Restoration on the Lower Lake

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Beautiful early morning view of Lake Malawi from Sunbird Nkopola

It was a long summer.

I mean, weeks and weeks and weeks of covering for other positions empty during a transition gap, different duties due to a dearth in staff, and the unexpected because it was summer and we were short staffed and by Murphy’s Law this meant an uptick in political, economic, and consular activities.  It is one thing to anticipate it, but another to live it.  Do not get me wrong–I am not lamenting the work, much was quite interesting–but I was envious scrolling through the photos from weeks-long Home Leave or vacations of friends.  I might have had a wee bit of uncharitable, or rather undiplomatic, thoughts when a colleague told me in mid-August how he was so ready for a vacation, six weeks after returning from a month off in June.   It took a great deal of my diplomatic training to just smile and say “I hear you!” and not trip or shove him.  Diplomacy is such an amazing art.

It will still be six more busy weeks before C and I take off on a much deserved out-of-Malawi mommy-daughter holiday, but I decided that at least for the Labor Day weekend we would get out of Lilongwe, tackling some place on my Malawi bucket list.

Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa and is sometimes called the “Calendar Lake” as it is approximately 365 miles long and 52 miles wide.  On the western shore of Lake Malawi, about ten miles north from where the lake ends, narrowing drastically as it flows into the Shire River (pronounced Sheer-ray), lies the small lakeside town of Nkopola.  This was our destination for the weekend.

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The road through the high hills

Malawi is surprisingly hilly (surprising to folks like myself who prior to arriving had little knowledge of African geography).  The country sits at the southern end of the East African Rift; the north and central western portions of the country an undulating series of hills rising and falling between 2,000 and 5,000 feet above sea-level.  I decided instead of heading east and then south, we would first head south on the M1 and then just past Dedza, which skirts the Mozambican border, turn to bisect a high hill range towards the banks of the lower lake.

I had heard the road would bend and curve, yet I was still unprepared for the serpentine twists that with each turn would reveal yet another stunning view of the stark, yet beautiful, countryside.  Little traffic (there was more foot traffic than vehicles) meant I could stop on the road now and again for a few moments to snap a photo or simply gaze in happy astonishment at the vista before me.  C too gasped occasionally from the back seat.  This road took only about 40 minutes of the three and a half hour drive, but it stands out in my mind.

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Rooms built against the rock face

We arrived at the hotel just at lunch time and happily checked in, finding we had been assigned one of the unique rooms built into the face of rocky outcrop fronting the beach.  The rooms themselves were nothing to right home about.  There was a decent queen sized bed, a nondescript desk, and a too large chair that would not push under the desk enough to allow easy passage between the bed and desk.  Outside our window a large cactus obscured almost all view of the beach.  But you could hear the waves, see the bright sunlight glinting off the cacti thorns and a brilliant blue sky between cactus spines, and C breathed in deep and declared the air to be fresh and clean.

The room may not have been all that, but the lush hotel landscaping, particularly on the side of the grounds where are room was located (the other side were ground level rooms and rondavals with much less greenery) certainly made up for it.  Hungry we headed to lunch.  The tasteless interpretations brought to us left so much to be desired, but it being hot and beachy, we had little appetite anyway.  C just wanted to get her swimsuit on and enjoy the water.  Pool, lake, whatever.  We headed to the pool where C quickly made friends (it helps to bring diving fish toys and a giant inflatable sea turtle on which at least four kids can ride), and I enjoyed a book.  I felt inexplicably angry about the lunch service, but I could feel the tension beginning to melt away.

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The pathway to our room

We had a quiet evening.  By that I mean we did little but hang out in our room watching a Marvel movie on the television and dining on the half decent version of room service pizza.  However, a large conference of Malawian auditors rocked on late into the evening, the thumbing music from their venue reaching even to our location at nearly the furthest room away.  Still we slept well.

After breakfast on Sunday we drove the twenty or so minutes to the township of Mangochi.  Once called Fort Johnston during colonial days, it was originally established in the 1890s as a defense post on the Shire as it flows from Lake Malawi and as a deterrent to the Yao slave traders.  Today there are few traces of this colonial past.  We stopped to look at the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower built in 1901, its dilapidated clock face almost entirely missing, and a cannon from the Gwendolen, the Mangochi-built British gunboat and the largest ship to patrol Lake Malawi. It took almost as long for me to write that sentence as it took to circle the clock tower and read its historical markers.

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Despite its condition, the fact it remains standing and its placement at the edge of town and ahead of a bridge over the Shire, make it worth at least a cursory visit

C and I then headed over to the Lake Malawi Museum.  I only know of three museums in all of Malawi and I have been to “museums” in developing countries before, so I had set the bar appropriately low despite the surprisingly high marks on Google Reviews (six reviews giving it an average of 3.8 stars out of 5).  As we approached the single story ranch style building, which resembled a cross between a warehouse and a home, a sad metal playground consisting of a slide and the cross bars of a swingset without the swings in the yard to the right, it was not immediately clear it was open or operational.  The wide concrete slab in the yard likely a parking lot for cars that never come.  But two individuals, a thin older man and woman, sat on the porch next to the open door, giving more the impression of squatters than museum curators.  As I read the entrance fee of 500 Malawian Kwacha (USD 70 cents) and tried to hand over the money to cover both C and I, the man informed me in garbled English that the museum, though technically open, had no electricity.  I said that was fine, we would still go inside, figuring some windows would still provide some light.  But there were no windows and the darkness inside was near complete.  Not wanting to miss out on one of the major attractions of Mangochi, I asked the man if he had a light.  He pulled out a small torch and I lit up the flashlight on my phone and together we made our way through the tiny museum, past sad dioramas of Malawian wildlife, a replica of the deck of the Gwendolen, and a pathetic aquarium.  Well, if it had had fish it would have been poor, but the four small tanks empty of water and life did not even rate it the name “aquarium.”

As I handed over the money and thanked our torchbearer, and turned to leave, I mentioned to C it had been a waste of time.  She however insisted we go back inside one more time!  She said she had not seen enough of the boat deck, though I noted given how dark it was, it was hard to see anything at all.  She was adamant so we had a second visit.  C gave the museum 5 stars; I give it 1/2 a star, due in a large part for the amusing adventure of going through it in the dark.

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Beach view from the rockface stairs (the monkey on the roof also enjoying the scene)

Not relishing another poor lunch at the Sunbird, we had lunch at another nearby resort and then stopped at a wide expanse of dirt where dozens of goats were lazing about.  C dubbed it “Goatland” and boasted that she would easily catch a baby goat and implied we would then toss said goat into our car in and add to our growing menagerie.  Though I made it clear we would not be making off with some villager’s goat, I am glad C is not as good at goat catching as she proclaimed.  We then spent several hours on the beach – C playing in the surf and in the sand, with myself again reading a book.

The following morning I felt completely refreshed.  I took some time to just breath in the lake air and listen to the soothing sounds of the lake waves and the twitters of morning birds.  The restorative powers of a beach, nature, rhythmic swells, felt almost overwhelmingly strong.  Once again I felt surprised how even a few days of a change of scenery could do so much for my spirit.  C and I snuggled for a bit; how I love sharing these moments and places with her.  Then we packed up for the trip home.  Even the drive made me happy.

 

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One Year in Malawi

It has been one year since we arrived in Malawi.  I have killed approximately 3,755 insects.  This includes the Great Moth Massacre of 2017, when overrun with small light brown moths whose exuberant spawning blanketed all outside walls of my home drove me to terribly irrational behavior.  I grabbed one of my black slip-on Skechers and ran outside smacking moths right and left, determined to end the lives of at least 1000.  I did it, but my temporary insanity rubbed the skin of purlicue  (the fascinating word for the web-like area between your index finger and thumb) raw of my right hand.  There was also the Terrible Termite Invasion of 2017.  While sitting at the dining room table, a few winged termites lazily swooped around the room.  I wondered how they had come inside and wandered into the kitchen to search for the wonderfully named bug spray, Doom, only to find hundreds swarming around the ceiling light.  My reaction may have involved some cursing, mild screaming, and some jester-like leaping about.  There were also bees in my bedroom and wasps in the yard, and evidence of large spiders lurking about (about an inch and a half diameter — two found dead in my home but one killed with a bloodcurdling screech as it ran across the room straight for me in Majete).  And of course mosquitos–after all we take antimalarials daily.

I am on my third stove due to some of the frequent power outages, or rather the subsequent surge after the power came back on.  In all my previous years in so many employer-provided homes around the world, I had not lost a stove.  But here I lost two; they literally went up in smoke.   Then in the midst of the dry season I awoke to find my house flooded.  A pipe on my water distiller, needed as we of course cannot drink the water, disconnected and water flowed full speed for hours through the night, covering the kitchen floor, making its way through the dining room, down the hall, and seeping into the hall bathroom and each of our bedrooms.  And today I find myself once again at the Kwik Fit mechanics next to the Embassy for my second punctured tire from nails in the road.

It’s all just part of living in Malawi, or just part of a certain level of living in the modern world.  Sure I may have experienced more insects and electrical issues here than in other places I have lived, but these basically mirror the lives of friends in the US – bust water pipes, malfunctioning appliances, pest control issues, and flats.   Malawi is our home.

And we have really settled in.  From our glorious garden to the joy of having fresh eggs provided daily by Carmen, Can, Leash, and Lou, our sweet egg-laying chickens (they love being pet!), our home is an unexpected oasis such that I have never experienced before.  This jet-setting world traveler is quite happy to spend my weekends idly circumventing the yard, sitting on our konde (screened in porch) listening to bird song and feeling the breeze, or better yet napping in my hammock.  On Sundays we hold “chicken run” days, in which we let our birds have free range of the yard for 10-20 minutes.  And we have acquired yet another family member!    After lunch with friends at the delicious Chinese restaurant at the Golden Peacock Hotel, our daughters excused themselves early to explore and returned with news of something you just have to see!  Behind the kitchen doors they had found a cage crammed with rabbits…and that is how Judy the Bunny came to live with us (released to us—and our friends who rescued one too—for 4,000 Malawian Kwacha or about $5.50). A handy friend is building her hutch, while Judy currently enjoys the konde and the bounty of our garden.

We are settling in in other ways.  I have rekindled my passion for reading.  Well, I never lost my interest in reading, I simply didn’t have the time or energy to do so.  Yet over the past six months I have happily devoured at least 30 books.  While that may not seem much to some readers please consider my occupation, my parental status, my prolific writing (!), and other hobbies like traveling and dabbling in small-time farming and chicken and rabbit rearing, and then my ability to read is nothing short of a miracle and should probably get me some kind of spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.  Am I right?

C (and I) made it through her first year at Bishop Mackenzie International School. Although she had attended preschool in Shanghai, this was full day school including riding the bus. Well, full day for what BMIS calls “lower primary” is only 5 1/2 hours, but with bus times she is gone 6 1/2 hours.  For this night owl raising a night owl, it was the early morning hours that posed our greatest challenge. C’s bus picks her up at 6:30 AM!! To make sure we don’t miss the bus I wake up at the crack of dawn, or even before (!), then the  nanny arrives at 5:30 to wake C the beast and get her ready for school. On weekends we revel in sleeping in until 7.  But as hard as it is for C to drag herself out of bed in the mornings, she loves her school and so do I.  And now my sweet, funny, smart six year old just started first grade.

And work.  Wow.  What a year.  I arrived having never before done this particular position and being the only one.  Learning on the job is a State Department specialty and it has been a steep, STEEP learning curve.  But Malawi, well, what a place to parachute in and figure it all out.  Not only is Malawian politics and political culture fascinating (I’ll just leave this here:  Bloodsuckers.  Google it.  Never a dull day in Malawi), but it is also very accessible.   I have met a former President and Vice President, the First Lady, the Second Lady, Members of Parliament, political opposition leaders, up and coming leaders, prominent academics, walked right into various government ministries (and not been subsequently thrown out).

C and I were able to travel some around Malawi, the region, and further afield.  From Zomba and the lake at Senga Bay and Cape Maclear to Majete National Park.  I took C on her first safari when we visited South Luangwa park in western Zambia.  Holidays in Paris and Cape Town rounded out our year.  I fear this post is beginning to sound a little bit too much like one of those end of year updates people send out in their Christmas cards…

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Most people probably could not find it on a map, many have never heard of it.  But it has been my home for the past year.  This first year in Malawi has been an overall a quite happy, though admittedly difficult at times, adventure.  C loves it here.  She tells me often.  I am a fan as well.  The big news is we have extended for a third year in Malawi; we like it that much.  We look forward to what our second year here has in store for us.

Intro to Lilongwe

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Not much to see here folks

Here I am, nearly a year living in Lilongwe and only now beginning to write an introduction to Malawi’s capital city.   Yet it is just recently that I began to truly transition from Lilongwe being just a place I have moved to for work to a place where I live.  I am not a local; I am not a long-time expatriate.  Nor am I a mere tourist.  But I only wander so far; I have my routines.  So this is my introduction to Lilongwe.

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The Bingu International Conference Center and the President Walmont hotel, both Chinese-built modern marvels in Lilongwe

Malawi’s capital city is not particularly large, its population hovers around a million, yet the city is spread out with few buildings taller than two stories.  The tallest building in the city, I think the whole country, is the twelve story President Walmont hotel, located in the City Center.  Well, that is somewhat a misnomer.  Lilongwe’s core is divided by the Lilongwe nature sanctuary/forest reserve.  One one side the older part of the city, where the old town is located, on the other, newer side you find City Center, Capital Hill, most Embassies, including that of the U.S., and areas where most expats live.  The city is literally divided into Areas — all with numbers, a few go by names.  But its a patchwork with Area 10, 11, and 12 adjacent to one another but also next to Area 43.  Area 40 sits next to Area 13, 16 and 19 (and make up much of City Center).  We live in Area 10 and my daughter’s school is in Area 3, but they are across town from one another, 20 minutes by car on a good traffic day, nearly an hour on a bad one.  Confused?  Often so am I.  Sometimes I do not know why I bother to ask someone where they live because if they say some place other than Area 10, 11, 12, or 43, I would be hard pressed to know where they are talking about.

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A jacaranda-lined road in Area 10

Staring out the window of the airplane as we descended into Kamuzu International Airport, I strained to see signs of the city that would become my new home.  I could make out only a few buildings scattered among faded green brush and burnt orange earth.  Soon afterwards as we bounced along the two lane tarmac to town I wondered aloud the whereabouts of the city.  Having already driven a good 20 minutes I had yet to see signs of a capital.   That day it never really materialized as we turned off the M1 into Area 12, then Area 10 to my new residence, located in the relatively leafy, well-to do zone.  Our homes, with high brick walls, often topped with a profusion of barbed wires, and guarded by dogs or security personnel or both, do not necessarily scream “foreigner,” as there are locals and local government buildings scattered throughout these residential locations, but they most certainly project privilege.  Yet even those first days and weeks driving from home to the Embassy or to Old Chipiku, one of the most expat-oriented supermarkets, Lilongwe seemed remarkably unoccupied, provincial.  Only after more time did I expand my driving radius, finding there are in fact crowded, congested parts of the city, yet they remain outside of my usual stomping grounds.

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The monument to Malawi’s first president, President for Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda.  Now you have seen it.  You’re welcome.

There are not many tourist sites in Lilongwe.  Normally when I arrive in a new place, I like to hit the ground running and do some sightseeing as soon as possible.  Certainly in Shanghai, my bucket list was long and I had no time to waste.  Here, I focused more on just getting myself and C settled as a read of my guidebook weeks before had already informed me the touring would take little time.  There is the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, which will give visitors a one hour tour of the facility, though there are not many animals there, especially after their two lions passed away.  They have one of the nicest playgrounds in the city and a pretty good restaurant/cafe.  Sometimes they have concerts and show movies under the stars.  I expect many people might be disappointed by a visit, especially if they have already joined a safari, which is unlikely if they have made the trek to Africa.  But the center is still very much worth a visit as they are a major player in animal conservation in the country.

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Visiting the King’s African Rifles monument

Guidebooks also list the Kamuzu Banda memorial, the WWI / King’s African Rifles monument, and for lack of much else to add, the Parliament building.  The mausoleum of the country’s first president is wedged between Umodzi Park, with the Chinese-built President Walmont hotel and Convention Center and the Chinese-built Parliament building.  I do not know anything on Banda’s thoughts on the Chinese other than the Chinese Embassy assisted some of his political rivals to flee to Tanzania, thus with that he might not enjoy his final resting place.  But it is a quiet and pleasant place to spend 15 to 20 minutes unless Parliament is in session as then the grounds swarm with ruling party supporters.  Banda’s statue also graces the plaza in front of the WWI / King’s African Rifles clock tower, located not far from the Parliament.  Here you have a good chance of someone with some keys letting you inside to climb maybe 300 stairs to near the top landing where one has to switch to a narrow metal ladder hanging over the terrifying gap all the way to the cement floor below.  Our “guide” pushed my then-5 year old daughter up to the final landing and it scared the beejeezus out of me.  I insisted he get her down and she stand flesh against the wall on the stairs.  My heart pounded as I climbed up myself.  The one dingy window on that landing is set too high up for my 5’5″ self to look out so I took pictures holding my camera high above my head and hoping for the best.

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The view from the top floor of the President Walmont Hotel

Our lives in Lilongwe are quiet.  Weekends are generally spent at home, puttering about our yard.  We head to the Lilongwe Wildlife Center to recycle, stop by Old Chipiku for groceries, maybe get a mani-pedi up the street or head to my boss’ house to use the pool.  As one of the Marine Security Guards told me just before his departure — “Lilongwe is a nice enough place to live but if you are between the ages of 17 and 30 it is on the boring side.  There isn’t anything to do.”  Good thing C and I fall outside that age range and thus for us Lilongwe is pretty okay.

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One of my favorite things about Lilongwe are the advertisements on the trees

Faces of Malawi: Fruit Sellers

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Seventy percent of Malawians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per person a day.   Therefore for the vast majority of the population, life is hard every single day.  I do not understand those who say those who are poor are so because they are lazy.  Here I meet so many people who work really, really hard yet find themselves just keeping their and their families’ heads above water.

Located in Area 4, close to the center of the oldest part of Lilongwe, is the “Old” Chipiku supermarket.  It is called the “old” one to differentiate it from the newer one found in the center of the Old Town.  It’s chaotic parking lot is half dirt and half chewed up asphalt.  At the far end of the parking lot are a few large trees where the fruit sellers have set up their makeshift selling center.  They are not the only fruit sellers in town of course, there are plenty of corners and parking lots where fruit sellers may congregate, but I have found the largest concentration to be at the Old Chipiku.

These are young guys.  They range in age from 20 to 32, and most of them have sold fruit the majority of their adult lives, some even starting as children.  They work from 6 AM to 6 PM, seven days a week.  They have little to no time for hobbies.  Most live in either Area 36, the outer part of Lilongwe proper or in Bunda, rural Lilongwe.  It costs between 500 and 1000 Malawian Kwacha (MWK) (68 cents to $1.37) one way for them to get from home to work.  They live with their mothers, their wives and children, or on their own; none of the wives work.  Housing costs range from free to 8000 MWK ($11.00) a month.  Each week they clear on average 5000-6000 MWK ($6.85 – $8.22).  So although these young men work twelve hour days, 84 hour weeks, they live below the international poverty line.  They do not dream big, they just want to live a bit better, have more stability and regular income.

We talked in English although the majority do not speak it well, just enough to make a sale with English speaking customers.  Those who could understand and speak better assisted with Chichewa-English translation.

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Steven

 

Steven is 22 years old.  He lives with his mother in rural Lilongwe.  One of five children, he has been selling fruit since 12 years of age, for ten whole years.  Basically since he left primary school.  When asked about his hobbies, he was at first very confused as he doesn’t have much free time with twelve hour days and an hour commute each way.  Pressed, he revealed he enjoys playing football (soccer).  If he could do anything else for a profession he would like to be a mechanic.

 

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Leonard

 

 

Though he looks older, Leonard is only 21 years old.  Not only that but he is married with two children, one six years of age, the other one.  He usually sells papaya, but when it is not in season he works on his mother’s farm; she grows groundnuts (the groundnut production in Malawi happens to be dominated by female-headed households).  One of seven children, with three brothers and three sisters, his parents could not afford his school fees, so he only finished two years of secondary school.  He also enjoys playing football in his little free time and would also like to be a mechanic.

 

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Willard

Willard is 32 years old, married with two children.  He has been selling fruit for 17 years!  Willard has a certain aggressive, but charming, method to approaching customers.  It must work as among the fruit sellers interviewed, he reported the highest weekly profit – 20,000 MWK ($27.40).  In his free time he not only plays football but also makes wood furniture.  If he had the money he would like to become a driver and build his own home.

 

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Ishmael

 

Ishmael is 25 years old and has been selling fruit for 12 years.  Originally from Mangochi, he lives in Area 36 with his younger brother.  He is still single because, he says, he is just not ready to settle down.  He too enjoys playing football, but if he were to have another job, he would like to be a “big businessman,” though the type of business does not really matter to him.

 

 

 

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Ibrahim

 

 

Also from Mangochi, Ibrahim is 28 years old and has spent the past seven years selling fruit.  He was the only Muslim among those interviewed, which matches the approximate 15% of the population who identify as Muslim.  He is single and lives alone in Area 36.  He only finished primary school, but has dreams of being a mini bus driver.

 

 

 

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Saidi

Saidi is 30 years old, married with two children.  He is fairly new to fruit selling, having only been doing it for three years.  Previously he grew cotton on his own plot in Mangochi.  In Malawi, cotton is primarily grown by smallholders in the south of the country, but the industry had not been doing well the past few years.  He wishes he could be a freelance mechanic — he wants to take work when available and set his own hours but have better pay.  In his free time he plays “draft” or draught, the British word for checkers.

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Zachias

 

 

Zachias is a 28 year old from Zomba.  He only finished primary school.  Previously working as a manual laborer, he has only been selling fruit for three years.  He is married with three children.  They live together in a single small apartment, what they all referred to as “boys quarters,” with one bed for 2,500 MWK ($3.42) a month.

 

 

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Onesmo

 

 

Onesmo is 25 years old and has been selling fruit for five years.  He is originally from Zomba, in south-central Malawi.  He is married with two children.  Like the majority of the fruit sellers he only finished primary school because his parents could no longer afford the school fees.  (Although free primary education – through the first eight years – was introduced in Malawi in 1994, but secondary schools charge fees).  If he had the chance to do anything else, he would like to be a mechanic.  He said he had no hobbies other than praying.

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Levy

 

Levy is 31 years old.  He seemed the most serious and educated of the group.  Born in Chiradzulu, in the south-west of Malawi, he nearly finished high school when his parents both died in quick succession from an illness he would not name.  With four brothers and three sisters, he had to make a living somehow and packed up his bags and came to Lilongwe.  That was 11 years ago and he has been selling fruit ever since, now supporting his wife and two children.  He would really like to sell a durable good.  Selling fruits is inconsistent, they spoil quickly and there is no guarantee each day how much will sell.  Cell phones seem like a safe bet for him.  In his free time he enjoys playing “draft.”

 

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Francis

*Francis is 31 years old.  He is married with two children.  Unlike many of the other sellers, he has only been in Lilongwe for three years, and only selling fruit for a year and a half.  Previously, he sold hardware but changed to fruit because he makes more.  Before Lilongwe, he was one of Malawi’s many smallholder maize farmers.  In 2015 periods of drought and then severe flooding led to a sharp decline in maize production.  He would also like to be a driver so he could earn more.  Since he has a history of steadily moving into better paying jobs, of all the men I interviewed I believe Francis just might get there.  Francis is the reason I wanted to do this photo-story series.  He is my go-to fruit guy.  He always has a smile on my face.  The day I went to visit the fruit sellers for photos and interviews, Francis had left early to return to Mulanje to bury his mother.

During the interviews the atmosphere was jovial. These men were eager to share their stories and have their photos taken.  They joked and laughed and their spirit was infectious.  But later I felt a sense of anger and sadness overcome me.  The stories so depressingly similar, the dreams so simple, yet deceptively so as they are, for the most part, unobtainable.  My privilege so glaringly obvious as the groceries in the back of my car cost twice their monthly take home.   At 2000 MWK a pop, I had spent 16,000 MWK just on eight bottles of flavored water, what they might net over two and a half weeks.  And I am very aware that my posts on Malawian life are uncomfortably juxtaposed with my vacation and travel posts–activities so far out of the reach of the average Malawian.  These are but some of the faces of Malawi.

 

Malawi: The First Summer Begins

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Sleepover fun with star light

Summertime.  Remember when you were a kid and you looked forward to the hot, leisurely days with your friends through a long school-less summer?  Maybe you even piled into the family car for a drive to the beach for a week?  Spent a week or more at a summer camp?  Or maybe you do not even have to think back that far — you might be on your summer holiday right now.  Perhaps a road trip?  Or spending some time at the lake or at a mountain cabin?  Have your toes dug deep in some sand?  Whenever summer comes around I still associate the season with those long languid days.  I long for Summer Americana.

Foreign Service summers though are different.  In the Foreign Service, summer generally means either you are transferring or you are covering for those who are (or those who have to take mid-tour home leave), and thus watching colleagues, some who have become good friends, leave.  Summer is the end of an era.  One in which you are too busy to mourn until September rolls around.

As this summer gets underway, it feels even stranger.  In Shanghai I did not take any leave between May and September for either of the two summers.  But then again, neither did anyone else — all my co-workers in the visa trenches slogged through the high visa season together.  Here though, in this much smaller Embassy, we are on the cusp of a very busy, and somewhat lonely, summer.

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Sleepovers mean sleeping fun in the living room

OK, hold up.  I know, do not cry me a river.  I DO get vacations.  Absolutely.  I was just in Cape Town last month, Paris in April, and last Spring you would have found me enjoying a not-at-all-shabby seven week Home Leave.  I am not at all vacation deprived.  But indulge me if you will, because while the Foreign Service certainly has its perks, it has its downsides and sacrifices too.  I try to keep it real.

One downside is the transfer season position pile-up.  This is not my first rodeo–summers in the service are always busy, but this is the first time as the sole direct-hire Foreign Service officer in a section at a small Embassy.  I am the political-military officer.  I also cover the economic-commercial office in the absence of that individual, and back-up the Consular officer.  This summer there will be gaps–multiple weeks with no Economic, Consular, or Public Affairs officers.  I am also a social sponsor for an arriving family, an office sponsor for another new officer, and will serve my duty week (when Embassy personnel man the after hours American citizen emergency line) this summer.  And politics in the country are heating up ahead of next year’s elections.

Another downside is the wee bit of mommy guilt that sometimes tickles in the back of my brain.  Here I am giving my kid an international life full of once in a lifetime experiences, but my parental conscience pricks me all the same.  She is the single child, of a single mother, whose job requires us to move every few years.  Maybe “guilt” is not quite the word, but I wonder at times about this lifestyle and the effect it will have on my daughter.  Last year we lived in three different countries on three continents, so while it is a relief to not be moving this year, the goodbyes happen regardless.

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Now that her friends are leaving, C has to get creative with her playmates — she invited our chickens into her play fort.  (the cats are also thrilled at her increased desire to cuddle and play with them)

C just finished up her first year at the international school.  She has 8 1/2 weeks off before the next school year begins.  It is not just that it is the summer holiday and she will not see school friends for awhile, it is more than that.  Several of her friends are leaving, or have already left, Malawi for good.  And now that she is older these friendships mean more to her than in the past.

To help her say goodbye, we hosted sleepovers for the first time at our house for four of C’s best mates who would move away this summer.  I tried my best to make them Sleepovers To Remember.  We had movies and popcorn, turned our rooms into dance clubs with revolving colorful star displays on the ceiling and C’s favorite pop songs “blasting” from my mini speakers, and did fun crafty things like make suncatchers or Shrinky Dinks.  We stayed up late.  We went to the Italian restaurant around the corner in pajamas.  We had chocolate chip pancakes.  The guest child got to collect the eggs from our chickens in the morning.  I repeatedly heard THIS IS THE BEST SLEEPOVER EVER.  Top Parent Award Achieved.

The final sleepover was perhaps the hardest.  C’s best friend is our next door neighbor WW.  Like C he is six, enjoys music, playing for hours, and butt jokes.  He and my daughter are thick as thieves.  I think back to when I was five and six and my next door neighbor Kent was my best friend.  He too moved away after Kindergarten.  Dang, this is going to be hard.

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Ready to walk to “summer” camp in the chill

It is what it is.  A phrase that rolls off my tongue with increasing regularity.  To try to stem the summer boredom and sadness I have come up several ideas to keep C engaged.  She will attend “summer” camp the first week of July (actually one of the coldest months in Malawi with temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit overnight/early morning) with the possibility of additional weeks (the nearby preschool offers up to four weeks for children aged 2-8 at a cost of $5.50 per day).  I am increasing her guitar lessons from once a week to twice.  Recently I started reading chapter books to C, so I bought several books to read this summer such as James and the Giant Peach, The Indian in the Cupboard, and My Father’s Dragon.  One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year is to do more arts, crafts, and activities with C, so I ordered several things to facilitate this (because I just do not have the energy to be a Pinterest mom).  I have art supplies, Kiwi Crates, and an Easy Bake Oven I gifted C as an early half birthday present.   I ordered “American History in a Box” for Kindergarten and First Graders, a great resource for American kids living overseas and attending schools that do not teach U.S. history.

Basically, I have got a ton of things for C to do.  I just wish I could take some time to spend with her doing them, but that is not in the cards for me this summer.  It is certainly not going to be Summer Americana.  It’s more Summer Foreign Service Style.

 

 

Conjuring Paris Memories

Three years ago I knew I would someday soon write this post.  As a teenager I had visited Paris and then thirteen years later I returned while in graduate school.  I thought it would be fitting to return yet again after another thirteen years, this time with my daughter.  Though I missed the mark by three years, C and I did make it this year, and what a trip it was!  So many things that could go wrong did.  I could not have foreseen how either this year’s trip or this post would turn out, especially how digging into my memories would reveal some surprising similarities — it turns out that every trip to Paris has had its hiccups.

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In the Latin Quarter – for some reason the only photo I have of the 1989 trip to Paris

Summer 1989.  My sisters and I spent a month with my aunt and uncle in Frankfurt, Germany.   This was my first time traveling overseas–the trip that would launch all the rest.  For the July 4th weekend we took the train to Paris for a four day holiday.  If you know Paris in summer then you know it is hot and crowded.  If you know your Paris/French history, you then realize July 1989 was the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the start of the French Revolution, and French independence.  Also, the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower.  Perhaps not the best time to visit Paris.  Yet we did.

It has been so many years but I still remember quite a few things.  We stayed in a B&B on Montmartre.  I noted in my journal “we trudged up steep hills and stairways, dragging our luggage…but it [the hotel] is quaint and the owner is a kindly, cheerful man whose wife will serve us breakfast to our room in the morning.” Yet that merry man and his wife later locked my sisters and I out of the hotel.  They did not want to give keys to children and one evening while my aunt and uncle caught a show at the Moulin Rouge, we went to wander the artist stalls.  Returning just after 8 PM we found the front door bolted tight, all the lights off.  What could we do but ring the doorbell?  Again and again, til finally they grudgingly let us in.  We were on their sh*t list after that, but the croissants they brought in the morning were still buttery soft and delicious.

At the Arc de Triomphe we were, for some unknown reason, unable to find an underground passageway so we ran across the roundabout, all six lanes or so of traffic.  Probably not our brightest idea, but it was certainly exhilarating!  We then walked to the Louvre.  It is not actually all that far, but at the time I thought it took forever!  Temperatures were high and we were sweating; the Champs-Elyses and Jardin des Tuileries were lined with flags from across the world as many foreign leaders and tourists were in town for the 200th anniversary celebrations.  I saw a Tale of Two Cities chess set in a store window along the way and wanted to buy it, fancying myself a budding chess player or at least chess set collector (neither of which was borne out).  We arrived at the Louvre to find the line so long we did not even go in!

Also, although we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame, we spent little time inside and did not go up to see the gargoyles or the view.  Instead, we hung out in the park behind the cathedral feeding the pigeons.  At some point, while waiting on a subway platform, we were subjected to tear gas wafting in from above.  That was my first tear gas experience (I had have two more, both in Korea).

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                                         Extraordinary — 2002 but nearly the same view as 2018                                            (and no, I did not check my old photos before my new trip)

Fast forward to Spring 2002 when on a lark I decided Paris would be my graduate school Spring Break destination.  Seeing Paris alone as a 30 year old is very different than as a 16 year old with family.  I am sure that does not come as a surprise to anyone.  And yet once again things did not all go as planned.

Six days was the perfect amount of time in Paris.  I visited the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Musee d’Orsay, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Picasso Museum, the Dali Museum, the Rodin museum, Montmartre, Notre Dame, the Montparnasse and Pere Lanchaise cemeteries, the catacombs, took a river cruise and a bike tour.  I think I covered just about everything. 

2 ParisBut I was so tired when I arrived and then the airport was confusing.  There were signs, but I do not think they told anybody anything.  I changed money at a terrible rate with a horrible charge, and could not work the phones (although truthfully I don’t think anyone could — foreigners were staring blankly at payphones all over the airport), and was treated rudely by some guy at the tourist information counter who surely thought I must be a moron given I was unable to work the phones  Welcome to France!

My visit to the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, and the Musee d’Orsay went off without a hitch.  At Notre Dame I not only spent more time inside the church but even ventured to the tower.  The Louvre though was a different story.

On Monday I went to the Louvre.  It is a really big place.  It is said that if one spent one minute before each of the art works exhibited it would take 200 days, 24 hours a day, to see it all.  I arrived just after 9 AM and took a break at 12:30 for lunch in the Louvre cafe.  After lunch I planned to spend another hour there and was on my way up to the 2nd floor, when a siren went off.  Whir-whir-whir.  Then an announcement: “All patrons should now exit the Louvre immediately.  You will be notified once the security situation has returned to normal and you can return.”  The elevators and escalators were shut off as well as a number of rooms sealed.  [This was a year before the Da Vinci Code came out – but I saw those security doors come down]  What was happening?  When I reached the foyer, people were still being sold tickets and entering the museum.  I asked a guard and he said he did not know what was going on but that it seemed okay to go back in.  I spent another hour on the 2nd floor; there was no other announcement about the “security situation.”

3 ParisAnd then there was the visit to the Arc de Triomphe.  As I arrived in front of the Arc and starting towards the underpass, a police caravan rode up.  Two motorcycles and about five trucks of police.  The police jump out, in full riot gear, with helmets and shields and such, and stand in formation on the circle facing the Arc.  What is happening?  I look around for snipers or a jumper or any situation that would warrant this response.  Nothing.  Just other tourists milling around.  The underpass is closed to I walk to the other side.  The police in the tunnel do not do anything to stop walkers.  Turns out there was a strike of hospital personnel that day and the police were there for them.  After 15 minutes the stairway to the Arc reopens and the police caravan turns on the sirens and speeds away.

A last minute trip to the Cemetery of Pere Lanchaise ended in a frantic rush.  I made it to Jim Morrison’s headstone before two guards approached me to let me know they were closing.  There was still 25 minutes left but they told me at 5:30 the gates were locked and they let the dogs out.  I tried to find the grave of Frederic Chopin with their directions but I was too preoccupied with being locked in a cemetery at night with dogs hunting me, so I just headed for the exit.  And the search for Victor Hugo’s home took far too long wandering small streets only to find out it was closed.

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A beautiful day in Paris — one of my most absolute favorite pictures of me

What really stays in my memory though is my bicycle tour.  I barely remember where we went but only that I loved seeing the city from a different angle.  I had walked, and walked, and walked around the city for hours on end  (Oh how I loved all that walking! I miss being in a walkable city), so a few hours on wheels was very refreshing.  The weather was quite warm for March–I was in a t-shirt–and the sky sunny and clear.

I found myself on the airplane waiting on the tarmac about to head home.  I sat staring out the window.  And then there was this strange sound.  A ticking sound.  Several passengers around me could hear it.  And the flight attendants were looking for something.  The plane continued to sit just a little way past pushback.  Tick. Tick. Tick.  The flight attendants rushed down the aisle.  We sat there a good 10 minutes and we began to move.

Fast forward to April 2018 and as we sat on the airplane bound for Addis Ababa listening to a deportee yelp in the back of the plane, flight attendants rushing up and down the aisles, and concerned passengers looking around and I thought of my past and present Paris trips – of the tear gas, the labor strikes, unpredictable weather, closed for renovation museums, odd airplane events, and other out of the ordinary experiences.  Though heading home again, I already looked forward to the next Paris adventure and hope it will not be so long in coming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Escape to the Cape (Town)

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C jumps for joy atop Table Mountain

Cape Town.  I have long wanted to visit.  In 2010 I visited South Africa.  I was living in Jakarta and one of my best friends was living in Luanda, so we met up in Johannesburg for ten days of Jo’burg, Pretoria, and Kruger National Park.  But not Cape Town.  So after years of hearing about the city that some say is their favorite in Africa, and others say is their favorite in the world, it was time to experience it for myself.

Cape Town.  I have long wanted to visit.  In 2010 I visited South Africa.  I was living in Jakarta and one of my best friends was living in Luanda, so we met up in Johannesburg for ten days of Jo’burg, Pretoria, and Kruger National Park.  But not Cape Town.  So after years of hearing about the city that some say is their favorite in Africa, and others say is their favorite in the world, it was time to experience it for myself.

First we had to get there.  Seems simple enough.  Go to airport.  Get on plane.  Fly to South Africa.  If it is just you traveling, it probably is that straightforward.  If you are traveling with a minor…  Nope.  In 2015, South Africa instituted new laws for anyone — South African or otherwise — traveling with children under the age of 18.  Along with a passport, your child(ren)’s unabridged birth certificate is now an essential travel document.  This is if you are one or two parents traveling together with your kids.  If you are married but not traveling together, you need to have the affidavit granting permission.  And if you are a single parent you are supposed to travel with whatever document gave you that status — a divorce decree, a death certificate.  My status is fairly simple; I have never been married and I am the only parent on the birth certificate.  Yet that fact seemed to complicate things when traveling to South Africa with my child. The year before the American Citizen Services section in Pretoria had said I would be good with just my daughter’s birth certificate.  It was time to check that.

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View of Chapman’s Peak and Hout Bay from SC’s home

We rolled up to the check-in desk.  I smiled at the woman.  She smiled at me.  I handed over our passports.  Then she asked for the birth certificate and an affidavit.  I handed over the BC but said I did not have an “affidavit.”  The woman left the desk with the BC and huddled together with another woman.  They looked at the BC.  They looked at me.  They looked at one another.  What the what?  She then returned and began typing away on the computer – not a word to me.  Were we getting boarding passes or not?  After some seconds that felt much, much longer, I asked.  She told me the BC was sufficient.  Whew.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  But then she stepped away again.  Again some consultations with the supervisor.  She returned.  “I am afraid that we are going to need the affidavit.  Please step aside.”  Oh no!  I pulled out my secret weapon–a notarized document everyone had told me was unnecessary.  She looked it over, told me all was in order, and then printed out our boarding passes.  Crisis averted.  We were on our way!

Our flight took us to Johannesburg, where we cleared immigration (no single parent issues there), and then flew on to Cape Town.  My friend from college, SC sent an Uber to pick us up.  It took a wee bit of work to find him.  Once in the car I joked with the driver that the parking garage at the airport is larger than most buildings in Malawi (though I expect its true).  We wound through the darkened streets from the airport to SC’s home.  Even in the darkness, the development compared to Malawi was obvious.  At SC’s home, a smallish but beautifully appointed condo fronting the beach at Hout Bay, SC and I spent time catching up on old times and new while C and SC’s daughter M got to know one another.

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Norval Foundation sculpture garden

On our first full day we puttered around in the morning in our pajamas having a long leisurely breakfast while the kids played.  We took advantage of SC’s amazing view of the bay from both her yard and balcony.  Then we all headed out to the Norval Foundation to meet a half dozen of SC’s mom friends and their kids for a Mother’s Day lunch.  It was an interesting group, including another American Foreign Service Officer (working at the Cape Town Consulate) and another single mother.

The Norval Foundation is a just-opened (only two weeks before our visit) private museum of contemporary and South African art and sculpture garden, in addition to an incredibly beautifully designed restaurant.  There we gathered for an epic luncheon lasting over three hours.  Part of the reason it took so long was extremely slow service, but it was also the conversation.  And while the moms talked, the kids took advantage of the garden.  I regret I did not walk the whole garden or visit inside the museum!

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C as a squirrel monkey playground

On Monday SC had some morning meetings and M had preschool, so I booked my very first Uber driver to take C & I to the World of Birds (and surprise, surprise, our first Uber driver was a woman from Malawi!).  My initial impression of the place was not favorable.  I thought we might only spent 30 minutes, maybe an hour there.  But I was wrong.  World of Birds may predominantly feature birds, but there are many other animals there.  C particularly enjoyed seeing the guinea pigs, marmoset, servals (mostly she enjoyed that one serval took an immediate dislike to me and growled and hissed at me), and the squirrel monkeys.  The last were the absolute best as visitors can go inside the enclosure, sit still, and if monkeys crawled on you, then so be it.  We easily spent 30 minutes there alone.  C also loved the birds.  She took a liking in particular to the golden pheasant, which she immediately (and correctly) identified as Chinese.

 

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Penguins at Boulder’s Beach

That afternoon we met up again with SC and M, and headed to Noordhoek via the stunning Chapman’s Peak drive (rated as one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world).  There we enjoyed a long, late lunch while the children wore themselves out on the playground.  At 4 SC headed out–she would fly to London that night on business.  The girls and I returned to SC’s house for an evening of play and silliness.

 

Tuesday found C and I saying goodbye to M and her nanny, then Uber-ing to our hotel in the heart of Cape Town.  We settled in quickly and then walked to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront.  There we rode the Cape Wheel, visited the Two Oceans Aquarium, and searched for the best rocks at the Scratch Patch.  These were all fun, but there were also simple pleasures we had missed in Malawi — eating at McDonald’s (please do not judge — there are none in Malawi), walking through a shopping mall, the presence of sidewalks.

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View of the Peninsula from the Cape Point lighthouse

The following day we headed out on an epic tour of the Cape Peninsula.  We were once again blessed with stunning weather.  I had planned for weather in the region of 60-70 degrees but we were getting mid to upper 70s, even 80s.  The sky a dazzling blue.  While some may eschew the group bus tour, I sometimes find it provides just what we need.  This tour took us to Boulder’s Beach at Simon’s Town to see the penguins and the Cape Point National Park, to include the lighthouse, funicular, and the Cape of Good Hope.

IMG_0807This is someplace I had long wanted to visit, but I can not even begin to describe seeing it in person, being there with my daughter.  Everything was perfect.  Well, not everything.  There are downsides to taking a group tour after all.  One being having to wait for folks who are not conscious of other peoples’ time.  There was a walking tour from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope.  The guide informed us all beforehand that the hike would require a level of fitness, i.e. those with heart, back, feet, knee, breathing or other such problems should not join.  And still someone joined who should not have, and we all had to wait an extra hour for that individual to make their way to the bus.  This brought us back to the city late and earned us another hour sitting in traffic.

The obligatory trip up Table Mountain was next on our agenda.  Again, the day broke to reveal another absolutely beautiful day.  We took the hop on hop off sightseeing bus to the Table Mountain visitor’s center.  I had read of the potential long lines at the aerial cableway and could hardly believe our luck to find there was no line at all!  We simply paid and walked right on.  The gondola is large, it can hold 65 passengers, but it too was only half full.  What magic was this?  And then, the car began to rotate.  No kidding.  Although I had read up enough to know the aerial cableway existed, I had not known it would turn.  Mind blown.  And the views.  Wow.

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View from the cable car as it nears the top; a dassie chills out

At the top we took our time.  With the temps in the 70s and us standing 3500 feet atop a near-bare stone plateau, we were in need of some popsicles.  While looking out towards the southwest, with the spine of the mountains directly in front with the ocean against one slope, we caught sight of what appeared to be a large rodent of sorts on the terrace below.  My daughter, being the animal lover she is, identified it as a hyrax.  Turns out locals call them dassies.  But dassie or hyrax they were plentiful and inquisitive, and our visit to Table Mountain turned into as much about spotting these creatures as drinking in the breathtaking views.

We continued on the sightseeing bus back to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront for lunch and then a short cruise of the harbor.  We were sleepy, lulled by the warmth of the afternoon sun and frankly little else we would see that day could compare with Table Mountain, though having Thai food and frozen yogurt at the mall sure came close.

DSC_0068The next day C and I ventured 45 minutes out of Cape Town to the Cheetah Outreach Centre.  C loves cheetahs.  They are her spirit animal.  In fact, she has told me for at least two years that she is half cheetah.  It’s true – that she tells me that.  In researching Cape Town I had found out about this place where one could not only see, but also touch cheetahs.  I had not realized how far out of town it is located.  I began to think it would be easier not to go, except that C would never forgive me.  Though I tried to explain the distance, she looked stricken at the idea of not going.  I had to make it happen.  Part of the problem was that my data roaming, though on, did not work.  I could order an Uber when connected to wi-fi, but otherwise could not.  There is no wi-fi at the center.  I thought of renting a car, but just was not keen.  I thought of pre-ordering an Uber for pick-up but was not sure how long we would need and concerned that without a connection to data, I would not be notified of the pick-up car details.  I took a chance though of just ordering an Uber and leaving it to fate to figure it out later.  And it worked.  The driver asked us how we were getting back and I took down his number and called him when we finished.

Given C’s age we were only able to take part in the adult cheetah encounter (she was too young to pet baby cheetahs, meerkat, or bat eared foxes).  No matter.  It is not every day you get the chance to stroke the fur of a live cheetah.  Though the Uber there and back cost more than the entrance and encounter fees by double, the big smile on my daughter’s face was, as they say, priceless.

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C and a squirrel have a chat

Afterwards, we headed back to town and on to the Company’s Garden.  Originally set up in the 1650s to grow produce for the Dutch East India Company “refreshment station,” where ships restocked on the voyage from Europe to the East Indies, it is now a heritage park on prime real estate in the center of old Cape Town.  And while the site of a beautiful historic garden is a good enough reason to visit, it is also the home to some incredibly hungry, and tame, squirrels.  At the park entrance several vendors sell packages of nuts to feed the very friendly rodents.  We hardly made it ten steps when a squirrel confronted us.  He knew the deal.  He knew we were newbies.  He knew enough to try to get our attention before we even entered the formal part of the garden.  Before we met his many friends.  He lucked out but so did many other squirrels.  I have never before in my life seen squirrels just run right up to people, climb up their leg, sit on their shoulder, and try to pry nuts from one’s hand.  It was so awesome.  I almost forgot that we had pet a cheetah that morning.

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Guinea fowl in Kirstenbosch

For our final day, we headed to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.  Located on the lush Eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch is touted as one of the most beautiful botanic gardens in the world.  Certainly the setting is hard to beat and the dramatic backdrop reminded me of the Limahuli Gardens in Kauai.  Our favorite part of the gardens was probably the tree canopy walkway, which literally snakes its way through the tree tops 12 meters off the ground, so much so that it is referred to as the “boomslang” (tree snake).  Our visit coincided with our first cloudy day, yet the views were no less amazing.  SC and M joined us for another long lunch at the wonderful Moyo restaurant located at Kirstenbosch.

It was not easy leaving Cape Town.  It is easy to see why it is a favorite destination.  I very nearly had to drag C kicking and screaming to leave.  She insisted she wanted to stay.  I could hardly argue; the trip had been near perfect.  We hit so many of the highlights, enjoyed fabulous weather, spent time with friends, and had many, many great experiences with wildlife.   The Cap has spoiled us for upcoming vacations.