When we headed out to Kenya for our Rest and Relaxation (R&R) trip on December 11, things on the COVID-19 front seemed to be looking up. There was of course a second wave already beginning in Europe, the U.S., and South Africa, but the numbers in Malawi had dwindled to almost new cases. In Kenya, there were rising numbers, too, but I had done some personal calculus and decided that if we needed a vacation outside of Malawi (and when I tell you *I* needed a vacation somewhere other than Malawi after a year, I mean it) then Kenya was the place to go.
Yet in the course of our three week trip, the numbers started again to rise in Malawi and on December 23, with a week left in Kenya, the Malawian government announced a two week border closure. The idea was to reduce the number of imported cases, though to be honest, these incidents were not of foreigners entering the country, as Malawi is at the end of line and even in a non-pandemic year captures only 1% of Africa’s 67 million tourists, but rather Malawian deportees from South Africa. No border closure that is not closed to citizens (which naturally it would not be) was not going to stop the cases coming in. But it was already too late.
When we returned on December 30, the country registered 83 new cases. For those in countries like the United States, Brazil, India, Turkey, Mexico, or much of Europe, this may seem an incredibly low number and not something to be concerned about. However, Malawi had not registered that number of single day positive cases since August 7. And keep in mind that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has one of the lowest doctors per person ratios in the world. In a 2020 Malawi College of Medicine survey of 255 hospitals, only a quarter reported reliable electricity, about a half had hand soap, and only one-third had oxygen supplies. In June 2020, the entire country had only seventeen ventilators and twenty-five intensive care beds for a population of 18 million (in El Paso, Texas, with a population of less than 700,000, there are 400 intensive care beds). Eighty three positive cases, had they all been serious, would have overwhelmed Malawi’s intensive care facilities.
Soon after our return, C and I headed out to a supermarket and to get takeaway from a restaurant in downtown Lilongwe. In the supermarket, although there were signs at the entrance regarding masks, the vast majority of customers were not wearing any. The two cashiers I saw had theirs hugging their chins. At the cash register, a man got in line behind us and in doing so, brought his mask down to his chin (rather than put it up). At the food court, where several fast food joints serving chicken, ice cream, and pizza, and which was doing a roaring business, only one person other than us had on their mask. The servers, cashiers, patrons and management had no protective equipment at all. When I asked the manager why not, he told me that there were no reasons to do so, no regulations. I knew that to be false as the Lilongwe city government had put a mask policy in place back in July or August, and which included a potential 10,000 Malawi Kwacha ($13) fine for non-compliance. I suspected it was more a matter of little to no enforcement. After having spent the previous three weeks in Kenya where the government was very serious about COVID-19 mitigation measures, this came as a bit of a shock.
Despite the closed borders, there were reports of big gatherings for the holidays. The January 1 newspapers covered the New Year’s Eve events including parties and concerts, one including a South African musician.
Over the next several weeks, we watched as the numbers of positive cases climbed rapidly. Between December 11, which reflected over eight months of the pandemic in Malawi, and January 17, the total confirmed cases doubled. During this timeframe, two Cabinet ministers and two other senior government officials died from COVID. The President announced on January 17 the government would impose a curfew (between 9 PM and 5 AM), enforce mask wearing, enforce early closure of markets (5 PM) and drinking establishments (8 PM), and close schools. By January 22, which would turn out to be the reported height of the second wave, the numbers were nearly threefold the eight month total. Between then and February 1, the number would be fourfold. Two more Members of Parliament, two local councilors (district level elected officials), a music icon, and 252 other Malawians died. The numbers then began to decrease. Field hospitals were set up, resources were put into the government response, the international community donated equipment. Parliament postponed the opening of its Mid-Year Budget Review Session as rumors of some 10-40+ of its 193 members were reportedly COVID positive. It took until February 19 to see the fivefold increase. Another member of parliament and 291 others in Malawi died. As of February 28, Malawi had surpassed a sixfold increase of its first eight months of COVID, in a three month timeframe.
Though we all breath a bit of a sigh of relief to see those higher numbers of January gone, the current daily numbers still hover around the high marks of the first wave. Although the government reopened schools on February 22, teachers, demanding protective equipment and hazard pay, refused to work. Three days after beginning the postponed parliamentary session, the Speaker of Parliament tested positive for COVID. Yet still, with the first order of vaccines for Malawi expected to arrive soon and the vaccination roll-out to begin some time this month, there is a sense of hope that this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
Though we have been living this pandemic for a year now, and we have certainly (largely begrudgingly) adjusted, C and I too are hoping for an end to the pandemic, to a resumption of some sense of normalcy, sooner rather than later (like everyone else on the planet). We have through this year been incredibly lucky compared to so many, and I am grateful we have been able to ride out this challenging time in Malawi, a beautiful country we call home. But we are so ready to have our last months in Malawi be ones without the cloud of the pandemic hanging over us.
The sixth and final post in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.
I did not decide to take my Rest and Relaxation travel in the time of COVID lightly. And my selection of Kenya as a destination had as much to do with its close proximity to Malawi as what I perceived as a fairly robust response to COVID in order to keep the country open for tourism. I liked that only a negative PCR COVID test was required to enter, i.e. no quarantine. But once there I found myself incredibly impressed with the government was handling COVID.
I will say off the bat — this is my opinion on the Kenyan government response based on my perceptions as a tourist there for three weeks in December 2020. Others who have lived through the pandemic in Kenya may have very different thoughts on the government response. However, I looked at it through the lens not only of a traveler but also as someone who has experienced the pandemic firsthand in another sub-Saharan African country, including following the politics closely for my work.
From our first day in Kenya, we felt the effects of government measures to contain the pandemic. The hotel where we stayed first had been closed for several months but then re-opened with temperature checks, hand sanitizing stations, a plastic barrier between the guests and check-in staff, and limited items left in the room (no complimentary pads of paper and pen, no hotel directory, no room service menu). It felt alien, somewhat surreal, and yet I understood that this was part of the contract to which we agreed to travel in the time of COVID.
However, it was really once we got on the road – both out and about in Nairobi and further afield – that I really saw how Kenya was tackling the pandemic.
Signage was ubiquitous. All around us, in airports, hotels, shopping centers, restaurants, stores, museums, and parks, there were signs reminding the public of the necessity to adhere to COVID-19 mitigation measures (wearing a mask, washing your hands, maintaining social distance) and sometimes the penalties for failure to do so — usually denial of entry into whatever location but also fines. And there was serious follow-through. At every hotel we stayed we were greeted with an antiseptic wash and a thermometer and mask use in public areas was mandatory.
Our hotels in the Masai Mara, Lake Naivasha, and Mombasa were all owned by the same company and each served buffets in large dining areas. I had some concerns with how the hotels would manage this is in a pandemic but they had pretty good systems in place. In one we had a set table for the duration of our stay, at another they provided an envelope for your mask at each sitting. The key part was mask usage while in lines to get food was mandatory as was social distancing and you could not serve your own food. One breakfast at the buffet in Mombasa, some guests did not sufficiently distance themselves from one another while in line for the omelet station and a chef — who could have been a bouncer in another life — informed them they had better spread out or risk being asked to leave. I was impressed.
It was maddening getting the food though. In what would normally be self-service, no guest could pick up their own plate from the plate stack or pick up any foodstuffs themselves. You had to point at each item you wanted for a masked and gloved server to provide. This made absolute sense and was no doubt required by the government, but made for some awkward (at least in my own mind) situations. Me to server: I would like some of the mozzarella, please. The server places one slice of cheese on my plate. Me: May I have some more, please. The server places another slice on the plate. Me: I would really like a few more slices, thank you. And then me feeling as if I needed to slink off and guiltily eat my bounty of cheese excess (or hummus — I asked for a lot of hummus too) away from judging eyes.
While our mask usage has been somewhat limited in Malawi (mostly because we spend so much time at home with the limited places to go; school-when it is in session, work-when I got to the office, the once a week supermarket run, and when picking up food) it became much more regular in Kenya. Except for when we were in our respective rooms, we needed our masks on. To enter any shopping center we had to pass through a combined security (metal detector, bag search) and COVID mitigation measure (handwashing, temperature check, face mask) check. Even once inside the mall, most individual stores also placed workers at the entrance to confirm face mask usage and to squirt anti-septic into the hands of every customer.
In was in Mombasa that the Kenyan government and societal efforts to fight the pandemic really came to the fore. Here we stayed at our busiest and most crowded hotel, yet they had the most rigorous COVID-19 mitigation measures. And out on the town there were prominent signs – eye-catching billboards and stunning graffiti – promoting mitigation measures and celebrating health care staff. And perhaps the most extraordinary was that everyone was wearing masks. I mean everyone. As we took a taxi from the airport to the hotel, I noted the many mini buses in traffic. I asked our driver about them and he complained about their poor driving and that they didn’t really follow the rules, but as I looked over at them and saw that middle seats were empty and every passenger had on a mask. That had lasted about all of a week in Malawi. As we drove through traffic — on that trip and on our city tour — we saw lots of pedestrians on the road and they were all wearing masks. In Malawi, earlier in the pandemic there was an uptick in mask usage even with the pedestrians who walk to work along the roadside, but again, that practice only lasted a short period. And perhaps the most extraordinary sight were the beggars in traffic, also all masked up.
Transportation also seemed to take COVID seriously. In Nairobi we used Uber, and every ride we booked reminded us that we needed to wear masks in the vehicle and guaranteed that our driver would do the same. Some drivers took extra steps, providing antiseptic wipes or liquid in the back pockets of the front seats or even installed a plastic barrier between the driver and passenger. Maybe this is happening all over the world, but I have only experienced the pandemic in Malawi and Kenya. And I do not take public transportation in Lilongwe. But I was nonetheless impressed with the Kenyan approach to transport during COVID.
The final bit that impressed me was when we went to the Nairobi Hospital to get our testing for our return. Searching online for testing sites I was overwhelmed with the options and asked the very helpful hotel manager for assistance. He had a doctor on speed dial at the Nairobi Hospital and rang her for advice. She suggested that we arrive early in the morning on a Monday and sent us all the forms to complete prior to showing up. We arrived around 8 in the morning to the COVID testing center set up in the front parking lot of the hospital. We were immediately greeted by a medical assistant in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) who took our forms and asked us to sit in the outdoor waiting area where plastic chairs were set out for social distancing. Compare this to our experience in Malawi where the single person on duty for testing failed to wear even a mask as he greeted us (though changed later) and ran out of forms. And as we sat in the waiting area new patients, people we did not know, sat down *right* next to us despite many other seats available.
We waited maybe 15 minutes before being called into another tent to pay for the procedure. The cashier accepted only cashless payment — either by credit card or electronic payment. We were promptly issued a printed out receipt. While back in Malawi they were unprepared to accept payment on the day of our testing and on the day we picked up our test results we had to meander through the hospital to find the payment location, where we paid in cash and they hand wrote us receipts that were not easy to read (and no wonder that later at least one person was later arrested for providing fake certificates). After payment in Nairobi, we returned to the outdoor waiting area before being called up to the testing tent where they administered both a nose and a throat swab. And then we were done. Before 6 PM that evening I received an email from the hospital with our test results! Again compare that to Malawi where we returned to the hospital (and again entered the building) several days later and had to assist the staff to sift through the papers to find those with our names on them. The organization in Nairobi was excellent.
There are so many misconceptions about COVID in Africa and about Africa itself. We have heard in Malawi, like in other countries, there are some that do not believe the virus is real, that it is some kind of ploy. There are also those who think that COVID is a western disease and that Africans are less susceptible (and given the African continent makes up less than 4% of total worldwide reported infections it is not so hard to see where this perception is not far from the truth). But there are also those outside the continent who I suspect think that an African country cannot manage an organized response — and they would be wrong. I thought Malawi had done OK given its limited resources, but Kenya demonstrated how a country could really respond. I know its not universal; I did not visit small towns or villages and I heard anecdotally that those places were not fairing as well. Yet the majority of cases generally happen in cities with their denser populations. I also know its not perfect — Kenya still has had relatively high numbers – with about the 9th highest numbers among 57 African countries and territories – but it is also the 7th most populous country on the continent. If it were not for the actions of the government and the population it is likely that it could have been much worse.
For us this R&R will be forever and inextricably linked to the COVID pandemic. As will my impressions of how the country made our trip generally safe in the time of COVID.
The fifth in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.
Following our adventures in the Mara, at Lake Naivasha, and Mombasa, it was time to wrap up our trip with a final week in Nairobi. In normal times, I would not be keen to spend this many days in one place; we could have visited two, maybe three, places. But COVID has rendered travel to nothing but normal. In order to return to Malawi we needed to get another negative COVID test certificate and thus we had to spend the last part of our vacation in Nairobi and given the pandemic and the holidays it made sense to spend more time there just in case anything might delay our ability to get testing.
This factored into my calculus for planning my trip. Not only did I want to visit a country with plenty for us to see and do, but to stay in a capital city that would also offer us the same during an overly long stopover. Nairobi offered that over our other choices.
We returned from Mombasa in the early afternoon, headed back to the same business hotel we had stayed on our first night, left our luggage, and immediately headed out to Westgate Shopping Mall. There we strolled the walkways, rode the escalators, and shopped. We also had a late lunch. This might not seem like much, but Malawi does not have shopping malls. Well, there is one, Gateway, that tries to pass itself off as the one and only mall in Lilongwe, but while it is an enclosed shopping complex, its two meh supermarkets, a bank, a Poundstretcher (like a Dollar Store), a salon, a shoe store, a children’s clothing store, and a few restaurants, do not, in my opinion, a mall make. Nairobi though has malls. It is rich in them. And while there is security (armed guards, metal detectors, pat downs) and COVID requirements (masks, hand washing, social distancing as much as possible), we were keen to live it up just as much as watching a cheetah on the plains of the Mara.
That is all we did — our late lunch and some groceries sustained us for the rest of the day. Our following day we had a late start — not something we had done much of on our trip thus far — and then head out again to the Junction Mall. It was nice enough with a different layout though many of the same stores as Westgate. Two malls in two days and I could already feel a sense of malaise fall over me. Though I doubt it had much to do with the mall. We had been away from home already for nearly two weeks after having not been on a vacation longer than four days in a year. We had been home, literally isolated in and around our house, for half a year. I know I had desperately wanted not just time away from home, but time traveling in another country. But the fatigue of traveling had set in. Good thing I had a little something up my sleeve to combat at least some of it while in Nairobi.
On the morning of December 24, C and I checked out of our hotel and head to The Hub Karen. Yes, another mall, but that’s okay. It had a few things that the others had not, including a Dominos Pizza. And it was open at 9 AM. And we ate breakfast there. Go ahead and judge if you want. Though Dominos is not my thing while in the U.S. its pizza was the best pizza ever on that drizzly Christmas Eve morning. We then hailed an Uber (yes, they have Uber in Nairobi! Yet, in Malawi there isn’t even a regular taxi service) and headed to the Karen Blixen museum.
I could not visit Nairobi without a pilgrimage to the Out of Africa author’s home. It had been probably two decades since I had watched the film, but I had never forgotten the story. A love story, not only of a strong woman in the early decades of the 20th century but of the affection she developed for a country and a people not her own. Of course its not so straight forward and my thoughts on it have changed as I have grown older and with my own experience in Africa, but C and I enjoyed a one hour tour of the home and grounds (perhaps I enjoyed it quite a bit more than C). We then headed to the parking lot where our transport to our next destination awaited.
Giraffe Manor, the beautiful 1930s colonial manor house set in the Karen suburbs of Nairobi that houses a dozen-strong herd of Rothschild’s giraffe on its expansive grounds, is one of the most well known hotel properties in the world. I have long wanted to stay here but years ago a search that revealed its nightly rate and a rumored 18-month wait list made it seem a bucket list item that would always remain unchecked. Yet with Kenya looking like a best choice for an R&R, I revisited this particular dream.
I’ll be honest off the bat: this place is not inexpensive. I spent many years traveling on a shoestring budget and though today I travel differently I still cannot help but try to stretch my vacation dollar. Yet after a year of no travel, of canceling multiple domestic and international trips in 2020, I had money to burn and a desire to “go big or go home.” I wanted to make Christmas special for both C and I after a very challenging nine months. And amazingly enough, this much sought after property had space available two months out from Christmas. I might have planned almost the entirety of our trip to Kenya on being able to stay at Giraffe Manor.
On arrival we were greeted as VIP guests. We started off with a welcome drink and then shown to our room — the Betty room in the main Manor House. I cannot imagine there is a single room that isn’t gorgeous at this property, but we scored big with the Betty. As a corner room on the upper front of the manor we were afforded views south across the 12 acres of land that house the resident giraffes and to the west, from our patio, we could see out to the Ngong hills of Out of Africa fame.
Unlike other places we had stayed, Giraffe Manor was nearly at capacity — though there are only 12 rooms in total. Besides us there was a couple from Colorado, a newlywed couple from Mexico City, a family of 12 from New York, a family of four (I think from India), two couples and a child from Eastern Europe, and one more couple who stayed very much to themselves (which is totally natural, especially in the time of COVID). We were served a lovely two course lunch and then C and I requested a trip to the adjacent Giraffe Center.
The Giraffe Center was established in 1979, directly adjacent to Giraffe Manor. I knew we could walk there from the manor but had not realized exactly how close the two were and that walking would require an escort given that we were off the manor’s immediate lawn and into the giraffe’s grazing area. At the center we could learn all about giraffes, the conservation programs to protect, rehabilitate, and breed the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes, a subspecies found only in East Africa. We also got our first up and personal experience with the giraffes of the manor, in particular which ones were more tame than others.
We returned to the manor for an hour wait before high tea and our first manor experience with the resident giraffes. Out our window we could see the giraffes, especially the more eager, slowly move their grazing closer and closer to the manor lawn. The food set up was beautiful (though the gorgeous cake turned out to be fruit cake! Not a big favorite of mine — or anyone I know!). Once we dug into our tea the giraffe pellets were brought out by the bucketful. And the giraffes who had not already arrived made their way to the feeding area. The resident warthogs joined as well, as they know what the giraffes miss, they get.
Nothing is quite like feeding a wild animal from your hand, especially a 14 foot tall, 1500 pound animal who will hoover the pellets from your hand in seconds with a lick of their 20 inch long tongues. And if you want one of those cool pictures of you facing the camera with giraffes on both sides literally eating out of your hands, then you better hope the photographer is quick, because if you run out of pellets too quickly some of these hungry giraffes with little patience might just butt you with their massive heads to urge you to get some more. It might be a love pat, a little reminder to hold up your end of the deal, but it feels like anything but. After an amazing hour of snacking and giraffe feeding the guests retired to their rooms to prepare for dinner, which was served by candlelight on the moonlit patio under the stars.
We waited up to hear Santa given the Giraffe Manor managers had told her that in Africa Santa lands at Giraffe Manor to hitch up the giraffe for the continent’s deliveries, giving the reindeer a much needed break. As we watched NORAD’s Santa tracker near Nairobi we quickly switched off the lights and lay still and C is one hundred percent sure she heard the sleigh land. We were up at 6 AM on Christmas day with the sounds of shuffling and snorting of giraffes on the hunt for more pellets.
It was extraordinary to look off the patio balcony to find giraffes on the lower patio, making their way a little clumsily across the brickwork to snarf up snacks from robed guests. But we had a bucket of pellets too and it did not take long for at least one giraffe to notice us and shuffle over. I never thought we would have the opportunity to look down on a giraffe. We headed down to breakfast where first the humans eat and then after the human plates are cleared, plates are placed on the tables with more giraffe pellets and the large windows are opened for the giraffes to poke their heads in, butting the humans out of the way as they gobble up those pellets!
Check out was at 10 AM. Lots of people have asked me — was it worth it for the price? And I will say that yes, one hundred percent, for my daughter and I it was worth it. It is a one of a kind, unique experience that at any time would be amazing. At this time, with us really craving something wonderful, it was perfect. The only issue is how to top it for future Christmases?
Well, actually, within hours, once back into the same business hotel we had been in before, another issue popped up. Most times with Christmas with kids there is so much build up to the event. Months of planning, of carefully reviewing Christmas lists and other signs, and shopping — especially when overseas and one needs to order by early November to guarantee a by-Christmas delivery, then Christmas Eve traditions, and the frenzy of gift opening on Christmas morning. By Christmas afternoon there is this sudden lull, a sense of emptiness. After our visit to Giraffe Manor, this felt even more pronounced.
Over the next few days we continued to keep busy. We visited the Nairobi National Museum, which though huge, was one of the best I have visited in a developing country and the building itself and the sculpture out front were worth seeing. Even more exciting though was the co-located Snake Park. It was not much extra and seemed a good enough thing to do to while away some time, but as we turned a corner in the area we came face to face with an Egyptian cobra out of its enclosure! No worries, there was a snake handler complete with one of those snake catching things you can on National Geographic’s Snakes in the City. After that unexpected excitement we met up with a friend of mine working with USAID in Kenya whom I had met in book club in Jakarta. She took us to eat good Mexican food (shut the front door!) and then to the Two Rivers Mall. The mall was not all we had hoped as several entertainment venues were closed due to COVID and yet the place was really crowded, which made me uncomfortable. We rode the ‘Eye of Kenya’ the observation wheel outside the mall — not as fabulous as wheels I have ridden in London, Singapore, or Paris, but still a fun little ride that gives a glimpse of the mall and how urbanization of Nairobi has — or will soon — reach these suburbs.
On our next to last full day we headed to the Nairobi hospital to get our return to Malawi COVID tests and then joined a very small tour (us and one other guy — and Economist from Sudan who lives in France) to the Nairobi National Park. The park itself is quite extraordinary – established in 1946 as Kenya’s first game reserve and the only such park in the world that sits so close to a capital city. Just five miles from Nairobi’s Central Business District, the park is fenced on three sides, but open to the south for migratory animals. Its variety of bird and animal species, including big cats and rhino, is extraordinary for a park its size. However, we had just been to the Maasai Mara just two weeks before and while a great place that should be supported, it could not compared. On our final day, we spent the morning on the walking trails of Karura Forest, another excellent urban park. Its well marked trails and sporting facilities another reminder of how something simple like this can transform a location. How I wished Lilongwe had a place like this; it would have made getting through the pandemic that much better.
After nearly three wonderful weeks in Kenya, it was time to return to Malawi. While we were glad to be going home – because Malawi after three and a half years is very much our home and we missed it, pandemic and all. There still remained uncertainty of when we might be able to travel again, but I am glad we jumped at the chance to spend our R&R in Kenya.
The fourth in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.
I had had some reservations about making an additional domestic flight in Kenya. When I planned our trip, Kenya Airways flew between Lilongwe and Nairobi only every Wednesday and Friday. If we flew to Kenya on Friday, December 11, we could fly back two weeks later on Friday, December 25, but flying on Christmas was not my cup of tea. Returning on the 23rd was not either. My next option was the 30th, which would give us nearly three weeks in Kenya. With that kind of time, we had an opportunity to see more of the country.
Domestic flights do not require a negative COVID-19 tests. Travel to and from Kenya would require every passenger to produce a negative test to board. Our small six person aircraft with two pilots to and from the Mara did not particularly concern me. I had hoped our flight to Mombasa would be largely empty, like I had seen in more than a few online photos of persons traveling on planes almost to themselves — or if fuller, middle seats would be blocked out by the airline. I had heard of some airlines doing that. Yet the plane was full. Old school, pre-COVID kind of full. I was not super worried, but I did take notice and it did give me pause.
An hour later we were landing at Mombasa. We quickly found a taxi and headed to our hotel, the Voyager Beach Resort, thirty minutes from the airport. The traffic was heavy heading north from the city, away from Mombasa Island, to where our hotel was located in a leafy and apparently somewhat well-to-do neighborhood along Nyali Beach. But as we drove to the resort gates, it was immediately apparent that this was not a tourism location — there were no restaurants or souvenir shops lining the road. The resort was stand alone – so there would be no options to walk to eat or shop anywhere other than the resort.
The resort was nice. We had a nice third floor room facing the slim beachfront. The room was small and the bathroom outdated, but the balcony, lovely grounds, swimming pools, and kids’ club made up for it. But it was crowded. This was the most people we had been around in some time, in both Malawi and Kenya. The manager told me that the hotel was required to have 20% of their rooms blocked out due to government COVID mitigation strategies, but that left still some 180 rooms filled with holiday making couples and families. I recalled that the hotel had only recently re-opened and clearly many Kenyans (and some expatriates and tourists) were eager for some fun in the sun after over half a year of pandemic imposed travel restrictions. Part of me was pleased to see so many happy people on vacation, it gave a sense of pre-COVID normalcy, but another part of me initially felt uncomfortable with the unexpected crowds. Still, the hotel had a 100% mask in public spaces (except when eating and swimming) policy, daily random temperature checks, and C and I kept largely to ourselves.
We did not do much. We swam. We ate. We strolled. We relaxed. Although December is part of Kenya’s “short rains” season, we had no rain. Each day bright, sunny, with startlingly blue skies, and very warm. The beach was not much to write home about. In retrospect, perhaps a hotel at the more lauded Diani beach south of Mombasa would have been the place to go. At Nyali Beach, white sand, yes, but often covered in washed up seaweed. The low tide was dramatic, with the shoreline exposed for at least a hundred yards. Yet while it tempted me for a shoreline stroll, during the hottest part of the day the beach was haunted by touts. We went down once for a short walk and were immediately accosted. Did I want to buy some souvenirs? (Mostly the basic cheap stuff you see everywhere in African tourist spots) Perhaps a massage? I would have loved a massage — all the hotel services at every hotel were closed due to COVID — but not enough to have one by a random person on the beach behind a rock face during a pandemic. Did we want a tour? (I actually did, and booked one, although I had my doubts I would see the guy again). C and tried to walk into the tidal pools to see what we could see, but it was impossible to do so without a “helpful” guide. I said multiple times we were good and did not need, but it was like shouting into a wind tunnel — pointless. C was very uncomfortable with the people surrounding us to push their various pitches; I was not thrilled because, well, COVID.
I went down to the beach during high tout time only once more — without C because she refused. I really just wanted some alone walking time, but the beach was not really all that pleasant and there were too many people who wanted to sell me something I did not want or need.
The following day our beach-comber tour tout was right on time in front of the hotel with our very own personal van with pop-up top — which would allow us to socially distance from our driver and take in the city sights with a clear view even when stuck in traffic (and in traffic, there was a camel!). We headed first to a park on the southwest side of Mombasa Island, the crowded coral outcrop that anchors an inlet of the Indian Ocean. From our vantage point, we could watch the Likoni car and passenger ferry disgorge its cargo onto the island and a line of vehicles and people waiting on the other side to also join us. Mombasa Island is the place to be. But we were ultimately heading to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Fort Jesus and Old Town.
I am a bit of a history buff and a fan of UNESCO sites. It was in a large part that these sites had drawn me to this area rather than other more beachy parts of the coast. I have been to a good number of UNESCO sites around the world and the majority of them are jaw-dropping, mind-blowing amazing. Though I will admit that for a small number you really have to have your imagination cap on to see through the dirt and dust and grime of centuries or the modern kitsch tourism display (for example the Sanigran Early Man site in central Java, Indonesia, was rather sad in a rundown sort of way and amusing for its odd life-sized dioramas). Unfortunately, and maybe I was just not in the right frame of mind (it was hot and humid and I had an 8-year-old already determined to be mildly bored from the beginning in tow), but I found both of the sites, though interesting, did not live up to my expectations.
We visited Fort Jesus first. Its huge imposing presence stands sentinel on the southeastern face of Mombasa Island at the mouth of Tudor Creek. It might be far better to have approached the fort from the water to really see its size and imagine how this edifice has withstood the test of time — but the hotel (and my beach tourist touts) did not have such a tour. Thus we had to make do with touring the fort from the inside. It was first built by the Portuguese in the late 1500s and it stood as a fort until 1895, when it was last captured and then converted into a prison. An extraordinarily diverse group of people held control of the fort and lived within and outside its walls, from the Portuguese to the Swahili traders, from local sultans to Omani sultans, from the British to everyone in-between. The stylized Omani doors and the Oman House, the residence of the governing East Africa coast sultan, were my favorite parts. As were the cannons and their embrasures, opening out to the view of azure waters and cerulean sky.
C though was not a huge fan.
No problem. We headed next for a walking tour of Old Town – a warren of narrow streets and a mixture of African, Arab, and European architecture. We had loved our trip to Zanzibar two years ago and were hoping to see some of the same sense of history and splendor we had experienced there. Sadly, though, for us at least, Mombasa Old Town was the very poor cousin to the magnificence of Zanzibar’s Stone Town. Underneath the neglect, the overabundance of exposed wires, the peeling paint, and crumbling exteriors, you can still make out some of the architectural beauty, the exquisitely carved balconies or wrap-around porches of Indian teak, the elaborately carved exterior window frames, and the ubiquitous decorated Zanzibari doors. It’s all there but in dire need of some TLC. Ever the diplomat, I was pretty excited to come across a plaque marking the location of the first U.S. Consulate in Kenya 1915-1918.
Maybe if we had had more time? If we had stayed in or near Old Town? Or if it weren’t so hot and in the time of COVID? Then perhaps we might have enjoyed the historic area a little better. A 45-minute walk through the area sufficed and we headed back to our hotel. I had thought I would also book a tour to take us to the UNESCO World Heritage site the Gedi Ruins, located about two hours north of Mombasa, on another day, but I no longer had the energy. I just could not wrap my head around a four-hour round trip to see a site that might not float my boat. If it had been just me, perhaps, but I also had C to think about. So, I took a deep breath and accepted that it would not be in the cards for this trip.
Back at the hotel, C and I had a nice lunch and then headed for the pool. C quickly made some friends and after some time the girls invited C to the Kids’ Club — and then the magic really happened. I had been a bit worried about the Kids’ Club during the time of COVID, but they had the protocols — handwashing and masks — though social distancing was limited; I get that though, it’s kids. But as mentioned previously, daily temperature checks were conducted randomly at the resort. And C was SO happy. She had already spent over a week just hanging out with me and had slogged through “mom’s history tour morning” with minimal complaint. She just wanted to spend time with kids her age. For the next day and a half, she spent most of her time at the Kids’ Club – they played on the beach, in the pool, had kids meal dinners, and watched movies. And I read and took walks and dined by myself. Our last full day though was a Monday and most of the other children had left, so she and I spent our last day together. And it was Turkish Night at the buffet; C did not want to miss it and she declared it the best of the buffet nights (vs. Indian, Japanese, and Kenyan).
On our last morning, I woke early to head down to the beach to watch the sunrise. Mombasa was not all I had expected but it was everything we needed. It had been so long since we had seen the ocean. Lake Malawi is an extraordinary place and it is so large it can feel like the sea, but it’s not. And I had just needed to be somewhere other than Malawi and somewhere different than safari. There are few things in life that will soothe the soul like watching waves on the sea and seeing your child happy. Mombasa delivered.
The third in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.
Next stop after the Maasai Mara was Lake Navaisha. While I was ultimately glad for extra time our COVID-related flight change would afford us in the Mara, I was less thrilled with the loss of time at Lake Naivasha. My former backpacker self would be ashamed at my impatience. When I backpacked, a bus might not show up, or it would break down, or take five hours longer than scheduled, and while sometimes annoying, it could also be somewhat amusing and even at time exciting; I did not expect to get places on time. But while I had built in rest time on our Kenya R&R, I wanted very much to be the decider of down time, not a transportation glitch. Yet, there was nothing to be done for it but accept the schedule change.
To reach Lake Naivasha, we returned to Nairobi via small aircraft and then a driver, arranged by the same travel agent as our flights and Mara accommodation, would meet us to make the trip to our Lake hotel. But our 8:30 AM departure was changed to 11:45 AM and this time we would make one other airstrip stop before returning to Nairobi, thus returning us famished to Wilson Airport at nearly 1 PM. I had already notified our driver in advance we would need to stop at an ATM (so I could pay him in cash) and then on somewhere we could grab food. With those stops it was 2 PM before we were on our way to the Great Rift Valley Lodge (GRVL). My initial plan had to be there by noon for lunch. (Deep breaths. It’s okay T. Let it go. Let it go.)
The GRVL is situated on a cliff of Eburru Mountain, which the Maasai call Ol Donyo Opurru or “Mountain of Smoke,” has gorgeous views over the Great Rift Valley. I decided to stay at the GRVL largely because of a single photo I had seen online of the Lodge perched on the escarpment edge, dwarfed by the forest, hills, and sky around it. But the photo did not do it justice (and neither does mine) of the sheer grandeur and beauty of that view.
Unfortunately, our late afternoon meant we did not time for any activities, so we took a walk around the property, starting with following Steve the resident zebra. We don’t know the zebra’s real name, but I thought he looked like a Steve (I don’t even know if Steve is a he) and it stuck. Even our assigned personal concierge William told us that he liked the name Steve and perhaps the hotel will call the zebra that from now on (oh, I hope so!). C had spotted Steve from our balcony, and thus we found him there, grazing beneath the thorny acacia trees. He led us along a pathway through a thicket, up past the Lodge pool, through the parking lot, to the golf course, where he interrupted a few guests practicing their drives. While golfers might forgive an errant zebra on the golf course, they were not going to put up with two humans in pursuit of said zebra, so we then left Steve and spent the rest of our daylight meandering along the Lodge’s pathways flanked by its wild and unusual flora, with an emphasis on succulents. It grew dark and chilly quickly; we had dinner and went to bed.
Early on our second day we met William who had arranged transportation and a tour to Crescent Island. The island is a private sanctuary where one can take a walking safari, passing close by zebra, giraffe, impala, waterbuck, warthogs, and other such non-predator species and a dizzying array of birdlife. Unlike most walking safaris I have seen elsewhere, such as “walks with lions” or “walks with cheetahs” that often come with a 16 years of age and older label due to the predilection of big cats to find small humans more appetizing, C could participate.
Before getting to the island, we would first experience a boat safari on Lake Naivasha. We were really backing in the safaris this trip – safari by jeep, hot air balloon, boat, and our own two legs.
Lake Naivasha is one of Kenya’s major rift valley lakes. It is the home to an abundance of bird species like African fish eagles, giant kingfishers, herons, cranes, pelicans, ospreys, and more. Especially cormorants. So many, many cormorants. The Lake is a popular breeding site of cormorants and it must have been the height of the season as there were thousands of birds perched on nearly every available branch. A water safari offers an up close and personal view of many of these birds and even some hippos. As seems a prerequisite to any lake visit in Africa where African fish eagles roam (at least Malawi and Kenya), our boat driver acquired some fish, positioned the boat within sight of an eagle and whistled. But I am not sure I could tire of the sight of one of these eagles taking flight and then swooping in, talons first, to grab the proffered bait off the surface of the water. It is pretty magnificent.
After about 20 minutes on the Crescent Island is a private sanctuary located on the eastern side of the Lake. Many sites online, including Lonely Planet, note that the island is actually a peninsula and you can reach the island either by boat or across a causeway. Not any more. Rising water levels at the Lake (and other rift valley lakes) have swallowed up the bridge, tourism facilities, and more. The makeshift marina had been relocated from its previous, but now underwater, location. As we motored out, we saw concrete buildings with just barely noticeable words (“ladies”, “gents,”store”) and signs (“car park”) just under water, as if they were desperately treading water. As we closed in on Crescent Island, a line of electricity poles, half submerged, marked the location where the causeway should have been. I was glad to hear the government had turned off the electricity. If we had not seen a few other boats out on the lake, I could well have believed this was some sort of post-apocalyptic world, which in a global health pandemic really does not seem so farfetched.
We landed at Crescent Island and our GRVL guide paid for our entrance fees, then we set out, up through the bush to the highest point on the island, which was not all that high but did provide a nice vantage point to see much of the wildlife and then the shimmering blue lake and the darker blue hills beyond. Our guide, and many online resources indicate scenes from Out of Africa were filmed on the island, that the animals were brought there for the film and then left to enjoy the island in safety from predators afterwards. That may or may not be true as I could not find information on websites dedicated to the film of Crescent Island being among its filming locations. Still, the ability to walk so close to these wild African animals, to a herd of zebra or impala, to startle a waterbuck munching away in the bush next to you, or to stand five feet away from a grazing giraffe still captures the essence and awe of the movie. However the animals got there, I enjoyed our 90 minutes walk and hope C will always remember it.
Once back to the Lodge, although I really wanted to see more in the area, I made good on my promise to include rest and fun time. C and I headed to the pool for where C quickly made friends with the other children; I swam some and read.
The next morning we had some more time to look around the grounds — to see the resident peacocks and tortoises — before our driver would pick us up for our return trip to Nairobi and our flight to Mombasa. Though I had hoped for more time in the area, what we got was pretty darn good. Initially, I had considered a day tour from Nairobi, though because of COVID I could not imagine being on a tour bus with a bunch of strangers for a full day. So COVID giveth a two night plan at the GRVL, but taketh some of that time due to flight rescheduling. C’ est la vie. Or rather, hakuna matata.
The second in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.
Arriving at our hotel in Nairobi, the impact of COVID was immediately apparent. It was late afternoon and we were hungry, its a pandemic and we are in a new town, so I had no interest in leaving the hotel until the following morning. All I wanted to order room service, but there was no room service menu to be found. When I called down to the front desk I was informed that there was nothing in the room – no menu, no hotel information booklet, no pad of paper, no hotel pen – that could be left behind for another guest. An attendant brought a menu to the room, but I saw it was really limited, with nothing that appealed to us. Another call to the front desk revealed the hotel had been closed for three months during the early part of the pandemic and when they reopened, they pared down the menu significantly. But the hotel was so eager to please, the manager, chef, and a room attendant showed up at the door – all masked – asking what they could make us.
The next morning we headed to breakfast in the hotel. We took the wrong elevator and ended up in another part of the hotel — all the lights were off, there were no staff around. When we backtracked and got to the dining room it was also poorly lit and we were the only people there. Some food was set out but there were no staff, no other hotel guests. As we checked out, I asked the manager about this and he told me that they had closed off an entire wing of the hotel due to low occupancy; of the 200 some rooms, they had only 44 guests.
Off we headed to Wilson Airport, the domestic small aircraft terminal. We were there earlier than expected as our flight to the Maasai Mara had been moved from 10:30 AM, then to 8:30 AM, then to 8:00 AM due to limited flights (aka limited travelers) during the pandemic. So far these signs — the oddities in the hotel, the changes to our flight times — only served to remind me, rightfully, that while we were on vacation it was still during a pandemic.
But once checked in – despite socially distanced from our few fellow passengers and masked-up – we began to feel excited. We would be taking our first flight in a small plane and landing at a really small dirt landing strip just five minutes away from our accommodation. Well, let me say that I was excited; C was not (at least not about the small plane flight). But once in the air, she was good. And although we were not in a propeller plane, I did feel a wee bit like I had been transported back to the flight seen in Out of Africa as we departed Nairobi, with views toward the Ngong Hills, then across flat green plains with little settlement, and finally with a view of the winding Talek River along which our lodge, the Mara Intrepids Camp, lies. The touchdown, along a dirt landing strip, pulling up to a three shack airport — with a small covered waiting area, a Maasai Mara National Park information and ticket booth, and a restroom block — was exciting.
Despite our early arrival, the Camp staff gave us a very warm welcome. We were set up in a comfortable and rather high end “tented” room with a porch overlooking the Talek River and they ushered us to the dining room where they had prepared breakfast. This was a treat after the rather sterile and zombie apocalypse-like feeling to our quick breakfast earlier. Although my booking included three game drives a day, my intention on the trip was to have some great experiences but to also relax after the past nine months of working and distance learning in Malawi during a pandemic. Thus, we were in no hurry. We did not rush to get on a 10:30 AM game drive. Instead we lazed around our room, sipping drinks on our porch, and breathing in the sounds and smells of the Mara. Then we had lunch. And only afterwards did we head out on our first game drive.
Again, another sign of the pandemic, was our personal game drive. We were assigned a driver/tracker, Dennis, and had our vehicle all to ourselves. One highlight of a pandemic I suppose. Right off the bat we sighted stripped mongoose and a hyena — an animal that after three and a half years in Malawi and game drives in Majete National Park and Liwonde National Park and South Luangwa National Park (Zambia) – we had not sighted. Our previous closest hyena encounters were the on-occasion high-pitched giggle we heard on quiet nights in Lilongwe. C was thrilled and immediately named the hyena her newest favorite animal. We caught site of a pair of ostrich and some giraffe, and then soon enough were on the trail of a mother cheetah and her four cubs. After some 20 minutes of watching the cheetah and her cubs sidewind through the grass, Dennis asked if we wanted to head on to look for lions, but hey, it was just us in the vehicle, so I said no. And as luck and perseverance would have it, we got some good looks at the sleek cat and her cubs. We requested an early dinner and prepared an early bedtime with the whoops and cries of the African plains rocking us to sleep.
We had a very early morning wake up (4:00 AM) on our first full day in the Mara as I had booked us an adventure of a lifetime — a hot air balloon safari. By 5:00 AM we were being whisked through the park and adjacent lands in the dark, seeing the occasional animal — a hippo, a rabbit, a dik dik, a jackal – in the headlights. After an hour of bumping over the roads we arrived at the launch site. We checked in — mask and temperature checks in addition to the usual — and were assigned to our balloon. I meant this to be a very special occasion for C — I have been waiting until she hit the minimum age of 8 for most hot air balloon rides — but she was very nervous. As we sat crouched on our backs, legs drawn up, hands clutching rope handles, waiting for take off, I saw C was shaking. I asked her if it were the chilly morning air or fear and she confirmed the latter.
However, as the balloon filled with the last bit of needed hot air, the basket righted, the aircraft lifted, and we were on our way. We first watched the sun break across the cap of a distant plateau and light spill across the plains. Unlike my only other hot air balloon experience in Cappadocia, Turkey, where we rose high above the rocky formations, this time we hovered over the savanna so that we could see the wildlife. We floated over herds of impala, Thompson gazelle, and topi. One topi in particular seemed to literally be stopped in its tracks staring up at us, its mouth agape as it watched us pass overhead. We came a family group of elephants; the largest bull blocked the baby, stood its ground, ears out and flapping, preparing to charge our threatening approach. We watched a hyena zig-zag across the grass trying to outrun us. The whole flight was extraordinary. It is hard to describe; it felt surreal, and magical. We had only an hour in the air, but it felt longer (real talk: C got a bit tired of it and at 45 minutes sat down in the basket; we also did not see as many animals as I had hoped, but we were in a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara!!).
Following the flight, there was a nice breakfast in the bush with the passengers and pilots of both balloons. Afterwards we had the hour drive back to the Mara Intrepids Camp, which also served as another game drive. Again, our lodging included three game drives a day, but with an early morning balloon safari and wildlife spotting there and back, we were content to just relax for the rest of the day. We enjoyed drinks on our porch and watched baboons treating the adjacent tent’s roof as a trampoline, and headed to the swimming pool where from its platform above the river we watched a hippo submerged in a pool, a large monitor lizard slip languidly into the water and then saunter out on the opposite bank, and mongoose scamper across the out-of-order suspension bridge.
On our third day, we finally had a morning game drive. Six in the morning does not seem quite so early when your wake up call was 4:00 AM the day before! Again, guided by our trusty driver, we quickly came upon giraffe strutting distantly but picturesquely across the savanna, with the early morning sun behind. A few minutes later we came across a hyena directly in our path, stumbling home from an evening of whatever hyenas get up to, along the dirt track. He walked right past our vehicle–we could have reached down to pet him had we been so inclined. This hyena, unlike the scruffy, muddy specimen of his kind we had seen our first day, was, dare I say it, cute and fluffy. We did not see many other animals — though we did come across an eland, the largest antelope, and located the cheetah and her cubs again, though she remained further from the track and largely hidden in a bush — but no matter. With another, and better, hyena sighting, C was more than satisfied. Me, too. We were on a game drive in one of the premier destinations in the world, the weather was perfect, and we were together and healthy. It would be hard to be disappointed with that.
Our afternoon drive was far more successful in the animal sighting department. Right out of the gate — well, literally at the gate of our lodge’s grounds — we spotted a dik dik, the second smallest antelope species. We came across an extraordinary tableau: In the middle of a grassy plain stood a lone tree. Atop the tree, two large secretary birds sat upon their nest and at the base of the tree a single hyena circled, hoping for whatever scraps might fall. Gazelles grazed in the background. From there we headed on to our prize – a pride of some ten large lions napping lazily in the grass. They must have recently had a large meal as most could not bother to raise their heads or open their eyes. Except for one lioness, who did sit up and fix her eyes upon me in such as way that caused me to back up in the vehicle. On our way back to our camp we were treated to an extraordinary sighting of a lone jackal, who could have run off quickly but kept stopping to look back at us, and an incredible sunset over the Mara.
That evening in the dining hall we were one of only two families eating. The younger kids of the other family conked out and then we C and I were the only ones there except for staff. Except after a few minutes I noticed we were no longer alone. A genet had crept into the dining hall and slipped beneath the now-gone other family’s table. A genet is a similar to a civet. Its often believed to be in the feline family, but its not. It is sleek and spotted and has a very long tail — it looks a bit like a mini, skinny leopard mated with a lemur. That would have been amazing in and of itself. But then, drum roll, a black bushbaby made its way into the dining hall, expertly walking along the ceiling beams like a trapeze artist, and then sliding down the vertical pole to steal a bun from the abandoned bread basket. The evening’s entertainment was still not yet over, as a second genet joined the first and the bushbaby demonstrated interest in the crumbs beneath the other abandoned table. Naturally this led to one of those scenes generally seen in National Geographic — the bushbaby standing on two legs, arms up, attempting to look menacing and the genets looking positively puzzled. Best diner show ever.
Another COVID-related change led to our return flight to Nairobi to shift from 8:45 AM to 11:15 AM and then to 11:45 AM. Although this would complicate our afternoon plans, it did allow us one more sunrise over the Mara, another game drive. We saw a pod of 20 or more hippopotami wallowing in a stream, tracked two lion cubs through the tall grass, and then caught sight of the lioness possibly tracking us, and at the very end, with just minutes left before we had to head back to the camp and on to the airport, we were lucky to catch sight of a leopard among the foliage in a ravine.
There are just not enough superlatives to describe the Mara. I have been on game drives before but never with such beautiful endless distances across the savanna and the number of wildlife encounters. It was not easy to leave.
How do you decide where to go on vacation during a pandemic?
Overall, for me, it was a somewhat wrenching, but ultimately easy decision.
R&R, i.e. “Rest and Recuperation,” is a “travel benefit that provides temporary relief for employees and eligible family members from posts with distinct and significant difficulties.” The State Department (and other federal agencies with presence overseas, like the military), set the number of R&Rs an employee and their family are eligible for from each location overseas. If you serve in Australia or Hong Kong or even on the Mexico border with the U.S., you are not eligible. If you live somewhere like Malawi, you are granted one R&R for every two years you serve.
But in 2020, the pandemic halted many (most?) R&Rs. Here in Malawi, international commercial flights were halted from April 1 until September 5. And even once flights resumed in September, they were limited in number. But Embassy personnel were still restricted from taking flights out of the country, unless in an emergency or with special circumstances, until late October.
I have traveled to over 100 countries and territories and been on more flights than I can count, but the idea of being on a long plane ride at this time filled me with a great amount of anxiety. I desperately wanted to travel outside of Malawi — the living room staycations and the long drives on the same pockmarked Malawian roads were just not doing it for me anymore. I needed the kind of vacation that involved stamps in my passport. Yet, I just could not stomach going somewhere really far away. If you know me or have read my blog travels, you know that in usual times, that does not concern me. It is the destination, not how long it will take us to get there. By the time she was three, my daughter would ask how many planes it would take for us to get to our destination. This time, I wanted it to be just one.
One reason that COVID-19 came to Malawi later in the game than most (it was one of the last countries in the world to record a case), is that it is not on many tourist itineraries and it is a destination point, not a transit point. And just as few flights arrive here, few depart. In non-pandemic times, we could fly direct from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe to six locations: Johannesburg (South Africa), Harare (Zimbabwe), Lusaka (Zambia), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Nairobi (Kenya). However, once commercial flights resumed we were limited to just three: Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi.
Initially, South Africa seemed the most logical choice as I still held an airline credit with Ethiopian to Johannesburg and a hotel credit at a lodge in Lesotho. Except, Ethiopian had not resumed flights to Johannesburg; only Malawian Airlines (though 49% owned by Ethiopian) was running that route and their track record was less than stellar. Although Malawian Airlines had announced daily flights to Johannesburg, on average, only two of those flights were actually taking off each week. Not the kind of odds you want to bet your vacation on. Also, to visit both South Africa and Lesotho, we would likely need negative PCR COVID test certificates a few more times to cross another border and back, and even the lodge, which had only partially re-opened (and not the more expensive rooms I had previously booked), advised me not to travel given the challenges of testing. South Africa was out.
I only briefly looked at Ethiopia. There is a lot to see in Ethiopia and I have wanted to visit for awhile, but I did not think the sights conducive to travel with an 8-year-old. And although the daily reported COVID-19 cases for Ethiopia were, in late October and early November, lower than in both South Africa and Kenya, there was also the worst locust plague in 25 years and the beginning of the government conflict with the northern state of Tigray. Ethiopia also requires arrivals, even with a negative PCR COVID test result, to self-isolate for seven days. A week of our vacation would be spent sequestered in a government-designated hotel. Ethiopia was out.
And thus our vacation destination was clear. Nairobi is just over two hours by plane from Lilongwe and there is no quarantine or self-isolation period on arrival as long as you have a negative PCR COVID test result. Bonus points: neither C or I had ever been. Well, hello Kenya.
It was great to know where we were going and there was a sense of the old fun in vacation planning, but there was still a lot of stress related to making sure I dotted all i’s and crossed all t’s in the COVID department. Kenya requires a negative PCR COVID test taken conducted within 96 hours of travel. Malawi also requires a negative COVID test to depart, the timing is less clear on this, but the test must be completed by a government approved testing facility, and there are only three of these. Though the guidelines are constantly changing. The third hospital was added about a week before our flight and the good news was they would make a house call. But just as that seemed the best option, the government announced new regulations requiring additional stamps on the test certificate that the third option did not have. We then went with Kamuzu Central Hospital, the easiest of our options.
It was not a great experience. We went with friends with kids that C knows so they would have one another to lean on. There were patients and others loitering around the hospital grounds, almost none wearing masks. We had to ask the person administering the tests to put on a mask. (He did put on the mask and PPE to conduct collections). After waiting about an hour for the slow procession of testing, he ran out of forms. Once we finally went in, it was really uncomfortable. C, holding the hand of one of her best friends, cried. I might have stopped on the ground and said “Oh, come on!” when it seemed to take a bit too long.
We then had to wait several days. The hospital — no matter when you take you test — only allows pick-up of the results the day before your flight. Talk about pins and needles, wondering if you are in the clear or not, if you can fly or not. Our bubble has been so small since this pandemic began. A very small subset of the already rather small Embassy community. Still, the what ifs sit in the back of your head.
Three of us went to the hospital to pick-up the tests for our group of 14. Pick-up was not straightforward either. I offered to help rifle through the results looking specifically for the names I recognized because it was taking forever, just the three of us standing in a small room crammed with a desk, two chairs, some shelves, and tons and tons of papers. Thank goodness we were all negative (and while you might think — if any of us had been positive then, surely, the hospital would have informed us. But, I have it on good authority that is not always the case)!
With negative COVID test results in hand, a fair amount of the anxiety seeped away. Still, for me that was just step one. Step two was surviving the Lilongwe airport gauntlet – checks, double checks, and triple checks of our negative COVID certificates and multiple temperature checks. Step three was the flight — only two hours long, but after no flights for nearly a year, it felt so much longer. Step four was the Nairobi airport gauntlet — COVID certificate checks, immigration and e-visa checks, health surveillance form checks, and temperature checks. It was not until we stepped out of the airport and were on our way to the hotel that I could really relax. We were on vacation!
Normal. It seems hard to know what that is anymore. We have been told to adjust to a “new normal.” A normal where face masks are a required fashion accessory and obsessive hand cleansing and avoiding other people with our newfangled edict on “social distancing” is how we get through the day. At first it was novel. Difficult, but doable. I might even say I was not only productive, but jazzed by the new situation, even more so than usual. But as time wore on, the reduction in social interaction, the rise of teleworking and distance learning, and the inability to travel began to take its toll. I think back to nearly nine months ago when we took our last trip beyond Malawi’s borders, a long weekend in Johannesburg aimed at doing activities that many Americans and others in developed countries take for granted. In other words, doing what I thought was “normal.” Instead it turned into the trip just before the end of all the pre-COVID normalcy. I didn’t know what normal was until it was gone.
But slowly, gradually, over the past few weeks, there has been a lightening, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It really began with the lifting of restrictions on travel outside of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe. A city where, in normal times, even with a lack of amenities, is enjoyable when one keeps busy at the office, doing work activities and meetings, and spending time with friends and family at simple events like meals out or small gatherings. But in COVID times, with limited interactions outside the home, became suffocatingly dull. I was glad to be able to get out and about more, but still weighed down by pandemic fatigue, the vacation glow dissipated quickly.
A week after my daughter’s school’s “Fall Break,” I broke. I felt caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On one hand I could keep my daughter at home, limit her exposure, but to do so we would have to continue the distance learning program, which was declining in quality, damaging our relationship, and affecting my work. On the other hand I could send her back, but as the Embassy-provided school bus was no more, I would have to make the dreaded 30-minute drive to the other side of town twice a day. Desperate for a path back to normalcy, I chose option number two.
I coordinated with another Embassy family with kids the same age to alternate morning drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups. Sure, the first day or so seemed odd — seeing the face-masked kids shuffling into school in socially distanced lines and being greeted by thermometer wielding staff in personal protective equipment — but the return to school has changed our lives for the better. There is a lot less yelling about schoolwork because I am no longer in charge of it. And, unexpectedly, I feel more engaged as a mom driving my daughter and her friends to or from school. Additionally, as the Embassy has moved to “Phase 2” of a three phase system, I can spend time in the office, which is so much more conducive to my getting work done than the well-worn groove on my sofa.
Halloween arrived soon after C returned to school. At the beginning of October, it was not clear we would have any celebration of the holiday at all, but two weeks before, a team of Embassy volunteers and our Marine Security Guards began began planning an awesome socially distanced, pandemic-approved Halloween. Unmanned decorated tables were set up around the expansive lawn at the Ambassador’s residence and the Marines turned the gazebo into a haunted hallway.
It was not the usual U.S. Halloween by any stretch of the imagination, but then overseas the holiday has rarely looked like the American-style trick or treating. In Juarez, trick-or-treating was room to room in the Consulate. In Shanghai, we zig-zagged up and down floors to designated apartments whose residents had agreed to hand out candy, though the sweets were much different than one might typically receive in America. And in Malawi we have had three years in a row of trunk or treating. This was just another creative Foreign Service holiday. Though it did feel a bit odd to don face masks and just to two of us walk around to collect candy from unmanned tables. Well, that is how it started. But the kids gravitated toward one another and soon C was with several friends. And at the end several families gathered at the Jurassic Park stop, where a few of our colleagues were dressed in dinosaur costumes. For the first time in a very long time we were around more than one other family. It felt decadent, like we were getting away with something.
The following week – the first of November – gave me an almost daily dose of feeling I was on at least the normalcy. On the Monday, I received my handshake for my next assignment in Conakry, Guinea. I took Tuesday off to sit at home and watching the nail-biting results of the U.S. election. On Wednesday, my daughter’s tutor let me know she could begin immediately as my full time nanny – and for the first time in seven months I again had consistent help around the house. On Thursday, my request for time off to take our long-overdue Rest and Relaxation trip was approved. I could begin planning our first significant trip outside the country for nearly a year since our last big trip to Finland and Paris. We rounded out the week with a COVID-approved birthday party: an outdoor gathering of no more than 20 people only among Embassy personnel whose kids had returned to school. Another first such gathering in more than six months.
It was as if a dam had broken. The year has been so hard. I know I am not alone but sometimes the circumstances of the extended isolation has made it feel so.
I know things are not back to normal. The pandemic is still here; our lives remain altered. There has been a resurgence of COVID-19 in many places and previously lifted restrictions are being put back into place. When I found myself in a busy open-air shopping district surrounded by persons not wearing masks, I felt uncomfortable. When I am approached by others, I instinctively shift a good meter away so as to let them pass. Yet, even with these oddities presently entrenched in our daily lives, I have taken these recent signs of pre-COVID times to heart. We may still have a ways to go until we emerge from this pandemic, but at least for now it feels we have turned a corner.
Has it already been four years? I don’t mean those four years, like for the presidential election, but four years since I last bid for a new assignment in the Foreign Service. The answer is it has been though I tried to put it off for as long as possible with my two consecutive tours in Malawi. Yet, here I am again playing another game of Where Do I Go Next?
The last time, in 2016, was my first time to be introduced to the highs and lows and general confusion of mid-level bidding for the U.S. diplomat. The first two tours of a U.S. diplomat’s life are directed by Career Development Officers. We get a list of available Posts and we order them high, medium, or low, and can write in comments as to why one place might be high (I speak the language) or low (they do not allow pets in housing and I have two cats), and then we are assigned. That might seem impersonal to some, but believe you me, after going through how we do the mid-level bidding, many of us are nostalgic for those good ole straightforward directed assignment days.
Previously, I compared mid-level bidding to the mayhem of a small high school dating pool trying to suss out who does and does not get a date to Homecoming and with whom. But I am a bit older now and, forgive the pun, but I have already done this dance.
A colleague of mine says he compares our diplomatic job search process to buying a house. I have actually never bought a home, but I have watched a few of those house search shows here and there, and its an apt description.
So, you are looking to become a homeowner. You have some ideas in mind – maybe you want ranch or colonial? You want a certain number of bedrooms and baths. You want to be off the main street, maybe on a cul-de-sac? You want to be able to walk to grocery stores and restaurants.
And this is how it begins with bidding. You have certain criteria in mind. For myself, I wanted some place with a good school for C. I’m no Tiger Mom, so it doesn’t have to be Harvard, Jr, but a decent place where my daughter can get some much needed individual attention and a good education fits the bill. I also preferred a place where she would not have a long commute to school as in Lilongwe she is on the bus (when we had a bus) for 30 minutes at least each way. She says she doesn’t mind as she likes to chat with her friends, but I thought a shorter commute was in order.
I wanted a place where I could import pets relatively easy. It’s never easy to move overseas with pets, and this is why some people will not have them in this lifestyle. But for some, like me, having a pet makes life better. Still, I can make things somewhat easier on myself and our furry family members by not bidding on a place that has a long list of import requirements and/or a multi-month quarantine.
I wanted a language-designated position. I love living overseas. I love experiencing culture and history and all the in-between of a place from the vantage of residency vice tourism. (Though I love me some tourism too!) But language training also gives me and C some much needed time back in the U.S. C has not spent much time in her homeland, and the longest (six months) was from birth until our move to Mexico. I am desperate for Tex-Mex, salads, a good gym, and sidewalks.
And I wanted a place where I was not the sole political officer. Malawi has been a life-changing tour and the opportunity to head up a section both challenging and rewarding, but I wanted the chance to learn from someone else as the chief, with occasional stand in roles.
There were also a whole host of other little criteria — commute times, housing types, climate, the number of flights to and from the country (and where), post differential (how much additional money one receives for hardship), number of R&Rs, and so on. And I took these criteria and reviewed the projected vacancies list and then built a spreadsheet of the places I intended to bid. As one might put together a list of criteria for a house you want to buy. And as soon as bidding began, it was all upended.
OK. Hold up. Actually, my intended bid list was upended before the official bid season went live on September 21. COVID-19 struck again. Due to the pandemic, hundreds of Foreign Service families overseas opted to accept the Department’s generous offer of Global Authorized Departure (G/AD). This allowed those with preexisting conditions or with family members that had conditions that might make them more susceptible (including family in the States) or were in locations with poor medical care, or all the above, to return to the United States. After months of being on G/AD, some officers saw the writing on the wall; they were not going to be able to return to their Post anytime soon and thus they took advantage of a no-fault curtailment. With that, their jobs, that were on the bid list for a summer 2022 arrival after language, became NOW jobs — those that need immediate filling. I watched as two positions at the top of my list were suddenly no longer available.
Its like I had my eye on some nice properties — I saw the for sale sign out front and imagined those were the homes for me and I figure they will be on the market for a little bit when suddenly there is a quick sale and that’s it, my dream home is gone. And then you have to go back to the listings and find something else.
You might find yourself outbid. Maybe you go for one of those seriously heavily bid places like Paris, with some 50 people gunning for the same job? Or maybe you just find that a place you did not expect to be popular is? I found myself in this position this year, interviewing for two jobs that hit the 20 bidders mark. On one I felt I had a shot; on the other I quickly realized I did not.
On others, I just wasn’t the person the Post was looking for. I know I “looked good on paper,” had very strong academic and/or work experience specific to the country or the issues, and yet, I found myself waived away very early, encouraged to bid elsewhere. Try a few roads down, in another part of town. Discouraging? Absolutely. Angry? A wee bit. But that doesn’t get me another assignment. It’s back to the classifieds.
I found myself making all kinds of adjustments to my criteria. I did not want to be somewhere with a long commute — but hey, this position looks good, the country new and exciting, I get the world language training, C gets a good school, so I can maybe live with a 45 minute drive to and from work? I did not want a position where I was the sole political officer — but this other position, its somewhere I have regional expertise in, the commute is short for myself and my daughter, its warm year round, so maybe I could be the sole officer again though its also really complicated and costly to import pets? My daughter has said repeatedly she doesn’t want to go to college, so why not use that saved tuition for pet importation?
On House Hunters, persons in the market for a new home prepare a set of criteria and then an agent finds three candidate homes that mostly meet their requirements. Almost every single home has something they did not ask for, something that does not fit the criteria. The dream home of your imagination, is very often not the dream home of your reality. You make the best of what you end up with, you compromise and embrace.
Over the course of the four official weeks of bid season, the list I started with on Bid Season Eve was almost unrecognizable from the list I submitted on the final day. My top five spots were an eclectic mix; my top two completely a surprise.
Lo and behold, I was the number one for two places. I receive the coveted Bureau Leading Candidate email (Pro-tip: bid places with few other bidders!); and then I had to make a difficult choice. I wanted to go to both my top two. Heck, I wanted to go to every place in my top five. I had sold myself on the adventure to be found in each place. But in the immortal words from The Highlander: in the end, there can be only one — but perhaps one of the others next time? After all, we will move again.
Next assignment: Conakry, Guinea, summer 2022 via French training
There are days during the pandemic when things feel almost normal. And then I wonder if it means I am getting used to the “new normal” or if things really are returning to a sense of normalcy? But I am unconvinced of the latter and still find myself struggling with restrictions and the mental strain of entering our eighth month of this (and I cannot even articulate well what “this” is). Having gone through SARS in Singapore in 2003, I had been confident the pandemic would end in July. When July came and went I felt a pretty solid sense of having been let down. Yet, I convinced myself that by mid-October, by C’s school break, that probably, maybe, things would have returned largely to normal. Wrong again.
On September 30, C’s grade returned to in-person classes, but C did not return to school as there are no longer buses to take her the 30 minutes to and from the campus. As a single working parent, I did not see how I could spend upwards of 15 hours a week (to account for traffic and waiting in the complicated pick-up line) chauffeuring C back and forth and keep up with everything else. I would trade the frustration of online learning with the frustration of hours in Lilongwe traffic.
Seven schooldays after the majority of children returned to the international school (I was not the only hold-out), Fall Break began. But I figured I have to call it “Fall Break” in quotes because it is never the cool autumn of the U.S. and, frankly, I could not really put my finger on what it was a break from. Yet, I knew, once again, that if I could take off some days and get out of Lilongwe, then I needed to do that. Still, as hard as I tried to consider taking the entire week to travel around Malawi, I could not stomach it. There are many lovely places in this country, but most of them are at least three hours away according to Google Maps, which when you factor in police road stops and getting stuck behind a slow moving truck on a two lane road (and they are all two lane roads) or a person driving 20 kilometers below the speed limit for no apparent reason, it is always more on the order of four hours.
I broke our holiday into two parts, each visiting a new location on my Malawi sightseeing bucket list: We would first head south for the three-day Indigenous Peoples Day weekend to spend time at the Makokola Retreat on the lower end of Lake Malawi. After a two day respite back in Lilongwe, we would then turn northward to spend a four day weekend at Luwawa Forest Lodge.
Our first mini getaway was to Makokola. At first the drive was pleasant enough, but 2/3 of the way in (i.e. about two hours) I had had about enough of the endless monotony of scrub brush alongside the potholed tarmac. I have driven that particular route one too many times and it does not get more interesting. But at last we arrived at the lush lakeside retreat. Due to renovations under much of the older part of the resort, children are, at this time, allowed to stay in the newly built lakeside suites. And they are lovely.
After the monotony of the Malawian roads, pulling into the lush, landscaped grounds of the Makokoka Retreat was a noticeable physical and mental relief. The grounds are beautiful, even with portions of them churned up for renovation. As we were walked over to the Lakeside suites, our home away from home for two nights, I was struck by how much it reminded me of a model American condo subdivision. There were sidewalks and water features. Water features! I think I have seen one other water feature in all of Malawi – a fountain at a roundabout in Lilongwe – but never once has there been water in it!
In pre-COVID times, I heard that the Makokola Retreat had a bunch of watersports like wakeboards and water skis and those floating banana things. However, although speedboats were on offer (only $200 to rent!) there didn’t seem to be anything attached to them in pandemic times. And that’s okay — I am not really the speed on the water kinda gal. C and I were keen on just lazing about. The American development feel gave a sense of really having gotten away. COVID-19 measures meant our meals would be delivered to our room. Walks along a beach (albeit a lakeside beach) or through the gardens, slow laps around the infinity pool, and leisurely meals in our room or on our patio while reading — that is exactly what C and I needed.
And then I had to drive home. Just like after our recent trips to Satemwa and Liwonde, the return trip winds back the relaxation clock. At least this time, we would have two days at home — still on leave and off school — before heading out again.
The drive north to the Luwawa Forest Lodge turnoff was not so bad. Not because the road quality or drivers were better, they were not, but it was a new-to-me route. I had only driven north on the M1 once, when we visited Ntchisi Forest Lodge, but an hour into our journey we had already passed the familiar behind.
There was nothing special about the first three hours, but after turning onto the red dirt road into the Brachystegia woodland and riverine forest of the Viphya Plateau’s highlands, it was as if we really been transported somewhere else.
At Luwawa I had booked a self-catering cottage. I was not sure what to expect, but I found the slightly musty two-story cabin, with its small fridge and retro-style mini gas oven, under the wooden stairs lounge area, and large loft-like upstairs, homey. It reminded me of my grandmother’s house. We unpacked, made and ate sandwiches for lunch, then took a look around the property. We met Bob, the Lodge’s massive, yet playful, Saint Bernard; C played on the playground, and I wandered the garden. Then, with the assistance of the Lodge, trudged up the narrow steps of another cottage, and in another musty room designed for studies when the schools use the dormitories for their “Week Without Walls” programs, with chairs haphazardly stacked along the walls, we played the worst, yet hilarious, game of ping pong.
Luwawa Forest Lodge has an impressive range of activities from canoeing and kayaking on the reservoir, trail walking, abseiling, bird watching, fishing, archery, and a few guided tours. I had plans for us to do several of these over the course of our three days, but our first morning we had a one hour horseback ride lined up.
C loves horses. Unfortunately there are no public horse riding stables in Lilongwe — nor were there any in Shanghai that would not have taken us less than two hours to get to — so I have always looked for horse riding opportunities when we head on vacation.
What a treat that there are stables just a 15 minute walk from the Luwawa Forest Lodge and they are run by the wonderfully patient and kind Maggie, who worked as a medical practitioner at the US Embassy for 30 years. She took us on a lovely ramble along trails and through the woods surrounding her property. Along the way, she told me about being born and raised in Kenya, studied in South Africa, and then after her degree she relocated to Malawi where her grandfather had purchased land in the early part of the 20th century. We passed ripening multi-colored berries, caught vistas of misty covered rolling hills, and breathed in the fresh air. C was in her element.
Immediately after our ride, C asked if she could have another ride that afternoon. Maggie said she had some siblings, one of which was a precocious 7-year old she thought C would hit it off with, scheduled at 1:30 that afternoon.
Boy did they hit it off! H and C became fast friends. After the ride — reportedly full of giggles — C wanted to spend more time with H. They hopped on an ATV with Gift, one of the stable hands, and headed up to the stables to muck them out and prepare for the evening feeding. Yes, my daughter volunteered and happily mucked out horse stables!
The following day C signed up for two additional rides with her vacation best friend. As C rode the trails around Luwawa, I walked them. I used to be a great walker. I love to walk, but there are not many places to do so in Lilongwe; there are few sidewalks and no trails that I know of. In Luwawa I had hours to myself to walk and meditate in nature. I have not had such time to do so at any other time in Malawi. We didn’t do much in Luwawa; C rode horses and I walked, and we relaxed in our little cottage. But it was just what we both needed.
Once again, a few trips out of Lilongwe restored myself and C just a wee bit. It was not the fall break I had initially planned on pre-COVID or even as I kept hoping the pandemic would end sometime in the summer months. But while it wasn’t perfect, it was unexpected and unexpectedly good.