A person’s name has meaning. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry has a story of how they got their name, even if its that you were named for a favorite uncle, a childhood pet, or the guitarist of your mom’s favorite band. I have a one-syllable last name and my parents decided to give me and my siblings first names of three or more syllables to balance it out. My mom once told me she and my dad had a name all picked out — an unusual (I would call it crazy) long first and middle name combination (Desdemona Ezmeralda) — but my grandmother wanted a name from the bible, so my mom, a bit cheekily, picked a very minor character of ill repute. (No worries, it’s still a fairly popular name.)
It is an awesome responsibility to name your progeny, to bestow or saddle upon him or her with a moniker they will be branded or blessed with for life. When I was pregnant I decided I would name my daughter a first and middle name combo with the initials “CJ.” Though it took some time to actually decide on the names — as someone talked me off the ledge of “Jakarta” (the city of her conception) as the middle name – I ended up with what I think is a lovely and normal combination, which took into account the initials I wanted and the original meanings. My daughter, too, will have a story behind her name — the one she got… and the one she didn’t.
It has been a while since I have really thought about the naming conventions of another culture. When I traveled around and eventually moved in with a family on the Indonesian island of Bali for about half a year, the unique way of naming children by birth order became apparent quickly as nearly everyone I met had the same seven names. It took me a little longer to appreciate the naming traditions of Malawi.
As I understand it, the traditions for naming one’s child in Malawi are similar to other countries of Africa. One will find many persons named after the tried-and-true Biblical/British names. There are many Chris’, Johns, Peters, Henrys, Josephs, Michaels, Graces, Marys, Janes, and Teresas. There are also older English names, some are Biblical, some British surnames turned first names; you have likely heard them before though in the western world these days they would be considered less common and more vintage: Gladwell, Godfrey, Tobias, Moses, Felix, Cornelius, Florence, Esther, Edith, Wellington, Wilfred, Beatrice.
Similar to other African countries, Malawians often name their children after positive or negative circumstances that surrounded the birth or the feelings of parents or family members. There are common unisex names in local vernacular (Chewa, Ngoni, Tumbuka, etc) such as Chifundo, Chikondi, Chikumbutso, Chimwemwe, Chisomo, Chiyembekezo, Kondwani, Madalitso, Mphatso, Mtendere, and Thokozani. In my experience interacting with the urbanites of Lilongwe, I have come across many people with these names, and sometimes with the English translations: Mercy, Love, Memory, Joy, Grace, Hope, Rejoice, Blessings, Gift, Peace, and Thanks. My nanny is named Thokozile; her daughter is Rejoice. Some of these names are fairly common in the U.S. too. My mother’s middle name is Grace.
These are mostly names reflecting positive feelings but there are some that on first glance appear negative, such as Mavuto, which means “troubles,” or Tamala, meaning “finished,” but Malawian friends have explained to me that bequeathing a child with such a name is a way of bringing about closure of a difficult time.
Other English names along these lines I have frequently come across are Bright and Beauty, but Precious, Lucky, Lonely (a wonderfully friendly guard at the Embassy), Knowledge (a newly born baby I met in the course of my duties) and Smart (a somewhat befuddled gentleman who attempted to run for President) are out there too. A prominent human rights defender in Malawi has named his three children Freedom, Justice, and Peace. I cannot begin to say how much I love that.
And then there are just those names that leave you scratching your head. Some countries pass naming laws prohibiting parents from legally attaching an embarrassing or offensive moniker to their offspring. In the United States, there are few restrictions on naming children. Mostly rules disallow the use of accents on non-English characters (like the ñ or ë), hyphens (like Mary-Kate), or symbols (such as the singers P!nk and Ke$ha). And thus you end up with some interesting names. Celebrities seem to have a greater penchant for these unconventional names: Frank Zappa famously named his daughter Moon Unit. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have named their four children North, Saint, Chicago, and Psalm. Two of Michael Jackson’s children are named Paris and Prince. But a look at the Social Security Administration’s list in any given year also reveals other, um, noteworthy names such as Fanta, Lemon, Halo, and Espn showed up in 2017.
The U.S. is not unique in this regard. While adjudicating visas in Mexico and China one could always come across an interesting name like Kobe (after the basketball legend) or Led Zeppelin Sanchez. But there just seems something about Malawi… I have come across eye-brow raising names on a much more regular basis. A Malawian friend, an incredibly smart and culturally astute woman, told me that in the southeastern part of the country, where the majority of the ethnic Yao live, one will often find older persons (and some younger, by tradition) adopted names after kitchen utensils or everyday items as a legacy of colonial times (and the inability of foreigners to pronounce or even bother to learn to pronounce local names). You might find some people in that region named Cup or Saucer, Table or Bicycle.
But I have come across so many unusual names. For instance, I looked through the list of all individuals who ran for seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections, persons I have met in the course of my duties, and the running list a colleague has compiled during her time in Malawi, and here are some of the names: Flattery, Biggles, Tryness, Orphan, Helix, Square, Genesis, Doublestar, McTonnex, Simplex, Leckford, Manifesto, Commodious, Flangson, Loveness, Heatherwick, James Bond (a Member of Parliament from Kasungu), Perks (the Malawian Ambassador to the UN), Spoon (the former commander of the Malawi Defense Forces), and my personal favorite: Dryvat.
My friend also told me that it is common, especially in the northern parts of the country, to name children after something “in fashion.” This could result in a name like “Climate Change” or, she says, it is only a matter of time before someone decides to name their child Covid.
Every name means something. And the naming traditions of Malawi as a whole demonstrate the rich traditions, cultures, and history which have weaved together the story of this country. I expect Dryvat has quite a story.
Edited to update: my nanny gave birth on June 5 to a beautiful baby boy named Effort Peace.
Due to a Malawian Tuesday holiday, C’s school gave the kids a mini-break, a four-day weekend. When we have gone out of town on long weekends here, we have tended to go to someplace on Lake Malawi. We head out to Senga Bay or Monkey Bay. We have also been to Mangochi and Nkhata Bay. We have also been to the Zomba plateau, Ntchisi Forest, or to the tea plantation area of the south. But getting to these places we have long, somewhat boring drives, on crappy Malawian roads, with little change to the scenery. I have often enjoyed these drives and found beauty in them. But I really wanted something different than Malawi.
On other vacations, we tend to go to far-flung locales like northern Finland or Zanzibar and I fill our days with sightseeing and/or activities. That isn’t what I wanted either. What I wanted was a change of scenery, but also low-key. I wanted us to be able to do things we cannot do in Malawi, the things that I imagine the average middle-class family in America or Europe or likewise does in a given week. I wanted convenience.
I opted for a quick trip to Johannesburg. Just staying in a hotel near a mall with a movie theater. That seemed so “normal.” And yet, not at all normal with our every day in Malawi. The normal, but not normal, which, in my opinion, just about sums C and I up.
And wouldn’t you know it, by the time the weekend rolled around, things seemed all the less normal. There is the political uncertainty in Malawi, with the country’s High Court deciding to nullify the results of last year’s presidential elections and ordering a new poll. I am the political officer and this is my bread and butter, but we were all entering an unprecedented political situation, not only in Malawi but on the African continent. And then there is coronavirus pandemic, which has led to another global health emergency, widespread panic, but also necessary Embassy planning sessions. With all this going on I was mentally exhausted. I craved normalcy all the more.
The flight to Johannesburg was normal enough. Three and a half hours with a short stop in Malawi’s southern city of Blantyre. Long, ridiculous lines at immigration greeted us in Johannesburg. I sure hope that is not how they normally do business, but I suppose it is normal enough. Yes, there were individuals with high-tech thermometers, that looked more like a radar gun used by police to check speed, scanning everyone’s forehead but few travelers wearing medical face masks (the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Africa was the day we flew back). Once through all the arrival rigamarole we grabbed some snacks and a taxi and headed to our hotel in Sandton City, our home away from home for the long weekend.
Our first stop then was the Sandton City mall, right off of Nelson Mandela Square, the site of a gigantic statue of the hero himself. There are no shopping malls in Malawi. Well, there is the covered shopping center on the outskirts of Lilongwe (“the biggest mall in Malawi!”). It’s made up of perhaps a dozen stores – anchored by two supermarket chains, which are a shadow of their South African cousins, a few restaurants, a salon, a pharmacy, a dentist office, a bank, the Malawian version of a dollar store, a shoe store, a South African children’s clothing chain, a barber’s, and one or two other stores I have never actually seen anyone in. It might be named “Gateway Mall” but using the word doesn’t make it so. On the other hand Sandton City Mall has around 300 stores!
We ate a late lunch in a South African family sit-down restaurant. The only similar restaurant I know of in Malawi is Wimpy — and there are only two of those in the whole country. Then we did something really quite ordinary for many families in a lot of countries – we saw a movie at the theater. C and I really enjoy going to the movies and we did so regularly in Shanghai. But in Malawi there are no movie theaters.
This was no ordinary theater though — the movie (Sonic the Hedgehog) was shown in a kids theater complete with colorful bean bag chairs and a slide. The popcorn though was not all that normal, at least not compared to U.S. cinemas, instead of melted butter you could top off with there was powdered butter. And not a napkin to be found.
On our second day we woke to a rainy Sunday. C looked out our hotel room window at the uninspiring view of half of the neighboring building and a nondescript six lane road. But what she saw was instead was wondrous. “Mom,” she exclaimed, “look at that! I wish we lived here and every day we could look out on that road. There is no road like that in Malawi.” And she is right. There are only a handful of roads in Malawi’s three main cities (Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu) that are four lane, and those only span a few kilometers at best.
Off we headed to the Sci-Bono Discovery Center, an interactive children’s STEM museum located in a former power station. Wow, this place is cool. When we headed first to a water exhibit on loan from the U.S.’ Smithsonian Museum and there was no one there but us, I worried the museum might not capture C’s attention. Thankfully, I was wrong. We ended up spending four hours there – taking in the planetarium show, filling a small hot air balloon and watching it soar up the four stories to the ceiling, using various displays to learn about circuits and voltage to create electric charges, learning interesting animal facts, trying out PlayStation interactive golf and tennis games, and of course sprinting up the climbing wall. I have taken C to children’s museums across the U.S. and in many places around the world, but there are none in Malawi. In fact, there is only a handful of museums in the whole country – we have been to three and only one was worth a visit.
We spent the afternoon back at the Sandton City Mall having another late lunch (Hard Rock Cafe) and then C picked out her LEGO characters, which I bet would be hers *if* she made it to the top of the rock climbing wall. Despite her fear, she made short work of that wall to get those toys, so I had to deliver. We then had a quite evening just hanging out in the room.
For our last day the plan was to head to the Montecasino bird gardens, but we woke to more rain and a weather prediction that it would last all day. However, Montecasino also had a indoor shopping area and best of all — an arcade. There are few things C likes more than playing a bunch of ticket-producing games and trading in those tickets for cheap toys. I might have to admit I rather enjoy it all myself. So, I went all out. I bought hundreds of tokens and we played for HOURS. Claw games, skee ball, video games, wheel spins, games where we tossed basketballs, bean bags, or ping pong balls to see how many we could get into a receptacle or knock over some pins in a period of time. All in the name of maniacal, obsessive fun so we could get enough tickets to get the prized stuffed lion that had C’s name on it from the moment we walked in. It might not seem like much, and may even seem a waste of time and money on vacation, but we had so much fun. And there is nothing like it in Malawi. (Thank goodness, or I would be broke, our hands would be calloused, and we would have even more stuffed animals than we already have).
Then we wandered the covered mall of Montecasino, which, with its faux cobblestone lanes and ceiling painted and lit like the sky, reminded me much of the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian in Las Vegas. We had our choice of 30 restaurants and 10 fast food joints for lunch. I am not sure there are 40 restaurants in all of Lilongwe. C and I frequent about eight. We had (yet another late) lunch at a Mexican (Mexican!!) restaurant and then called it a day.
Heading back the next day was hard for me; I could have used another night or two in Johannesburg. We hadn’t visited a department store or gone to an amusement park or even a decent playground. But once home I thought our weekend away had, at least temporarily, restored me. It might not be that normal to fly to another country to try to do “normal” things. And honestly, these normal activities we did felt extraordinary because we do not do them all the time. Many people in developed countries take it for granted that they will have wide pothole-free roads to drive on, nice sidewalks to walk on, well-stocked supermarkets to shop in, and entertainment and shopping complexes to go to, and it just isn’t that way for many in the developing world. Don’t get me wrong — I know we have it good. With our privilege, C and I straddle these worlds, living (very well) in one, and with the means and opportunity to travel to another. The “normal” things we (I) miss are not normal at all for the vast majority of Malawians. They are not even that normal for my daughter who has spent most of her eight years overseas.
It’s really something to think about — and as I begin to contemplate where we might head next after Malawi I wonder how well we would do somewhere with all these amenities and conveniences that we often do without? How would we handle being more normal?
Following our epic adventure to Lapland (here and here) with our friends CZ and Little C, I surprised my daughter C with a trip to Paris as an early Christmas gift. C loves Paris. Even before I took her on her first trip to the City of Lights, C was already enamored with France and its capital thanks to several of her favorite Disney movies set there (Aristocats, Beauty and the Beast, Ratatouille) and several episodes of the Little Einsteins.
In the Helsinki airport, I sat C down and told her I would be revealing her early Christmas present. I had made hints for days and she was giddy with excitement though confused how I had managed to hide a gift from her and why I had checked our luggage without handing over the present. I turned on my phone’s video camera and proceeded to tell her we would not actually be flying back to Malawi that day but were instead going to Paris and Disneyland! Instead of the shouts of excitement I had expected, C sat there confused and stunned. Hmmm…looked like the Mom of the Year trophy I had thought I would clinch had slipped from my fingers.
Lucky for me, as we flew across Europe C decided to forgive me for taking her to Paris and by the time we were landing she was thoroughly thrilled to be heading to Disneyland.
The previous time we had headed to Paris in the Spring of 2018 we had also stayed a few days at Disneyland Paris. This time I opted for another one of Disneyland Paris’ hotels, the Cheyenne. Although it seemed to be the final drop off location for the Disneyland Paris Magic Shuttle from the airport, we very much liked the whimsical, Disney-touch to a wild west theme. The whole hotel complex was laid out like a western frontier town.
And we did what most people do when they go to Disney–we rode the rides, we watched the parades, we had our pictures taken with people dressed up as our favorite characters. We also do what you might expect of people in our situation — Americans who spend the majority of their time in the developed world and have just come from the frozen north — we reveled in the Christmas-y and American-ness of it all. We took full advantage of our hotel benefits, arriving early for the Extra Magic Hours and staying until closing. We got to do everything we wanted and more except for riding Crush’s Coaster, which either had lines of over an hour wait or was not running. But we just shrugged it off — we can give that a try next time we are in Paris, along with the other new attractions expected in the next few years.
After our 2.5 days at Disney it was time to head into Paris proper, and immediately we came face to face with the France outside of the Disney bubble. Like during our last visit there was yet again another transportation strike affecting the metro and RER trains. There then went my plan to take public transportation into the city so we called an Uber and enjoyed the roads with everyone else.
Once squared away in our lovely hotel near the Paris Opera, we grabbed some lunch and then took a leisurely stroll down to and through the Tuileries Garden to the Louvre. C absolutely loves to draw and had recently had a brief course in some European artists at school, so I thought she might enjoy a visit to the largest art museum in the world. I had read the best time to take younger children to the Louvre was during the evenings hours the museum offers twice a week, so Wednesday worked for us. The weather was perfect, a little cold, but not nearly as cold as Finland, and the light of late afternoon just beautiful. This was my fourth time in Paris, but I never tire of the majesty of the historic heart of this city. C loved spending time in the Louvre; we caught the highlights — the Mona Lisa, the Coronation of Napolean, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, and Egyptian antiquities — and C found a few favorite paintings of her own. I really loved seeing her make careful selections in the gift shop based on the art she most enjoyed.
On our second day in the city, dawn broke beautifully. With the metro schedule up in the air due to the strikes, we would spend the day walking. Our first stop would be the Arc de Triomphe, a 45-minute walk from our hotel. There were no lines, something that seems almost unheard of in Paris, so we headed right up to the roof. Despite the overcast skies and some rain, the view was still spectacular, even dramatic. I felt really happy to be in Paris with my girl.
We walked on to the right bank of the Seine at the Pont de l’Alma where we got some lunch in a lovely corner restaurant. My initial plan was for us to continue on to the Eiffel Tower, but we had already done quite a lot of walking, so instead, we headed to the Bateaux Mouches for a guided river tour. This was something we had planned for last time but had been nixed due to floods rising the Seine water level too high to get under some of the bridges. It was nice to get out of the cold and sit back, relax, and enjoy floating past the beauty of historic Paris. C liked the sweets I bought her, sitting down with her toys, and occasionally looking out the windows.
The weather had cleared by the time the boat returned; it was lovely for a walk. But as we headed up Rue Royale, just off of the Place de la Concorde, I caught a couple trying to steal my wallet. The sidewalk was narrow and I could sense the people behind us were walking very, very closely. I figured they wanted to pass, so I pulled C over to the building wall to let them by, and in so doing pulled my handbag, which was over my shoulder, back to my side. And it was then I noticed that the zipper on my bag was undone and my wallet half-way out. The couple–a very tall man and a petite woman, both dressed very well–immediately began to play out a ridiculous drama, pointing at shop signs in an exaggerated manner and then they ducked into the nearest store. But I walked only a little ahead of that shop and sure enough, they popped back out within 30 seconds.
There were no police around. They had not succeeded. There was little I could think to do. I rooted around in my bag and could not see anything was missing. But I felt violated nonetheless. The whole rest of the walk back I could not stop obsessing about what had just happened, what could have just happened. And trying to explain this to C – why people would do this and about my reaction. I have been many, many places in the world, at least 90 countries, and only once did someone succeed in pick-pocketing me – in China. On two other occasions, in Jakarta and Rome, someone tried but I caught them. I feel as if this is a good thing, and yet the whole situation only left a bad taste in my mouth.
Once back in the hotel room, I did not feel like going out again. But we did not like the room service menu, so I opted to head out to the supermarket around the corner. I felt irrationally fearful; I clutched my bag to my body. But just before the supermarket, I saw a family–a man, woman, and their two children–sitting on a blanket preparing to sleep for the night, and something possessed me to ask if I could buy them something. They did not speak more than a few words of English, so could not ask, but through hand signals, we worked out that the mother and the older daughter would accompany me. They moved quickly through the store, I expect fearful that if they took too long I would change my mind. When I found them in the back of the store, they had two full baskets. I could see they also were worried I would make them put something back, but I just motioned them to follow me. I paid for everything and we stepped outside. The girl thanked me and then threw her arms around my waist and hugged me fiercely. In broken English, I learned she was nine years old and they are from Syria. I had a lot of conflicting feelings, so much sadness, anger at the pickpockets and the circumstances that brought this young family to the street. These were different sides of Paris.
The next day, our last full one in Paris, we were going to try to get to the Eiffel Tower. The day started out overcast again, but the temperature was comfortable and we had a pleasant walk. About 20 minutes out I logged on to the Eiffel Tower website to buy our tickets and saw they were all sold out! Oh no! I felt bummed– the second time to the city with C and both times we did not go up the Tower. But once we arrived there, the line to buy tickets at the cashier was not long. I guess so many people now opt for the skip-the-line-admission option that it can actually be possible to sometimes just walk up, wait ten minutes, buy your tickets, and ascend.
We opted for the lift up, walk down option. Perhaps one day when C and I return we will go to the top, but I had heard the best views were really from the second level. And once again we were rewarded with a change in the weather and stunning views across Paris. I could feel the bad feelings of the day before evaporating with the sun. C was a champ, she took the 674 steps back down in stride, even after all the walking we had already done. We headed back across the river and dined in the very same establishment we had the day before, and it was just as wonderful. Then we strolled back towards the Tuileries to visit the Christmas market. I was happy to see the Roue de Paris (the Paris Ferris Wheel) that had been removed from its semi-permanent location at the Place de la Concord soon after our last visit had made a comeback in the Christmas market.
The market was fun, festive, and chock full of many, many goodies. C wanted to play fairground games as I have only once before let her do so. After many, many tries she finally won – a cellphone holder. Ha! And then we hopped aboard the Roue for a few spins with a different view. This time we could look over the Tuileries, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the Louvre, and the grand buildings along the Rue de Rivoli, again also with spectacular afternoon sunlight. And as we left the market to head back to our hotel a double rainbow appeared. It was a glorious end to an overall wonderful trip.
The following day we slept late and then caught a taxi to the airport (the hotel informed us that the Roissy bus to the airport would likely not run given it was a Yellow Vest protest day). It was okay. I did not want to run into anything else that might taint the memories of this trip. Because I was pretty sure C had by then much forgiven me for giving her the gift of Paris.
The second and final installment of our amazing trip to northern Finland in early December 2019.Rovaniemi. Fourteen months ago I had never heard of this small city located just four miles south of the Arctic Circle in Finland’s northern region of Lapland. Yet after months of planning and expectation, the name began to roll off my tongue and also come to mean grand adventure.
A confluence of events, accidents of history, turned this Arctic village into a major tourist destination. In the 1930s Rovaniemi was a good-sized trading town, a confluence for miners, loggers, and Sami reindeer herders. But during World War II, the town became a pawn between Russian and German aggression and from 1940 German forces occupied the town, building the airfield that has become Rovaniemi’s airport. As Germany’s fortunes changed, their troops’ scorched-earth tactics destroyed 90% of the city, leaving only 17 buildings standing. But in 1950 Eleanor Roosevelt made a surprise visit to survey the reconstruction efforts and the governor and mayor had a log cabin built in her honor. (And you can visit the Roosevelt Cabin today in Santa Claus Village). In 1984, the Finnish Tourism Board decided to market Lapland as the home of Santa Claus, and thus began the legend of Rovaniemi as a premier Christmas themed destination. The combination of Arctic activities and Santa Claus magic brings some 600,000 tourists a year to this city of 63,000.
Initially, we dreamed of staying in one of the glass igloos, but after looking at the prices and weighing the costs against the enjoyment, we went in a different direction. We were really lucky to find a wonderful room in a highly rated Airbnb right in the center of town. Our room at Lauri, the only 19th-century log house in Rovaniemi (not one of the 17 remaining after 1944, but was relocated to the city in 1968), had nine beds–enough for all of us and five friends, but there were few options in the city when we reserved in August. Most places other than some very pricey or characterless options were already fully booked. But the manor, located in a residential neighborhood, across from a school, and only two blocks the city center, was perfect.
We — myself, my daughter C, my best friend CZ and her son Little C — first arrived in Rovaniemi at 7:15 AM after traveling on the overnight Santa Express train from Helsinki. Traveling about ten minutes in a Santa-endorsed taxi, we were deposited at the Lauri guesthouse around eight in the morning. The hosts had given us a code that allowed us to store our luggage until we could check in later that day, and then there we were tired and hungry and a wee bit cold with children who could not pay attention because there was SNOW everywhere. We herded the kids to the one restaurant we knew would be open, a place in the nearby shopping mall. The walk took probably three times longer than it should have as C and Little C had to climb up, jump in, or touch every bit of snow along the way.
Our first day would be low key as we were all a bit knackered. Little C and I were both suffering from colds – he fell asleep in CZ’s lap and I felt as though I were still rocking to the rhythms of the train. We stayed put til 10 AM when we could make our way over to the Pilke Science Center. I would not have thought a museum on forestry and sustainable logging would be that intriguing, but the center is really well set up and kid-friendly. We easily spent a few hours here. Then we all headed back to our Airbnb to check-in and relax. CZ and I alternated time with the kids in the room so one of us could go out, do some shopping, and be child-free.
Day two was all about Santa Claus. Right after getting out of the taxi at the Santa Claus Village we made a beeline for Father Christmas’ office where we would have an opportunity to meet The Man himself. Though we waited about 20 minutes, this was not nearly as long as we expected and frankly, Santa was awesome. He is not your suburban mall Santa in a cheap red suit, but a more authentic working Santa with shirt sleeves and a traditional knitted vest and snow-covered elfish-like boots, comfy colorful socks, and a waist-length beard. He was engaging and though many were waiting to see him, we each got a bit of personal time with him. I love that he engaged the parents too.
We explored a bit around Santa’s office (i.e. the gift shop — don’t think for one second that I am some super-parent who is able to bypass such places), crossed and re-crossed the Arctic Circle, and then we had lunch at the Three Elves restaurant, where I was willingly tried a bit of CZ’s reindeer burger (much to C’s chagrin). The next stop was Snowman World (which I believe is created of ice and snow every year), where we enjoyed some beverages at the ice bar, some snow tubing, and admired the ice sculptures. Then we spent some time at the Elf’s Farm Yard petting zoo to meet a few reindeer resting after flying school, feed some very furry and ornery goats, then roast marshmallows over a fire in the Arctic version of a teepee, and C and Little C joined some other kids in sledding down a small hill. At about 4:30 PM we called it quits. That might seem early, but the sun had set already three hours before and we had been out and about in the cold for over six hours. And we needed to rest up for our next adventure…
Dog-sledding! Although visiting Santa was a key focus of the trip, something very special for the kids, dogsledding was the top activity on CZ and my Rovaniemi to-do lists. Driving a sleigh pulled by adorable and excited dogs across the snow was CZ’s and my ultimate bucket list activity on this ultimate bucket list vacation. We were as excited, if not more, than the kids. Ok, I am 100% positive we were more excited, we could especially see this as we changed into the tour organization- provided sleigh gear. C and Little C were not so keen on the ski suit, hats, socks, and boots that turned them into stiff-armed and legged zombie-like marshmallows. But once outside getting our dog-sled driving instruction in front of hundreds of uber-excited huskies, the kids too perked up.
As the tour operator led us to our sleighs, the excitement of the dogs was palpable. The dogs were barking keenly; they were jumping, leaping, straining against their harnesses, lots of tongues lolling and tails wagging. They could hardly wait to get going. These incredible dogs – Alaskan Huskies – can four together pull 150 kilos weight, average 10-14 kilometers per hour, and often run about 150 kilometers a day. To fuel this incredible energy, the dogs consume about 10,000 calories a day!! Sitting around is not in their nature. The most important part of our dog-sled driving training was the use of the brake!
CZ and I alternated our time driving the sled, 30 minutes each. It was exhilarating. The temperature on our dog-sled day was below freezing with snow flurries. As we slid our way through the forest and then out onto an open field, small, hard snow pelted my face, the only exposed part of my body. It kinda hurt and yet I could not wipe the ridiculous grin from my face. On several occasions, I laughed out loud with joy I could not contain. My 30 minutes felt like it was up in a split second and I didn’t want to give up the driving seat. This was hands down one of the best activities I have ever done in my life.
We had already learned that being cold can be tiring. It turns out driving a dog sled is also exhausting. So the combination meant that we were not keen on doing much else. We ate at a Japanese restaurant (none of these in Malawi!) for lunch and then the kids played in the snow in the city center. That evening CZ took both kids to a baking class in a traditional Finnish home while I hung out in the room watching Finnish television.
The following day we joined a tour to the Ranua Wildlife Park, an Arctic Zoo (and second northernmost zoo in the world), located an hour south of Rovaniemi. There were some cool Arctic animals there from the Arctic fox to the polar bear, the wolverine to the grey wolf, and a nice wooden walkway through the exhibits. I had never been to a wildlife park of this kind and I knew that this was something C and I would enjoy, but, to be honest, it was not quite as magical as I had hoped. I think in part as we were on a tour, and although we hung back from the group and walked at our own pace, we still were herded on and off the bus and through the disappointing buffet lunch. And Little C was definitely not so keen on the zoo and wanted to make sure we all felt his displeasure.
That evening C and I tried to have an evening of pseudo-normalcy, to do things we are unable to do in Malawi. We planned to eat dinner at McDonald’s (once the northernmost franchise in the world) and then go and see a movie. CZ and Little C do not partake of McD’s and Little C will not sit through a movie, so this was to be a mother-daughter outing. Unfortunately, the only age-appropriate movie was a universally panned movie about a dog, but C loves dogs so I was up for it. I had checked carefully that the film would be in English, but once there the ticket seller informed us that they had previously shown the English version but no one had come, so now it was in Finnish, and that was a no-go. But we did get our McD fix.
On Friday, our last full day in Rovaniemi, we returned to Santa Claus Village to get in a few more wintry activities. We took two sleighs pulled by reindeer – the kids in one and the adults in another (fifteen minutes to ourselves, hooray!). Although just a 1000 meter-ride through the village, the route slipping quietly along a path bounded by snow-covered silver birch trees was enchanting. I am not sure how the kids felt — they had indicated that the reindeer were too slow to their liking — but CZ and I would have been happy to be pulled along quite a bit longer.
To satisfy the kids’ need for speed, we headed next to the snowmobile park where children could take a spin around a track on their own. I expect for some parents it might seem crazy to let kids do this, but I expect the Finns know a thing or two about winter sports from an early age. The man running the course asked each child if they had driven a snowmobile before (many had!) and if they did not, he gave them some quick instruction on a model nearby. Both our kids kept their speeds moderate and reported the experience as top-notch.
After lunch we then headed over to Santa Park, a few kilometers away. While Santa Village is mostly outdoors and free to visit (you just pay for the experiences), Santa Park is entirely indoors. In fact, it is all underground. Surprisingly, the place was not crowded at all (the website had indicated popular times and days with large groups, so we planned our visit outside those times), and we had good seats for Elf School (where incredibly in-character performers took us through a fun activity), almost no wait for the miniature train ride, close to the stage view for a short acrobatic play, and waited all of five minutes to see Santa. It was not my favorite place in Rovaniemi, but it was enjoyable and a nice to be indoors for a change.
Our final day, Saturday, was a partial day as we would return to Helsinki on the overnight train departing Rovaniemi at 6 PM. Funnily enough, friends of mine with whom I served with in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and are now in Romania had booked a trip to Rovaniemi arriving by train the day we left, and even more improbably, had reserved at the same Airbnb. So when they arrived in town SP and their two kids came to relax in our room while RP went to pick up their rental car. All the kids seemed to instantly bond and I had a chance to catch up a little. After they headed off for the day we did our final packing, stored our luggage, and then headed out for Mexican food (Another thing we really cannot get in Malawi). We then spent a few hours at the Arktikum, a museum dedicated to exploring and sharing the nature, culture, and history of northern regions. C, Little C, and I grabbed the kids activity book at the front desk and headed off into the museum while CZ checked out the Christmas market in the lobby. I had to move a bit quicker through the exhibits with two kids keen on completing their activity than I would on my own, but the center is impressive and even displays on Arctic animals, the northern lights, and, surprisingly, northern bog biodiversity caught their attention. My favorite part was the northern light simulator. Well, it was more like sitting in a planetarium and watching a movie on the formation of the aurora borealis and legends surrounding the phenomenon. In Finnish, the name for the Northern Lights is “revontulet,” which means “fox fire” and is derived from a Sámi story of a magical fox running across the snow-covered fells whose tail would emit sparks of light. My daughter loves foxes, they are her new favorite animal, and I thought she would enjoy seeing the lights based on this tale. Unfortunately, during our visit there was only one night of even middling chance to see the lights, the night after our epic dog sledding, and all of us were just too tired. But the Artikum’s display kind of made up for it.
That night on the return train I marveled how this small city of 63,000 inhabitants, not only had risen from the ashes of war but had also ingeniously crafted a niche tourism industry. I also could not help but think how the small city had more restaurants, cultural activities, and entertainment venues than the nearly 1 million strong Malawi capital. It’s an unfair comparison, I know, given Rovaniemi’s location in developed Northern Europe, but the thought came to me nonetheless. However, I have to say once back in Helsinki for one more day, and being able to peel off a few layers of clothes (I wore three pairs of pants in Lapland – a pair of long underwear, then a pair of heavy leggings, then a pair of ski pants!!) and even more so to when I returned to the lush green warmth of Malawi in the rainy season, that I while glad for the opportunity to experience northern Finland in winter, I was also glad to be home.
About 14 months ago, while chatting online with one of my best friends CZ, she happened to mention her interest in taking her son Little C to Rovaniemi, the small city in northern Finland, in the region of Lapland, known as the Official Hometown of Santa Claus, around Christmas. She had just read an article about it. Funny thing is, I had also just read a similar article and had stayed up late researching the possibilities just the night before. We went back and forth a few times – excitedly discussing the possibilities, sending one another links to possible activities and lodging – but then it fell out of our conversation. Lapland seemed really far away, further away than just time and distance. Nonetheless, the seeds of this adventure were planted.
Last July during our Home Leave, we visited CZ in North Carolina, and our conversation again turned to the topic of winter vacation in Lapland. And this time, the planning came fast and furious. I messaged my colleague in Malawi to ask if he were okay with my taking leave in early December. Although likely a wee bit annoyed I was asking about it in July, he agreed. CZ and I arranged our flights – she with points, me with miles – and then a week later, with each of us in different locations, we logged on to the Finnish railway website to simultaneously purchase our Santa Express overnight train tickets (in adjacent compartments). In August, I happened to find a great place to stay on Airbnb; I messaged CZ while she was out shopping, and that afternoon (evening for me) we had our lodging. Holy moly – we were heading to Lapland in December! Nothing would stop us now (unless my new boss denied my leave – but thankfully that did not happen).
Once back in Lilongwe, with all the primary logistics worked out, I settled back into my Malawi routine. Actually, work was really busy, nothing felt routine, and thoughts of heading north for the winter were pushed to the back of my mind. Around October though, it began to dawn on me what I had done. We were going to the Arctic Circle in WINTER. What had I been thinking?? I may have grown up in the U.S state of Virginia and spent a few years working in Washington, D.C., so I had, of course, experienced some cold weather, but for much of my adult life I have largely followed what I term my “winter avoidance strategy.” I have lived in Indonesia, Singapore, Hawaii, California, the Philippines, and now Malawi: in places where it is rarely, if ever, cold. Even in Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai snow was rare. In the winter, my modus operandi is to head south, to tropical climes. I bought a condo in Florida for goodness sakes. Yet, here I was willingly preparing to head somewhere guaranteed to be quite cold, and where literally the sun would not shine, or rather never rise above the horizon in the dead of winter.
Arrival in modern developed Finland
I needed to be more prepared! I looked up websites about what to wear in Lapland in winter and either purchased the necessary gear (thick, non-cotton socks, ski gloves, ski jackets, ski pants, long underwear, waterproof winter boots, fleece hats) or CZ, who skis, would bring to loan us. Given our location and mail situation, I needed to purchase items by late October for guaranteed delivery before we departed on December 7. There could be no returns. CZ and I scoured the Internet for activity ideas and, being the planners we are, started a day-by-day itinerary for our trip. To get C excited about our overnight journey on the Santa Express, I bought the movie The Polar Express and hosted a movie-watching party for (21!) kids in our Embassy community.
And then there was nothing really more to do but wait for the day to come.
Except freak out.
Because this vacation was one in which I was putting myself WAY out of my comfort zone. If it wasn’t the freezing temperatures then it might be the 2 1/2 hours of daylight (or rather the 21 1/2 hours of darkness) that would get to me. I would bear all of this to take my child to see Santa Claus before Christmas, to possibly secure myself the Mother of the Year trophy. Or die trying.
Right: Helsinki around 2:30 PM from the steps of the Cathedral overlooking the Christmas market; Left: Downtown Helsinki around 5 PM
On December 7 we began our journey. Any travel from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is tricky. From the less-visited Malawi to Helsinki trickier still. And then throw in the random routing from my “free” ticket and you get our Lilongwe-Addis-Istanbul-Helsinki routing. It wasn’t pretty, but we landed in Helsinki around 11 AM on December 8, excited as we could be.
We changed from our travel clothes to our Helsinki in winter clothes, then caught the train to the city center. Along the way, C marveled at the sights from the train window. What caught her eye first and foremost? Orderly, pothole-free, multi-lane roads and functioning traffic lights! (“Mom, look! Look at these roads! Imagine if Malawi had roads like this?! Look at the lights, they are working!!”) Even the train and the train station were delights. We stashed our luggage in the left luggage lockers at the station, then got some lunch. While there CZ and Little C, who had arrived in Helsinki two days before, met us.
We had a few hours to kill before our 18:49 departure on the Santa Express from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, so we headed first to the Christmas market located in the square below the city’s iconic Cathedral. We browsed the quaint Christmas booths, bought hot Gluhwein and hot cocoa, and sipped our drinks in heated outdoor seating booths. It was cold, but not THAT cold. And it was after all a novelty for C and myself to be wearing winter jackets, to have our noses twitch in the chilly air. The atmosphere was festive and lively and we were with our best friends. Even the sun setting at 3:15 in the afternoon was novel and amusing.
From the market, we headed over a few blocks to the Children’s Town at the Helsinki City Museum to let the kids burn off some energy before the train. With the early morning arrival in Rovaniemi, we wanted the kids to be ready for bed shortly after boarding. The museum did its trick. We stayed til the 5 PM closing, then walked back to CZ’s hotel, gathered up her luggage, and returned to the train station.
C’s and my compartment on the Santa Express
How do I even begin to describe the Santa Express? I used to backpack quite a bit in my 20s and early 30s and spent many a time on long train journeys in Europe and Asia. I was nostalgic for the feel of riding the rails and excited to be sharing this experience with C and our friends. CZ and I had each booked a two bunk sleeping compartment with en suite bathroom for the 12 1/2 hour journey. The compartments were tiny but well equipped. We had a small chair, table, two bunks with an alarm clock and charging stations, and could shift one wall in the tiny bathroom to reveal a shower. So clever! Scandanavian efficiency at its best.
We boarded as efficiently as one can with large suitcases and small children in a foreign country (i.e. not elegant), got our things quickly into the compartments, and then headed down to the dining car so we could park ourselves at a table. Our plan worked beautifully. We had the first choice of tables and no line at the restaurant counter service and could keep the kids and ourselves busy until bedtime. By 9 PM we were ready to turn in.
I so want to be able to say that I slept like a baby, lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train as it slipped north. The berth mattress was not uncomfortable; we were not cold beneath the provided comfortor. The train’s rhythmic swaying and muffled clickety-clack were comforting. But I had a cold I had picked up in Addis Ababa where I had been the week before on a business trip and coughed enough to keep me awake, and I could hear poor Little C, also with a cold, coughing on his side of our thin shared wall. C insisted she needed to sleep with me and we were wedged together in one berth. Not terrible mind you, but I had very little space to maneuver. And though we had few stops en route, I awoke each time with the squealing of brakes then lurching re-start with the train whistle. Not altogether unpleasant sounds, but unfamiliar and I am not as sound a sleeper as C.
We woke around 6:30 to prepare for the 7:15 arrival at Rovaniemi. We changed into our “really cold weather” clothes, packed up our bags, and pulled up the compartment blinds. Outside it was dark, and yet not the sort of black night that descends upon Malawi. Perhaps it was the 3/4 sized moon (waxing gibbous) reflecting brightly off the snow-covered ground, but certainly, there were electric lights on the train and from the stations and towns we passed that also contributed to the relative brightness. There was definitely a lot of snow on the ground. Ice encrusted our compartment window. We had traveled through the night to awaken in a true winter wonderland. We were here!
Arrival at the snow and ice-encrusted Rovaniemi
We readied to disembark and then, well, things happened. Things that happen to moms when traveling with kids. In the final shuddering of the train as it braked into Rovaniemi station, Little C, sitting in the upper bunk, lost the contents of his stomach. CZ managed a record-breaking speedy clean-up and final gathering of belongings, and we all flung ourselves gracelessly off the train. C and Little C speeding like bullets aimed themselves directly at the biggest piles of snow. CZ and I circled the wagons so to speak, gathering our belongings to do the necessary arrival checks. CZ noticed Little C was in the snow sans his hat and a quick search of her bags indicated it had not made it off the train. Back onto the train, she emerged a minute later victorious, only to find her phone was then missing. I pulled off my gloves and fumbled to locate my phone with newly-installed European SIM card, turn it on, and then call her phone. Back into the train she went, once again returning triumphant. Whew!
Santa, or his spies, are everywhere in Rovaniemi
C and Little C, oblivious to the whole drama, continued to frolic in the snow. Though we were both a wee bit rattled at the close call and thanked our lucky stars the train stopped for 20 minutes at Rovaniemi before heading to its final destination, CZ and I congratulated ourselves in making it this far. We were the last people standing on the snowy platform so we corralled the kids and began trudging towards the station to flag a taxi to our lodging.
Within inner circles of the Foreign Service, one of the much-discussed downsides of the lifestyle is the lack of friends and family willing to visit us overseas. Even those who find themselves in a fairly fantastic post – say Paris or Hong Kong – may find that not quite as many folks from home who promise to visit do. And for those of us serving in those not-quite-so-garden locales, our attempts to lure visitors (“look at this fabulous guest room just waiting for your arrival”) go far more ignored than grasped.
I never expected to have people knocking down my virtual door or blowing up my inbox, clamoring to visit us in Malawi. To be honest, until I started to look at potential places to bid for my third assignment, I had never heard of the country. And it is in Africa. Although the continent has a rapidly growing tourism market (the second fastest-growing market in 2018), it still captures a small part of the tourism pie. In 2018, 67 million tourists visited Africa. Compare that to the 90 million that visited France alone. The top visited African destinations were places like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Morocco, Tunisia, and Kenya. And most of these tourists are not Americans who tend to stick to Western Europe and the Caribbean – of the top 39 overseas places Americans visited in 2017 only two African nations made the list – South Africa and Morocco – at place #36 and #39 respectively.
So bottom line, there are not many people who would come more than halfway around the world to visit us in a small, relatively unknown developing country. But I do have those few. D&D are two of those people. They have visited me in Indonesia and Mexico (both before my blogging days), they had plans to visit me in China (until an unexpected medical evacuation caused that cancellation), and C and I visited them in San Francisco during Home Leave a few years ago.
DO1 and I went to college together many years ago; he was my big brother in our service fraternity. He loves traveling and visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world and has no qualms about traveling WAY out of his way to see them. His partner, DO2 (yes, they have the same first name and their last names start with the same letter), may not love traveling quite so much but is a really good sport. It was no surprise that DO1 contacted me in the summer about visiting Malawi for Thanksgiving, in conjunction with a trip to South Africa.
On Thanksgiving Thursday I picked up D&D at the airport and we headed to the Italian restaurant around the corner from my home for lunch. I also took them for a little spin around Lilongwe to see all the sites — that really and truly is a short drive. Once C was home from school, we all headed out to Latitude 13, an upscale boutique hotel not far from my home. C and I have often eaten at Latitude’s restaurant and I have long wanted to stay overnight there. After all, when Rihanna visited Malawi, she stayed there. So, you know, if it is good enough for Rihanna, it is definitely good enough for me.
Early on Friday morning, we started our three and a half-hour drive to the beautiful resort of Pumulani, located within the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Last year, we also spent Thanksgiving at Pumulani. We had such a great time there before, it made perfect sense to return. And D&D would have the amazing opportunity to enjoy the long stretches of Malawi road along the way. I mean that tongue in cheek as it is really not that exciting. It’s rather amazing for a country that is so densely populated that one can drive for miles with little signs of civilization.
Our rooms at Pumulani were as stunning as the last time. Pumulani is built up a rocky hillside along the lakeshore. There are ten villas set from at various levels — one at the beach level, and then at various stages up the hillside — there are 150 wooden steps from the beach up to the main lodge. Previously, C and I stayed at the upper level, with a bush view. This time, by my request, we stayed at a villa at the mid-level, where I had heard rock hyraxes were sometimes spotted. We also had a lake view. D&D were in a villa a little way down the boardwalk, a level below us.
While standing on our balcony, overlooking Pumulani’s small dock on the lake, a movement in the brush caught my eye. A good-sized monitor lizard, a little over two feet in length, skidded hurridly down an embankment. And then, giving chase, a rock hyrax! I could not believe it. The hyrax lept into the branches of a tree and settled in for a little rest. Upon looking around, I noticed not one, not two, but three hyraxes sitting in the trees. Wow! On our last trip, we had not seen a single one, and now here they were hanging around our villa. Soon enough, vervet monkeys ran across the roof of our villa, then leaped into the trees.
We enjoyed lunch together on the dining patio at the main lodge overlooking the upper pool, the dock, and with a tremendous view of the lake. It was hot. Very, very hot. Although the sky was clear, rain was in the air, and thus so were the lake flies. So while Pumulani food is very good, and the view and company were perfect, the swarming flies marred the otherwise lovely meal. The heat and insects, full stomachs and exhaustion from the road trip, drove us each to our rooms and the lake beach for some relaxation. The storm rolled in, guaranteeing there would be no late afternoon dhow sail on the lake, but the stormy skies were nonetheless atmospheric and cooled the temperatures to something more bearable.
I kept a respectable distance from the lake waters abutting the Pumulani beach. On our last visit, while C played by the lakeshore and I lazed in a swing chair, a Pumulani staff member approached my daughter and told her to stay away from the lake as a crocodile was nearby. This time we asked about the crocodiles and were told, “oh, its only the one and we haven’t seen him in oh, two or three…days.”
Unfortunately that evening I came down with a stomach bug. I could barely drag myself up the 100-some steps to the dining area, and once there, I could not stand the thought of food. Nor the idea of still sharing my meal with the hundreds, no thousands, of bugs teeming around the few lights. I called it an early night, leaving D&D to the mercy of the insects, and arranged for food to be delivered to our room for C.
The next morning I was good as new, thank goodness. D&D headed out on a hike and kayak tour after breakfast, but I could not get C to agree. With a recently busy work schedule and an upcoming training trip to Addis Ababa, I was fine with taking it easy. It helped that we had been to Pumulani before. C and I watched the rock hyraxes from our balcony and then headed to the pool to cool off. I noticed another guest taking some photos with a serious lens and following the direction noticed a baboon in a tree. I started to head down to the room to get my better camera when the trees around us began rustling and a baboon burst out next to the pool. It eyed us, especially my daughter, and made as though it might jump in the pool with her, and then it reached down to cup a few handfuls of pool water before leaping back into the brush.
We all had lunch together again but then D1 headed off for a snorkeling adventure. He was going to make sure he did Lake Malawi right – not just spending time by the lake, but also on the lake (kayaking) and in the lake (snorkeling). I have heard a saying since coming to this country that if you haven’t been to the lake, you have not really been to Malawi. Although D&D would have only a few days in the country they were making sure to really check the Malawi box. The rest of us lazy, fair-skinned folks continued doing our best to enjoy the relaxing pleasures of Pumulani.
We were incredibly lucky that the rain stayed away so that we could go out on the dhow. we piled into the wooden sailing boat along with a family of four and headed out onto the water. I was thrilled that we once again were able to see a hippo – in fact we saw two – enjoying the waters of Lake Malawi (at a safe distance from our vessel). More rain was on the way so we could not stay out as long as usual, but again, the impending storm turned the sky incredible colors for one of, if not the most spectacular sunset I have seen in Malawi. Normally, sunsets here seem quick: a round red ball of flame just above the horizon that burns bright for five minutes before suddenly dropping away. This time the sun took its time, sliding languorously down, and even after hiding away for the evening, the sky changed colors for the longest time. We had one last dinner and breakfast together before beginning our slightly stressful race against time to get D&D to the airport for the first flight on the way back to California.
I understand that many of my friends and family cannot make such a trip for various reasons. And therefore I share a lot of photos of our home, our activities, and our lives in Malawi on social media, but little can compare with an in-person visit. It was a short visit but I am so thankful that I have friends like D&D who are willing to come more than halfway around the world to see us.
Americans’ love affair with the car is no secret. In reality, Western Europeans have more cars per person than Americans, but Americans drive their cars for just about anything – short trips, long trips, and everything in between. And when Americans go on long trips, they might be just as likely to pack up the car as to get on a plane. Americans (in general) love a good road trip.
Although I have spent a good portion of my adult life (between September 1995 and September 2011) without owning a car, I still very much appreciate a good drive. In my Foreign Service career, I have not done much driving at Post. In Ciudad Juarez, we could only drive in a limited area around the city and into the United States, and I did not own a vehicle in Shanghai. Malawi has been an “interesting” opportunity to get back on the road.
Most of my driving life in Malawi is within a small area, maybe five square miles, if that. It’s a seven-minute drive from my home to the Embassy and most other trips are to and from friends’ homes and a few supermarkets and restaurants. But every so often we get out of town, and with nearly two years under my belt in Malawi, I have taken a road trip or two or ten. And driving here is unlike any other place I have driven.
Some Malawian roads I have driven
Malawi may be one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, but when on the road between cities and towns, it can feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere. Its not just the lack of population — there can certainly be those times when it seems there is no one else around — but even when there are villages it is just those villages, a cluster of small homes, probably the majority just a single room. They might be mud or brick with thatch or corrugated iron roofs, but except in the larger trading centers, the homes, maybe a school, is it. You will not see road lights or electricity poles. There are few if any road signs. You will only rarely see billboards by the side of the road — only as you might approach a major center. Playing “I spy” is a futile exercise.
There will be no fast-food restaurants if any restaurants at all. Few stores. Even petrol stations are in short supply. On the 4+ hour drive on the M1, the country’s main artery linking the capital Lilongwe with the business capital of Blantyre, there are perhaps only two or three places to stop for gas. You should always fill up when you can, because there may not be another opportunity for some distance. The same goes for restrooms.
The paved roads, even the main ones, are predominantly two lanes, one in each direction. Maybe there will be a painted center line, maybe not. Maybe there will be a shoulder, though usually not. Most often the sides of the road are jagged, as though a large monster that eats asphalt has bitten huge chunks off the edges. There are many potholes. Near villages, there will be cyclists, and it seems almost a given that as your car approaches they will begin to weave haphazardly, adding an extra challenge to an already difficult drive. There are also often goats or cattle alongside the road — the cattle are usually accompanied by children or young men, the goats are often unattended and maybe a wee bit suicidal, or at least not phased by traffic at all. However, if you hit someone’s livestock, be prepared to pay up.
The speed limit is generally 80-90 kph (50-55 mph) on the roads outside urban/market areas and 50 kph (30 mph) within. Yet, in my experience, you either get those who drive a maddening 20 kph below or a scary 20-30 kph above. It’s the excessive speeds which are particularly worrying — according to the World Health Organization, sub-Saharan Africa has some of the highest rates of vehicle accident fatalities per 100,000 people in the world, and Malawi ranks as one of the higher among southern African countries.
License and registration, please
To force people to at least occasionally slow down, the police set up roadblocks. The Malawi police are basically a static force; they are hampered by their shoestring budget and a limited number of vehicles. Thus they are not hiding around bends or behind trees in their police cars or motorcycles ready for the hot pursuit of lawbreakers. Instead, they set up roadblocks, some quite rudimentary, to at least temporarily halt travel and conduct vehicle inspections. My diplomatic-plated car is rarely stopped, and on the very few occasions it’s happened, I have been waved through quickly. Not that I am doing anything wrong mind you. I drive the speed limit, my tires are in good shape, I have a license and insurance, and I carry the required-by-law equipment. I have a feeling I might be in the minority.
On any given day you will likely encounter some creative interpretation of traffic regulations. There are no official taxis and buses are few and far between (largely cross border routes); the primary means of travel for the commuter is on foot, bicycle (including bicycle taxis), or the ubiquitous mini-buses, which can be used for intracity or intercity transportation. These small vans are notorious for being overcrowded with people and packages, in poor condition, often with inadequate tires or brakes, and often driven at excessive speeds. Besides the mini-buses, Malawians come up with some resourceful methods to transport goods and people via the roads. If I weren’t so concerned about how their ingenuity impacts my ability to safely get from Point A to Point B, I would be pretty impressed. But I have also read enough articles about, and even come across, what happens when vehicles drive too fast on Malawian roads.
I remember something a friend once said about driving here — how much it takes out of you because you cannot ever really relax. This is not the place where you can put the car on cruise control and zone out. One has to keep on one’s toes, as you never know what will be around the next bend. Maybe there is a disabled vehicle, cordoned off not with the required-by-law warning triangles but leafy branches. Or a police checkpoint. Or perhaps there might be a bunch of uniform-clad school children lollygagging on the road’s edge. Or a bunch of goats. You might come across someone selling dried fish or gunny sacks of illegal charcoal. Or perhaps someone selling roasted field mice on a stick — a popular delicacy during the dry cool season. Or you might run across masked young men or boys dressed in makeshift costumes of torn clothes, strips of fabric, burlap sacks, and straw, heading to a performance. These are the Gule Wamkulu, or ritual spiritual dancers of the Chewa tribe, the dance inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Or maybe you come around a curve to face a stunning vista. Driving in Malawi is not for the faint-hearted, but it sure does keep things interesting.
Furry fried field mice anyone? Or maybe hang with Gule Wamkulu spirits?
The second half of our Fall Break trip which began in Zimbabwe and ended at Lake Malawi.
This part did not begin as expected. I debated how to write about it or whether to write about it at all. But I did not see how I could omit what occurred and still accurately portray our lives here and our, or at least my, state of mind as we headed out from Lilongwe to the upper-central area of Lake Malawi. As much as we enjoy Malawi, there are, of course, times when life here is not easy; when cultural differences lead to misunderstandings and/or confusing circumstances. To pretend otherwise gives false impressions.
The summer before I arrived in Malawi I spent approximately three months in Washington, D.C. in training to prepare for my position. During one of the course sessions, the presenter turned out to have once served in the same job, sort of like my great-great-great-great-great incumbent. I caught him after his presentation and we had a few minutes to talk. Like me, he and his family had moved to Malawi from China and appreciated the cleaner air, the large yard, and the smaller population. But, he warned me, the only part they disliked was dealing with the household staff. It was not the work ethic, but the potential for bickering and competition between staff members.
Fast forward and C and I are arriving back from Zimbabwe. Before leaving Malawi, I had arranged with our nanny to pick us up at the airport. But when we walked out of arrivals there was no one there for us. And 30 minutes later there was still no one.
I do not completely understand what happened but basically, my nanny attempted to leave the compound to pick us up, but one of the residential guards refused to let her leave. There may have been threats, yelling, stones thrown, and others called in to resolve their spat. It turned into a “he said, she said,” explanation, with lots of finger-pointing and claims that God as their witness knew he/she was the one telling the truth. But the end result for C and I is we were left at the airport for 2 1/2 hours later than expected and a good bit of my positive vacation feels from Zimbabwe had dissipated.
I wish I could say I got over it quickly, but that would not be true. I debated about canceling the rest of our trip, but I knew that would not improve my mood. We had reservations on the lake and I hoped a good long drive might do me good.
We woke up early-ish and I finished packing up the car so we could get on the road by 8:30 AM. The unexpected situation of the day before was still very much on my mind, yet it helped the first, familiar 90-minute drive east on the M14 from Lilongwe to Salima town fly by. There we took our usual Salima break at the nice gas station, loaded up on snacks, and then cranked up the CD player in the car (yes, the CD player — this is what you are forced to do when you drive a 2006 vehicle with a broken radio).
A room with a view – Malawi, yet it does not look like Malawi
All in all, it took five hours to arrive at our destination, Kachere Kastle, the unexpected hotel built in the style of a Moorish castle sitting on an expansive flat sandy beach in a quiet cove on the upper third of the incredible Lake Malawi. I recall reading it took the owners about eight years to bring their dream to reality.
I had booked the upper tower room for C and I – a top floor room in the front turret. I wanted the best room — a view toward the beach. But the room also included a sitting room, a balcony, and a staircase to the roof, where we could have slept out under the stars had we so desired (it was quite windy and unexpectedly chilly, so we did not). I made sure to book this special room some months in advance and thus was surprised to learn C and I would be the only guests for the night.
Scenes from a beach walk
Almost immediately we changed and parked ourselves by the pool. I blew up our giant pool tortoise for C, ordered lunch, then relaxed into a reclining chair poolside and took out a book. I could feel some of the tension of the previous 24 hours sliding away. And then our lunch arrived — and it was some of the best food I have had in Malawi.
Like Zimbabwe, northern Malawi appeared to be on a limited electricity shared plan. We were told that the electricity would be off for about eight hours in the morning. Good thing we had just come from Zim; we took it in stride. The hours passed. We ate. We played in the pool. I am not particularly good at relaxing. I generally feel a strong pull to be doing something, anything. Reading, writing, planning, walking, something. I find it very hard to slow down, but I needed to. Therefore a long, slow stroll at sunset was in order. There were a few boats on the beach; I am not sure if they were there for purposes of actual use or placed there for atmospheric reasons, but we stopped at each one for some photos.
The beach was largely deserted — again, just for us. We could see a few locals in the distance, and a few children approached us, some giggling, others quiet and curious, but for the most part we were left alone, and I was grateful. C collected smooth stones she found on the beach, first in her hands, and then when they became too numerous, into the gathered folds of her skirt. She drew pictures in the sand for me to guess what they were. I snapped her photo atop a large boulder on the beach; rather similar to the boulders we found strewn across the Zim countryside, but in Malawi are often found along the lake. A few small, naked children, appeared near the rock. They yelled at us–I think it was meant to be friendly, but came across as taunting, amusement at our expense–so we turned back. A dugout canoe silently glided through the reeds on an inlet cut off from the Lake by only 25 meters or so.
Back at the hotel we ordered our dinner for room service. Once again the kitchen surpassed my expectations. I wished Kachere were closer to Lilongwe.
The next morning I woke early to my alarm; I wanted to watch the sun rise over the Lake. I went up to our private rooftop to watch the sky lighten on the water’s horizon. The only sounds were the lapping of the waves, birdsong, and a breeze lightly caressing the leaves of a nearby large mango tree. To my left, just past the hotel property, I could make out small fires on the beach and the stirrings of the village. Fishermen were already out on the water. After the sun had poked through the clouds on the water’s far edge, I went down to our balcony to close my eyes and meditate. Then I crawled back into bed for another hour.
As our next destination was only 10 minutes down the road, we stayed at Kachere as long as we could, enjoying the novelty of a pool to ourselves. We then packed up the car and head to Kande Horse, another property that had long been on my Malawi bucket list. C loves horses but there are few stables where the casual guest can ride. One is on the Zomba plateau and the other at Kande Horse.
We were quickly settled into our room, had some lunch, and then prepared for our included one hour afternoon ride to the lake shore. I appreciated the incredible welcome afforded us by the Kande Horse management and staff, and the care taken in selecting our horses. C and I are casual riders, who though we try to get a horse ride in on about every other holiday, still have little real horse experience. C was pleased to have her own good sized pony, and no one to lead her. As luck would have it, it turned out to be more than an hour’s ride. Let’s not kid ourselves here, we sit on horseback and they walk, we are not trotting or cantering, but I guess its still riding, right? Our route, through villages, forest and brush to the beach was both pleasant and calming, with just enough cheeky misbehaving by the horses, to make us laugh.
C riding along the lake shore
However, once at the beach we had to wait for the other riders, who had taken a longer ride, to arrive and frolic in the waves. The beach was crowded, mostly with children. A community project was underway. If I understood correctly, a donor had provided money for bricks to build a classroom at the school; the community needed only to provide the cement and the labor, and thus they were collecting sand from the beach. However, they were nearly done for the day when two mzungu rode up on horses, dismounted, then sat waiting. A perfect time to surround them and pepper them with questions.
After a rather uncomfortable 20 minutes, the other riders showed up and we headed back to Kande Horse. Again, there was little to do but relax around the room, our balcony, or the grounds until it was time for dinner at 7 PM. Again, no Wi-Fi, no electricity until evening, so we kept things low key. I was a little worried about dinner as I had learned on arrival that all of the meals are solely vegetarian. But honestly, it turned out to one of the best dinners I have had in Malawi. The veggie burger and fries were really delicious (I wish I had the recipe), and the camaraderie around the table warm and easy.
Initially we had planned for a second night at Kande; however, C was ready to go home. To be honest, I was too, but I would have stayed if C wanted to. But after dinner she asked if we might go home early. I was incredibly grateful for the management at Kande for their understanding. Therefore after breakfast on Saturday we packed up the car and made the five hour drive back to Lilongwe. It was a long drive, but somewhat comforting just being behind the wheel. The days at the Lake had restored at least some of my equilibrium.
Following our glorious four week Home Leave full of fun, American comfort food, and functioning traffic patterns, coming back to Malawi was a bit of a shock. On top of missing our friends and family, lamenting the loss of string cheese purchases at the Super Target, and just an overall in-our-faces realization of the drastic differences between life in the U.S. versus that in Malawi, the summer transfer season was upon us. Its always an “interesting” time at Embassies across the world as seasoned officers transfer out, new ones transfer in, gaps form and those left cover two or more other positions, and Washington realizes that it is getting close to the end of the fiscal year (ends Sept 30) and thus decide they want to use the money to travel to you — just when staffing is at its most precarious. In Malawi, the political situation too had been less than stable since the election, and an umbrella group for governance civil society organizations and activists had been holding demonstrations on average once a week. Some were canceled by the group itself, other times they were forced to postpone due to government court action, but every time we had to prepare nonetheless. And even when not transferring, others are on vacation, and C missed her Malawi friends and struggled in the weeks leading up to school. At last C started upper primary school and there was the usual flurry of preparations for a new school year. Whew. Within a week or two of our return, I already found myself fantasizing about the next vacation.
About a year ago my good friend JK1 had moved to Zimbabwe to take up a position at the U.S. Embassy. C and I had previously visited her and her family in Chiang Mai, and we were excited to have them relatively close to us again. Soon after they arrived in southern Africa, I began to plot our visit. I also wanted another chance to see Harare given my only other trip unexpectedly coincided with the overthrow of the long-time president Robert Mugabe, and thus I had been largely confined to the hotel. Given our different work schedules, JBK and her husband JK2 were unable to take any days off, so we would have to make do with a three day weekend with them and Little JK.
Fall break arrived and our trip to Zim at last! What a breath of fresh air to fly only one hour, direct, and just be at our destination. JK2 picked us up at the airport and within 30 minutes we were at the beautiful JK homestead. About an hour later we were at a Harry Potter-themed birthday party. It was likely the birthday party of the year and Little JK was not about to miss it. It was a wee bit awkward for C and myself as we did not know anyone other than who we came with (and I happened to know the hostess as well, but she was very busy hosting) but hey we are diplomats, so we made do. That night the JKs took us out to dinner at the fabulous Queen of Hearts, which is on the order of an upscale food court, with Italian, American, and Japanese food on hand.
C and the Tower at Great Zim – Nothing like this in Malawi
By now I was already busy comparing Zim with Malawi. The two countries are geographically close, have similar climates, flora and fauna, a shared history (both British protectorates and part of the short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland), and similar culture. Both countries struggle with governance and their economies. But there is something very, very tricky about playing the comparison game, especially as a short-term tourist. Though I noticed both countries had the purple-blossomed jacaranda trees in bloom and both were struggling with power cuts of some kind, the nagging deja vu feeling was less a mirror of Malawi as it is now, but as it might have been or could still be; a same-same, but different. Malawi does not have the long lines at the petrol stations (except during the recent two-day trucker strike that blocked the delivery of oil and gas) and the power cuts seem more a function of mismanagement than a deliberate policy, and yet the existing structures of Zimbabwe – the airport, the roads, the Embassy housing, even the range of restaurants – all seemed more modern than in Malawi. Zim seemed both better, and worse.
Early on our second day, we loaded up the JK’s larger vehicle, with suitcases, snacks and several jerry cans of extra fuel, and we made the 4 1/2 hour drive south to Masvingo, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Zimbabwe. I could not help but find the long drive similar to ones we have encountered in Malawi – distances between villages with little else in-between but scrub brush, static police roadblocks, and seemingly random road works. We were all grateful to pile out of the car at the far end, in a gravel lot in front of the canopied tourist entrance to start a tour of the ruined edifices of a former ancient Shona kingdom.
Great Zimbabwe is actually the largest of approximately 200 similar sites across a part of southern Africa, especially in Zimbabwe and Mozambique (Zimbabwe means “stone houses” in the Shona language). The earliest known mention of the once-great gold trading city was in 1531, by a Portuguese garrison captain based in what is modern-day Mozambique. At a certain time in history, colonialists and white settlers ascribed to the view that the ruins were of Semitic or Arab origin, i.e. could not have been built by Africans. It is perhaps of little wonder that nationalists selected the name Zimbabwe for their independent nation.
Our fabulous rondavel at the Lodge at the Ancient City – outside and in
With our knowledgeable guide we enjoyed our several hour-tour of the ruins through the Great Enclosure, with its five-meter high walls of interlocking stones, fashioned without mortar, the mysterious conical tower, and naturally air-conditioned passageway designed for the king to secretly visit his highest of queens, and then into the Valley Complex, where the lesser of the elites, king’s concubines, and such would have lived. These structures were in a far more ruined state, piles of grey stones in places, in others palm trees growing through the middle of walls, with baboons, monkeys, and the occasional cattle frolicking among them. Then we headed to the museum. And finally, we herded our bedraggled, and yet oddly energized selves (there was something really special about Great Zimbabwe and our tour), back to the car and continued on to our lodging for the evening.
Inside the Lodge’s main building
Although we all found the food options to be somewhat lacking, the ambiance of the Lodge was fantastic. They had designed the main building in the style of Grand Zimbabwe, perhaps at its grandest or at least an imagined magnificence. The simplicity of the outside of our rondavel, a traditional round African-style dwelling, belied the roomy and attractive inside. C and Little JK parked themselves in our room for a bit to play, but with our long drive and then the two-hour walking tour at the site had us all yawning early on.
JK1 and I woke up at the crack of dawn – literally – and made our way back to the Great Zimbabwe site for its 6 AM opening sans JK2 and the kids, with plans to employ another guide to lead us up the Hill Complex. The sky was already light, blue and clear; the sun bright but the air crisp. It was a good time to do a little bit of climbing. Unfortunately, although the stated hours indicated a 6 AM opening and the gate was open, there were no guides yet on site. And thus we waited. Monkeys snuck past the ticket building and scampered across the field toward the Hill Complex as small groups of children began to stream out on their way to school. And grey clouds began to roll in over the Great Zimbabwe complex, the wind began to pick up, and JK1 and I began to regret not having a light jacket. Although October is the warmest month for both Zimbabwe and Malawi, we were not feeling the heat.
Close to 7 AM the guide arrived and we set off. It turned out one does not really need a guide to climb up to the Hill Complex, as the trail is well marked; however, once at the top, we would have had no idea of what we were looking at without our guide Loveness. According to our guide, the Hill Complex was the abode of the king from which he could look over the Great Enclosure, where his number one queen resided, all of his approximate 18,000 subjects, and the entirety of the Mutirikwi valley.
The view from the Seat of Power; JK1 and I on top
As we wound our way up increasingly narrow steps framed with stone walls, which then suddenly terminated at the citadel, I was reminded of the rock fortress at Sirignya in Sri Lanka. Standing below the hill nothing can prepare you for the size and intricacy of the fortress atop. In Zimbabwe, there are large igneous boulders strewn across the landscape, some balancing precariously on top of others. At Great Zimbabwe, such boulders are stacked atop the Hill Complex and were cleverly integrated into the compound. Although I had hoped for blue skies at the summit, the swift-moving grey clouds evoked a sense of history and atmosphere that clearer skies would not have. And at a very few intervals, the clouds granted us cobalt blue.
Our tour at the top took approximately an hour; our guide knowledgeable and thorough. We literally left no stone unturned, historically speaking that is. JK1 and I even had the guts to climb to the top of a balancing rock above a natural auditorium, where supposedly the ruler would sit looking down upon his court, rather a la Lion King and Pride Rock. Getting to what I guess could be termed the Seat of Power was deceptively easy, but once on top, neither JK1 or I wanted to get too close to the edge. The spot afforded incredible views across the valley but the stronger winds and, frankly, the edge and space beyond left my knees a wee bit shaky. (I am not afraid of heights, only afraid of falling from them!) We returned to the parking area via the easier pathway and then headed back to rouse the troops, pack up, and begin our long drive back to Harare.
Once back in Harare, JK1 needed to do some work, so their wonderful nanny took C and Little JK for a playdate next door, while JK2 took me for a short spin around the neighborhood. That night we headed out to a Thai restaurant for dinner. Let me repeat that, a Thai restaurant. And it was authentic and delicious. It was so good I almost wanted to cry; we definitely do not have any Thai food in Malawi.
A little piece of heaven – Imire Lodge
On Tuesday morning we said farewell to the JKs. I had arranged for a driver to pick us up in Harare and take us the 90 minutes southeast to the Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation Lodge. C and I have been on a few safaris but C had not yet had the chance to see rhino; I wanted to change that.
We arrived before the 9:30 AM game drive, just in time to partake in a mid-morning tea before departure. We were divided into two jeeps for the day-trippers and the overnighters and headed out into the conservation area.
The upside of a place like this over going to a National Park is the guarantee to see certain animals. At Imire we would see four of the Big Five–elephants, buffalo, rhino, and one lonely, old male lion. The animals were somewhat conditioned to associate the safari vehicle with snack time, giving us up and close personal time with all but the lion (he killed his partner about a decade before and he resides by himself in a large enclosure).
We drove for about 2 1/2 hours and then had a lunch set up in the bush near a reservoir, with benches and tables carved out of rock facing the water. Then another 45 minutes after lunch before heading back to the lodge for afternoon tea and relaxing in the beautiful surroundings. A cheeky monkey grabbed cookies from the spread and headed up as high as he could go into the tallest nearby tree. While normally we might have both got on our devices, the lodge had no power during the day, with the management only switching on the generator at 5 PM. So we had to find non-electricity related activities. There was a pool but the winds were cool and picking up, so we just enjoyed some relaxing time. I sat outside the rondavel, reading and writing in my journal. C made friends with one of the resident dogs (she really would like me to get her a dog) and ran around the lawn and climbed trees. Then in the late afternoon, we went out again for a sunset game drive and sundowner.
We were served a delicious four-course meal in the dining tent that evening. The wind had picked up more, whipping through the tent flaps. I had a hard time believing it was October and wished we had packed sweatshirts or light jackets. With our drive out to the lodge that morning and two bumpy safari drives (in Malawi we call these bouncing around on bad roads the “Malawi massage”), so we had no problem turning in early.
The next day, after a lovely breakfast, a driver transported us from Imire to the airport for our return flight to Malawi. And the second part of our Fall Break.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.