our housing assignment for Guinea.  C and I are very excited about our new place and have been working on decoration planning.  But it is not easy working out what all to buy now and have shipped as the global supply chain slowdowns mean what might normally take three months could take up to six months (or longer) to reach us.  There is our HHE (Household Effects) shipment from the U.S. but also the HHE shipment from Europe, where most of our things from Malawi have been sitting in storage for nearly a year.  Will what we had in a three-bedroom house in Lilongwe fit into a two-bedroom apartment in Conakry?  The moving company that packed us out from Malawi left me a cryptic list of our belongings, and my own memory of everything I own is most definitely flawed.

There are also the “consumables.”  Guinea, like Malawi, is a consumables post. The definition is: “a post at which conditions make it difficult to obtain locally the consumables required by employees and their eligible family members.  Consumables are referred to as expendable personal property because they are used up as opposed to wearing out.” Working with a list of provided by the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO) of consumables families typically bring to Guinea, I am making purchases and creating piles of stuff in our current apartment.  These include jars of Vlasic dill pickles, containers of lite pancake syrup, and bottles of shampoo and conditioner that work best on my daughter’s hard-to-tame hair.  And like in Malawi, I will be buying four brand new tires for our Conakry-based car because it is reportedly difficult and costly to find quality replacements. 

Perhaps this does not seem like a lot?  Even as I write it, I note that the words completely belie the amount of time and effort and cost that goes into preparing to move internationally.  I am, frankly, exhausted by the effort, but keep trying to rally myself because I don’t want to forget something important.  I do not know how married couples manage the division of labor, but in my case, it is just me managing the move. 

I feel at odds; I am being pulled in two directions.  I am here, still in the US, but also very much focused on getting to Guinea.  I am in the final weeks of a long, exhausting language program, but I also must obtain plane tickets and apply for visas and manage the logistics of moving.  There is a lot of excitement, but also a lot of anxiety.    

 Making the Most of Our Time in America

I have found it difficult to balance the pandemic and my language study with activities, but all in all I think I did a pretty good job giving both my daughter and our young nanny a wide range of experiences in the United States. Since my halfway post, we have managed to squeeze in a good number of events. After trying for months to score tickets, we were finally able to visit the National Museum of African History and Culture in early February. I however had completely underestimated the time it takes to see a good portion of the exhibits and after 3.5 hours we left having only scratched the surface. In February, we headed to iFLY to give indoor skydiving a go. I had initially reserved for January for C’s birthday, but a snowstorm had forced me to reschedule.

We drove up to Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium and when my good friend CZ and her son Little CZ came into town, we all visited the International Spy Museum and strolled around the tidal basin to see the cherry blossoms. Both our nanny JMC and I served as chaperone’s for C’s school field trip to Jamestown and we stayed an extra night so we could visit Williamsburg and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary. We caught one of the season opening weekend games at Nationals stadium, visited Luray Caverns, and also met up with my aunt out at Harper’s Ferry.

But now here we are closing in on the last month and a half of our U.S. sojourn sandwiched between our Malawi and Guinea tours. I do not know what else is in store for our time here, though I have some ideas much depends on the results of my French exam. There is an incredible amount of stress placed on U.S. diplomats to pass the exam on the first go, but it is by no means guaranteed. Here’s to hoping for the best outcome, whatever that may be. And then, on to Guinea.

The Failed Conquest of Kinabalu: Part Two

This is the second of two posts recalling my September 2005 attempt to climb up Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest mountain.  This was written soon after my trip in an email to friends and family. 

Laban Rata Guesthouse was, at first, an oasis. Smiling, bubbling trekkers (happy I think not only to have made it to this point on the trek but to have also gotten out of the rain) bustled about or sat at tables munching down on warm bowls of noodles and sipping cups of steaming beverages.  I had a bowl of chicken ramen and AG had Tom Yam soup.  He had tea and I had hot Milo.  And we just sat there slurping away, our hands caressing the hot bowls and mugs, content to have arrived.  I did not want to take off my wet clothes because I knew that soon enough we would have to slosh our way back down the hill a little ways to the Waras Huts, now synonymous in our minds to the worst possible accommodation imaginable.  This was especially true when we learned the Waras Huts were not heated!!!  I could not help but stammer dumbfounded at the receptionist: “You have got to be kidding.  Why would you have an unheated dormitory on the top of a mountain at 3300 meters (10,826 feet)??”  I mean, really?  Why have 100 beds in heated dormitories and then have just 16 or 24 beds in an unheated hut??  Why be that cruel? 

AG tried to convince them they wanted to upgrade us, but they were very, very firm that they were full in the main lodge.  So, I changed into my dry clothes, and we hung out in the main lodge as long as we could (the downstairs was not heated either) and then rolled up our pants legs, put on some flip flops, put our wet trainers in a bag, put our emergency ponchos back on, and braved the storm outside.  I managed to get my flip flop stuck in a big muddy puddle, but I was back in good spirits and laughed about it.  I also laughed when AG’s rain slicker he had tied around his waist fell down and it looked like he had lost his pants and he was hopping around trying to fix it while the rain pelted him.  I think the thin air was getting to me, too. 

But then we were faced with the reality of the Waras Huts.  It was cold and sparse.  A single thin blanket on each of the eight dorm beds in our room.  Four slatted windows rattled in the wind allowing cold air to blow in.  The bathrooms were outside; one had to brave the elements and leap over a big cold muddy puddle in order to pee. Oh, it was a joy to behold.  We must have stood incredulous for a few minutes.  They had to be kidding, right?  We chose a lower bunk and decided it would be ours, figuring the only way we would survive the night is if we huddled together.  We took our two blankets, put on all our dry clothes and huddled.  But the drafts from the windows were terrible.  We switched to another bed that was not under the windows, and when it became clear that we were sharing the room with only one other person we grabbed 2 more blankets from the other beds.  Then AG fashioned two other blankets into large drapes over the drafty windows.  Our poor dormitory-mate was left with his one blanket, though he didn’t seem to mind (seeing as how we had covered the windows) and he had on some pretty warm looking gear and made himself into a blanket cocoon.  We missed dinner, but I didn’t really care because I could not face going outside again.  AG did brave the elements one more time around 8 PM to get water and ask one more time if there was ANY way at all for us to move up to the main lodge.  None. 

We woke at 2:30 AM, although truth be told, even with four blankets we were never really warm enough to sleep well.  The rain had stopped in the early evening the night before, but the wind was still high and the fog thick.  The fog was, in fact, terrible – visibility was no more than 10 feet.  Our guide had told us the night before if the weather remained bad, we could not climb.  Although the rain had stopped, the low clouds threatened rain at any moment.  The summit climb involved holding on to ropes while walking over granite.  The ropes and rocks would be slick from the constant rain of the day before.  Usually, the clouds roll in about 30 minutes to an hour after sunrise.  With the cloud cover already well in place, there would be no views at all of the mountain or the surrounding area.  And a climb that is already a tough one would become very risky.  Folks have been known to fall off the mountain (I only confirmed this afterwards).  I was not having warm fuzzy feelings about it. 

We decided to ask around to other climbers to see what they were thinking.  It seemed most were not going to try the climb – though of those polled in the lodge it was probably 50-50.  Except that most had not even bothered to get out of their warm beds.  Our dormitory-mate had not moved from his cocoon, so it looked like he was not climbing.  In fact, none of the other people in the Waras Huts were climbing.  One guy said that his guide had told him he had climbed the mountain 502 times, and this is the worst he had ever seen it.  Sounded great!  I asked one group why they would climb if they would see nothing but mist and one guy said “George Mallory: Because it’s there.”  “Yeah”, I said, “but he died.”  “Good point,” the climber said, but they were still going to give it a go. 

AG and I decided to question our guide.  AG asked Janeul very slowly what did he think of the conditions?  Janeul looked thoughtful.  “Is it dangerous?” AG asked.  “Yes, dangerous,” said Janeul.  “So should we climb?” AG asked.  “Yes, can climb,” said Janeul sagely.  What?  Janeul just said it was very dangerous, very slippery, but if we would climb, he would climb.  Passed the buck right on to us.  I wanted Janeul to say there was no one in his/her right mind that would climb the mountain in these conditions so that I could in good conscious say, well I tried, but the guide said we would kill ourselves, so what can you do?  This lackadaisical-leave-it-in-the-climbers-hands made us look like chickens.  I did not like that one bit.  I WANTED to climb.  I had not flown halfway around the world for a week to almost climb a mountain.  But I also was not interested in getting myself killed to see nothing but fog.  Frankly, I was not even interested in being very, very cold and wet and scared to see nothing but fog. 

Thus, we decided not to climb.  We sat in the cold lounge and played a few games of cards. Some groups who had started off for the summit returned noting the conditions were poor and they had had to turn back. AG went to see if someone in one of the heated rooms would take pity on us and let us sleep in the beds of those who had decided to make the stupid climb.  Success – and for two hours we huddled in a very warmly heated room while cursing the Waras Huts.  (I can still remember – perhaps the most vivid of my memories of this trip – the sheer pleasure of snuggling beneath the cheap, scratchy, but substantial blanket in a top bunk in a toasty room.  I feel into a deeply satisfying sleep).  At 6:30 am we were up again and went down for breakfast, but we were too early.  With nothing really to do, we decided to trek down as soon as it was light.  Just before leaving the lodge Janeul told us we should get our climbing certificates, BUT since we had not climbed to the summit we could only get SECOND CLASS certificates.  Well, no thank you!  I think even if someone does not climb to the very top because of dangerous fog, but they climb up two-thirds of the darn mountain in cold, driving rain and stay the night in the Waras Huts then they deserve a FIRST CLASS certificate.  But obviously Janeul thought differently.  I just know he thought we were chicken.  I was pretty sure on the way down when we would pass Malay porters heading up they would ask “Hey, Janeul how goes it?  Did your people climb?” and Janeul would answer in Malay “No, these two are big chickens.” 

The trek down was rather pleasant.  I was disappointed, yes, but also relieved.  The fog was still thick, but the air was crisp and fresh.  As we were one of the first groups to start down, the trail was quiet, with only the occasional porter bringing up a sack of rice or a propane tank.  There were only the sounds of water trickling, birds singing, frogs croaking, and the swish of the wind through the tropical leaves.  It was beautiful.  We practically flew down.  AG almost ran at parts.  I, however, was not so sure of my feet.  About halfway down, it started to rain again and we donned those emergency ponchos once more, but by then we were under the forest canopy by then and it did not really bother us.  We were thrilled though when we reached the waterfall and knew we had only five more minutes of trail.  We celebrated under the Timphonon Gate with a Coca-cola each.   

From here it was a whirlwind of vans and taxis and planes.  The story should have ended there, except that it turns out mountain climbing immediately followed by over 24 hours of transportation may not be a good recipe.   Back to Kinabalu by minibus, a few hours wait at a guesthouse, then a flight to Johor Bahru, Malaysia, then a taxi into Singapore and the airport, then a flight back to Washington, D.C.  All with very little sleep – and certainly not sleep that would allow me to be horizontal.  When we came down the mountain, AG and I kept remarking about how good we felt, that our legs felt absolutely fine.  No cramping.  No pain.  We chalked it up to being pretty darn fit.  How wrong we were!

By the time I was boarding my flight in Singapore back to the U.S. my calves were starting to ache. I could hardly lift my legs while on the plane and ended up sitting for far too long.  By the time I arrived back in DC, my feet, ankles, and lower legs had swollen so that my toes looked like little Vienna sausages and my ankles were no longer identifiable as separate from my log-like legs.  I figured this was nothing a good night’s rest could not cure, only to wake up the next day still swollen.  I hobbled off to work, avoiding stairs as much as I could.  Yet after lunch, when my legs seemed to have swelled even more, I started to think maybe, just maybe, something was not quite right.  I went to see the doctor on base (I worked at the National Defense University on Fort McNair in Washington, DC) and he took one look at my swollen feet and said it looked bad. He squeezed my calves and I yelped in pain.  He told me I should go to the hospital to have deep vein thrombosis ruled out.  He called an ambulance, and I was strapped to a chair and carried downstairs, then a gurney, and rushed off to the hospital.  I waited in the emergency room for about eight hours to be seen (!), but thankfully the ultrasound revealed I did not have any blood clots, just badly swollen legs. So, I got an extra vacation day staying at home and off my feet.  Thanks to Mount Kinabalu (and some spectacularly terrible planning).

Seventeen years later I still wish I could have stood at the summit of Mount Kinabalu, though I know given the circumstances I made the right decision at the time.  I neither regret the decision nor the attempt. It is highly unlikely though I will try again; I have to accept that some things just are not meant to be finished, and that is okay.    

*Just a note that in researching online to refresh my memories for this post, I found out two interesting tidbits:  As a result of the 2015 earthquake, Waras Huts is currently unavailable.  No great loss in my opinion!  Also, due to 2009 cable damage there is no longer any heating in the Laban Rata dormitories and bathrooms.  Yikes!  Granted, online sites offering climbing tours these days seem far more organized than when I was there 17 years ago. There are even three day / two night packages on offer that include a night at the base of the mountain to help with acclimatization. As we could not climb the day we arrived at the park, this was ultimately what we did. Staying that unexpected night at the base — at 1,520 meters (4,980 feet) — might have actually helped us! Sometimes being unprepared works in one’s favor!

The Failed Conquest of Kinabalu (Part 1)

As part of my blog, I sometimes find former travelogues I sent to friends and family of my travels before I joined the U.S. government and brush them off, spiff them up, provide some context, and then publish them here. 

This is about my attempt – and ultimately, failure – to climb Southeast Asia’s largest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, located in the Malaysia state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.  It is more an uphill walk than a climb, with casual climbers making the round trip in two days.  Most climbers begin in the morning on day one climbing for three to six hours to a location approximately two-thirds of the way up where they overnight; then in the early morning hours they start the final ascent, returning to the base the same day.  I would make this trip with my Indian friend AG, whom I had met when I studied for a master’s degree at the National University of Singapore, 2002-2003.  He and a group of friends also from India had made the climb the year before. 

It seems almost unbelievable to me that this trip took place in September 2005, already 17 years ago.  But I enjoy going back through my old travel stories to remember the amazing things I have done. Sometimes I wonder what this younger woman was thinking!  I also revisit this story at a time when we have been in the pandemic for two years and our travel has been very limited. 

As per usual when I share stories of my former travels, I try to include as much as I can of what I wrote then and supplement with background information on the place and my memories.  I have few photos of this excursion, largely due to the poor weather that provided few views of anything other than fog, scrubs, and muddy trails as we climbed.  I imagine I was also just too tired. Though I do remember that during the summer before this climb I often put weights in my backpack and took long walks around Washington, D.C., to prepare for the hike, walking at near sea level on flat surfaces was not enough.

The mountain adventure begins with a stunningly long journey from the U.S. east coast to the Malaysian state of Sabah, located on the northeastern corner of Borneo, the world’s third largest island.  This would not be my first trip to Borneo as I had visited the country of Brunei, the Malaysian state of Sarawak, and into the Indonesian state of West Kalimantan in July 2003.  I had also previously visited Brunei in February of the same year. 

I flew two hours from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, then 15 hours to Hong Kong, then three hours to Singapore.  I arrived late the next evening.  I spent three full days in Singapore catching up with friends and trying to shake some of the jet lag.  On the fourth day, AG and I took a taxi from downtown Singapore to the Malaysia border.  Then another taxi to the Senai International Airport and a two-hour flight to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital.  Fun fact: Sabah used to be known as “Api-Api” meaning “Fire, Fire” because it was burned down so often by pirates (or so I read when I was researching my graduate thesis on maritime piracy in the region).  We stay one night in Kota Kinabalu and the following morning we wake up early to catch a minibus for the two hour trip to the park entrance of Kinabalu National Park. 

I could not have traveled much further away from Washington, D.C. than the mist-dusted slopes of Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain – the tallest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea.  At 4,095 meters or 13,435 feet above sea level, Mt. Kinabalu (meaning house of the spirits of the dead) is the youngest non-volcanic mountain in the world and is apparently still growing by approximately five millimeters per year.  This mountain would be my challenge.  I had wanted to climb this mountain before when I lived in Singapore, but when SARS hit travel plans were squashed and I let this idea go for a while.  I wasn’t sure I could climb the thing anyway.  It is one of those things like training for a marathon that one says they might like to do but never seem to work up the gumption to do.  Oops! I AM training to run a half marathon this year.  And so, it seemed time to put my mountain trekking dreams to the test. 

Up until the time that my friend AG and I set out on the trail to the top, I had a hard time imagining myself really going up the mountain. It then was no surprise to me that when we arrived at the park headquarters on Thursday that we were told that accommodation on the mountain was fully booked. Ah, here then was one of those times when my devil-may-care attitude toward reservations (and apparently AG’s too) was going to get the better of me. We tried; we really did. We asked about sleeping on the floor, about cancellations, about other ways to stay on the mountain. The hotel however only suggested that maybe we could climb up and down the mountain in one day.  This option most definitely did not appeal to us, but still, we asked a guide about this option, and his look clearly indicated this would be on this side of crazy.  (It seems these days permits for a one day climb are no longer offered) So, we accepted this temporary setback, made our accommodation bookings, paid all our fees for the park and guide, and then made our way to the lodge where we would be stay that night.

As we could not check in to the hotel until 1 PM, we joined a nature walk through a nearby botanical garden to learn about the flora of the area. Kinabalu Park became Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 due to the incredible diversity of its flora and fauna.  The main plants to see – or rather what I wanted to see – were some of the orchids and the oddly fascinating pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant shaped like a pitcher with an umbrella cap.  The pitcher fills with digestive fluid, bugs fall in, and the plant devours them. Even if the insects try to climb out, the downward pointing spikes at the lip of the pitcher prevent them from escaping.  Really cool. 

Our money was limited.  I had tried to change a U.S. 100-dollar bill when in Johor (Malaysia) before flying to Sabah, but the money changer refused. Apparently the 1996 series of bills had been counterfeited one too many times by some Southeast Asian mafia.  And AG’s ATM card was not working.  Luckily our credit cards were accepted so we were paying for as much as we could with them to conserve our little cash.  I had planned to keep expenses modest but with our spirits dwindling I opted instead to shell out big time – thus we dined very fine, stayed in a luxurious room, and had drinks by the lodge fireplace.  (Unfortunately, I never wrote down the name of the lodge where we stayed.  I tried searching online for clues but with nearly 20 years between now and then, I just do not know.  But I recall the room – a two story loft with a sitting room with massive windows on the first floor and a king-sized bed with super soft sheets upstairs – was fancy indeed.  And we watched the news that night on the large television and learned of the death of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist.  We would have missed that had we been on the mountain.)  As the rain poured down outside – though September was supposed to be still the dry season – we wondered if we should not just hang out in the lodge for three days.  But I was there to climb that mountain!

Early on Friday morning we were up for breakfast.  There we met a couple who had returned the day before.  Although they said it had been cold and wet and their legs were now so stiff so they could not walk properly, it was “brilliant.” They passed on their walking sticks and told us to buy gloves (because one pair would get wet) and the cheap emergency ponchos to cover our bags.  We made the requisite purchases (with credit card of course) then off to the park headquarters where we met our guide Janeul. 

Every climbing group must have a licensed guide.  Yet it was not all that clear that there was much training involved in one becoming a guide.  AG said it was simply job creation, that all one needed was to be fit enough to go up and of stoic enough personality to climb the mountain again and again and again leading all manner of tourist.  It was pretty clear early on that one did not need to have strong communication skills to be a guide.  Janeul immediately, though in very few words, informed us he would be taking us to the Laban Rata guesthouse.  Unfortunately, we would not be staying there since we had not made advance reservations, Laban Rata remained full and we had had to take accommodation in the unknown-to-us Waras Huts.  AG tried to correct the guide but who only then repeated “Laban Rata” and “Please wait here five minutes.”  AG noted again that we needed to go to the Waras Huts and Janeul again repeated, “Yes, Laban Rata.”  So we gave up.  We had the whole walk up to set this guy straight. (Though it turned out of course that we did have to go to Laban Rata to check in)

A minivan took us to Timphonon Gate, which marks the start of the mountain trail.  There, decked out in our start of trek gear – shorts and t-shirts with our rain jackets tied around our waists and our small packs on our backs and our walking sticks in hand – we began.  The first 50 feet is downhill, and I said, “Oh this is great!” and AG said, “Yes, Mt. Kinabalu is 4100 meters below sea level.”  Ha Ha Ha! Just before the trail slopped upwards, we stopped at a small waterfall; it would be our sign when we returned that we were almost done.  From there it was literally all uphill. 

The first part of the trail is dirt with steps fashioned out of tree limbs and wood, clearly put together by someone with a special hatred of trekkers.  These were monstrously sized steps and it seemed slow going.  But we had sun and it looked like it would be a beautiful day.  By the time we reached the first of the rest stops 30 minutes in I was feeling a little tired, having not quite yet hit my stride.  But AG said it had taken him and friends over an hour to reach that stop the year before and I felt buoyed.  We rested just a few minutes and then set out again.  The sun was still out, and the mountain was lush and green.  But the trees were thick, and we were still fairly low, so there were not any views. 

AG and our guide Januel

Within half an hour the rain started to fall.  It was a light rain, but we stopped to put on our five-ringgit Emergency Ponchos (made in China) to keep our bags, and spare clothes, dry.  We met lots of people who were on their way down and though they were tired they were almost always full of hellos and encouragement.  Mostly the trekking was just a matter of putting one foot in front of another, and while that sounds monotonous, it did not seem that way at first.  Although AG and I did not trek side by side, him first being a bit faster than me and then when his legs started to cramp up, I took the lead.  But we generally kept in sight of one another and at the rest stops would sit and briefly chat with ourselves and other trekkers and eat our chocolate (AG) or marathon Gu (me).   Yet the rain continued, and soon became harder.  As we climbed in altitude the trees became shorter until they were only shrubs.  The wind picked up and instead of climbing over dirt and tree branches we were soon climbing over granite boulders awash in small rivers of rainwater.  AG stood atop one high exposed boulder barely hanging on in the wind and raised his arms in jubilation and laughed.  It looked scary to me, and I wondered if the thinner mountain air might be affecting his sanity.  We slogged on.  Now we met few others on the trail and our guide Janeul stayed closer to us.  Before he would disappear, and we might look around thinking where in the world is our guide, and then suddenly he would be there again.  The trail was by no means poorly defined, we didn’t really need a guide to follow, and yet it was comforting to know that someone was supposed to be looking out for us when we might become too tired to do so ourselves. 

We had been trekking for three hours and now were at almost 3000 meters (9,800 feet) and I suddenly got very, very tired of walking over slick rocks, with very wet shoes, while the wind whipped my emergency poncho hood off and forced it to billow around me.  I was tired of looking down to keep the hard rain out of my eyes.  I was very, VERY sick of looking at grey rocks. I thought to myself if I see another G*dd**m grey boulder it will be too soon.  We could see nothing of the view.  There was the trail and then the low fence to keep us from wandering off the side of the mountain and then nothing but mist.  We could hear the roar of a large waterfall but could not see it.  Suddenly the wind was out of my sails, and I was thrilled to see the sign for Waras Huts – our mountain abode – appear before us out of the fog.  But we still had to hike up another 10 minutes to the main lodge, Laban Rata, to eat and check in.  But we had made it to the first leg of the hike! We also managed to do it in three and a half hours* despite the weather – what AG said took him and his friends nearly six hours last time. 

Here I was – sitting in a café at 3,272 meters (10,734 feet) above sea level.  The only other time I had been at this altitude was when I took a six-day tea house trek in Nepal’s Annapurna region.  Then, Poon Hill at 3,210 meters (10,531 feet) had been the highest elevation and I had begun to feel the affects of altitude sickness with a tight pin-pricking headache and an intense need to move downhill.  This time though while certainly fatigued and tired of the cold and wet, I was not feeling ill.  Climbing the whole way was beginning to feel very possible!

*Recently, I have seen online it is recommended to take one’s time on the ascent due to the altitude and 5-6 hours is better. Ooops.

Omicron Effects

As I sat thinking about what I might write about next, it occurred to me I should say more of how COVID has been affecting us while in the U.S.. Part of me had thought this might not be all that interesting or at least less so than how we experienced the pandemic in Malawi. And that might be true. There are probably far fewer people sharing online what it like to experience COVID in Malawi, and certainly to be a foreigner doing so, than those who chronicle their experience in the U.S. And yet, I also realized our experience – as a foreign service family temporarily back in our home country – is somewhat unique to us and I want to remember it, record it, and recount it as a both a personal experience and one that becomes part of the collective memory of this global event. I figure that I wrote on COVID in Malawi (here, here, and here for example), and also about how COVID affected our R&R to Kenya, and even on my experience with SARS in as a graduate student in Singapore nearly twenty years before, so it makes sense to continue writing on this topic.

The pandemic has certainly had an effect on our lives back in the States. Arriving just as the Delta variant surge began, we spent our home leave in one of the most affected cities (Jacksonville, FL) trying to balance enjoying our time home while also keeping up with COVID mitigation measures. The training for my next post, beginning in mid-September, has also been affected by the continued pandemic, with all of it so far conducted online. But as the highly transmissible Omicron variant began to catch hold in the U.S. in December 2021 and early January 2022, we began to experience new disruptions.

Right at the beginning of the year, on January 3, the northern Virginia area was hit with a major snowstorm. Compared to other places that handle winter weather in greater quantity and frequency, it might seem that folks in Virginia have no idea what they are doing when snow hits. There is a grain of truth to that, though this storm was the biggest to hit the area in several years.

Yet when the district announced the school closure the night before – when nary a snowflake had shown up and the temperature remained above freezing – I was skeptical. When I was a kid growing up in this area, the thing to do in the morning of a snow storm was to sit by the television watching the local news as the names of school districts scrolled up announcing if school were open, cancelled, or had a late opening. I guess that morning-of decision was not great for working parents, teachers, and school staff, but I remember it with a certain amount of nostalgia. Still, I thought it premature because there are times when the forecast predicts snow but we get none.

This time though the snow absolutely showed up, falling fast and hard and blanketing the area in a few hours. I am not generally a fan of snow. It can be very beautiful in its immediate pristine state or in picture-perfect postcards, but it needs to be cold for snow and I dislike being cold, and after it gets walked through and driven through and pushed aside by plows, it is no longer pretty. But for my daughter C and our nanny JMC, this first snow was exciting. C has experienced snow so few times that they stand out — once in Ciudad Juarez and in Shanghai where flurries showed up and dusted the ground but didn’t stick. It also snowed once in the fall of 2014 when we lived in Herndon, VA when I was in Chinese training and then again on the day we flew to Shanghai in January 2015. There was also snow in Virginia when we were back for a week of training in December 2017. For our other snow experience we visited Finland in December 2019 knowing full well that snow would be a part of it. JMC had never experienced snow at all.

So it was fun at first. But then Omicron stepped in and made things weird.

Within an hour of the snow falling, I could see crews outside clearing the sidewalks and streets around our apartment building. Therefore, I was surprised when the county announced that there would also be no school the following day (Tuesday) because a COVID-related shortage of road workers meant that too many neighborhoods were still uncleared for kids to return to school. OK, I guess, what could we do? But on Tuesday evening the county announced that school would be closed AGAIN on Wednesday. Every parent I talked to was perplexed and a tad annoyed; our kids wanted to be back in school. On Wednesday afternoon our county said it would be open the following day, then that evening reversed the decision as surrounding counties would be closed. A shortage of teachers, bus drivers, and other school staff, who often live in other areas, and would not be able to come in if their kids were home, would likely end up in too few staff at our schools. So a snowstorm that would normally lead to a day off from school ended up keeping kids home for four days. Thanks Omicron.

But then, once school started in the new year, the COVID notifications for C’s school increased. Between the start of school on August 30 and the last day of school before winter break on December 17, my daughter’s school sent out a total of seven positive COVID notifications. Between January 13-31, however there were 16 notifications. For several days my daughter’s class of 26 kids was down to 17 with a combination of kids out with COVID or with symptoms awaiting test results or staying home to protect vulnerable family members.

Around our neighborhood in Arlington, we also began to notice signs new signs on store windows and doors. Maybe they had been up before, earlier in the pandemic, but we were not in the U.S. then. At my gym, people started to work out in masks. I had not seen that in my four months there. And then there was a noticeable increase in delivery times for packages. Where normally I could place an Amazon Fresh order in the afternoon for delivery the next day, but deliveries were two or three days later. Other deliveries too took longer, reportedly due to staffing shortages. After waiting three to four weeks for mail from the US when in Malawi though, we could handle it. And my Facebook feed started to fill up with reports of fully vaccinated and boosted friends and their families coming down with COVID. The majority mild cases, only one was hospitalized, but the virus felt closer than it ever had before.

The Foreign Service Friend Countereffect

I think having been in Malawi for the first 17 months of the pandemic has helped us to weather the past six months in the U.S. better. That is not to say there are not challenges. A childless friend of mine overseas asked me if I thought being a parent was a major factor in my different outlook on the pandemic. A resounding yes. Though I will note I have never been particularly worried that my daughter would get COVID or rather should she get it that it would be serious. And at 10 she is now vaccinated so our situation is different than parents of younger children. But as she is school aged and in in-person schooling, there are regular reminders of the pandemic’s tenacity that non-parents or parents of children not yet in school do not have. I receive a survey by text and email from the school that must be completed daily and the school notifications of positive COVID cases, mask and testing policies and more is fairly constant.

But having been in Malawi where we had no Whole Foods or Door Dash, no movie theaters or shopping malls, few to no sidewalks and no string cheese, made for a different experience than those who had such things. More importantly are the friendships we made in Malawi before COVID that changed and strengthened during it. We have been so incredibly fortunate to have made one really good friend in our building in Arlington — another single mom in the Foreign Service currently in language training for her next assignment with two boys, one of whom is just a year younger than C. They get us in ways that few others do. Also, three of our closest friends from Malawi have also been here in the U.S. One family lives just 15 minutes drive away. Another family is in upstate Pennsylvania but has come down to the northern Virginia / DC area on several occasions. And as luck — or more like the twists of fate — would have it, the third family whose tour after Malawi was Ethiopia ended up nearby while on authorized departure from Addis Ababa at the height of the civil conflict. Though we have seen them less often than in Malawi, being able to see them on occasion during this stint back in America has made the transition easier.

We have done less here in American than if it were not a pandemic; I have met with fewer friends than I might have done, cocooning ourselves away. It is in part due to my introversion heightened by language study (I get a wee bit weird when in language training), but experiencing nearly a year and a half of the pandemic in Malawi with our particular restrictions, small circle, and limited activities, shaped how continue to react now. So though an overwhelming majority of my U.S. based friends are vaccinated, their circles are not my circles, and it feels weird to branch out. I hope these friends understand and forgive me for being physically distant, as though I were not in the U.S. at all.

As we reach a stage where I daresay signs are pointing toward the pandemic slowing (though we have seen this before, of course), I can feel a wee shift within, a hope that this will come to an end in the near future. I am very cognizant this is not the case for everyone around the world, and yet, the glimmer is there nonetheless. I started bidding on my next assignment in September 2020, a year and a half ago; I never thought we would be going to this new place — Conakry, Guinea — still in the pandemic. Here we are just months away from that move. To a whole new country. Without the comforts of Americana, our family, and friends. It’s all part of this crazy foreign service life though. I’d just like to get back to doing it without a pandemic too.

Halfway Through Our U.S. Sojourn 2021-2022

Here we are already halfway through the eleven months we have in the U.S. between our Malawi and Guinea tours. I have been wrestling with what to write about – having already covered home leave and trying to adjust, what to say about being sort of, at least temporarily, adjusted? When overseas, especially in the often less traveled places where I have tendency to live and work, or while on once in a lifetime vacations, the stories are easier to write. Sitting in a nondescript apartment in Northern Virginia as I telework feels far more conventional, even if in a global pandemic. I have lived a little more than half my adult life outside of the United States and the other half often working toward those times. I sometimes long for something more conventional, but honestly, I don’t know how to do conventional. And even this, being paid to learn a language by the Department of State in order to assist with my upcoming assignment in West Africa, frankly, isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill either.

Language Learning in a Pandemic

This is my third go at learning a language through the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). I took Spanish ahead of my assignment to Ciudad Juarez and Mandarin before Shanghai, but in both cases I had the advantage of having studied the language before in high school, college, or another setting (or a combination of). This time I am learning French and have no background whatsoever in it. Though, honestly, that is a wee bit untrue. I mean, English speakers have been exposed to at least some of the language through cognates or popular culture. It is not like I am taking up Turkmen. Yet, I have no formal training and I feel the difference keenly.

I will not beat around the bush: I am not a fan of FSI’s language training method. I do not think I can describe it adequately if you have never been through it or a similar program. To me, the first few months are a bombardment of vocabulary and grammar. Often we will cover a grammatical point for one hour of the day and the teacher will say something like, “now that we have learned gender of nouns or the conditional tense, we can now move forward with another topic” and I balk because I might have understood some, but I definitely have not “learned” the concept in such a short timeframe. Imagine this happening every hour, five hours a day, five days a week for some eight weeks before your first assessment? Homework certainly reinforces concepts as does the daily build on — but I can feel myself fighting it day after day. (This is not to say I don’t have fun — I laugh every single day in class!) After this, the class then pivots to regularly putting students on the spot with impromptu discussions and then short speeches on societal topics such as gender equality, climate change, or vaccination mandates. I didn’t like this method when I studied Spanish or Chinese and I do not like it now. And I was no spring chicken when I started the Foreign Service (see my complaints about being too old for language training from 7 years ago). And yet, at the end of the day, despite the method and my resistance (and it almost galls me to admit), I get to a good level of language acquisition.

Doing all the training online has taken some getting used to. I sometimes miss the camaraderie of the halls of FSI, the running into friends and colleagues from A100 (our onboarding course), past posts, or past training, and getting to know new folks as we all muddle our way through new languages. Also, since so many people – thousands – are there at any given time pursing language or functional training, the Department offers other services such as passport or badge renewals, research for next posts at the Overseas Briefing Center, a clinic to get vaccinations, a child care center (for those lucky enough to get one of the very coveted spots), a gym, and more. All of this set on some really lovely grounds. FSI is a base sorts for those that often have none, a place someone can come back to again and again where you find yourself among others who get the quirks of the job and lifestyle.

Yet, I do love my 20 second commute to my desk, the wearing of comfy pants and no shoes, and rummaging around in my kitchen for snacks during breaks. And though there are some technical challenges at times (for some reason my microphone has worked only 50% of the time in class the past week and a half) I have not felt much difference in the quality of training from my previous two times at the Institute. I have 19 weeks of my 30 weeks of training left to go, so we shall see when it comes round to testing time how well I actually do.

Milking America for All Its Worth (in a Pandemic)

Despite the intense pressure to abandon all in favor of only activities that further my French and a continuing pandemic that makes the decision to get out and about sometimes difficult, I am still trying to make the most of our time in the United States. For my daughter who has spent the majority of her life overseas and our young nanny who has not had many such opportunities, I want to introduce them to a variety of activities we could not do in Malawi and won’t be able to in Guinea.

One of our first sightseeing trips was down into the heart of iconic Washington, DC. Just riding the metro was a treat as there had been nothing like that in Malawi. We walked past the Washington Memorial, visited the World War II Memorial, and then strolled along the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. We then rented some scooters and zipped back toward the Capitol, stopping to eat from several of the food trucks lining the streets. We also popped into the National Air and Space Museum.

As the weather cooled, I took us to Mount Vernon, for a tour of the house and walks around the grounds. There is a lot of history to learn and confront at the home of our first President and we lucked out with a glorious day to do it. I also scored tickets for the Disney on Ice show — I waited until the last minute, you know, just in case there was some COVID issue. We all loved the show but I think JMC loved it the most. Her whoops of delight at every major stunt were infectious. We met my sister and her family and a family friend at Liberty Mills Farm in central Virginia to take our chances in the country’s largest corn maze. We took the trail with no map and got happily lost (and then somewhat desperately), then, once free, picked out some pumpkins and scarfed down some farm-inspired desserts. I don’t know what says fall in Virginia more than heading to a farm for a pumpkin. And I took us to a Halloween inspired light show at a nearby zoo — one I used to go to when I was a kid. Afterwards we all tried some fried Oreo. Ah, Americana.

I found myself pretty excited that Halloween would be in-person. With the Delta wave still causing havoc through the fall, I really had not been sure it would happen and it made me a bit sad for my daughter. She had not had much experience with Halloween in the U.S.: In 2014 when she was 2 1/2 and we lived for five months in a Staybridge Suites hotel and trick-or-treated briefly in the adjacent townhouse community and in 2015 when we were in the U.S. for an unexpected medevac and I was recovering from an intense procedure. I had had maybe an hour of energy to take C trick-or-treating through our temporary apartment housing. And trick or treating in our past posts was different, especially last year. At three months shy of 10, this is the perfect age for my daughter to trick-or-treat. If we return to the U.S. for training after our next assignment, she will be 13. So, I decided to forego the likely sad trick-or-treating to be found in our apartment building and took us to the most celebrated Halloween street in Arlington for some big-time candy demanding.

For Thanksgiving, I opted for the typical non-typical American activity of dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a movie – only our second movie in a theater since returning to the U.S., the first being in Jacksonville, FL on Home Leave. That weekend though we drove down to King’s Dominion to meet up with one of my best friends CZ and her son Little CZ for the amusement park’s Winter Fest. As the weather grew colder we went ice skating at the National Sculpture Garden (the first time for C and JMC and the first time in a looooong time for me), strolled by the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House, and attended a breathtaking performance of the Nutcracker performed by the Washington Ballet company. The Nutcracker was one of the highest priorities on my “while in the U.S. bucket list” as it was the kind of performance we could not see in Malawi and will likely be limited or unavailable in Guinea. I know we have had the opportunity to see many amazing places and cultural activities in every place we have been, but I really am trying to boost our Americana while we have the chance and C is at this age. And introducing all of this to our nanny JMC is so fun as she approaches each and every activity with a positive attitude. At King’s Dominion she rode the scariest of rides and even though afterwards she said she was sure she felt her soul floating out of her body, she did not regret riding; and when a character from the parade invited her to join him in dancing she did so with great enthusiasm while C hid behind me shaking her head.

We had a more typical Christmas at my sister’s place, a little over an hour’s drive from us, where we could also see my parents. Then C flew to see her dad and stepmom in Kentucky, the first time she had seen them in two years. One reason I had opted to bid on a language-designated position for my next tour was the opportunity to have C see her dad a bit more. We had initially planned on a visit in August but scrapped it with COVID on the rise. Things were still dicey in December, but it was too important to skip.

And now, we are in the final five months of our U.S. interlude. It will be punctuated with increasing bouts of panic on my part as my language test and our departure to Guinea grows closer. While I will still seek out special activities for us all, my to-do list has to start accommodating things like dentist and doctor visits, obtaining visas, vaccinations, plane tickets and working out the intricate requirements for international cat travel while cramming more and more French into my skull.

Here’s to the second half.

Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Hard Landing

I have struggled to write this post, to describe what it is like to come back to the US after four years in Malawi. I think of what some might say — I mean, I am American, how hard can it be to come back my home country? Two decades ago, as I prepared to return to the US after three years in Japan, I expressed concerns about the transition to a person who knew me well. After all, I had lived in a small town in rural Japan with one restaurant and few people who spoke English for a significant period of time. The national news in Japan would lead with stories like the cherry blossom forecast or the mating of two rare cranes. The news for Washington, DC, alone would lead with a shooting or a traffic accident. My friend told me it was silly to worry, that I had been “brainwashed” to think otherwise.

I had not been brainwashed, of course. Instead, I was preparing myself for the inevitable culture shock of returning home, to a place that would seem familiar, but not quite. That would seem strange in unexpected ways. Where I would not quite fit in.

Reverse culture shock is not something new for me.  In early 1995, I struggled with the disparities after returning from seven months study abroad in Beijing.  The China of the early 1990s, even in the capital, was not the China of today.  For instance, there was one phone for our entire our dormitory floor. In winter, we filled our large thermoses with hot water heated in the coal fired oven located in the shed across from our dorm. I bought my yogurt in little glass bottles from a small store near campus. It came in three flavors: plain, strawberry, and pineapple. I would ride with two of the glass bottles clinking in the basket of an old bicycle to class. I stood out with my blonde hair. People stared at me. If I stopped to buy something, at least ten Chinese stopped to watch me buy that something. I had random people pet my pale freckled arm – usually without asking. Once a proprietress of a small shop suddenly leapt over her glass counter to grab my hair. She had not looked like a person with the reflexes and speed of a panther, but I had been wrong. Back in the US, I found myself often standing stock still in front of certain sections of the supermarket paralyzed by choice or simply wandering the aisles for an hour or so but leaving with nothing.  I became invisible – not a single person seemed to notice me at all. For months on end, I also refused to get my hair cut because the prices in the US were so much higher than in Beijing, where I not only would get a decent cut but also a marvelous 30-minute head and neck massage.  American salons could not compete.  And it pissed me off for a few months.

But later I either spent less time in the U.S. between my overseas gigs – a direct transfer from South Korea to the Philippines, only three months between the Philippines and Japan, or following my three years in rural Japan I opted to spend a year of backpacking around the world before grad school in California, to lessen the shock – or maybe the cities I found myself in overseas were increasingly developed so that the “shock” between them and the US lessened? Or maybe I just grew more accustomed to the differences?

But this time it was different.  Not only had we spent the past four years living in one of the world’s poorest countries in southern Africa, but also with the COVID pandemic we had not visited the US in two years.  We had not traveled off the African continent in a year and a half, with the vast majority of the time spent not only in Malawi, but just in and around our home in Lilongwe. 

After a month of home leave in Florida, during which we had no real schedule and, despite some paperwork and medical appointments, was largely unstructured and restful, it was time to settle in some. Once we arrived in Arlington, Virginia, to check into our State Department provided housing for my training though, things changed. And some of those things that had seemed so spectacular in the initial weeks began to feel less so. I boiled down the adjustment to a few key categories.

Drastic Differences

No surprise here, but the level of development in Malawi is far lower than that of the US. In Arlington, we moved into our apartment in a 21-story building surrounded by buildings of a similar size. In Malawi, the tallest building in the country, the Walmont Hotel in Lilongwe, stood at 12 stories. The country might boast a few other similarly sized buildings at perhaps six or eight or 10 stories, but they are few and far between. Where they stand, they stand out. Four lane or even six lane roads are the norm in the US; I can see the junction of two just from my apartment window. Yet, in Malawi these are rare. When after taking nearly the entire four years we were in Lilongwe, the Malawian government at last completed the Area 18 interchange and “dual carriageway,” it was the first overpass and cloverleaf roadway in the entire country. Though the country’s second city Blantyre and third city Mzuzu also have one or two roads that are more than one lane, these cover short distances. The Area 18 project stretched only 4.6 kilometers, just short of three miles! And the developmental differences are everywhere. From sidewalks to streetlights, what may be ubiquitous in the US is often rare in Malawi.

Something as simple as drinking water for example. Many Americans take it for granted they will turn on their taps and clean, potable water will spew forth. Though some may dislike the taste and will opt to further filter or flavor their water, one can just drink it straight from the tap. This is not the case in many places in the developing world. And emergency services! We might complain about how long it takes for an ambulance to arrive (and I realize that what community you are calling from in the US may certainly impact when, and maybe if, one comes), but generally they come. Moving into our apartment, C and I immediately found ourselves irritated by the regular sounds of ambulance, police, and fire vehicles. We seemed to be surrounded by emergencies day and night. But the issue for Lilongwe was not that there were not emergencies, of course not, but rather that the emergency services had limited capacity and resources. I read, for example, there only four fire stations in the whole of Malawi. FOUR for a country of 19 million. Arlington County in Virginia has nine fire stations and nine fire engines for a quarter of a million people. There might be seven fire engines in the entirety of Lilongwe – urban and rural areas – and at any given time, maybe half of them are working. The same can be said for ambulances and the police. Once I realized this, I was no longer irritated at the sound of the sirens. I am grateful they are there.

Spoiled for Choice

There is so much choice in America. Take apples. Do you want Gala? Red Delicious? Fuji? Honeycrisp? Golden Delicious? Or maybe Granny Smith? Do you want to pick them out yourself or buy pre-bagged? How about regular or organic? Or maybe you are looking for yogurt. Which brand do you want? Yoplait? Chobani? Fage? Stonyfield? Or Danone? Will you want Greek style? Are you in search of the regular flavors like strawberry, vanilla, coconut, raspberry or perhaps something with more pizzazz like key lime pie, strawberry cheesecake, or piña colada? Full fat, low fat, or fat free? Pre-mixed, fruit at the bottom, or perhaps with a side of granola? It is not as if Malawi had no choice – there were a few types of apples, there were yogurt options. But no where near the dizzying choices facing one every day in an American supermarket. And then which supermarket? And how will you get your groceries – will you go to the supermarket yourself or have it delivered? And if delivered, by whom?

And it is not just the supermarkets. There are the transportation options: personal car, taxi, subway, bus, bicycle, scooter, or a ride hailing company – and even in this last category one must decide if Uber of Lyft is more your speed. There are so many cuisine options and restaurants serving those cuisines. Or services delivering the restaurant foods to you.

And it feels ridiculous to write all this out. Americans know they have access to these options. And I AM AMERICAN. Yet it feels so bewildering. Indulgent. At times even indecent that we have so much available to us.

Loss of Identity / Fear of Missing Out

This feeling may be harder to explain. I am currently being paid to be in long-term training. Taking functional and then language training for my next assignment is my full time, paid, job. I am even provided housing, nice housing, in fact (see photo of apartment building above). This is a really, really, really nice perk of the job. It is also important to help me to prepare to do my job well.

But boy did I start to miss my old job. For four years I was the political officer at the US Embassy in Malawi. And politically, it was an exciting four years: campaigns and campaign machinations, a national election, demonstrations, a constitutional court case that overturned the presidential election, an unsurprising appeal, then a landmark Supreme Court decision upholding the lower court’s ruling, more campaigning, more machinations, a historic election, and the Economist naming Malawi the 2020 Country of the Year. I had a front seat to history and these elections were only a small part of the work. Work that was challenging, with wins and losses, but largely satisfying. And then suddenly, I am no longer the political officer; I am just a student.

This feeling was further augmented with the sudden and very dramatic US departure from Afghanistan. A colleague I served with in China posted her status to friends and family as she and others departed the Embassy in Kabul and then the airport as the Taliban took control. Another I served with in Mexico headed to Kabul for the final airport evacuations. Other friends and colleagues volunteered to provide support at Dulles Airport and Fort Lee in Virginia, and in Washington or in locations such as Abu Dhabi and Doha. I know there will be analyses and commentary on the handling of Afghanistan for years and decades to come, but the work of those I know was nothing short of extraordinary in incredibly trying times. I am very proud of them. And I know 100% that nothing associated with Afghanistan is about me. And yet, it felt incredibly odd, even wrong, to sit on the sidelines.

Then a few weeks later the military staged a coup in Guinea, my next assignment. I could close my eyes and understand how my colleagues there were jumping into action. But I had no involvement; I am not yet there and I had classes to attend.

There has also been an opening in some places, a return to travel. I see friends back in Malawi heading out on safari or to Victoria Falls in neighboring Zambia. Other friends, having arrived in Cambodia for their new tour a few months before, visited Angkor Wat. A friend in Egypt visited the pyramids around Cairo and then headed down the Nile to Luxor. Others when to Italy or the Maldives.

I really miss travel. Deeply. I miss the trips that we were to take that were cancelled. The trips I had yet to put into action that could not happen. And while in training at the Foreign Service Institute, the policy is that students cannot take annual leave for time off, so there will be no travel during our time here.

It is not just a “Fear of Missing Out” (or FOMO). I AM missing out. My identity as a political officer and a traveler are currently on hold.

COVID-19 Effects

Honestly, I am not quite ready to travel again. With C yet unvaccinated and rules for who can go where and what they need to test for or prove beforehand change regularly, even travel planning does not yet again give me the joy it once did. Our home leave was spent in Jacksonville, Florida, when the city became the epicenter of the surge in the Delta variant. C started school in northern Virginia in this climate. I am grateful my daughter can attend school in person, but the daily survey sent to us by text and email is a stark and regular reminder that the pandemic is still very much here. As the US deaths from COVID-19 approached 600,000 a friend of mine in Michigan reached out with a request: a friend of a friend wanted a flag placed in memory of a loved one in an art installation on the Washington Mall. Would I be able to assist? An hour later I found myself kneeling in the grass on the Mall surrounded by the sight and sounds of hundreds of thousands of white flags as I placed one more into the soft ground.

And normally when returning to the US for training, one would run into friends and colleagues in the cafeteria and halls of the Foreign Service Institute. But with training still virtual I am not running into anyone. For an introvert, it is somewhat freeing. But it is also continuing the isolation.

I do not mean all or even any of this is negative; it just is. There has been reverse culture shock. It has been a harder transition than past ones. It is taking time to readjust. I do miss the responsibilities of my old job. But I am still a diplomat. I am still a mom. Instead of an expat, I am now a resident of the US; I am now a student. I am getting used to doing other things. There are so many great things about being home. And by the time I start feeling pretty comfortable, it will be time to make another move.

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.

Coming to America Pandemic Edition: The Final Days and the Journey Back

It has been about six weeks since we departed Malawi. I have needed this time to recuperate from the move and the weeks (months? year?) leading up to it. Undertaking an international move at any time always comes with its challenges and stressors. Add in family members, a nanny, a cat, and a pandemic and things can really leave one mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. Through much of my Home Leave I have cycled through some complex feelings as I try to come to terms that my daughter’s life and mine in Malawi were in the past. I am finally able to write.

The last days in Malawi were hard. Due to some personnel gaps and a definite COVID-19 third wave that impacted Embassy staffing (a return to near 100% telework) and an inability to get temporary staff from Washington to Malawi, I again stepped in to handle some emergency Consular cases on top off completing some final political reports. Having things to work on was important as I was the last of my cohort to PCS (Permanent Change of Station; i.e. move internationally with a change in assignments), and no longer really felt I belonged in Malawi. U.S. colleagues I had spent three years working with had all departed. Others were on leave for 3-4 weeks. COVID has ensured that meeting new people was difficult, if not impossible.

But it was harder for my daughter. As an only child she can generally entertain herself well, but school was out, her best friends had left Malawi for good – heading to their next postings – or vacation, and all but a few suitcases of our things had been packed and shipped. Although there were a few kids around we had COVID tests approaching to allow us to depart Malawi and enter the US and I could not risk opening our very small bubble. I had stayed in Malawi for four years, in part to give her more stability, but those last few weeks I felt like a pretty terrible mom. And in that last week, my independent daughter, who had never, ever, verbalized any interest in a sibling, in fact had said she did NOT want one, asked if during our time back in the US I could adopt her a kid sister. (The answer, for many obvious reasons, was an emphatic NO). This lifestyle comes with some amazing opportunities, but also some pretty hard realities.

And then suddenly it was time to go. We departed on a Wednesday, so we had our COVID tests on Monday, 72 hours before departure. The 24 hour wait seemed interminable. And then the results – Negative for us all! – hit the inbox and I could finally let out some of the breath I had been holding. Wednesday morning was about as boring as one can expect sitting in one’s empty house – that is about to become someone else’s house – eating the last bit of food, doing the last bit of cleaning, until the Motorpool driver arrived to ferry us and all our suitcases to the airport. Luckily (?) I had one last emergency visa to attend to at the Embassy to give me an hour of purpose, and a colleague checked one last political point. I was still needed!

Arrival at the airport, without leaving something behind, was the next phase to relax a little. All our suitcases: check. Child: check. Cat: check. Nanny: check. My sanity…check back for that later.

But the airline had not seated us together despite my going to the city center office a week before to make this specific request. Sigh. After some demanding and groveling, definitely not my finest diplomatic moment, that took at least half an hour and involved several employees and trips to other offices, we managed to get seats close to one another. My nanny, who had never been on a plane before, looked a little scared. My daughter, who did not want to be parted from the nanny, looked sad. Me, I was frustrated and starting to feel quite sure I had left my sanity back at the house, maybe under the bed?, but we had to accept the situation and move forward. Then the COVID test results checks, my handing over Embassy badge and phone to my colleagues (my last tether to my position there), immigration and security, and we made it to the lounge and then boarding the first plane. As we took off, I could let out a bit more of that held breath.

But not all. We had the Addis Ababa transit gauntlet still ahead of us. I will note a few lessons learned. One, traveling with a large block of extra passports looks suspicious. Old passports are a record of travel and C and I have quite a few – 12 past passports to be exact. I travel with them in my carry on to keep them safe. Yet, at the exact moment when the security person riffling through my bag found them, it dawned on me how very Jason Bourne (if Jason Bourne was a bungling idiot) this might look. I got an odd look, then a question: What are THESE? But my rushed explanation must have found a sympathetic, or simply tired, ear, and she shrugged and put them back. I dodged a bullet, in the form of having to explain myself in enhanced screening, with that shrug.

Two, do not have your child conduct air travel with light up shoes. In all the hullabaloo of preparations it did not occur to me that my daughter’s sole pair of sneakers – which light up and have a charger – would cause security issues. [Insert face palm emoji] Of course they did. I enjoyed an extra 15 to 20 minutes at security trying to explain the concept of her shoes. They wanted me to light them up to show them, but I had never charged them, did not have the charger, and they had ceased functioning long ago. I explained this to one person, then another, then possibly a third, as they ran the shoes through the security machine repeatedly. At one point I told my daughter it was highly likely we would need to leave them and she would have to travel in her socks. She didn’t love the idea. I didn’t either, but I had passed the point of caring. Then suddenly we were told we could continue with the shoes. We hightailed it away as soon as we could.

Three, traveling with a cat in cabin is getting trickier every year. When I first traveled to China with two cats in cabin, I had developed a system of dumping (gently!) the cats into a pillow case so I could carry them through security while the soft kennel goes through the machine. I have read that cats find this temporary soft prison comforting. And that this method reduced the possibility of a scenario of a freaked out cat, jumping from my arms, possibly bloodying me in the process, and leading to a mad chase through an airport. I have a vivid imagination and can see exactly how that would happen. Now, I less than elegantly shoved my one feline, who had wizened-up to this technique and did not want to participate, into the pillowcase; her black tail swishing angrily out one end as I walked through the metal detector with as much grace as I could muster. For some reason the male security agent thought I had a baby – stuffed into a pillowcase. [Insert a shoulder shrug emoji] He made a cooing sound. But when the kennel came through and I then shoved a furry body back inside, the agents, too, wizened up. They demanded to know what I had just held through security. (I will note here that to my great relief, the security gate was nearly empty — there was no line of angry passengers waiting for my circus to end). This led to some discussion and displaying of the now rather pissed off cat. But I was then asked to walk back through security with the cat in my arms sans pillowcase. My cat, who hates to be held, must have been terrified enough, as she did not move a muscle, while scanning the airport wild eyed. I held her in a death grip, pretty wild eyed myself. Convinced the furry creature I held was indeed feline and not human, and not a security threat, we were allowed to proceed.

Waiting at the boarding gate though, I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker. I thought, perhaps I have been upgraded, and will have to sadly turn it down due to my entourage. But no, the Ethiopian Airlines agent wished to inform me that he had seen I was traveling with an in-cabin pet to the U.S. and unfortunately the U.S. was not allowing any pets to enter. This was false. About two months previously the Center for Disease Control had suddenly announced an ill-timed, ill-coordinated, and ill-planned ban on dogs entering the U.S. from 114 countries. This “ban” (though not a full ban as there are ways, at least for the time being, for pet owners to obtain a waiver with certain, though often difficult to get, information) was for DOGS only. I had a cat. But I had already learned that several other airlines had taken advantage of this CDC action to discontinue pet transport. I was seized with a sudden fear that Ethiopian had decided, that day, to follow suit. But apparently, the Gods of Travel, were again on my side and simply mentioning my pet was a cat led the agent to simply nod and walk away.

We made it on the flight to the U.S. I released a bit more breath. I had one more travel hurdle ahead of me. I was bringing my nanny with me to the U.S. As a single parent, I had struggled in the past to find child care when in the U.S. Although my daughter is now 9, she isn’t quite old enough to be at home alone, and sick days, school holidays that do not match mine, teacher work days, weather-related late starts, early dismissals, or cancellations can wreck havoc on a parent’s work schedule. However, and I am going to oversimply this because it is rather complicated, when a foreigner enters the U.S., Customs and Border Patrol (i.e. Immigration) usually gives a period of stay of up to six months. I needed to ask for the maximum period of stay of a year. For that I would likely have to go to “secondary.”

If you have ever entered the U.S. at an airport or a border, you are greeted by a CBP agent, who has only so long to review your information and ask questions. If additional questions or details are needed, those frontline officers do not have the time to do it, so one gets sent for additional screening or “secondary.” Although I was exhausted by 22 hours of flight time, 28 hours of travel time, all the snafus, and all the stress of preparations, I needed to be on the ball when we landed and presented ourselves the CBP. The first officer was very nice, but had not heard of the type of visa and said we would need to present our case in secondary. I was prepared to do so. What I was not prepared for was the hour wait in the additional screening area. This was not my first time to secondary as during my last Home Leave I had been selected for the honor and when I lived in Ciudad Juarez I was pulled into secondary a few times when re-entering the U.S. from Mexico. But this time, I had asked to go there.

There we waited. And waited. And waited. We saw many many people arrive, but few people leave. CBP seemed understaffed. I am sure some cases were complicated. Though I do not know CBP work first hand, I have certainly utilized CBP information in Consular work and I imagine the kind of information they see on their screens and the questions they need to ask are similar in many aspects to visa interviews. We were all tired. I clutched the pile of paperwork I had prepared to present our case. I watched the clock. C and her nanny, JMC, watched videos together and played word games, but they were bored and confused too.

At last we were called up and again I lucked out. The officer had previously been military stationed abroad with his Foreign Service (diplomat) wife and he knew exactly the kind of visa we had as they had researched it as well. The interview and review of documents did not take long and soon enough we were released with a one year period of stay stamped in the nanny’s passport. (And wouldn’t you know it, as we walked to get our luggage we ran into the first CBP officer just getting off shift and he stopped to ask me how it went. He was genuinely happy for us and said he was glad to learn about this type of visa. I love that kind of full circle stuff).

As we came out the double doors from security and immigration, I let out that last bit of air I had been holding in. We had made it! Hello, USA.