Malawi: Two Mini Vacations

As much as I enjoy living in Lilongwe for the personal and professional life it affords my daughter and I, there are times when it wears me down.  Times when the grinding poverty weighs heavily, when the stories of those who are trying to claw their way out yet are foiled again and again, just gnaws at the heart.  When a simple drive to the supermarket exposes all my deepest seated frustrations – the begging boys who tried to block my car to get cash (nope!), the car that signaled a turn and then just stopped in the road not turning (get out of the way!), through the traffic lights that haven’t functioned for weeks (is it 4 weeks or 8?  It’s hard to recall how long we have all been inconvenienced, playing chicken at that intersection), the guys selling kittens and puppies along the side of the road (sad and illegal!), and a parking lot full of ridiculously poor attempts at driving and parking (%&#*&#!).  And the mosquitoes are making a comeback as the weather warms.  One might think each morning and evening I am applauding an encore performance for all the clap, clap, clapping I do trying to kill them in my room…

Whew.  OK.  It may be clear at this point that I just might be in a wee bit of a funk, hanging out at the low point on the culture shock graph.  It’s not that it’s Malawi, not really.  We all feel like this at times.  The fed-up-ness with the routine; the craving for something to break through whatever morass we find ourselves in.  The tremendous desire to just get away, to have a change of scenery.  That can happen anywhere.  Or at least I keep telling myself this…  No, its true, I know it.  I think back to the loooooooong, busy summer of 2016 when we lived in Shanghai, a city with many, many things to do.  I also needed to arrange a few mini vacays then to keep my sanity.  Knowing how busy this summer would be (though not really knowing how crazy it would be until in it), I planned for similar getaways to help preserve my mental equilibrium.

Kumbali

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View from the upper floor of the main lodge

Located just 13 kilometers from the center of Lilongwe, and about 9 kilometers from my home, sits the 650 hectare working farm with a beautifully appointed lodge at its center.  This is the place where Madonna stays when she comes to Malawi.  C and I had visited Kumbali before for lunch, but this time we would stay overnight.

I booked for the Friday before Labor Day.  C’s school is international, but not American, so she does not get the U.S. holidays off.  I did not want her to miss a day of school, nor did I want to miss out on my holiday.  With our half day Fridays, we could still have lunch at home and be at Kumbali in early afternoon.  And it did not take long for us to pack up the car and head out — a few quick turns to Presidential Way, following it nearly up to the gilded, guarded gates of State House, the residence of the President of Malawi, where a sharp turn to the left has us skirting the high State House walls on one side and a few fancy homes on the other, but which quickly give way to a modest village as the paved road gives out.  We bump along a slim dusty, dirt road another 10 minutes til we reach the Kumbali estate, and five minutes more the road peters out in front of the lodge.

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Our favorite cow is the one hiding in the back

We quickly settled in to our room, a simply appointed space with its quintessential white linens, with four posters draped with white mosquito nets, but with a soaring 25 foot high ceiling exposing the beautiful wooden and bamboo rafters. I took some minutes to drink it in before hurrying C so we could take part in an activity we had been looking forward to: milking cows.

Kumbali is a working dairy farm, and although their herd is small, they make enough milk to use in preparing their own milk, yogurts, and feta cheeses. I had only once milked a cow in my life, as a child visiting a community fair in the historic town of Leesburg, VA. I must have been 8 or 10 year since old when I sat on the metal pail, guided by a fair volunteer dressed in 18th century garb, in my attempt to free milk from what appeared a very full udder. But my ministrations were in vain and I have always remembered it as extremely difficult work. So of course I wanted to inflict this particular joy upon my daughter!

C was initially game to give it a try but as she watched the cows file into the milking area, she had a change of heart. Perhaps seeing the size of the cows in front of her, she had some serious second thoughts, so she pushed me forward exclaiming, “mom, you go first.” Remembering my own frustrating experience many, many moons ago, I wanted her to go first.  With a bit of wheedling she agreed.  And wouldn’t you know it but she managed it with ease!  I also gave it a go and made it happen with little effort.  Well, how about that.

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C and Bwenzi survey the Kumbali livestock

We also took a tour of the farm, joined by the Kumbali dog Bwenzi, which means “friend” in Chichewa.  A mix of Rhodesian ridgeback and local dogs, Bwenzi seemed the perfect companion, and happy to act as C’s temporary dog.  As C begs me every few months for a dog, this worked out well.

After surveying the cattle, goats, and sheep, we headed back to the room for a rest.  Work had been busy for weeks and I had had allergies and a cough for about the same time; I was exhausted.  I just needed to stay awake through dinner.  C happily drew in her sketchbook and I read on our patio.  We arranged an early dinner at 6:30 and we just barely made it.  The food was delicious -a custom made menu to suit us made with fresh incredients from their farm.  Right after dinner we went to bed.  Its a good thing that the African Bat Conservancy, with offices on the farm, was unavailable to give us a bat tour that night; we could not have stayed up.

IMG_3197The following morning after breakfast we took part in a one hour farm tour, just our guide, C, and I in a dilapitated, push start, bare bones truck used just for tooling around the farm.  There is a picture of Madonna with four of her children posing in this vehicle, published in People magazine.  We didn’t tap our inner Madonnas though, C and I are plenty adventurous ourselves.  Still, it was kinda cool to be in the same vehicle.

We were taken from the lodge, past the animal pens and staff quarters, to the banana plantation.  Bwenzi the dog ran behind and alongside the truck.  We passed row upon row of banana plants, from those heavy with fruit to the small shoots just getting going.  We headed down to the edge of the property, which borders the Lilongwe River.  In two years in the capital, I had seen little of the river that gave the city its name.  Those parts we had passed over seemed mere trickles of what surely had been at least a somewhat substantial waterway.  But here at the edge of Kumbali the water was full, it flowed, it glistened in the sun.  It was beautiful.  We walked along the bank for awhile as our guide pointed out areas where locals forged the the stream or used well placed rocks to cross.

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C and Bwenzi survey the far bank of the Lilongwe River

C convinced me to move from the front seat of the truck to the bed — this certainly upped the adventure factor as we bounced back along the dirt lanes of Kumbali, back past the banana plants, to the permaculture center, where sustainable farming methods are taught to Malawian farmers.   Then we jumped back into the truck, headed past the horse pens, and arrived back at the lodge.  Our short, less than 24 hour getaway, had come to an end, but it was worth it for a different look at Lilongwe.

Ntchisi Forest Lodge

Soon after getting C’s school schedule, I noticed a random Friday off in September.  With our half day Fridays, I could take 5 hours off and have the whole day, so I booked a night at the Ntchisi Forest Lodge, located about two hours north of Lilongwe.  We also invited friends to join us on this adventure.

Ntchisi 2The lodge is a refurbished historic colonial building, once cool, higher altitude leisure residence of a British district commissioner, then a resthouse of the Forestry Department.  Dating from 1914, its actually one of the oldest buildings in Malawi.   It is located within the Ntchisi Forest Reserve, one of the few remaining indigenous rainforests.  Its been on my Malawi bucket list and sounded like a great one night getaway.

On Friday morning, C and I packed up our car and headed over to collect our friends AS and her two daughters, one of whom is one of C’s bestest friends, then we hit the road.

From the outset my GPS would not pick up the route.  But we had a handwritten map and figured we could figure it out.  It was easy enough to begin the drive north on the M1, the main artery through Malawi from Tanzania in the north to Mozambique in the south.  We found the turn to the right easily enough after 55 kilometers as it was the only main road heading east since the road to Salima.  Then we had to make a right after a hospital.  OK, got it.  Then a right at a t-junction.  Good to go.  We then had to make a slight left after a radio transmitter and we almost mucked that up, but we made a quick corse correction.  Then things got interesting.

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Where are we?

We were to drive past a yellow house on the left and then veer to the right.  A yellow house among mostly brick ones should stand out, but the color was not as bright as expected and sort of blended into the scenery.  Still, there it was and we made the turn.  We were close.  The next step was to pass a school on the left and then make a sharp right hand turn then follow that for 4.2 kilometers more to the lodge.  Except, we missed it.  I saw a school, but there was no road to the right, and we drove on.  We were talking, and talking.  I just kept driving without paying attention to the time.  We drove over a cement bridge over a small river.  AS noted that something like a river would be on the map and it wasn’t….and we kept driving.  Finally, at one point I wondered aloud how long we had been driving past that school and we turned around.  I paid attention then and discovered we had driven 30 minutes past that school, and it was not even the right school.

By the time we found the right turn, with the help of a friendly local who luckily spoke English, I had begun to feel the strain of the adventure.  Our two hour drive had become four.  I was hungry.  The kids were tearing through the snacks and beginning to grow restless.  I had previously thought, if my aunt comes back to visit, maybe I would take her here, but now I said, aloud, I never wanted to drive here again.  Then we found the lodge, turned into the parking lot, and I ate my words.

Ntchisi 32It is set on a lovely open piece of land surrounded by the forest, on an escarpment with views across the East African rift valley.  The scenery is immediately relaxing.  We got ourselves settled into our respective rooms, C and I in the lodge, and AS and her family in the forest cabin.  Then C and I had fresh sandwiches for lunch.  As C quickly finished and ran off her friends (well her friend, she tolerates her friend’s sister), AS and I sat talking, looking out the window, breathing in the beauty.  There are plenty of hikes the lodge can arrange, but I wanted to do little but be away from Lilongwe.  The gardens of the lodge, full of flowers as well as herbs and vegetables used in their meals, were also full of butterflies.  I am a huge fan of nature photography and enjoyed just wandering the grounds in search of lovely things.

In the late afternoon, we headed out to Sunset Rock, a large granite promontory with views across the tree tops, oddly enough with Malawi headed into Spring the leaves turning autumnal colors.  DS, AS’s husband arrived, he had driven up after work, apparently without navigational issues, just in time to watch the sun sink into the clouds over the distant hills.  Perhaps one of the best sunsets I have had to pleasure to be present for in Malawi.

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We all enjoyed a homecooked meal prepared for by the lodge’s excellent staff, and chatted and laughed.  I am by far a lone traveler, or now just C and I, so it was novel to be spending this getaway with lovely new people we have met here.  C dumped me in favor of spending the night with her bestie, so I retired to a bedroom with three beds that would sleep four, alone.  Exhausted by the drive, the darkness, and even comfortable happiness, I fell asleep early, sleeping more than I had in weeks.

We woke the next morning just before a half seven breakfast.  I strolled the gardens some more with my camera, DS went for a run, the kids chased each other on the lawn, and AS had quiet meditation time in the forest cabin, before we all regrouped to take a very short hike to a very small waterfall.  Then we packed up the cars and prepared for the drive back.  Just before leaving, the wonderful managers and hosts of the lodge pointed out their resident chameleon, clinging photogenically on a red flower.  All of us took an extra 30 minutes to check him out and thank the staff for their hospitality before heading back to the capital.

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Leon the Chameleon

These little getaways have not been quite enough to completly chase away the strong emotions of nostalgia and displacement I have found sneaking up on me at unexpected times the past few weeks, but they did keep that at bay for a little bit.  These mini vacations may not have provided all I needed, but they gave me some.

 

Malawi: Two Year Anniversary

Two years in one place.  Its something to celebrate.  Not that I haven’t spent two years in other places; I have.  Japan. Jakarta.  Juarez.  Shanghai.  But this is the first time, in a long time, in which I am staying on past the two years or am not in the midst of those final months of packing up and preparing to leave to the next location.  We have two more years ahead of us in Malawi.

It seems a little hard to believe that a little over two years ago I was sitting at the table – the same exact table I had had in Jakarta, in Juarez, – in an unfurnished, characterless dining room around three in the morning, jet lagged, wondering what in the world had possessed me to bid on a job in Malawi.

Here I was in a new country, on a new continent, in a new position I had not yet done before.  In all the other places I had lived — with the exception of the small town of Kogushi in Western Japan – I was in a large city.  From my home I could get around on my own from day one, on foot or by taxi or other public transport.  The first few weeks in Malawi I felt very isolated.

Yet here we are two years later and it is very much our home.  Those early lonely days feel so long ago.  C loves her school.  When we arrived she was just starting kindergarten.  Two years later and she has graduated lower primary and begun upper primary.  This is not a distinction we have in the U.S. school system; it seems particular to the International Baccalaureate program taught in many international schools around the world.  This year as an older primary student she has a longer school day and eats lunch at school.  While C really doesn’t know any different, I know how incredibly lucky she is to attend a school like Bishop Mackenzie.  She has five classes a day Monday through Thursday and three classes plus assembly on Fridays.  Physical Education class is offered twice a week; once the weather warms, one of those will be swimming.  She also has French, drama, library, art, and music once a week, just built into the curriculum.  I not only am glad that C will have the opportunity to spend two more years at a school, but that it is this school.

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Our chickens enjoy some freedom in the garden

Our yard continues to be a wonderful sanctuary.  We continue to grow fruits (bananas, avocados, lemons) and vegetables (onions, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and, new this year, edamame).

One of my favorite things to do is to get up on a lazy Saturday morning and head into the yard for the chores.  I first open the chicken hutch to let them out into the pen.  Then I collect the fresh eggs and bring them into the kitchen, where I will grab the key for the garage off the key hook.  Once in the garage I scoop out the chicken feed for the day.  It’s really cute to see how our chickens – Carmen, Can, Lou, and Leash – rush to me as I bring in their food, sometimes arching their backs for a pet.  Some Saturdays or Sundays I give them free reign in the whole yard – if we haven’t recently planted any new crops.  The gardner, a really cheerful and good natured guy named Stephen, does not take kindly to the chickens rooting up the newly planted shoots.  After squaring away the chickens I head over to the rabbit pen where our bunny Sarah, spends most of her time.  (The pen was built by our former Regional Security Officer from blueprints I found online and with wood from the crates that had shipped my Household Effects and Consumables.  Recycling and Embassy goodwill)  I check Sarah’s water and make sure she has enough food.  If she is not pissed at me I will give her a few nice scratches on her forehead and cheeks.  If she is mad, she retreats to the far end of the lower level, under the run, where it is near impossible to get her out.

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Uh-oh.  Sarah the bunny may make a great escape.

Back inside I get my morning Coke Light (I don’t drink coffee) and sit on our konde (screened in porch) to enjoy some bird song and meditation.  Night or day there is birdsong in the yard.  I do not recall any place I have lived where I could hear so many birds.  The musical cacophany is truly magical.

To celebrate two years in Malawi I decided to upgrade our background playground.  When we were first to arrive, I had arranged for the previous occupants of our assigned house to leave behind their custom made playground.  Things did not work out quite as expected as just days before our arrival our housing assignment was changed due to necessary security upgrades, so I had to pay someone to dig up, take apart, move, and reassemble the playground at our house.  But when we first arrived C was 5 1/2 years old.  Now she is 7 1/2 and the small slide, mini wall climb, sandbox, regular swing and tire swing were not quite age appropriate, so I hired the carpenter who had moved the playground two years before to execute a custom designed upgrade.

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The Playground: Before and After

We now have three swings – a regular swing, a disk swing, and a trapeze and rings bar, a much taller rock climbing wall, a rope climb, a tire tower, long-leveled balance beam, a fort, and a curved metal climbing ladder.   The sandbox is now gone, replaced with a wooden floor and walls, and together with the inside of the climbing wall, creates a fort.  It’s a pretty awesome upgrade if I do say so myself, and C had better use it (or else!).

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The backside of our (awesome) upgraded playground

As part of my playground upgrade I found myself in communication with a guy, by the name of Cobra, who welds metal playground equipment.  C and stopped one day at a dirt field, where several different pieces of playground equipment lay strewn about.  There we met Cobra, apparently his real name (perhaps not so unusual here – I have met/heard of Malawians named Gift, Blessings, Lonely, Voice, Loveness, Poverty, and James Bond), and I got his WhatsApp number.  After I worked out what I wanted I sent him a photo and instructions.  Within days he had completed it.  I could have bought it on Amazon and had it shipped to Malawi, but for the same price I engaged a local to make essentially the same thing.  I honestly am not sure what is more extraordinary, that I was WhatsApp’ing with a so-named person or that I was WhatsApp’ing at all.  If you want to be in the loop, know or share information in Malawi, one has got to be on WhatsApp.  This might be one of my single greatest accomplishments here thus far — from a WhatsApp newbie to a someone who can WhatsApp with the best of them.

Driving in Lilongwe, while still challenging (I certainly got my money’s worth out of the department’s required evasive driving class known affectionately as “crash & bang), has become less imtimidating than it was when I arrived.  Yet, I have also have gone from a mild-mannered motorist to a very determined driver.  From using the horn once in a blue moon, to laying on it liberally.  (I have also come to use swear words rather liberally when driving here) I had no choice if I wanted to survive on the roads.  I will fully admit that Malawi traffic is probably in comparison still “Africa-lite” yet in my two years, with a boom in building construction, and a proliferation in vehicle registrations, there has been little comparative upgrade in roads.  Nor an improvement in driving skills.

My little Japanese RAV4 has received its fair share of bumps and scratches.  Before I came to Malawi, I had a pretty good record with vehicles.  I had a puntured tire in Juarez.  I backed into a cement column in a particularly tightly designed parking garage.  A professor sideswiped my sweet red Fiero in college.   And one week after I got my license at age 16, a 17 year old blew through a light, swerved, and pulled off my left front bumper.  A lifetime of driving (though not as much as some Americans given my time overseas) and few accidents.  But here I was sideswiped in a gravel lot at the fabric market.  A bicycle taxi, whizzing downhill with likely non-existent brakes, plowed right into the back of the car, denting the wheel cover.  A parking guard helpfully assisted me in backing into another car.  I backed into a tree (I swear it jumped out at me!)  And once when I made a wrong turn, thought I could Dukes of Hazard it over a dirt bank onto the road I wanted, but ended up getting pretty stuck.  I am grateful to the random Malawian passerbys who came to my aid (and only a little sorry for the scrapes on the lower part of my bumper — it was for the most part kinda fun).

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The rescuee

But I am comfortable enough on the road that when I recently drove home soon after 5 PM — Lilongwe rush hour I suppose — and saw a pygmy hedgehog curled up on a busy road, scared but hoping all the ruckus would just go away, I made a quick u-turn, parked half on, half off the road, and ran out into traffic, stopping it with my palm out.  I then yanked off my cardigan, swooped the little guy up, and bounded back to my car, much to the bemusement of all spectators.  Banana, as C named him, is now living his best life in our car-free hedgehog heaven of a yard.

Basically C and I have come a long way in our two years in Malawi.  That is not to say that all is sweetness and light, rainbows and puppies; its still not an easy place to live.  Poverty here, in one of the world’s poorest countries, is crushing.  The distance between the haves and the have nots, gaping.  My secure and coveted seat among the priviledged, often acutely uncomfortable.   The politics and corruption of this country, the coverage of which is the bread and butter of a political officer, continue to frustrate.  Days in which my impotence to effect change feel especially acute, draining.  I have had a bad cold or allergies for the past five weeks — a reaction to the changing season, the dust kicked up at the tail end of the dry season, the regular fires set to brush and yard waste, and who knows what else across the capital.

But the days in which C demonstrates how much she loves being here, is thriving in the school, or when just hearing the birdsong in my yard or I find myself chasing our chickens or rabbit around, can be a salve for the wounds of boredom, isolation, or frustration.  And sometimes, just sometimes, when I talk to a particularly passionate Malawian making a difference in the lives of vulnerable people, when I have the opportunity to meet with those who fight for justice and human rights, or even on the rarer times I personally seem to have said or done something that had a direct impact for positive change, those times feel especially rewarding.

IMG_1734Take these two boys.  I have seen them, part of a group of some 5 to 7 boys aged around 8 to 14, begging at a traffic light near the Parliament building the whole two years I have lived here.  They hail from Kauma, a predominantely poor community in Lilongwe, basically a slum, not far from my own home.  I do not give the boys money, but I have from time to time given them boiled eggs, bananas, apples, crackers, bottled water, and the like.  From a few months ago, the gang seems to have split up — perhaps finding the corner of an oft-busted traffic light, on a road sometimes closed due to protests, not the plum place it once was.  These two boys seem to have migrated to my very own neighborhood where they pound up rocks and bricks to fill potholes the local and city government fail to ever fix.  They do the work and then sit back waiting for residents to pass by and reward them for the favor.  I have started giving them a little money — they are after all providing a real service now.  Imagine recently as I pass them, they stand, and one unfurls, of all things an American flag, that he had held tightly in his fist.  They jump up and down happily chanting “America.”

For all these reasons and more, the good and the bad, C and I are ready for two more years in Malawi.  Happy anniversary to us!

 

Home Leave: An American Education Part Two

The second half of my home leave return trip between my two tours in Malawi.

Part Two 1

C and her travel buddy Little C

After leaving Williamsburg we headed south to New Bern, North Carolina, where my long-time friend CZ and her son Little C live.  CZ and I go way back.  In fact, back to the College of William and Mary, when like Seinfeld and Kramer, we lived across from one another in our senior dorm.  We are also both single moms.  Back during our first Home Leave after two years in Mexico, we spent a week in New Bern when Little C was just a month old.   CZ and Little C visited us in Shanghai, and we met up with them in Paris.  Here we are returning to see them for a few days; Little C is now five.

New Bern is a bit like Williamsburg — lots of history but also plenty of natural activities.  We visited some places we had been before – such as my taking C and Little C to lunch at the Cow Cafe and then over to the Birthplace of Pepsi Cola (I may be a die-hard Diet Coke fan, but Diet Coke shortages in Malawi have led me to embrace Pepsi Light) – but other places like Tyron Palace did not fit this trip.  We did picnic near Atlantic Beach and then head out on pirate boat for some fun out of Beaufort.  We also took a National Park ferry service to Shackelford Banks for some beach time and wild horses.  Mostly, though the kids just were happy to see one another again, as were CZ and I.  It was bittersweet leaving CZ and Little C — the kids did not want to part (C had told another child we met along the way “Little C is like my brother, he just has a different mom”).  But CZ and I knew it would not be too long before we meet up again.

Part Two 3

C at the beach in Nags Head

In the car again, we headed to our next destination: the Outer Banks.  A good destination for those with younger kids is almost always the beach, but I was still determined to shove some American history into C.  Wait, I mean, expose her to the wonders of America’s rich history.  And though C may not know a whole lot on that subject, she does know the story of the Wright Brothers and their first flight on the sand dunes of Kill Devil Hills.

Funnily enough, the last time I was in the Outer Banks was 1994, where I headed with my sorority sister CZ, just after graduation from the College of William and Mary.  The one other time before that, I was 16 years old, as the long-time babysitter for family friends.  (I remain friends still with this family — in fact just as I wrote this sentence a message box popped up from one of them).  Another American and personal history trip.

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The incredible stage at the performance of the Lost Colony

On our first day, we checked into the hotel, and then immediately we headed out to grab some quintessential American beachside food.  Ahhhh, ordering at a small window of a short order takeout place, then sitting at picnic tables, in the summer beachy heat under the shade of an umbrella.  There is nothing like it in Malawi.  Maybe nothing quite like it outside of the U.S.A.

That evening we headed over to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island to see the production of The Lost Colony, the nation’s longest running outdoor symphonic drama (that’s a mouthful, right?).  In its 82nd season, the play depicts the history, drama, and mystery surrounding the ill-fated first settlement in the “New World.”  The stage is set at the actual location of the settlement and has run every summer since 1937, only stopping briefly during WWII with the threat of German U-boats off the coast being able to see the lights from the theater.  Having already visited Jamestown and Williamsburg, I thought C would really enjoy the play.  Nothing could quite have prepared me for the emotional roller coaster that was to come.  C loved the antics of Tom, the drunkard turned heroic settler, and the pageantry of the scenes with Queen Elizabeth.  But the scenes of fighting between Native Americans and the settlers had her on her feet, full on sobbing, “Nooooooo!  Stop it!  Stop it!  Mom, why did you bring me here????”  I felt like a bit of a jerk making her sit through the entire performance and yet at the end she asked if she could have her photo with the actress who played Queen Elizabeth and she patiently waited in line to chat her up (Sir Walter Raleigh was there too, but she could have cared less), and on the car ride home she asked me lots of questions about it.  (“Mom, so why were the settlers always talking about God?”  “Mom, why are they lost if they carved where they were going on the tree?”  “Mom, why didn’t the guy from England just go to Croatan to find them?”)  So, despite wanting to sink into my seat at the theater as those near us observed my daughter’s very raw, and rather noisy, emotion, C seems to have gotten out of it what I had hoped.

Part Two 4When we returned the following day to visit the rest of Fort Raleigh, she had even more questions about the missing settlers.  Then we headed over to the North Carolina Aquarium because we are simply incapable of passing up on an aquarium. We followed up with a visit to Dare Devil’s Pizza so I could introduce C to the massive stromboli I remembered from my visit 30 years before and then we had some time to stroll and play on the beach.

Our activity for the following day involved driving an hour south to visit Hatteras Island and its famous lighthouse.  Nothing is more fun to do in the middle of long drives between destinations is to take another drive.  No, really, I love driving.  And while overseas I always miss American roads.  The state of Malawian roads especially has me hankering for the smooth, largely pot-hole free, clearly lined arteries that criss cross America.  I also love to hear C repeatedly asking from the back “How much longer?”

We didn’t just visit the historic site, but we climbed the 257 steps to the top.  My heart pounding, not so much from hauling my increasing out of shape self, but from the genuine fear that seized my heart walking up the curved staircase, holding (no, gripping) its low, surely not regulation height, handrail, trying not to look down at the increasing distance between my location and the ground floor.  Nah, just kidding, it was loads of fun, especially once back on terra firma.

Part Two 7Once back in Nags Head we stopped at Kitty Hawk Kites because its an Outer Banks institution and I remembered visiting when I was 16.  It is also the place to go to book adventure tours and activities.  By the time we left about an hour later, C had convinced me to buy her a fox kite (word to the wise: know the dimensions of your extra suitcase so you do not buy a kite that is 4 inches too long to fit) and for me to sign us up for mother-daughter hanggliding classes on the dunes for the following day.

Ever since I had visited Jockey’s Ridge State Park at the age of 16, and watched the hanggliders on the dunes, I have wanted to go back and try it myself.  It took a bit of fast talk to convince C to give it a go.  She wanted to go to mermaid swimming school, but that was not on offer at the time.  But with a promise to give her a SpongeBob SquarePants ice cream after we successfully completed the course, she reluctantly agreed.

Together with the rest of our class, we marched up the dunes.  At the top we were re-instructed on the basics covered in the classroom and then we divided into three groups, with the children under 16 in their own group.  We all had five flights — two flights, then a rotation through the group, two more flights, another rotation, and then a final flight — I was able to watch all of C’s flights.  C seemed nervous at first, but in an all kids group she relaxed, soon in her element.  At one point she was surrounded by the other kids, all older, as they asked her about life in Africa.  When C went to do her flight, one of the other kids told me that “she is pretty great.”  I beamed.

It was an incredible day on the dunes.  I found it somewhat frightening and exhilirating.  We never really flew on our own.  The adults had a single instructor who ran with us the length of our flight, tethered to the contraption so we could only get so much lift and distance; the children had two instructors.  We only flew short distances, but I felt absurdly happy as my stomach dropped as the wind lifted me up.  I laughed.  A lot.  A storm moved across the Roanoke Sound.  The skies darkened, the wind picked up.  The instructors had to double up even for the adult fliers.  C finished up first so she could watch my final flight, then the two of us made our own way back to the training facility as the skies opened up.

Part Two 5

Bright light and storm clouds as C prepares to take off

Later that afternoon we drove about 45 minutes north to meet my sister, husband, and kids, and their friends at a popular seafood restaurant.  We had found out at the very beginning of our Home Leave that my sister and her friend’s annual beach week in Duck, North Carolina, the northern Outer Banks, would coincide during our week in the area.  It was fun to catch up in an unexpected way.

 

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History and Photography Fun

On our final day, we finally headed to the Wright Brothers National Memorial.  At last, C would learn more about the history of aviation in America right at the source.  It was a hot July day so we started off first in the wonderfully informative (and air conditioned!) museum.  Then we walked the flight path and up Kill Devil Hill, where the brothers conducted many of their glider tests and where now stands the 60 foot tall granite monument to their achievements.  We then returned to the car and drove around to the First Flight Centennial Memorial, where Orrville, Wilbur, the plane, and other observers of that first day are memorialized in bronze.  C and other kids (and many adults) loved that visitors can actually climb all over the sculptures, a sort of interactive historical playground.  I then took C to Dairy Queen to enjoy her first ever Blizzard, a wonderful, fattening, concoction of thick soft serve ice creams and yummy goodies.  Ah, America.

Next stop: Chincoteague, Virginia.  Finally, a place I had never been, but which has long been on my bucket list from way back when to I was a little girl.  Chincoteague and its sister island Assateague are two Virginian barrier islands (the northern two-thirds of the long and narrow Assateague falls into Maryland’s jurisdiction) are both part of the national park system – the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore – but they were made famous by a children’s novel (Misty of Chincoteague) written in 1947 about the wild horses of Assateague and the annual pony swim to Chincoteague.  The book, still in print, still fires the imagination of young readers, especially those who love horses.  I read the book to C just before we began our trip.

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One of the famous Assateague ponies

Chincoteague has small town American charm (population about 2,800), but with its protected spaces and history of wild ponies woven into popular literature, it just has more.  Soon after checking in to our hotel (hours later than anticipated thanks to an accident on the ONE northern bridge off the Outer Banks), we headed out to dinner, walking up to a family-style italian restaurant to appease C’s hankering for some simple pasta.  Afterwards we played mini golf.

Monday, it rained.  We had a lazy morning, carry out lunch in the room, then in the afternoon headed over to Assateague to visit the two Visitor Centers.  Although they are not too big, C enjoyed finding out about the flora and the fauna, especially because one really fantastic young park ranger encouraged C to work on a park booklet to become a junior ranger.  As the afternoon waned, the sun came out just in time for a beautiful drive along a nature loop road.  On our last full day we went out on an early morning boat tour.  The weather was perfect and we not only had the opportunity to see the famous ponies, but also some other wildlife, including a bald eagle.  Then back over to the Visitor Centers on Assateague, including a climb up the Assateague Lighthouse.

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Some of the beauty of Assateague

Before we departed Chincoteague, I rented a bicycle with a trailor, so C could sit in cool comfort (even with her tablet) while I did all the work.  I love cycling and I have been waiting for when C is able to ride with me.  Our overseas life has not exactly been conducive to her learning to ride though.  In Shanghai, there was a rooftop linking the eighth floors of the two apartment buildings and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  It was not an empty area; there were tennis courts, an area for a bouncy castle, a trampoline, the swimming pool, and covered area with tables and bar-b-que areas.  A small child could cycle a little on a small bike, but scooters were all the rage in Shanghai.  And then here in Malawi, the roads are not all that safe.  There are no sidewalks or shoulders.  The bicycle carriage was the perfect compromise.  It felt AMAZING to out and about — the hour riding the trails and roads on Assateague was perfect.

Part Two 8We then drove on to Winchester, Virginia to spend a few days at my Aunt C’s, including a night at her cabin in West Virginia, and then a few days in Sterling, Virginia, my original home town.  We caught up with friends and family.  And then it was time to say goodbye to the U.S. How did four weeks pass by so quickly?  But we squeezed a lot in.  C had time in NY with her father, her paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I had time in Jacksonville with my Aunt C and doing more in my home-away-from-the-Foreign-Service.  We caught up with CZ and Little C in New Bern.  We visited my college town and soaked in some early American history, and had another walk down my memory lane and more American history in the Outer Banks.  And we both made new memories enjoying time in the beautiful barrier islands of Virginia.  We visited a total of five places in the U.S. National Park system.   Not bad at all for four fabulous weeks.

Then we needed to begin the journey home.  And it was going to be a loooooooooooooooooooong trip back, even longer than when we flew to the States.  Due to the amount of money authorized for our Home Leave travel by Washington, and the limited time between that authorization (early May) and our departure (mid-June), being in the northern Hemisphere summer time, we had to fly a different routing.  So we would fly from Washington Dulles on the eight hour red-eye flight to Frankfurt, Germany, arriving at noon.  Then spend 10 hours on a layover in Frankfurt before our ten-hour red-eye flight to Johannesburg, South Africa.  Then five hours in Jo’burg before our two-hour flight to Lilongwe.  But I was determined to make the most of our time in Germany.

Long, long ago, also when I was 16 years old, my sisters and I spent a month in Frankfurt with my Aunt C and Uncle D.  So the plan was to give C just a wee bit of a taste of Germany and a touch more of a walk down mommy-memory-lane.  We freshened up in an airport shower, went through immigration, stored our luggage, and then caught a train from the airport to the Frankfurt Main Train Station.  Then we headed to the Old Town to do a little sightseeing.  In three hours we had lunch and hit many a place from my store of old family photos.

Then and Now Frankfurt

At the David and Goliath sculpture at the Hauptwache Station, Frankfurt – My sisters and I in July 1989 (left) – the acid washed jeans a dead giveaway – and C in July 2019 (right)

Then it truly was the end of our mid-tour Home Leave and time to return home – to Malawi.

 

 

 

Home Leave: An American Education Part One

Part One 1

Jax Beach at sunset – my now official home away from Foreign Service home

Home Leave is here again!  Home Leave is the congressional mandatory requirement for Foreign Service Officers to spend a minimum of 20 working days in the United States between overseas tours so that we may reconnect and reacquaint ourselves with the people and the country we represent and serve.

But wait? Between tours?  Aren’t I still serving in Malawi?  Why yes, yes, I am.  However, I have extended my time in Malawi yet again and am now essentially serving two consecutive tours in Lilongwe.  Thus, Home Leave (HL), or rather Home Leave Return to Post.  This is my third HL, but the first time my daughter and I will return to the same place we were before the HL; the first time our pets and our belongings will be able to remain in the same place while we are gone.  For a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) this is rather novel.

Off C and I head to the U.S. of A to home leave with the best of them.  We begin with a long trip from Lilongwe to Dulles, Virginia via Johannesburg, South Africa, and Accra, Ghana.  We arrive late after weather-related delays cause flight schedule issues in Jo’burg; my one checked piece of luggage takes a detour and does not arrive with us; Customs and Border Patrol welcomes back this diplomat with a fun trip to secondary for extra scrutiny.  Hooray! (no, not hooray.  I jest.)  My sister, who has been circling the airport pick-up area with my mother for a good hour, picks us up and whisks us off to the local IHOP to meet the bro-in-law, niece, and nephew, for a quick family breakfast.  Well, I have a cheeseburger because A. who knows what time my body thinks it is? and B. I have missed a good American cheeseburger; I can get pancakes and eggs in Malawi.

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Thanks FL!

I am whisked back to the airport to catch my flight to Jacksonville, FL.  C stays the night with her aunt, uncle, and cousins, and then is deposited back at the airport the next morning to meet her stepmom so they may flight up to upstate New York to meet her dad and his side of the family for paternal family fun.  Her dad and stepmom work jobs that are busiest on Saturdays, so we had to do it this way.  Seems complicated but with a lot of help (my sister and C’s stepmom especially), we make it work.

C enjoys her time in NY — goes out on her grandparent’s boat, played with her cousins, and had oodles of family time.  Me, I spent time with my aunt in and around our condo.  I went shopping for consumables (a special shipment of foodstuffs and personal and/or household items that are authorized for certain Posts like Malawi) and had the movers come pack them up, had a doctor’s appointment, consumed great quantities of Mexican food (there is a dearth of such cuisine in Malawi), took walks on the beach to watch the sunrise, sunset, and moonrise, and was midly insulted by a young ticket seller who insisted on selling me the senior rate for a movie.

C and I then flew back from our respective first locations to meet again in northern Virginia, grab the rental car, and begin the road trip portion.

Part One 8

C at Jamestown

Being overseas in the FS life is amazing; my daughter is exposed to many different people, cultures, and traditions.  However, her exposure to American history and culture is limited.  Not non-existent, mind you.  She watches Disney Jr, and Nick Jr on television.  She discusses Five Nights at Freddy’s and Minecraft with her friends.  Yet although she attends a fabulous international school, it is not an overseas American school.

I therefore planned our home leave around introducing C to some of America’s most iconic historic locations.  Our first destination:  Williamsburg, Virginia, home to the historic Colonial Williamsburg, part of America’s historic triangle (with Jamestown and Yorktown) and my undergraduate alma mater, the College of William and Mary, the second oldest university in the United States.

We began first with a trip to Jamestown to learn about the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, founded in 1607.  There we visited the world class museum, walked through replicas of a Powhatan Indian village and the colonist’s fort, and boarded two of the three replica ships that brought the colonists across the Atlantic on their four-and-a-half month journey to their new lives in the New World.  C reports she liked she liked the ships the best, but I think she enjoyed touching the animal pelts in the Indian village the most.

Part One 3

The beautiful Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg

We spent the rest of that first day walking the grounds of Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum.  Its costs nothing to stroll the streets of this extraordinary place depicting the reconstructed and restored 18th century city that served as the capital of the Colony of Virginia for 74 years (after the colonists moved from swampy Jamestown).  I had wanted to come here to have American history come alive for C, but I did anticipate how the memories of my own personal history would also come back to me.  We stopped at the Cheese Shop on the top of DOG (Duke of Gloucester) Street.  Though the shop now had a place on Market Square (instead of the side street where it stood during my day), their signature “bread ends and house,” which provided me so many days of sustenance in my college days, was just as good as ever.  We stood outside the Kimball Theater, the small movie theater, where I saw many an odd indie film back in the day.  Filled with nostalgia, I bought C and I matching William & Mary shirts at the college store.

On our second day, we headed to the Busch Gardens amusement park.  Here too were memories from college, as for graduation the college had rented out the park for seniors.  How cool is that?  I had regaled C with stories of the Loch Ness Monster coaster, once the world’s tallest and fastest coaster and still the world’s only interlocking, double-looping roller coaster.   C, who hated Disney’s Space Mountain and refuses to ride the Tower of Terror, was very keen to ride the Loch Ness and we headed there first thing.  Though I am too old to love coasters anymore (though truth be told, I never did), I still enjoyed the Loch Ness and C could not stop telling everyone she met how much she did too.

Part One 5

The famous Governor’s Palace maze (and W&M rite of passage)

For our last three days, armed with a three-day pass to Colonial Williamsburg, we could explore the living museum more fully, stopping in at tours at the Capitol, the Wythe House, and the Governor’s Palace.  We also lucked out getting a spot on 15 minute horse carriage ride (something I had never before done in the ‘Burg).  At the Palace, we took part in a children’s tour of the building itself, presented just right for C’s age group.  At the beginning, I asked the guide though, if William & Mary students still “jump the wall” as they did in the past.  “Jumping the wall” was a student tradition whereby students were to make their way to the Governor’s Palace at night, haul themselves over the perimeter wall, and then run to the center of the palace’s hedge maze, and then depart the same way without being caught.  I might have done it once…or twice.  The guide told the group that while it is still done, security advances have caught up with the college tradition – yet now there is supposed to be a “triathlon” of jumping the wall, streaking the Sunken Garden (a grassy field located on the W&M campus), and swimming Crim Dell.  This prompted C to ask what is streaking….

We then enjoyed our own exploration of the Palace gardens and of course a race through the maze.  I remembered, armed with my W&M ID, which gave me free access to many Colonial Williamsburg sights, sitting in the gardens on many a sunny day eating my Cheese Shop Bread Ends and House while reading for class.  I also remembered nearly peeing my pants when I thought we were caught as I raced across the gardens toward the maze on a ridiculously well moonlit night…

Part One 4

The Wythe House from its gardens

I tried to get C to join me on a Colonial Williamsburg ghost tour, but she refused.  There was one aimed listed as good for 4 to 7 year olds that started at 5:45 PM, but no matter how I tried to sell it (“it is for 7 year olds!” “when it starts it will not even be close to dark outside.”) but she would not have it.  I told her how I had joined a ghost tour when I was a student and had the beejeezus scared out of me.  Although she refused to do one, she did ask me about mine and I told her of the three stories I recalled.  One was of the Mistress Wythe, who after attending a ball at the Governor’s Palace had run the short way to her home with the red door, losing a shoe along the way, and then, well…she died, and her ghost is supposed to haunt the house.

So, we went to the Wythe House and I asked one of the historic interpreters for the fuller story, to see how much my brain had retained from a very scary night tour 25 years before.  I remembered it pretty well, but had left out the part where Mistress Wythe hangs herself.  Immediately, C latched on to that word and asked me to explain… That was unexpected.  Even more unexpected was when C, playing with an 18th century wood children’s toy in the upstairs hallway of the Wythe House, patiently explained the details of the hanging to another child, and then recommended the child go over to the Governor’s Palace maze where her mom had once run through the maze naked… (I had NOT — C had conflated the maze run with the Sunken Garden streaking.)  So to the mother of that other child, you are welcome!

Part One 9

Crim Dell

We visited the William & Mary campus.  I showed C some of my dorm and classroom buildings.  We passed my sorority house (yes, I was in a sorority!).  Memories flooded back.  Many, I could not share with a 7-year old.  We crossed Crim Dell, which my graduating class crossed many moons ago, and in the 90s Playboy magazine listed as one of the top 10 most romantic college places in the U.S.  Yeah, I know.  First, wtf is Playboy doing ranking romantic college locations?  And second, hey, its a pretty bridge with some nice trees, but ugh, that water!  I left out the Playboy connection for C.  I did not want to answer anymore odd questions.

I loved that as we cross the campus, C turned to me and said “mom, it sounds like you had a really great life here.”  Yeah, I did.  And I had forgotten so much of it until our visit.

Part One 6After educating (and sort of torturing) C with the American history lessons and walks down my memory lane, it was time to reward her with two fabulous days at Great Wolf Lodge.  GWL is a chain of indoor water park and amusement hotels.  My sister and her family had been a few times and I could hardly wait to bring C.  I must have splurged for a Cub Club room, where we could have fit 6 people, but had forgotten I did so.  What a fun surprise!  I thought C would be all about the water park, but she was actually all about the indoor MagiQuest game, where she ran around with a fake wand activating sensors and solving quests.  She made lots of friends doing this.  We also won the rubber ducky race — kids decorate a rubber duck in the morning and then enter it into the water park race.  All the ducks are dumped into one section of the lazy river and make their way to the finish line.  The winner gets to sit in a special section of the water park for 24 hours.  (Experienced Winner Hint: Show up on a day when only 4 people enter the contest and then be the only person to show up poolside during the activity. Yay, you win!)  It also turns out C has a wicked sense of timing for the arcade claw games.  Good thing I brought an extra empty suitcase….

It was hard to believe that after Williamsburg we were already nearly half way through our Home Leave.  It was time to move on to the next location….

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Four: Cook Islands Trekking, Dancing, and Flying

The fourth installment of my edited stories of my three-week trip to three islands in Polynesia.  My South Pacific pattern begins to be clear — it takes the first few days to get my bearings and then I can get down to the sightseeing and soaking up the culture.

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The view of the magnificent Te Rua Manga

On the morning of my third day on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, I joined four others from the hostel on the cross-island trek, a popular three-to-four-hour walk across the north to south spine of the island with views of Te Rua Manga, or “the needle.”  To have a guide costs some NZ$50, but to do it on our own was free.

Rarotonga, though the largest of the Cook Islands, is just 18 kilometers lengthwise, and 32 kilometers in circumference.  Most people live on the flat coastal areas.  Being a volcanic island, the land rises quickly to sharp green covered hills.  We would be walking this.   Though at the beginning most of us were huffing and puffing up the sharp incline, we were good once we reached the Needle, the large sharp bare outcropping in the middle of the island.  Then it was mostly downhill.  Not easy mind you.  But downhill.  The view from the top was breathtaking, the ocean could be seen on all sides.  Hardly any sign of town could be seen, just the lush, green forest.  It was almost as if the island were uninhabited.  Except for the pesky wild chickens.  They were there, even on top of the highest point on the island.  I felt pretty good after doing the trek.  I felt strong and relatively fit.  Especially as three of the other hostellers were all in their early twenties, and they were huffing and puffing too.  At the end of the trail we hitched a ride back to the other side of the island in the back of a pick-up truck.  We all felt triumphant.  Tired, but elated.

cook islands 11That night I joined the other hostellers in a trip to a local dance spot/bar.  I was a wee bit reluctant to go (I am neither a drinker nor abar fly).  They were all playing drinking games to prepare for going out.  I read a book.  But I decided I might as well go.  While there, I started to feel a bit old.  Though there were certainly all ages in the crowd, I would say most were in their early twenties, and most were very keen on drinking as much as they could.  Still, the place was going to hold a dance contest, and I like dancing.  I start dancing with Jay, another guy from the hostel.  After the initial dancing was over, I was just standing by the side when the judge came up and asked me who my partner was.  I pointed at Jay.  The judge says, okay, you two are the final couple in the contest.  Our mouths hung open.  It turned out to be a contest of foreigners dancing to Cook Island music.  Basically, we had to dance like Cook Islanders.   We danced our little hearts out – I tried to remember anything from when I studied Polynesian dance as a child.  We came away as runners up, winning a case of vodka drinks.  Ha!  Just what a teetotaler who rarely goes to bars wants – Jay was pretty happy though.  I felt pretty impressed with myself.  I trekked for four hours AND danced away in a manic Cook Islands dance contest in the evening (along with two hours more of dancing) – maybe I was not that old after all?

Except for the next two days I did nothing.  On the following day, I slept in, lay around, read a book.  And relaxed, something I often have trouble doing.  I must have gotten the hang of it, because I did the same thing the day after as well.  Thank you Cook Islands!

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Ready for take-off

On Thursday morning, I joined a biking and kayaking ecotour.   The tour guide was a true Cook Islander, whose 97-year-old grandmother is a traditional medicine healer.  Out guide told us all about the medicinal benefits of plants around us, such as the salve found in the stem of a frangipani flower – good for hornet stings.  And how the juice from the noni plant helps people live longer (his grandmother drinks it every day).  He claimed two papaya seeds a day works as a natural birth control.  We saw papaya, banana plants (several kinds), taro fields, and noni – the major agricultural exports of the Cook Islands.  The guide also told us about Cook Island history – past and present.  About the tribal government, and the feuds they still have today.  He pointed out the traditional palace for his tribe.  A campaign promise by the current chief head (a woman) was to restore the palace.  Although she came to power in 1991, the palace still lies below overgrowth, barely discernable beneath the grass.  Her reign is being challenged by her sister.

Following the biking portion of the tour, we hopped into kayaks and paddled ourselves across a beautiful lagoon, then up a small tributary.  Several land crabs were brought to our attention as they scurried about.  Then back to the pristine lagoon.  We rowed against the current to see a traditional fish trap, built of rocks in the water, which during high tide channels fish into a stone pen where they are caught at low tide.   Then we lazily sat in our kayaks as the current pushed us back to our departure point – and we watched fish swim beneath and around our boats.   What I remember most about the kayaking was just watching several frangipani flowers floating across the surface of the sparkling water – so clear it was like a swimming pool. 

In the afternoon I decided to take a microlight trip.  Soon enough I found myself hopping into a two-seater mini plane.  We took off like a regular plane, barreling down a grass runway adjacent to the airport’s regular runway, but we took off quite quickly.  Up we went to 3,000 feet where I had a view of the entire island.  It was so amazing.  The island was such like that out of King Kong or Jurassic Park.  And the lagoon waters could clearly be seen against the darker blue of the Pacific Ocean, with not another island in sight.  Thirty minutes was just the right amount of time to see the island.   The only thing was the plane was open, and it was much cooler with a strong wind.  My nose was running like crazy and my ears were cold.  Well, also the pilot turned off the engine as we were cruising high over the lagoon and pretended it had cut off and he could not restart it.  It was funny, but also not funny.  In a way though, that brief sense of terror while looking down at something so breathtakingly beautiful, made the experience all the more special.

 

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Rarotonga from the sky

Although the Hawaiian Islands are supposed to be the most isolated in the world in terms of their distance from other land, these days they are not truly that remote.  The other islands in the chain are relatively close, the islands are larger, and well connected to the U.S., Japan, and other countries.  Tourism is huge in Hawaii.   Although there are some similarities with Hawaii, I did feel much further removed from any mainland while in the Cooks.

Another great thing about Rarotonga that puts Hawaii to shame is the public transport.  On the Big Island of Hawaii, which takes some five hours to drive around the island, there is only one bus per day going in each direction.  Rarotonga, just 20 miles around, has a bus going in each direction every hour from around 7 AM to 5 PM, and also less frequent night buses.  Three cheers for public transport in most places outside the U.S.

Thursday night I attended “Island Night” at the Staircase restaurant in downtown Avarua.  This is a night of food and island dance.  I was feeling cheap and only paid for the dancing.  The show was a full hour, though the last bit was more about making people in the audience look like fools with the dancers than anything else.  Still, I love Polynesian dancing.   Frenetic hip swinging for the women.  Knee knocking for the men.  What a workout.  I love the music.  The hollow wood drums make the most incredible sound.    The unfortunate thing about the show was that there were these beautifully dressed dancers in traditional grass skirts, leg adornments, headdresses, and coconut bikini tops.  They looked fantastic.  But the dancing was in a small area at the front of a restaurant, with a disco ball twirling on the ceiling, rather than on a beach at sunset with tiki torches.  Despite the small, even corny venue, I managed a few decent photos.

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Cook Islanders know how to shake it

I caught a cold sometime Wednesday night (the nights were surprisingly chilly) and I expect the microlight aggravated it, so I had a sore throat and the sniffles on Friday.  Oh well, another day to chill out on a tropical island.  I just hung out and walked about town in the morning.  Yet, I found out coincidentally that festivities would begin that day in the lead up to Constitution Day on August 4.

A parade was to begin at 1 PM.  I arrived at the market grounds at one on the dot to find no parade whatsoever.  It was 2:30 before there was any parade activity.  Ah, island time!  The government officials arrived in fancy cars.  The Prime Minister’s car being the most obvious, with the license plate – PM.  There were dancers on grass covered floats, interspersed with civil and religious groups carrying banners.  The floats of dancers were the best because they were colorful and lively, beating drums signaled their arrival.  I enjoyed seeing this slice of local life.

On Saturday morning I rented a bicycle and rode the entire way around the island.  It took me nearly three hours, including a 20-minute break to eat an apple and read a little in my book at the half way point.  It was an easy flat ride.  Very enjoyable for the morning.  I could hardly understand why there are so many cars on the island at all.

My flight left at 8:30 in the evening.  Around two I returned to the hostel, made lunch, watched a movie on the tv, then gathered my backpack for the walk to the airport.  Yes, walk.  I can think of few places where I could simply walk from my hotel to the airport (not counting those expensive airport hotels).  It took me only about 20 minutes to make my way along a country road winding by grazing cows.  I was sad to leave.  It struck me my short holiday was more than half way over.  I really wanted to be heading on to Fiji or Tahiti or New Zealand like the others in the hostel.  I love traveling so much.

Malawi Elections: Politics Front and Center

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The stage is set for the third and final Presidential debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Malawi: Travels with My Aunt Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roan, zebra, and nyala at Game Haven

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

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

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Welcome to Huntingdon House

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

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

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C strolls among the Huntingdon gardens

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

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

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

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

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C among the tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Malawi: Travels with My Aunt* Part One

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

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She arrives–I would know those black leggings anywhere!

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

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

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

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Crazy light at sunset = a storm is coming

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

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

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View of the Bua River from our room

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

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

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

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Our African Parks guide surveys the waters

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

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The exquisitely designed main lodge

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

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

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Some of the Nkhotakota wildlife

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

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

 

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

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

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

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C rides confidently through the surf

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

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

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

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Happy 2019!

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

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

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

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C zips through the Jamaican rainforest

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

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

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

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

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Transformed into Mulan!

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

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

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

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

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We had been dreaming of Disney sweets

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

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

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

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

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C loves Disney


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

 

 

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

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Sunrise at Jax Beach our first morning

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

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

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

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C looks out to sea at Jax Beach

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

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

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Family bonding over fantastic puzzles

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

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

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

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

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

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

6

Stately and ghostly Rose Hall

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

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

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

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The Martha Brae

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

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