Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part Three: Rangoon Days

After crossing the Friendship Bridge between Laos and Thailand, I returned to Bangkok by train.  I applied for my visa for Burma – opting to apply myself at the Embassy instead of using the usual Khao San Road travel agents.  I took a brief detour from the Golden Triangle to travel to Brunei for two days.  Yes, Brunei.  And it was my second trip to the small country.  Suffice to say one of my graduate topics was Southeast Asian Maritime Piracy and I was there for research purposes.  Then back to Bangkok for an evening before flying to Burma the following day.  I had dreamed of visiting Burma since 1994, when I had watched a movie about the events of 1989. I had an evening flight, something I generally try to avoid; however, in this particular case it turned out to be lucky.   Strangely, I remember almost nothing of my time in Rangoon, a name that evokes something akin to romantic colonialism.  (Though I know very well colonialism is not romantic.  My title is a take on George Orwell’s Burmese Days) I remember walking a long way through the older, colonial part of town looking for something, but I do not remember what it was or if I found it.  Most likely it was the Strand Hotel, as it used to be one of the most famous and luxurious hotels of Colonial Southeast Asia.   I recall the tea house from the first evening, the low lighting, the smoky air.  I remember drinking Star Cola, Burma’s answer to Coca Cola as the US brand had not been sold in the country for years (in 2012 Coca Cola returned to Burma after half a century away). I can vaguely conjure up the second-floor entrance to my very cheap guesthouse.  And standing in the grocery store while my Burmese seat-companion-turned-benefactor gleefully helped me shop.  And even those memories are just fragments.

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Wearing my backpacker best at Sule Paya

On my flight I sat next to Tin Tun, a Burmese living in Singapore, working in Algeria, heading home to Rangoon for a week.  We talked half the flight.  Tin Tun and his family are expatriates who have made their lives outside their homeland.  He has lived in Singapore for 15 years, his sister is a doctor in Brunei, his brother-in-law a bank advisor in Manila, nieces in New York.  He told me a brother-in-law, who was picking him up at the airport, might take me to the guesthouse of my choice.  His brother in-law drove me first to Tin Tun’s home, a lovely lakeside house on the outskirts of Rangoon, where he plans to retire.  Tin Tun had brought gifts from Algeria for his family.  It was like Christmas.  And the family treated me so nicely and made me feel at home, that I would not have been surprised had Tin Tun pulled a gift out for me.  In a way he did.  He and his brother-in-law decided it was too late at night to take me to a guesthouse in a new city, so they told me I must stay the night.  And that is how I came to spend my first night in Burma a room on the banks of Lake Inya.   After breakfast the next morning Tin Tun drove me to the guesthouse.

I stayed at the Mahabandoola Guesthouse in the center of town.  Although it was a bit run down, it was only $3 a night and suited me fine.  It was also right next to the Sule Paya, one of the most popular Buddhist temples in Rangoon after Shwedagon.  I learned the Burmese staying at the guesthouse paid only US$1.  I do not mean they paid the equivalent of US$1, but an actual dollar bill.  Burma essentially has a three-currency system.  The USD, the Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) and the local Kyat (pronounced Chat). (The FEC was abolished in 2013) Supposedly the FEC is equivalent to the US$ on a one to one basis.  That is even printed on the bills themselves, but in practice it is not the case.  But nothing is really as it seems.  The official exchange rate is something like US$1=6 kyat, but the unofficial, black market rate was US$1=1000 kyat!!  But 1 FEC would only fetch about 920 kyat.  Foreigners though are forced to purchase 200 FECs at the official rate at the airport.  It is all a government racket.  Kyats and dollars are really the currencies of choice.  The kyat gives you the best spending power; FECs the worst.

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Baskets full of betel nut leaves

Rangoon is a sprawling capital of wide dusty streets lined with many British colonial period buildings.  The most popular sights are the Sule Paya and Shwedagon Paya.  On my first evening I went to a tea house lauded in my travel book as the best in the city.  I liked it so much I went twice more while in Rangoon. There I had a lovely Burmese tea, rather like Indian chai, of dark tea with milk and sugar and a plate of bain mokBain Mok is an opium cake, although today the seeds sprinkled on it are no longer opium.  The café offered a wonderful atmosphere to see Burmese relaxed with one another and to write in my journal.

On the walk home from the tea house I met a Burmese man, who popped up alongside me and asked to speak with me.  After making sure he did not want to change money and sincerely just wanted to talk to a foreigner we sat for a soda at a street café.  These are all over Myanmar.  In the evenings these establishments spill out onto the sidewalks and even the street, with small folding tables and even smaller, almost preschool-sized, chairs.  He was nice enough but I was a bit put off by the fact that he A. wanted to accompany me on my trip all around Myanmar though we had just met and upset that I did not think it a good idea, and B. his betel nut habit.  One of the worst things about Myanmar has got to be the addiction to betel nut.   he nut is put in a green leaf and chewed in the mouth, like chewing tobacco.  Users must spit out the juice which is a horrible bright red color that stains the teeth, the gums, the lips and the pavement it is spit upon.  This guy kept chewing his betel nut, and even when he wasn’t, his red stained mouth was distracting.  Throughout the trip I grew to hate betel nut more and more…

Shwedagon Paya was lovely, though it was first place in Burma where I faced the foreigners-pay-more practice.  For Burmese entry is free; for foreigners the price is US$5.  There is a long shop lined arcade up stairs leading to the temple, during which the whole time one must be barefoot.  There were ceremonies of families with golden painted parasols touring the paya as their sons were to become novice monks.  There are shrines around the paya to which people pray depending on the day of the week they were born.  I visited the Tuesday shrine and poured XX (a whole lotta) cups of water for my age + 1 and threw in a small donation to appease the Buddha and bring me luck.  As it was a Saturday the shrine for that day of the week was the busiest.  There are also places to worship the Nats, who number more than a hundred, and are the animist gods of pre-Buddhist Myanmar, but reign alongside Buddhism to this day. 

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Approaching Shwedagon

After Shwedagon, I returned to the guesthouse and called Tin Tun, who had told me we could meet again for dinner.  However, when I got ahold of him, he said he was quite sick with food poisoning, but he would take me out anyway.  He picked me up around 6:30 PM and we drove down to Chinatown (which to be honest didn’t look any different from any other part of Rangoon, and was only a few blocks away after all).  Then he started buying me food right and left.  He also took me to a supermarket and bought me a bunch of food.  He said he was worried about me traveling by myself and that I needed some food for the travel.  I tried to say it was not necessary but he told me that he was older, had a lot of money, no children and not much else he wanted to buy in life having most of what he needed and wanted already.  Well….okay, you do not need to twist the arm of a no-income graduate student.  I would be well stocked for days.

On a walk during my first day I did experience an odd and rather disturbing situation.  I wrote about it in my journal:  Today on the street a man tried to give me a child.  I had stopped to look at a cute little boy when suddenly a man was beside me asking “Do you like baby?”  I said, “Yes, the boy is very cute.”  The man asked where I was from and then told me I can take the baby to America.  He then stooped down to ask the boy, who was about four years old, if he would like to go with me to America.  The boy looked scared.  Then man scooped him up in his arms, told me the boy’s name is Mohammed and tried to pass him to me.  I have traveled to quite a few developing countries but never before or since has someone tried to give me a child.

On my third day I traveled to the town of Twante, famed for its weaving and pottery and located across the Irrawaddy River and along the British-built Twante Canal.  Twante itself turned out not to be that interesting other than giving me the opportunity to see a satellite town of the capital.  What turned out most interesting, as so often is the case, was the journey there and the completely unexpected turn the day would take.  First, I crossed the Irrawaddy by ferry.  I had wanted to take a boat up the canal but no boatman would do so without charging me an exorbitant foreigner price.  So, I opted for a mini bus.   The trip to Twante was about an hour along a bumpy, dusty road.  Though I could not see any of the scenery as I was seated on the inside.  The truck has a small covered bed lined with benches, similar to the jeepneys of the Philippines.  I was jammed on the very last seat towards the open back, though with only half of my behind on.  When we hit a bump I was airborne, but did not fall out because the entire back of the truck was lined with men.  There were 10-15 men standing hanging on to every available piece of rail on the back and sides of the truck.

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Kids in Twante (they wanted Polaroid photos)

Once in the town I wandered around trying to find anything resembling the famous pottery or weaving, but no one spoke English and there did not seem any obvious I came upon a small boy who must have never seen a white person before.  Normally this results in shrieks and screams and running away (I have had this happen many times) but for him it resulted in absolute incredible delight.  He began laughing and laughing and laughing.  Pointing at me and saying something to some other boys.  He ran up and threw his arms around my leg and looked up at me continuing to laugh with un-abandoned delight.  I took his picture with my Polaroid and tried to give him the picture, but he didn’t understand, so I kept it. (and I still have it taped in my journal).

After being unable to find anything of note in Twante I prepared to head back and hopped into a truck for the ferry.  It was not full and I would wait a long time for it to fill up and return to the ferry.  An Indian man in the truck asked if I had been to the pagoda and since I had not, I decided to get out and go in search of it.  I walked and walked but without any luck.  No one seemed to know where the location of the pagoda.  Several children ran after me screaming “I love you,” so I stopped to blow them a kis,s which threw them into hysterics and made them follow me all the more. Somehow, I ended up being invited to a wedding reception.  Soon I was in a large covered all seated next to the newlyweds eating ice cream and having our picture taken together.   I left with the whole party waving goodbye to me.  I returned to the ferry in a truck chartered by an Italian couple, stopping at a monastery along the way.

I ended up staying a few extra days in Rangoon than expected because with the work and school holidays it turned out difficult to get a bus ticket out.  The earliest ticket I could get was on December 23rd.  I did meet Tin Tun one last time, back at the tea shop.  Then it was off to the next stop: Lake Inle.

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Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part Two: Large Jars and Long Bus Rides

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Touring in style in Phonsavan

In Luang Prabang I was finally able to eat again and what a joy to do so.  Two days on a slow boat while recovering from the mumps can do funny things to one’s brain.  I had begun to imagine Luang Prabang such a paradise on earth, at least in Laos, that we would be greeted off the boat with Laos women carrying steaming plates of pizza with real mozzarella or spaghetti or lasagna.  (For some reason I confused Laos with Italy.)  While no one welcomed me from the boat with fresh pasta, once I found a place to stay, I did find pizza that only caused my still recuperating jaw just a wee bit of trouble.  Apparently, there was a bit of a scandal when this Italian place opened on the Luang Prabang main street as the town is a UNESCO world heritage site.  I also found myself a bookstore, thank goodness. 

I must confess I don’t remember much of what I did in Luang Prabang.  It is a lovely laid-back town on the banks of the Mekong, with the dusty colonial architecture amongst dozens of Buddhist wats and temples.  Luang Prabang lies between the Mekong and a tributary, almost an island.  I did go to the former palace, now a museum, which was small, but enjoyable, though the opening hours were challenging.   The first time I arrived just before it closed for lunch, later just before it closed for the day.  My persistence paid off the third time.  I did not make it to the famous Pak Ou caves or to the Kuangsi waterfall.  Though I tried, I always called at the tour operator at the wrong time, too early or too late.  After all that time cramped on the boat, I was just happy to wander the streets, sometimes talking with novice monks. 

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Hanging out in the Plain of Jars

The bus from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan was nine hours.  NINE.  A friend of mine told me he had taken the trip a few years before me and at the time it took him two days in the back of a truck.  I suppose nine hours was an improvement.  Funny though, weeks and even years later, it is the boat ride and the bus rides that stood, and stand out.  And though we were well into the digital age I traveled a bit more old school.  While I saw younger travelers with electronics – Kindles and iPods – I still had just paper books and my own imagination to while away the hours.

There were twenty seats in the bus, excluding the driver seat, and yet we had 25 people including the driver and three bus attendants.  I am not sure why this works like this, but there was the driver, and another guy who I assumed was the relief driver, whose primary job seemed to be either to sleep or amuse the bus driver.  Then there is the guy who gets of the bus at official check points and hands over paper and puts people on the bus.  If we pick up other people, he hangs out the bus door and yells at these people we pick up along the way, to check their destination and hurry them on the bus.  Then there is the woman who collects the fares.  I had heard the departure was 8 AM, another passenger said it was 8:30, while another insisted it was 9:00, though we were all told to arrive at the bus station by 7:30.  We were full by 7:45 and just sat there.  We left at 8:30, drove 10 minutes to the gas station, then drove a few meters down the road to have the tire fixed, and then another five minutes to the police checkpoint.  Surely there is another way to do this?

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Early morning at a Laos bus station

It was a long trip.  Though I slept at least half the journey, it was not easy. Whenever I began nodding off, the driver would blast Lao pop music.  The second half was through the mountains–around and around and around curves.  I am talking about curves with drops down hundreds of feet without a guard rail in sight.  We went through many hill tribe villages — their front yards the road, their backyards the hundred foot drop.  When we sped through these tiny villages we laid on the horn so anyone on the road would scatter.  Besides people, there were also many animals on and alongside the road: chickens, turkeys, pigs, dogs, cattle, and goat.  Once we even passed an elephant! 

Like my arrival in Luang Prabang, I was extremely happy to arrive in Phonsavan. I secured a room, ate, and went to bed.  Electricity at the time ran only five hours a day, from 6 to 11 pm.  Reading that now, it sounds rather generous.  I was in bed long before 11.  The following day I had a tour of the Plain of Jars.  It was really just a guy in an old Russian car who drove three of us foreigners around to the sights.  And by sights, I mean we visited plains with large and small stone jars littered across them.  Then I knew it only as a place of unknown purpose – though now I read it is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia.  It was a good day; I was fascinated.

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Hmong girls lined up to play ball

While in Phonsavan I also happened to stumble upon a Hmong gathering.  It was the Hmong New Year’s and Hmong tribes from Laos and even Southern China, were gathered to celebrate.   Young Hmong women, between approximately 14 and 20 years of age, dressed in their finest, lined up to play a game of catch.  My guide informed me this was a way for the girls to find husbands.  Though many of the girls were tossing the balls to each other, a man could step in and begin the ball toss with the girl.  He might toss the ball and say “I do not have much money.”  The girl would throw the ball back and tell him “That is okay.”  He would say “You will have to work in the fields.”  “That is alright,” might be the answer.  And back and forth they toss the ball until some decision is made.

I had planned to head to Vientiane the following day, but the thought of another ten-hour bus journey was more than I could bear; I chose instead to take a detour to Vang Vieng.  This ride was worse.  The bus to Phonsavan had been small, full of foreigners.  On this larger bus, I was the only foreigner.  Though it was to depart at 9:30 AM, it was full by 7:45 AM.  The passage in front of the door already blocked with sacks of rice that everyone had to climb over to get on or off the bus.  I watched two motorcycles being loaded onto the top of the bus.  We all sat there, or walked around the bus, until it left, half an hour early at 9 am.  And we promptly drove to a gas station!

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Vang Vienh, a good place to stay awhile

Most of the Laos seemed inexperienced in bus travel.  Perhaps they made the trips only rarely?  As a result, most passengers were sick.  The bus assistants passed out plastic bags – they served the same purpose as the bags found in airplane seat back pockets.  As we passed over the hills and the narrow roads with steep drops, the Lao people would ooh and aah and stand up and lean over to that side of the bus to examine the drop.  I thought it would surely tip the balance and down we would plunge.  The woman in front of me and a man behind me were sick out the windows, making it hard for me to look outside and try not to be sick myself.  We had one pee break on top of the hill in the middle of nowhere, where each person ran off to find their own peeing bush.  There was more Lao pop music– I was getting thoroughly sick of it.  I was extremely happy to get off the bus at Vang Vieng seven hours later.

I meant to stay only a day in Vang Vienh, to break up the long journey to the capital.  However, I ended up staying a three.  I took a tube down the river with an Irish girl named Claire.  I am fairly sure Claire was high as a kite for the duration, and though I do not generally relish being trapped alone with strangers for hours on end, I had not laughed so hard in ages.  We made a game of our 3.5 HOURS float down driver, paddling furiously with our flip flops to maneuver around obstacles.    The following day I was aching from a bad sunburn, a sore knee where I had hit a rock, and a huge scratch I received from a submerged stick.  I signed up for kayaking the next day, but it poured rain and the trip was cancelled.

Then I headed to Vientiane and what a relief it was to spend only THREE hours on transport after so many marathon long trips.  I spent two quiet days in the quiet capital, resting up for the travel to come, often enjoying a dinner looking across the Mekong to Thailand as the sun set.  Then I crossed the Friendship Bridge back to Thailand and returned to Bangkok for the next phase of the trip.

Vientiane Victory Arch

Patuxai – The Victory Gate of Vientiane

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.

 

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.