Single Parent Dilemma: The Business Trip

woman with suitcaseIt may come as a surprise to some that I spent more than six years working in the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer without going on an overnight business trip.  I managed  due to a combination of my positions and locations (serving as a Consular Officer in two large high volume visa posts — i.e. my job was identical to that of 30-40 other officers) and personal choice.  There were certainly opportunities for travel.  While serving in Ciudad Juarez colleagues regularly took part in the Mission Mexico “swap” program in which Consular Officers at different posts would change places for a month.  So for instance an officer in Juarez would go to Guadalajara to adjudicate visas and a counterpart there would come to Juarez.  In swaps you also swapped homes, even cars.  There were also the occasional TDY (temporary duty = business trip) opportunities to places like Las Vegas for a trade show or Baja in support of G-20 (occurred a few months before my arrival), and even trips to Cairo and other far-flung locals.   Shanghai too had opportunities, many similar: Mission China swaps, TDYs to India and Haiti, and travel to Hangzhou in support of the G-20.

I could have volunteered.  A few well meaning, though generally childless, colleagues would offer various scenarios.  It would not have been impossible, just quite difficult.  In Juarez with an infant, and later in Shanghai with a preschooler, a nanny, and pets, swapping presented a more logistical and financial challenge for me than for my single or married colleagues.  I also rationalized that given the majority of the opportunities presented were basically doing visas in another place, I could simply continue to do work hard on visas and other tasks where I was assigned.  These choices I made may have cost me tenure the first time around and later promotion; it is hard to tell.  But, they were the best choices for myself and my daughter at the time.

Fast forward to Malawi.  Here I am in a different position.  I am no longer one of dozens of Consular Officers; I am the sole Political Officer.  Though I bid this position high due to the family-friendly atmosphere and the reported work-life balance, I knew it would be inevitable that travel would come up.  It may be a small nation, and this presents opportunities to really learn the issues and see a good part of the country, yet there is so much happening here and as the Political Officer I must get out and about on occasion.  What I had not expected were three TDYs in three months; to what essentially worked out to be three trips in seven weeks.

Trip One

mother and daughterFor my first trip it would be just three days and two nights within Malawi.  In late October I joined my locally-employed colleague on a familiarization trip to the southern Malawi cities of Blantyre and Zomba.  Lilongwe may be Malawi’s capital since 1975 but Zomba, the original colonial capital, and Blantyre, the business and judiciary center, together make a triumvirate of modern Malawi’s social, cultural, and political scene.    We would depart Lilongwe early on a Tuesday for the four hour drive to Blantyre and take meetings all day beginning with a lunch meeting and ending with a dinner meeting.  The following day would be spent 2/3 in Blantyre and then we would travel to Zomba to stay at the Embassy cottage that evening.  Original plans for a dinner meeting in town were scrapped due to the ongoing bloodsucker situation.  The final day would be a half day of meetings in Zomba before the nearly 4 1/2 hour drive back to Lilongwe.  Easy peasy, right?

Well, first when traveling as a single parent in the Foreign Service, you need to fill out a few items of paperwork when away from home but leaving family members, especially children, behind.  There is the usual out-of-town locator all employees must complete when traveling.  For all those folks who do not work for the government overseas, think about having to complete a form every single time you take a personal or professional trip.  In the event of an emergency, Post must be able to account for all personnel.  If heaven forbid an airplane or train crashes or a boat capsizes or there is a vehicle crash, Post needs to know if personnel traveling in the area may have been on board or on that road.  Security and facility personnel need to know who is or is not at your residence.  Even payroll needs to know in case pay needs to be adjusted.  It is one of the less-than-glorious aspects of Foreign Service life.  On top of the usual away-from-home forms a single parent needs to complete a Power of Attorney and a Medical form for the staying-behind-child or children.  I also left behind a contact list of friends and family…just in case.  Along with my daughter’s passport in an accessible spot.

I had asked a colleague if she would mind serving as Power of Attorney and the Medical back-up and she said no problem and then even suggested my daughter stay at her house.  She has a daughter just a year older and with whom my daughter likes to play with.  A sleepover!  This would be very exciting for C.  Her only other sleepovers have been one night at her aunt’s in NY, one night at her grandparent’s in NY, several times at her father’s in KY, and one week at my sister’s in VA last summer.  This would be the first time not with family.  She could. not. wait.  This did involve me having to pack her suitcase — full of school clothes (including uniforms and P.E. clothing) and play clothes.  I also had to contact the school bus to give instructions to pick up at my house on Tuesday morning, deliver her to the other house on Tuesday afternoon, all day Wednesday at the other house, Thursday morning at the other house, and Thursday afternoon drop back at our home.  The bus went off without a hitch, but I cannot say I wasn’t worried.

Though initially nervous about leaving my daughter, once on the road I did feel a wee bit of a sense of freedom wash over me.  Then I came back down to Earth.  It was a work trip after all.  But it was not too long.  It would all be okay.  However, unexpectedly that evening I received a call from my colleague.  My normally very independent daughter, who has been left with babysitters in many a city as I ran half marathons (always fingerprinted, bonded, licensed sitters), was on her third nanny, and also previously spent time at two child care centers, a preschool, and just started Kindergarten, who had NEVER had separation anxiety before, was crying because she missed her mom.  She told my colleague she could not sleep because normally she snuggles with her mom before bed.  My heart broke.  I called the following night and talked with C again.  My colleague told me C had said she could not sleep because she had left all her dreams in a dresser drawer at home.  I smiled at her creativity, but felt guilty too.  Soon enough though I was back in Lilongwe and apparently forgiven.

Trip Two

mother daughter goodbyeIn November I flew to Harare, Zimbabwe for five days and four nights to participate in some professional training.  This time I made the decision for my daughter to remain at our home with the nanny.  (Yes, I have a nanny.  And she lives on property.)  While my daughter had mostly enjoyed her two nights sleepover at her friend’s house, working out the bus schedule and packing her bag did add an extra layer of work for me.  Besides just feeling too tired and lazy to go the extra mile, it was also a big ask for my (extremely kind) colleague.   By staying at our home C also had access to all her clothes, toys, usual foods, and familiarity.  Well, all the familiarity a child could establish in a home she had lived in for all of three months, with our household goods from the US not yet arrived in country.   Additionally, the nanny was eager to demonstrate she could do the job and I wanted to give her the opportunity.

This time, instead of departing after my daughter headed off to school, I left on a Sunday morning.  I had to say goodbye to my daughter at the front door and her sad little face looking up at me tugged at my heart strings.  Though once I arrived at the beautiful bed and breakfast in Harare, I did feel a wee bit better.  On both Sunday and Monday evening I called the nanny using What’s App.  This time C did not want to talk to me.  She reluctantly came to the phone,  then giggled, and ran off.  When I made the nanny get her back on the phone, C sniffled and told me how much she missed me.  After I let her go I asked the nanny if she was faking.  She was.  It seemed her staying at home had been the right choice.  She was more comfortable.

Tuesday evening tanks rolled into Harare.  Well how about that?  In all the single parent travel scenarios I had envisioned I had not thought through what to do in the event of a coup d’état.   At least, I supposed, the government takeover was in Zimbabwe and not Malawi.  It directly affected me and not my daughter.  Although the outcome was unknown for awhile — we were confined to our B&B on Wednesday and escorted to the airport in armored vehicles through the military checkpoint on Thursday — the coup ultimately turned out to be one the most peaceful ever.  Still I was glad to get out when I did.  Landing back in Lilongwe and returning to the house and C was the first time I felt Malawi was home.

Trip Three

mother daughter welcome homeIn December I had to fly back to Virginia for three days of training.  It is a loooooong trip from Lilongwe to Virginia and I had no intention on leaving behind a not-yet-6-year-old.  So, for the third of three business trips C would come with me.  There would then be no need to fill out the medical and power of attorney forms.  No need to arrange to leave her behind.  But, I would need buy her plane ticket out-of-pocket and arrange child care while I was in training.  Child care is not particularly easy to find in the Washington DC area in the best of circumstances, and becomes a little trickier in less than ideal situations.  Though I would be taking my course at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia, I opted to again stay out in Herndon, close to my parents, my sister, and the school/daycare my daughter had attended three years before.  As a State Department employee I would also have access to up to five days of emergency back-up child care.  I would have options.  Just as I was planning to begin my babysitter search my parents let me know they would be available.  Thank goodness!  For three full days she had time with her grandparents and then her cousins when they came home from school.  It turned out to be a crazy quick trip but I was glad to have C along with me on the adventure.

Three months, three different business trips, and three different single parent solutions.  We both survived them.  After a wee bit of no travel time we may be ready for another.

 

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The Holidays in Lilongwe

1. Holidays

I do not always carve watermelons for Halloween, but when I do, my carving is awesome

I grew up in the US and had the usual holidays.  My mother used to sew our Halloween costumes.  She asked my sisters and I what we wanted to be several months before and then made it.  We trick or treating door to door in our neighborhood.  When I was younger, my aunt, and grandparents would come to our home for Thanksgiving dinner.  Once we realized we were not huge turkey fans we switched to our favorite: chicken schnitzel.  My mother made her own advent calendar and we made cookies and made crafts leading up to Christmas.

But there is a strangeness to moving frequently that challenges holiday traditions.  One never knows what will be available from one country to the next and what local customs may or may not exist.  We have to get creative.  Also, in the Foreign Service most of us head to a new post over the summer, and as we are struggling to settle in to new schools, new jobs, new homes, new routines, the holidays of autumn arrive.  One after another.

Prior to arriving in Lilongwe, C and I had already decided on her costume for Halloween.  She would either be Wonder Woman or a genie / belly dancer; one was packed in our UAB (unaccompanied baggage), arriving not long we we did, the other was ordered in August to arrive many weeks before the big day.  About a week before the holiday, the Embassy hosted a family-friendly snacks and happy hour with BYOP (Bring Your Own Pumpkin) for carving.  As the day approached I wracked my brain for where I might buy a pumpkin.  I vaguely recalled having seen something pumpkin-like at a supermarket.  But which one, I did not remember.  And, thinking back, the pumpkins had been white or green, but definitely not orange.  I asked around.  People were not sure.  An orange pumpkin seemed a tall order.  On the other hand, watermelons were in season and sold at regular spots alongside the road… Our first Halloween in Malawi also turned out to be my first time ever watermelon carving.  It turned out almost every had the same idea.  It also turned out that carving a watermelon is a little easier than carving a pumpkin, and the insides are more immediately consumable.

2. Holidays (1)

My “very confused holiday” trunk or treating decoration representing Halloween, Easter, Christmas, Birthdays, and Valentine’s.

The Embassy also arranged a little “trunk or treating” and party for the community.  I have now learned that other posts do this, but it was my first experience with it.  In Juarez there was trick or treating at the Consulate and in Shanghai residents of our apartment complex signed up with apartment management to give out candy.  In Malawi, we all live in free standing houses and although none of us live more than 15 minutes drive from another, we are somewhat spread out.  With trunk or treating, approximately 20 community members volunteered (me included!) to decorate the trunks of their vehicles.  The cost of admission for each trick or treater was a bag of candy.  Then bags of candy were distributed to each trunk decorator so there was plenty to go around.  Trunk decorators parked at the party location and kids trick or treated from trunk to trunk.  There was PLENTY of candy to go around, especially as kids could visit every vehicle in twenty minutes or less and then circle back around and do it all over again.  I had a few visitors come by about ten times!

Halloween in Malawi this year had an extra wrinkle.  Starting in September, rumors of supernatural “bloodsuckers” began in the southern part of the country.  Over the course of approximately two months, the rumors spread, accompanied by vigilante justice to capture, and even kill, those suspected of either being bloodsuckers or their associates.  While this may seem rather unbelievable–the rumors and the violent response–it was all too real and had a sobering effect on our work and celebrations.  The international school cancelled the costume dress up day; the Embassy cancelled an evening party; and I kept my scarier decorations in a box at home and came up with something else.

3. Holidays

Not my usual Thanksgiving tableau

For Thanksgiving C and I stayed in town.  There is just the two of us and I am not really much of a cook.  Certainly not Thanksgiving dinner kind of cooking.  You know, a meal that involves more than two dishes.  The Embassy Community Liaison Officer organized a event at a nearby lodge with a restaurant set by a pool and among gardens.  There, in 80 degree weather, approximately 20 of us met up for swimming and lounging poolside and a custom-made dinner.  The hotel staff did a pretty good job re-creating a traditional meal complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn on the cob.  The corn unfortunately was too tough / too raw to eat, but everything else was quite good.

Then of course the Christmas season followed.  Unlike other places I have lived overseas, Malawi went full on Christmas-mode.  In late October I headed to the Shoprite supermarket at Gateway Mall for some grocery shopping.  There the entrance was decorated in all its holiday splendor – a Christmas tree, gigantic tinsel arches, large dangling ornaments, and even a huge silver bow.  Inside there were two aisles of plastic trees, tinsel, lights, tree topping stars, Santa and elf costumes, and loads of wrapping paper.  Wrapping gifts would be no problem. Getting them is a little bit more work.  In late October the Embassy mail room notified the Embassy community that in order to ensure delivery for Christmas orders would need to be received at the mail facility in Virginia by November 10!   Impromptu gift shopping can be tricky for many of us overseas. Not even a chance to use Black Friday deals for Christmas gifts.

4. Holidays

Gingerbread house in the subtropics

C and I headed back to the US in early December; I had training. The stores there too were chock full of Christmas.  As usual the back corner of Target was as if Santa’s workshop had exploded.  C wanted ALL the Christmas decorations.  In particular, she wanted a three foot tall light-up lawn unicorn.   I tried to explain that it would not fit in the suitcase.  And that the plug and voltage would not work in Malawi.  And finally, that in America people decorate their lawns for other people to see, but we had a high wall all the way around our house.  C said that without that unicorn it would be the WORST Christmas EVER! But she also desperately wanted a gingerbread house, so I bought one.  I put it in the suitcase, snug so that it would not get crushed, and transported it the two flights and 17 hours back to Lilongwe.  Not a piece broken. C said it would be the BEST Christmas EVER!

We missed the Embassy Christmas parties, but returned in time for our own Christmas celebrations. We made the gingerbread house.  We put up our tree and decorated it–C had insisted I trade in the small tree I bought in Shanghai for a larger one, so I had purchased a five foot fake in the US and brought in my household goods shipment.  I hung up our stockings, with two new stocking holders just bought at Target — great for those who have no idea if they will have a fireplace or anything resembling one as they regularly shift around the world.  And I began the my tradition of the weeks of gifts for C.  We also prepared gift baskets for the staff.  I know, I still feel weird saying–and writing–that I have staff.  But it is a reality for many in the Foreign Service and there is no reason to pretend otherwise.  I had initially not been sure what to include thinking I might get something special while back in the States.  But I learned that what most people want are the staples – rice, sugar, salt, cooking oil, biscuits for tea – because Christmas in Malawi is about food and family.  I really enjoyed buying the baskets and the contents and assembling them, though giving was most definitely the best part.  Because I spend so much time overseas and even when back in the US my family has opted for the past several Christmases to do a gift exchange, it had been a long time since I had given gifts to so many people.

5. Holidays

The Christmas baskets

Then we headed to Majete for Christmas.  New Year’s was a quiet affair for us.  We headed out again to Gateway Mall – the closest thing to come to a US-style mall in Lilongwe.  C rode a motorized animal and we goofed off in the equivalent of the dollar store.  At home we had ice cream and watched The Goonies.  C, snuggled up against me on the couch, dozed off long before midnight — probably a good thing because when 2018 rolled around it sounded as if the neighborhood was under attack.  I hugged her tight.  Our holidays here, and our first five months, were different, but pretty okay.

Majete for Christmas

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A pool with a view

Our Christmas was not your usual snowy yuletide affair.  Though if I recall correctly, in the past twenty years I have spent only four in the U.S. and if given the choice I have a tendency to choose warmer climes over cold.  Still, I do not remember a Christmas quite like this – hot and humid, yes, been there and done that, but absent the African animals.

I knew being the new colleague on the block would likely mean a shorter holiday.  That I was prepared for.  The requirement to stay within Malawi though threw me for a loop.  Initially.

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Hippo, waterbuck, and impala by the banks of the Shire

Then I realized this was a wonderful opportunity for C and I to spend some time exploring Malawi.  I settled on Majete Wildlife Reserve located in Chikwawa District, in the far south-west of the country.  Majete is a Malawian success story.  Though established in 1955, by the 1990s the refuge had been poached to nearly nothing, with large game completely gone from the area and only a few hardy animals present, though at critically low populations.    Things looked pretty bleak for the park until 1993 when African Parks, an international NGO focused on environmental conservation issues in Africa (they just appointed His Royal Highness Prince Harry as their President), working with the Government of Malawi, took over management and rehabilitation of the reserve.  Today the reserve and its animals are thriving with more animals to be relocated to Majete in the next few years.  It is currently the only place in Malawi where one can see the Big Five (elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros, lion, and leopard).

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Baby yellow baboon

On Friday, December 22 C and boarded our flight from Lilongwe to Blantyre.  The 40 minute flight, just twice as long as our 20 minute drive from home to the airport, was probably the shortest flight my daughter has ever taken, one of our closest getaways.  C, who usually asks me how many planes we will take to our destination, was very amused that just about the time we reached our cruising altitude the pilot announced our impending landing.

At the airport we were met by a representative of Robin Pope Safaris—a big factor in visiting Majete was the opportunity to stay at their luxury lodge Mkulumadzi. We were driven the two hours from Blantyre to the reserve.  We traveled through the city of Blantyre, then up into the hills, finally over a hill into Chikwawa with a breathtaking view of the valley below with the Shire (pronounced Sheer-ray) River snaking through it; then down into the valley, across the Shire, through the provincial Chikwawa capital, and to the park entrance.

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The bridge to Mkulumadzi

From the reserve entrance to the lodge we spot kudu, waterbuck, impala, nyala, three elephants, several warthog and baboon.  Then we arrived.  Well, not really.  We arrived at a parking lot.  From there guests of the lodge cross a suspension bridge over the Mkulumadzi river.  Once over we jump into a jeep for a short two minute ride to the lodge.  This would become routine.  Lodge to jeep, two minute ride, cross suspension bridge, board safari jeep.  Return and do it all again in reverse.

At the lodge we are greeted curbside lodge management.  A short walk down a path to the main building of the lodge and we are received with cold washcloths.  C does not know what to do with it but I am grateful.  The south of Malawi is warmer and our transport vehicle had no A/C.  I was hot and sweaty.   The kitchen prepared our lunch.  We took a dip in the pool.  At 3 PM the lodge served tea and at 4 PM we headed out on a game drive.  C and I were the only guests the first day, which meant we had the game drive to ourselves.  That was a very good thing as game drives are long.  In Zambia, the four hour drives were not only long for C but also for me, especially the afternoon drives that went two hours after sunset.  For our first Majete drive we were out only 2 1/2 hours but added hippopotami, crocodile, vervet monkeys, and dung beetles pushing a ball of dung across the road.

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A friendly neighborhood bushbaby

Back at the lodge a bushbaby makes an appearance.  She is apparently a regular, showing up a few nights a week for some peanut butter.  I had never seen a bushbaby before, so this was a highlight.   We have dinner.  Afterwards it is 8 PM and time for bed.  The morning drives begin at 6 AM.  Because Malawi is so very, very dark at night, with so few lights.  Because we are staying in a reserve with even less light and our chalet is separate from the main building, and we are in a nature reserve with wild animals, we must be escorted at night.  Our guide has a flashlight but it barely penetrates the night, we can see only a few feet in front of us.  But it is enough light for me to see the scorpion cross our path.  Yikes!

Back in the chalet, the mosquito nets have been dropped around the bed and the tented wall lowered.  Our chalet is lovely.  It’s fancy and simple at the same time.  A large room with the bed placed at the center.  Sturdy walls on three sides, but the fourth is open to a deck that looks out to the Shire River.  From there we actually observe hippos in the river and hear their bellowing throughout the day and night.  We see both vervet monkey and baboons in the trees.  A family of warthogs walks by the deck.  In the bathroom the deep bathtub faces large windows; the shower too is open — though the only prying eyes that might see us are the animals.  There is no A/C but instead a cooling unit.  The whole vibe is relaxed and natural.

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A view of our chalet

Except at night.  It is all too natural and thus a little bit less relaxed.  Large beetles buzz around bumping into furniture.  Moths, some really quite large, fly around the room.  And spiders.  A daddy long legs sits by a basket in the room.  He does not bother me so much.  A two inch rain spider scurries across the floor towards me.  There was definitely screaming involved.  The spider makes no noise.  After he is dispatched I find an inch long black one watching and waiting high above the sink as I brush my teeth.  C and I can hardly wait to get inside the mosquito net and turn off the lights.

The following morning we are up early, but not too early.  We are still the only guests and thus the game drive departs when we want to depart.  We slept with the tent side down, but with only the netting and thus as soon as the sun rose the beautiful morning light filtered into the chalet as did the sounds of nature – the rushing of the rain-swollen river, the chatter of insects, lizards, monkeys and birds, and the honks and sighs of the hippos.  As I stood out on the chalet deck a rustling in the underbrush revealed a family of six warthogs passing by.

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C watches the warthog family from our deck

We headed out on the game drive at 7 AM instead of 6.  Maybe our late start was a factor, but we saw few animals.  The usual suspects – the impala, waterbuck, baboons, and warthogs – were out.  We also had the opportunity to briefly see some sable and two eland, the latter the largest antelope.  A massive male eland stood majestically in the middle of the road for a few long seconds before leaping into the brush, but I was not fast enough with my camera.  Later, we came across a male elephant taking a mud bath.  But C began to grow bored, demanding “new” animals.  I wondered about this – is my child so well traveled that she is already bored by safaris? “Ugh, it’s just and elephant, mom,” she says, accompanied by an eye roll.

Back at the lodge we enjoy our second breakfast and then retire to the chalet.  I read some while C plays with her toys.  I lie down for a nap.  C protests (she almost always seems affronted by the idea that mom might take a nap) but soon enough she is snoozing on the sofa.  It is hot and humid but the breeze and the tiredness that comes from keeping an eye out for animals on a long drive lull us to a delicious sleep.  We have a late lunch — its served when the guest wants anytime between noon and 2 — around 1:30.  We are dining when the much anticipated family with two kids arrive.  As soon as C had heard of their arrival the day before she had been eagerly looking forward to meeting them.  They did not disappoint.

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Shire river bend and lush rainy season foliage

A note here.  The lodge is really quite the get away.  It turned out they had no television, no wifi, no telephone signals.  I suspected there would be no television, but the lack of wifi was a bit of a surprise.  When our on game drives the adults are not only looking for the rare animals but with phones in hand are trying to catch the elusive wifi signal.  Here we were already the second day, with two and a half days still stretching ahead of us, and I wondered how we would survive.  Well I had brought my Kindle and my journal.  For C I had two books, presents from her grandparents she opened our first day, and she also brought her new Lion Guard set of characters.  Also, game driving can be tiring.  There was a pool.  And the lodge also had a number of board games, a few toys, and paper and colored pencils.  Still, I thought I might I have booked one day/night combo too many.

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Mom and baby impala

The family, two sisters with two children aged 4 and 9 (C is almost 6), joined us for the afternoon drive.  Again, a good combination as we could (and did) decide to head back a bit earlier as the kids flagged in energy and enthusiasm.  C was thrilled to have other children along.  We saw only one new animal, the bushbuck, but otherwise the same cast of characters: impala, nyala, waterbuck, warthogs, baboons, and hippos.  Though almost all of them had babies in tow as it is early summer.  Yet, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, I too was growing tired of not spotting new animals.  But the weather was good, the skies, blue, the air fresh, and we were in a national park in Africa.  Not too shabby.

Our third day, another game drive.  Another two minute ride in the jeep.  Another walk across the suspension bridge.  We drive for long intervals, sometimes for as much as 20 minutes, without seeing a single animal.  But we stop for a morning tea break at a viewpoint overlooking a bend in the Shire, the longest river in Malawi.  It’s 402 kilometers long from Lake Malawi until it flows into the Zambezi.  The greenery and blue tinged hills in the distance set off the brown fast flowing river gorged with rain; it’s beautiful.

It is Christmas Eve and we are slated for a river safari in the afternoon, but instead it pours rain heavily for hours.  We nap again and it is refreshing.  That day I do not mind.  But Christmas Day is the same: a game drive in the morning with few animals and an afternoon downpour that scuttles the planned river safari.  I have a harder time shaking it off on Christmas.  Though I am not used to Christmases with friends and family, we are away from home, disconnected, and I feel a sense of melancholy.  But the lodge puts together a lovely Christmas buffet lunch and includes small gifts for the kids.  C happily draws pictures and plays.  In late afternoon, as I return from fetching something from the chalet, the rains having finally moved on, I look up to see an incredibly beautiful late afternoon light in the sky and a rainbow.  I am restored.

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Elephants along the Shire

On our final morning we do manage at last to take the river safari.  The river is high and swift.  We see some fishing birds along the shore hunting, hippos lying low and dangerous in the water, and a family of elephants enjoying a gathering on the banks.  We see the Kapichira hydropower station.  It was here, at Kapichira Falls, where Dr. David Livingstone’s 1859 expedition halted, being unable to continue further up the Shire.  And now there is the hydropower station, which is significant for Malawi as the country generates at least 90% of its electricity from hydropower.

Back at the lodge we have lunch and then it is time to begin the two hour drive back to Blantyre and the flight to Lilongwe.  Despite the day before wanting desperately to be home, I feel now a little tug to stay.  It was a great getaway for C and I; I hope one she will remember well.

 

Zomba & the Lake

Two weekend getaways two months apart in two of Malawi’s most extraordinary places.

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A view down to Zomba town through the trees of the Plateau

Just a few weeks after arriving in Malawi our social sponsors, the family that prepared and eased our transition to the country, whisked us off for the Labor Day weekend.  Our destination: Zomba, the colonial capital of Malawi.

Early on Saturday morning, N–, S–, and Little N, their 5 year old daughter and already one of C’s favorite new friends, arrived to collect us.  N– did the driving the four plus hours from Lilongwe.  Having only recently arrived and only driven myself from home to Embassy or home to supermarket and back, the drive was an eye-opener.  It is hard to capture in words the changes from Capital City Lilongwe, where most of the expat community lives, with its large, high walled compounds, through the neighborhoods of the everyday population, where one steps directly from a simple brick home right onto the bright rust red earth alongside the road; chickens and goats roam freely.  Then a turn onto the M1, the main artery that stretches from the very northern border with Tanzania to the furthest tip in the south into Mozambique.  One might expect a major road with such a prominent name to be something of significance, yet there is no marker, no sign, to indicate that the two lane asphalt road is anything special at all.  Then at a large roundabout N– mentions that this is the borderline of Lilongwe.  There is again nothing to mark this change.  But soon the signs of urbanization fall away and although Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, there are times when there is no sign of civilization as far as the eye can see.

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The lovely Embassy Cottage

The scenery is unexpected.  The country is more undulated hills than flat.  I had expected flat, though I cannot say why.  We alternate driving on high plateaus and in valleys, past traditional villages, and thriving market towns.  Though there is more greenery than I expected, especially at the tail end of the cold and dry season, and more trees despite deforestation, the scenes are mostly sparse and dry, particularly in the latter half of the journey, after we have passed the town of Ntcheu, skirting the border with Mozambique, and left Central Malawi for the Southern region (the turn off which again gives no indication taking that right would lead you soon to an international border).

We arrive at Zomba but our actual destination was up, up, up the winding road of the Zomba Plateau, which rises some 6,000 feet above the Shire Highlands.  Near the top we stop, just past the famous Sunbird Hotel, at the U.S. Embassy cottage.  I had heard the cottage previously served as the summer retreat for the Ambassador when our Embassy was located in Blantyre.  The rustic wooden three bedroom cottage, seemingly to have escaped the worst of 1960s architecture, is built into a hillside; the front of the house just peeks over as you drive in and in back opens onto an expansive sloping yard.  Several baboon scurried away towards the trees as we approached.  There was quite a lot of greenery and the air was fresh; the altitude contributed to a cooler clime.  We were still in Malawi, but felt very far from the capital.

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Berry goodness

After unpacking the car and selecting the bedrooms, we made lunch in the cottage kitchen and ate out on the back patio.  Then S– and I and the two girls headed out for a walk toward the Plateau Stables to look into horseback riding for the following morning.  At the cottage gate hopeful berry sellers waited; they must have seen us pull in as there were no other residences at the end of the bumpy dirt drive.  I suspect Embassy folks are almost always good for a sale.  We did not disappoint as we not only bought strawberries and raspberries but also arranged to buy strawberry plants to take back to Lilongwe.

The Plateau Stables are just a 10 minute walk from the Embassy cottage, or a good 20 minutes if you walk with two five year olds.  No matter.  We had little planned but walks and relaxing and getting to know one another.  Along the path — deep orange dirt and jutted, wide enough for cars though surely a challenge during the rainy season — we came across baboon.  They strode forward purposely and though I tried to act nonchalant, as though I come across large primates on walks all the time, I doubt I was fooling anyone, least of all the baboons.  I eyed them warily as they too eyed me and we all kept on walking.  We arrived at the stables and while S– set out to organize our ride for the next day, the girls and I headed into the pasture in search of horses.  Little N had been before and had a particular horse in mind, C just wanted to see any horse, and then of course to pet a horse, and then of course to ride.  The scene was idyllic, green grass, tall trees, crisp mountain air, horses grazing…and baboons running around.  You know, the usual.

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Just another mom and child out for a stroll

It was not easy tearing the horse-crazy girls away from the stables, but after some time we walked back.  We prepared and sat down to dinner and then the cottage caretaker prepared a bonfire in the stone pit located in a gazebo in the backyard.  S–, the consummate host and planner, had brought music and the makings for S’mores.  The wood must not have been right for a bonfire as it smoked terribly.  Not being particularly woodsy myself, I could not have pinpointed the problem, but we all made do.  The girls and I did a lot of dancing to some Disney favorites and whenever the smoke made its way toward us, we shifted our dance location.  The cottage is stocked with movies and N– tried valiantly to set up the DVD player for some Disney classics selected by the girls, but it was not to be.  In the end the girls settled for some kids TV and us adults ran off to do what adults do when kids are distracted (shower without interruption!).

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The following morning we slept in and then enjoyed a homemade breakfast of eggs and toast and bacon.  Then S–, myself, and the girls headed off to our horseback riding adventure.  It was a cool morning, the temperatures perhaps in the upper 50s.  Mist hung over the plateau.  We rode the horses first across the Mulunguzi Dam.  With the dark green hills of tall pine, the nearly white overcast sky, and the steel grey waters, I felt as though I were somewhere in Europe rather than central Africa.  I half expected the Loch Ness Monster to rise from the waters or, at the very least, a crocodile to remind me where I was, but only the wind disturbed the surface of the lake.  Once across the reservoir, our guides lead us up into the forest.  With the exception of our own chatter and the occasional small group of women carrying bundles of branches on their heads (deforestation is a huge problem in Malawi–the wood is used to make homemade charcoal for cooking) to whom we called out “Muli bwanji” (“Hello” in Chichewa), the forests held a quiet stillness.  We only rode for an hour but it was a soul nourishing hour.  Or at least a soul-nourishing 50 minutes.  And then my rarely-in-the-saddle behind began to insist on getting down.

We regrouped at the cottage and then headed up the road to the Sunbird Ku Chawe hotel for lunch.  The weather was still chilly and we sat as close to the fireplace as possible.  Then an after lunch rests at the cottage — I indulged in a mountain cottage nap.  In the afternoon C and I met a guide who took us on an hour long mountain walk.  Initially, it looked like C might scuttle the walk complaining loudly in the first five minutes how incredibly far the walk had already been, but soon enough (thankfully) she got into the groove, looking for flowers and monkeys, or at the very least gave in.   Occasional forced walking in nature is good for children.

We spent another lovely evening at the cottage.  A quiet dinner, a fire in the fireplace.  Some board games.  I slept perhaps the best I had since arriving in Malawi.  The next morning after an early breakfast we packed up the car and by 7:30 AM were on the road back to Lilongwe.  Though it was just a day and a half and two nights, the plateau getaway had been restorative.

Two months later I pack up the car for our first self-drive trip outside of Lilongwe; our first Mommy and C trip in Malawi.  This time we headed east to Senga Bay, the closest beach on Lake Malawi.  I admit that I was a little apprehensive about the drive but I had been told it was very straightforward: head north on the airport road, turn right after the Carniworks store (a prominent butcher/grocery) on the only road that goes to the right, and then take that road all the way to the Lake.  An easy peasy 90 minutes.

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Its a lake that looks like an ocean

Well, perhaps not quite.  Everyone had told me an hour and a half, but it took me 2 hours.  Maybe it was that one wrong turn?  Or driving behind the truck piled high with people, standing room only, for way too many miles?  Maybe there was an extra police stop or two? Or maybe people just like to round down?  By the time we arrived at the Sunbird Livingstonia, at the very, very end of the road, I was tired and cranky.  Did I mention it is the super hot season in Malawi?  And also I still have not replaced the air conditioning in the car, inoperable due to someone stealing the relevant fuses somewhere between Durban and Lilongwe?  When my daughter tells me her armpits are melting, I tell her I did not have air conditioning in my cars growing up, but I actually really, really want to get those fuses replaced.  I just have not found the time just yet.  A hazard of being a single working parent in a new country.  But at long last we did arrive, maybe more than a bit sweaty, and I was underwhelmed.

At first.  Then we went for a walk along the beach – and it is a beach – as the sun set.  My daughter had asked to change into her swimming suit and I told her it was not necessary because we were just going for a walk.  I should know my daughter by now.  She had to walk in the waves.  And jump.  And skip.  And fall in.  On purpose.  She was so happy and it made me happy.

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Good Morning Senga Bay

It is dark early in Malawi.  By 6:30 all traces of day are gone.  We had an early dinner at the hotel and then headed back to our room – a cute little round chalet.  There was no air conditioning as the power does not support it (power is a continual problem in Malawi) but the hotel had provided a rotating fan.  I opened the windows and turned on the fan and we fell asleep to the sound of the waves.  Again, some of my best sleep in Malawi.

When we woke and opened our front door I was confronted with a dazzling view.  The whitewashed gate to our chalet stark against the hotel greenery, sunlight glinting off the blue lake waves.  Rainbow skinks skirted across the sidewalk.  Large glossy black and white pied crows, soared from palm to frangipani tree.  Wow.  I was both immediately glad I had booked two nights so that we would have an entire day, and simultaneously sorry we did not have longer.  C was ready to get down to business and demanded we eat breakfast as soon as possible so she could *finally* put on her swimming suit and properly get into the lake.

On the beach C ran at full speed across the sand, leaped repeatedly over waves, and could not seem to decide if she should have her pool noodle or the inflatable ring or neither.  She collected shells.  She lay on the beach staring into the sky.  She covered herself in sand.  At 2 1/2 hours I said we needed to go in and clean up for lunch.  We are very fair skinned folks; I usually try to limit our beach and pool time.  But I let her play a long, long time (and as a result we ended up with her first ever sunburn — though with such fair skin I am amazed we made it nearly 6 years without a burn).  Her laughter was too infectious.

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The Goat Herder

We drove to another hotel known for its extensive menu of Indian and Chinese dishes for lunch.  Along the way, we drove through a village and C declared that she very much needed to pet a goat.  I asked that she wait until after eating for the goat experience and she reluctantly agreed.  Following lunch I parked across the street from the hotel entrance, near where we could see some goat kids playing.  C declared that it would be quite easy to catch a baby goat due to their small size and her incredible speed.

The goats proved more resourceful and speedy than she anticipated.  Fairly soon, the sight of a blonde child running after goats in the village drew the attention of a crowd.  Several children approached me but I could not answer their questions as they did not speak English.  But soon enough a woman stepped forward as translator and I explained my daughter’s desire to pet a goat.  This was communicated to the group of children, who hooted with laughter and then set off to catch one.  One boy managed first to rope a large goat and dragged it over to my daughter to the seeming delight of everyone.  C was pleased and shyly pet the goat.  The boy then set off to capture a baby goat to also offer up for for some hugging.

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Beach boulders – even the bird crap looks cool

Back at the hotel we had some pool time (and by “some” I mean another 2 hours!) and C quickly made some friends with some other children.  Most of them were also from Lilongwe and also attended the same school.  We then took another sunset walk on the beach — I wanted to head over to some rock formations at the far end.  They did not disappoint.  The large boulders, the sand, the water, the darkening sky with just a hint of pink: it was beautiful.  C was initially skeptical about the walk and the rocks, but soon enough she was crawling on them and leaping off.  She even posed on all fours, facing out to sea, head raised in a roar — she told me this was Pride Rock and she was in her “Lion King pose.”  Walking back she actually ran right into a classmate from school and I had a chance to talk to him mom while the kids played.  It seemed all of Lilongwe had come to Senga Bay for the weekend.

I suppose if I had grown up around one of the Great Lakes, I would not be so surprised and taken with a lake that looks like an ocean.  The waves that roll along a sandy beach, the whitecaps as the wind whips up the water.  And a horizon in which one does not see another shore, only perhaps an island.  And yet without the salty smell of the sea.  Of course I grew up in Northern Virginia instead, but I am sure Lake Malawi would be impressive anyway — the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest lake in the world.

Two weekends away in Malawi.  Extraordinary.

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C looks out at Lake Malawi

South Luangwa, Zambia: The First Safari

3Safaris.  African animals large and small.  It’s one of the reasons I bid to come to Malawi.  My daughter is at an age where she loves to run and explore outside and she loves animals (When I ask her what is her favorite animal she replies “all of them.”)  Shanghai was good for us in many ways, but playing outdoors was not one of them.  However, given my daughter’s age, there are actually not that many safari experiences she can participate in.  But there were opportunities in Malawi.

Soon after arrival I learned the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO) had organized a 2 1/2 day safari to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia for the Columbus Day weekend.  I signed us up immediately.

Departure day arrived.  Two months into our Malawi sojourn.  I wish I could say we were settled, but we are not quite there yet.  The house and yard are still works in progress as is my gradual learning about all things Malawi.  In this frame of mine I really needed a change of scenery, a new perspective, and some quality Mommy and C time.

We met our fellow Embassy safari enthusiasts at a central location bright and early at 7:15 AM on Saturday morning and from there boarded our Kiboko Safaris shuttle van for the trip.  The 90 minute drive to the border went quickly.  The scenery repetitious – two lane road, bicyclists, walkers, goats alongside.  Occasional village scenes.  And then we arrived at Mchinji and disembarked for immigration proceedings.

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Our South Luangwa camp accommodation

It was dusty and colorful.  There were lots of large trucks idling and parked in the space between the two immigration buildings.  Lots of people moving seemingly unencumbered between either side.  This was C’s very first land border crossing and at first she seemed annoyed to have to get off the bus for the formalities.  She has been through passport control many times in her young life, but never by land, and never quite like this.  As I already had my visa and C, as an under-16 minor did not require one, we completed immigration rather quickly on both sides.  At the Zambian immigration office I presented our World Health Organization immunization cards to prove we had been vaccinated for Yellow Fever.  Though not really an issue in either Malawi or Zambia immigration officials nonetheless ask and one can be denied entry or fined.  But on this day the official told me her Yellow Fever certificate colleague was not at work and thus it was not required. Of course not.

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A beautiful bee-eater in the park

The next three hours too were not eventful, which when you are careening down shoulder-less paved roads where goats and bicyclists and villages come out of nowhere is how you want your trip to be.  The smooth drive was punctuated by stops for random traffic police checks and poorly marked speed bumps, both of which Zambia has in common with Malawi.  The big surprise though was the Zambian border town of Chipata. Just 20 minutes from the border, Zambia’s fifth largest city is about half the size of Lilongwe, but it stood out in developed glory.  Parking lots with clearly defined parking spaces and no pot holes!  Four lane roads!  With curbs and sidewalks and even bike lanes!  My eyes bulged in wonder.  It had already been two months since I had seen such order and it seemed strange and foreign and magnificent.

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Neighbors

We arrived at our camp just outside South Luangwa National Park around noon.  C picked out tent, one of the closest to the river bank, and we unpacked and relaxed.  We had a few hours before 3:30 tea time and the 4 PM start to our evening safari drive.  C enjoyed the pool and I caught up on some reading.  We also met some of the other guests at the camp, which included antelope, monkeys, baboon, and white frogs.  In the river sSeparating our camp from the park, which at the height of the hot and dry season had shrunk a good 100 meters from the bank, wallowed several hippos and most likely hid more than a few Nile crocodiles.  On the other side of the camp, several bachelor hippos stood submerged in a grass-chocked pond.  At our 3:30 tea break we were informed that upon return from the four hour evening and night drive, we could no longer freely roam the camp.  Flashlight wielding sentries were posted outside our tents to escort us to and from the ablation block and cafe/bar because hippos, elephants, and other wildlife have been known to wonder through the camp at night.

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He stops on the hunt to pose for pictures

As we headed out on the first drive both C and I were giddy with excitement.  About seven years ago I had spent five days at Kruger National Park in South Africa, so this was only my second safari experience.  I had been looking forward to doing this with C for quite some time.  Within minutes we saw the hippos and elephants and antelope and baboons and cranes.  We passed over the bridge to the park and spotted more hippo in the river, then a warthog and giraffe.  All within ten minutes of starting.  Thirty minutes in and our driver’s radio sparked to life.  A leopard had been spotted!  We picked up speed and bumped over the dirt roads and across a grassy plain to a ravine where he lay out of sight of several zebras, antelope, and waterbuck.  He picked his way through the ravine, alternating between stealthy runs, picture perfect poses, and languidly laying about.  Though we had hoped to watch a kill, or at least a chase, he could clearly wait us all out.

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Safari C.  I could barely hide my pride at how well she handled herself

We went on to see more animals as the sun set over the park, including a herd of Cape buffalo.  In the night our “spotter” stood in front of the jeep scanning the darkness for animals with a spotlight.  Though we did see a few animals C and I were tired and would have liked to return to the camp early.  But the night sky stood clear and bright.  Overhead we could make out the Milky Way, Orion and other constellations, and the International Space Station as it made its way across the night sky.  The radio again crackled, news of a lion far across the park.  C, on my lap, and I, sitting in the back of the jeep, held on to the seat bar and closed our eyes, turning the zig-zagging, bumping, drive into a kid-friendly roller coaster ride.  At last we arrived, the lion far from the jeeps, barely visible in the spotlight even with binoculars.  A bit anti-climactic.  All the jeeps turned quickly and sped toward the park entrance — we crossed the gate threshold at 7:58, just two minutes before the park closed for the night.

The following day began bright an early with a 5 AM wake-up call.  5:30 AM we had breakfast and by 6 AM we headed out on our early morning safari drive.  Immediately after crossing the bridge to the park we were greeted by monkeys and lioness!  We spotted a tree squirrel, a family of warthogs, giraffes, zebras and more.  At a watering hole in the shade of a giant baobab tree we saw massive stork, cranes, guinea fowl, an African Fishing Eagle, hippos, crocodiles, and impala.  As a group, our jeep decided to return to the baobab tree for sunset that evening.

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While C hung out with other kids, I made a friend of my own

Back at camp at 10 am we again communed with other guests of both the two and four footed kind.  C joined with other kids (the next youngest was 11 years old but she wanted to spend some time with them rather than her mom) to play a card game.  We had lunch.  C swam in the pool.  We both took a lovely mid-afternoon nap in the heat of our tent, cooled only with the slow rotating movement of an electric desk fan.

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Sunset at the baobab – storks and their nests in the branches

Tea time and then out again for another sunset and night drive, our third and final safari.  We headed across the park towards the massive baobab tree.  Across a grassy plain we watched impala and giraffe meander together.  A warthog running nearby.  Alongside the river, high on an escarpment, hundreds of brightly colored bee eaters soared and darted from their nests in the bank.  In the water dozens of hippos bellowed and a Nile crocodile cut smoothly through the water.  An old, very tall giraffe later grazed on high branches above our jeep.  And still later a bull elephant stood firmly across the path, and we waited him out.  But soon behind we found his his young male scion and his mate.  Finally we arrived at the baobab for tea and the languid sinking of the African sun.

After dark the safari was uneventful.  Note to self: in the future, when safaring with a young child, see if there is an option for a 2 1/2 hour sundowner drive.  The four hour ones were too long for us.  C fell asleep.  I too might have been able to close my eyes, despite the rough and bumpy road.  I cannot recall eating dinner upon return, just an early lights out.

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My Zambian acquisition – an exquisite wall hanging

On Monday, the holiday, we were able to sleep in until 6:30 AM.  Breakfast at 7 and we were all off for the return to Lilongwe by 7:30.  Thirty minutes into our journey we stopped off at Tribal Textiles (http://www.tribaltextiles.co.zm/), where hand painted batik-style fabrics are turned into beautiful handicrafts for the home.  After a short tour of their processing facility they took us to their amazing shop.  Bright, bold colors and gorgeous designs popped off beautifully crafted fabrics.  I could not help but by something for our new home.

As we headed back to Malawi, C asked me “How long to the border?”  I stopped myself.  Just two days before when I explained the border crossing, she had no understood a land border.  Now she understands, at least in part, the imaginary line that divides two countries.  She took her own passport and confidently handed it over to the immigration officials.  She stood at one point approximating half her body in Zambia, half in Malawi.  She’s five.  We may not quite be settled here in Malawi, but I was reminded of why I wanted to come here, to expand both mine and my daughter’s horizons.  And to safari.

Car & Driver Lilongwe Edition

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The entrance of the road where we live

One needs a car in Lilongwe.  Well, wait, let me back up a bit already.   A large percentage of Malawi’s approximately 1 million residents do not own a vehicle.  They get around on foot, by bicycle, keke, or mini bus.  But for the expat community a car is pretty much essential.  Due to safety/security issues we are generally either high discouraged or even barred from taking the mini buses and taxis, as you know them in large cities, are non-existent.  So, prior to our arrival I needed to go about acquiring a vehicle for  Malawi.

The Acquisition Saga

I had two options for buying my car: either purchase at post from a departing diplomat or buy from Japan and have it shipped to Malawi.  After some consultation with my predecessor and colleagues I opted for option B.  Information provided by the Embassy indicated I would need to start the process early as it could take as long as four months from beginning to end, so in late February of this year (2017) I contacted IBC Japan to begin my search for my dream Malawi car.

Why buy from Japan?  Well, in Malawi we need a right-hand drive vehicle as the country drives on the left, i.e. the opposite as the US.  Japan is a huge market of used right-hand drive vehicles.  I recall from when I lived in Japan that the Japanese have to pay a vehicle tax every two years that as one’s car depreciates can quickly become more expensive than people are willing to pay on an older car.  So, the Japanese have a tendency to unload their used vehicles once they are over six years old.  With an excellent local and long distance train network, Japan also does not really have a “road trip” culture, so personal cars also generally have low mileage.

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My ride.  Her name is Stella.

I decided on the type of car I wanted–a Toyota RAV4 (the ubiquitous Toyota brand means parts are more readily accessible, cheaper, and more mechanics are familiar with them (though I still bought FOUR spare tires, extra oil filters, and high quality oil to bring with me); a RAV4 for the road conditions)–and searched through the IBC Japan database for one within my price range.  I was connected with an agent.  By the end of March we had agreed on a car and a price.  So far, so good.

Payment was tricky.  I had the option to do a bank transfer or, if I wanted to pay by credit card, to pay through PayPal.  I opted for the latter.

I should not have been surprised to receive an email notification of “unusual activity” from PayPal immediately after submitting payment.  It was not so much surprise as a long, heavy, resigned sigh.  Because it is odd to have an American PayPal account with an American credit card, purchase a vehicle from Japan, to be shipped to Africa, while using the Internet in China but through a VPN saying my location is Canada.  That probably does not happen every day for good reasons.  But it can be the reality for Foreign Service Officers.  Luckily a quick call to PayPal, a few good chuckles over my situation, and a little hoop jumping to prove I was who I said I was and the payment went through.

Stella – my sweet silver 2006 Toyota RAV4 – began her journey from Kobe port in Japan to Durban in late April.  By late May she arrived in South Africa — I have little doubt happy to get off the boat.  I too was glad to hear of her arrival as the flurry of emails regarding her paperwork during my Home Leave was a little nerve-wracking.  The Japanese company had mailed all the documents but unfortunately, although they always do this in every other case, had failed to scan a copy to email to me.  The Embassy could not locate the original documents and thus would be unable to clear the vehicle through customs.  Eventually they were located (misplaced in the mail of another agency) and Stella rolled off the boat to freedom.  Well, to waiting until a truck could be filled to capacity and then driven to Malawi.

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A “station” for the ubiquitous mini bus.  It seems random, but I expect the stations are not–this is near the city market.  Mini buses are known for being overcrowded, in poor repair, and driven recklessly.  But they get most people from Point A to Point B.

I received occasional reports of her journey.  The truck has left the port.  The truck is at the Mozambican border.   The carrier is at the Mwanza Border under clearance to Blantyre, will then proceed to Lilongwe once offloaded in Blantyre. Your car has arrived in Lilongwe.  The last happened sometime in late June or early July.  There were further clearance and registration processes for the car before she could be released.  Just a week before my arrival I received notification that Stella was cleared but she had a flat tire, a dead battery, and an empty gas tank.  They would run diagnostics.  I nearly had a nervous breakdown — after all Stella and I had been through… I had visions of having to scrap her and buy yet another car.  I called Lilongwe, six hours ahead, and learned that it is very normal for cars to arrive in this condition as they have been chained up in boats and trucks for months, have not been driven, and gas tanks were kept low for transport.  A quick test and Stella roared back to life.  When I arrived she was sitting pretty in my driveway at my new home.

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The keke – Malawian version of the tuk-tuk

I wish I could say that was the end of it.  That Stella and I lived happily ever after.  Stella is Japanese after all and we have had more than our fair share of communication issues.  Her manuals are all in Japanese.  Initially, whenever I started the car, a voice chirped in an overly-caffeinated voice a Japanese greeting informing me to “insert my card.”  That is until in a wee bit of a fit I might have ripped out the cord attached to the card reader.  The radio only goes to 90.0 FM and thus plays only one Malawian station, sometimes.  The automatic windows have to be raised incrementally to close or they will only roll themselves half way down again. The second key — not a key, but a “smart key” fob — was misplaced for a few weeks.  The folks in South Africa didn’t have it, the Embassy didn’t have it, it wasn’t in the car… Until it was found in an envelope in a file drawer.  As the temps have raised with the change in seasons from the Malawian “winter” to summer, I found the A/C only blows hot air.  A colleague checked and deduced the fuse was missing.  Another colleague, with a mechanic background, took a look.  He said it is common sometime during transit for parts to “go missing” and his own A/C fuse had experienced a disappearing act.  He confirmed it was gone and also informed me my two large headlight bulbs had been stolen as well.  <sigh>  A friend who had served in another post in Africa though was less sympathetic — she told me to look at the bright side, they could have stolen my engine block.  Very true.

Getting Around

Before arriving in Malawi I had tried to Google images of Lilongwe roads to have a sense of what was in store for me.  Frankly, I found little.  No surprise there, roads are, in general, not the most photogenic of subject matter.

10. roads of Lilongwe

Lilongwe Roads

I am not quite sure what to say.  The roads were both better and worse than I expected.  They are paved.  Some have center lines.  There are streetlights and traffic lights.  But I also found that the edges are often eroded in jagged lines — as if a giant animal had gnawed off huge chunks.  There are frequent potholes and even, surprisingly, some speed bumps.  The holes are often visible — filled with rust colored dirt.  The speed bumps on the other hand have few markings and can catch you by surprise.  There are rarely shoulders other than dirt — so cyclists (often with loads of sticks or straw several feet wide) and pedestrians generally choose to walk on the asphalt.  The streetlights rarely turn on and the four traffic lights (that I know of) are often dark, not functioning.  Not so surprising in a country where only 10% of the people are connected to the power grid — electricity is a luxury.

roundabout and traffic light

The roundabout on Presidential Drive (left); City Center with broken (again!) traffic light (right)

I found driving initially difficult, not because I was driving on the left side of the road, but because I was driving an SUV, which I had not done before.  Stella’s top left corner seemed very far away and I found it difficult to gauge where I was in relation to the side of the road.  When possible, I give the pedestrians and cyclists a very wide berth.  Driving at places where there are traffic lights and they are not working, which more often than not seems to be the case, provides an extra level of difficulty and sometimes seems like a game of chicken.   The roundabouts, which are more common than traffic lights, appear straightforward.  Arrows indicate which lane go get in if you want the first, second, or third turn off.  But almost daily I have to battle it out with a local driver who seems to think all lanes of a roundabout lead wherever they want to go.

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Not so legible street signs mixed with advertising

Additionally, I found it difficult to find my way around.  Lilongwe is not a particularly large city and in the eight weeks I have been here, I have now learned the basic routes to and from work, to the various supermarkets, to key points of interest, and to my colleague’s homes.  It is compact enough that two weeks ago my five year old directed me to her school from memory of the route her school bus takes.  (a very proud moment for me).  Street signs though are uncommon and when they exist are not always easy to find or easy to read.  I often use landmarks instead — turn right at the T-junction where there are tires under the tree or take the third exit from the roundabout and then turn left a the store with the big blue letters.

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Rush hour and traffic light on Kenyatta Drive is out (again!) leads to a Lilongwe-style traffic jam

One cannot really do relaxed driving. My defensive driving course comes in handy here.  Besides the pedestrians and cyclists and other things that might run out on the road (maybe a hyena), the other drivers keep you on your toes.  As a gross generalization, Malawians are not good drivers.  Again, there are not that many people driving, and many may be those mini bus and keke drivers.  There are a fair number of people who seem to have licences but are not very good drivers.  The newspapers are full of front page stories of car accidents; I saw an accident on my way to work today.

As a working single mom with a school aged child, I realize that I probably need a back up driver.  My nanny, a young woman, also the single mom of a 5 year-old, with a good head on her shoulders, has a driving license, but is not a confident driver.  To her credit, she admits this (as I have heard from others the tendency is to over inflate one’s driving ability).  To boost her driving confidence, I have enrolled her in some remedial driving classes, and on occasion I have her drive C and I somewhere, such as to the Embassy to visit the clinic or to the gas station.  She is slow and careful, which I rather prefer.  There are times though it feels as if I am a parent of a daughter with a newly-minted license, and it struck me that I am old enough to be my nanny’s mother.  In fact her mother and I are the same age.  I hope however the courses and practice give her, and me, the confidence in her ability to some day drive my daughter to school functions on her own.  My colleague’s experience with this, does give me pause.

Eight weeks in and I am fairly confident with the car and driving though still trying to figure so much more out.

2 gas prices

For those who complain about gas prices.  It works out to about $4.28 a gallon

Travel to and Arrival in Malawi: On Bugs, Hyenas, Darkness, and Home

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Our new home! A view of our backyard our very first morning in Malawi

We made it to Malawi!

And when I say “we” I mean myself, my daughter, our two cats, and all our luggage.  There were more than a few times I thought this day would not come.

Departure Comes at Last.

Those last few weeks before departure are madness. I find myself questioning my choices regarding packing — I seem to have kept back way too much clothing for the final two weeks, and odd choices at that.  We eat out more because the food supplies at home are dwindling.  And the procedures for another international cat transport move into high gear.

Oh boy, the cats.  I love them.  But nothing tests that love more than when it comes to crunch time before the move.  To get the cats to Malawi I need to first have reservations on the flight.  That was hugely challenging because the Ethiopian Airlines call center appears to have no idea what I want.  It took a month of emails and phone calls to finally get the cats a reservation.  A little more than two weeks out, in desperation, I call Ethiopian Airlines at Dulles Airport where someone in baggage answers.  This person gives me the same number I have been calling repeatedly with no result for weeks.  When I lament this turn of events he says, “What if I gave you the direct number of some international ticketing supervisors?”  I, sir, would nominate you for Man of the Year.  Two of the three supervisors lines when direct to voice mail, but the third, a hero in my book, not only answered her phone but had corrected my problem within 24 hours.  But then the fun really began.

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The money is going to take some getting used to.  I needed this stack to open up my Internet.

In order to transport the cats internationally, I must have a USDA-APHIS certified vet conduct an examination certifying they are healthy enough for travel.  For Malawi, this must be conducted no more than 10 days before the flight.  Those examinations and paperwork, to the tune of $210, must then be scanned and emailed to Malawi where a Ministry will issue me an import certificate.  That takes a few days.  And then those docs are mailed back to me.  I receive them three days before departure.  Stress nearing critical mass.

Also three days before departure I am notified that the housing we had originally been assigned is now unavailable due to necessary upgrades.  The housing I had the pictures of since April.  The housing I had purchased items for since May.  Nothing to be done about it.  Oh, and I also receive an email informing me my car – bought and shipped from Japan – has a flat tire, a dead battery, and no gas.  I must take a deep breath.  Several. Its time to be Foreign Service Flexible again.  As always.

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A restaurant around the corner from my Malawi home.  I am highly likely to become a regular

Finally, it is the eve of departure.  I am in training until 4 PM.  I pick up C from her final day of international preschool, we ride the shuttle home, and the final packing begins in earnest.  As I fill suitcases to the brim I take them to the car.  C — trying to be helpful as we catch the cats to put in their carriers — somehow locks the bathroom door.  I then have to go to the front desk to see if their is still a locksmith available after 5 PM.  Luckily there is.  Packing the car proves troublesome.  I had a Honda Civic — a loan from my father.  There is the car seat in the back.  And two large cat carriers.  And four suitcases – two small, one medium, one large.  And a stroller.  And two backpacks.  I pack one of the two apartment keys somewhere…thus incurring a US$50 fine in our last hour at the apartment.  We had arranged dinner with my family at 6:30 PM near Dulles Airport, near the hotel where we would stay, 45 minutes away from our apartment.  We finally depart at 6:45.  We miss dinner with the family though they buy us food and meet us at the hotel.

Departure day: 11 AM flight.  We have to check in around 7:30 AM with the cats.  We are up at 5:30.  Around 6:30 AM my brother drops off my dad, who will take us to the airport in his car.  We determined the night before we cannot go in one car, so my aunt loads the cats in hers and we caravan to the airport.

And then suddenly it is happening.  Cats’ flight fees paid.  Cats’ examination by TSA and then they are whisked away.  We check in.  Security.  And off we are to Addis Ababa.  There I ask to see the cats, as we had been told at Dulles we could see them in transit.  We are told no.  Boarding in Addis is hectic and confusing.  But when I ask a flight attendant on our Malawi flight about the cats, she confirms with ground staff they are on board.  I make her confirm they are also ALIVE.  Four hours later we are landing in Lilongwe.  As the plan descends, I can see no proof from the air that a city is anywhere nearby.  But there is an airport.  Blurry-eyed we deplane.  We are met by P from the Embassy.  I have been in contact with him for months.  It is so good to see a friendly face.  He helps whisk us through customs and immigration.  He helps at the baggage carousel, where I am surprised to see two large pet carriers with mewing cats come along.  They made it!  Our social sponsor and daughter met us outside to whisk us to our new home.

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Sterilizing fruit

First impressions and challenges.

I have traveled to approximately 100 countries around the world, but the vast majority of those have been in Asia and Europe.  Next would probably be Central America and the Caribbean.  On the African continent I have visited only Tunisia, Egypt, and South Africa, for 10 days as a tourist in 2010.  I am not sure anything compares to Lilongwe.

The moving process is never easy.  No matter how many times I have done this, arriving at a new home, filled with Embassy-provided furniture, and a welcome kit of pots and pans, bland towels and sheets, but devoid of anything personal, never seems to get easier.  Our social sponsor had filled our fridge with food essentials, drinks, and prepared meals.  Yet this is the first time I have arrived somewhere I could not just go out on my own to shop on day one.  I felt very out of sorts.

Buggy Friends

Our place in Lilongwe is about as different from Shanghai as can be.  We traded in a small, but swank high-rise apartment, on one of Old Shanghai’s oldest, and happening, streets, where we are surrounded by luxury stores and international supermarkets, to a large single ranch style home on approximately a half acre of land, which though located in one residential nucleus of the new city, there are few buildings over two stories in the city.  We went from the largest city in the world with a population of over 24 million people, to a city of approximately one million.  In Shanghai we had little interaction with bugs.  I am sure there are plenty of insects in the city, but rarely did we encounter them.  Never before had I received this email: We have been notified there is a swarm of bees at your house and we are sending someone. Or this phone call: Ma’am, your guard informed us there is a swarm of wasps at your house; we are sending someone. Nor did I have to submit a housing work order like this: There is a termite nest on my property; please send someone to take care of it.  In our four weeks, we have also had ants, crickets, beetles, and cockroaches attempt to make our acquaintance.  The last, unfortunately, has been a source of glee for C, who after seeing the Disney movie Wall-e believes roaches to be pet material.  She named the first one, no kidding, “Dead.”  And I agreed it was a fitting name.

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Seems romantic but our nets are a necessity

There are of course also mosquitoes.  Though we encountered these in both Juarez and Shanghai, this is the first place I have lived that is critical for malaria.  C and I take malaria prophylaxis daily and we sleep under nets.  Our arrival coincided with the cool season so we have not yet had many mosquito sightings, but as the hot and wet season comes, this will change.

These however have been the extent of our bonding with nature’s creatures thus far.  Well except also for a few lizards.  I do not mind them at all.  It is the snakes that I worry about.  And the hyenas.  Lilongwe is one of, if not the, only African capital where hyenas roam.  One colleague pointed out a corner where hyenas like to congregate, not far from the US Embassy.  Another told me of a recent evening when he came across an injured hyena, who had been struck by a car.  I have yet to hear their high-pitched sounds at night, but I expect it to be only a matter of time.

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Believe it or not but this is a main thoroughfare in the capital.  The streetlights though are for show.  They do not come on.

A Place for Early Risers

I am a night owl.  My daughter is a night owl.  Malawi is probably more a place for early birds.  The sun rises around 5:45 AM and sets 12 hours later, before 6 PM.  C’s school begins at 7:15 AM and her bus picks her up around 6:30.  I wake her up at 5:30, before the sun has risen.  I wake up 15 to 30 minutes before.  Embassy hours begin at 7:30.  We wake up and go to sleep in darkness.  And it gets very, very dark here.  I appreciate the lack of light pollution.  In Shanghai night was never truly dark.  From our window there were hundreds of thousands of lights visible throughout the night.  Here, it is pitch black by 6:30 PM, with little light to pierce it.

We once walked from our home to a nearby Italian restaurant, located around the corner, at 5:30 PM.  Many restaurants and businesses operate out of people’s homes and are located in residential areas.  I generally would say 5:30 is early for dinner, but of course 15 minutes later the sun went down, and by the time we began our walk home an hour later it was like deep night.  Though we live just around the corner, less than five minutes walk, we stumbled blindly back.  There are few streetlights, and the only light that cut through the darkness were the security lights from my own property, projecting just a little over the high wall of my property.

Security

Embassies take security of their personnel seriously.  I am used to living with bars on my windows and concertina wire around a property.  I am used to regular tests of our Embassy-provided radios to ensure we know how to operate them to contact and be contacted by Post One, usually the Marines but sometimes the Regional Security Officer, in the event of an emergency.  We take part in drills.  It is par the course as a Foreign Service Officer and their family members.  Shanghai though was different.  Living in a leased apartment in a high rise, we were without the window bars, without the radios, without the concertina wire.  Now we are back to that and more.  As this is my first time to live in this kind of housing, it takes some getting used to having a guard on the property 24/7.  To have the floodlights scattered around the yard.  And to have so many, many locks.   All told I have something to the tune of 43 locks: 16 door bolts, 12 doors with keys, and 15 locks on closets and cabinets.  This does not count the locks for the garden gate, the garden sheds, the garage.  We are certainly security conscious.

Just the beginning

It is a little hard to believe we have already been in Malawi a month. I struggle daily with not knowing things– not knowing how to drive to places, not knowing where to buy things, not knowing so many aspects of my job, not knowing many things about the city and the country where we now live.  Yet with each day I know more than I did the day before.  And there are so many more adventures to be had.