Viva Mexico City – 2004

Every so often I go back into my way-way back machine and pull up a travelogue from my past.  Back when I traveled on the cheap, I usually sent back travel stories to friends and family.  I am slowly going through them, editing them, and posting them on my blog. 

In early 2004 I was selected to take part in an assistantship through my graduate school.  Each of the participants would be working at a different international organization; I would be heading to an organization in Honolulu.  Beforehand, we all would take part in a three-week pre-departure seminar.  I decided to jet off to Mexico City to feed my travel bug in between the seminar and the assistantship. 

The weird thing though is that this trip is one of my least remembered.  Only a few photos from the trip remain, but they capture so little of my memories.  There are none of Frida Kahlo’s house, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Palacio Nacional, Xochimilco, the Templo Mayor, and many more major sights, in addition to the Zocalo, the subway, and other every day scenes.  Its unusual for me to take so few photos.  I searched through my old diaries, but I wrote not a single entry during the trip or even any about the trip later.  At least I sent out an email story.

Me and the Pyramids

Me at Teotihuacan

I was a bit hesitant to come to Mexico City.  After years of media reports on the dangers of Mexico, especially the capital, and the floods of job stealing migrants (ha!)  I had been subconsciously developing a latent fear and apathy towards Mexico.  Also, everyone and their brother warned me of the terrible dangers of taking a taxi from the street.  The guidebooks.  My aunt.  The man sitting next to me on the plane.  The hostel driver who picked me up at the airport.  It seemed a constant mantra drummed into me.  I wondered though if there were actually any danger left anymore, with so many people warned off this potentially disastrous act.

Still, I love the taxis, the traditional model of Volkswagen Beetle in bright green with a white top.  I recall hearing a story from a few years ago that although VW was discontinuing its production of the Beetle, it would continue to make the car in Mexico.  I see VW bugs all over the city, so it seems to be true.  Bright new Bugs zipping through traffic with sometimes terrifying velocity.  It might just be a good thing to avoid getting into one for reasons other than crime.

Another fear building up inside me in regards to Mexico City was the pollution.  I was under the impression considering the altitude of the city and the ring of mountains and volcanoes which surround the one-time lake – now Mexico City – trapped the pollution, leaving it hovering over the city.  I imagined asthmatic self, gasping for breath, perhaps falling by the wayside on some heavily polluted street making fish out of water type mouth movements as my lungs fail to suck in enough air for me to go on.  At the very least I expected a smoggy dark overcast sky greeting me each day.  I expected the air pollution to be visible and tangible, heavy, oily.  And yet, for the most part, each day has greeted me with beautiful blue skies with white fluffy clouds.  I have hardly used my asthma medicine, and I have not once been winded.

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The Dance of the Flyers

The city is amazing!  Mexico City is a vibrant, exciting, culturally and historically, rich metropolis.  Its wide boulevards seem to manage the tens of thousands of vehicles traversing the streets daily.  I have hardly seen a traffic jam.  The metro is a wonder; nine lines of clean, orderly and efficient underground trains zipping some five million people a day across and around town.  Considering the city was built on a lake by the Xochimilco people more than a thousand years ago, then built on top by the Aztecs, then on top of those by the Spanish, and is gradually sinking as the lake seeks to reassert itself, that there is an underground metro at all is quite amazing.  On top of the millions of people who daily (yes, millions every day) squeeze themselves into the of often overcrowded cars, yet the stations are kept quite clean and the system is easy and efficient to use.  I am very impressed.

I suppose I could wax on and on about this, but I have done more here than simply breath the air, avoid taxis, and enjoy the fantastic metro!

On my first day in the city I strolled through the huge market which encompasses the Calle Moneda (Coin Street) in front of the hostel and the surrounding streets, with vendors selling just about every possible thing one might need, from socks and CDs to underwear and sodas, to tamales and batteries, and handbags and electronics.  I figured if I were to move to Mexico City, I would not need to bring a thing and could buy everything I need on a long day to this amazing daily market.  Then I headed to the Palacio National, just across from the hostel, but facing the Zocalo, or main square, cattycornered from the imposing, but beautiful, facade of the Cathedral Nacional.  Inside the Palacio Nacional are the unfinished murals of Diego Rivera portraying the history of Mexico.  He planned to paint murals of the entire Mexican history, but due to illness, never completed past the arrival of the Spaniards.  A German girl from the hostel and I managed to procure a free guide who told us the history and symbolism of the amazing murals for a full hour!  I was entranced.

In the afternoon, I made my way to the Tower Latin America, what used to be the highest tower in the region.  My plan was to go to the top, but the building seemed so fantastically ugly to me, I felt repelled to even think of going inside.  Instead, I crossed the street to the opposing beauty of the Palacio Bellas Artes.  That evening, I walked further up the avenue to the Plaza Garibaldi, the haunt of the mariachi players.  I knew I was heading in the correct direction as I followed a man in tight black pants with silver down the pantleg sides, tall white socks, a short bolero jacket, and a guitar slung over his shoulder.  The Plaza was full of mariachis biding their time waiting for someone to commission a song from them.  Most were dressed in black, but a small group in magnificent green played to a couple in a small corner.  I imagined couples driving about the city, when the man suddenly decides a song would woo his sweetheart and he furiously heads over to the Plaza and wins the heart of his woman with a paid song by a smartly dressed mariachi band.  There did seem to be classy cars turning into the Plaza like a drive-thru serenade stop.

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Me standing with the stone sentries at Tula

On my second day I joined a tour to the Church of the Virgen of Guadalupe and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.  The huge church was built on the site where a local named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgen of Guadalupe, who told him to build a church in her honor.  Like many buildings in the city, the church is sinking, and one side more than the other, giving it the appearance of almost falling forward.

The Pyramids were amazing.  How to describe them?  They are not like the Pyramids of Egypt, as these have steps to climb up, as they were steps to take the priests to the temple located at the apex of the building for rituals.  They were not tombs, but are solid inside.  The Temple of the Sun is the third largest Pyramid in the world.  They were not actually built by the Aztecs but by a tribe of people who came perhaps 500 years before them, but used by the Aztecs when they arrived to their promised land.  Most of the buildings facing the Avenue of the Dead, the main drag down Pyramid row, were places for the higher personages in the society, though little remains of them.  I wanted to try and imagine the spectacle of this city as living and breathing, but the stark ruins and the dry countryside made that difficult for me.  Besides, the Aztecs were a rather cruel and brutal society, and I am not sure I would want to imagine the trains of people lined up for human sacrifices, their hearts ripped out of them in order to appease the Sun God thus ensuring the sun would rise the next day.  There was apparently one time when in the city of Mexico before the Templo Mayor (Major Temple) some four lines of sacrifices, stretching for three miles, awaited their fate to die for the Gods.  Though the Aztec art and architecture are indeed beautiful, much seems borrowed from earlier groups, whom the Aztecs admired and claimed as their ancestors, particularly the Toltecs.  The German Girl said she did not find the Pyramids impressive because of the lack of scenery surrounding them, but I still found them amazing.

On my third day I headed first to the Templo Mayor, a major Aztec temple now in the center of Mexico City.  In the early seventies, some electricians or city water people, or someone doing some sort of digging, stumbled upon a huge disc, several tons in weight, carved with Coyolxauhqui, the God of the Moon.  And this is how the temple was discovered.  I opted not to tour guide here and soon my head began to hurt attempting to translate the Spanish placards.  Mostly, I just walked the excavated portions and then through the museum.

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The healer shaman

My next stops were Mexican artist Frida Kahlo´s house and the final home of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  I enjoyed visiting Frida´s lovely blue house in a well-to-do neighborhood in the southern part of the city, but I found it odd there were few of her paintings on display.  I wanted to buy a postcard of a particular painting of hers, but it was not to be had.  In fact, there was not a single postcard of Frida´s paintings on sale at her house.  There were a few of her husband’s, Diego Rivera, and some photographs of Frida and Diego, but none of the paintings.  Leon Trotsky, who found asylum in Mexico at the insistence of Diego Rivera, an ardent socialist (he often painted Marx, Stalin, Mao into his pictures as well as industrial utopias and the famed ideal proletariat), came to Mexico in the late 30s.  He even had an affair with Frida, whose own home was nearby.  He was also assassinated in the house.  The first attempt left bullet holes in the bedroom wall across from the bed, the second, successful assassin employed the use of an ice pick.  I left the two houses with a thirst to know more about Frida, Diego, and Leon and the times and society in which they lived.

On my fourth day, together with a Romanian woman from the hostel, I visited the Museum Antropologica.  We spent more than four and half hours in the museum!  And I did not see it all as we spent so much time in the Toltec, Aztec, Maya and Oaxaca sections of the museum that by the time we got to the Mixtec/Oaxaca section we just blew in and out.  We stepped outside just in time to watch the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). While at the Pyramids, the guide had explained a number of favorite Aztec games and this Flyer was one of them.  A long pole is set up, let’s say 100 feet into the air.  At the top perches a man who will play the haunting Aztec flute.  Four other men, dressed as birds, climb to the top of the pole, wind four ropes around the pole, and then tie the end of the ropes to their feet.  A platform at the top rotates and off the platform the four men go, flying around and around the pole, arms outstretched as they are slowly lowered to the ground.  The version we saw seemed harmless enough, but from what I have learned from the Aztecs, I can hardly believe they just flew down and nothing happened to them.  Surely someone had to die?  Surely someone was sacrificed?  The other Aztec “games” do not appear so innocuous.  But this one was fun to watch…

The following day, I headed out to Tula, again with the Romanian woman.  Tula is another Aztec site about 70 kilometers to the north of Mexico City.  It too has a pyramid, though it’s in poor condition, but it’s the six magnificent Atlantes, 4.5-meter-tall carved stone statues of Toltec soldiers, which previously held up the roof of the sacred temple, which people come to see.  But, boy, was it an effort to get there.  First, there were seven metro stops with two changes, then a 15-hour bus ride, followed by a 10-minute mini bus ride, and then a 100-meter walk.  And through it all the Romanian woman regaled me, against my will, with the story of her recent tragic love story.  The weather was cold and a little dreary, having rained in the morning, and with continual dark clouds threatening to do it again.  The setting was lovely, though it would have been more so had the sun been out, but the dark skies and the purple mountain and what seemed like an extinct volcano in the backdrop gave the place atmosphere, though it was all overshadowed by the trials of a failed Romanian romance.

Mexican medallion

I may not remember much of my Mexico trip, but this necklace, my one souvenir, reminds me

On my final day I headed to the Xochimilco, the floating gardens, remnants of the original innovative means early settlers employed to create islands and finally the land over the lake, providing the foundations to build this amazing city.  At Xochimilco the gardens and homes are crossed by canals.  I had imagined flowers everywhere, something of what I had seen at Lake Inle in Myanmar, but I was disappointed.  Today Mexico City got to me.  The canals were choked with garbage, and I felt the strangle of poverty.  Though many of the homes were pretty nice, most had dogs, there was something dejected and dilapidated permeating the place.  Maybe it was just my mood.  I took a small launch for one hour.  Mariachis played on another boat; the sellers of sweet potatoes and tamales and roasted corn floated by.  It sounds idyllic, but I felt cold and disappointed, but most of all defeated.  I felt a great weight.

On the way back to the hostel, I saw more and more.  I saw traffic jams.  I noticed the presence of the hawkers on the subway cars.  I had seen them before, but today there appeared legions of them, a never-ending chain of them boarding every car, one at a time.  They would board, hawk their wares, CDs, children’s books, candy, crossword books, maps, tool kits, etc, ride one stop and then off they went to the other side to try another car.  A blind man boarded and sang on his karaoke machine.  Two youths perhaps 13 or 15 dressed in shabby and dirty clothes, who lay on glass shards.

I changed my larger money and began to give out small change to just about everyone I passed.  The pretty young girl in gold earrings selling bubble gum for one peso.  The old man with his fiddle, not playing too well because he is bent over and it seems a strain for him to play.  The old woman in a nondescript brown dress sitting in front of a church, her one leg bent at an odd angle.  The smartly dressed organ grinders.  The mother with two very small children bundled up in a blanket awaiting the night chill.

I headed toward the large market in front of the Zocalo and my hostel.  The crowds choking me.  Before, I had not been too impressed by the crowds, I have been to other countries with crowds to rival, but on Saturday the masses swelled.  The drums on the Zocalo reserved for the evening practice of headbanded people dancing to old Aztec steps had burst to an all-day frenzy of dancing with costumes.  I saw a shaman of sorts.  A bare-chested man with rough cotton trousers belted with a red sash, and a headdress of feathers cascading down his back, was exorcising the bad from people.  With a grey stone cup with a design of some sort, a person or an animal, with steam or smoke rising from it, he passed the stone and the smoke, whispering some words to the devotee.  The line grew to go through this ritual.  I jumped into line as well, and for a donation of five pesos I had my soul, or whatever, purified, receiving a small pink pebble in return.  Afterwards I did indeed feel better.  A placebo perhaps, but my heart felt much lighter for it.

Another great trip already at an end.  But my rusty Spanish improved slightly, I saw some amazing sights, and I have been cleansed.

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.

Part Two 2

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.

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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.

Part Two 11

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….

Namibia: Superlative Spring Break Part 2

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Heading up the Spreetshoogte Pass — sometimes the best view may be behind you

After our visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund we headed west to the seaside town of Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast.  Leaving Cheetah View Lodge we picked up a mother and son hoping for a lift to Otjiwarongo, the closest town.  On our trip we had already seen at least a handful of people standing by the side of the road hoping for a lift.  Though later we also saw quite a few no-hitching signs, at this point we had not yet.  I would not pick up a single male or a group of males, but a mom and young son, dressed in his school uniform?  There was little along that dirt road and they could be waiting quite some time.  Along the way we chatted.  The mother told me their lift had left them behind and she needed to get her son to town to complete some paperwork before school resumed after the Easter break.   She asked me what I thought of Namibia so far and I raved about the great roads, which, to my surprise, she responded that many Namibians complained about the state of the road system.  This really made me think of relativity — sure, there were places with more paved roads, but in comparison to the roads of Malawi, Namibia seemed a road paradise.

road to the coastWe dropped them in the center of Otjiwarongo and then headed southwest.  This road too was paved and in good shape, but I had miscalculated the distance and it took us an hour longer than expected.   As we approached the coast the green scrubs gave way to desert, and a fog descended, the clouds swallowing up the blue sky.

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Swakopmund in sun, from the end of the jetty

Arriving in Swakopmund we were surprised to find it chilly.  Before coming to Namibia I had set my weather app for Windhoek, and had packed accordingly.  However, while the app indicated a wonderful 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Windhoek, it was hovering in the upper 50s in Swakopmund!  We checked into the hotel, headed out for a late lunch, visited the small museum, and then I purchased myself my very own souvenier fleece jacket (I had had the forethought to bring C’s jacket).

The following day we were up early and soon on our way to the Cape Cross seal reserve.  Cape Cross is so named for the cross Portuguese explorer Diego Cão placed in that location in 1485.  The seal colony is the largest breeding colony of cape fur seals (actually a type of sea lion), with numbers over 200,000 animals!

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Seals between us and the parking lot; surrounded by seals at the replica cross

The sky was an overcast grey, the fog thick, as we made our way out of Swakopmund north to Cape Cross.  Although friends’ had noted the gravel road could be rough, it had been paved in the years since they left the country.  Yet, the sand had blown over the road and soon everything from the road, to the sand, to the mountains, and the sky took on the same steely tan color.  Every so often there were small stands set up on the roadside with various sizes of quartz locals had dug up in the desert.  However, no locals manned the stands, instead the purchaser is on their honor to leave the correct amount in the makeshift plastic banks.  As we closed in on the reserve entrace, a lone jackal made its way across the sands; I was far too slow to capture it with a photo.

Seals as far as the eye could see!  Hundreds of thousands of noisy honking, snorting, seals lying around nearly every available surface, loping across the sand, and cavorting in the waves.  The parking lot was surrounded.  The smell…was, um, frangrant.  We made our way to an enclosed boardwalk, we had to hoist ourselves over to one wall as there seemed no entrance.  Once inside, we could get quite close to the seals hanging right next to the boardwalk.  In fact, towards the end  two seals, who had sneakily made their way onto the walkway, blocked our forward movement.  When we tried to have our pictures taken near the replica of the Portugese cross, one seal kept making aggressive lunges toward me.  I screamed and the laughed as hard as I have in a long while.

Back at Swakopmund the fog lifted and the sky shone gloriously blue.  We had another incredible lunch, then headed for a walk along the beachfront to the very small national marine aquarium, then to the jetty.   Finally we headed to the Krystal Gallerie — mostly a super fancy quartz jewelry store, but it also has a small museum, a little cave to walk through, and a “scratch patch” where kids can buy a small bag and then pick out as many stones as they can fit into a bag.  C LOVES this kind of stuff and a really great time picking out her own “precious jewels.”

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C horseback in the moonscape

Our third day began with an hour horse ride to the moonscape outside of town.  Okakambe stables set us up with a wonderful guide, Noah, who knew exactly how to give C the perfect ride.  Although initially they had us set up with Noah’s son who would walk holding C’s lead, I convinced him C had enough horse experience to do it on her own.  He trusted me and C did a great job.  But that was not it, Noah gave C riding tips, and made her laugh at silly things, like when his horse began wandering away on its own.  Afterwards he tasked her to help remove her horse’s tack, clean its hooves, brush its coat, and then lead him back to the field.  The whole experience completely made C’s morning.

We then drove over to Walvis Bay, as I wanted to see some of the flamingos that flock there each year.  We were able to catch sight of some (maybe there were close to a thousand?), far fewer than the tens of thousands that are there at the height of the season.  Back in Swakopmund we were met by our living desert tour.  With our guides we headed into the dunes just south of Swakopmund and with a miraculous eye they saw tiny trails — little footprints, slither marks, small indentions in the sand.  They found us a Namaqua desert chameleon, a Fitzimmons burrowing skink, a shovel-nosed lizard, a sidewinder adder, a horned adder, and a super friendly Gray’s lark.

17 living desertThere was so much more to do in Swakopmund I was reluctant to leave, but we were heading south-east, back inland, to the Namib-Naukluft Desert, the oldest desert in the world.

It was Good Friday and as we headed south toward Walvis Bay, we were stopped in a long line of cars waiting at a police checkpoint.  Ugh.  There was nothing to worry about of course, but no one likes to wait in a police checkpoint.  And this one turned out to be absolutely nothing to worry about — they were handing out paperbags of Easter candy to motorists!  Another score for Namibia.

After Walvis Bay we headed into the desert and, for the first time, off the tarred roads.

road to solitaireMiles and miles of sandy gravel — stunning vistas but with few, if any, signs of civilization.  No houses, no gas stations, and almost no other cars.  It was exhilarating and also a wee bit scary.  This is where I was especially worried that I would blow a tire, run out of gas (although I had filled up before leaving Walvis Bay), or have some other car trouble, like run into an oryx that suddenly jumped out in front of me.  I had a long, long time to think, to daydream, and also come up with crazy stranded by the side of the road scenarios.  There were enough cars that should something happen someone would likely be along in about an hour, and we had plenty of water, but not something I wanted to experience with C on vacation (or ever).

166At long last we arrived at the town of Solitaire.  Well, town might be a bit of a stretch.  Solitaire is a gas station, bakery, lodge, cafe, general store, and mechanics at a t-junction, the only stop between the coast at Walvis Bay and the dunes at Sossusvlei.  The population is probably less than 100 souls.  The sandy yard around the settlement is littered with colorful and photogenic old rusting cars.  We stayed at the Solitaire Desert Farm seven kilometers away, down a sandy track towards some rocky red hills, that at sunset burned crimson.  The evening was still, with the exception of what I guess were jackals yipping playfully somewhere near our lodge.

We woke early, grabbed our pre-packaged breakfasts from the refrigerator and headed south to Sossusvlei before the sun rose.  This road too was gravel, yet rougher than the one from the coast.  But the hour drive went by quickly as watching the sun rise across the desert was truly magical.  We paid our fees at the park gate and headed straight for Dune 45.  There were some 30 people trudging their way up, a dozen at the top, and probably a dozen on their way down.  Whew.  Here we would go — a middle aged woman, not at her peak physical condition, and a seven year old child.  The climb, according to what I had read online would take 45-60 minutes; we made it in 35 and I felt really, really good about that.  No matter though the view would rejuvenate anyone.

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C heads back down Dune 45

Next we drove on to the parking lot at Sossesvlei where we caught a park shuttle bus to take us out to where we would walk out to Deadvlei.  Along the way we saw the results of stubborn people intent on driving themselves those last few kilometers — many a 2×4, and even a few 4x4s, tires spinning, sunk several inches into the sand.  Our shuttle picked up a few who were at least temporarily abadoning their vehicles in the interest of making the walk before the sun got too high.

We trudged through the now burning sand (we were barefoot for the hike up Dune 45, but now the sand was far too hot) a difficult 20 minutes to the white clay pan dotted with the skeletalized remains of 900-year-old trees known as Deadvlei (“dead marsh”), surrounded by some of the largest sand dunes in the world.

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C at Deadvlei

Whew, it felt like much longer than 20 minutes.  I snapped a few pictures as I caught my breath.  C never seems to need to catch hers.  We were both quite hot though, sweating despite the dryness.  I would have liked to have stayed longer had the temperatures been cooling, but with the heat seeming to rise several degrees per second, I was ready to get back to the air conditioning of the car.  Slogging back through the sand to the shuttle stop, I ended up in step with another visitor.  He seemed quite pleasant, a doctor from Australia traveling with his family.  Though when I think about it, I might have felt a bit more of annoyance when he expressed his surprise first that I might be a U.S. diplomat and then second that I could have ever run half marathons given my huffing and puffing across those dunes at high noon.  Luckily, I was a wee bit too tired to protest.

We drove back to Solitaire for another night, then the next day drove back to Windhoek, this time heading across the stunning Spreetshoogte Pass.  For a good two hours we  passed maybe a total of ten other vehicles, though at the top of the pass I took a picture of an American couple from Manhattan.  Back in Windhoek we had lunch then headed to our lodge for the final night, a room at the lovely Etango Ranch Guestfarm, conveniently located across from the airport, but which felt a world away.

Our road trip finished with 2,674 kilometers (1,661.5 miles) on the odometer.  It was a truly extraordinary journey to the north, west, and south of the country.  It was a journey of superlatives – the third youngest country in Africa, one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the oldest desert in the world, the largest fur seal colony, the oldest national park in Africa, the greatest concentration of cheetahs in the world, the most German of any of Germany’s former colonies…and some of the most stunning scenery anywhere.

 

 

Namibia: Superlative Spring Break Part 1

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A Himba woman in Windhoek

Namibia. I have wanted to visit this country since my friend CG traveled there during her posting to Angola.  All I knew is that Namibia is home to large sand dunes .  That sounded sufficiently cool.  Fast forward a decade and my daughter and I are living in southern Africa.  Another friend is posted to Namibia.  She once noted on Facebook that she had received a notice to stay indoors as a leopard had been spotted in her neighborhood in Windhoek.  That sounded terribly exotic; we only have the occasional hyena in Lilongwe.

We landed at the Windhoek airport close to 10 PM.  Our hotel shuttle driver was waiting.  On the 30 minute drive into town, even in the darkness, it became quickly apparent we were no longer in Kansas, er, in Malawi anymore.  The drive from the airport in Windhoek is similar to that in Lilongwe, approximately half an hour, and a distance from the city limits.  But that is where the similarities end.  The paved road was better, clean, smooth, nicely painted.  We stopped at a police checkpoint, it had a well-crafted metal dome, it was well lit.  That means electricity.  Police checkpoints in Malawi are much cruder – no cover, wooden beams placed over oil drums.  As we approached Windhoek we saw sidewalks; we saw them because there were working street lights, working traffic lights.  It was hard not to already feel impressed with Namibia.  And then to feel a wee bit silly that I found sidewalks and streetlights so remarkable.

Windhoek buildings

Christchurch, Independence Memorial Museum, Parliament

The next morning we headed out on a free guided walking tour recommended by my friend MB.  There is not much to draw visitors in Windhoek, but the few tourist sites are located near one another.  We could have walked to them on our own, but our student guide gave us a plethora of information in the 90 minute tour.  We stopped first  Windhoek’s most iconic landmark, the Christ Church, a 100+ year old German Lutheran church built during the German colonial period.  The clock, bells, and part of the roof were brought in from Germany; the stained glass windows a gift from Emperor Wilheim II.  Inside is a plaque inscribed with the names of German and military casualties during the colonial wars.

2We then crossed the street to the Parliament building, built orginally as the headquarters for the German colonial administrative offices, and its gardens.  We then headed a short way up the road, at the corner of Robert Mugabe Avenue and Fidel Castro Street, to the Independence Memorial Museum.  The building is jarring.  Modern, yes, but also leaning on eyesore.  No surprise then that it was built by a North Korean firm in the socialist-realist style.  The bronze statue of Namibia’s first President was also made by North Korea.  Behind the museum we ended the tour in the currently closed Alte Feste, once the headquarters of the imperial German military, in front of which stands the Genocide statue (also gifted by North Korea) representing the brutal extermination and punishment of Herero and Namaqua people during the 1904-1907 Namibia-German war, and how the indigenous people of Namibia overcame repression.  We left the tour there and headed to the museum, which while informative, most certainly had that same socialist-realist vibe.  We swung by the kudu statue and then headed back to the hotel.

On the way back we had to pass the craft market.  On our approach I suddenly saw a group of five extraordinarily dressed women pass in front of us.  Tall, lithe, dressed in only a goat hide skirt covered with a sarong like material; their bare arms and chests covered in leather and bronze jewelry, their feet in gladiator-like sandals.  Their skin and hair shown a deep bronze terracotta color for the otjize paste (made of butter fat and ochre) they use to protect themselves in the harsh desert climate.  I gasped audibly and blurtered out “you are beautiful.”  They immediately turned to me, gave me stunning smiles, and one wrapped her arm around mine to walk with us.  The Himba people are known for their incredible friendliness.  Once they had set up their stand C purchased one of their bracelets and they allowed me to take a photo.

My friend MB got off work at the Embassy and picked us up so we would head to lunch.  She then helped me to purchase a SIM card so that I would not be left completely without phone or data while traveling around one of the least densely populated countries in the world.  Then we picked up the rental car and stocked up on bottled water, apples, and snacks.

6The following day it was time to begin our Namibia road trip.  Now, back in Malawi, having finished the Namibian vacation, knowing we survived the drives is so different from before it began.  Back when I was planning the trip I thought most about doing the driving.  I wanted the freedom driving ourselves would bring.  C and I have gone on a few day group bus trips.  They have been convenient and sometimes fun.  But there have been those, like the one to the Cape of Good Hope, where we were too much at the mercy of other tourists who had their own agenda at the expense of everyone else.  I did not want to do that for a whole trip.  Yet I am a single parent, who has limited (my diplomatic way of saying non-existent) car repair skills, traveling with a 7-year old long distances in a country I have never been to.  I have traveled to many places, I am intrepid, but honestly, the driving had me a tad worried.

7Heading north from Windhoek toward Etosha National Park though, I had nothing to worry about.  It was a long four hour drive but on the most beautifully tarred road.  There was not much to see along the way, a few times we saw warthogs and baboons, but mostly miles and miles of green shrubs, every once in awhile a town that we could drive through in minutes.

After over four hours of driving we arrived at our lodging, the Etosha Safari Camp.  We had a little cabin a short one minute drive from the main building.  From outside it was functional, plain, but inside it was bright, modern, and whimsical.  We had a sweet queen sized bed below a same-sized loft.  C loved the bathroom the best.

We spent the next two days driving around Etosha National Park.  Nothing could have prepared me for the incredible, stark beauty of Africa’s oldest national park.  The biggest feature of the park is a massive salt pan that can be seen from space.  Most of the park is savannah woodlands but near the pan, where we visited, its sandy grassland or very low scrub.  Because of this one can see animals far in the distance.  We saw many animals, mostly springbok, oryx, and ostrich, but could also drive for twenty minutes without seeing an animal or another vehicle.

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Wildlife of Etosha

We drove for two hours the first day, five hours the second.   Long times in the car, but it was not boring.  I bought C a checklist book so she could mark off the animals we saw and she had her tablet and a few toys.  Lucky finds were the lion cubs and later lionesses, kudu at a watering hole, and wildebeest.   We would have loved to see more predators but we were not that lucky.

Fortunately, I planned for us to visit the Cheetah Conservation Fund, 45 minutes outside of Otijwarongo, about two hours south of the Andersson Gate at Etosha.  C LOVES cheetahs and Namibia is one of the best places to see them as the country hosts the largest concentration of this magnificent wild cat.  In Namibia there are about 3,500 cheetahs; compare this to the 16 recently reintroduced to Malawi.  At the facility visitors can observe their resident cheetahs, who cannot be released into the wild, see feeding time, and take drives into the enclosure.  We also stayed the night at the Cheetah View Lodge where we could watch the sunset and then rise over the beautiful Waterberg Pleateau.  It was so peaceful.

cheetah view lodge

 

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.