Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Three: Arrival in Rarotonga

The continuation of my three-week Pacific Island travels in the summer of 2004, just after completing a research assistantship in Honolulu.  From the Big Island of Hawaii, I would head 3,000 miles due south to the small 15-island nation known as the Cook Islands.  Named after British navigator Captain James Cook who “discovered” the islands in 1773, the islanders are now considering changing their name to one that better reflects their Polynesian nature. 

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Kia Orana or “hello” in Cook Islands Maori – how lucky to find the #1 license plate

The regional jet departed Honolulu full to the gills.  Many of the passengers were Samoans who would disembark at Pago Pago in American Samoa.  I would continue on to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.  Most of my second leg fellow passengers appeared to be locals, and they all seemed to know one another.  At landing at 12:30 in the morning, the flight attendant announced, “Checked luggage can be found at Carousel 3… Mind you, we have only one carousel.”  This made everyone on the flight laugh.  We needed something to wake us up.  As we stumbled toward the terminal, it suddenly came to life.  The lights were made brighter, a ukulele player began to play and sing, and the two immigration officers opened for business. To get the 22 of us through took only ten minutes.

I had reservations at the Tiare Village Hostel, located just behind the airport.  I made these reservations frantically by phone from the Honolulu Airport when I realized that very morning that booked accommodation was a requirement for entry into the Cook Islands.  Although no one actually checked, I was happy to have someone picking me up at the airport at nearly 1 AM.

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Cooks Corner — downtown Avarua

The following morning, a Saturday, I woke up early as I was told the hostel manager would drive newcomers into town on the first day for “orientation.”  It turned out to be quite informal with the orientation only consisting of the manager just pointing out the market, the banks, the information center (closed weekends), and the center of town.  The tour took just a few minutes.  Taking advantage of the lift into town, I ate lunch at a busy cafe/pizza/ice cream joint in the center of town near the roundabout (the only one on the island), then wandered about town for a bit, bought groceries, and walked back the 30 minutes to the hostel.  As I was quite tired from the flight and early morning arrival, I spent the rest of the day lazing about.

The Cook Islands are a group of 15 islands in the South Pacific.  They are divided into two groups, the Southern and the Northern.  The Northern Group is quite isolated and made up of smaller islands, generally accessible only by yachties.  The Southern Group is the more populated.  The total population of the island nation is about 15,000 with around 8,000 living on the main administrative island of Rarotonga.  The Cook Islands are a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand.  It has its own government, parliament, and prime minister as well as traditional government districts.  There are eight traditional tribes on Rarotonga, seven of them are led by females.  But more Cook Islanders live outside of the nation than in, mostly in New Zealand and Australia.  The islands use New Zealand money, though they also mint their own, including the very collectible three-dollar bill.

cook islands 10On Sunday morning I attended church at the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC).  The service was mostly in Maori, the traditional language of the Cooks.  The local patrons were dressed in their finest – with women in colorful flower-patterned dresses and traditional straw hats; the men in flowered shirts.   The pews and beams and pulpit are made of a warm reddish medium wood, while the walls are a white stucco and the ceiling painted an aquamarine green – the kind popular in the sixties.  Though it seemed an odd color in and of itself, it worked in this church with its simple stained-glass windows.  Those sitting in the center section were clearly the most serious of church goers.  They stood up first for songs, sang the loudest, and sat down last.  They were also the best dressed.  Those on the lower section’s outer seats seemed the second tier of church goers.  Maybe they had not arrived quite in time to claim the middle seats for the day, but they were still dressed in their colorful finest and sang the hymns with vigor.

I sat in the upper section, which just might be the area for those who treat church more as a social occasion than a religious one.  There were many children up here, in bare feet, fidgeting.  Many simply ran around.  One boy scooted his way across a pew on his stomach.  We moved our feet to let him scoot by.  The boys on the opposite side seemed intent on poking each other as much as possible and looking at some cards they had brought with them to pass the time.  Two young, mischievous girls sitting in front of me played with their rubber bracelets, each other’s hair, and whispered things to each other and giggled.  A young teenage girl to their right sat with her mother or aunt – a very serious churchgoer who seemed to choose the upper section as a perfect vantage point to carefully watch the congregation, maybe so she could gossip later about those she felt were not properly pious.  Her daughter too gave the giggling girls a hard stare, though it was more for her mother’s benefit I think, as she looked as if she longed to join them.

The primary reason I attended the service was to hear the congregation sing, as they are famous for their harmonies.  Indeed, it was lovely.  Maybe, in part, because they sang in Maori?  But also, the men and women sing different verses almost the fashion of a round.  Most of the time the singing was pretty much in tune.  At times, it did seem the words and tune were getting away from the singers and the reverend seemed to stare at the ceiling, on to heaven, willing his flock to find their way back to the harmony.  It was a very enjoyable hour.  Afterwards, the reverend invited myself and the two other hostellers to tea and we might have joined if we were not scheduled to attend something else in the afternoon – Piri Puruto III’s great show!

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Piri Puruto III lecturing us

Piri Puruto III is a 60-something-year-old man who performs his show most days of the week.  On Sundays he includes a traditional Cook Island lunch and dinner prepared in the umu – the underground oven.  We picked leaves for our plates, large leaves for the lunch, and then we weaved our plates for the dinner.  Piri believes everyone should participate in the cooking to truly appreciate the food.  I had to fetch a whole chicken from a bucket of saltwater, stuff it with local spinach, wrap it in noni leaves, then wrap the whole package with larger leaves, tying it together with the spine of the leaf.  After all the food was prepared, we placed it in the umu, and covered with many leaves, with Piri yelling orders at us like children with short attention spans.  He asked us to call him teacher.  He would yell at us, “students, get the leaves!  Get them!  Hurry.  Why are you moving so slow?  Teacher tells you do something, you do it!”

Then the show began.  Piri Puruto III climbs coconut trees.  We all sat in a circle while Piri prepared.  He had changed from his tank top and sport shorts to a tanned leaf skirt, bare chest, and coconut husk helmet.  He chanted in Maori as he entered the circle and began to tell his life story.  Born on one of the other islands, as a child he witnessed the last inter-tribal war.  He moved to Rarotonga as a teen, and then went on to Auckland to participate in boxing tournaments – winning his first title in 1959, and holding on to that title until 1964.  And now he boxes coconut trees.  We all follow him down the rocks in his backyard to the beach, and across to the beach to a magnificent palm, I don’t know how high – maybe 50 feet or more.  He makes some speeches.  Tells us that when he climbs, we must be ready to take pictures.  When he tells us “Students, prepare your cameras!” Then we are to do so immediately, or else miss the picture.  The guy was a complete ham.  But climb the tree he did.  With a rope binding his feet together, he spit into his palms, wet his toes, and scurried up the trunk, high into the air.  At the top he made his way into the fronds, stood atop the palm, picked a coconut, yelled at us to get our camera’s ready, and threw the coconut into the air.  Then he checked we indeed had taken a picture.  On the way down he did some acrobatics, skirting the trunk of the tree, holding the trunk and throwing his feet out to the left and to the right.  He all clapped as we were certainly expected to!  It was all shameless attention, but good fun to watch for sure.  He made his way back down and we headed back to the house for dinner.

Before we could eat though, we had to make fire!  The traditional way.  From the coconut tree, Piri had brought back a coconut, as we needed coconut fiber #1, coconut fiber #2 and coconut fiber #3 to do this properly.  I was a lucky one to help with the fire making, as my spit was used to roll together coconut fiber #2.   Then the men were to help with the logs, and we all had to chant following Piri’s example.  He told us the making of fire was like the act of making love.  The whole circle had a good laugh at this, and he said, “no don’t laugh, I’m serious.”  He said he would translate our chant in English.  It went something like Bang 1.  Bang 2.  Bang 3.  Bang 4.  Bang 5.  Bang 6.  I am man.  You are woman.  Fire!  And he furiously rubbed some bark against the log.  And a spark started.  Coconut fiber #1 is used to catch the spark.  It is then burrowed into coconut fiber #2.  Then the whole thing flamed with coconut fiber #3 and we had a big flame!   The dinner of baked chicken, potatoes, fish, and lamb, with local spinach, coconut and bananas was ready for the eating.  It was all in very good fun.

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One phase of sunset in Avarua harbor

It is fascinating to go back to my diary and stories from this visit.  I remember little of the things I wrote about, but I recall other details.  For instance, standing in Avarua harbor to watch the most incredible sunset I had ever seen.  With the quiet pace of island life, a 30-minute walk to town is not only exercise but an enjoyable activity.  So, one afternoon I strolled from the hostel to the center of Avarua, the Cook Islands’ capital and administrative center of the island of Rarotonga.  I stood marveling at the late afternoon light bathing the green volcanic hills rising behind the Avarua fishing harbor.  Then I turned to face the other direction and my breath caught in my throat.  Even to this day, I have not seen a sunset that equaled the extraordinary beauty of that one.  The sky changed from daylight blue to yellow, then orange, pink, purple, and finally to blue.  Standing alone in the shallow, rocky waters of Avarua bay at low tide just waiting and watching the sun and its light slowly sink below the horizon might be one of the most magical moments of my life. 

 

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Two: Big Island Sightseeing

The continuation of my “last hurrah” whirlwind three week trip to three Pacific Islands.  This is the second part of the Big Island — when my German travel companion Carmen and I finally stopped screwing around, finally figured out our transportation issues, and started to actually see some of the sights.

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Rainbow Falls

As Carmen and I drove back up from the lava coast, the clouds descended around us again, and dusk descended.  We drove to the small town of Volcano, a lush rainforest oasis of deep green ferns and dark red flowers engulfed in a light mist and chilly fog.  We planned to stay the Holo Holo Inn but had no map with it on, and with the growing dark and fog it was difficult to see the road signs.  We stopped in the small general store to ask directions.  The store had a very small town feel to it; a real general store stocked with just about every necessity.  Not a huge selection mind you, but enough for the artists who live in the area to not have to drive far for groceries.  I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew where I could find the inn.  She said she didn’t know.  But the tall white-bearded man who had just made his purchases, and was on a first name basis with the woman, told her she surely did.  He said it was just off the road near the Japanese school, and he says some Hawaiian road names.  She disagreed and said it is off another road.  He kindly tells her she is wrong and proceeds to tell us how to get there.  The woman good-naturally laughs at herself for not knowing the location.  The whole conversation had that warm feeling that comes from people in a small town knowing each other well, of regulars and long-time store proprietors joking with one another.

As Carmen and I drove up to the wooden house next to the Japanese school, it seemed dark.  The front driveway was littered with all kinds of garden and mechanical tools.  Carmen took one look at the place and said maybe we should just go.  It did seem almost deserted.  But when we rang the bell, the door was opened by a small blonde boy followed by a young Asian woman with delicate features.  In heavily accented English she welcomed us inside and showed us around.  The place was really beautiful.  All made of rich warm wood.  Wooden floors, walls, and ceilings.  Though it was chilly outside, it was a nice temperature inside, enough for bare feet upon the floorboards.  Our wooden bunk beds topped with heavy warm blankets.  The kitchen had a high ceiling, with large Japanese paper lamps hanging from the ceiling over a wooden table.  The cupboards were well stocked with beautiful Japanese ceramic plates, bowls, and cups – all for the hostelers use.  It felt very homey.

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Lava Trees State Park

On my fourth day on the Big Island we drove the rest of the way around the stopping to see many sites along the way.  The weather outside of Volcano was gorgeous.  Warm, crystal blue skies.  We drove first to Lava Trees State Park.  The lava “trees” were formed when a volcanic eruption some 200 years ago swept through the forest.  The lava climbed up the trees burning them but then hardening in the shape of the former tree trunks- making hollow lava cones of varying heights.  The drive, once we found the tricky turn, was gorgeous.  Huge trees on both sides dusting the two-lane road with leaves, and just a touch of sunbeams filtering through.  It felt a bit more like a drive in New England than in Hawaii.  The forest itself seemed almost primordial with tall, old, moss-covered trees.  A short circle trail led us around the ghostly lava trees.

We headed next to Rainbow Falls just outside Hilo.  The falls were absolutely beautiful – perhaps one of the best falls I have ever seen.  They were tall and thick, falling into a lush pool at the bottom, with a large cave behind them – supposedly the one-time home of the goddess Maui.  At the top of the falls, just before the water gushed over the edge, there was a large boulder which split the falls into two ribbons of water.  In the early morning or afternoon, if conditions are right, there is often a rainbow across the water, but unfortunately, we were not there at the right time.

On next to Akaka Falls State Park via a 4-mile scenic drive.  At the falls we were rewarded with two falls, much taller than Rainbow falls, though thinner as well.  At the top of the trail to the falls we sat at a picnic table and had our lunch of bread and cheese and fruit.

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Waipo Valley lookout

On next to Waipo Valley lookout.  The drives were not long, perhaps an hour here or an hour there, but very pleasant.  At the Waipo lookout we stood on a cliff above the Waipo Valley and the sea, with a tremendous view of the undulating cliff coastline, the sparkling sea, and the beginning of the low valley.  There are some good treks and horse riding in the valley but they are costly, so we did not have anything planned.  But seeing the view was worth the drive.

We then drove through the town of Waimea with a magnificent view of Mauna Kea rising in the background, it dwarfed everything else on the island, rising quickly to its height of 13,800 feet.  The road ended at the town of Hawi, where the original statue of King Kamehameha the Great, the first king to unite the Hawaiian Islands – born on the Big Island – stands. (And in one of those amazing coincidences of life, I happened to be watching Hawaii 5-0 while editing this story, and the episode happened to be one in which they feature this original statue.  I was thinking, I just read about this…in my own story!)

Then we drove along the coastal road another hour to the Pineapple Park Hostel to the town of Captain Cook (where the famous navigator who discovered the Sandwich, or Hawaiian Islands, met his end).  Carmen and I stepped into the reception area of Pineapple Park at 8:30 pm.  The office was closed but there was a sign saying to ring the bell for after-hours arrivals.  Unfortunately, on the other side of the shuttered reception window was another sign indicating the hours were 7am to 7 pm and that THIS IS HAWAII – WE ARE NOT OPEN AT ALL HOURS.  The sign did not inspire confidence as I hesitantly pushed the bell and cringed.  A Japanese woman came from the hallway behind us, saying in a decidedly unwelcome tone “What do you want?”  I explained we wanted to stay.  “How many of you?”  The two of us were standing right in front of her…Of course, she made a point of telling us the usual hours are 7 to 7 and made such a case out of it as if we were really being a bother and she was being tremendously nice to let us stay.  I had a hard time not rolling my eyes.

On the wall of our room was a list of the hostel rules.  Some made some sense, some I found a bit humorous (copied word for word):

  1. No abusive- belligerent or disruptive behavior tolerated (must fit in)
  2. No drugs of any kind – alcohol in moderation
  3. Must be a traveler and have a picture I.D.
  4. Quiet hours 10 pm – 6 am; kitchen, TV, up stairs lounge closed after 10 pm
  5. Must have clean clothes and no offensive smell
  6. Must clean up immediately after using kitchen
  7. Five minute shower
  8. Do not take others food or drink

You will be asked to leave on the first violation – ALOHA

I had to crack up at the “ALOHA” in capital letters at the end of the list.  I hardly felt the Aloha Spirit emanating from this hostel.  What would happen if I haven’t had a chance to do laundry (i.e. have dirty clothes) or I do not fit in with the others?  And the five-minute shower?  Well, without the lock or even being able to close the shower door completely, I imagine I will be taking the quickest shower ever.

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Hanging with some Hawaiian tiki friends

On the morning of the fifth day, Carmen and I woke up early to head out to swim with dolphins.  There was a small bay a short drive away where dolphins were often spotted swimming.  I did not really feel comfortable swimming with dolphins, but I thought it might be nice to see them.  Besides, I knew in the water I would not have my glasses and would probably not see a dolphin at all.  At the bay, a man pointed out some dolphins in the water.  I didn’t see any dolphins, only human beings floundering about in the bay.  But I took his word for it.  We entered the bay from a rocky shore; I am talking about mini boulders.   They made it difficult to get in the water.  We nearly fell a couple of times.  Carmen pulled on her snorkeling mask and paddled off.  I stood waist high in the surf, feeling the pull of the waves as the water rushed back to the sea.  It was a strong pull, nearly pulling me off balance.  The crashing in of the waves was also strong.  I tried to stand my ground.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a large wave knocks into us both.  I was tumbling underwater over and over.  After some 20, 30 seconds, I do not know how long, I stood up.  I called out to Carmen to see if she was okay, she was also calling for me.  Her flip-flops floated by.  Even my strapped sandals had been ripped off forcibly by the wave.  I think my hair was standing straight up, matted with sand.  There was sand in my ears.  Later I found a pound of sand pushed into the top of my swimsuit.  Carmen and I both agreed our little foray into the ocean was over for the morning.  We violated the five-minute shower rule back at the hostel.

Our next, and last, sightseeing stop was the Historical National Park Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (which means Place of Refuge at Honaunau).  This was an area where the Hawaiian ali’i (royalty) lived.  It was also a place where those who broke the strict rules of traditional Hawaiian conduct might find redemption – after swimming across shark infested waters.  In times of war, women, children, those unable to fight or wounded soldiers could also find refuge here.  In times of war in Hawaiian times all people were considered fair game in battle, and only those located in compounds of sacred refuge could be spared.  Sounds brutal.

hawaii 5Nowadays the Historical Park is peaceful.  The wall of the compound is all that still exists from traditional times beside white sand, a glittering sea, and reconstructed straw huts.  In one large boat house, an old native Hawaiian carves the traditional totem or Ki’i that guard the entrance to the landing lagoon reserved only for ali’i, and the site of some reconstruction, from evil spirits.  In the small lagoon a sea turtle swam around, another basked in the sun.

The following day I took Carmen to the airport and return the rental car; we said our farewells (though we remain Facebook friends to this day).  Later the same day, I embarked on my own flight away from the Big Island, leaving behind a magnificent view, but looking forward to the next leg of my journey….

 

 

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part One: Big Island Beginnings

Every so often I dip into the email stories I wrote during my pre-State department, pre-mom travels.  I review, edit, and re-package them.  In the summer of 2004 after completing my six-month research assistantship at the Pacific Forum-CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii, I embarked on a three-week trip to the Big Island, Rarotonga in the Cooks Islands, and then Samoa.  After the trip I would participate in my assistantship final seminar, graduate from my Master’s program, and start looking for work.  I figured this trip would be my last hoorah for some time, as I would soon join the world of government work.  The trip would inspire me in ways I had not expected, and eventually led to my first published op-ed and my second published academic article, both on Chinese influence in the South Pacific.  My stories are sometimes far more about the vagaries of travel – the transportation hiccups, the interesting people one meets on the road, and unexpected adventures – than about the places themselves. 

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Carmen and I stop for a break from Volcano National Park on the way to Kona

My flight left Honolulu for Hilo, on the eastern side of the Big Island, at 10 in the morning and landed an hour later.  I was at the hostel by noon.  As it was a Sunday, there was little to do in Hilo, with most shops closed.  I only walked around a little, had some lunch, and did some grocery shopping.

I met another woman at the hostel who struck me as odd.  She was from north central England, with a thick accent I could barely understand.  What really struck me is her plans to travel around the world for a year.  When I asked her about restaurants near the hostel, she told me she did not know because, as she said, she “did not eat foreign foods.”  I wonder how she will ever survive her trip.  I would love to run into her a year from now and see how she faired.

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Lush green rainforest of Volcano National Park – Hawaii is not all beaches

On Monday I was up early, trying to figure out what I would do that day.  I was thinking maybe a helicopter ride over the volcano, but was still unsure I wanted to pay the price.  I thought perhaps I might rent a car and drive around on my own or to Mauna Kea, but I learned that to return a car to Kona, on the other side of the island (a whole 2.5 hours away), I would be charged an additional $85 for the drop-off charge; and one cannot drive to Mauna Kea in a rental car because the road is bad and the tour companies forbid it.  A rival hostel in town offered stargazing tours to Mauna Kea for the incredible price of $96, even though the stargazing program on the mountain is actually free!  The idea of them raking in nearly $1000 for 10 people with only the cost of gas there and back, perhaps $30 for a van, made me a feel annoyed and I was thus reluctant to give them a call.

On my first day I had met Carmen, a paramedic in the German army; she also wanted to go to Kona.   After two 6-month tours in Kosovo she was granted this five-month holiday.  She asked me what my plans were for the day, suggesting we could go to Kona together.  However, after the unfortunate news from the rental car agencies, we sat wondering what was best to do.  There is but one bus on the island that travels from Hilo to Kona once a day, from 2:30 arriving about 5:30.  It seemed I would have no plan for Monday and much of Tuesday would be spent on the bus.  I was beginning to think my five days on the Big Island would be a total bust.  Then in walked Sharifa – another woman staying at the hostel – doing her masters in Environmental Science at Yale and studying tropical plants, with field research on the Koa tree in Volcano National Park.  More importantly, Sharifa had a rental car, was driving to Volcano National Park, and then onto Kona to renew her car at the airport there.  And she asked if we might like to go along.   Carmen and I practically leapt to our luggage in a single bound to begin the frantic packing.  Sharifa said she would meet us outside in the parking lot across the street.  Packing was done in record time and soon Carmen and I and our bags were cozily ensconced in Sharifa’s beautiful black convertible and we were motoring down the road.

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I fancied myself quite the black and white photographer – this is one of my favorites –  ropey pahoehoe lava

Because Sharifa needed only to pick up a research permit at the Volcano National Park, we had only 30 minutes in the visitor center and a walk on a short trail overlooking one of the craters.   The rich volcanic soil and the high elevation create a lush rain forest atmosphere, and where there are rain forests, there is most certainly rain.  And it rained.  The clouds rolled in across the crater and it disappeared in the fog.  It grew cold and we huddled for some time with warm drinks near the fireplace at the Volcano Inn and looked at the photographs of magnificent eruptions, which lined the wood walls.  Sharifa needed to get her permit and be in Kona to renew her car rental before 5 o’clock and so we piled into the car and headed off.

Once we were some ten minutes out of the park, the sky cleared, the convertible top came down, the CD player was turned up, and we barreled down the road in high spirits.  On one side of the road dark grey glistening volcanic rock sloped upwards to the clouds heading for the peak of Mauna Loa.  On the other side the same moonscape rock dropping downwards towards the sea.  A fascinating landscape with sometimes dramatic vistas appearing before us of the dark blue sea alongside cooled coal-grey igneous rock.  At times it grew cool and would sprinkle some rain and the top would go up on the car.  The wind would pick up and we would feel chilly.  Not exactly the weather one might expect in Hawaii, but the Big Island temperature and climate is amazingly diverse.  In the winter, even the peak of Mauna Kea is covered in snow while the beachside with be basked in warm sun and temps in the 80s.

Hawaii 3As we bid Sharifa farewell at the airport, I made a reservation for my own rental car the next day.  This was a big deal for me as I could not recall the last time I had driven a car.  The Kona hostel, located in a residential area, was not easy to find because there was not a sign at all.   The manager had a weird laugh after just about everything he said.  He was young, around 30 years of age, and although he laughed, he did not seem pleasant.  Carmen immediately told me in the room she did not want to stay there another night.  I also felt bad karma from that guy.  The hostel was new and clean, but the guy made the whole thing feel like an episode of the Twilight Zone.  Carmen and I walked down to the supermarket to get fixings for dinner and spent an early evening in the hostel reading, showering, watching tv, and eating.

We were up the next day to head over the airport to pick up the rental car.  We were out of the hostel before 9 am; we did not say anything to the manager as we left.  The tricky part was getting to the airport.  Although just seven miles out of town, there is no bus because, of course, America.  We tried to flag down a taxi but the first one told us we had to have a reservation.  We asked if he could call in and tell a taxi to pick us up and he said he would, but 15 minutes later and two taxis had passed us in the opposite direction without turning around or stopping.  So, we walked to a gas station.  We asked the woman behind the counter if she would call for us and she did, but it turned out that one company was so busy they were not picking up their phone, the other said it might be an hour.  I thought of Mr. Weird Manager back at the hostel and kept checking my watch.  I had a feeling he would not like it if we checked-out AFTER the check-out time.  There was a man standing in line next to us and I asked him if he was heading by the airport and if he could give us a lift.  A minute later he signals us from the car a thumbs up and Carmen and I get in.

A line awaited us at the rental car counter.  We were back at the hostel by 10:15 to find the door to the hostel locked and neither of our keys working.  Suddenly Mr. Weird pops up from nowhere behind us and in an unfriendly tone tells us our keys will not work.  He opens the door telling us he had already removed our things from the room because of the 10 AM check-out time.  He makes an unpleasant comment about the amount of luggage we have, followed by his disturbing laugh.  He even helps us to take our luggage to the car, but not out of any kindness I am sure.  He seemed quite eager to be rid of us, and Carmen and I felt quite happy to pull out of the drive and see the back of that guy.

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Lava pouring into the sea

We headed back to Volcano National Park and drove around the crater road stopping to take pictures of the lava flow formations, of steam rising from craters, and sniff the sulfuric air.  The air was cold, the sky grey and overcast.  Light misty rain fell.  However, as we drove down Chain of Craters road towards the sea, the clouds disappeared and the blue sky and sea appeared below.  It was a beautiful drive.  The sides of both roads were covered with undulating hard lava flows from the past several decades.  The sight was almost surreal.  The ocean was the most incredible blue.  At the bottom of the road, alongside the sea we parked our car.  The road once continued along the ocean, but with the more recent lava flows it had been closed.  We walked over the hard lava on the road, occasionally coming across buried road signs.  At the end of the pedestrian trail, where visitors could proceed no further as the lava, though grey and cooled was nonetheless still molten under its crust and still inching toward the sea, we could observe the red-hot lava pouring into the sea.  Great billows of steam rose up as it dripped off the island into the sea.  Here I was standing just 100 feet from an active lava flow.  Incredible.

 

Malawi Elections: Politics Front and Center

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The stage is set for the third and final Presidential debate

I generally do not blog about my job.  Not that I do not have an interesting one, I do, but my blog is instead about myself, my daughter, our travels, our life abroad.  And my job enables much of that, but its not all I am about.  One thing I like to write about though is what I see around me, the everyday of Malawi.  And right now my job and the everyday are one and the same.

I am a political officer, so my job is to understand the political situation in a country – how the structure of government, the methods of decision making, the form of representation, the formation and implementation of policies come together to shape the country and its domestic and international relationships.  As a traveler, I have always been intrigued by more than just the tourist sites, but also the interplay of history, politics, and culture.  Elections brings politics front and center and give one a fascinating peek into the character of a country.

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Makeshift voting booths in a school courtyard in the October 2017 by-elections

Malawi will hold its general elections on Tuesday, May 21.  Ten days from now, Malawians will go to the polls to elect their President, Parliamentarians, and Local Councilors.  This will be their sixth democratic election.  And I am here to see it happen.

Actually, this whole shebang has been unrolling since I landed in Malawi.  Within weeks of my arrival in August 2017, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) held six by-elections for parliamentary and local councilor seats that had been vacated.  Already, the rivalries for 2019 were on display.  Like the good ole U.S. of A, Malawi starts campaigning real, real early.

With my observer identification, I had an opportunity to visit several polling sites to observe the process.  Although I have voted in a good many elections in the U.S., I have almost always, by nature of my nomadic overseas lifestyle, done so by absentee ballot.  On only three occasions have I voted in person and two were small local elections.  In 2008, I voted in person in a presidential election.  At the time I lived in Washington, D.C., and I found it thrilling to stand in a line that spilled outdoors and around a corner.  For the first time I truly felt the thrill of exercising my right to vote.  Watching Malawians do the same was at least equally exciting, perhaps more so given how much more Malawians have to go through in order to vote.  There is no early voting, no absentee ballots.  Polling stations are often at schools, many in poor shape.  October is hot and dry, there may be little or no shade.  Though these were just by-elections in a few constituencies, and turnout was not high, I was nonetheless impressed, even moved, by those who made the considerable effort to vote.

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Seeing election fever first hand (from left to right) Democractic Progressive Party youth supporters; dancers open up the People’s Party convention; United Transformation Movement supporters show off the new party clothing

As the pre-election season continued I attended many election-related events.  The MEC launched its electoral calendar; I was there.  Some government events turned into political rallies; I was there.  After April 2018 by-elections in the southern district of Mulaje turned violent, the Multi-Party Liaison Committee, a district-level conflict management group made up of district election officials, traditional chiefs, political party representatives, local police, and more, met to hash out what happened; I was there.  When the current Vice President defected from the ruling party to launch his own; I was there in the crowd.  And when the People’s Party held its convention and re-elected former Malawi President Joyce Banda to lead the party again, there I sat, just one row behind her, the only mzungu (“white person” in Chichewa) in the audience.

As the country moved into its voter registration exercise (prospective voters cannot register whenever they want but only during specific two-week timeframes in their respective constituency), I too had the opportunity to observe the process.

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I was thrilled to be in the audience at the final Presidential election, the signing of the national peace pledge by presidential candidates, and attend the National Prayer Breakfast held at State House, the equivalent of the U.S. White House.  I have met in person two of the presidential candidates (the President of Malawi and the leader of the Malawi Congress Party), the former President Joyce Banda, and the wives of the Health Minister and the current Vice President (both accomplished women in their own right).  Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

There is so much excitement and pageantry in Malawian elections.  While in the U.S. we have a two-party system, in Malawi there were 52 registered parties at the beginning of this election season.  In reality, many of those are small “briefcase” parties, but there are seven running for President (one Independent) and 14 contesting parliamentary seats.   Supporter clothing is vibrant, and often in traditional fabric called chitenje; its so much more than just red and blue.

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The three main contenders — get these to hang on your rear view mirror

I feel incredibly privileged to be here in Malawi at this time, to watch a young and vibrant democracy in action, in a country that serves as a model in the region and the continent.  It is of course my job to cover these issues, and as such I have had greater access than most, but my interest goes beyond my career.  This is history in the making and the outcome — no matter who wins (and its anyone’s game at this point) — will shape this country for years to come.

 

Namibia: Superlative Spring Break Part 2

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Heading up the Spreetshoogte Pass — sometimes the best view may be behind you

After our visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund we headed west to the seaside town of Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast.  Leaving Cheetah View Lodge we picked up a mother and son hoping for a lift to Otjiwarongo, the closest town.  On our trip we had already seen at least a handful of people standing by the side of the road hoping for a lift.  Though later we also saw quite a few no-hitching signs, at this point we had not yet.  I would not pick up a single male or a group of males, but a mom and young son, dressed in his school uniform?  There was little along that dirt road and they could be waiting quite some time.  Along the way we chatted.  The mother told me their lift had left them behind and she needed to get her son to town to complete some paperwork before school resumed after the Easter break.   She asked me what I thought of Namibia so far and I raved about the great roads, which, to my surprise, she responded that many Namibians complained about the state of the road system.  This really made me think of relativity — sure, there were places with more paved roads, but in comparison to the roads of Malawi, Namibia seemed a road paradise.

road to the coastWe dropped them in the center of Otjiwarongo and then headed southwest.  This road too was paved and in good shape, but I had miscalculated the distance and it took us an hour longer than expected.   As we approached the coast the green scrubs gave way to desert, and a fog descended, the clouds swallowing up the blue sky.

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Swakopmund in sun, from the end of the jetty

Arriving in Swakopmund we were surprised to find it chilly.  Before coming to Namibia I had set my weather app for Windhoek, and had packed accordingly.  However, while the app indicated a wonderful 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Windhoek, it was hovering in the upper 50s in Swakopmund!  We checked into the hotel, headed out for a late lunch, visited the small museum, and then I purchased myself my very own souvenier fleece jacket (I had had the forethought to bring C’s jacket).

The following day we were up early and soon on our way to the Cape Cross seal reserve.  Cape Cross is so named for the cross Portuguese explorer Diego Cão placed in that location in 1485.  The seal colony is the largest breeding colony of cape fur seals (actually a type of sea lion), with numbers over 200,000 animals!

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Seals between us and the parking lot; surrounded by seals at the replica cross

The sky was an overcast grey, the fog thick, as we made our way out of Swakopmund north to Cape Cross.  Although friends’ had noted the gravel road could be rough, it had been paved in the years since they left the country.  Yet, the sand had blown over the road and soon everything from the road, to the sand, to the mountains, and the sky took on the same steely tan color.  Every so often there were small stands set up on the roadside with various sizes of quartz locals had dug up in the desert.  However, no locals manned the stands, instead the purchaser is on their honor to leave the correct amount in the makeshift plastic banks.  As we closed in on the reserve entrace, a lone jackal made its way across the sands; I was far too slow to capture it with a photo.

Seals as far as the eye could see!  Hundreds of thousands of noisy honking, snorting, seals lying around nearly every available surface, loping across the sand, and cavorting in the waves.  The parking lot was surrounded.  The smell…was, um, frangrant.  We made our way to an enclosed boardwalk, we had to hoist ourselves over to one wall as there seemed no entrance.  Once inside, we could get quite close to the seals hanging right next to the boardwalk.  In fact, towards the end  two seals, who had sneakily made their way onto the walkway, blocked our forward movement.  When we tried to have our pictures taken near the replica of the Portugese cross, one seal kept making aggressive lunges toward me.  I screamed and the laughed as hard as I have in a long while.

Back at Swakopmund the fog lifted and the sky shone gloriously blue.  We had another incredible lunch, then headed for a walk along the beachfront to the very small national marine aquarium, then to the jetty.   Finally we headed to the Krystal Gallerie — mostly a super fancy quartz jewelry store, but it also has a small museum, a little cave to walk through, and a “scratch patch” where kids can buy a small bag and then pick out as many stones as they can fit into a bag.  C LOVES this kind of stuff and a really great time picking out her own “precious jewels.”

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C horseback in the moonscape

Our third day began with an hour horse ride to the moonscape outside of town.  Okakambe stables set us up with a wonderful guide, Noah, who knew exactly how to give C the perfect ride.  Although initially they had us set up with Noah’s son who would walk holding C’s lead, I convinced him C had enough horse experience to do it on her own.  He trusted me and C did a great job.  But that was not it, Noah gave C riding tips, and made her laugh at silly things, like when his horse began wandering away on its own.  Afterwards he tasked her to help remove her horse’s tack, clean its hooves, brush its coat, and then lead him back to the field.  The whole experience completely made C’s morning.

We then drove over to Walvis Bay, as I wanted to see some of the flamingos that flock there each year.  We were able to catch sight of some (maybe there were close to a thousand?), far fewer than the tens of thousands that are there at the height of the season.  Back in Swakopmund we were met by our living desert tour.  With our guides we headed into the dunes just south of Swakopmund and with a miraculous eye they saw tiny trails — little footprints, slither marks, small indentions in the sand.  They found us a Namaqua desert chameleon, a Fitzimmons burrowing skink, a shovel-nosed lizard, a sidewinder adder, a horned adder, and a super friendly Gray’s lark.

17 living desertThere was so much more to do in Swakopmund I was reluctant to leave, but we were heading south-east, back inland, to the Namib-Naukluft Desert, the oldest desert in the world.

It was Good Friday and as we headed south toward Walvis Bay, we were stopped in a long line of cars waiting at a police checkpoint.  Ugh.  There was nothing to worry about of course, but no one likes to wait in a police checkpoint.  And this one turned out to be absolutely nothing to worry about — they were handing out paperbags of Easter candy to motorists!  Another score for Namibia.

After Walvis Bay we headed into the desert and, for the first time, off the tarred roads.

road to solitaireMiles and miles of sandy gravel — stunning vistas but with few, if any, signs of civilization.  No houses, no gas stations, and almost no other cars.  It was exhilarating and also a wee bit scary.  This is where I was especially worried that I would blow a tire, run out of gas (although I had filled up before leaving Walvis Bay), or have some other car trouble, like run into an oryx that suddenly jumped out in front of me.  I had a long, long time to think, to daydream, and also come up with crazy stranded by the side of the road scenarios.  There were enough cars that should something happen someone would likely be along in about an hour, and we had plenty of water, but not something I wanted to experience with C on vacation (or ever).

166At long last we arrived at the town of Solitaire.  Well, town might be a bit of a stretch.  Solitaire is a gas station, bakery, lodge, cafe, general store, and mechanics at a t-junction, the only stop between the coast at Walvis Bay and the dunes at Sossusvlei.  The population is probably less than 100 souls.  The sandy yard around the settlement is littered with colorful and photogenic old rusting cars.  We stayed at the Solitaire Desert Farm seven kilometers away, down a sandy track towards some rocky red hills, that at sunset burned crimson.  The evening was still, with the exception of what I guess were jackals yipping playfully somewhere near our lodge.

We woke early, grabbed our pre-packaged breakfasts from the refrigerator and headed south to Sossusvlei before the sun rose.  This road too was gravel, yet rougher than the one from the coast.  But the hour drive went by quickly as watching the sun rise across the desert was truly magical.  We paid our fees at the park gate and headed straight for Dune 45.  There were some 30 people trudging their way up, a dozen at the top, and probably a dozen on their way down.  Whew.  Here we would go — a middle aged woman, not at her peak physical condition, and a seven year old child.  The climb, according to what I had read online would take 45-60 minutes; we made it in 35 and I felt really, really good about that.  No matter though the view would rejuvenate anyone.

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C heads back down Dune 45

Next we drove on to the parking lot at Sossesvlei where we caught a park shuttle bus to take us out to where we would walk out to Deadvlei.  Along the way we saw the results of stubborn people intent on driving themselves those last few kilometers — many a 2×4, and even a few 4x4s, tires spinning, sunk several inches into the sand.  Our shuttle picked up a few who were at least temporarily abadoning their vehicles in the interest of making the walk before the sun got too high.

We trudged through the now burning sand (we were barefoot for the hike up Dune 45, but now the sand was far too hot) a difficult 20 minutes to the white clay pan dotted with the skeletalized remains of 900-year-old trees known as Deadvlei (“dead marsh”), surrounded by some of the largest sand dunes in the world.

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C at Deadvlei

Whew, it felt like much longer than 20 minutes.  I snapped a few pictures as I caught my breath.  C never seems to need to catch hers.  We were both quite hot though, sweating despite the dryness.  I would have liked to have stayed longer had the temperatures been cooling, but with the heat seeming to rise several degrees per second, I was ready to get back to the air conditioning of the car.  Slogging back through the sand to the shuttle stop, I ended up in step with another visitor.  He seemed quite pleasant, a doctor from Australia traveling with his family.  Though when I think about it, I might have felt a bit more of annoyance when he expressed his surprise first that I might be a U.S. diplomat and then second that I could have ever run half marathons given my huffing and puffing across those dunes at high noon.  Luckily, I was a wee bit too tired to protest.

We drove back to Solitaire for another night, then the next day drove back to Windhoek, this time heading across the stunning Spreetshoogte Pass.  For a good two hours we  passed maybe a total of ten other vehicles, though at the top of the pass I took a picture of an American couple from Manhattan.  Back in Windhoek we had lunch then headed to our lodge for the final night, a room at the lovely Etango Ranch Guestfarm, conveniently located across from the airport, but which felt a world away.

Our road trip finished with 2,674 kilometers (1,661.5 miles) on the odometer.  It was a truly extraordinary journey to the north, west, and south of the country.  It was a journey of superlatives – the third youngest country in Africa, one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the oldest desert in the world, the largest fur seal colony, the oldest national park in Africa, the greatest concentration of cheetahs in the world, the most German of any of Germany’s former colonies…and some of the most stunning scenery anywhere.

 

 

Namibia: Superlative Spring Break Part 1

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A Himba woman in Windhoek

Namibia. I have wanted to visit this country since my friend CG traveled there during her posting to Angola.  All I knew is that Namibia is home to large sand dunes .  That sounded sufficiently cool.  Fast forward a decade and my daughter and I are living in southern Africa.  Another friend is posted to Namibia.  She once noted on Facebook that she had received a notice to stay indoors as a leopard had been spotted in her neighborhood in Windhoek.  That sounded terribly exotic; we only have the occasional hyena in Lilongwe.

We landed at the Windhoek airport close to 10 PM.  Our hotel shuttle driver was waiting.  On the 30 minute drive into town, even in the darkness, it became quickly apparent we were no longer in Kansas, er, in Malawi anymore.  The drive from the airport in Windhoek is similar to that in Lilongwe, approximately half an hour, and a distance from the city limits.  But that is where the similarities end.  The paved road was better, clean, smooth, nicely painted.  We stopped at a police checkpoint, it had a well-crafted metal dome, it was well lit.  That means electricity.  Police checkpoints in Malawi are much cruder – no cover, wooden beams placed over oil drums.  As we approached Windhoek we saw sidewalks; we saw them because there were working street lights, working traffic lights.  It was hard not to already feel impressed with Namibia.  And then to feel a wee bit silly that I found sidewalks and streetlights so remarkable.

Windhoek buildings

Christchurch, Independence Memorial Museum, Parliament

The next morning we headed out on a free guided walking tour recommended by my friend MB.  There is not much to draw visitors in Windhoek, but the few tourist sites are located near one another.  We could have walked to them on our own, but our student guide gave us a plethora of information in the 90 minute tour.  We stopped first  Windhoek’s most iconic landmark, the Christ Church, a 100+ year old German Lutheran church built during the German colonial period.  The clock, bells, and part of the roof were brought in from Germany; the stained glass windows a gift from Emperor Wilheim II.  Inside is a plaque inscribed with the names of German and military casualties during the colonial wars.

2We then crossed the street to the Parliament building, built orginally as the headquarters for the German colonial administrative offices, and its gardens.  We then headed a short way up the road, at the corner of Robert Mugabe Avenue and Fidel Castro Street, to the Independence Memorial Museum.  The building is jarring.  Modern, yes, but also leaning on eyesore.  No surprise then that it was built by a North Korean firm in the socialist-realist style.  The bronze statue of Namibia’s first President was also made by North Korea.  Behind the museum we ended the tour in the currently closed Alte Feste, once the headquarters of the imperial German military, in front of which stands the Genocide statue (also gifted by North Korea) representing the brutal extermination and punishment of Herero and Namaqua people during the 1904-1907 Namibia-German war, and how the indigenous people of Namibia overcame repression.  We left the tour there and headed to the museum, which while informative, most certainly had that same socialist-realist vibe.  We swung by the kudu statue and then headed back to the hotel.

On the way back we had to pass the craft market.  On our approach I suddenly saw a group of five extraordinarily dressed women pass in front of us.  Tall, lithe, dressed in only a goat hide skirt covered with a sarong like material; their bare arms and chests covered in leather and bronze jewelry, their feet in gladiator-like sandals.  Their skin and hair shown a deep bronze terracotta color for the otjize paste (made of butter fat and ochre) they use to protect themselves in the harsh desert climate.  I gasped audibly and blurtered out “you are beautiful.”  They immediately turned to me, gave me stunning smiles, and one wrapped her arm around mine to walk with us.  The Himba people are known for their incredible friendliness.  Once they had set up their stand C purchased one of their bracelets and they allowed me to take a photo.

My friend MB got off work at the Embassy and picked us up so we would head to lunch.  She then helped me to purchase a SIM card so that I would not be left completely without phone or data while traveling around one of the least densely populated countries in the world.  Then we picked up the rental car and stocked up on bottled water, apples, and snacks.

6The following day it was time to begin our Namibia road trip.  Now, back in Malawi, having finished the Namibian vacation, knowing we survived the drives is so different from before it began.  Back when I was planning the trip I thought most about doing the driving.  I wanted the freedom driving ourselves would bring.  C and I have gone on a few day group bus trips.  They have been convenient and sometimes fun.  But there have been those, like the one to the Cape of Good Hope, where we were too much at the mercy of other tourists who had their own agenda at the expense of everyone else.  I did not want to do that for a whole trip.  Yet I am a single parent, who has limited (my diplomatic way of saying non-existent) car repair skills, traveling with a 7-year old long distances in a country I have never been to.  I have traveled to many places, I am intrepid, but honestly, the driving had me a tad worried.

7Heading north from Windhoek toward Etosha National Park though, I had nothing to worry about.  It was a long four hour drive but on the most beautifully tarred road.  There was not much to see along the way, a few times we saw warthogs and baboons, but mostly miles and miles of green shrubs, every once in awhile a town that we could drive through in minutes.

After over four hours of driving we arrived at our lodging, the Etosha Safari Camp.  We had a little cabin a short one minute drive from the main building.  From outside it was functional, plain, but inside it was bright, modern, and whimsical.  We had a sweet queen sized bed below a same-sized loft.  C loved the bathroom the best.

We spent the next two days driving around Etosha National Park.  Nothing could have prepared me for the incredible, stark beauty of Africa’s oldest national park.  The biggest feature of the park is a massive salt pan that can be seen from space.  Most of the park is savannah woodlands but near the pan, where we visited, its sandy grassland or very low scrub.  Because of this one can see animals far in the distance.  We saw many animals, mostly springbok, oryx, and ostrich, but could also drive for twenty minutes without seeing an animal or another vehicle.

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Wildlife of Etosha

We drove for two hours the first day, five hours the second.   Long times in the car, but it was not boring.  I bought C a checklist book so she could mark off the animals we saw and she had her tablet and a few toys.  Lucky finds were the lion cubs and later lionesses, kudu at a watering hole, and wildebeest.   We would have loved to see more predators but we were not that lucky.

Fortunately, I planned for us to visit the Cheetah Conservation Fund, 45 minutes outside of Otijwarongo, about two hours south of the Andersson Gate at Etosha.  C LOVES cheetahs and Namibia is one of the best places to see them as the country hosts the largest concentration of this magnificent wild cat.  In Namibia there are about 3,500 cheetahs; compare this to the 16 recently reintroduced to Malawi.  At the facility visitors can observe their resident cheetahs, who cannot be released into the wild, see feeding time, and take drives into the enclosure.  We also stayed the night at the Cheetah View Lodge where we could watch the sunset and then rise over the beautiful Waterberg Pleateau.  It was so peaceful.

cheetah view lodge

 

Malawi: Travels with My Aunt Part Two

The continuation of my aunt’s one month visit to Malawi.

After two out of two weekends out of town, we spent the third weekend in Lilongwe.  Not that there is a whole of excitement in the capital, but I am generally not used to being out and about quite so much.  Malawi has let C and I slow down a wee bit.  The Lilongwe weekend had been planned from the beginning and it came at a good time.  The previous year, February had been the quietest month at work, but this year the month was proving anything but.  I stayed late at work several nights a week so that we could have our fun when I was home.

southern 1Our Lilongwe weekend included a visit to another grocery store (wow), a stop at the Woodlands Farmers Market, held on the last Saturday of the month, and a lunch at the lovely Kumbali Country Lodge, where Madonna stays whenever she is in Malawi.

For our fourth and final weekend would be our longest – five days traveling down south.

On the first day we drove three hours from Lilongwe to the town of Balaka, where a friend of a friend had opened up an art & craft center and Italian restaurant.  Down a bumpy dirt road we found a beautiful grassy courtyard full of flowers and lemon trees encircled by villas that looked as they had been spirited there from Italy.  The artist/manager showed us around her workshop, the craft and art store, and the property.  Then we sat down to a splendid authentic Italian pizza lunch, well the most authentic one can probably find in Malawi.

We continued south to Game Haven, a lodge in rural Blantyre, and our stop for the evening.  What should have been a two hour drive though took about an hour longer for a combination of reasons that include:  Malawi roads generally suck, there were a lot of painfully slow moving trucks on two lane curvy and hilly roads that made passing difficult, we had to right through the city of Blantyre because major roads do that in Malawi (no beltways or ring roads here), and it was the last day of the month when the majority of Malawians get paid and thus more people were out and about spending money.

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Roan, zebra, and nyala at Game Haven

But pulling into Game Haven, walking through the lobby, finding a grassy lawn with zebra, wildebeest, and nyala grazing, and a stunning view of unspoiled, undulating hills in the light of a late afternoon African sun, and my frustrations melted away.  C quickly found some other children from her school were also staying at the lodge and she ran off to play while my aunt and I enjoyed sundowners on the patio.  We followed this with a good dinner and then a good sleep.  (Well, C and I slept well, Aunt C had a defective mosquito net and spent the night hiding under the covers from the buzzing of insects set on devouring her.  Ah, well.  #Africa).

The next morning we started our day with breakfast and then a 1.5 hour game drive around the property.  While I have taken a few safaris in national parks, this would be my first time in a game reserve.  It turned out to be rather pleasant to have the vehicle to ourselves and in a place where we were pretty much guaranteed to see all the types of animals in the reserve.  (Our guide told us “I will find you a giraffe.  If you go on a game drive and do not see a giraffe, then you are NOT at Game Haven.  And he found one!)  A 1.5 hour drive, instead of the four hours I have found most game drives last, too was a treat.

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Welcome to Huntingdon House

Then we headed on to our second destination, the historic Huntingdon House on the Satemwa tea estate in Thyolo district.

Well, wait, that makes it sound easy.  And it should have been, but thanks to a quirk with Google Maps it was not so straightforward.  Instead of just taking us 20 minutes down the road to the entrance of the Satemwa Tea & Coffee Estates and then through to the lodge, we were taken on an unusual detour.  Google Maps has one actually pass the estate gates, through Thyolo town, then on to a small earthen road, that quickly becomes only a dirt track through a maize field, then down a ravine where at the bottom there were only a few wooden planks over a stream.  Ummmm…this cannot be right.  I thought, even had there been two plank bridges for both sides of my car, I could not have trusted the wood would hold the weight of my SUV.  Turning around on the steep rutted path, with one-foot deep ditches on either side presented a bit of a challenge.  Luckily, once back to the main road the GPS single returned and we drove back to Satemwa.

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C strolls among the Huntingdon gardens

Established in 1923 by a Scottish immigrant via the rubber plantations of Malaya, Satemwa may not be the largest of Malawi’s tea estates, but it is probably its most well-known, largely because its former family home is now an idyllic getaway among stunning, picturesque grounds.  In the rainy season (though we were blessed with little rain), we were treated to miles and miles of rolling green hills, most of it covered with the verdant leafy bushes of tea.

We settled in the Planter’s Room, one of the five beautifully-appointed suites, and then sat down to a fabulous lunch whipped up by the Huntingdon House kitchen.  Then C and I set off through the gardens on one of the scavenger hunts.  At 4 pm we all piled on to metal seats jerry-rigged in the back of a pick-up truck for an hour drive through the estate, partially up Thyolo Mountain to the picnic spot, from which one can look out over hillsides of tea bushes,  Thyolo town, and the countryside extending to Mt. Mulanje.  On the other side one can see the Shire River sparkling in the valley below.

southern 4Following breakfast on our second day we took an hour guided walk.  We strolled from the Huntingdon gardens on to the red-orange dirt road fenced in on both sides by the bright green hedges of tea.  Then we turned and waded through it uphill heading to the taller shrubs of coffee.  The blindingly azure sky against the emerald green tea took my breath away.

We stomped through tall grasses full of flowers and stopped to watch colorful birds.  We paused for the guide to tell us about the estate history, tea and coffee processing, and the nature around us.  I generally love learning things like that and my Aunt seemed particularly interested.  Yet, I also felt preoccupied by the thick, tall grass around us and the thought of snakes.  (The day before on our game drive we had come across a black mamba lying prone across the track, its head raised aggressively in the direction of our jeep.  I kept thinking of that snake, one of the most venomous in the world, slithering angrily into the brush.) We circled round to another road and passed by the grove of towering eucalyptus trees, planted originally on the property in 1895, and returned to the house.

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C among the tea

We spent the afternoon just enjoying the room, the house’s portico fronting the lawn, and the grounds.  As my aunt and I sat out on our room’s patio we heard crashing through the trees and I realized we were paid a visit by a local monkey troop.  I ran off to get my camera and followed them as they leapt from branch to branch, tree to tree.  C and I took part in another treasure hunt.  At 2:30 we headed to the garden to enjoy high tea.  We had skipped lunch to make sure we had plenty of room.  It was a very good thing we did as we were plied with hot and cold tea, finger sandwiches, tomato and cheese tartlets, scones with cream and jam, chocolate and coconut snowballs, various cookies, and three massive slices of chocolate cake.  It was all so good.

Thinking back I felt we were there at Huntingdon for much longer than two days.  Our stay there was one of the most calming and relaxing trips I have ever taken.  I think we will go back.  I just have to decide which other room to request.

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Flora and fauna of Huntingdon House (bats, coffee beans, monkey, flowers)

We stopped next in Blantyre to stay at the Protea Ryalls Hotel, the oldest (and probably the classiest) hotel in Malawi.  I wanted to show both my aunt and C this place — for my aunt as she would appreciate the history and beauty of the place and C so she can picture where I usually stay when I take my work trips – and take an hour off the drive we would make back to the capital.  Otherwise I find there is even less to see tourist-wise in Blantyre than Lilongwe.  Just for a wee bit of fun we went to the Museum of Malawi, where you can see the skulls of a zebra, leopard, lion, and rat as well as various poorly-marked and dusty old agriculture tools, food containers, weapons, musical instruments, and Gule Wamkulu masks (a ritual dance of the Chewa people listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage), and old vehicles from Malawi’s bygone days in the overgrown yard.  We also visited the Mandala house, the oldest house in Malawi, but only the exterior as it was closed.  But we dined at Bombay Palace and Grill 21, two of the best restaurants in the country.

On the final day we made the long drive back to Lilongwe stopping at Dedza Pottery and Lodge for lunch about 1.5 hours south of home, a surprising little place with a lovely yard It was a lot of driving — it rather cannot be helped in Malawi if you want to get to anywhere of note — and there are few stops along the way.  But the we weather we experienced was fantastic as were the locations, meals, people, and company.

Two days later my aunt C returned to the U.S.  After weeks of beautiful weather with little precipitation, soon after she took off the skies opened up and it rained for about 60 hours straight, the first time I have seen it rain so consistently since arriving in Malawi.

The visit of our first guest to Malawi was a success.  Who knows if anyone else will visit — but Aunt C left a bag of coffee behind for her next trip…

 

Malawi: Travels with My Aunt* Part One

*Yes, this is sort of an ode to Graham Greene, one of my favorite authors.

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She arrives–I would know those black leggings anywhere!

On February 7, C and I welcomed our first visitor to Malawi, my Aunt CW!  How wonderful to finally share, in person, our home and life in this corner of Africa with a family member.  I felt giddy as I drove to the airport to greet her flight, I even paid extra to access the observation deck at the Lilongwe airport so that I could watch her disembark and enter the terminal.

Arriving from the east coast of the U.S. can take a lot out of a person.  There is the at least 24 hour door-to-door journey and the seven hour time difference.  Just transiting the airport in Addis for any flight can take a lot out of a person.  There was also the visa-on-arrival rigmarole and an unexpected “produce your boarding pass upon disembarking” challenge, but at long last I had my aunt in the car traveling down the M1 toward our home.  There I dropped her off, gave her the grand tour, and left her to rest as I returned to the office for a few hours.  That evening we ordered dinner from a nearby Italian restaurant for carry out (C was feeling a bit under the weather).

My aunt is visiting for one month and although I have planned for some (fabulous!) weekend getaways, she will be spending many days just hanging out at our lovely home while I continue work.  Not just anyone would be able to enjoy this kind of holiday, but my aunt enjoys getting to see our every day lives. Frankly, Lilongwe is not a usual vacation destination — there is very little to hold the interest of an overseas tourist and we live in the leafy suburbs of a city with little viable public transport.  For my aunt, who recently lost her beloved husband of 30 years, a low-key getaway to our home far away from the everyday reminders and tasks, where she can sit in our screened in porch enjoying a cup of coffee while looking out at our yard, lush with the rains and full of birdsong, is just the ticket.  (Or so she says she enjoys seeing us in our natural habitat and lounging on our porch — maybe she is just humoring me?)

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Crazy light at sunset = a storm is coming

For our first weekend we drove the two hours out to Senga Bay to stay the night at the Sunbird Livingstonia, the oldest hotel on Lake Malawi.  Despite it being the “green season” (a lovely tourist-luring way to describe the rainy season), we had a beautiful day for driving, walking along the lakeside beach, dining alfresco, and sitting poolside.  That evening the sunset was something extraordinary — the light through the clouds turned the water and the sand a vivid, diaphanous burnt orange.  Had I been in the desert I would have thought it a precursor to a sand storm, so I knew that our good weather was coming to an end.  That night the skies opened up and it poured all night, knocking out the hotel’s electricity, but that was just icing on the cake as no visit to Malawi is complete without a power outage.

Tongole 2For our second getaway over the three-day President’s Day weekend, we headed east and north to the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, a new destination for C and I.  Google maps told me the drive would take approximately four hours — three to Nkhotakota town, then an additional hour to the park entrance and through the park to our lodge.  But Google maps does not account for Malawian roads.  Turning north from Salima the road initially was better, but soon grew worse.  There were many potholes, pedestrians, single lane bridges, and construction work to Nkhotakota town.  Eight kilometers later we turned on to an “earthen” road for another eight kilometers to the entrance were we were met by a safari jeep from the lodge.  Although I drive a SUV, the lodge suggested I arrange transport to and from the park gate to the lodge due to the rainy season effects on the park’s dirt roads.  To drive the 18 kilometers (11 miles) over the rutted, undulating earth took 45 minutes.  So all told from door to door took 5 1/2 hours.

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View of the Bua River from our room

As we transferred to the lodge jeep, our lodge guide gave us two rules for the journey: 1. if we see an elephant, keep quiet and do not jump out of the jeep, and 2. if flies get close to you, swat them away, they may be tsetse flies and their bites are unpleasant.

  1. Nkhotakota is the receiving location of the world’s largest elephant translocation in history.  Decades of poaching reduced the once magnificent park to a shadow of its former self, with its animal populations decimated.  African Parks, a non-profit conservation NGO that takes over the rehabilitation and management of national parks in Africa, took over Nkhotakota in 2015.  As part of the efforts to restock the park, African Parks, over the course of two years, moved 500 elephants from Liwonde and Majete National Parks to Nkhotakota.  African Parks also relocated an additional 2,000 animals, but it was the elephants we really hoped to see — though we know better than to hop out of the safari vehicle and embrace the animals.
  2. Tsetse flies!  What?! My knowledge of tsetse flies is limited to the Atari 2600 Raiders of the Lost Ark video game I had WAY back in the day.  As I recall tsetse flies were bad news in that game – its bite would render Indiana Jones incapacitated with African sleeping sickness.  When I asked our guide however, he noted that the flies have to be infected with the sleeping sickness parasites to transfer the illness and these flies did not have it.  Turns out tsetse flies also really like the color electric blue (the park has set up blue and black tsetse fly traps around the land) and their bites really are quite painful.
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Not your average mac and cheese with chicken

Arriving at Tongole Wilderness Lodge we were greeted with cold washcloths and welcome drinks.  We were escorted to our rooms and then served a delicious lunch of macaroni and cheese and grilled chicken.  As soon as we finished the staff asked when we would like our “tea” — beverages of our choice served with samosas and Victorian sandwiches — normally served at half past three.  We requested tea be served as our sundowner during our trip to the waterfall that afternoon.

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Our African Parks guide surveys the waters

At 4:30 we meet our guide for the waterfall activity.  It had been described as a short 15 minute drive followed by a walk to overlook the falls.  Somehow a boat had not been mentioned in the first discussion of this activity, but at the stop the guides unloaded a boat from top of the jeep.  This seemed, um, unexpected.  We walked down to the river banks as if this was a perfectly fine idea and there we all stood looking at the fast-moving, tea-colored, frothy waters of the Bua River.  Seriously?!  After what seemed like a long several minutes the guides announced the river was not safe to cross.  Whew.  We could hold our heads up high as the intrepid adventurers we were — it was the guides who made the call, we did not chicken out (though we were certainly contemplating it!).  Instead we headed to a flat rock where David Livingstone is rumored to have camped during some surveying in the area.  Though still next to the turbulent waters, we were not in them.

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The exquisitely designed main lodge

Although two activities a day were included in our daily fees, the “green season” meant that our choices were limited.  Canoeing was out with the swollen river.  Game drives were out due to rainy season road closures.  The waterfall visit was clearly out.  Hiking was out because we did not want to hike in the hot and humid air, or maybe at all.  We thus decided that lazing about the lodge and eating yummy meals would be our primary activities.  We were the only people at the lodge, there was no one else to push or prod us into doing anything more.  We were not disappointed.

The lodge design is stunning — unexpected curves and details all around.  Our rooms were eco-simple and elegant.  The views, they too seemed deceptively simple — brown churning river flowing by lush green foliage — but it was nature’s beauty at its best.  We heard the sounds of the rushing water (so calming), the hoots of baboons, the calls, tweets, and trills of birds.  At lunch, while dining alfresco on a lower deck beneath a fruit tree, we watched two African ground squirrels frolic in the branches of another tree.  Later we were visited by a few monkeys.  Butterflies flurried all around.  And, at last, an elephant known as Short Trunk slid into the river waters in front of the lodge.

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Some of the Nkhotakota wildlife

On our second and last evening the winds picked up, thunder grumbled from a few miles away, and lightening lit up the hills in the distance.  Once again we were spared from a full day of mood dampening rain but treated to the beauty of an evening storm.

It rained a good part of the night but we slept well with the sound of the rain and the rushing waters of the river lulling us.  Our greater concern with the rain was its effect on the “earthen” road we would have to traverse in my RAV4 from the park entrance to the main road.  Our transport let us know they would survey the road conditions from the lodge to park entrance and determine whether they would accompany us all the way to the tarmac.  The 18 kilometer trip took an hour this time as even the safari jeep fishtailed and spun its wheels in the mud, so all the way to the tarmac it would be.  That $54 I parted with for the transport from gate to lodge and back is some of the best money I have ever spent.  And though my aunt and I were equally impressed with my control over the RAV4 in similarly slippery conditions, we were grateful to have that chaser jeep with us for that bit, just in cases.

 

Rest & Relaxation: Americana, Jamaica, & Disney Magic Part 2

The continuation of the story of our first R&R from Malawi to the U.S. and Jamaica.

On the morning of our second full day in Jamaica, we had no plans.  Having no plans kinda makes me crazy.  But we were at an all-inclusive in Montego Bay, so it was not hard to find something as the resort had a list of the many, many activities they had going on.  We had breakfast, then took a walk around the property.  I found an intense pool aerobics class and C played in the water just behind me.  We has some of the all-inclusive “free” ice cream, and part Native-American C enjoyed more pool time while fair and freckle-skinned me hid under a towel watching.  We had lunch.  Then we prepared for our PM activity – horseback riding into the sunset of the last day of 2018.  Is that awesome or what?

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C rides confidently through the surf

Once again it was a group tour with a third heading out on ATVs, a third went with dune buggies, and the rest of us had signed up for horseback riding — an hour on a trail through historic farm land, complete with a 17th century windmill, ending in a short trot through the surf.  This would be followed by a ten minute horseback ocean jaunt.

C loves horses.  I try to get organize a horse experience for her whenever I can.  She always insists that she is old enough to handle her own horse and is annoyed over an over when someone holds the reins or rides alongside or even with her.  Boy was she stoked to not only have a horse all her own.  This would not pass muster in the U.S. at all, and I would be a liar if I said watching her did not raise all kinds of nervous butterflies in my stomach, but we did have several experienced guides who rode up and down the line checking on us all and the whole “ride” was more a horse walk, and C was the picture of pride, sitting tall on her horse.

It was a lovely ride along shaded trails and across grassy fields lit golden by the setting sun.  We arrived back at the mounting station and then switched horses for the ocean ride.  It turned out to be a full on ocean plunge.  The horses were quickly up to the base of their necks in the water, fighting the waves, which were on the rough side with the strong, steady wind.  I was immersed past my waist, practically floating over the saddle.  It was exhilarating and somewhat terrifying at the same time.  C was ahead laughing with delight.  I was so grateful when we turned around and headed out; C started to cry because it was over already and she wanted to go again.  The guide offered to take her out again.  And out they went.  C said it was the “best day ever!”

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Happy 2019!

That night we attended the huge New Year’s Eve buffet dinner.  There were mounds of food on dozens of tables decorated with half a dozen ice sculptures and an entertainment revue.  Being NYE the music was louder and went longer than the other days, our room reverberated with the noise.  Still C fell asleep long before midnight; I heard the count down, then nothing more til morning.

I woke to an overcast, yet sunny morning, a rainbow across the sky.  It was so perfect.

That and the next day were spent doing very, very little.  Sleeping in, pool time, mini golf, watching movies, eating ice cream, doing water aerobics.  Then on our next to last day we had a full day adventure — another group tour, this time to Mystic Mountain for the sky lift, which takes visitors 700 feet above the forest floor, then a Jamaican bobsled ride, and finally a zipline course.  C, not quite 7 years old, did it ALL, even as some adults were not so keen and even backed out.

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C zips through the Jamaican rainforest

Following Mystic Mountain the tour group shifted to Dunn’s River Falls, another of the “top” tourist sites in Jamaica, or so every Internet search told me.  If you take everyone on a cruise ship to only a few places, then naturally they become the top spots…  Not to say that Mystic Mountain was not fun or Dunn’s River Falls was not both beautiful and cool (both meetings of the word), but I was regretting not renting a car.  I had mentioned it to one tourist info woman and she tsk tsk’d, reminding me that “we drive on the other side of the road.”  It was with great glee that I explained I live in a country in Africa where I drive on the same side.  Still, I had not rented a car and by this point was losing interest in handing over my credit card for much more.

So we had to do the giant tour bus tango.  You know, where, no matter what, you seem to be the first to be picked up and the last to be dropped off.  Where the tour bus drives 30 minutes of an hour drive and then stops for a “break,” which is really a completely unnecessary shopping stop.  And you get herded off the bus, have to “gather around” for instructions, are only two people but have to wait for ten families of 5 people to get their wrist bands first, and the “free” lunch included in the tour is nothing to write home about it…  Oh, the joy….

We opted not to climb the falls.  I had read online that it was not such a good thing for younger children, and also that tour guides force their groups not only to buy unnecessary pool shoes but also link hands like kindergardeners, making a daisy chain up the falls.  Also, not necessary.  We did look at the falls.  C splashed around in a shallow pool.  Then we went to the splashpad and ate popsicles, blissfully away from the maddening constraints of the tour group.  At least for an hour.

It will likely come as little surprise that we opted to do nothing on our final day.  We were tour bus’d out! We needed a lazy day before another all day travel day.

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Transformed into Mulan!

Back to Jacksonville for another overnight near the airport, then, in a rented car, we drove to Lake Buena Vista, the home of Disney.  Oh the joys of driving on a fully sealed, pothole-free, multi-lane highway with clear lanes and actual shoulders!  We stopped at a gas station to stock up on U.S.-car-trip staples like string cheese and potato chips and gum.  Thank you America!  We arrived around noon to check in to our hotel then head over to Disney Springs where we had a lunch reservation at the Rainforest Cafe followed by C’s appointment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for her princess make-over.

The next day we began our Disney park experience.  This was our 10th visit to a Disney park and our 3rd visit to Disney World.  I have seen a few articles on taking your child traveling but NOT to Disney.  I absolutely understand giving a child the gift of travel, but I believe mixing in a bit of Disney (or more than a bit in our case) not only does not hurt, but can also richly reward a family.

We had tickets for an early morning experience at Hollywood Studios, it seemed the only way to guarantee we could experience all the new Toy Story Land had to offer.  We had a chance to ride all three of the new rides several times before the park opened to everyone and the lines grew rapidly.  And there we were at 9 AM having already done all we had wanted to at Hollywood Studios.  So I upgraded to a park hopper pass and we headed over to the Magic Kingdom.  By the time we were done for the day – with C still going strong running to the car in the parking lot – I had 27,000 steps on my pedometer!

On Tuesday, after a painful vacation club presentation (never again I always tell myself – when will I ever learn??),  we drove about 45 minutes to Winter Haven, FL to visit Legoland.  C loved it because she could ride every single ride (and we did) and there were no crowds.  On several rides we rode it multiple times in a row, on two of them the ride operators did not even make us disembark and run around, we just stayed in our seats for another go.  My limit though was three times in a row.

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We had been dreaming of Disney sweets

Wednesday was Epcot; our first time to that park.  Crowds were relatively light and we were able to ride all but two of the rides.  More importantly though we lunched with princesses at the Akerhaus Royal Banquet Hall and caught up with a few others — C’s photos with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, and Jasmine meant we had completed the goal of meeting all the Disney princesses.

By Thursday we were about theme-parked out, but I had bought a four day Disney ticket and we had two more days left.  We dragged ourselves to Animal Kingdom on a suddenly chilly day, and then back to the Magic Kingdom on the final day.  Lesson learned: three days at Disney might be our limit and/or build in some rest days!

Before heading back to Jacksonville for yet another night we stopped for another bit of fun Americana style.  When in Jamaica lazing about our room on one of our no tour days the movie Happy Gilmore came on.  In it, there is a scene where the mentor of Adam Sandler’s character Happy takes him to a fancy mini golf course to refine his short game.  C could not believe such a crazy mini golf place could be real and not just a movie set.  So I vowed to take her to one.  Congo River golf, complete with a realistic plane crashed into a waterfall, fit the bill.

We made it back to Jacksonville in time to meet my aunt for a late lunch – Mexican of course!  No telling when we could have it again.  The following day we flew to Dulles Airport to spend the evening before our flight back to Lilongwe.  My family lives right near the airport, one of my sisters works there, so we all met at my other sister’s place for a few hours.  We had a few less hours than originally planned as a snow storm had delayed flights — but for C the snow was the cherry on top of seeing her cousins and was the grand finale to our pretty perfect trip.

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C loves Disney


A note on the shutdown:  This is not a political post; this is not that kind of blog.  But as a State Department employee in a designated “non-excepted” position, the shutdown, which started at some point as we flew over the Atlantic Ocean, meant I was among the 800,000 federal employees furloughed without pay.  It was a strange time — hearing some officials characterize the furlough as a “vacation,” which is patently incorrect, yet here I was on an actual vacation, an R&R earned for serving overseas in a location that has “distinct and significant difficulties.”  As the shutdown wore on, I did feel increasingly uncomfortable.  In the past I was “excepted” and worked through the shutdown.  One of my sisters, who works for the Transportation Security Administration, continued to report to work as scheduled, without promise of a paycheck.  I had colleagues at State both at work and at home.  I earned my R&R and my daughter and I deserved to enjoy it to the fullest, but it was not completely without guilt.  I returned to Malawi with the shutdown still in effect and remained at home furloughed another week.  Although the shutdown focused on Washington, D.C., the majority of federal government workers serve outside the capital, and there are tens of thousands of us working overseas.  We have families, pets, responsibilities, go to the office to do our jobs, and for the most part live normal lives, just like other Americans.

 

 

Rest & Relaxation: Americana, Jamaica, & Disney Magic Part 1

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Sunrise at Jax Beach our first morning

Finally, our first rest and relaxation (R&R) vacation was upon us.  It seemed very long in coming after a whole lotta planning and a seemingly endless busy season at work.

It had been over a year since we had been to the United States.  Initially I had planned to return in July as I had a three-day capstone course topping off a year-long, mostly distance learning, interactive leadership course.  I had hoped to take another week plus and bring C so she might spend the week I was in training with her dad, and then we would have another week together seeing friends and family, maybe going somewhere new.  But a complicated transfer season at a small post, the timing of my training and proposed leave, and a few other factors resulted in my not returning to Washington last summer.  This denied time away from the U.S. and my uncle’s congestive heart failure diagnosis led me to plan for a winter R&R stateside.

As the R&R shaped up in early August, I became especially determined for it to include all things: some time with family, including C spending time with her father, some time reconnecting with the little bits of Americana we missed, and some mother-daughter fun somewhere new, somewhere often described as “paradise.”

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C looks out to sea at Jax Beach

Unfortunately my uncle D declined rapidly and passed away in mid-September.  In this lifestyle we often miss rites of passage from weddings to funerals, to births and graduations.  This reality hit particularly hard this time; he had played a prominent role not only in my life but in my daughter’s.   For this often solo traveler, I realized I had visited my aunt C and uncle D in Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, and Germany; they had visited us in Ciudad Juarez and Mexico (where few people would despite the proximity), and we had traveled together to the Bahamas, France, Luxembourg, and South Dakota.   We would not get a final visit.

After a long trip that involved stops in Addis Ababa, Dublin, and Washington, D.C., we landed in Jacksonville, FL.  My aunt picked us up.  We headed to her condo first to relax and get cleaned up (we had just spent 30 hours traveling) but soon headed to the beach to watch the rise of a very full moon, eat Mexican food, and check out the Jax Beach Deck the Chairs holiday light display.  It was all very special.  Normal if we lived in America perhaps, but special because we do not.

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Family bonding over fantastic puzzles

The following morning we woke up early so we could also welcome the sunrise at the same beach.  However, a cold snap had descended on Florida, temperatures were in the 40s.  I had packed a few cold weather clothes for C, but had none for me.  So we bundled up in spare items my aunt had; I put on my Uncle D’s sweat pants and sweat shirt.  As we stood on the beach watching the sun break over the ocean’s horizon, I felt like my Uncle was with us.

Then we took C to the airport to meet her stepmom TG, who was flying in from KY to bring C back to her father’s place for Christmas.  Yes, indeed.  My not-quite-7 year old daughter would be flying for the first time without me.  This is a pretty big deal, right?  Early on when I made this plan with C’s father, I had felt a wee bit nervous, but once the day arrived, I was okay.  And C was super excited to fly with TG and see her dad.

And I got five days with my aunt, just she and I.  We went to the movies.  I am sure I mentioned before that there are no theaters in Malawi.  But we went to see Mary Queen of Scots, i.e. not an animated children’s movie.  We hung out at Target, ate out at Mexican and other restaurants or just had chips and guac at home, and built puzzles.  We laughed at our ridiculous struggles with my aunt’s cable and when the young 20-something at the movie theater charged me the retiree price.  Then C returned from KY and we celebrated my aunt’s birthday with lunch at one of her favorite places.

My aunt drove us to our hotel next to the Jacksonville airport where we would stay one night before heading out early for the next phase of our trip.

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There was no direct way to get from Jacksonville to Montego Bay, so once again we spent much of the day traveling.  Generally I am okay with it because even the journey can be relaxing and fun, and it is a means to an end.  And I booked the flights after all.  But as I was quite eager to get to Jamaica — it is someplace I have wanted to visit for awhile — even with the upgrade to business on our first leg could not make that trip go fast enough.

We landed at 4 and checked into our resort, only 15 minutes from the airport, by sunset.  Our room had a beautiful view out toward the main pool and the ocean beyond.  The warm Caribbean breeze felt wonderful.  The all-inclusive hotel had pre-booked us for one of the reservation only restaurants for the dinner.  We enjoyed our meal and then headed back to the room.  Then the entertainment began, so loud it sounded as if the band was at the foot of our bed.  The front desk told me it would last until 10 pm, but we were so tired we fell asleep anyway.

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Stately and ghostly Rose Hall

On our first full day I was eager to get started.  We arranged a taxi to Rose Hall, a late 18th century plantation house.  The Georgian style mansion commands a lovely view towards the sea, but also is representative of the sometimes dark history of plantation life in early colonial Jamaica.  It is most famous for being haunted by Annie Palmer, the “White Witch of Rose Hall,” who murdered slaves and husbands indiscriminately.  I love me some historic houses and tours of them — I have taken C on plenty of them (from the historic Adams House in Deadwood, SC to the Mary Todd Lincoln house in Lexington, KY) so she knows the drill and tolerates them.  She seemed rather excited to see a haunted house, especially as it was during the day.

The only scary thing that came out of that trip was the price the taxi driver demanded upon return to the hotel although he had failed to show up at the appointed time.  It turned out the hotel info desk had incorrectly informed me of the fare; taxis really do charge an arm and a leg from tourist hotels.

My mood had soured as a result but a good lunch renewed my spirits and we set off on an afternoon tour on the Martha Brae river.  Floating down the river on a bamboo raft is one of the top attractions for Jamaica.  All started out okay.  We were picked up from the hotel about 1:30.  As luck would have it, we were the first guests to be picked up.  We then drove to two other hotels to pick up a family of nine, then a family of 11, after which we drove the 30 minutes to the rafting village.  And there we stood around for at least another 30 minutes, ostensibly to pick up our “welcome drink” included in the rafting trip, but it seemed designed for alcoholic visitors to booze up.  Finally, someone brought life jackets and led us down to the rafts.  C and I were in the middle of the pack — the family of nine before us, the family of 11 somewhere behind.

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The Martha Brae

As we floated down the river, I figured we would go at a leisurely pace given our older Rastafarian captain, but soon enough we were passing everyone else.  Our guy might have seemed slightly out of it, but he was slow and steady, while the other guests, mostly liquored up folks making a mess out of poling on their own (but having a blast doing so), and the romantic couples, were especially in no hurry.  We blow past them all.  While C thought this was super awesome, I realized the faster we reached the end, the longer we waited.  And sure enough, we waited about 15 minutes before the nine-person family rolled in.  And then we waited, and waited, and waited.  Only 45 minutes later the rafts of the other family finally arrived.  There had apparently some kind of payment issue, but I was still annoyed we waited an extra HOUR.  I was reminded why group tours can be a huge pain in the a$$.

We arrived back tired, had a quick dinner, and hit the hay, lulled to sleep by the rambunctious stylings of the entertainer of the evening.