Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part One: Mumps in Thailand, Boat Down the Mekong

From July 2002 to July 2003 I was in graduate school in Singapore.  Over the winter break I took seven weeks to travel solo in northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma.  I sent out fairly regular email updates to my friends and family during my trip and these are the edited stories – a combination of email and diary excerpts, reminiscences from my admittedly faulty memory, and thoughts from today.  I find it curious, with the passage of time, what I wrote and took photos of, what I have remembered and forgotten.

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The border crossing

I had plans to stay only a few days in Thailand before heading to Laos.  I meant to spend 3 weeks in Laos, starting with a Mekong river voyage, some two weeks in central Laos, and then a third week down the slender tail where the Mekong hugs the border between Thailand and Laos to the Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) area.  But things did not go at all as planned.  As so often happens with travel—and really one of the key reasons to do it—I could not have anticipated the people I would meet and the adventures, including coming down with a serious viral infection for which I had been (supposedly) inoculated against as a child…

On Friday, November 23 I flew from Singapore to Bangkok, Thailand to begin the first phase of my journey.  After checking into my guesthouse, I notice the right side of my jaw is swollen; it looks like a gumball is lodged in there and it feels tender and sore to the touch.    I write: I appear to have a minor bout of the gout.  The next day I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Rai.  My jaw hurts even worse; I feel ill and uncomfortable on the flight.  As I disembark at my destination it takes nearly all my energy to drag myself from the plane through the airport to transportation to take me to my Chiang Rai guesthouse.

At the guesthouse I can barely drag myself from check in up the stairs to my room. I know I should see a doctor and ask at the front desk.  The man informs me there is a clinic just 300 meters away, within walking distance.  I tell him I cannot make it.  He insists it is not far.  I walk a few steps, my knees buckle, and I vomit.  In an extraordinary show of kindness from a stranger, the man gets his motorcycle and takes me to the clinic.  He waits with me there and afterwards takes me to a pharmacy, then back to the guesthouse.  With medication and some beverages, I hole myself up in my room and fall asleep.

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The slow boat — aka, my ride

The doctor told me I had Mume.  The following day I head to an Internet café to see if I can learn more about my illness.  Since my face is so swollen I grab a hoodie so I can wear it to mask my face.

I type in my symptoms and what should pop up but mumps!  I almost laughed.  That is if laughing were not so painful.  Both sides of my jaw are completely swollen.  It is very painful.  I cannot eat.  The day before in a fit of desperation I bought a bag of potato chips.  I ate about 10 and was sorry for over two hours, my jaw throbbed horribly from the effort.  I stood in front of a restaurant yesterday staring at the food through the window, then went to buy instant ramen at 7-11 which I gobbled up with great glee back in my hotel room.  I carried the little cup with boiling water the three blocks back to my guesthouse like it was my most precious possession. 

I spend two days in my room.  I read a book.  I play solitaire.  I write in my journal.  I nap.  I think about eating but do not dare because it hurts too much.  But slowly I begin to feel better.  I make plans to move on.  I buy some supplies, check bus times, and prepare to collect my passport with my visa to Laos.  But the next day was not to be.  I could barely drag myself down to the travel office and when I did it was closed.  I gave up and went back to my room.  Later someone brought my passport to my room—I merely rolled over in bed, unlocked the door, took the passport, closed the door, and went back to sleep.

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One of the few times I saw people along the way

The next day I wake at 6 AM and head to the bus station to catch the first bus to Chiang Kong, the Thai border crossing.  The slow boat down river departs at 10:30; the bus should arrive on the Thai side at 10 AM.  But it arrives at 10:15. I quickly catch a tuk-tuk to the boat landing, but then the immigration official takes a short break.  Then shoots the breeze with his colleague.  10:30 comes and goes.   The slow boat has surely departed.  I head up the steps to Laos immigration and then wander in to town.  I went into a guesthouse to ask a woman about the boat.  She told me “It already leave.  Stay here.  Stay the night.  You are tired, right?  Don’t you want to rest?”  And she lured me.  Because I was tired and I did want to rest.  My first day in Laos was not off to a good start.

The Laotian town of Huay Xai is a one road town.  A road into town and a road out, a single intersection.  There were a few guesthouses and restaurants catering to all the people who “missed the boat” (literally!) and that is about it.  Seemed a nice enough place to rest up for the two day boat ride commencing the next day.  There were speed boats, but the riders are strapped in, immobile, with life vests and crash helmets, their baggage pinned against their feet as they hurdled down the river for six hours with the deafening motor in their ears.  While I thought for adventures-sake this might be fun for all of maybe 5 minutes, and interesting for maybe an hour, but with my stiff neck, swollen jaw and extreme tiredness, I could not think of subjecting myself to that torture.  It was to be slow boat torture for me.

The next day the slow boat departed at 11:15 AM.  I could have made it the day before.

We were packed in like cattle, sixty of us, sitting on hard wooden benches.  I left my book in the hotel.  Few people were in the mood to talk.  Looking around every available space filled with a person with a book balanced on their lap; I was so envious.  I would try and look out the window for awhile, to give my bum a rest from the plank, and within fifteen minutes my knees felt as if they were welded to the wood and moving them was extremely painful.  The muddy river, the green banks, slid by minute after minute, hour after hour with little change in scenery.

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Colonial building in Luang Prabang

After six hours the boat arrived at Pak Beng, where we stayed the night.  I still was not 100%.  I had some soup but I could not sleep.  Under a mosquito net I felt too hot.  I thought a shower might help.  There was a huge cement cistern.  And a shower head.  In the corner a huge spider sat on the wallI had my glasses off so I could not make it out very well, though I kept my eye on it as well as I could.  The water was so cold I felt unable to stand and found myself squatting on the floor, shower head in hand, my mouth gaping open and closed like a fish out of water, just to brace myself against the icy coldness of the liquid running down my scalp and neck. Shampooing up, I didn’t know if I could stand to run the water over my head again to rinse, but again in silent screams I washed my hair.  I was certainly cooled off then and fell into a lovely slumber, despite the sound of rats scurrying overhead…

I thought the day before as I got off the boat that someone would have to drag me kicking and screaming to the boat the next day, with me screaming “no, not the boat, not the BOAT!”  But I walked on of my own accord the next day.

The second day on the boat was much like the first, except that I managed to procure myself a book.

I am on the boat again – we have been going for four hours, though I do not know what that means in terms of the journey as there is a debate over whether we are to travel six hours or eight today.  I sincerely hope it is only six.  I inherited a book from another person and read the whole thing before noon…The boat meanders lazily down the Mekong.  The water a muddy hot tea with milk color, on both sides thick green jungle.  Only rarely does a house appear, and even more rare, people.  It always surprises me when there are people because they appear smaller than I expected, dwarfed by the scenery around them.   I cannot even begin to explain the mind-numbing boredom of those two days.  Nor how much my bottom hurt from sitting on the wooden plank for so many hours.  And I paid for the experience.

We pulled into Luang Prabang 7 hours later and I gratefully got off the boat, scrambled up the bank at a sprint, and never looked back.

 

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Zomba & the Lake

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

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

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

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

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The lovely Embassy Cottage

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

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

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Berry goodness

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

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

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Just another mom and child out for a stroll

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

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

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

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

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

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Its a lake that looks like an ocean

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

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

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Good Morning Senga Bay

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

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

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

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The Goat Herder

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

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

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Beach boulders – even the bird crap looks cool

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

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

Two weekends away in Malawi.  Extraordinary.

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C looks out at Lake Malawi

South Luangwa, Zambia: The First Safari

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

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

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

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

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Our South Luangwa camp accommodation

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

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A beautiful bee-eater in the park

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

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Neighbors

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

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He stops on the hunt to pose for pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Zambian acquisition – an exquisite wall hanging

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

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

The 2nd Home Leave Part 2

For whatever reason I have found it difficult to write this blog post.  And yet I knew I had to write it for if there were a Part 1 there had to be at least a Part 2, or in this case if there is a beginning to the Home Leave there then needed, eventually, to be an end.  Perhaps it is because this second part of the trip felt so much longer than the first?  From Charleston, SC we continued on with our trip – traveling from SC to Orlando, Florida, on to Lexington, Kentucky,  then to Salamanca, New York, and returning to northern Virginia – all told some 2,500 miles by car.  Or maybe because all of these miles driven have provided me ample opportunity to think on so many, many topics ranging from career trajectory, life choices, the meaning of family, an appreciation for things in the US often taken for granted (such as our incredible highway system or our extensive candy selections)?  Or because we have wandered through so many states, and different climates, and interacted with so many people?

Following Charleston, SC I drove us south to Orlando, FL.  It was time for more mother-daughter time.  Although I had of course made sure to include C-friendly activities in Charleston (the aquarium, the children’s museum, the horse carriage ride), it was on the itinerary more for me than her.  So I booked six (yes SIX!) days at a very kid-centric Waterpark Resort hotel.  Our room included a small kid’s room with bunk beds, bean bag chair and even a TV where C could watch Disney Jr–and I could actually watch my very own shows and news in the other room.  Be still my heart.  As C watched the giant bucket fill with water spill over the massive water slide center she jumped up and down and hugged me.  I had done good.

Our days there were filled with sleeping in and staying up late, playing games in the arcade, frolicking in the pool, playing a round or two of miniature golf, and challenging one another to races to the bottom of water slides.  We only left the resort twice — once so I could attend a timeshare presentation (oh indeed, I got suckered in, again!) and then the second time to SeaWorld to use those free tickets I had earned fending off the timeshare professionals.  It rained once briefly but afterwards C breathed deeply and declared the air even fresher and more beautiful than before.  The joys of not having to check the Air Quality Index!  We even had wildlife encounters with C delighting in spotting the anhinga (waterfowl) and turtles and fish that made their home on the resort’s pond.  Together we found a baby orange ringneck snake near the pool and a raccoon crossed our path one night as we walked the resort grounds.

I did realize one glaring mistake – the lack of child care!  I was sure when I booked this family friendly place that it included parent-friendly child care.  It did not.  As a single parent it meant I was “on” all the time.  C swims well but is still too young to swim or hang out in an hotel arcade unattended.  I thought back to the glorious resort we had stayed at in Thailand where C was finally old enough to play at the Kids Club without me.  I had all that free time to myself.  I was envious of the dual parents who could split child minding time.

From the waterpark resort we drove just a few miles down the road to the Art of Animation Disney hotel for more Florida fun.  My long-time (nearly a quarter of a century) friend CZ and her son met us there for single mom and kid fun at Disney.  It was at times hectic.  Despite us being two adults with two children it still sometimes felt we were outnumbered.  And yet we were able to tag-team parent in ways we on our own are unable.  One could get lunch while the other watched the children.  One could take the kids on a kiddy ride while the other could sneak off to enjoy a ride where the height restrictions were over 48 inches tall.  During a very brief moment both children were wiped out asleep in strollers and we grabbed a drink together at a poolside bar – my one drink of the year.

After five days we said farewell to CZ and son and we turned back north.  After an incredibly long and frustrating drive we stopped in Suwanee, GA to stay the night with my friend SG, who had been one of my roommates in Singapore where we had both been graduate students over a decade before.  This was not initially on our itinerary but SG had reached out to see if we would be passing by and when I checked our route I found it worked.  I struggle to describe how extraordinary social media can be to maintain linkages with friends from across one’s life.  But the ability to see someone in person and meet their family, even if for a short time, is unparalleled.

Our destination after Florida though was Kentucky, just south of Lexington, where C’s father lives.  C would spend four days and nights with him and his wife.  C was so incredibly excited, chanting “daddy! daddy!” the last few miles in the car and bouncing from one foot to the other as she stood on his front step after knocking on the door.  For me it was a little bittersweet.  Four days is the longest C and I have been apart, yet I know it is important for her to have the connection with her father.  After thirty minutes of catching up C desperately wanted me to leave so she could have her dad to herself.  I drove to a nearby hotel lobby to figure out what in the world to do with all of my free time.

Over the course of the next few days I visited the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park and Mammoth Cave National Park.  At the latter I took a two hour very non-5-year-old-friendly historic cave tour and 45 minute surface walk and talk.  I watched a non-animated film at a movie theater.  I went to a spa for a facial.  I toured Ashland, the Henry Clay estate.  I stayed in a historic hotel.  I listened to NPR in the car as I drove around and did not once have to hear how my backseat driver was tired of listening to all that talk, talk, talk.  I watched adult television shows without hearing a complaint about how boring it all was and could we now switch to kid TV?  On Facebook I took pictures of myself for a change and my friends noted I looked refreshed. I missed my chatterbox and caught myself numerous times pointing out cows and horses alongside the road to an empty backseat, but I also savored the quiet.  As an introvert I can say one of the things I miss most as a single mom is silence.

After picking C up at her dad’s we headed for Ohio.  We were on our way to New York but I had discovered in looking at our route we would pass by my cousin Lucky’s place.  I had messaged her and she was glad to have us stay with her for a night.  Lucky and her husband are accomplished artists and extraordinary people.  Their home, for lack of a better description, gives off an aura of happiness and positivity.  We enjoyed dinner out and breakfast in, and an impromptu art session on the living room coffee table.

Our next stop was upstate New York where C’s paternal family lives.  I again struggle for the right words to articulate how fortunate we are that they embrace us as they do.  Her father and I were never married, our pre-C relationship rocky and short-lived.  But his family welcomes us–they welcome me–openly.  We met with her grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin, whom we had met before, but also met another aunt and cousin for the first time.  Her grandmother’s brother stopped by to see “the girl” he had yet to meet.

From New York we returned to Virginia, to my aunt’s home for a few more days.  We collected the rest of our things and the cats and then moved into an apartment in Arlington to stay in through the end of my training.

I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to take a journey like this – to have both the time and the means.  All the gushing about Home Leave in the beginning piece is very much how I feel.  Not to say that somewhere around 2.5 weeks into this I had just about had enough.  I did, at times, find the driving monotonous.  I tired of hauling around our suitcases from one hotel or home to another and longed for some semblance of continuity and routine.  Yet for every thought about how nice it would be to just get some place and stay more than a few days there were ten or twenty thoughts about how I wish we had more time to see more of the country, to spend an extra day or two or three with a friend or relative.  Home Leave is the closest I get these days to my former backpacking self, who would spend weeks on end traveling around a country or from country to country, moving every day or two, sometimes deciding the next destination on a whim.

Still this home leave did feel more difficult than my first in the summer of 2012 for three reasons: child care, the timing, and politics.

In 2012 I, smart cookie that I was, arranged child care for then-2.5 year old C at most of our locations.  This included taking C daily to the Sheraton Waikiki daycare while we were in Hawaii, to the incredible drop in child care center in New Bern, NC, a community gym with child care in Pigeon Forge, TN, and friends and family who minded C so I could run in San Francisco, South Dakota and New York.  For some reason I neglected to work out anything this trip except when C was with her father or the one night she spent at her grandparents in NY.  This was a mistake.  I needed more downtime.

My first Home Leave lasted an amazing eight weeks after which I started 19 weeks of language training, then a week of consultations/pack-out/administrative tasks, to prepare for heading to Shanghai, where I would continue visa adjudications as I had in Juarez.  This time I had seven weeks of home leave, five of which I spent traveling, two I am spending in the DC area, before either seven to nine weeks of functional training, and then head to Malawi to take up a completely new position.  During the course of my home leave I fielded emails regarding the maritime shipment of my newly acquired car from Japan to South Africa then on to Malawi, the air delivery of my UAB (Unaccompanied Baggage) from Shanghai to Virginia, and reviewing advertisements, contacting references, and interviewing for child care in Malawi, among other things.  Truth be told I sometimes felt resentful these things encroached on my Home Leave.

Finally, this time the political climate is also different.  At this point I will remind the reader that my blog comes with a caveat – that the viewpoints expressed here are mine and mine alone and do not represent the State Department or any office of the Federal Government.  My blog is not political; I have strong opinions on things but I rarely state my views on social media.  Yet it would be disingenuous to say the current state of affairs does not directly and indirectly affect me–it does.  I have never been so attuned to political news in my life as I am now.   During my Home Leave I have consumed news and political commentary at an alarming rate.  It has been stressful.  And also strange because I am not currently at work.  But what I did do was to introduce myself and what I do to people I met along the way.  Not out of the blue mind you, but when asked “where do you live?” I answered honestly: That is not such a straightforward question.  I am a US Foreign Service Officer and currently between assignments.  I just returned from Asia and will soon be moving to Africa.  I am on my Congressionally-mandated Home Leave traveling around the US with my daughter.  And this opened the door to some incredible conversations.  Some did not know what a diplomat is or what they do.  Some thanked me for my service.  Some asked how they could become one themselves.  Outside a restaurant in Charleston I met a young man, waiting for a table with his wife, mother, and infant child.  His dream is to become a diplomat.  I gave him, a couple from New York I met at the Disney hotel pool, and a waitress at a pizza place in Bowling Green, KY my contact information.  At each National Park I thanked the Park Rangers for their service.  At Mammoth Cave I discovered one, a former Army Officer, also spoke Chinese.

It was an extraordinary five weeks.  Stressful.  Fun.  Tiring.  Eye-opening.  So many things come to mind.  Having now written out the trip I think the biggest thing I feel is gratitude.

The 2nd Home Leave Begins

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C at the USS Yorktown at Patriot Point in Charleston, SC

After months of planning my second Home Leave finally is here.   Okay, really, after saving for, daydreaming about, and plotting my Home Leave from my arrival in Shanghai (and only finalizing after securing my onward assignment), the Home Leave arrived!  Well, before it could begin I would have to clear one more hurdle: the PCS trip.

PCS=Permanent Change of Station, i.e. the trip that moves you from one assignment to another or to the US for home leave or training at the end of a tour.  It sounds fairly simple I guess.  Well it is and it isn’t

Now I want to be clear here.  I know there are people facing far more difficult challenges in their lives than the government paying to fly them from Point A to Point B.  I might not be a complete news junkie but in my particular line of work I am, of course, aware of news and world events.  And no one made me have a child, get two cats, or pick this career.  That was all me. But now here I am and, with all things being relative, I do not want to forget the stress and discomfort experienced with this move.

So just try to imagine yourself embarking on an international flight that will consume approximately 24 hours of your life door to door and take you across 12 time zones.  Sure, no problem, you are an experienced traveler.  But add in your 2 checked bags and 1 carry on suitcase.  And a good-sized carry on backpack.  Still with me?  Add in a 5 year old child.  A good one who is also experienced at flying, but nonetheless is still 5.  And gets a checked bag and carry on allowance but who claims her 10 pound miniature backpack is making it hard for her to walk more than fifty feet.  SHE IS SO TIRED!  Also the car seat — you can check that too, for free, but you still need to bring it as you will need it as soon as you arrive at your destination.  Oh, and a stroller.  It folds up and you can check it at the airplane door.  But wait, I am not done.  You are also carrying two cat carriers because, why not?  They will fly in-cabin, under the seat in front of you.  So your 5 year old does not really get to sit in the stroller — the cats do.

There is no way to get to the check in counter, to the gate, or board the plane and look anything close to a suave, experienced flyer, diplomat.  Nope.  The flight attendants see me moseying up to the plane with the grace of a drunk penguin, hair askew, a cat cage on each shoulder and they peg me as the first time flyer I have GOT to be.  “Ma’am, can we help you find your seat?” they ask me slowly, enunciating each word.  I want to tell them that I am pretty sure I can figure out that row 25 comes after row 24 but I just smile.  A strained, crazy smile.

So the crazy parts:

1. I fly this particular airline quite a lot and my profile has me always in a window seat.  Yet for some reason we are booked for a middle and aisle seat.  And also for two in-cabin pets.  Every single aisle seat has a weird box taking up half of the space under the seat in front of me.  Where a cat needs to go.  I alert the flight attendant.  After surveying the situation she suggests I move one row back.  To a middle and aisle seat.  Yes, the exact same seats one row back.  I look at her quizzically.  Is she kidding?  She isn’t.  I point out that will not solve the problem.  She says one of us can just take the window seat and surely that passenger will switch.  I am extremely skeptical.  In fact said person has just arrived and is adamant that will not happen.  He says he doesn’t want to be a jerk, but… I say no problem, I get it.  He figures out two cat carriers will fit under the middle seat.  Problem solved.  Passenger ingenuity.

2. I spent a lot of time previously deciding between the midnight flight with on-demand entertainment on in-seat TVs and the noon flight that had personal device and way-overhead no-choice-of-movie movie.  I went with option 2 and downloaded the app to my daughter’s Kindle (you have to download before the flight or use the expensive wi-fi on board to do so in flight).  The app had not downloaded properly.  I could not access wi-fi for three hours due to Chinese airspace.  Then I purchase the overpriced wi-fi for one hour. But the personal device entertainment system malfunctioned.  As did the “no-choice-screens-from-overhead” entertainment — it was stuck on the welcome screen.

3. Flying from the US to China even with one stop was easier.  Returning, not so much.  Think customs and immigration at the first point of entry, picking up all checked bags, then re-check bags and then go through security again.  Scroll back to my list of stuff I traveled with and my travel companions.  FYI – pets need to be taken out of their carriers to go through security.  Yes.  Think about it.  Oh yes it was just about as much fun as you can imagine.

4. I am SO glad I did not opt to take the 2 checked-bags each we were allotted per government PCS travel regulations or the 3 checked-bags per my airline status.  For some reason the luggage carts located in the baggage claim area, before customs, seemed ridiculously small.  Remember the list of stuff we were traveling with?  It just would not fit.  Even with all my experience playing Tetris.  C pushed the stroller with one cat and her backpack through customs to re-check.  She is 5.  If she had been 3, the age she was when we PCS’d to China I would have been SOL.  She really stepped up.  Thank goodness.

But it was only 24 hours.  And honestly the worst parts were maybe 2-3 hours of my life.  The getting through security with the cats (in Shanghai I used pillow cases to bring one cat through at a time, which inexplicably caused my daughter to cry; in the US after some confusion by TSA, we were led to a private room where the cats were removed from their carriers so those could go through security and one cat might have hidden behind some boxes in that room in an attempt to escape, which might have made my daughter laugh hysterically and me expect I made the TSA agents’ weirdest passenger of the day list).  The boarding and disembarking.  The whole immigration and customs and re-checking of luggage.  Other than that it was just fine.

And THEN my home leave could begin!

Within 24 hours of landing I was in attendance at one of my best friend’s wedding.  As a Foreign Service Officer, often overseas, I miss so many life events.  Had her wedding been a week or even a day before or a week or a day after I could not have attended.  Newly arrived and jet lagged, with my parents watching my daughter, I headed in to Washington, DC to witness this beautiful event.  And during the reception I was seated next to a married couple with ties to Africa who had a friend moving to Malawi in six weeks.  Kismet!

The following morning I drove to my aunt’s home.  It was Easter.  My daughter had her first real egg hunt on the lawn — though without competition of course.  But oh was she happy.  For such a simple thing.  I was happy too.  American traditions re-created overseas are important (and often very creative and so necessary to our community) but naturally cannot quite be the real thing.

Two days later we drove — well I drove, 5 year olds are terrible drivers — to Charleston, SC to begin the first phase of our Home Leave holiday.  I had decided early on I wanted to spend some time in South Carolina on this trip, having only previously driven through the state on my way to college outside of Atlanta many, many years ago.  I hemmed and hawed about where.  Hilton Head?  Greenville/Columbia?  But settled on Charleston.  I know I made the right decision.  The purpose of Home Leave is for employees serving overseas for extended periods of time to reorient and reconnect to the US.  I see it as a time to see more and learn more about my country.  Charleston is beautiful and it has strong ties to just about every major historical period in our nation from the colonial period, early Republic, to the civil war and present day.  So it has plenty for a history and museum oriented mom and also children’s activities for fun-loving 5 year old C.

We visited the Children’s Museum of the Low Country and the South Carolina Aquarium. C enjoyed them both.  I think she was particularly struck by the aquarium’s bald eagle named Liberty as she kept asking me for the name later so she could use it during her imaginative play.  We also took one of the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriage tours.  C loves horses and has talked about it for days.  A visit to the Charleston Museum was also in order.  I was not sure if C would like it but she was struck by the giant whale skeleton (from the late 1880s), the dress up hoop skirts, some silver spoons shaped like shells, and the Egyptian mummy, purchased by one of the city’s early prominent men.  Purchased no less from one of the US’ first Vice Consuls to Egypt.  (I am in no position to purchase priceless artifacts at this time).  In addition, one could visit two period homes belonging to the museum, which we did along with strolls through the historic district.  We took a ferry out to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War rang out and visited the USS Yorktown located at Patriot Point.  At Magnolia Plantation, founded in 1676, C liked the train ride, petting zoo and mini horses and tolerated our garden walk.  A friend of mine and her family drove down from another part of South Carolina to lunch with us and visit Charles Towne Landing, the original site of the first permanent settlement in the Carolinas.

So we have seen and done quite a few things.  But what is it really like to be on Home Leave?  Honestly?  Well, this is only the first two weeks (we are required to take a minimum of four) and it feels very much like a vacation.  It also feels surreal – a jet-lag-fog fueled holiday, except one in which I know at the end of we do not return to our home in Shanghai.  It is no longer our home.  It feels wonderful to have this time to spend with friends and family in the US and the ability to travel around to wherever we would like in our country during this time. But it is also feels a little weird.

It isn’t cheap.  I know cost is one of the biggest complaints about Home Leave.  And that is true.  But I start my Home Leave savings account as soon as I arrive to my overseas post.  And this Home Leave I am lucky that my father loaned me a car for the 3.5 months we will be in the US and my aunt is watching my two cats for the five weeks we are traveling.  That saved me a bundle in rental car and kennels/hotel pet fees.  It does not mean I do not feel a little twinge of panic as the hotel, food, gas and entertainment bills roll in, but the time I get to spend with my daughter together in our country is priceless.

C is taking some time adjusting.  For these first two weeks she could not stop breathing deeply whenever we stepped outside.  As soon as we stepped out of the airport she took a gulp of air and declared it was “so fresh and smelled good!”  Yet whenever we are in a public place and need to use the restroom she says “I hope they don’t have the squatty potties!”  After Shanghai she is not used to such fresh air and all sit down commodes.  It is such a novelty.  Oh and the candy aisles.  They are presenting a bit of a challenge.  It has been a year since we have been in the US and she does not recall such a dizzying array of sweets.  She also often says “I miss Shanghai!” though when I ask her if she is sad it she says no, she is looking forward to our new home.  That seems a surprisingly mature answer for five but I will take it because the alternative would come with a side helping of mommy-guilt.

I too am taking time to adjust.  I have difficulty completely relaxing.  I have received emails about upcoming training with tasks that need to be completed and emails regarding the vehicle I have purchased from Japan and am shipping to my next post.  I think through all the things that still need to be completed before we take the next steps for our move to Africa: plane tickets, shopping for consumables, arranging pet travel to post, finding a nanny, and more.

Despite this I am so grateful for this time.  And just might already taking part in some preliminary plotting about the next Home Leave.  There are so many places to visit in our beautiful country, it is so hard to decide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Krabi Chinese New Year

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The confusing duck display at Pudong Airport.  Our first year seemed to be the year of the ram/sheep/goat/deer so I guess for the Year of the Rooster any fowl, water or land, will do

It is Chinese New Year again and our third (and final) one in Shanghai.  Having already done our Chinese New Year in the city penance once, it was time to get out of Dodge yet again.

Initially the plan was to visit to a new country.  I mean a new-for-me country and that is becoming increasingly hard for me to do in Asia.  I had a few ideas.  I had been debating about someplace in the Middle East, particularly a country where a good friend is posted, but as I was bidding one country in the region I decided to hold out until after I had secured my onward assignment.  Having waited until that auspicious time I discovered it was going to cost me an arm and a leg and maybe a few digits to make that trip, so I started to look closer to home.  I hemmed and hawed.  I recalled a friend from Shanghai had visited Krabi.  I looked up the ticket prices.  Yikes!  Chinese New Year price gouge.  I closed my eyes and hit “purchase.”

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Long-tailed boats in Ao Nang Bay.  Nope, not a mistake to come here.

This will be our last big trip from Shanghai.  It comes in the middle of the crazy wrapping-up-my-work-and-life-in-Shanghai and preparing-to-move-across-three-continents period so I wanted it to be easy.  I have been to Thailand so many times I have lost count (I can say that about no other country).   Although I had never been to Krabi, and that appealed to me, it is, for the most part, just a beach destination.  As a result there was no pressure to go here and there to see things.    I made few plans other than to book a resort hotel with kids amenities.

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The magical and wonderful Kids Club

This vacation has turned out like no other.  First it is because of the kind of hotel where we stayed.  While we did stay at an all-inclusive resort hotel in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic in October 2015, this is not my common travel practice.  That hotel too was quite isolated.  The Holiday Inn Resort Krabi Ao Nang beach is not.  It is located on the main strip in the beach town.  We have options to head out and about.  But for the first several days I simply chose not to do so. Secondly, C is finally old enough to go to the Kids’ Club all by herself.  I had no idea how this would impact the vacation, but my goodness, what a change!  She spends hours and hours there coloring, making crafts, watching kid-friendly television and movies, playing with LEGOs, and making friends.  The very first day she won the title of “dancing queen” at the Kids Club dance party (complete with crown and snack prize) and was invited to a birthday party to be held at the club the following day.  This has led to the third difference in this vacation- the amount of things that I have been able to do on my own.  Unfortunately, given that this trip comes at a time when I am under a lot of pressure to manage our move on top of other commitments, I did bring some “work” with me.  In the course of the week I have written three blog posts (this one included), completed uploading a huge number of photos from my computer to a cloud storage (and in so doing learned just how incredibly slow my Internet is in Shanghai), have reserved several hotels for during my home leave in popular places where hotels are likely to sell out, started and finished my next book club book, and started and completed my taxes!

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Do not feel too bad for me.  This was my view as I did my taxes.

I know, I know.  Not exactly the things dream vacations are made of.  While my daughter was at the Kids Club I did also go for an ill-advised run (my first in months) in the sweltering noon heat and took advantage of the hotel spa more than once for some very much-advised massage.  My daughter and I also were able to spend a lot of quality time together in the pool, at meals, walking along the beach or to shops in town.  I asked her about her time in the Kids Club and she shared her artwork and stories with me.

We also did some special activities together.  On the fourth day of our vacation C and I went horseback riding.  C loves horses and the only brochure to catch her eye at the nearby travel and tour booth was the one with horses.  I grimaced.  She’s 5.  In most of my online research, places generally allow horse riding from 8 and a few places from 6.  I quietly informed C of this and she burst out in tears.  I told her we would ask.  We sat at the booth with baited breath as the attendant made the call and had what felt like the longest conversation possible to find out the answer to what seemed a simple question “what is the minimum age for this horse riding activity.”  C patiently waited the verdict.  Just kidding.  She asked me every 5 seconds if she could go horse riding.  Imagine my surprise when the woman told us that C could in fact go horse riding as all of the horses are led.  C gave a few fist pumps and danced for joy.

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C on the beach during our ride

We waited in the hotel lobby for our pick up.  C scanned every vehicle and immediately noticed the truck with the pictures of horses when it drove up.  We sat in the back of the songthaew, on the long benches, a side for each of us.  There were no other passengers and we made no stops to pick up anyone else.  The wind blew through our hair and C let out whoops of delight.  I felt an incredible feeling of lightness and bliss.  At the riding center, some 15 minutes away by truck, we disembarked and were quickly given our mounts.  C could hardly contain her excitement — her own horse!

The ride was one hour along the beach.  I felt fairly confident that C would grow bored with the riding after 10 minutes, 15 minutes tops.  But she did not.  We had gone a full 50 minutes before she told me that she would like to go back to the barn.  The beach was okay — the tide was high and there was little beach at all, with the horses stepping into the shallow water to get around low hanging branches.  There was little scenery.  A few long-tailed boats floated near the shore and a few of the iconic rocks jutting out of the sea that Krabi is famous for were visible in the distance.  Yet none of that really mattered.  My horse followed behind C and as I watched her sit proudly on her very own horse, chatting away to no one in particular(the horse? the Thai boy who led the horse?  To me?) I simply felt happy.

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C helps this elephant take a bath

When you ask C what her favorite animal is she will tell you that she loves ALL THE ANIMALS.  But I know she does have a particular fondness for cats, horses and elephants.  To round out our holiday I decided on one more activity–elephant riding coupled with an elephant bath.  This time the truck that picked us up would pick up 8 more passengers, filling the back of the songthaew.  There were no other children and though at first I worried about this – is this a child appropriate activity? what kind of mother am I? – I soon felt an absurd amount of pride to be able to give C this kind of experience.  We set off on the elephant trek through the jungle, crossing some streams.  Our elephant ride in Chiang Mai was 15 minutes and plenty long enough (ooh, my bum!) so I had some concerns about a full hour but again it was just right.  After the ride we were given fresh pineapple and water but C had disappeared – I found her sweeping up leaves with a Thai mother and her 2 year old son.  We all then headed to the river to help a playful 7 year old elephant take her bath.  The laughs we had!  Some of the best money ever spent.

It was not easy to leave Krabi after such a wonderful week especially now that I am back in cold, grey, poor air quality Shanghai.  We relaxed.  We played.  We had adventures.  I wrote.  C made friends.  I saw a glimpse of C’s increasing independence (and mine).  It was just what C and I needed and I am ready (sorta, kinda, do I have a choice?) to tackle the last ten weeks here.

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(I am also VERY happy to report that I neither forgot to pack something for the trip nor lost anything, which given the last few trips and all that I have on my mind is a major accomplishment.)

 

 

 

Mauritius for Christmas

Even if you have never heard of Mauritius or are not quite sure where it is, you have probably heard of its most famous bird, the Dodo.  Yes, the large hapless, flightless bird extinct since the 17th century is a symbol of the island country.   It is on their coat of arms, their currency, their postage, and tourist maps.  Yet there is so much more to this crowded tiny island nation.

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A major feature of Northwest Mauritius is the Moka Mountain range featuring Pieter Both Mountain, the island’s second largest peak with a large rock perched on top

I was giddy with excitement as C and I headed to the airport to begin our trip to Mauritius.  This trip had been long in the making–when some three years before a FS friend of mine learned her second post would be to the island nation.  Initially we were to visit our first Christmas in Shanghai but an unexpected addition to KB’s family meant we had to place our trip on hold for another year.   But at last it was time for our trip and for the first time in what seemed a very long time I would be etching a new country into my travel belt.

Mauritius might seem a long way to go for vacation and honestly before my friend was posted there I had not given much thought to visiting.  Once in Shanghai though it seemed that the former Isle de France was the place to go given the number of billboards advertising Air Mauritius flights around where I lived.  On the visa line, even the applicants with little foreign travel might list Mauritius among their international destinations alongside South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Maldives.  It was destiny.

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One of our first views of Mauritius

We landed at 7 am.  Yes, 7 am.  Almost immediately I was given a lesson in island patience.  While on the plane, the Air Mauritius flight attendants had given out the immigration landing cards.  Unfortunately they did not have enough for everyone on the plane and we were two of the unlucky ones.  No problem, the flight attendants assured us, we could get them before immigration.  Except they were out too.  It was maddening to see almost no line for immigration and yet be unable to do anything because no forms were available.  Several of us waylaid an official-looking person but he too seemed perplexed by our situation and asked yet another person to locate the forms.  It took about 20 minutes for someone to return with forms in hand and we swarmed around him.  He had only 7 to 10 forms and there were more than 10 people waiting.  I decided this was not the time to be polite and grabbed two forms from his hand.  I filled them out quickly and vowed to not look back at those who were left behind. I had a vacation to get started!

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C and M enjoy the crystal clear waters of Grand Baie

We were picked up at the airport by a driver arranged by KB and then whisked off to the other side of the island, a whole hour and change away.    We slept most of the way.   Then we arrived at KB’s home and were immediately welcomed by the family.  We had an easy day.  First KB and I sat by the pool and talked as the kids swam.  Then we took the kids to the Beach House Restaurant for lunch.  As we drove into Grand Baie and I caught sight of the water for the first time I gasped.  Wow.  The Beach House is located right on the bay and as we waited for our meal (the service was on island time so we waited quite awhile) the kids frolicked on the beach and in the shallow warm waters.  The afternoon involved more play time for the kids and then we attended a birthday party for a local boy.

On our second day KB, myself and the kids drove from the northwest to the southwest (again a whole hour to cross the island!) for a day at the Casela Nature Park, a mix of zoo, petting farm, and activity park.  There is quite a lot to do at the park, but much of it, like walking with lions, driving ATVs, riding horses or camels, or ziplining, were for those aged well above 4 or 5 years old and thus not on our agenda.  Still, the kids enjoyed watching the 4D movies (well, 2 of the 3 kids did) seeing the birds, feeding the bunnies (not so much the rather aggressive deer), seeing tortoises, feeding the giraffes and playing on the playground.  We still managed to spend nearly 5 hours at the zoo (nearly 45 minutes of it in the line for a shuttle bus from the giraffes back to the main park. Major fail.).  That evening KB showed us around La Croisette, one of the few true shopping malls in the country sporting one of only two cinemas on the island.

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The Chateau de Labourdonnais – this just does not do it justice.

The third day began with KB and I leaving the kids with KB’s extremely amenable husband while she and I indulged in some mommy only massages.  We then picked up the kids and headed to Labourdonnais, a 19th century sugar mill and estate restored to a museum, garden, and working orchard.  We all had lunch first at a lovely cafe adjacent to the grounds and then KB insisted she would take all the kids through the gardens so I could have an hour of peace to visit the chateau museum.  (I am SO grateful)  Then after some waiting (with some very impatient small children) we all took the toy train through the orchards.  Following the Chateau our next stop was the L’Aventure du Sucre Sugar Museum and Factory.  As you may begin to guess sugar production has a long and checkered history in Mauritius.  The sweet stuff has been manufactured there since 1696 and remains the country’s second largest export today (after processed fish)!  So the history of sugar is intertwined with the island’s history.  The museum makes great use of its space in an old sugar factory.  Informative displays of sugar’s role in the history and economy of the island wind around actual gears and boilers and the chimney, all part of the production of this important crop.

Our fourth day started with a glass bottom boat adventure in Grand Baie with KB’s husband and the three kids.  (KB gets sea sick easily and sat this activity out).   Then KB and I escaped again to have a just friends (sans kids) lunch and then we headed to Goodlands for some shopping in a colorful Indian bazaar (the majority ethnic group is Indo-Mauritian, making up 68% of the population) and a visit to the Shipmodels Factory and Museum.  We returned in time to collect C for a late afternoon photo shoot on the beach with a talented local photographer and then the whole lot of us had dinner at Luigi’s, reportedly the best Italian restaurant on the island.

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A worker puts some finishing touches on a model ship

The following day we said farewell to KB and her family and we headed back across the island to pick up a rental car at the airport.  It was a little hard to find my rental car as I had apparently booked with the one company that does not have an office at the airport (OLA) and I spent 30 minutes wandering around until I found a guy with a sign.  We followed him to the parking lot where he did the paperwork in the trunk of the car.  But it was a car, it looked good, it had a child seat included, and so I rolled with it.  Immediately I was reminded that I would be driving on the left hand side of the road as I backed out of the parking space and ran over the curb.  I did manage to get us out of the parking lot and to the hotel, all of a mile away.  Once checked in and fed I got us back out on the road and on our way to La Vanille Nature Park.  

It was an adventure being on the road with only a basic tourist map with a bunch of squiggly lines that I hoped approximated true roads.  We drove through several small towns that presented challenges to driving–two lane roads with no shoulder, no sidewalks, just a couple of feet to the residences and businesses.  Along the sides of the road people walked, sometimes two or three abreast, others pedaled old bicycles weaving like drunks, dogs trotted without a care in the world.  Buses stopped with little warning and little room to pull over.  Delivery trucks and people stopping at stores or to talk to a friend did the same.  Every turn I tried to make, I first turned on the windshield wipers.  And road signs tended to announce a turn just feet before I needed to make it.  It is a wonder I found the park at all!.

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And when not passing through a town these are the roads of Mauritius. Lovely but no indication of where you are or where you are going.  Yet amazing for a country with one of the world’s highest population densities to have open areas like this

I think La Vanille was originally just a crocodile park and then a crocodile and tortoise park and now it is a Nature Park because they added a few other animals like some Indonesian deer, some sad Indonesian macaque monkeys, and reportedly some mongoose and lemurs although their enclosures appeared empty.  Still, I am not a crocodile fan the giant tortoises were great.  Their enclosure was large, you could feed them, and kids under 10 were allowed to sit on large, resting ones.  It is also a breeding facility and they have extensive information on their program and animals of all ages from egg to likely nearing 100 years.  C especially liked this part and the pony rides in the petting zoo.  The funny part was the tour bus loads of 40-60 year old visitors.  Something just seemed odd about that — the lack of children visitors.

The following day I was pretty worn out by my Mauritius driving experience and bored by our food choices at the hotel.  So I came up with a plan to head to La Bagatelle, the largest mall in the country and then the nearby Eureka creole plantation house.  But I missed the exit.  I figured I would turn around at the next roundabout, but there were no more.  So instead I just kept going and ended up at Le Caudan waterfront in Port Louis.  It seems to be the shopping and restaurant district in the capital.  After I figured out not only how to get there but to also park in the crowded parking garage (yay me!), we had lunch, a stroll along the waterfront, and visited the Blue Penny Museum, so named after one of the most famous, rare, and valuable stamps in the world, and the first to be issued in Mauritius.  Like the Sugar Factory Museum, the Blue Penny presents the cultural and economic history of Mauritius, tying it to the history of a product and a service — the postal system.  It is a small but lovely museum — just the right size to visit with a 4, almost 5, year old.

On December 23rd I struggled with trying again to find the Eureka plantation as it would be closed on the 24th and 25th, or a visit to the Chamarel area.  I went with the latter.  Things started off rocky as I drove through the same town Plaine Magnien a good 5 times.  I cannot exactly explain why. Every turn I made, every time around a roundabout, it all led to that darn town.  I started to sing a made-up song about the town that would not let us go in order to calm my nerves (and keep me from just giving up and driving back to the hotel) and to amuse C in the back seat.  It worked because once I started singing I finally figured out what I was doing wrong.  And then we drove through several more really small towns.  For what seemed like forever.  At long last I saw a turn off for the Bois Cheri tea plantation and factory.  It seemed a good place to stop.

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A view of the Bois Cheri plantation from the hilltop restaurant

Bois Cheri is the island’s first tea plantation, established in 1892.  Tea is the country’s second major crop, after sugar.  A visit to Bois Cheri includes a visit to a small museum, a tour of the factory (interesting enough for a 4, almost 5, year old!), and a tea tasting.  It was just the stop I needed before getting back in the car and driving on to Chamarel.  At long last we arrived.  I had begun to suspect the whole thing was an elaborate joke on tourists.  Honestly, the whole purpose of driving all this way is to visit the 7 Colored Earth of Chamarel, and some of the reviews I had read online had warned me of the likely disappointment.  But perhaps since I had rather low expectations I found the place larger and prettier than I had imagined.  But the drive back was longer and less fun than I expected.  I joked with friends online that I had driven through every small town in the south with the hashtag #leavenotownunseen.  It sure felt like it.

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Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden

Christmas Eve we drove to the far north of the island to meet up with RS and her son K who previously served in Shanghai and are now in South Africa.  (RS is also a single mom in the Foreign Service and is awesome).  I had thought we might visit them from Malawi but when I found out just days before our departure that they too would be in Mauritius it was too much of an opportunity to pass up.  My plan was to visit the National Botanical Garden on the way up — I checked my phone before heading out and it was supposed to take about 30 minutes to get to the Garden.  Um, yeah.  Nearly two hours later I gave up and just headed toward RS’s hotel.  And just for fairness sake I made sure to drive through every small town on the north of the island.  C and K were thrilled to have some time to play and as they frolicked in the pool, at lunch, and in the room RS and I had a chance to catch up.  Luckily enough on the drive back I quite easily found the botanical gardens (you know, Murphy’s Law).

Our last day was Christmas.  With a late flight back we took full advantage of a late check out and just binge watched the Disney Channel, as one does.  Then I realized I had lost C’s one pair of pants and we were heading back to winter.  Oh no! I cannot seem to go on vacation anymore without losing something and I did not want 1. my child to freeze and 2. to face the hard stares and tut-tutting disapproval of the Chinese mom mafia when they see my child without pants.  Don’t worry, I improvised. Shorts but a pair of the Air Mauritius in-flight socks pulled up to her thighs.  Yeah, I’m smart.  I’m no dodo.  (see what I did there?)