Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Hard Landing

I have struggled to write this post, to describe what it is like to come back to the US after four years in Malawi. I think of what some might say — I mean, I am American, how hard can it be to come back my home country? Two decades ago, as I prepared to return to the US after three years in Japan, I expressed concerns about the transition to a person who knew me well. After all, I had lived in a small town in rural Japan with one restaurant and few people who spoke English for a significant period of time. The national news in Japan would lead with stories like the cherry blossom forecast or the mating of two rare cranes. The news for Washington, DC, alone would lead with a shooting or a traffic accident. My friend told me it was silly to worry, that I had been “brainwashed” to think otherwise.

I had not been brainwashed, of course. Instead, I was preparing myself for the inevitable culture shock of returning home, to a place that would seem familiar, but not quite. That would seem strange in unexpected ways. Where I would not quite fit in.

Reverse culture shock is not something new for me.  In early 1995, I struggled with the disparities after returning from seven months study abroad in Beijing.  The China of the early 1990s, even in the capital, was not the China of today.  For instance, there was one phone for our entire our dormitory floor. In winter, we filled our large thermoses with hot water heated in the coal fired oven located in the shed across from our dorm. I bought my yogurt in little glass bottles from a small store near campus. It came in three flavors: plain, strawberry, and pineapple. I would ride with two of the glass bottles clinking in the basket of an old bicycle to class. I stood out with my blonde hair. People stared at me. If I stopped to buy something, at least ten Chinese stopped to watch me buy that something. I had random people pet my pale freckled arm – usually without asking. Once a proprietress of a small shop suddenly leapt over her glass counter to grab my hair. She had not looked like a person with the reflexes and speed of a panther, but I had been wrong. Back in the US, I found myself often standing stock still in front of certain sections of the supermarket paralyzed by choice or simply wandering the aisles for an hour or so but leaving with nothing.  I became invisible – not a single person seemed to notice me at all. For months on end, I also refused to get my hair cut because the prices in the US were so much higher than in Beijing, where I not only would get a decent cut but also a marvelous 30-minute head and neck massage.  American salons could not compete.  And it pissed me off for a few months.

But later I either spent less time in the U.S. between my overseas gigs – a direct transfer from South Korea to the Philippines, only three months between the Philippines and Japan, or following my three years in rural Japan I opted to spend a year of backpacking around the world before grad school in California, to lessen the shock – or maybe the cities I found myself in overseas were increasingly developed so that the “shock” between them and the US lessened? Or maybe I just grew more accustomed to the differences?

But this time it was different.  Not only had we spent the past four years living in one of the world’s poorest countries in southern Africa, but also with the COVID pandemic we had not visited the US in two years.  We had not traveled off the African continent in a year and a half, with the vast majority of the time spent not only in Malawi, but just in and around our home in Lilongwe. 

After a month of home leave in Florida, during which we had no real schedule and, despite some paperwork and medical appointments, was largely unstructured and restful, it was time to settle in some. Once we arrived in Arlington, Virginia, to check into our State Department provided housing for my training though, things changed. And some of those things that had seemed so spectacular in the initial weeks began to feel less so. I boiled down the adjustment to a few key categories.

Drastic Differences

No surprise here, but the level of development in Malawi is far lower than that of the US. In Arlington, we moved into our apartment in a 21-story building surrounded by buildings of a similar size. In Malawi, the tallest building in the country, the Walmont Hotel in Lilongwe, stood at 12 stories. The country might boast a few other similarly sized buildings at perhaps six or eight or 10 stories, but they are few and far between. Where they stand, they stand out. Four lane or even six lane roads are the norm in the US; I can see the junction of two just from my apartment window. Yet, in Malawi these are rare. When after taking nearly the entire four years we were in Lilongwe, the Malawian government at last completed the Area 18 interchange and “dual carriageway,” it was the first overpass and cloverleaf roadway in the entire country. Though the country’s second city Blantyre and third city Mzuzu also have one or two roads that are more than one lane, these cover short distances. The Area 18 project stretched only 4.6 kilometers, just short of three miles! And the developmental differences are everywhere. From sidewalks to streetlights, what may be ubiquitous in the US is often rare in Malawi.

Something as simple as drinking water for example. Many Americans take it for granted they will turn on their taps and clean, potable water will spew forth. Though some may dislike the taste and will opt to further filter or flavor their water, one can just drink it straight from the tap. This is not the case in many places in the developing world. And emergency services! We might complain about how long it takes for an ambulance to arrive (and I realize that what community you are calling from in the US may certainly impact when, and maybe if, one comes), but generally they come. Moving into our apartment, C and I immediately found ourselves irritated by the regular sounds of ambulance, police, and fire vehicles. We seemed to be surrounded by emergencies day and night. But the issue for Lilongwe was not that there were not emergencies, of course not, but rather that the emergency services had limited capacity and resources. I read, for example, there only four fire stations in the whole of Malawi. FOUR for a country of 19 million. Arlington County in Virginia has nine fire stations and nine fire engines for a quarter of a million people. There might be seven fire engines in the entirety of Lilongwe – urban and rural areas – and at any given time, maybe half of them are working. The same can be said for ambulances and the police. Once I realized this, I was no longer irritated at the sound of the sirens. I am grateful they are there.

Spoiled for Choice

There is so much choice in America. Take apples. Do you want Gala? Red Delicious? Fuji? Honeycrisp? Golden Delicious? Or maybe Granny Smith? Do you want to pick them out yourself or buy pre-bagged? How about regular or organic? Or maybe you are looking for yogurt. Which brand do you want? Yoplait? Chobani? Fage? Stonyfield? Or Danone? Will you want Greek style? Are you in search of the regular flavors like strawberry, vanilla, coconut, raspberry or perhaps something with more pizzazz like key lime pie, strawberry cheesecake, or piña colada? Full fat, low fat, or fat free? Pre-mixed, fruit at the bottom, or perhaps with a side of granola? It is not as if Malawi had no choice – there were a few types of apples, there were yogurt options. But no where near the dizzying choices facing one every day in an American supermarket. And then which supermarket? And how will you get your groceries – will you go to the supermarket yourself or have it delivered? And if delivered, by whom?

And it is not just the supermarkets. There are the transportation options: personal car, taxi, subway, bus, bicycle, scooter, or a ride hailing company – and even in this last category one must decide if Uber of Lyft is more your speed. There are so many cuisine options and restaurants serving those cuisines. Or services delivering the restaurant foods to you.

And it feels ridiculous to write all this out. Americans know they have access to these options. And I AM AMERICAN. Yet it feels so bewildering. Indulgent. At times even indecent that we have so much available to us.

Loss of Identity / Fear of Missing Out

This feeling may be harder to explain. I am currently being paid to be in long-term training. Taking functional and then language training for my next assignment is my full time, paid, job. I am even provided housing, nice housing, in fact (see photo of apartment building above). This is a really, really, really nice perk of the job. It is also important to help me to prepare to do my job well.

But boy did I start to miss my old job. For four years I was the political officer at the US Embassy in Malawi. And politically, it was an exciting four years: campaigns and campaign machinations, a national election, demonstrations, a constitutional court case that overturned the presidential election, an unsurprising appeal, then a landmark Supreme Court decision upholding the lower court’s ruling, more campaigning, more machinations, a historic election, and the Economist naming Malawi the 2020 Country of the Year. I had a front seat to history and these elections were only a small part of the work. Work that was challenging, with wins and losses, but largely satisfying. And then suddenly, I am no longer the political officer; I am just a student.

This feeling was further augmented with the sudden and very dramatic US departure from Afghanistan. A colleague I served with in China posted her status to friends and family as she and others departed the Embassy in Kabul and then the airport as the Taliban took control. Another I served with in Mexico headed to Kabul for the final airport evacuations. Other friends and colleagues volunteered to provide support at Dulles Airport and Fort Lee in Virginia, and in Washington or in locations such as Abu Dhabi and Doha. I know there will be analyses and commentary on the handling of Afghanistan for years and decades to come, but the work of those I know was nothing short of extraordinary in incredibly trying times. I am very proud of them. And I know 100% that nothing associated with Afghanistan is about me. And yet, it felt incredibly odd, even wrong, to sit on the sidelines.

Then a few weeks later the military staged a coup in Guinea, my next assignment. I could close my eyes and understand how my colleagues there were jumping into action. But I had no involvement; I am not yet there and I had classes to attend.

There has also been an opening in some places, a return to travel. I see friends back in Malawi heading out on safari or to Victoria Falls in neighboring Zambia. Other friends, having arrived in Cambodia for their new tour a few months before, visited Angkor Wat. A friend in Egypt visited the pyramids around Cairo and then headed down the Nile to Luxor. Others when to Italy or the Maldives.

I really miss travel. Deeply. I miss the trips that we were to take that were cancelled. The trips I had yet to put into action that could not happen. And while in training at the Foreign Service Institute, the policy is that students cannot take annual leave for time off, so there will be no travel during our time here.

It is not just a “Fear of Missing Out” (or FOMO). I AM missing out. My identity as a political officer and a traveler are currently on hold.

COVID-19 Effects

Honestly, I am not quite ready to travel again. With C yet unvaccinated and rules for who can go where and what they need to test for or prove beforehand change regularly, even travel planning does not yet again give me the joy it once did. Our home leave was spent in Jacksonville, Florida, when the city became the epicenter of the surge in the Delta variant. C started school in northern Virginia in this climate. I am grateful my daughter can attend school in person, but the daily survey sent to us by text and email is a stark and regular reminder that the pandemic is still very much here. As the US deaths from COVID-19 approached 600,000 a friend of mine in Michigan reached out with a request: a friend of a friend wanted a flag placed in memory of a loved one in an art installation on the Washington Mall. Would I be able to assist? An hour later I found myself kneeling in the grass on the Mall surrounded by the sight and sounds of hundreds of thousands of white flags as I placed one more into the soft ground.

And normally when returning to the US for training, one would run into friends and colleagues in the cafeteria and halls of the Foreign Service Institute. But with training still virtual I am not running into anyone. For an introvert, it is somewhat freeing. But it is also continuing the isolation.

I do not mean all or even any of this is negative; it just is. There has been reverse culture shock. It has been a harder transition than past ones. It is taking time to readjust. I do miss the responsibilities of my old job. But I am still a diplomat. I am still a mom. Instead of an expat, I am now a resident of the US; I am now a student. I am getting used to doing other things. There are so many great things about being home. And by the time I start feeling pretty comfortable, it will be time to make another move.

Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Home Leave

We had made it to the U.S. from Malawi in the time of COVID. Whew! And now we could begin our congressionally-mandated period of readjustment, reacquaintance, and relaxation in the U.S. known as Home Leave. Unlike Home Leaves past, where we traveled from place to place to place, we would spend the majority of this one in one location, Florida, where, for the first time ever, I own property. Do not get me wrong, I had initially intended another whirlwind Home Leave journey that would take us to multiple U.S. states and experiences on the bucket list, but a combination of timing, getting older (which I hate admitting), bringing our Malawian nanny, and COVID, led me to make some adjustments. Though it was far and away due to the pandemic, and I will admit a continued sense of identity loss with reduced travel, there was something satisfying about slowing down and staying put, familiarizing ourselves with our new U.S. home town, and introducing America to a newcomer.

After successfully emerging from the security and immigration at Dulles Airport, we were met by my sister and then our transport driver, who whisked myself, the nanny, my daughter, the cat, and our odd collection of baggage, off to a nearby car rental. There we were met by my aunt, who took some of our luggage off our hands, and then we were on the road to Florida.

Yes, I had decided to drive to Florida. Sure, we could have flown, but there were all sorts of reasons that made me not want to deal with the 8 1/2 hour layover and boarding another flight. I can distill it down to my deep desire to be on the road and (seemingly) more in control.

And as we merged onto I-95, the main artery linking the American east coast from Miami Florida to the Maine-Canadian border, I felt pretty darn happy. Maybe ecstatic. I felt free. This was not the Malawi roadtripping of the past four years. This was not potholes and missing shoulders, it was not narrow two lanes that double as livestock crossings or pass suddenly through small market villages with people and goods spilling right onto the road. It was six beautiful lanes (actual lanes! with visible lines!) of smooth asphalt. Even when it became bumper to bumper traffic that turned our 2 to 1/2 hour drive to Richmond into an exasperating 4 1/2 hours causing me to let loose some expletives I thought I had reserved exclusively for Malawi driving, I was still thrilled to be driving in America.

That first day’s drive took so much longer than anticipated we ended up stopping our first night in Richmond instead of the planned stop around Fayettville, NC. Already exhausted by jet lag and jacked up with drive excitement, I had to call it quits early. The second day we would not make it to Jacksonville either, making our overnight pitstop in Santee, South Carolina. But what this afforded me was the opportunity to wake up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, around 3 AM, and then drive for hours in the dark along the highway. This, too, was an indulgence I could not pursue in Malawi as we were prohibited from driving after dark outside of the three major cities due to unsafe roads and lack of ambulance and police services. But in the U.S. I could glide along those roads in the pre-dawn hours with little other traffic.

C and her nanny JMC enjoy the candy store, the Jacksonville Zoo, and at James Weldon Johnson Park in downtown Jacksonville

My nanny, JMC, a hard-working and eager 20-year-old, who had described her first airplane flight with wide, bright eyes (“I could feel my soul leaving my body!”) gave our highways high marks. She remarked on the sheer number of trees flanking the road. “Amazing!” she called it all. A good reminder of something many Americans take for granted: an extensive and efficient road system.

I view Jacksonville, Florida as more a place to live than a tourist destination. It has its beaches, of course, and museums and other similar attractions found in large U.S. cities, but it does not scream “vacation” to me. That being said, this Home Leave would be the longest we would consecutively spend in the area and I had put together a decently list of activities for our visit. It turned out that even my plans for Florida were wildly ambitious.

After nearly 18 months of limited (frankly, nearly zilch) activities outside our home in Lilongwe and few getaways, we were not used to having options and found it harder to muster the energy for back-to-back pursuits. The luxury of just sitting around a living room other than the one we had in Lilongwe was so very tempting (Okay, we were not just tempted. We totally embraced it). We were not only jet lagged, but exhausted — by the flights, the drive, the last week of departure preparations. In addition to my list of fun things to do, I also had a list of less-fun but necessary things to be done, from medical appointments that could not be taken care of in Malawi to items to buy (both my phone and my computer were on their last legs) and paperwork (insurance and employment authorization applications for the nanny).

We lived it up – with COVID mitigation measures – at St. Augustine and Disney

And there was the pandemic. I guess I had this odd idea that once we left Malawi, we could also leave it behind us. That was, of course, not the case. We had departed Malawi in the middle of a rising third COVID wave only to arrive in Jacksonville, Florida, which had become an epicenter of the U.S.’ Delta wave. This would slow my Home Leave roll too.

But I still managed to get us out and about. In the initial few days, I took us to the Jacksonville Zoo and to the Museum of Science and History (MOSH). I suppose one might wonder why a zoo after four years in Africa? I know some might wonder this as this is exactly what my daughter asked me when I told her I was dragging her there against her will. Because zoos — well good zoos that support animal welfare and research — can be amazing places to see animals that one might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. Animals that even on a four hour game drive in Africa cannot coax into appearing before you. JMC had been to the zoo once when she lived in South Africa as a child, but her only experience seeing animals at a game park in Malawi was when we took her and her sister with us to the Kuti Wildlife Reserve the year before, and though we had a good time, I’ll mention something I didn’t mention then, that the animals were limited in variety and mostly hid from us. I attribute the fun we had to the fact we were with good friends and that it was the first trip we took after the six months ban on leaving the capital in that first half year of the pandemic. Both C and JMH loved the Jacksonville Zoo. They also liked the MOSH, though disdained the history portion (C: “There is too much to read here. This is boring.”) but embraced the pay-to-experience hurricane contraption.

I also took them to St. Augustine to see the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and eat ice cream while melting in midday 90 degree heat in August in Florida. I like taking C to places of American historic significance, to try to pack in some Americana since she spends so much time outside her homeland. And making her visit a historic place in the height of sweltering summer is, I believe, an American parent-child relationship right of passage. JMH told me that she thought she, an African, would be well-prepared for American summers, but that that day in St. Augustine had proven her wrong.

After our visit to the Zoo and MOSH, I buckled down with my paperwork for about a week and then when I emerged took us all to Disney World. We might be people you would call “Disney people.” We have visited a few parks a few times (for example, here, here, here, and here). C and I wanted our Disney fix and I wanted to give JMC a taste of Disney fun. With COVID, I was a bit concerned. I reduced our planned park time from three days to two – with one day at Magic Kingdom and one at Animal Kingdom – and we kept our masks on all the time at the park, and it worked out for us. Disney was keeping its actual park capacity limits secret, but it was clear as soon as we arrived that levels were still not what they were pre-COVID There were a few rides that were hard to get on but we rode on nearly all we wanted to and had a spectacular time and scored with some really gorgeous weather.

Back in our condo in Jacksonville we slowed down more. I had more paperwork; I joined a gym for the first time in a very, very long time. C and I took walks or drives to capture Pokémon in Pokémon Go, something we could not do in Malawi as my personal phone had not connected to any network away from home. I took them to Sweet Pete’s, a famous candy shop in downtown Jacksonville, for a make-your-own-chocolate-bar and factory tour experience, and then paid beaucoup bucks for giant bags of candy they giddily picked out. We took walks to Target (because it is a destination in and of itself, especially for American devotees who spend a lot of time overseas where there are none) and at Castaway Island Preserve or on the beach, JMC’s first time to see the ocean.

Then suddenly the vacation part of Home Leave was coming to an end. I had opted to spend nearly four weeks in Florida and then an additional two in our State Department provided lodging to get C into school and all of us settled into our new apartment and neighborhood. (PS: the two weeks before my training began were out of my own pocket, but so worth it! The Department only picks up the tab the night before training begins and it is really hard to adjust when starting school and training and life in a new place all at that same time. Oh, that is what we do overseas!)

JMC and C pose at a bus stop in Savannah, GA

I decided I wanted one more shot at an experience sort of like Home Leaves past, so arranged for us to spend two nights in Savannah, Georgia, on our way north to Virginia. I have long wanted to visit Savannah but had never done so and it was sort of on the way… And as the oldest European settlement in Georgia it fit in with a minor theme of our Home Leave (St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in Florida and New Bern, where we would stay a night with one of my best friends, is the second oldest European settlement in North Carolina).

We kept our Savannah visit COVID compliant. We did not join a hop on hop off bus, we did not take a group tour. What we did was walk. And I will tell you that walking is not only a great way to see a town but a glorious pastime that Americans often take for granted. It was here in Savannah that I realized my 9-year-old daughter did NOT know how to walk in a town. I knew that I would need to discuss the finer points of walking in an urban area with the nanny; a good friend who facilitates the visits of foreigners to the U.S. on exchange programs had told me that one major point he emphasizes is that jaywalking is illegal in America. In Malawi, as in many developing countries, it is a necessity, an artform even. There are few to no sidewalks or crosswalks or traffic lights. Unlike myself, who had grown up learning to look both ways before I crossed a street, C had not. Another missing piece in her informal education. In Savannah she just walked off each curb with a blithe confidence that caused my heart to stop.

So we learned some Georgia history, and American history, and life skills during our walking tours of Savannah. Two days was not enough time to cover any of that in any great detail, but we really enjoyed our stay. Next we moved on to a night in New Bern with one of my best friends and her son, a much needed respite from our drive, and then before I knew it we had arrived in Arlington, Virginia, where we will spend the next 9 1/2 months in training before heading on to my next assignment.

This Home Leave may not have been what I had initially planned and hoped for, but it is the one we got in a pandemic and turned out to be just what we needed.

Coming to America Pandemic Edition: The Final Days and the Journey Back

It has been about six weeks since we departed Malawi. I have needed this time to recuperate from the move and the weeks (months? year?) leading up to it. Undertaking an international move at any time always comes with its challenges and stressors. Add in family members, a nanny, a cat, and a pandemic and things can really leave one mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. Through much of my Home Leave I have cycled through some complex feelings as I try to come to terms that my daughter’s life and mine in Malawi were in the past. I am finally able to write.

The last days in Malawi were hard. Due to some personnel gaps and a definite COVID-19 third wave that impacted Embassy staffing (a return to near 100% telework) and an inability to get temporary staff from Washington to Malawi, I again stepped in to handle some emergency Consular cases on top off completing some final political reports. Having things to work on was important as I was the last of my cohort to PCS (Permanent Change of Station; i.e. move internationally with a change in assignments), and no longer really felt I belonged in Malawi. U.S. colleagues I had spent three years working with had all departed. Others were on leave for 3-4 weeks. COVID has ensured that meeting new people was difficult, if not impossible.

But it was harder for my daughter. As an only child she can generally entertain herself well, but school was out, her best friends had left Malawi for good – heading to their next postings – or vacation, and all but a few suitcases of our things had been packed and shipped. Although there were a few kids around we had COVID tests approaching to allow us to depart Malawi and enter the US and I could not risk opening our very small bubble. I had stayed in Malawi for four years, in part to give her more stability, but those last few weeks I felt like a pretty terrible mom. And in that last week, my independent daughter, who had never, ever, verbalized any interest in a sibling, in fact had said she did NOT want one, asked if during our time back in the US I could adopt her a kid sister. (The answer, for many obvious reasons, was an emphatic NO). This lifestyle comes with some amazing opportunities, but also some pretty hard realities.

And then suddenly it was time to go. We departed on a Wednesday, so we had our COVID tests on Monday, 72 hours before departure. The 24 hour wait seemed interminable. And then the results – Negative for us all! – hit the inbox and I could finally let out some of the breath I had been holding. Wednesday morning was about as boring as one can expect sitting in one’s empty house – that is about to become someone else’s house – eating the last bit of food, doing the last bit of cleaning, until the Motorpool driver arrived to ferry us and all our suitcases to the airport. Luckily (?) I had one last emergency visa to attend to at the Embassy to give me an hour of purpose, and a colleague checked one last political point. I was still needed!

Arrival at the airport, without leaving something behind, was the next phase to relax a little. All our suitcases: check. Child: check. Cat: check. Nanny: check. My sanity…check back for that later.

But the airline had not seated us together despite my going to the city center office a week before to make this specific request. Sigh. After some demanding and groveling, definitely not my finest diplomatic moment, that took at least half an hour and involved several employees and trips to other offices, we managed to get seats close to one another. My nanny, who had never been on a plane before, looked a little scared. My daughter, who did not want to be parted from the nanny, looked sad. Me, I was frustrated and starting to feel quite sure I had left my sanity back at the house, maybe under the bed?, but we had to accept the situation and move forward. Then the COVID test results checks, my handing over Embassy badge and phone to my colleagues (my last tether to my position there), immigration and security, and we made it to the lounge and then boarding the first plane. As we took off, I could let out a bit more of that held breath.

But not all. We had the Addis Ababa transit gauntlet still ahead of us. I will note a few lessons learned. One, traveling with a large block of extra passports looks suspicious. Old passports are a record of travel and C and I have quite a few – 12 past passports to be exact. I travel with them in my carry on to keep them safe. Yet, at the exact moment when the security person riffling through my bag found them, it dawned on me how very Jason Bourne (if Jason Bourne was a bungling idiot) this might look. I got an odd look, then a question: What are THESE? But my rushed explanation must have found a sympathetic, or simply tired, ear, and she shrugged and put them back. I dodged a bullet, in the form of having to explain myself in enhanced screening, with that shrug.

Two, do not have your child conduct air travel with light up shoes. In all the hullabaloo of preparations it did not occur to me that my daughter’s sole pair of sneakers – which light up and have a charger – would cause security issues. [Insert face palm emoji] Of course they did. I enjoyed an extra 15 to 20 minutes at security trying to explain the concept of her shoes. They wanted me to light them up to show them, but I had never charged them, did not have the charger, and they had ceased functioning long ago. I explained this to one person, then another, then possibly a third, as they ran the shoes through the security machine repeatedly. At one point I told my daughter it was highly likely we would need to leave them and she would have to travel in her socks. She didn’t love the idea. I didn’t either, but I had passed the point of caring. Then suddenly we were told we could continue with the shoes. We hightailed it away as soon as we could.

Three, traveling with a cat in cabin is getting trickier every year. When I first traveled to China with two cats in cabin, I had developed a system of dumping (gently!) the cats into a pillow case so I could carry them through security while the soft kennel goes through the machine. I have read that cats find this temporary soft prison comforting. And that this method reduced the possibility of a scenario of a freaked out cat, jumping from my arms, possibly bloodying me in the process, and leading to a mad chase through an airport. I have a vivid imagination and can see exactly how that would happen. Now, I less than elegantly shoved my one feline, who had wizened-up to this technique and did not want to participate, into the pillowcase; her black tail swishing angrily out one end as I walked through the metal detector with as much grace as I could muster. For some reason the male security agent thought I had a baby – stuffed into a pillowcase. [Insert a shoulder shrug emoji] He made a cooing sound. But when the kennel came through and I then shoved a furry body back inside, the agents, too, wizened up. They demanded to know what I had just held through security. (I will note here that to my great relief, the security gate was nearly empty — there was no line of angry passengers waiting for my circus to end). This led to some discussion and displaying of the now rather pissed off cat. But I was then asked to walk back through security with the cat in my arms sans pillowcase. My cat, who hates to be held, must have been terrified enough, as she did not move a muscle, while scanning the airport wild eyed. I held her in a death grip, pretty wild eyed myself. Convinced the furry creature I held was indeed feline and not human, and not a security threat, we were allowed to proceed.

Waiting at the boarding gate though, I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker. I thought, perhaps I have been upgraded, and will have to sadly turn it down due to my entourage. But no, the Ethiopian Airlines agent wished to inform me that he had seen I was traveling with an in-cabin pet to the U.S. and unfortunately the U.S. was not allowing any pets to enter. This was false. About two months previously the Center for Disease Control had suddenly announced an ill-timed, ill-coordinated, and ill-planned ban on dogs entering the U.S. from 114 countries. This “ban” (though not a full ban as there are ways, at least for the time being, for pet owners to obtain a waiver with certain, though often difficult to get, information) was for DOGS only. I had a cat. But I had already learned that several other airlines had taken advantage of this CDC action to discontinue pet transport. I was seized with a sudden fear that Ethiopian had decided, that day, to follow suit. But apparently, the Gods of Travel, were again on my side and simply mentioning my pet was a cat led the agent to simply nod and walk away.

We made it on the flight to the U.S. I released a bit more breath. I had one more travel hurdle ahead of me. I was bringing my nanny with me to the U.S. As a single parent, I had struggled in the past to find child care when in the U.S. Although my daughter is now 9, she isn’t quite old enough to be at home alone, and sick days, school holidays that do not match mine, teacher work days, weather-related late starts, early dismissals, or cancellations can wreck havoc on a parent’s work schedule. However, and I am going to oversimply this because it is rather complicated, when a foreigner enters the U.S., Customs and Border Patrol (i.e. Immigration) usually gives a period of stay of up to six months. I needed to ask for the maximum period of stay of a year. For that I would likely have to go to “secondary.”

If you have ever entered the U.S. at an airport or a border, you are greeted by a CBP agent, who has only so long to review your information and ask questions. If additional questions or details are needed, those frontline officers do not have the time to do it, so one gets sent for additional screening or “secondary.” Although I was exhausted by 22 hours of flight time, 28 hours of travel time, all the snafus, and all the stress of preparations, I needed to be on the ball when we landed and presented ourselves the CBP. The first officer was very nice, but had not heard of the type of visa and said we would need to present our case in secondary. I was prepared to do so. What I was not prepared for was the hour wait in the additional screening area. This was not my first time to secondary as during my last Home Leave I had been selected for the honor and when I lived in Ciudad Juarez I was pulled into secondary a few times when re-entering the U.S. from Mexico. But this time, I had asked to go there.

There we waited. And waited. And waited. We saw many many people arrive, but few people leave. CBP seemed understaffed. I am sure some cases were complicated. Though I do not know CBP work first hand, I have certainly utilized CBP information in Consular work and I imagine the kind of information they see on their screens and the questions they need to ask are similar in many aspects to visa interviews. We were all tired. I clutched the pile of paperwork I had prepared to present our case. I watched the clock. C and her nanny, JMC, watched videos together and played word games, but they were bored and confused too.

At last we were called up and again I lucked out. The officer had previously been military stationed abroad with his Foreign Service (diplomat) wife and he knew exactly the kind of visa we had as they had researched it as well. The interview and review of documents did not take long and soon enough we were released with a one year period of stay stamped in the nanny’s passport. (And wouldn’t you know it, as we walked to get our luggage we ran into the first CBP officer just getting off shift and he stopped to ask me how it went. He was genuinely happy for us and said he was glad to learn about this type of visa. I love that kind of full circle stuff).

As we came out the double doors from security and immigration, I let out that last bit of air I had been holding in. We had made it! Hello, USA.

Farewell, Malawi

Tomorrow it is wheels up from Malawi after four years. It is very bittersweet. This is the longest I have lived in the same place since I lived with my parents before college; the longest in one place for C as well. But it is time for us to go. I am sure I feel this way in part because this is what any person moving must do — they must steel their heart against the inevitable, accept the change in location, otherwise it would be all the harder. But the pandemic has most certainly played its role as well. Malawi is an amazing place and we have loved the opportunity to put down roots, albeit temporarily, in this country, but it can be a challenging place. The pandemic exposed more of those limitations because we had no outlet. There were few chances to get out and push the reset button.

A long time ago I studied cross cultural psychology. One technique I learned was that when departing from a location to make a list of those things you will and will not miss and those you look and do not look forward to in the new place. So, here we go:

Will Miss

Wildlife

Malawi has been such a great place to really get up close and personal with wildlife. First off, we have been able to go on safari in several national parks. In other countries, safaris might not be open to young children as they are not particularly well known for keeping their cool and being quiet when faced with African animals like lions or giraffes. But in Malawi, there were no age restrictions and we enjoyed game drives in Majete, Nkhotakota, and Liwonde National Parks. Secondly, just being in the neighborhood, we have come across pygmy hedgehogs, a bushbuck, and a genet. And lastly, our yard has been full of wildlife surprises. We have had a few snake encounters – a blind snake, brown house snakes, and a few white-lipped herald snakes (and I convinced my staff not to bludgeon them but to alert me so I could see the snake and tell them to leave it alone) – and lots of geckos and skinks both inside and outside the house.

We have seen hedgehogs and mongooses in the yard too. The first hedgehog I met ran right up to me in the yard and then across my shoe. The one in the photo — I saw in the road as I drove home one afternoon. The poor thing was rolled up in a ball hoping not to be hit and I pulled over, stopped traffic, whipped off my cardigan, and scooped it up to safety. I took it home, made sure it wasn’t injured, and then released it in my car-free yard. The baboon spider (what we in America call tarantulas) first showed up hanging out on my front door (made it a wee bit scary to go in and out of the house) and then one day just ran across my living room floor while I was watching television. Very exciting! But the very best of our wildlife encounters had to be the visit of a rare bat. One day she was just roosting in my carport in broad daylight. I was able to approach and take a few pictures and sent them to the African Bat Conservation team in Malawi. I was told she was likely either a Great Roundleaf Bat – only the second ever recorded in Lilongwe and the first to have been known to roost here – or a Striped Leaf-Nosed Bat – which would be the first-ever recorded in the city. What an extraordinary find! The African Bat Conservation sent out someone right away to photograph and take some measurements — but unfortunately, their most experienced tagger was out of the country due to COVID. C and I named the bat Nutmeg and were so thrilled she made our yard her home – and stayed visible to us – for the better part of three weeks. Through these wildlife encounters, I made up the hashtag #safariinthehood as we did not need to go anywhere at all to experience incredible African fauna.

Our Incredible Yard

I have previously waxed lyrically about our yard, but I must pay homage to it once again because of all it has afforded us. Not only did we get mongoose and tarantulas, but we were also able to grow fruits and vegetables, experience incredible birdlife, and enjoy new pets. Sitting on my konde or screened porch and I can hear the calls of many kinds of birds. I can hear tweets and caws, chirps and cheeps, whistles and trills. On any given day probably 20 types of birds. My favorite birds are the pied crows — a large crow or a small raven with a snowy white breast and collar. A mated couple calls our roof home and when they hop across the corrugated metal it sounds like loud stomps; I call them the pterdactyls then. But the most beautiful is the lilac-breasted roller — we have one who loves to regularly visit. When times have been tough over this pandemic period, a brief walk around the yard, sometimes in meditation, could help restore my spirit. I’ll miss this yard very much.

Travel Around the Country

Malawi is an incredibly beautiful country and I am so grateful that C and I were able to see as much of it as we have. In all, I made it to 22 of the 28 districts. Had it not been for COVID, I would have made it to them all, I know this. If I had to choose, my favorite places were visited were the Tongole Wilderness Lodge in Nkhotakota National Park, the Robin Pope Safari lakeside property of Pumulani, the lush tea plantation of Satemwa in the south, and the island resorts of Blue Zebra and Mumbo Island.

Extraordinary Events

As a first-time political officer, Malawi absolutely delivered an unforgettable tour. As the sole political officer, I have had the privilege to cover a whole host of issues from human rights, trafficking in persons, refugees, politics, and more. In the four years I have been in Malawi, I have observed two by-elections and two national elections as an election monitor, was part of the team to manage the first visit of a U.S. First Lady to Malawi, I nominated Malawi’s first-ever State Department-recognized Trafficking in Persons Hero, and helped to bring about the first Mr and Miss Albinism pageant, at which I served as the head judge. The 2019 national elections were challenged leading to a historic — only one other time on the continent — court decision to nullify the results and call for a new election. The new election, which was held peacefully, ushered in the opposition party for the first time in 26 years. I might have received an evening call at home from the White House Communications Agency after the election results were announced. I might have been very excited — though maintained my cool during the call. At the end of 2020, the Economist magazine named Malawi the Country of the Year. And I was here for it.

Extraordinary People

On this tour I have worked with some of the best the State Department has to offer — truly extraordinary officers who serve their country with distinction. And I have had the honor to meet the best and the brightest of Malawi in the course of my duties. I had in my phone contacts a high court judge, high-level Ministry personnel, members of Parliament, important persons at the Malawi Electoral Commission, prominent human rights activists, and more, and when I called, they answered! I met a former President – the second female president on the continent – twice, the wife of the Vice President twice, the previous sitting president once, and the current president, before he became president, on several occasions. But it has been the everyday Malawians (or those living in Malawi), those like I featured in my Faces of Malawi blog posts (here, here, and here), I have met that have really been a big part of this tour.

Will NOT Miss

Massive Stacks of Bills. I do not carry a wallet here in Malawi. Instead, I carry is a fabric coupon organizer so that I have the space to hold more bills flat, not folded. The largest Malawian bill is the 2000 kwacha note, which is the equivalent of $2.47. There have been rumors of a possible 5000 kwacha bill since my arrival, but it never materialized. Malawi is largely still a cash-based society, though I have been able to use my credit card at the supermarkets and mobile cash has recently been introduced, so things are changing. I will be glad to retire my coupon carrier for a while, at least until I arrive in Guinea. In related complaints, the cost of some things is surprisingly the equivalent or even more than in the U.S. One is petrol. Currently, in Malawi, the gas prices are around 900 Malawi Kwacha per liter. That is the equivalent of $4.20 a gallon versus the current average price in the US of $3.17. And the Internet – I have posted before that Malawi has the most expensive Internet data in the world and you most certainly do not get what you pay for.

Driving and Parking. I have heard that traffic in Malawi is mild compared to many other developing cities. It is not so much that there are major traffic jams — I mean there are, but they are due to a limited number of roads. But it is the quality of the driving that really drives me nuts. I have heard, anecdotally, that there are a good number of drivers on the road without valid licenses. Given some of the driving I have seen, I believe it. But the parking too… A former colleague told me that a speciality of Malawi is to always construct buildings with a fraction of the parking needed. For example, the Bingu National Stadium can seat over 40,000 people, but there are maybe 500 parking spaces only. But it’s not just about there not being enough parking, sometimes there is plenty of space, but it’s made worse by some extraordinarily bad parking. There are a few places like the Game complex and the Gateway Mall that appear to be a magnet for those with the worst parking skills. People park a third of the way into another spot or diagonally into spots or in spots that do not exist. Sure, there are people all over the world who are terrible at parking, including the U.S., and its likely that parking will be challenging in Guinea, but I do hope for a respite from the special brand of driving and parking I have encountered here.

Mosquitos, Nets, and Malarone. We have spent four years sleeping under mosquito nets and taking malaria meds. In the rainy season, from approximately November through March, the mosquitos are relentless. Each morning I find myself conducting a bizarre clapping session as I kill one after another. When we head to Guinea we will back to this but I look forward to nearly a year away from it.

Grocery Disappointments. Sigh. It is such a disappointment to order items from the US and have them take four weeks to get to us and then they are crushed or melted. But this is what has happened with probably 50% of my Tostitos (half the bag pulverized) and my gummy vitamins (half of it melted into one solid mass). But even purchases here are subject to a lot of uncertainty. About two weeks ago I bought a container of hummus for $5 and I get home, open it, and find it covered in mold! And cheese, it’s a regular game of what will I get — could it be smooth and delicious or will it taste like stale dirty socks? I would say 8 of the past 10 watermelons I have purchased from the fruit seller have been bad despite the constant assurances that they are selling me the most delicious, red, and juicy fruit possible.

Overall, Malawi has had far more positives than negatives. I do not regret staying for two consecutive tours or staying here through the pandemic. Though COVID and the related travel and life restrictions have definitely made things more difficult but Malawi was our home. Now, we both look forward to some things in America we have missed for some time. My daughter puts string cheese, slurpees, and Taco Bell at the top of her list; I especially look forward to salads, sidewalks, and more of a sense of normalcy — though I do admit I am a bit concerned about the culture shock we will encounter going from a place very much in a third wave of the pandemic to a place where many appear to believe we are past it all.

Farewell, Malawi.

Hello, USA.

Malawi: Winding Down

The countryside around Dedza, central Malawi

We are slipping ever closer to our departure from Malawi; we have less than a month to go though I do not today know exactly how many days are left. I had a date in early August, but realized that due to COVID I could request to depart in July. I then had a very late July date, but then the airline flying that route cancelled the flight. We have new tickets but the already paid for reservation for my cat on that flight has yet to be confirmed for the new itinerary. Therefore things are not quite settled until the cat’s ticket is settled.

The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster. Lots of preparations to wrap things up in the office and at a home. A series of actions to check items off lists. Slowly sorting items into piles of things to sell, to donate, to give away, to put in luggage, into unaccompanied baggage (UAB), and into household effects (HHE). It might seem on the surface to be a rather straightforward process, but it is not. The two of us qualify for 450 pounds of UAB, which will be sent to the U.S. by air. It seems like both a lot but also not very much. We will be in the U.S. for about a year, so we want to be able to take a fair amount with us. Our HHE will be placed into storage in Europe until we arrive in Guinea in the summer of 2022; the shipment will only be authorized after our arrival and can take a few months. Therefore its likely we will not see these items for 15-16 months. If my daughter tells me that I can put something into HHE then I might as well just get rid of it now as she will be a different child 16 months from now.

We have whittled down quite a bit of the pantry and toiletry items. It feels a little odd as Malawi is a consumables Post – a place where we are able to get a extra shipment of foodstuffs and items for personal or household maintenance – and thus we arrived with large stocks of those items. Now we are out of vitamins and down to the last tubes of toothpaste, the last bottles of shampoo, the last bits of so many things.

In the midst of these preparations, Malawi has experienced the lead up to a COVID third wave. The third wave in Africa started in early May. South Africa had been seeing increases particularly with its own variant (the Beta) and the Indian variant (Delta), and as was to be expected it did not take long for it to spill across borders. By early June, the cases in Malawi started to climb just as the county began to administer the second shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Unfortunately, before the end of the month vaccines in Malawi were finished.

I had really hoped that before we departed Malawi we might get in another vacation. We had managed to get out for our holiday in Kenya just before the second wave and we have had a few trips within Malawi after the six-month prohibition against traveling out of Lilongwe at the beginning of the pandemic was lifted. I thought we might get to South Africa and Lesotho to finally complete the trip we had had planned for April 2020, but Ethiopian Airlines refused to honor the flight credits we had and with the COVID numbers going up yet again, it seemed best to remain in Malawi. I started to look into whether we could get in another domestic vacation but we had already done a good job in getting out and about; there were few places left on my bucket list. Many we had already been to twice. Those we wanted to get to were rather far, with still limited facilities due to the pandemic, or cost prohibitive.

Thus I found myself with 11 consecutive days of off just hanging about the house. As if we have not already been hanging around the house for much of the past 18 months. Yet this time, I have the upcoming departure from Malawi, our Permanent Change of Station (PCS), fast approaching so though my inability to scratch my travel itch yet again has done a few things to my psyche, I am also grateful to have had this time to both relax (lots of sleeping in, reading, watching DVDs), manage some final play dates for my daughter, and to do some of that whittling down of things.

Rock Art Paintings at Namzeze

But I could not be content with just that. There was one more place I had hoped to visit. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malawi. One is the Lake Malawi National Park and we have visited there on multiple occasions (such as here, here, and here). The other is the Chongoni Rock Art Area. Scattered across 127 sites in the Chentcherere hills of central Malawi, around Dedza, these are a mix of paintings on rock by BaTwa pygmy hunters of the Stone Age and Chewa agriculturalists of the Iron Age and “feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa.”

The last bit of, um, road?

On a beautiful, clear Sunday morning (after days of overcast days), C and I, with our friends CR and her daughter AR, headed about 100 kilometers south on the M1 to the Dedza Pottery Lodge. We stopped there so CR could pick up an order, we could all use the facilities, and we met our guide Samuel. CR jumped into the backseat with the girls and Samuel took the passenger seat, and we headed back north along a dirt road. We drove around 45 minutes to the turn off to the Namzeze site, which Samuel said was the best as it featured paintings of both the BaTwa and Chewa people. The road then got pretty bad. It was just a track through tall grassland. At times it was okay, but at other times there were some parts where bits of the road was missing, making ridges with fissures deep enough to maybe, if not swallow at least stall my car.

At last we came to an area just above a wooden log bridge. We stopped here as there were significant gaps between the log and it was too much of a challenge with my car (especially one I have already sold!). I was really pleased that although the road was challenging, the signposting was good.

We then walked up the rocky hillside for about 40 minutes or so (I suppose some can certainly hike it faster than two middle aged women of middling activeness with two nine year old girls) until we reached an area with a large covered opening in the rock, a shallow cavern, the Namzeze paintings. There we sat as Samuel gave us a bit of information on the drawings and the people who made them. He said the paintings done in red ochre were made by the BaTwe people, and could be as much as 10,000 years old, and the ones in white clay were made by the Chewa people and are approximately 2,000 years old (though it is not all that clear, even on the UNESCO site, that the paintings are that old). The red paintings, as they are older, are fainter, and of mostly graphic designs (lines, dots, shapes) while the white clay designs are of four-footed animals and birds, which are likely related to ritualistic initiations.

Left: Our guide Samuel surveys the valley from the mouth of the hillside opening; Right: C and AR in front of the rock art

After about 30 minutes at the site we had a more rapid descent to the car. We drove part way back to the Dedza Pottery Factory to drop off Samuel and then headed back to the M1 and Lilongwe. I am glad that we went, that we had one more adventure to see another special aspect of Malawi.

It is such an odd time now. PCS’ing — moving internationally — is hard enough, stressful enough in normal times. During a pandemic puts it at a whole new level. Flight schedules are more limited. Ethiopian once flew daily to and from Lilongwe and now its four times a week. And schedules seem subject to more changes and cancellations than usual. And the testing regimes on top of it. It’s a lot to think about. And it is all mixed up in the complicated feelings of departure from a place where we have spent a significant amount of time and after already a year and a half of a pandemic. Most Embassy families we know are currently on their R&Rs and we are the last family to PCS this summer. C’s best friends leave two weeks before us. Our last few weeks are going to be hard, especially on C. There is unlikely to be another PCS like this. At least I certainly hope not.

We head next to the U.S. where it seems from where we sit that most have returned to a level of normalcy. My sister, a TSA agent at a major U.S. airport, has reported “post-pandemic summer travel,” except that implies an end to a pandemic that is very much still in progress and accelerating again in many parts of the world. I am focused almost entirely on managing our departure; the arrival in the U.S. is a whole other step. I do not know what to expect.

Blue Zebra Redux: The Last Road Trip

With three months left in Malawi, I have to come to terms that this was probably our last Malawi road trip. After four years of driving all over the country, our second trip out to Salima to take the speedboat to Nankhoma Island is quite likely the last of our Malawi vacations.

It is bittersweet. In years we are not moving (and not in a pandemic), I would look at a month like May and its three, count them three, long weekends, and would be busy planning the getaways. There are places still on my Malawi travel bucket list I had hoped to visit such as Nyika National Park and Likoma Island that we will not get to. Like so many things, the pandemic also took away these trips, and with Department restrictions still in place that would require my daughter, who is, of course, unvaccinated, to isolate for two weeks, some domestic trips just are not going to happen. With only three months left in-country, I am turning my attention toward departure and next steps.

But we have several new families here at the Embassy and I knew they were struggling with not being able to get out and about and start experiencing their new home. Moving is hard enough as it is, but moving internationally to a developing country with few entertainment options during a pandemic…that tops the difficulty level. And I love to plan vacations! So, I organized a weekend away at the beautiful Blue Zebra Island Lodge, located on Nankhoma Island within the Lake Malawi National Park for us and three other families – six adults and six kids in total.

We headed out together from Lilongwe in a caravan to make the two hour drive to Senga Bay to meet the speedboat out to the island. The Lake water was like glass. It was deep blue, but sparkling clear. It matched the sky and together the blue horizon seemed to go on forever.

C and I had visited Blue Zebra before, a night back in September, but I had wanted a bit more time on the island. This time we opted for a different type of room – an Executive Chalet as opposed to the Superior Family Cottage. We were all greeted on arrival with welcome drinks and then a selection of items to choose for lunch and then we were led to our respective rooms. We followed the staff along a wooded pathway around the southern side of the island to a boarded staircase that led down to our chalet on the edge of the lake. We had a large rondavel-like bedroom, a bathroom built into the rockface of the island, and a small sitting room facing the deck and the lake. It was perfect.

We all gathered together for lunch and afterwards the kids all gravitated to the pool while the adults chose a few options such as reading, having a massage, taking a walk, or simply enjoying some down time (i.e. hiding from the kids). The afternoon light over the gorgeous water called to me and around 4 PM I headed out for about an hour kayaking.

It was such a lovely paddle with the water so incredibly calm. It was so very quiet. I had a mad idea that I would go around the island like last time, but dismissed that pretty quickly, and opted instead to head nearly to one side, turn around, and then paddle over to see our chalet from the water. And to take it all slowly, and leisurely, enjoying a bit of kid-free time. I stopped paddling for a bit, closed my eyes, and felt the almost imperceptible rocking of the lake.

Back on the island, the kids were still in the pool as we watched an extraordinary sunset. In my experience, sunsets in Malawi are usually fiery but short lived, but this one was a languid slip of colors until night. Stunning.

We all had dinner together and then C and I headed off to our chalet. I was looking forward to a restful slumber lulled to sleep by the lake lapping against our deck. But in the darkness, winds had whipped up somewhere along the lake and white-capped waves were rolling hard across the lake’s surface, crashing into our deck, even splashing water into the chalet. Lake Malawi was doing its best to mimic an unsettled ocean. Instead of sleeping peacefully, I lay wide awake for several hours listening.

Despite this (or because of it?), I woke early to watch the sunrise. The lake’s mood had changed completely. Gone was the sunny disposition of the day before, replaced instead with a steely temperament. Still, the dramatic water and skies had their own beauty. I watched as the sun slowly lit up the hills across the lake and a rainbow formed. Like the drawn-out sunset of the night before, this rainbow also defied the norm, staying firmly in place fifteen minutes or more.

Though the waters were rough and uninviting for kayaking or swimming, the temperature was perfect for a walk. After breakfast, C, her friend AR, and another family of four, and I headed out on a 45-minute walk around and over the top of the island. The trail was better marked and easier than the one we had taken on Mumbo Island last month but Nankhoma Island is larger than Mumbo. And we had a proper hiking party.

After the trail walk, the kids headed right to the pool for another epic day of swimming. I had a massage — in an open-air spa facing the lake — and then did some reading and photography. The lake waters never calmed down for any further water activity.

But it did not really matter; it was a great weekend regardless. I was able to set aside thoughts of work and the upcoming move and relax. Just two hours by car and a 15-minute boat ride, Blue Zebra is a perfect antidote to the capital. C had a chance to play with other kids, to let loose in a way we have not really been able to in a year. I could chat and laugh with a group of adults – with others who work at the Embassy but are not State Department (USAID, PEPFAR, Peace Corps). It has been a really long time since the Embassy has had social events. And this is an extraordinary group of people. I did feel a sense of regret that I was getting to know this group of people just as C and I are preparing to leave. For three years we have watched others leave and now it us who are the ones leaving.

Over the course of our time in Malawi, I have driven with C all over. We went as far north as Nkhata Bay and as far south as Thyolo and more than a few times east and southeast to points on the lake. I have worked out that I put approximately 5500 miles on my sweet silver Japanese RAV4 on driving holidays around this country. I wish we had more time to get in a few more, but I have to accept that this was our last road trip.

Malawi: The COVID Second Wave

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.

Official COVID-19 data from the Public Health Institute of Malawi

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 time frame, 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 five fold 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.

R&R in COVID Part 6: The Kenyan Approach to COVID

The sixth and final post in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

COVID related graffiti in Mombasa

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.

COVID-19 related signage in Nairobi

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.

Billboard in Mombasa

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.

Graffiti in support of Kenyan health workers in COVID in Mombasa

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.

A tuk tuk driver in Mombasa shows off his masked stuffed companion

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.

My absolute favorite COVID related signage found at the Karura Forest in Nairobi

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.

R&R in COVID Part 5: Nairobi Time

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.

The Karen Blixen home, estate, and museum in Karen District, 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.

Scenes from day one at Giraffe Manor. Left: Christmas Combined with Giraffes – part of the beautiful spread at our Christmas Eve high tea with giraffes. Center: I have her eating out of my hand. Right: A view of our stunning room, the Betty

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.

There is a large animal outside!

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.

C feeds a giraffe — the patio of our room is visible just behind

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.

Feed us now! Left: Giraffes get a breakfast snack; Center: Giraffe looking up to our patio; Right: Giraffe bursts into the breakfast nook

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.

C rides the Eye of Kenya

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.

Left: Zebra in Nairobi National Park with a plane coming in for a landing at Wilson Airport in the background; Right: C on the trail at Karura Forest

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.

R&R in COVID Part 4: Relaxing on the Swahili Coast

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.

A camel on the beach — my palm-fronded view of the beach on the Indian Ocean

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.

View of one the Voyager Beach Resort’s three pools

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.

Colorful sarongs for sale on the dried seaweed covered beach (Nope, I don’t need any!)

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.

My snapshots of Fort Jesus

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.

Photos around Mombasa Old Town

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).

Good morning Mombasa

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.