The Somewhat Reluctant Spring Break

Spring Break. Sigh. This used to be a time I really looked forward to planning a getaway, you know, in the before times, before the pandemic. Although the 2020 Spring Break trip had been upended, at the end of last year it started to look like things we turning around. I had begun to have visions of a 2020 Spring Break Redux. But by the time we returned from our Kenya R&R at the end of 2020, travel again seemed to be in jeopardy.

COVID-19, naturally, continues to throw a major monkey wrench into any sort of international travel. Malawi’s second wave, though subsiding now, had been much more disruptive and deadly than its first. But the indirect effects, the fewer flights, testing regimes, and other restrictions are still in place. Malawi has never been a major hub; before the pandemic there were daily flights to Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, and Nairobi, and less frequent flights to Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, and Harare. Now there are just the Addis, Jo’Burg, and Nairobi flights, and they are less consistent. Friends of ours were to fly to South Africa the previous week and the airline cancelled a few days before without reason.

Malawi’s newest COVID-related billboard featuring the President touting the “Three W’s,” i.e. Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands

Though honestly, I love travel so much, that I was willing to go through the flight, COVID testing, and mitigation measure gauntlet, but we had another problem: passports. Last fall I noted our diplomatic passports (we hold both diplomatic and tourist passports) were expiring in the summer of 2021 and thus we would need to renew before the new year as many places frown on or even outright disallow travel during the final six months. As the Acting Consular Chief (a post I held for six months during 2020), I diligently applied for our new passports at the end of October. Our paperwork was FedExed to the State Department on November 4. And then, it seems, we got tangled up in the whole U.S. election mail issue / COVID-related mail issue and was lost. (Luckily for most American citizens this is NOT how we do tourist passports overseas and its much faster and more reliable!) I did not know this until by the end of January I wondered what had become of them. We had to apply again. Though we received our new passports by the end of March, it was not in time to plan a vacation outside of Malawi’s borders.

One of the cats of Norman Carr Cottage living her best life

That left a trip within Malawi. And I was torn. With nearly four years in country, even with a pandemic mucking up domestic travel for a good five months of 2020, C and I had already covered most of the major sights and lodging on my Malawi bucket list. Yet, the thought of spending another staycation hanging out in my living room, lounging on the tired dung-colored State Department-issued Drexel Heritage sofa was too much to bear. We needed to go somewhere. Well, truth be told, *I* needed to go somewhere. I am afraid my formerly world traveling companion kid had grown a bit too comfortable with couch surfing. But if I did not get out of my house, I thought I might go mad.

The two major places left on my bucket list seemed out of reach because they were either quite far (two days driving or one really long day for those with a penchant for torture) and still on a self-catering basis (and my desire to drive really far to just cook the same stuff in a different kitchen is at an all time low) or required a charter flight which would trigger an Embassy-imposed stay at home order upon return. And while I was uber-productive with my telework the first six to eight months, my at-home productivity has most certainly waned after a year. And that my friends is actually the understatement of the year. “Working from home” has become an oxymoron as I tend to just stare into the abyss when confronted with this option; I make every effort to go into the office.

With this in mind, I booked two nights on Kayak Africa’s Mumbo Island and one night at Norman Carr Cottage.

With the Mumbo Island transport departing Cape Maclear at 10:30 AM, I was not keen to depart Lilongwe just after sunrise, and thus Norman Carr Cottage, located just south of Monkey Bay, would give us a nice overnight stop and ensure more relaxation. (Note: Embassy employees we are not permitted to drive after dark outside the three major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu for safety reasons)

Norman Carr’s original lakeside cottage (left); The beautiful carved bed in our room (right)

Norman Carr was a British conservationist who in the 1950s and 1960s helped launch the first national parks in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (then the British protectorate known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) and started the first walking safaris in these countries. In the 1970s he built himself this idyllic lakeside cottage where, reportedly, he wrote several of his books. I love me a little history with my vacations and this bit of Malawi history suited me fine.

We did not do much here, but that was rather the point. We arrived and had lunch. And then my daughter promptly broke one of her flip flops — because she had carefully selected the oldest, on its last legs, pair despite my having presented her with brand new ones a month ago. Sigh. Thus, we found ourselves driving into the thriving metropolitan (just kidding) village of Monkey Bay in search of replacements. We parked at a small grocery store, but they did not have any shoes. They did have soft serve ice cream (will wonders never cease?) and as the young man whose job was to serve this up was preparing to do so, I asked if he knew where we could get shoes. He pointed at a makeshift wood kiosk across the street and we walked over (well, I walked, C hopped on one foot). The small shop sold a random assortment of goods such as clothes detergent and a limited selection of fancy ladies slip ons. I shook my head — these looked like adult sizes — but C said she would try them and in some odd African village version of Cinderella, they fit perfectly.

A view of our eco-chalet from the cove entrance

On our second day, we drove 30 minutes north to Cape Maclear on the Nankumba Peninsula where we boarded a boat for the 10 kilometer (6 miles), 45-minute ride to Mumbo Island, located within the Lake Malawi National Park (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Mumbo Island is a small, only one kilometer in diameter, uninhabited island and the eco-“resort” covers only a small part of that space. Five of the six thatched chalets are perched high on rocks located on an even smaller island connected to Mumbo by a wooden walkway. There is no WiFi, no cellphone signal, and no electricity. And it is beautiful.

After an extremely rainy March, we had perfect weather – temps in the uppers 70s and sparkling azure skies. The lake waters lapped against the sandy shore. I never tire of how the lake seems like the sea.

We disembarked from the boat and were shown our chalet, where C immediately claimed the hammock strung across our porch overlooking the Lake. And there we just took a little time to soak in the atmosphere. For the first time in weeks I really could feel myself relax.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Douglas, the Mumbo Island chef, in the dining area on the main island. We watched a pair of hornbills alight on a nearby tree and a chatty bulbul waited impatiently on a ceiling rafter hoping for any of our leftovers. Monitor lizards crawled through the underbrush beneath the floorboards and sunned themselves on the rocks by the water. Afterwards, we relaxed in the room, on the small beach, and swam in the lake. Around 5 PM we headed out with Marriott (one of the other Mumbo Island staff) for a circumvention of the island by boat and a sunset viewing. Writing now I was sure we had done more that day, but thinking back, that was all and yet it was full. After dinner, we snuggled together in the hammock watching the stars. With the vast expanse of Lake Malawi lit with only a few fishing canoes, the sky overhead is at its darkest and the stars at their most brilliant. Though the 19th century Scottish explorer David Livingstone reportedly named it the Lake of Stars for the way the fishing lanterns reflected on the evening water, its the incredible view of the night sky that is more arresting. I am quite sure we could clearly see the swath of the Milky Way though I am far less sure of the constellations. Regardless, we talked until we grew sleepy and then we crawled into our beds, letting down the mosquito net but leaving the doors and windows open so we could hear the waves all night.

Early the next morning C again commandeered the hammock, lazily rocking back and forth, flipping her shoe casually from her toes. Exactly as I had asked her not to. And wouldn’t you know it, but as I got up to tell her to stop, one of those shoes we had only just bought at Monkey Bay was launched from her foot, sailing over the edge of our porch to the waters below. Sigh. Luckily, we could see it floating below. I told C to put on her suit and I would put on mine and we would swim out to get it. But then realized we could take a kayak to retrieve it. And as luck would have it, one of the Mumbo Island staff was willing to make the rescue. I may have had some choice words regarding her lack of footwear care, but told C one day (in fact later the same day) we would laugh about it. She said I should call this blog post “The Shoe Incidents.”

An extraordinary tree along our Mumbo Island hike and the view from Pod Rock

It is a good thing we located that shoe as after breakfast we headed out on a hike around the island. Not that those fancy lady sandals were the best shoes for a hike, but they were far better than nothing. Our sweaty hike around Mumbo must have taken about an hour though I am not entirely sure as my watch stopped working early in the pandemic and I have not yet bothered to replace it. The hike afforded us incredible opportunities to experience nature from three to four foot monitor lizards scurrying from our paths, symbiotic trees, the high pitched cries of the African fish eagle, and a gorgeous view across the Lake from atop Pod Rock.

C gets her zen on

We spent the rest of the day alternating between reading flopped on a bed or swinging in the hammock (you can guess who got the hammock again) and lake activity. We kayaked around the small island, swam, and together steadily worked up our courage to leap off the wooden walkway into the water. Eventually, C made friends with the 9-year old daughter of a visiting French family and the two of them spent the rest of the afternoon in one another’s company swimming and giggling, heads together in deep conversation. I sat on the beach in the warm sunlight reading.

We had another nice dinner but headed to bed a bit earlier than the evening before; the hike, kayaking, and swimming surely had tired us out. I had another great sleep lulled by those lightly crashing waves on the rocks below our chalet, and dreamed of rain.

It was hard to leave the following day. I could have stayed another night, maybe two. I meditated on the boat ride back, the warm sun on my face. And before driving back to Lilongwe, we stopped at another small historic site in Cape Maclear, the grave site of 19th century Scottish missionaries.

This may not have been the Spring Break I had initially hoped for but it turned out to be exactly what C and I needed.

Setsubun – Hoping Fortune Comes Our Way

Fortune and Demon – the Representatives of Setsubun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malawi Signs

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

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

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

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

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

Staples on sale

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

Society “Be Better” Signs

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

You have been warned!

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

Campaign billboards

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

Nothing to see here

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

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