I love history. Digging into the past to shed light on a current place or a time. Yet, one thing to read about history, and another to live it. Of course, there are those incidents that we remember where we were such as the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion (middle school art class) or 9/11 (asleep in bed in my basement apartment in Monterey, California) but these are generally not moments we personally experienced, not like now. Now, we are all living through history. We are in it.
I wrote earlier about the convergence of the coronavirus pandemic and the historic Malawian presidential election re-run as a result of a landmark Constitutional and Supreme Court decisions — only the second time a court had overturned an election on the African continent. Also, I noted just as COVID-19 made its late arrival in Malawi, one of the last countries in the world to confirm a case, the massive campaign rallies began, often sans precautionary measures. Faced with a new election court-ordered to occur before July 3, the country, at least politicians and their supporters, opted to focus more on the elections than precautionary health measures. This seemed a risky endeavor given Burundi had run its own elections just a month before with the 55-year old incumbent dying of what was likely COVID-19 less than three weeks afterward.
Nonetheless, elections are like catnip for a political officer and I was giddy with excitement in the run-up to the June 23 poll. Part of the excitement was the “will they or won’t they” uncertainty over whether the election would happen before July 3 or if it would be postponed — either due to the need for more time to organize the proceedings or because of the spread of COVID-19 (or both). Only two weeks before the President finally appointed the members of the new electoral commission that would oversee the management of the election and results. A week before the government attempted to unceremoniously force the Supreme Court Chief Justice – who had been at the helm of the court that had made some election-related decisions unfavorable to the ruling party – into early retirement. On top of this were the Embassy preparations for managing some limited COVID-19 compatible way to observe the elections. There was never a dull day and I relished feeling part of something really important and a sense of being very much in my element.
I too tried to think more about the elections than the pandemic.
With help from donors (including the United States), the electoral commission procured personal protective equipment (PPE) and handwashing station materials. But you can lead a horse to water… We can see resistance all over the world (most markedly, perhaps, in the United States) to obeying such guidelines. In Malawi’s favor, polling sites are generally outside, often in dirt schoolyards.
There was just never going to be a great outcome with some 7 million eligible voters and tens of thousands of polling station workers, security personnel, and domestic observers fanning out across the country during a pandemic, especially with a large percentage of the impoverished country continuing to eke out a living having made the choice that the risk of contracting COVID-19 was preferable to them or their families starving. Try to imagine the predicament: weighing the purchase of face masks — selling for anywhere from 500 MWK to 2000 MWK (0.64 cents to $2.59) — for your family against being able to eat a second meal.
Lilongwe’s brand new billboard, installed after the July 6 inauguration
Unlike in the U.S., elections in Malawi are not a one-day affair. In the U.S. there are hour-by-hour broadcasts of the tallied votes beginning just hours after voting begins, but in Malawi, polling is generally one day, but the vote count and announcement of final results can take up to eight days. Again, as a political officer, this is exhilarating. I was glued to my television and following online for the updates and keeping our decision-makers and Washington informed. Four days after the election, on June 27, close to 11 PM, the electoral commission announced the winner: following the landmark court decision, the historic election had returned a stunning upset, with the opposition leader, a former pastor who received his Ph.D. in Theology from a U.S. university, restored his party to power after 26 years. And returned the former Vice President-cum-opposition candidate-cum court restored Vice President to the vice presidency once again.
Seen in my neighborhood the day after the result declaration: opposition supporters celebrating the loss of the former President with this mock funeral – nyekhwee is a Chichewa word which means “very bad consequences and repercussions”
In the immediate days following the result declaration, the new President and new/old Vice President were sworn in (June 28) and inaugurated (July 6). There was a lot of euphoria, especially in Lilongwe. Spontaneous street parties erupted as the anticipated winner made his way from the southern capital of Blantyre to the national capital Lilongwe. Supporters lined the roads. The celebrations went late into the night.
As the election celebrations died down, something else was spreading. And between the swearing-in ceremony, which although outside did not involve social distancing or much mask-wearing, and the inauguration, which the new President scaled down significantly from a major event at a 40,000 seat stadium to a small affair at a military barracks in the capital.
From 1,000 to 2,000 cases
Malawi confirmed its first COVID-19 case on April 2, making it one of the last countries in the world to do so. It took the country 85 days, nearly three months, to get to 1,000 cases, but only two weeks, just after the elections, to double that number. That may seem low compared to numbers in the most-affected countries like the United States, Brazil, India, Russia, Italy, and the United Kingdom. But the spread, though bad in a few hotspots like South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, has not been as much on the African continent as on others. But the numbers are rising and in places like Malawi, where the medical and economic infrastructure was weaker to begin with, may have more devastating consequences.
Elections in the time of COVID – is it a good idea or no? Democracy won here in Malawi and it was an incredible privilege to have a ringside seat to witness that historic moment, but COVID is still carving out its mark in history. Malawi never had an option for mail-in voting, not like in other countries. Now the population is reaping both the rewards and the consequences for its in-person voting. And I am still here to experience it.
We are beginning our twelfth week of teleworking. Our twelfth week of homeschooling. Our twelfth week without our nanny. Our twelfth week of dragging C into the Embassy with me when I need to go in. The twelfth week since the President of Malawi declared a State of Disaster.
It has been a long three months.
Tonight I learned South Africa does not plan to re-open to international tourists until February 2021. And one of my South African cable channels aired the movie Outbreak. Well, certainly an interesting choice television executive, very interesting. Though perhaps a wee bit too soon?
It is after all only early June. Perhaps there might still be a slowing to this pandemic sometime soon? I would really like to think so, but it sure feels as though there is no end in sight. When I last wrote on May 20, Malawi had only 72 confirmed COVID-19 cases. But two and a half weeks later the count is up to 409. That number pales in comparison to most other nations around the world and still is in the lowest third of countries on the African continent. But it is rising. Many of the recent cases have been undocumented deportees from South Africa, the hardest hit country in Africa. Most were packed on to buses for the two day journey back to Malawi and then consigned to a stadium in Blantyre for quarantine and testing. And promptly some 400 escaped. I wish I could say I am surprised. But nope.
There is presumably an election in approximately two weeks. A re-run, or as the Malawian media likes to call it a “fresh” election, ordered by the Constitutional Court, which nullified last May’s presidential election. And yet the pandemic continues. These two events do not make a great combination. For one, many Malawians love to get out to political rallies to see their preferred candidates. And two, many Malawians have been outright ignoring the government’s COVID-19 guidelines. In the political rally advertisement above, one can maybe just make-out the fine print (circled by yours truly) that states “All COVID-19 measures apply.” However, the second picture (not mine) demonstrates how simply stating COVID-19 measures apply does not in fact translate into reality.
I am also not surprised by this. After the Malawian government attempted in mid-April to impose a lockdown, similar to that of South Africa but without the same coordinated finesse, it was met by informal sector protests and a court injunction halting its execution (up til today). The President himself has been out on the campaign trail without a mask and surrounded by thousands of supporters. It is thus little wonder that many Malawians are opting to continue ignoring government guidance.
There are those who are following the rules or at least giving a solid “A” for effort. But even those who have tried are becoming tired, so very tired, of the isolation and loss of income. Restaurants that had previously closed or were allowing only pick-up or providing new delivery services are slowly re-opening to dine-in. A few days ago, for the first time in 11 weeks, C and I headed out to our favorite restaurant, a small Italian place located in a residential neighborhood, owned and managed by an Italian with over a decade living in Malawi. We were the only customers and the wait-staff wore masks. I made a move to grab our own masks from my handbag, but quickly realized the ridiculousness of trying to eat with them on.
At the Chinese restaurant at the Golden Peacock Hotel, masked staff looked incredibly hopeful when we arrived. Although we opted for take-out, we were still required to have our temperatures checked before entering. This reminded me of my days in Singapore during SARS, though it was the first time any establishment in Malawi has done this. And when the thermometer malfunctioned while taking C’s temperature, after three tries the hostess just waved us inside.
Hotels, too, are re-opening, with some claiming, as in the colorful newspaper insert above, to have “serious” coronavirus precautions, clearly in contrast to the many who are not taking it quite so. The supermarkets remain open, but have upped their COVID-19 game with more stringent hand-washing stations, social distancing floor markers, and all staff wearing masks, including some with full plastic facial shields.
Studies indicate that it can take an average of 66 days to form a new habit. So, after 11 weeks, we should be used to all of this. I suppose in some ways it is easier than when this all began, but I am far from accustomed or comfortable with the situation. I cannot sleep. My insomnia is moving from acute into the realm of chronic. And I am not alone. I regularly receive messages and emails from colleagues and friends who also find themselves up at odd hours. I do not want this to be the new normal.
There are bright moments. Our community has tried its best to come together. One of our colleagues, who loves to cook, has opened up a “Quarantine Kitchen,” providing delicious meals every Friday for order. C and I once made cupcakes, with our own delectable homemade buttercream frosting, and then drove around our housing areas delivering them them to other persons in the mission. Without the lockdown, I have been able to continue my tennis lessons, and they are a highlight of each and every week. C and I often take walks together. Cargo flights have been reinstated, and thus our State Department mail has as well.
And there is still our beautiful yard. Last Friday, I was exhausted and stressed. My insomnia had kept me up until 3 AM, but unlike in previous days and weeks, I did not get any work done in those wee hours while C slept. I did nothing. Not the restful kind of nothing either. But on Friday afternoon I took a meditative walk around my yard. A slow stroll taking in the birdsong and the colors and textures of the incredible variety of flora my yard offers. From pink and yellow roses and deep red poinsettia in full bloom to the unidentified green pods bursting from small red branches that resemble coral and a split, decaying pomegranate fruit. The nearly perfect emerald green leaf with its a few carefully chewed insect holes, the deep glossy striated burgundy of fallen banana petals, a curled, desiccated leaf, and a cluster of small violet buds. These sights rejuvenated me.
I do not know how much longer this will last, but I try to stay hopeful it will be on the sooner end than the later. It is what calms me during the coronavirus crazy.
A person’s name has meaning. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry has a story of how they got their name, even if its that you were named for a favorite uncle, a childhood pet, or the guitarist of your mom’s favorite band. I have a one-syllable last name and my parents decided to give me and my siblings first names of three or more syllables to balance it out. My mom once told me she and my dad had a name all picked out — an unusual (I would call it crazy) long first and middle name combination (Desdemona Ezmeralda) — but my grandmother wanted a name from the bible, so my mom, a bit cheekily, picked a very minor character of ill repute. (No worries, it’s still a fairly popular name.)
It is an awesome responsibility to name your progeny, to bestow or saddle upon him or her with a moniker they will be branded or blessed with for life. When I was pregnant I decided I would name my daughter a first and middle name combo with the initials “CJ.” Though it took some time to actually decide on the names — as someone talked me off the ledge of “Jakarta” (the city of her conception) as the middle name – I ended up with what I think is a lovely and normal combination, which took into account the initials I wanted and the original meanings. My daughter, too, will have a story behind her name — the one she got… and the one she didn’t.
It has been a while since I have really thought about the naming conventions of another culture. When I traveled around and eventually moved in with a family on the Indonesian island of Bali for about half a year, the unique way of naming children by birth order became apparent quickly as nearly everyone I met had the same seven names. It took me a little longer to appreciate the naming traditions of Malawi.
As I understand it, the traditions for naming one’s child in Malawi are similar to other countries of Africa. One will find many persons named after the tried-and-true Biblical/British names. There are many Chris’, Johns, Peters, Henrys, Josephs, Michaels, Graces, Marys, Janes, and Teresas. There are also older English names, some are Biblical, some British surnames turned first names; you have likely heard them before though in the western world these days they would be considered less common and more vintage: Gladwell, Godfrey, Tobias, Moses, Felix, Cornelius, Florence, Esther, Edith, Wellington, Wilfred, Beatrice.
Similar to other African countries, Malawians often name their children after positive or negative circumstances that surrounded the birth or the feelings of parents or family members. There are common unisex names in local vernacular (Chewa, Ngoni, Tumbuka, etc) such as Chifundo, Chikondi, Chikumbutso, Chimwemwe, Chisomo, Chiyembekezo, Kondwani, Madalitso, Mphatso, Mtendere, and Thokozani. In my experience interacting with the urbanites of Lilongwe, I have come across many people with these names, and sometimes with the English translations: Mercy, Love, Memory, Joy, Grace, Hope, Rejoice, Blessings, Gift, Peace, and Thanks. My nanny is named Thokozile; her daughter is Rejoice. Some of these names are fairly common in the U.S. too. My mother’s middle name is Grace.
These are mostly names reflecting positive feelings but there are some that on first glance appear negative, such as Mavuto, which means “troubles,” or Tamala, meaning “finished,” but Malawian friends have explained to me that bequeathing a child with such a name is a way of bringing about closure of a difficult time.
Other English names along these lines I have frequently come across are Bright and Beauty, but Precious, Lucky, Lonely (a wonderfully friendly guard at the Embassy), Knowledge (a newly born baby I met in the course of my duties) and Smart (a somewhat befuddled gentleman who attempted to run for President) are out there too. A prominent human rights defender in Malawi has named his three children Freedom, Justice, and Peace. I cannot begin to say how much I love that.
And then there are just those names that leave you scratching your head. Some countries pass naming laws prohibiting parents from legally attaching an embarrassing or offensive moniker to their offspring. In the United States, there are few restrictions on naming children. Mostly rules disallow the use of accents on non-English characters (like the ñ or ë), hyphens (like Mary-Kate), or symbols (such as the singers P!nk and Ke$ha). And thus you end up with some interesting names. Celebrities seem to have a greater penchant for these unconventional names: Frank Zappa famously named his daughter Moon Unit. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have named their four children North, Saint, Chicago, and Psalm. Two of Michael Jackson’s children are named Paris and Prince. But a look at the Social Security Administration’s list in any given year also reveals other, um, noteworthy names such as Fanta, Lemon, Halo, and Espn showed up in 2017.
The U.S. is not unique in this regard. While adjudicating visas in Mexico and China one could always come across an interesting name like Kobe (after the basketball legend) or Led Zeppelin Sanchez. But there just seems something about Malawi… I have come across eye-brow raising names on a much more regular basis. A Malawian friend, an incredibly smart and culturally astute woman, told me that in the southeastern part of the country, where the majority of the ethnic Yao live, one will often find older persons (and some younger, by tradition) adopted names after kitchen utensils or everyday items as a legacy of colonial times (and the inability of foreigners to pronounce or even bother to learn to pronounce local names). You might find some people in that region named Cup or Saucer, Table or Bicycle.
But I have come across so many unusual names. For instance, I looked through the list of all individuals who ran for seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections, persons I have met in the course of my duties, and the running list a colleague has compiled during her time in Malawi, and here are some of the names: Flattery, Biggles, Tryness, Orphan, Helix, Square, Genesis, Doublestar, McTonnex, Simplex, Leckford, Manifesto, Commodious, Flangson, Loveness, Heatherwick, James Bond (a Member of Parliament from Kasungu), Perks (the Malawian Ambassador to the UN), Spoon (the former commander of the Malawi Defense Forces), and my personal favorite: Dryvat.
My friend also told me that it is common, especially in the northern parts of the country, to name children after something “in fashion.” This could result in a name like “Climate Change” or, she says, it is only a matter of time before someone decides to name their child Covid.
Every name means something. And the naming traditions of Malawi as a whole demonstrate the rich traditions, cultures, and history which have weaved together the story of this country. I expect Dryvat has quite a story.
Edited to update: my nanny gave birth on June 5 to a beautiful baby boy named Effort Peace.
This may be one of the greatest understatements of all time, but Spring Break 2020 was not as we had envisioned. I had had a truly fantastic trip arranged for C and I. Driving through a new country. Adventures. Mother and daughter bonding time. I know, I know. No one planned to spend their spring largely isolating from the world during a pandemic. If you have read my blog though you know that I am big into travel. I take just about every opportunity to travel somewhere. It’s part of my identity and my daughter C is my travel buddy. I expect some might find my moaning about missing out on yet another trip to be tone-deaf, but each of us has at least one thing that we miss doing right now that makes this situation even harder. My inability to travel is one of mine.
Our last trip – a mini holiday to Johannesburg – was meant to give us a sense of normalcy, to let us do the types of things many Americans can do, but we are unable to do in Malawi. However, it was already well into the beginning of COVID-19 abnormalcy. Although at the time of the trip (Feb 29-Mar 3), there were only a handful of cases on the African continent, there were already 2,900 deaths, including the first in the U.S. There were temperature checks at immigration and a few people wearing masks. And two days after our return, South Africa registered its first case. Within weeks, as South Africa prepared for its 21-day lockdown that would begin March 27, the writing on the wall was clear: we would have no Spring Break outside of Malawi.
These musings though are not just lamentations of travel unrealized, but rather a compilation of thoughts about us riding out COVID-19 in Malawi.
COVID-19 Makes its Malawi Debut
It would not be until April 2 that Malawi would confirm its first cases of coronavirus, the 50th African country to do so (out of 54), and seemingly one of the last countries in the world. Though truth be told, there had not been testing available before then, thus there was a quiet assumption it was already here. Although C’s school had already prepared for social distancing as had the Embassy, and the President of Malawi had declared all schools in the country closed from March 23, there did not seem any immediate change to the rhythm of the local people. The colorful, crowded, chaotic markets continued. Mini-buses — though supposedly with fewer passengers squeezed inside, per the President’s guidelines — continued to trawl the city streets. Stores remained open, though with hand cleaning stations outside.
But following the first death on April 7, the undercurrents seemed to shift. I began to see Malawians wearing masks while driving their cars or in the supermarket. Supermarkets and the TNM (Telecommunications Malawi) store set up those floor stickers to encourage social distancing while in the store. I began receiving text messages with helpful suggestions to counter the spread of the virus. Companies took out full-page coronations-related ads in the newspapers. But there was a sense that it was the more well-to-do urban Malawians that were getting the messages first and foremost. They are the ones driving cars, shopping at Chipiku Plus, and topping up their phone data plans at the rather upscale TNM shop at Umodzi Park.
Then on April 14, the President announced a 21-day lockdown to begin at 11:59 PM on April 18.
Lockdowns Are Not Created Equal
Social distancing, self-quarantines, and lockdowns are just not the same across the world or across socio-economic lines. In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, there are no Whole Foods, Wegmans, or Trader Joe’s (upmarket U.S. food stores). There is no Amazon delivery bringing us all manner of goodies. Pizza delivery drivers are not essential workers here as there is no pizza delivery. Until a few weeks ago when a few bespoke expat-oriented restaurants began to offer limited delivery, there was none in Lilongwe. Though now almost all restaurants are closed. There are no drive-thrus (well, there is one, at one of two KFCs in the country). Supermarkets do not deliver. While we can walk around, there are no sidewalks, and at night almost no streetlights (and probably 50% or more of the lights do not work). There are no parks or walking trails where we might enjoy a stroll or bike ride. For awhile the parents of C’s best friends took her with them for bike riding at the BICC (Bingu International Convention Center). There is a large open area in front of the convention center and hotel, and terraced roads linked also by stairs going up a hillside. But last week, security personnel turned them and others away, declaring the only open area of its kind in the city closed to persons seeking recreation.
This is not a woe-is-me tale, but a reminder to folks living in developed countries with many amenities available to them, that this pandemic period is much harder on others. And I am not talking about myself. Although I do feel some envy for some of the creature comforts and conveniences I see and hear about from others at home, I am better off than 90% (or more) of Malawians, many of whom live hand-to-mouth, making their small income from daily informal work.
Following the announcement of a 21-day lockdown, small-scale traders in the cities of Blantyre and Mzuzu held protests, which spread to other areas such as Kasungu and the capital Lilongwe. Many of the protestors are concerned that unable to engage in their livelihoods they are more likely to die of starvation than of the coronavirus. Contrast this with protests in the U.S. which largely seem to be a question of civil liberties and larger economic concerns vice life and death. A Malawian human rights organization took the government to court, claiming the lockdown implementation has not been aboveboard and does not include enough consideration of and protections for the poor, and obtained a seven-day injunction. Therefore the lockdown is currently on hold. Political or not, the virus nonetheless has been politicized; the erratic political environment coupled with the potential health crisis leaves even more uncertainty about the way forward.
Easter Under COVID-19
Originally, C and I were to be away on the holiday, so I had planned to celebrate the Sunday before. With no vacation though, I considered moving it to the actual day, but C was just too excited. And after two weeks of homeschooling by a horrible new teacher with zero patience (yes, me), I wanted to do something that would make her smile. Well, first I forced her to clean up the living room (I asked my nanny/housekeeper, who also happens to be seven months pregnant, to just stay at home during this time — paid of course), and then the morning of I set up her Easter basket, full of locally-sourced chocolate (the selection is much better than you might think) and some luckily-ordered-before-Embassy-mail-ceased surprises (our diplomatic mail arrives on planes, there are now almost no more planes). I also hid 34 plastic eggs in the living room and entryway for our annual egg hunt.
As the week wore on I questioned my decision. I grew melancholy as the Easter weekend, and the day we would have flown out, approached. But a very clever colleague came up with a plan. She reached out to all staff with children to see if they might be interested in a visit by the Easter Bunny on Sunday morning. Then she dressed up in the Embassy Easter Bunny costume and a partner drove her around from house to house. Once at our house C and the Easter Bunny practiced social distancing, waving discretely to each from at least two meters away. Then the Easter Bunny poured some plastic eggs full of candy on the lawn and with a final wave, backed away.
Introverts Are Hermits and Other Annoying COVID-19 Falsehoods
<Heavy sigh> I cannot begin to tell you how much it has driven me crazy to see all the memes and posts stating that introverts have been preparing for the self-isolation and social distancing of this pandemic all their lives. Introverts are not anti-social misanthropes. Introverts recharge their energy when alone, while extroverts pull energy from being with other people. Sure, I generally prefer individual pursuits like reading, writing, solo exercise, solo travel, but that does not mean I never want to be around other people. In fact, traveling on my own often forces me to strike up conversations with strangers far more than if I were part of a group. I do like people, just usually in smaller doses. I have discovered that working from home is not my cup of tea. That does not mean an open plan office with lots of chatter is for me either, but I miss going to the office. I miss the satisfaction of face to face interaction with my coworkers. I woke up one day last week and felt an immediate desire to crawl right back into bed. Then a feeling of déjà-vu came hurtling toward me from the deep recesses of my brain, a flashback to when I was in Singapore during SARS. I did not thrive during that time and I am not thriving now.
I am learning new skills and hobbies, but not because of one of the many overly ambitious blog posts told me to do so in their Top Ten Best Ways to Make it Through Quarantine. Want to know what I am learning? How to juggle homeschooling, housework, and working during a pandemic, dealing with insomnia, and providing American citizen services to our community and private Americans living in Malawi. I cannot say I am hitting the ball out of the park on any of it. Describing my homeschooling skills as mediocre is probably overselling it, but hey, these are new skills, it takes practice, right?
This is a difficult time for everyone, I know. How you cope is relative. I try to see the bright side of things, such as the Tostitos I ordered by Embassy mail are unable to get here and thus I am not stress-eating them and my daughter’s school shoes will make it through the school year after all. I can also wear jeans and a t-shirt every day, which is my happy place for clothes, or if we are being really real, pajama pants and a t-shirt. Basically, I try to maintain my sense of humor. And with travel on indefinite hold right now, I am especially relying on it.
Malawi lies at the southwest edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley – and it’s this that led me to title this post this way.
It has been an interesting year. And I do not just mean what we have seen so far from the 2020 calendar year, I mean the last 365 days. A year ago we here in Malawi were preparing for the country’s tripartite elections in May. It was a busy time, but as the political officer at the Embassy (and a first-time political officer), it was also exciting. Elections are a political officer’s bread and butter. I was lapping it up.
The lead up to the elections was exciting, as was polling day itself, and the immediate days afterward. I worked extra hours, dug into the politics, analyzed the results, and wrote reports. After nearly two years in the country, I felt I really understood the situation, the players, and it was all culminating in this election. The elections had shaped my tour since I arrived in August 2017, and I thought I would head off on my mid-tour home leave and return to a post-election environment with newly elected representatives and a new focus for my second consecutive Malawi tour.
But that was not to be. The hotly contested election resulted in a court challenge of the presidential election results. And demonstrations. First by the opposition parties who alleged the misconduct by the electoral commission, and then by human rights activists. During the summer, the police deployed tear gas multiple times in the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy (the main opposition party’s headquarters is next door). At the end of his first week on the job, my summer intern and I were caught outside the Embassy while at a meeting during another tear gas display. On another day I could hear from my office the thwoop thwoop thwoop of the canisters being repeatedly deployed. Estimates were some 90 canisters fired in an hour. I never felt in danger, but things were definitely not normal.
By August the court case had begun. But it dragged through the fall. The end of every multi-week session announcing the next. The human rights activists continued their demonstrations, though the military joined with them to provide security and there was less use of tear gas. There were other demonstrations too, by truck drivers, by teachers, by civil servants. Then on February 3, the Constitutional Court (a five-High Court judge panel convened especially to hear and decide on the presidential election nullification case) released its decision. It was a day of suspense — with the lead justice reading out the 500-page decision on the radio over the course of ten hours. And at the end he announced the landmark judgment for the opposition parties; only the second time on the African continent that a court had overturned an election.
It was exhilarating. The country was electrified. There were news articles around the world on this historic decision. But it was short-lived. Because now there are to be new elections and here we are back where we were a year ago. Only the stakes seem higher. February felt like a really long month, approximately six weeks long.
As of today, March 31, 2020, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Malawi. As I have been thinking about writing this over the past week, I have experienced a sense of apprehension that as soon as I might write that down, it would cease to be true, a case would be confirmed. But most of us in the diplomatic community and the government of Malawi are operating under the assumption that there are cases here, we just do not definitively know it.
It might seem odd that Malawi seems to stand alone, that with over 170 countries and territories affected, it sits there, a greyed out area in a sea of teal. But Malawi is not only at the edge of the Great Rift but also is sort of the end of the line. Malawi is not a transit country (I mean sure, for economic migrants, yes, but for international travel, no); it is not a major tourist destination, not even really a minor one. It is off the beaten track. It is landlocked and even connections to its neighboring countries are relatively limited. I found this really neat graphic online that demonstrates Africa’s risk in terms of individual countries’ connectivity with China. But it might as well be connectivity to really anywhere in terms of Malawi. There are only a handful of international flights a day, and connections only to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and Ethiopia.
So, this relative isolation has contributed to how I have perceived the pandemic. While so many of us around the globe have labeled this experience surreal, I have felt both affected and oddly detached. I have watched the panic buying, the press conferences, the number tallies from a distance. We have had meetings (many, many, many, meetings) at the Embassy, beginning in February and increasing in frequency in March. Especially as the news around the globe worsened, as cases crept closer to home. As the measures were slowly put in place. My boss voluntarily self-quarantined for two weeks beginning in early March after returning from a European country that the government of Malawi had just designated as a country of concern. From last week my daughter’s international school went entirely to distance learning — the decision made a week or two before the President announced on March 20 that all schools in the country would close – and the Embassy has gone to Team Office / Team Telework. One week one team may be in the office (though they do not have to be) while the other solely teleworks, then the next week the teams switch, and to quote one of my favorite poets, Kipling, “never the twain shall meet.” Well, except in Zoom meetings.
Last week I was Team Office and still spent much of my time at the Embassy. Not only as the political officer but also the Acting Consular Officer, because our primary consular officer opted to return to the U.S. for health and safety reasons while the option remained open. I went home each day for lunch, an option I rarely take, so that I could also log my daughter on for her daily Google Meet session with her teacher and classmates. The homeschooling was rough for sure, more akin to co-dependent torture than learning, but I felt useful and efficient at work. This week I am on Team Telework and it is only day two but it is like everything has fallen apart. Well, homeschooling is on the upswing and work is, um, on the opposite trajectory.
I do not quite know how to describe how I am feeling; I am sure I am not alone in this. I am not worried about the virus for myself or my daughter. And while I am working with my family to put into place measures to make my elderly parents safer, I am not all that worried about my friends or family. I expect that some might find this callous. Although I can be an emotional person, I feel I am approaching this situation more as a pragmatist. I think it may be due to my experience in Singapore during SARS. Singapore handled that pandemic well and is by all reports doing the same this time around.
I know COVID-19 is not SARS. I felt I needed to say that. But there are some similarities.
Not that I personally handled the time during SARS in Singapore all that well. It was not an easy time. While I sent back some thoughts to friends and family (summarized in my two blog posts on the time), I went back to look at my journals for the time period and found nothing at all written in them over a 2.5 month period. That in and of itself is telling. It is rare for me to go for more than a week without writing. What I do remember is that at first the situation was novel, even exciting, but over time it really began to drag on myself and my friends. I even sought out counseling.
There are concerns about the virus coming to Malawi. As one of the poorest countries in the world, the health system is already incredibly limited, and would likely quickly be overwhelmed by a pandemic. Also, social distancing is just not something that fits well with the culture and customs here. Malawians are very social. They enjoy group meetings, family gatherings, attending church or mosque. In the few walks that I have taken around my neighborhood, I still see Malawians greeting one another touching hands, walking closely together. And the reality of poverty is that people live, travel, and work together in very close quarters.
And yet I think I am doing better this time around for a number of reasons. Perhaps it is because I am here in Malawi, with our relative isolation and delayed case confirmation, but also because I have my incredibly lush and calming yard full of birdsong. Also, I have meaningful work that keeps me busy, I have been meditating almost daily for over two years, and I am here with my daughter, and everything is better with her.
These feelings are valid as of today. Things will continue to be uncertain for the foreseeable future. If COVID-19 follows a trajectory similar to SARS, then it is likely peaking, but will continue well into June. July 2 is currently the date for the “fresh” (as all the papers here like to call it) presidential election. My daughter and I are opting to shelter in place here in Malawi, our home, and though it will not be easy, I expect us to be fine. Despite all of the uncertainty and challenges my friends and I faced in Singapore during SARS, it did pass, and those feelings faded. So, I know that this too shall pass.
Due to a Malawian Tuesday holiday, C’s school gave the kids a mini-break, a four-day weekend. When we have gone out of town on long weekends here, we have tended to go to someplace on Lake Malawi. We head out to Senga Bay or Monkey Bay. We have also been to Mangochi and Nkhata Bay. We have also been to the Zomba plateau, Ntchisi Forest, or to the tea plantation area of the south. But getting to these places we have long, somewhat boring drives, on crappy Malawian roads, with little change to the scenery. I have often enjoyed these drives and found beauty in them. But I really wanted something different than Malawi.
On other vacations, we tend to go to far-flung locales like northern Finland or Zanzibar and I fill our days with sightseeing and/or activities. That isn’t what I wanted either. What I wanted was a change of scenery, but also low-key. I wanted us to be able to do things we cannot do in Malawi, the things that I imagine the average middle-class family in America or Europe or likewise does in a given week. I wanted convenience.
I opted for a quick trip to Johannesburg. Just staying in a hotel near a mall with a movie theater. That seemed so “normal.” And yet, not at all normal with our every day in Malawi. The normal, but not normal, which, in my opinion, just about sums C and I up.
And wouldn’t you know it, by the time the weekend rolled around, things seemed all the less normal. There is the political uncertainty in Malawi, with the country’s High Court deciding to nullify the results of last year’s presidential elections and ordering a new poll. I am the political officer and this is my bread and butter, but we were all entering an unprecedented political situation, not only in Malawi but on the African continent. And then there is coronavirus pandemic, which has led to another global health emergency, widespread panic, but also necessary Embassy planning sessions. With all this going on I was mentally exhausted. I craved normalcy all the more.
The flight to Johannesburg was normal enough. Three and a half hours with a short stop in Malawi’s southern city of Blantyre. Long, ridiculous lines at immigration greeted us in Johannesburg. I sure hope that is not how they normally do business, but I suppose it is normal enough. Yes, there were individuals with high-tech thermometers, that looked more like a radar gun used by police to check speed, scanning everyone’s forehead but few travelers wearing medical face masks (the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Africa was the day we flew back). Once through all the arrival rigamarole we grabbed some snacks and a taxi and headed to our hotel in Sandton City, our home away from home for the long weekend.
Our first stop then was the Sandton City mall, right off of Nelson Mandela Square, the site of a gigantic statue of the hero himself. There are no shopping malls in Malawi. Well, there is the covered shopping center on the outskirts of Lilongwe (“the biggest mall in Malawi!”). It’s made up of perhaps a dozen stores – anchored by two supermarket chains, which are a shadow of their South African cousins, a few restaurants, a salon, a pharmacy, a dentist office, a bank, the Malawian version of a dollar store, a shoe store, a South African children’s clothing chain, a barber’s, and one or two other stores I have never actually seen anyone in. It might be named “Gateway Mall” but using the word doesn’t make it so. On the other hand Sandton City Mall has around 300 stores!
We ate a late lunch in a South African family sit-down restaurant. The only similar restaurant I know of in Malawi is Wimpy — and there are only two of those in the whole country. Then we did something really quite ordinary for many families in a lot of countries – we saw a movie at the theater. C and I really enjoy going to the movies and we did so regularly in Shanghai. But in Malawi there are no movie theaters.
This was no ordinary theater though — the movie (Sonic the Hedgehog) was shown in a kids theater complete with colorful bean bag chairs and a slide. The popcorn though was not all that normal, at least not compared to U.S. cinemas, instead of melted butter you could top off with there was powdered butter. And not a napkin to be found.
On our second day we woke to a rainy Sunday. C looked out our hotel room window at the uninspiring view of half of the neighboring building and a nondescript six lane road. But what she saw was instead was wondrous. “Mom,” she exclaimed, “look at that! I wish we lived here and every day we could look out on that road. There is no road like that in Malawi.” And she is right. There are only a handful of roads in Malawi’s three main cities (Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu) that are four lane, and those only span a few kilometers at best.
Off we headed to the Sci-Bono Discovery Center, an interactive children’s STEM museum located in a former power station. Wow, this place is cool. When we headed first to a water exhibit on loan from the U.S.’ Smithsonian Museum and there was no one there but us, I worried the museum might not capture C’s attention. Thankfully, I was wrong. We ended up spending four hours there – taking in the planetarium show, filling a small hot air balloon and watching it soar up the four stories to the ceiling, using various displays to learn about circuits and voltage to create electric charges, learning interesting animal facts, trying out PlayStation interactive golf and tennis games, and of course sprinting up the climbing wall. I have taken C to children’s museums across the U.S. and in many places around the world, but there are none in Malawi. In fact, there is only a handful of museums in the whole country – we have been to three and only one was worth a visit.
We spent the afternoon back at the Sandton City Mall having another late lunch (Hard Rock Cafe) and then C picked out her LEGO characters, which I bet would be hers *if* she made it to the top of the rock climbing wall. Despite her fear, she made short work of that wall to get those toys, so I had to deliver. We then had a quite evening just hanging out in the room.
For our last day the plan was to head to the Montecasino bird gardens, but we woke to more rain and a weather prediction that it would last all day. However, Montecasino also had a indoor shopping area and best of all — an arcade. There are few things C likes more than playing a bunch of ticket-producing games and trading in those tickets for cheap toys. I might have to admit I rather enjoy it all myself. So, I went all out. I bought hundreds of tokens and we played for HOURS. Claw games, skee ball, video games, wheel spins, games where we tossed basketballs, bean bags, or ping pong balls to see how many we could get into a receptacle or knock over some pins in a period of time. All in the name of maniacal, obsessive fun so we could get enough tickets to get the prized stuffed lion that had C’s name on it from the moment we walked in. It might not seem like much, and may even seem a waste of time and money on vacation, but we had so much fun. And there is nothing like it in Malawi. (Thank goodness, or I would be broke, our hands would be calloused, and we would have even more stuffed animals than we already have).
Then we wandered the covered mall of Montecasino, which, with its faux cobblestone lanes and ceiling painted and lit like the sky, reminded me much of the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian in Las Vegas. We had our choice of 30 restaurants and 10 fast food joints for lunch. I am not sure there are 40 restaurants in all of Lilongwe. C and I frequent about eight. We had (yet another late) lunch at a Mexican (Mexican!!) restaurant and then called it a day.
Heading back the next day was hard for me; I could have used another night or two in Johannesburg. We hadn’t visited a department store or gone to an amusement park or even a decent playground. But once home I thought our weekend away had, at least temporarily, restored me. It might not be that normal to fly to another country to try to do “normal” things. And honestly, these normal activities we did felt extraordinary because we do not do them all the time. Many people in developed countries take it for granted that they will have wide pothole-free roads to drive on, nice sidewalks to walk on, well-stocked supermarkets to shop in, and entertainment and shopping complexes to go to, and it just isn’t that way for many in the developing world. Don’t get me wrong — I know we have it good. With our privilege, C and I straddle these worlds, living (very well) in one, and with the means and opportunity to travel to another. The “normal” things we (I) miss are not normal at all for the vast majority of Malawians. They are not even that normal for my daughter who has spent most of her eight years overseas.
It’s really something to think about — and as I begin to contemplate where we might head next after Malawi I wonder how well we would do somewhere with all these amenities and conveniences that we often do without? How would we handle being more normal?
The final part of my week-long mini sojourn to Uruguay and Buenos Aires.
It took almost as long to get into Buenos Aires from Tigre on the bus as it took to leisurely motor along the delta from Carmelo, Uruguay. The traffic was awful and it was growing dark. I also felt a little sick because all I had had for lunch were nine small saltine crackers, two marshmallow chocolates, a mini candy bar I had left from United’s lounge in Chicago, and some water.
Once let down in the center of Buenos Aires, I determined I should take the subway to the neighborhood of San Telmo to find the hostel. I found a subway entrance and simply followed the crowd. I grew a little nervous when I realized I had reached the platform and was without a ticket; I had seen no ticket counter, no turnstiles. It was 80 degrees above ground in Buenos Aires that day, in early winter, yet the air conditioning (if there ever is any) in the underground was turned off, and with the crowds, the temperature was even warmer. The platform was already full when myself and my large backpack pushed our way into a small corner near the entrance and a shop, but people just kept coming and coming and coming. Soon it was like a sauna, and no trains arrived. In broken Spanish I asked the woman next to me where the ticket counters were and she pointed upstairs, but you could not even see upstairs anymore with the still-arriving mobs. She asked how I managed to get downstairs without a ticket, but I honestly had no clue. I saw no place to buy one and simply followed the crowd. She said it would not be a problem. I felt trapped because I saw no easy way to force my way up through that crowd. And still no trains arrived. I asked the woman how much a taxi might cost to my destination and she told me four or five pesos (about $1.50-$2.00). What? How much is the subway? Seventy centavos. Well if the taxi was only a few dollars I would much prefer to take it than suffer the rising heat of the train-less underground. But you can walk, she says, it is only 15 blocks! How wonderful to hear that someone would think that walking 15 blocks was very doable and easy! In many places the common response to a destination 15 blocks away would be that it was far too distant to walk. Another young man offered to go upstairs as well and show me where I could catch a bus; he said the subway workers were on strike. And so we shoved our way up the stalled escalator, past all the people still unknowingly descending into the tunnel.
Upstairs the air felt refreshingly cool so I decided to walk. I made it to the hostel to check in just in time for the storm to break. It was about 8 PM and I was starving, but when I tried to go outside I was soaked within five minutes even though I carried an umbrella. I went back inside the hostel and took a shower. By the time I was finished the torrential rain was over. I walked the ten blocks to the Plaza Dorengo where I found a small, dark, smoky cafe with windows open onto the plaza and a guitarist singing traditional songs. Though I had been reluctant at first to eat where there might be loud music, prefering to be somewhere quiet, I stayed almost two hours savoring my salad with Roquefort cheese and empañada along with the sounds of lonely, romantic ballads. I thought, now, my holiday is turning around.
Except the weather was not up to cooperating. It was overcast as I stepped out the next day to head to the posh side of Buenos Aires. to visit the Cemeterio de la Recoleta – where the crème de la crème are buried in grand, ornate tombs. It was lightly raining when I reached the gates of the cemetery but it seemed appropriate weather for the location. The Recoleta Cemetery is like a small city for the weathly, powerful, and connected deceased. A small park and a posh shopping center with very upscale furniture stores and chic eateries, including the Hard Rock Cafe Buenos Aires abut the high walls. Inside there is a grand entrance with statues and wide streets leading off from a sort of central square. Friendly cats – no wonder they have the reputation of being associated with death – leisurely stroll around the lanes, lie on the steps to the mausoleums, leap from the tomb rooftops, dart into open, un-cared for tombs, and give guided tours. Well, for at least 20 minutes I was tailed by one particular cat until we caught sight of a rival furry tour guide, and then she took off. I am here in a large part to see the tomb of Eva Peron. I followed an English tour I heard was heading for her tomb, though had I wandered around by myself it would probably not have proved difficult to find as there was a large crowd standing in front of it. Her tomb, regardless of the controversy surrounding her life and still her legacy in death, is a pilgrimage site. I paced nearby until the crowd left and then as the rain fell steadily harder, was able to get a close up look. I tried to peer into the tomb, but to be honest I had a small feeling that if even the slightest movement might happen anywhere near me I would probably scream. As Evita was embalmed, a uncommon practice in Argentina, I thought perhaps the body might be more on display. I know that sounds rather morbid, but the entire cemetery appeared to revel in grotesque, over-the-top demonstrations.
It begins to rain quite hard and I discover that the batteries on my camera have died and the spare pair I thought I had are actually dead too. So, I decide to go and have lunch and see about buying some new batteries. It stops raining after some time and about 1 1/2 hours later I return to the cemetery, but it starts raining again! My umbrella makes it still bearable, so I did not mind too much. I was impressed with the excellent drainage system the cemetery seems to have – probably better than many of the neighborhoods for the living.
As I walk back towards the Subway I realize it is 3:30 PM and there are supposed to be tours in English at Casa Rosada (the Pink House), the Presidential Palace, only at 5 PM on Fridays. I feel lucky that I just happened to think of this and head off. I arrive at the palace around 4:20 PM. There is a fence around the front perimeter; people are going inside but they must pass muster with the guard there. I go up and explain I am there for the tour. He tells me to come back Monday. I explain that I am there for the ENGLISH tour on Fridays. He tells me they have been suspended and waves me away. Once again foiled. What is it about this trip?? I walk around the Palace and it suddenly begins to rain very hard. I pull out my umbrella and dash across the street to a government building with a large roofed entrance way. I make my way to Avenida Florida, the shopping street, which is so much livelier than on my first day only five days before. I find a tourist information office and go in to ask about Tango shows. I also ask them why the English tours of the Casa Rosada have been canceled. They look at me puzzled and say they have not been cancelled – they are every Friday at 4 PM. I briefly imagine myself running back through the rain just to give that guard a piece of my mind – typical developing country guard/police bullshit to just tell people things are closed, cancelled, or never existed. But I’m am no longer really that upset by these things, it just happens when you travel. Had I more time, I would just return another day. Its just I had only this one opportunity.
But I lucked out at last; I found a Tango show in San Telmo. They offered a five course meal and a 1 hour and 45 minute Tango show for US$55. At this point during this ever-frustrating holiday, I expected the food to be overcooked, the service to be bad, and the show a disappointment. But, it was all wonderful. I had the next to best seat in the house, the food was delicious, and the show of Tango music, song, and dance was incredible. It was the perfect final evening of my holiday. The next day my flight left at 7:40 pm and so I needed to leave the hostel for the airport at 5. I slept in, showered, and headed off once again to Avenida Florida for some shopping. I bought two CDs of Tango music, some Patagonian chocolate, and a winter coat – just $40 for a coat that would cost at least three times that in the U.S. I had a final meal of Argentine beef – a fast food place in the Galleria food court that did burgers, steak, sausages, and chicken to order on the grill right in front of the customer. Not your usual fast food place!
Just as I start heading back to the subway (to go to the hostel to catch the taxi to the airport) I notice a large crowd down one of the streets. I notice this because as I am crossing a three lane road I notice a few people standing in the middle of the road staring. I think at first these two guys must have a death wish or something, and then I turn and see down the Avenida toward the obelisk (which resembles the Washington Monument) a large crowd of people. Ooooh, a protest I think! I immediately think of my Aunt C who tells me when in a foreign country and you see a large crowd of people like that one should go AWAY from it. So, of course, I walk towards it, and I am glad I did. It turned out not to be a protest but a gaucho, or cowboy, festival. The roads were roped off and sand was placed down on one of the lanes. There were men and boys in traditional gaucho gear – ponchos, pañuelos (scarfs), flat topped, wide-brimmed felt hats, white dress shirts, bombacha trousers with matching jackets, and boots – astride their equally-decorative horses. Stereotypically perhaps, many of them smoking. Riders were galloping down the sand covered lane. I had to get going, but I took 10 minutes out to watch and take some pictures before heading toward the metro. Again, I felt lucky to have come upon this. Although I was disappointed that I was unable to stay longer, it was enough to have seen it at all.
I then arrived at the closest metro and found it closed! Would these unfortunate events never end? But now used to this, I quickly pulled out my Buenos Aires map and found the next subway stop. It was open and all was well. I made my flight with no problem and it was with a smile that I said goodbye to South America for now.
My unexpected trip to Uruguay in May 2005 continues as I leave the capital Montevideo, which I found oddly deserted and subdued, and head toward the summer playground of Punta del Este, but in winter, and the UNESCO World Heritage town of Colonia del Sacramento.
Punta del Este, the international jet set summer playground, was my next destination. I figured I might at least be able to afford to stay there in winter, when in summer it would be booked out months in advance and too pricey for my wallet. Since it is supposed to be such a popular vacation spot, I imagined beautiful white beaches and a lovely town with quaint attractive buildings. Two and half hours away by bus and I was about to be terribly disappointed.
[From my diary:] This morning as I headed out of my Montevideo hostel to Punta del Este I could sense a change as I might be heading for adventure. The bus terminal was modern and I had no problem buying the ticket or finding the bus. We departed and arrived on time. As we drove, the sun came out and I had high hopes it would remain so. But here I am not in Punta del Este and it is overcast, the sky almost uniformly white.
I found the hostel fairly easily (well, after many wrong turns and bad directions) and then set out have a walk around the town and some lunch. I walked down the deserted main street, again feeling things weren’t quite right. The town might be like any resort/beach town in the off seasons, think Ocean City, Maryland or Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in winter. Very, very quiet. Though Punta is supposed to be glitzy and expensive and trendy, I saw only old, worn out cars parked along the streets. I had some less than fabulous pasta at a small cafe and then headed back to the hostel to get some guidance. The girl in charge of the hostel was out and a man came downstairs. He told me he didn’t work there but he’d been there for months and maybe he could help me. My guess is that he was Uruguayan or Argentine though his English was almost accent-less. I asked, “What is there to do here?” “Sweetheart,” he said, “there isn’t anything to do here.” I was amused at his “sweetheart” address to me. It came off sounding rather cheesy and awkward, like he was just trying out its effect on foreign women. He proceeded to tell me that I should have come with a friend or a boyfriend (thanks for making me feel alone buddy) and that he was there with “his girl” and they would be watching a video that night, maybe I might join them? He pointed out to a beachfront from through the hostel front window. “See that beach,” he says, “in the summer it is so crowded with people you can’t see the sand.” I said that having a beach that crowded would not necessarily be a boon to everyone. I asked about Cabo Polonia, where there are sand dunes and the country’s second largest sea lion colony. Oh, don’t go there, he tells me. Because it will be absolutely dead, there will be nothing to do. “In the summer,” he says, “it is beautiful. They have a naked beach and you can drink and smoke anything you want. You can do anything you want there.” Uh, we clearly have different ideas about what is “beautiful” and “fun.” I wanted to see sand dunes and sea lions and enjoy stark natural beauty, not a bunch of drunk, stoned, naked people. Such a shame to miss all that, I know.
I decided to just walk around the point. It was sunny and not too cold and the walk was so much prettier than the Rambla. Here at Punta and nearby Maldonado are where many wealthy Argentines keep large summer homes. The walk reminded me very much of the walks along the ocean at Monterey, California for the climate and the architecture. Each house was pretty and unique. There was also a small port from where, in summer, boats head out to Isla Gorriti and Isla de Los Lobos, and in the winter the fishermen were selling fresh fish. Sea lions swam around the colorful boats. Around the point I slowly walked, with only a hopeful stalker bicyclist aiming to ruin it. He biked past me several times. At one point I must have made the mistake of saying “hola” while smiling. He biked on ahead and then parked and got off to sit on the stone wall. As I passed he smiled at me and patted the wall next to him. Forget it buddy I said (okay I really said I don’t speak Spanish and he indicated that he didn’t care by shrugging his shoulders) and I walked on. Around to the sculpture “El Mano” or as it is known in English, the Hand in the Sand – what appears to be five fingers of a giant hand, either reaching out of the sand or the last gesture of someone sinking away. I thought it reminded me of the Planet of the Apes and the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand at the end. I wanted a picture of me by one of the fingers, but there was no one else around.
Back at the hostel I have my dinner and watch a movie with Sweetheart’s girl. I hit the sack early because I planned to leave Punta del Este as early as possible.
[From my diary:] My hope was to make the 7 AM bus to Colonia, but I slept long and woke up just five minutes to. I had to settle for the 8:45 AM, which would get me to Colonia at 2:30 PM. The bus ride was uneventful, I slept in shifts. The sky cleared, then darkened, then cleared again.
I arrived at Colonia del Sacramento, the oldest town in Uruguay. Founded in 1680 near the confluence of the Rio Uruguay and the Rio de la Plata by the Portuguese and later ceded to the Spanish, Colonia as it is known is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though it too seemed lost it time, it seemed more appropriate for it to be so. I am not sure which time Colonia is supposed to be lost in, but it was by far my favorite place in Uruguay. The weather was beautiful – when I arrived I first changed into a lighter weight long-sleeved shirt and my fleece and returned almost immediately to take off the fleece. It was sunny and warm – around 70 degrees despite the leafless sycamore trees with their fallen dried orange leaves littering the streets as evidence of the early winter season. There were actually some other tourists in Colonia, most probably on a day tour from Buenos Aires – located just across the river, 45 minutes away by fast ferry. I liked the no pressure strolling around the cobblestone streets – some of them of very roughly hewn stone without much attempt at placing them closely and smoothly together – looking into shops. No one pounced on me as soon as I entered the stores. No high-pressure salesmanship. I was almost disappointed. In Asia I would have been lured, even pulled, in from the street and drawn into haggling for items I had no desire to buy. But in Uruguay, the lack of customer interest or even customers at all seemed unimportant. There was something aggravating and yet also pleasant in this lackadaisical approach to sales and life. Things were unhurried and in Colonia it felt so very appropriate – with the eclectic mix of Portuguese and Spanish colonial and early 20th century with hints of the 21st – there did not appear any desire to rush the town into the modern era. There were horse drawn carriages, 1920s and 1930s vintage cars, along with what I would guess to be early 50s vehicles. A 2005 model would have been the outlier, not the norm.
I strolled for several hours through the streets, climbing up the lighthouse and along the ruined walls of an old fort, to finally stopping for an early dinner at a small restaurant with a view of the sunset over the Rio. I was the only diner and I sat outside in the warm air enjoying the view and a steak. The only disturbances were a dog that wished to share in my meal who was shooed away by the two waitresses who sat glumly across the street on the curb watching over me, and a poorly dressed old man who sold me two band-aids for five pesos.
It seemed almost too calm and relaxing. Why wasn’t I more pleased that the dogs were not attacking me? That the band-aid seller was not more persistent and aggressive? This holiday seemed unlike so many I have taken.
Back at the hostel I was savoring the last few pages of the book I had brought. I had tried to ration the pages – I had not expected to have much time to read, and certainly not to finish the book. I should have brought two or three books with all the time I had on hand. Mostly I had spent the time I could have been reading in another favorite hobby of mine – sleeping. I slept on the plane, on the boat to Montevideo, on the buses to Punta del Este and Colonia. And still I could go to sleep early at night. It was as if I was making up for all the less than adequate sleep for the past few months – and still with all that sleeping, I could not stave off the end of the book. Three days left and a long flight back and I was finished. But just then the woman sharing the dormitory came in. I explained that I was leaving Colonia the next day but was debating between the 9:15 am ferry to Buenos Aires or to spend another quiet day in the town and take the 5:15 pm; however, having just finished off my only reading material I was inclined to leave in the morning. She told me I should take the way back via Carmelo and Tigre. I had no idea to what she was referring, and she told me there is a slower boat leaving from a town about an hour’s bus ride north of Colonia. The boat would wind its way through the Parana River Delta and arrive in the suburban town of Tigre, from where I could then take a bus or train into Buenos Aires. The idea of a more adventurous and less conventional way to return to Argentina appealed to me.
And so the next day at 11:30 I took the bus north to the small river town of Carmelo. I had about an hour to walk the town and buy provisions for the boat. Again, it was beautiful weather, so although I circled the same 10 blocks at least twice and I did not find anything of particular interest in Carmelo, I felt rather excited to be there. The boat ride was again uneventful and relaxing, but this time I felt content because I could look out the windows at the brown river and the life along the delta. I could step out onto the back of the boat and feel the sun and wind on my face. It felt delicious, almost undeserved. Within two hours we pulled up at the dock in Tigre and those heading onto Buenos Aires boarded the company bus.
In 2005 I was working in Washington, D.C. in my first post-graduate school job. I had only been working for a few months and really wanted a holiday, but had not banked a lot of money or time off. I also love me a random, new, out of the way destination, but somewhere I could cover a fair amount within a short period of time. And for some reason, I honed in on Uruguay. I do not remember why only I had not been there before, I had found a flight, and there was enough, but not too much, for me to see in a week. This trip was most certainly something out of the ordinary. Yet this was 15 years ago and I am surprised by how little I recall of the trip, not the beauty of Colonia del Sacramento or the travel challenges I ran into that led me to originally call this email story “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
Why would I want to go to Uruguay? This was the question posed to me by just about everyone to whom I mentioned my trip. Why not go to Argentina? they asked. Well as just about everyone knows I like to take holidays that are a little different. I do not necessarily want to go to someplace that everyone else is going. However, looking up some statistics, I came across a website that said that Uruguay receives more international tourists than Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. This actually left me rather puzzled. Really? Where were they hiding? But I think I may know how this happens, if you count every Argentine that goes over for a weekend of shopping, then Uruguay may indeed have more “tourists.” I’d be willing to bet that 80-90% of tourists to Uruguay are Argentine or Brazilian, another 10% are the international jet set and celebrities a la Naomi Campbell, Leonardo di Caprio, and Claudia Schiffer that descend on glitzy Punta del Este in the summer.
But those realizations came later.
On a Friday afternoon, I began my unexpected holiday to Uruguay. I had little expectations really, I just wanted to get away, but the excitement was building. And quickly it was dashed. Despite the existence of a direct flight, I had found a cheaper option through Chicago. Unfortunately, this did not work out in my favor. The flight was delayed out of Reagan National and, due to storms, also delayed landing in Chicago. As we circled Chicago O’Hare, my overnight flight to Buenos Aires took off. There was chaos in Chicago, many stranded passengers, and it took time to finally speak with customer service only to learn the next flight was 24 hours later. I spent the first day of my vacation holed up in an airport voucher hotel dining at various O’Hare airport restaurants.
I have to revise my plan. I am dejected. I think maybe I do not even bother going to Uruguay, because I am flying into Buenos Aires my plan is to take the boat to Montevideo. I have no idea when the boats to Montevideo depart. We touch down a little early at 10 am. I think noon would be a good time to have a boat and I figure I might be able to race across town on a bus and get to the boat in time. But I figured wrong. The boat leaves at 11:30 in the morning. I find this out around 10:45 in the morning when airport information informs me they tell me it will take 40 minutes to get into the city… The next boat is at 3:30 pm. I am momentarily stunned that my “plan” ( i.e. that was to have no plan) is not working. Usually, I am very lucky when I travel. This does not feel particularly lucky. I concede defeat and book the bus. I arrive at the port around noon.
My “plan” also included not acquiring any Argentine money; I figured I would just purchase the bus and boat tickets with a credit card and speed ahead to Uruguay. But unfortunately, now I had three hours to kill in Buenos Aires. In the boat terminal, there were neither open money changers nor left luggage facilities. Very traveler-unfriendly. I buy my ticket and ask if I can leave my bag at the travel office. They say no but tell me to try at the information desk. They also say no and tell me to try at the check-in counter. He also says no. But I am tired of hearing no, so I go back to the travel office and put on my sad traveler face and one of the guys goes over and bullies the check-in guy to let me leave my bag. One little triumph. A minor fortunate event. I have two hours before I have to come back for boarding. It is overcast and a Sunday. It was as if I had flown into a Stalinist state during the Cold War. There are not many people out and they are huddled in their coats, the shops seem half-empty on Avenida Florida, supposedly Buenos Aires’ main shopping street. I change US$10 so I can pay for lunch. I sit reading my book until it is almost time to return to the boat. It has started to rain. I am not in a particularly good mood, but then I think I am in for some adventure with the 2 1/2 hour boat ride ahead of me.
Instead, the boat journey takes 3 1/2 hours and it is completely uneventful. It is so overcast outside all we see is white from the windows. No view. It grows dark while the boat putters on. I fall asleep for two hours. When we finally arrive in Montevideo it is dark, around 7 pm, and it is raining. I am one of the first ones off the boat only to have to wait for what seems a ridiculous amount of time for the luggage to come out and for everyone to file through the bottleneck through the x-ray machine. There is no money changing places. I am puzzled by this seemingly key tourist service lacking. If it had been daylight – when I thought I would arrive – I would have walked some way from the port, but the guidebook says to definitely NOT walk in the port area after dark. Suddenly, I am standing with two German guys who are going to a hostel. I become one of their group. I don’t know how it happened, I think a woman offering tourist information lumps us together. That is fine because they seem to know where they are going. There is a huge line waiting for taxis and no taxis to be seen. The German guys suggest we walk away from the crowd and we hail a taxi just entering the port. We pile in together and our driver proclaims we are lucky to hail his taxi because he says not so many Uruguayans speak English. The Germans have an address. We arrive at a building with no sign and buzz the doorbell. It turns out to be a little retro hostel called Red Hostel. Walls painted red, a small living room of sorts in front of the service counter. Sofas, bean bags, a lit fireplace, low lights, and three computer terminals. I get a dorm bed; there are only two other girls in the room and they are not there at the moment. I never do meet them.
The next day I decide to head out into Montevideo, heading first for the Ciudad Viejo or Old Town. I’m looking forward to the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. I decide to walk the whole way, a few dozen blocks is not too much for marathon-walking me! But first I must finally get some money and pay for the hostel. Walking down the main street, I think Avenida 7 Julio, I notice that nothing particularly stands out. The stores are nondescript and actually many are not even open although it is by now 9 or 10 am on a Monday morning. This is the capital of the country, where at least half of the 3.5 million Uruguayans reside, and yet there is very little bustle. There are people on the sidewalks, there are cars and buses, but it just does not feel right to me. I come across the main square, Plaza de Independencia. There is a large statue of Artigas, the Uruguayan independence hero, upon a horse. The Plaza is almost empty. A line of colorfully dressed school children is having a tour. Two other tourists stop to take a picture. I decide to follow the kids. We pass through the old gate to the city. I take a picture. We are then on the main pedestrian shopping street but again it seems oddly deserted. I feel as if I am transported back to Tallin in Estonia where years ago I also stepped off a boat from Helsinki to arrive in a town with a pretty central old town but surrounded by depressing Soviet-era buildings and boulevards and although the weather is nice, the people seem braced, huddled, unfriendly. Except, this time I am in the Old Town of Montevideo and this one is not nearly as nice at Tallin. There is a lot of construction, but it does not feel industrious. Does this make sense? I have the feeling that I am in a town that was long ago abandoned and people are now only beginning to return and rebuild their lives.
At the port, I decided that although it is just before noon, I might as well have lunch to give myself something to do. And this is supposed to be the place to have lunch and not dinner because it is not safe here after dark. It is not particularly cold, but the warm fire in the restaurant feels nice. [From my diary:] So far my impression of Montevideo is not too favorable. Thre are plenty of people living on the street, in doorways, in parks. There is a dejected feel here. Actually, the restaurant where I am eating is quite nice – a roaring fire to grill meats and vegetables. Lots of wood and brick, warm, dark colors. It feels very nice in here. If only the music were not U.S. eighties hits. That seems off, but again hardly surprising that the soundtrack to this trip (in the taxi, in the hostel, in the restaurant, in the shops) is American music. I order Lomo or filet mignon. I am in Uruguay after all and beef is the national dish. Both Uruguay and Argentina are known for their beef, the ranches, and gaucho (cowboy) culture. The steak is wonderful and I begin to cheer up. This was all I needed, a good meal and now I can sightsee happily. I go into the old market which is full of small restaurants with bar stools around large grills. Meat, meat, meat hanging everywhere, cooking. It smells wonderful. I imagine the heat from the grills might be too much in summer, but it is just right now. I head out and decide to go to the National Museum.
After a few confusing turns, I find one of the four buildings of the National Museum and go inside. It seems nice enough but seems a strange collection. There are no English explanations, but really there seem to be few explanations at all, even in Spanish. There is a room of what I guess is of early man in South America. Maps of the migration across the Bering Strait and through North and Central and South American. A life-size version of an early indigenous man. Some pottery and bones. Another set of rooms have paintings from the colonial periods and early independence. One room is dedicated to Artigas the hero. But a “room” might be misleading as it was really a small alcove with a bust, a painting, and a mural with his words. And strangely there was also another room with modern black and white photographs pasted onto three-sided cards on a table in the center of the room with a CD of new age music which seemed to alternate baby cries with erotic moans and heavy bass. I have no idea what that room was supposed to signify.
I went in search of another of the four buildings only to find it padlocked shut with no sign indicating anything whatsoever about the reason for this. Okay, fine. I decide to take a walk along the Rambla, the road along the other side of the peninsula. The guidebook said that this was a pleasant walk and one traveler had described it as the highlight of their trip to Montevideo. That person was clearly drunk, drugged or had had an even rougher start to holiday than I had. As I crossed the four-lane highway I had to be extra careful of the Monday afternoon traffic, barely making it across when the one car came barreling down the road towards me. Again I wondered if there had been an evacuation of the city and me and only a few other souls were unaware of this. It was sunny and the sea/river was a bit rough. It usually cheers me to see the water but the ugly high rises in the distance just did not do much to lift my mood. I was beginning to feel sleepy and decided to just return to the hostel for a nap.
That evening I went out for a free performance of tango being offered at the Montevideo Cultural Center. I found the building just in time and found a seat in a small crowded room. It was like a small chapel in an old school, narrow, with pew-like seating. Again even though I was in a room full of people, I felt as if we were lost in time, in a forgotten era. I sat and waited for the singing and dancing to begin. I sat there for 30 minutes and it never did start. There was an announcer who brought two guys onto the small stage and they sat behind an old grand piano and chatted. Occasionally the audience clapped and I joined in. It was like watching a radio talk show. I started to wonder if I had, in fact, wandered in on a town hall meeting and the tango was going on somewhere else in the building. I thought to ask the guy next to me, but then the game would be up – I would be found out to be a phony, having just sat through 30 minutes of dialogue I could not understand. I just got up and left.
Back at the hostel, I watched a movie with other guests while I planned my escape from Montevideo the following day. My favorite part of Montevideo was NOT the Rambla, but instead two other things – my first exposure to the children’s school uniforms, which seem a cross between a lab coat and a painter’s smock: knee-length white lightweight polyester coats with large pockets, buttoned in front, with pleats on the girls’ uniform, topped by a large blue bow at the neck. Add a black French beret on their heads and they would have looked the part of the quintessential French painter.
The second thing I liked was the horse-drawn garbage carts. Throughout my walk around Montevideo, I distinctly heard the clop clop clop of horse hooves on cobblestone. At night, on the wet pavement and in the semi-deserted streets, the sound romantically echoed of the past. Finally, on the second evening while heading back to the hostel I caught sight of one of them, the driver leaping off the cart to grab bags of garbage and hoist them onto the back of the cart or tie them to the sides. Even though the site of large plastic bags tied all around and piled high is not the most attractive sight, I could not help but feel a little delighted to find the source of the sounds to be something so every day as the garbage man, in the most un-everyday kind of way.
Following our epic adventure to Lapland (here and here) with our friends CZ and Little C, I surprised my daughter C with a trip to Paris as an early Christmas gift. C loves Paris. Even before I took her on her first trip to the City of Lights, C was already enamored with France and its capital thanks to several of her favorite Disney movies set there (Aristocats, Beauty and the Beast, Ratatouille) and several episodes of the Little Einsteins.
In the Helsinki airport, I sat C down and told her I would be revealing her early Christmas present. I had made hints for days and she was giddy with excitement though confused how I had managed to hide a gift from her and why I had checked our luggage without handing over the present. I turned on my phone’s video camera and proceeded to tell her we would not actually be flying back to Malawi that day but were instead going to Paris and Disneyland! Instead of the shouts of excitement I had expected, C sat there confused and stunned. Hmmm…looked like the Mom of the Year trophy I had thought I would clinch had slipped from my fingers.
Lucky for me, as we flew across Europe C decided to forgive me for taking her to Paris and by the time we were landing she was thoroughly thrilled to be heading to Disneyland.
The previous time we had headed to Paris in the Spring of 2018 we had also stayed a few days at Disneyland Paris. This time I opted for another one of Disneyland Paris’ hotels, the Cheyenne. Although it seemed to be the final drop off location for the Disneyland Paris Magic Shuttle from the airport, we very much liked the whimsical, Disney-touch to a wild west theme. The whole hotel complex was laid out like a western frontier town.
And we did what most people do when they go to Disney–we rode the rides, we watched the parades, we had our pictures taken with people dressed up as our favorite characters. We also do what you might expect of people in our situation — Americans who spend the majority of their time in the developed world and have just come from the frozen north — we reveled in the Christmas-y and American-ness of it all. We took full advantage of our hotel benefits, arriving early for the Extra Magic Hours and staying until closing. We got to do everything we wanted and more except for riding Crush’s Coaster, which either had lines of over an hour wait or was not running. But we just shrugged it off — we can give that a try next time we are in Paris, along with the other new attractions expected in the next few years.
After our 2.5 days at Disney it was time to head into Paris proper, and immediately we came face to face with the France outside of the Disney bubble. Like during our last visit there was yet again another transportation strike affecting the metro and RER trains. There then went my plan to take public transportation into the city so we called an Uber and enjoyed the roads with everyone else.
Once squared away in our lovely hotel near the Paris Opera, we grabbed some lunch and then took a leisurely stroll down to and through the Tuileries Garden to the Louvre. C absolutely loves to draw and had recently had a brief course in some European artists at school, so I thought she might enjoy a visit to the largest art museum in the world. I had read the best time to take younger children to the Louvre was during the evenings hours the museum offers twice a week, so Wednesday worked for us. The weather was perfect, a little cold, but not nearly as cold as Finland, and the light of late afternoon just beautiful. This was my fourth time in Paris, but I never tire of the majesty of the historic heart of this city. C loved spending time in the Louvre; we caught the highlights — the Mona Lisa, the Coronation of Napolean, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, and Egyptian antiquities — and C found a few favorite paintings of her own. I really loved seeing her make careful selections in the gift shop based on the art she most enjoyed.
On our second day in the city, dawn broke beautifully. With the metro schedule up in the air due to the strikes, we would spend the day walking. Our first stop would be the Arc de Triomphe, a 45-minute walk from our hotel. There were no lines, something that seems almost unheard of in Paris, so we headed right up to the roof. Despite the overcast skies and some rain, the view was still spectacular, even dramatic. I felt really happy to be in Paris with my girl.
We walked on to the right bank of the Seine at the Pont de l’Alma where we got some lunch in a lovely corner restaurant. My initial plan was for us to continue on to the Eiffel Tower, but we had already done quite a lot of walking, so instead, we headed to the Bateaux Mouches for a guided river tour. This was something we had planned for last time but had been nixed due to floods rising the Seine water level too high to get under some of the bridges. It was nice to get out of the cold and sit back, relax, and enjoy floating past the beauty of historic Paris. C liked the sweets I bought her, sitting down with her toys, and occasionally looking out the windows.
The weather had cleared by the time the boat returned; it was lovely for a walk. But as we headed up Rue Royale, just off of the Place de la Concorde, I caught a couple trying to steal my wallet. The sidewalk was narrow and I could sense the people behind us were walking very, very closely. I figured they wanted to pass, so I pulled C over to the building wall to let them by, and in so doing pulled my handbag, which was over my shoulder, back to my side. And it was then I noticed that the zipper on my bag was undone and my wallet half-way out. The couple–a very tall man and a petite woman, both dressed very well–immediately began to play out a ridiculous drama, pointing at shop signs in an exaggerated manner and then they ducked into the nearest store. But I walked only a little ahead of that shop and sure enough, they popped back out within 30 seconds.
There were no police around. They had not succeeded. There was little I could think to do. I rooted around in my bag and could not see anything was missing. But I felt violated nonetheless. The whole rest of the walk back I could not stop obsessing about what had just happened, what could have just happened. And trying to explain this to C – why people would do this and about my reaction. I have been many, many places in the world, at least 90 countries, and only once did someone succeed in pick-pocketing me – in China. On two other occasions, in Jakarta and Rome, someone tried but I caught them. I feel as if this is a good thing, and yet the whole situation only left a bad taste in my mouth.
Once back in the hotel room, I did not feel like going out again. But we did not like the room service menu, so I opted to head out to the supermarket around the corner. I felt irrationally fearful; I clutched my bag to my body. But just before the supermarket, I saw a family–a man, woman, and their two children–sitting on a blanket preparing to sleep for the night, and something possessed me to ask if I could buy them something. They did not speak more than a few words of English, so could not ask, but through hand signals, we worked out that the mother and the older daughter would accompany me. They moved quickly through the store, I expect fearful that if they took too long I would change my mind. When I found them in the back of the store, they had two full baskets. I could see they also were worried I would make them put something back, but I just motioned them to follow me. I paid for everything and we stepped outside. The girl thanked me and then threw her arms around my waist and hugged me fiercely. In broken English, I learned she was nine years old and they are from Syria. I had a lot of conflicting feelings, so much sadness, anger at the pickpockets and the circumstances that brought this young family to the street. These were different sides of Paris.
The next day, our last full one in Paris, we were going to try to get to the Eiffel Tower. The day started out overcast again, but the temperature was comfortable and we had a pleasant walk. About 20 minutes out I logged on to the Eiffel Tower website to buy our tickets and saw they were all sold out! Oh no! I felt bummed– the second time to the city with C and both times we did not go up the Tower. But once we arrived there, the line to buy tickets at the cashier was not long. I guess so many people now opt for the skip-the-line-admission option that it can actually be possible to sometimes just walk up, wait ten minutes, buy your tickets, and ascend.
We opted for the lift up, walk down option. Perhaps one day when C and I return we will go to the top, but I had heard the best views were really from the second level. And once again we were rewarded with a change in the weather and stunning views across Paris. I could feel the bad feelings of the day before evaporating with the sun. C was a champ, she took the 674 steps back down in stride, even after all the walking we had already done. We headed back across the river and dined in the very same establishment we had the day before, and it was just as wonderful. Then we strolled back towards the Tuileries to visit the Christmas market. I was happy to see the Roue de Paris (the Paris Ferris Wheel) that had been removed from its semi-permanent location at the Place de la Concord soon after our last visit had made a comeback in the Christmas market.
The market was fun, festive, and chock full of many, many goodies. C wanted to play fairground games as I have only once before let her do so. After many, many tries she finally won – a cellphone holder. Ha! And then we hopped aboard the Roue for a few spins with a different view. This time we could look over the Tuileries, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the Louvre, and the grand buildings along the Rue de Rivoli, again also with spectacular afternoon sunlight. And as we left the market to head back to our hotel a double rainbow appeared. It was a glorious end to an overall wonderful trip.
The following day we slept late and then caught a taxi to the airport (the hotel informed us that the Roissy bus to the airport would likely not run given it was a Yellow Vest protest day). It was okay. I did not want to run into anything else that might taint the memories of this trip. Because I was pretty sure C had by then much forgiven me for giving her the gift of Paris.