To Belgium and Beyond: Part One

First, before I get into the trip itself, I want to explain how it is I found myself on nearly two weeks of leave not yet six weeks after arriving in Conakry. It is not my usual modus operandi to arrive at a new post and then take off so soon after. Then again, this is a new year, a new arrival time, at a new point in our lives. Earlier in the year, I looked ahead at our arrival in Conakry, and thought how it would be for my daughter C. We would arrive in Conakry just two weeks after the school year ended and still have seven long weeks before the new one would begin. We would be new people in the community, one in which there were not a whole lot of kids and many would be away for the summer. I needed something for C.

Poking around online I discovered that the Euro Space Center in Belgium has an overnight summer space camp and beginning in June, Brussels Airlines would be reinstating its three times a week flights between Conakry. Given that C had been expressing interest in more science-based classes, this seemed to be a sign from above. I checked in with the space camp organizers to find out if there was space available and which weeks were in English and then with my leadership at Post, who quickly approved my time off to get C to and from the camp. We were all set to go.

Belgium is waffle paradise. These looked way too sweet, but it was a pleasure just seeing them and knowing they were there, just in case

Then a week before our departure on the first Thursday in August, there were protests in Conakry. Demonstrations had been scheduled and cancelled before, or scheduled but not amounted to much. But these protests turned out to be more than expected. They lasted longer and were more violent and they spilled over into the following day. Though they did not block access to the airport, they did make the most direct route difficult, changing a 30 minute drive into a possible multi-hour journey. When protest organizers announced that there would be more scheduled the following Thursday, I asked my bosses if they would approve my leaving a day earlier; they approved wholeheartedly.

I spent several hours on the phone and online the Sunday before departure, working to change our flights. Brussels Airlines only flies Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; the Tuesday flight was full and the Saturday flight did not give me a comfortable margin to get C to space camp should it be delayed or cancelled. The agent tried to route me using miles as that was how I purchased my original flight, but the only routing was to Lisbon, through Munich with an overnight, and then on to Brussels. Unfortunately, the Munich flight on Lufthansa could not be confirmed due to a potential airline strike. We were contending with not only protests at our origin, but labor disputes in Europe that was part of the chaotic travel summer. That was not going to work. The United agent, however, could not directly book me on the Lisbon to Brussels flight, so I needed to book that one online myself, while keeping the agent on the line. I did not want to cancel my flight and return the miles until I had another flight secured. Finally, success.

If you do not want Belgium waffles, then you gotta have Belgian fries.

All of this gave me a solid glimpse into how challenging it may be to take leave away from Conakry. There are limited flights, challenging schedules, usually with late evening or early morning departures, frequent delays, and higher price tags. Toss in a demonstration day and airline snafus and it just gets more interesting.

Our trip started on Wednesday at midnight on a four-hour flight to Lisbon. The flight left late and there was not enough time to really sleep. We had two hours on the ground and then another three hours to Brussels. It turned out the extra day was very helpful as we had little energy to do much of anything. Luckily, I had booked a hotel close to the airport and they let us check in early. After napping and relaxing, our only activity was to walk in the cute little neighborhood near the airport to the grocery store and back.

On our second day in country, we took an Uber to Laeken, the northern part of Brussels, to visit mini Europe and the 1958 World’s Fair landmark, the Atomium. Though these sites are listed as two of top ones to visit in Brussels, I did not visit them during my first trip to Belgium in 1998. I have no memory of even knowing they existed. Nonetheless, C and enjoyed hours there visiting the top sites of Europe in miniature and exploring inside the giant sculpture that marries science fiction and modern art. Afterwards, we took an Uber down to the stunning Grand Place. C and I were started to tire, but I wanted to give her just a glimpse of the majesty and beauty of probably the most stunning of European central squares. At first C complained she wanted to just go back to the hotel, but for a moment or two she completely forgot about that as we stood in that square. After we turned in wonder around at the architecture and fed our sweet tooth with some decadent ice cream from the Godiva chocolate shop and took a short stroll down to the Mannekin Pis, C told me that she no longer wanted to return to Paris very soon. “Mom,” she said, “we have been to Paris twice now, but I think I like Brussels more. I want to see more of Europe.” Mission accomplished.

The following morning, Saturday, we returned to the airport to pick up a rental car. I am usually a wee bit nervous starting out driving in a new country, but after the chaos of Conakry, the roads of Belgium were welcoming. We drove just an hour south to the Wallonian town of Dinant. In planning for our trip, I looked for the best places for us to visit south of Brussels on our way to the Euro Space Center. Other than Brussels, the biggest tourist draws tend to be Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, all to the north and northwest of the capital. The photos of Dinant kept pulling me back again and again and I knew if nowhere else, we needed to visit this town. It did not disappoint.

Dinant’s location, squeezed between a rocky promontory and the river Meuse, has guaranteed human interest for millennia. It’s 13th century Gothic cathedral is built into the rock face just below the 11th century citadel and alongside townhouses that range from 16th century to 20th. The oldest house in town is a 16th century townhome built by a Spaniard.

C and I walked up the steps to the Citadel, where we spent at least 90 minutes enjoying the historic displays and panoramas. We took the cable car down and had lunch alongside the river and later an hour long tourist boat cruise on the Meuse. This little town is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, so we also were on the hunt to find as many of the painted saxophone sculptures around town, as well as a golden saxophone, and a saxophone shaped water clock, and the statue of Adolpe Sax sitting in front of his former home.

Sites of Dinant

In the afternoon we drove six kilometers south to the 19th century manor home turned hotel where we would spend the evening. After a long day of walking and sightseeing, C crashed immediately in the room. I took a short stroll around the grounds, drinking in the quiet, the nature surrounding the manicured lawns. We are still getting used to Conakry and I have no doubt that the vibrant, chaotic city will grow on us, but its difference from the grand historic cities and laid back countryside of Europe suddenly felt quite stark.

In the morning, before heading to our next destination, I drove a short way up the road to try to catch a glimpse of the Walzin Chateau, an imposing gothic-revival castle that stands on a cliff overlooking the Lesse River. I had quite by accident seen it on Google Maps as I was planning out our drive. Unfortunately, the best few of the castle is across the river and on some private land, which we quickly found we could not cross (the barbed wire fence and the “do not trespass” signs were pretty clear). So, we could see it only in profile before we gave up, returned to the car, and then drove on to Han-sur-Lesse.

I had had this idea. C loves animals and has a particular fondness for wolves and foxes. When working out what to do before dropping her off at space camp on Sunday evening, I found a wild animal park only 20 minutes north of the Euro Space Center. The Parc Animalier du Domaine des Grottoes de Han looked like it had some nice walking trails where we could see wolves. I planned for an hour or so walking and then lunch and perhaps time at the caves. I am afraid I did not do much more research than that.

It turns out the park is huge. Set on 620 acres of land, the park has both forested areas and wide lawns. At the ticket counter, I learned we should have a minimum of THREE hours to walk all the trails. A quick look at the map and I calculated we would likely have to cut short the expedition and return to the tourist center after the first trail.

Right away we got off on the wrong foot. We waited for the historic trolley train to take us to the first trailhead, but there seemed to be no train coming for at least 15 minutes. I insisted that we just go ahead and take the walking trail to the walking trail. This did not go over well with C who angrily stomped alongside. It went over even less after 20 minutes when we heard the trolley pass us by. We made it to the start of the trail after nearly 30 minutes and the first animals were just large highland cows and wild boars, both of which were far back in the enclosures and frankly not something we had a hankering to see. I got the full force of C’s pre-teen silent treatment (which isn’t all that silent because it involves random stomping, some small rock kicking, and the occasional heavy sigh).

This is not at all how I had hoped this would go. I told C this. I got some deep heat seeking laser eye flashes in return. I said we could turn back at the first opportunity, but C noted that in doing so we would skip the wolf and lynx enclosures. These were now her sole raison d’être. I had dragged her here and so we *would* see these animals. I agreed. And then things got better. The walking trail really is nicely maintained and includes a small sky bridge course with a view over the valley. We saw animals, including the wolves. We had some ice cream. We rode a open bus for the last section and returned to the park entrance by trolley. On the pedestrian street of Han-sur-Lesse we found one place still open for a late lunch at nearly 4 PM. The Belgian fries were restorative. Then off we were to space camp!

At the Euro Space Center solar system yard

At the Euro Space Center, C and I completed check-in procedures and then together we were shown to her dorm room where she would sleep and hang out for the next five nights. We picked out her bed, a bottom bunk, collected the bedding and got her set up. Other kids, including another American, were arriving. Then suddenly it was time for me to go; I did not quite what to do with myself. My daughter’s first overnight camp and I decide it should be in a foreign country?! Of course I did…we spend most of our lives living and traveling in foreign countries. But what did I do now? C noted that some of the other campers had their favorite stuffies with them so she asked if I would return to the car and bring her hers. I happily did so, grateful for something to do. But once I handed it over C gave me a very meaningful look, telling me it was time for me to go.

I headed to the parking lot and off on my own adventure.

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Arrival in Guinea: The First Four Weeks

It has been topsy-turvy since we arrived in Conakry, Guinea a little more than four weeks ago. Though I am fairly used to uprooting myself frequently (it is something I have done my entire adult life and with the U.S. government for 13 years), it never seems to get easier. I am beginning to sense it is getting harder the older I get. I had forgotten how it is to be the new employee, the person who knows nothing about the office procedures, where things are located, exactly who to ask, or the local issues. I know the mechanics of the job of course, this is not the same as the steeper learning curve I faced when I first arrived in Malawi, yet it is daunting nonetheless. My Malawi arrival was five years ago!

Surprisingly, I have seen more than a few school buses that seem American plying (ore more often haphazardly parked on) the streets of Conakry

Naturally, it is not just work that is new, it is everything. It is a lot to take in all at once. It’s a new job in a new city, in a new country, in a new region, living in new housing, driving a new (to me) car, sending C to a new school, and so on. But it is more than those things. I have to rely on other Embassy folks to help me with me with some fairly basic things. It makes me crazy not to know how to do these things, like how to set up the Internet or to get gas for the car or where to buy groceries. On our first night in our new apartment, I had to call another person from the Embassy to ask how to operate my stove! I am still a bit unsure with the oven; there is a thick instruction pamphlet on its usage, most of it is in German. Good thing I am not much of a cook!? I sure do miss knowing what is going on.

As a first impression, Conakry is a cacophony of sights and sounds and smells that assault the senses. It is lush, crowded, busy. I cannot help but compare Conakry to Lilongwe. I had hoped that nearly a year in America would curb that tendency, but while it isn’t fair, it is natural. Lilongwe is just my most recent reference point.

There seem to be few precautions for COVID-19 left here, but this billboard remains.

Conakry is bigger than Lilongwe, about double the size in population with Conakry over 2 million to Lilongwe’s 1 million. Though both cities had mostly single story or two storied buildings, there are many more taller buildings in Conakry. It’s no New York, Shanghai, or Dubai, but I have found this to be an aspect that stands out to me. Many of these buildings though leave a lot to be desired. Some are unfinished with bare cement sidings and gaping holes where balconies or windows ought to be, others still have the scaffolding, and yet they are clearly inhabited.

There are two main roads in Conakry – the Autoroute Fidel Castro and the Rue Le Prince – running more or less parallel to one another on either side of the narrow peninsula where the capital is situated. Both are two to three lanes in each direction, and the Autoroute, which was built in the 1960s, has an overpass or two. Lilongwe opened its first four lane road with overpass in early 2021, just a few months before my departure. There seems to be few rules to driving. Most roads do not have lane designations and there are almost no traffic lights. Some traffic organization is attempted with roundabouts, but the rules of them seem somewhat optional. We share the road with pedestrians, who walk on the road and cross freely as there are no sidewalks or crosswalks, and motorcycles, which are in far more abundance than in Malawi. Bicycles still were frequent in Malawi, even in Lilongwe, but I cannot say I have seen bicyclists here, and I would be rather worried for them if I did.

Billboard in Conakry regarding the transitional government, in place since the September 5 coup

My commute from home to the office is only three minutes! Short commutes seem so far to be my specialty. In Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, I was only a 10-15 minute walk from home to office, and in Malawi and Conakry I have had drives of ten minutes or less. I am glad for the short distance as I had (still have) some serious doubts about being able to drive on these roads. The only way to get to used to it though is to get out there and do it. On my first few drives I white-knuckled my way, praying the GPS was working and I would not get lost. And still I ended up on some side streets I had not intended.

Last weekend, C and I headed out on our Saturday supermarket run. Wanting a bit of a lie in, I put off leaving until the afternoon. I think that was a mistake. The roads were more congested than the week before, and within minutes we were inching along in bumper to bumper traffic. Without lane markings, people just make whatever lanes they want, and thus what is intended to be a two or three lane road can become a three or four lane road, leaving much less room to maneuver. Taxis stop when and where they want. Sometimes they get over toward the far side, sometimes not so much. A large truck also disgorged several passengers in the middle of the road – some jumping out from the cab while others came out of the back. Ahead, part of the main road was closed with a manned, makeshift blockade. Motorcycles were getting through, but no cars. There seemed no discernable reason for it. Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I started to come alive sitting there in traffic. After days in the office feeling like a fifth wheel, here were C and I OUT and ABOUT in Conakry! I have no doubt that a traffic jam like that will frustrate me to no end, but that day it let me take in life happening roadside.

My successful tool-about-town (which lasted three and a half hours for a shopping trip — I have learned that shopping here is very time consuming), I found the next day I really wanted to take a walk, and to get a little bit outside my comfort zone outside of the walls of my residential compound. Not knowing what to expect, I left C at home, and ventured up the street to the busy roundabout to check out the roadside market. I brought my camera too, in case I might see something worth capturing on film.

Colorful kola nuts for sale at the roadside market

Right off the bat I felt self conscious. I saw no other obvious foreigners taking a stroll and it did feel as if all eyes were on me. Curious, not menacing, but definitely watching. I had made sure to wear long pants and long sleeves and covered my hair, but there was no way to hide that I was not from here. There was no sidewalk so I walked along the edge of the road, careful not to get too close to the massive six foot deep drainage ditches while also keeping an ear out for traffic alongside. It being a Sunday the traffic was not too intense though the market vendors, whose stands spill on to the road, were out and had large stocks of their goods. I was not interested in the large piles of flip flops or mechanical parts, but I was glad to see the small fruit stands with good selections of pineapples, mangoes, apples, oranges, and avocado.

Woman and child at the market

But the woman at the first fruit stand, selling bananas, oranges, and surprisingly small plastic bags of popped popcorn, refused to have her photo taken. I could take one of her wares, but she would only hid behind it. And the next stand, two Muslim men, an older and a younger, dressed in traditional clothing, had an attractive display of kola nut for sale. Again, I could take a photo of the goods, but not the people. A guy wearing his wares of bright stainless steel spatulas and stirring spoons and tongs on his head also refused to be photographed. I was disappointed, but respected their wishes. A few, however, did allow. A young man working at a butcher’s was proud to stand in front of the hanging carcasses surrounded by buzzing flies while his older boss refused. And when I did a double take at a beautiful woman with her baby I fully expected a no to my ask for a photo, but she smiled shyly and said yes. Her husband also delighted that I took an interest as he proudly told me, “That’s my wife! That’s my baby!”

It was gritty. There was garbage on the streets, overflowing from bins, and clogging the drainage ditches. The detritus ranged from plastic bags and food wrappers to old clothing or tires. Just about anything turned into a waste mush by rain and time in the elements. Chickens and dogs rooted among the piles. The traffic was loud, disorderly, and often too close. And again, though some of it was shocking and sad, there was also life and activity, and I felt myself transported back to past times I walked through markets in foreign countries, mostly in my pre-State Department days. As the call to prayer sounded from nearby mosques, I particularly felt the tug of a memory from a walk through the streets of Jakarta near the Sunda Kelapa harbor. I smiled.

This is but a snapshot of my first few weeks in Conakry. It has been hard to capture it all because there is just so much that it is new, and I can only take in so much. I will not lie; it has not been easy. It may never be easy. But I think it will get easier.

Guinea Or Bust

No matter how many times one moves in the Foreign Service, it is never quite the same.  As much as one tries to prepare and learn from previous moves, each one is its own beast.  It does not get any easier, it just becomes different. 

Unlike in moves past, where I was working or in training right up until our PCS (Permanent Change of Station, aka moving day, aka the actual day or days of travel from one location to another), this time I opted to take some leave between training and our departure.  I had had an inkling way back when I was organizing my PCS travel orders around April 2021, when I had to lay out a day by day plan my PCS from Malawi through to Guinea, that I might want some time off on the back end.  After nine months of training online, through Zoom, much of it trying to learn French, I did indeed need a break before heading to Conakry.

Wait, how does that work?  Well, between each overseas tour a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (FSO) has Congressionally mandated time off called Home Leave.  That time must be spent in the United States and is intended to reacclimate and re-expose the officer to their home country.  For each year in a post overseas, an officer earns 15 days of Home Leave.  An officer is expected to take at least the minimum of 20 days of Home Leave between overseas posts (which can be combined with training) with a maximum of 45 days of Home Leave.  And this does not include weekends or holidays! In my opinion, it is one of the best and most important benefits we have as FSOs. 

Over the course of my now 11-year career, I have taken several permeations of Home Leave.  Between Juarez and Shanghai, I took eight weeks as I had also earned Home Leave days while serving with the Department of Defense at our Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Then between Shanghai and Malawi I took about seven weeks, using the last two to move into our training housing two weeks early (on my dime) to help us settle in a bit.  Well, as much as you can settle into a place you will only live in for three months.  In Malawi, we took a mid-tour home leave of 17 days when I extended for a fourth year, for which I had to seek a waiver to less than the 20 mandated days.  This time, I opted for the first time to split Home Leave, with some taken before training and the rest after.

At first it was a whirlwind few weeks.  I had my (very stressful) French exam, then final shopping and packing before the actual pack-out day (when the movers actually come and box everything up), then moving out of the State Department provided housing, and then our ten day trip out to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks that ended in an unplanned early departure to escape the flooding.  Then we had 12 more days until wheels up. 

As we no longer had State Department housing, I moved us into a hotel room with kitchenette close to Dulles Airport, from which we would fly out. Myself, my daughter, our cat, and our four large, hastily packed suitcases. I had started off our pack-out preparations with some more thought-out suitcase arrangements but as the day grew closer, I just started tossing things haphazardly into them. I figured one project for our final 12 days would be trying to rearrange them into some semblance of order. I would say I half succeeded. At one point I simply gave up, realizing the suitcases looked the same from the outside whether they were packed neatly or chaotically inside.

Kucing the Diplocat gets a wee bit of air before we have to close the carrier for our long journey

It was a bit of a relief to only have the final PCS preparations on my to-do list for those last 12 days.  That is not to say they were stress-free (they were not), but they were less stressful and messy than in the past.  With COVID cases again rising and our departure looming, I tried to keep our interactions somewhat limited.  Although frankly it was more an issue of low energy on my part.  As a single FSO all of the PCS preparations fall to me and that combination coupled with all the energy I had needed for nine months of online training and the energy reserves I was trying to stockpile for the upcoming move and adjustment to a new job and new country, well I very much needed the down time. 

I did take C back to one final day of school.  For us to have the Grand Teton and Yellowstone trip at the beginning of Home Leave and not just before departure, I had pulled her out of school early.  In my mind it was education, once in a lifetime, and a chance for us to bond with each other and with my aunt.  Yet C had formed some strong bonds with her fourth-grade class and though she welcomed having less math, she lamented leaving her friends a bit early.  When her fabulous teacher suggested to me that C make one final guest appearance on the next to last day of school, for Field Day, I had to make it happen.  I also arranged for a play date with three of her best classmates the following week that started out with a few hours hanging out at a playground, then taking them all to see the new Jurassic Park movie, and then a final hour hanging out at one of the friends’ houses.  I really cannot thank those girls’ moms enough for letting their girls spend a day with us.  FSO kids live amazing lives, but they also move a lot, and that is really hard, too.

One of the biggest items on my PCS prep list was organizing the cat’s travel.  Moving abroad with a pet is never, ever, ever easy.  There are always last-minute documents needed that no amount of preparation can truly prepare one for.  Recent changes wrought by the pandemic and the US’ own Center for Disease Control ban on dogs entering the US without significant extra paperwork, had only made things more difficult.  Lord knows we have done this before.  My diplo-cat Kucing is very well traveled having been born in Indonesia and moving from there to the US, then Mexico, then back to the US, then China, then back to the US, then to Malawi, then back to the US.  This last move would prove no less stressful. 

Back in January I had learned that the EU had instituted new rules beginning this year that pets – dogs and cats – transiting the EU would be subject to the same rules as if they were entering the region.  And that animals from any country deemed at high risk for rabies would require a titer test to transit.  Initially the regulations were not well promulgated, and it was not clear if we would have to meet the latter requirement.  Therefore, I had Kucing’s rabies updated a few months early, back in February, in case the titer (which needs several months lead time) would be needed.  Thankfully, travel from the US did not trigger that rule.  Still, I would need an import certificate for both Guinea and the EU signed by a veterinarian and endorsed by USDA-APHIS.  Though Guinea would accept an electronically signed certificate, the EU would only accept an in-person signature. 

The certificate paperwork cannot be completed any earlier than 10 days before travel.  Many veterinarians, having just returned to pre-pandemic scheduling, were inundated with appointment requests.  I managed to get a “drop-in” appointment one week before departure and that afternoon the certificate paperwork was FedExed off to the USDA-APHIS office in Albany, NY.  Though there are USDA-APHIS offices in Richmond, Virginia and Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania, those offices were no longer accepting in-person appointments.  The only way to do it was to FedEx.  And I waited.  By Friday, the paperwork was still not back.  Long story short, the paperwork was completed late afternoon on Friday, but although I had paid for FedEx Priority Overnight, someone (not me!) had helpfully selected “weekday only” and thus the paperwork was returned on Monday morning to the vet’s office.  But by 10 AM I had the paperwork in hand and by 2:30 PM we (C, myself, and Kucing the Cat) were on our way to the airport.  (Fun fact: NO ONE looked at that paperwork at any part during our journey!!)

On approach to our new home in Guinea

Mostly for our last 12 days, C and I tried to get our fill of things we would miss.  Yes, we did both get our respective COVID boosters and we did some last-minute shopping. We visited two shopping malls – you know, the gigantic American kind.  We also had a dinner with our family, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, and their kids, and aunt CW.  And we ate all the veggie sushi, string cheese, Domino’s pizza, Taco Bell, Subway, and chicken nuggets we could.  We also saw two movies.  Conakry reportedly has a movie theater (unlike Malawi, which had zero), but films will mostly be in French. 

Then suddenly it was time!  I grabbed the paperwork from the vet and raced back to the hotel.  I dropped off the car my father had loaned us for the duration of our time in the US; he drove me back to the hotel.  Final, FINAL packing.  The large van arrived to take us and all our luggage to the airport.  We were checking in.  Through security.  At the boarding lounge.  And then take off.  Transit through Brussels. And then about 21 hours later after taking off from Dulles Airport we landed in Conakry, Guinea. Our new home.

We touched ground in Conakry just as the sun was setting.

2022 Home Leave: Out West Adventure Part 2

Old Faithful does not disappoint; Neither does the weather

We entered Yellowstone National Park from Grand Teton National Park via the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Highway and the southern entrance. Though the weather was picture-perfect with astonishingly blue skies and temperatures in the low 70s, there was virtually no line to get into the park.

There are no major sights in the southern part of the park and the road through heavily forested areas and along ridges and lakes, so less likely to be susceptible to large animal traffic hold-ups often seen in other parts of the park. It made for nice unimpeded driving through gorgeous scenery but it did also make it harder to stop when I caught sight of something. For instance, as we passed Isa Lake where there was not only a marker for the Continental Divide but I could see a picturesque stop with dark water and ice, I thought I should pull over. However as the parking area was small and busy I opted to continue on, saying we could go back another day, but we never did.

Lewis Lake — from a distance the ice looked like a white sand beach

We headed on to the Old Faithful area. We were ready for a stop, a chance to stretch our legs and see one of the most iconic sights of the park. Though there were some exciting false starts, the geyser did not disappoint. At least not us. We did hear one person lament how it had been “underwhelming” and another guy musing out loud “I would really like to understand the mechanics.” (Um, hello? You might find information in the visitor center RIGHT BEHIND YOU.) For us, that nature would provide such a regular display of its power, was extraordinary. The good weather and perfect viewing spot were icing on the cake.

After watching Old Faithful and checking out the visitor’s center we were ready for lunch. And this is where we ran into some of the pandemic staffing issues. The National Park Service app had warned visitors of personnel shortages that were leading to the cutting of some services, including many restaurants remaining closed or having more limited hours. Lunch service was particularly affected; I assume the park guessed that many visitors could grab sandwiches or other portable foods to consume while sightseeing or hiking. This led to some very long lines.

We made a few more stops afterwards — pulling into the parking lot that led to the Fairy Falls trail as there looked like there could be some bison vs people interaction with two large bison crossing the path while dumbfounded walkers stood by (well within the recommended 25 yards) in awe. Luckily, the bison were entirely uninterested. We tried to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring but the small parking lot was overflowing, yet we had to inch through it to discover this. But having started the day in Grand Teton and ending it at the Canyon Lodges in Yellowstone, with some beautiful sights along the way, we were good.

At the Grand Prismatic Spring boardwalk view

The following day I made some adjustments to our plan based on weather and food options. With the forecast set to be warm and clear and the breakfast area a crowded, slow mess, we opting to head to the Canyon area after purchasing some breakfast and snacks at the Canyon Village grocery which opened at 9 AM. I have no idea what time the store may open when its not a pandemic, but it seemed late. Yet, the park had warned us of this, so the Canyon area, right by our lodging, seemed the most logical choice for that morning. And no sooner had we driven five minutes when we came upon an elk feeding right next to the road.

Canyon is otherworldly. Though I have never been to the Grand Canyon I have been to large canyons in other countries, but there was something about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone I could not really wrap my head around. Nearly every photo I took of it looked staged, as if I had had used a fake background. Even staring at the Lower Falls and the cascading river far below with my naked eyes did not quite feel real. It was too big, too grand, to seem possible. I have looked at other photos online and they too give off a photoshopped vibe. And yet it is all very real.

Some of the animals I captured with my Nikon during our visit

We stopped at various points on both the upper falls and lower falls roads including Artist’s Point and Inspiration Point. We caught a rainbow forming at the base of the upper falls. I drove for a very, very short time the wrong way on the lower falls road and suffered the ire of the male driver of a large vehicle who made the time to slow down, roll down his window, and shake his fists down at me while mouthing “one way!” I was embarrassed for sure but I 100% swear there is no signage regarding the traffic direction of said road (though you can find a tiny black arrow on your Yellowstone map — be forewarned!). And for the rest of the trip we would jokingly arch our backs, shake our fists, and mouth “One Way!” to each other.

We made it back in time to enjoy a nice lunch at the Canyon Fountain & Grill, a 50s style soda fountain eatery inside the Canyon Village shop. It was one of the few places in the park open for lunch so we took advantage that day. After lunch my aunt had a quiet afternoon at the lodge while C and returned to the Old Faithful area to meander around the trails to see other geothermal features and took another shot at visiting the Grand Prismatic Spring – with success this time. However, we discovered after approaching the spring that it did not in fact lead to the overlook where I had wanted to be. We had already walked for miles that day (with us tracking about 25,000 steps) and we didn’t have the energy for a two hour round trip to the overlook. So that too will need to be earmarked for a future trip.

A pronghorn deer in the Lamar Valley

With our third day in the park predicted to have rain, we opted to spend that morning in the Lamar Valley, known for having some of the best opportunities for wildlife spotting. This reminded me so much of self drive safaris in Africa – all safaris are a matter of luck, but in self driving you do not even have the upper hand of experienced guides and trackers. We sure did luck out that day as we came across a bottleneck along the road just before Tower Falls, where a mother black bear had been spotted lying beneath a large pine where her two cubs were safely ensconced. We could barely make out any of them, but a fellow visitor, who happened to be a retired school teacher with a powerful scope, was kindly letting everyone take a look at the bears from a safe distance.

In the valley itself, there were many bison herds, full of young calves, grazing near the road and occasionally crossing it. We also saw pronghorn deer, ground squirrels, a bald eagle, and a sandhill crane. The animals certainly did not mind the cooler temperatures and misting rain.

With the weather improving through the morning, I opted to head us to Yellowstone Lake instead of Mammoth for lunch. And it turned out to be fortuitous as we passed yet another bear in the Chittenden area just north of the Canyon lodging and a lone wolf on the far side of the river in the Hayden Valley. We were then able to stop at the Mud Volcano area and lunch at the Wylie Canteen at the Lake Lodge, which had just reopened for lunch service a few days before.

Petrified / Bleached trees at Mammoth

On our final day in the park, Sunday, June 12, our luck with the weather ran out. The rain of the previous morning had returned the evening before and poured down for hours and was still falling in the morning. Though I was disappointed, I hoped that as we drove out the north entrance of the park back into Montana, that we might catch a break in the storm and be able to see some of the area. In the end, we drove only one short loop, Upper Terraces Drive, braving the elements only once with rain gear and umbrellas. We stopped in to the Visitor’s Center, hoping that again we could kill some time in the educational center, but the rain only intensified. The one lunch space was packed full of people and with a very long line, so we decided to cut our losses and drive on to Gardiner, Montana, the town right outside the park at the North Entrance.

Little did we know that as we lunched on pizza in Gardiner and then drove on to the Chico Hot Springs Resort in Pray, Montana, how very lucky we would be. Chico, a beautiful 122-year old resort in Paradise Valley, is also where my friend CLK has worked for decades. Years ago, she came out after college to work for nine months and she never left. I visited her in 1998, and she took me on my previous foray to Yellowstone. My daughter and I enjoyed a swim in the glorious natural mineral spring swimming pool, and then she and I and my aunt met CLK and her eldest son for dinner in the award winning Chico dining room to feast on Montana steaks and the dining hall’s famous dessert: the Flaming Orange, a delicious concoction of orange, chocolate, vanilla ice cream, meringue and a good dousing of alcohol, including 151 proof rum, that guarantees a big flame when lit. It was amazing to catch up with CLK, meet her son, and to introduce her to my daughter and aunt.

Unbeknownst to us a disaster was brewing. By that evening, the unprecedented rain and snowmelt led to the Yellowstone River bursting its banks and swallowing parts of the park’s northern roads. The folllowing day the Yankee Jim canyon just north of Gardiner would flood and the Carbella Bridge, a historic steel-trussed bridge built in 1918, washed away. And the National Park Service would close Yellowstone and evacuate visitors and workers.

The famous Flaming Orange and authentic remodeled Conestoga wagon accommodation at Chico Hot Springs

That afternoon as we lolled around Chico enjoying the quiet and beauty, contemplating another soak in the hot springs, CLK messaged me to inform me that we might strongly consider evacuating. According to reports, Livingston, the town 24 miles to the north of Chico and on the way back to Bozeman, was partially evacuating. Part of the highway, which had been already been under some construction, was flooding. There was one bridge still open heading that would get us to Bozeman, but it was not sure how much longer it might remain open. We could take our chances and stay but there was no way of knowing if we would be able to get out the next morning as more rain was predicted that night. I made the executive decision to pack our bags and leave in the next 30 minutes. CLK helped us pack quickly and hand-drew us a map that would take us on back roads to Bozeman, avoiding Livingston.

The bridge was still holding when we crossed, though the waters were high and we could see large debris, including 10 foot trees, floating swiftly on the currents. Once safely over, we got out to watch the waters in wonder. Under a dazzlingly blue sky that belied the catastrophic flooding occurring, the river was rising and widening. It did not look as though the bridge would be open much longer (note: amazingly enough it apparently never closed!). Then we headed over the hills to Bozeman where we would stay the night — meeting several other evacuees from the park and nearby areas.

It was a rather exciting end to an amazing vacation. I am glad to have had the chance to experience these parks with my aunt and my daughter. We were so incredibly lucky to be able to see the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone regardless. To have seen it first in such gorgeous weather, with so many animal sightings, was wonder enough. Then to have made it out just before the calamity fell (what the U.S. Geological Survey called a 1 in 500 years event) is truly extraordinary. It is terrible to think of the economic and environmental costs of the floods will be for years to come. It makes me all the more grateful we not only saw it just beforehand, but also made it out in time.

The Pine Creek Road Bridge on the afternoon of June 13

And now we prepare for our next adventure: heading to Conakry, Guinea. I hope our trip there will be uneventful.

2022 Home Leave: Out West Adventure Part 1

C jumps for joy with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop

There is always something new to experience with the Foreign Service. I have done a long Home Leave (8 weeks after my first post – not a usual thing but I had extra home leave days from serving abroad with the Defense Dept before joining State). I have done a mid-tour Home Leave between my two consecutive tours in Malawi. And now I am experiencing my first split home leave — when one takes part of Home Leave immediately after returning to the US and prior to long-term training and then again after training and before heading to a new assignment.

After the end of my language training, my daughter C, my aunt CW, and myself flew out to Bozeman, Montana to begin the second half of my Home Leave. This trip was a true labor of love for me. I *love* to plan travel and for the past nearly two-and-a-half years I have not really been able to plan trips. C and I lucked out with an R&R to Kenya in December 2020 just before the second COVID-19 wave hit and we had a few mini trips during the first part of this HL in August 2021, but otherwise travel has been especially limited not only due to the pandemic but also regulations that do not permit foreign service officers in training to take annual leave.

I had asked both my aunt and my daughter if they could go to one National Park then where would they want to go and both mentioned Yellowstone with the Grand Tetons a close second for my aunt. As luck would have it, being back in the US this year was fortuitous because all fourth graders in the U.S. are eligible for a free National Park Pass (the Every Kid Outdoors program) that lets them, other children, and up to three adults in with them for free. This was a great opportunity to see a bit more of America before we returned to Africa.

A brief foray into Idaho so we could enter Grand Teton from the south via the Teton Pass

Travel remains complicated! I have seen various articles reporting this summer’s travel season to be “crazy,” “chaos,” and “mayhem,” because of continued staffing shortages across the travel industry coupled with lots of people taking those long-delayed trips. I spent hours on the phone changing our refundable late afternoon flight to early morning as I had heard those were less likely to be cancelled, only to have our flight cancelled. We were then rebooked on a flight where myself, my 10 year old daughter, and 74 year old aunt, were seated in middle seats around the plane. No amount of pleading could get us seated together so we made do. I at least had eyes on my daughter for the duration of the flight. On arrival in Bozeman, the car rental told me the sedan I had reserved months ago and reconfirmed the week before was not available and my choices were a 4×4 Tacoma truck or a Camaro!! I had a hard time seeing us tooling around the National Parks in either. As “luck” would have it, a sedan “just happened” to be returned at the very moment I was reluctantly checking out our options) and I jumped at it right away.

I manage a money shot of the John Moulton Barn at the historic Mormon Row

We stayed a night in Bozeman and the next day my friend CLK met us bearing gifts for our journey. With an upcoming move to tropical West Africa, I was not very keen on holding on to winter coats to pack not only for this trip but also to take up limited space in our suitcases. Thankfully, CLK lived nearby and just happened to be dropping her siblings off at the airport. She came through big time with a box of coats in several sizes and of several weights and a few snacks to feed us along the way. We then got on the road for the three hour drive from Bozeman to West Yellowstone. On even that short drive we happened to see a moose and some bison! Then once in West Yellowstone, the western gateway to Yellowstone, we visited the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center and took a short drive into the park just to get a taste. The weather was largely great (just some scattered rain showers) and it was a wonderful start to our vacation.

The following morning we set out from West Yellowstone for the Grand Teton National Park via Idaho, the Teton Pass, and Jackson, Wyoming. It was a beautiful drive through fantastic vistas beneath a deeply blue sky. The Teton Pass hits an elevation of 8,431 feet (2,570 meters) and we were a little surprised to find a good bit of snow pack on the mountainside despite temperatures in the lower 70s. We had lunch in Jackson and then drove into Grand Teton.

The vistas were breathtaking! The weather report had not been all that favorable for the parks and given the predicted low temps and regular rain, my aunt and I had even considered canceling the trip. Yet here we were with the best possible weather we could have wished for.

At Colter Bay Village’s Swim Beach

We drove on to Colter Bay where we would be staying for two nights. In 1959, my uncle had spent some weeks as a summer hire in Grand Teton between his freshmen and junior years of college. My aunt mentioned it after I had started planning and I had already booked our accommodation. Imagine the luck when we discovered it had been Colter Bay Village where he worked, just two years after the lodging had opened. We had only an old photograph of my uncle’s cabin captured by chance behind his car, which he cared more about remembering for posterity, but we drove around and think we might have found it or at least close to it, and my aunt left some of his ashes there. He had always wanted to come back with her.

Once at Colter Bay, we had a chance to walk around. The marina, and all of Colter Bay in fact, was dry, the result of historic low water levels, but luckily swim beach, though also at lower levels than usual, still provided a great view of Jackson Lake and the Tetons. And there is also where I saw the fox. Almost as soon as we arrived on the rocky beach I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye about 50 feet away near a picnic bench. No one else on the beach seemed aware, and at first I thought it was a dog, except I caught sight of its bushy tail and knew it was a fox. We had already seen signs warning visitors not feed the foxes, but I had not expected to see one.

Some wildlife in the Grand Tetons

On our second day in the Grand Tetons we drove down to the Jenny Lake loop. Here we got up much closer to the mountains and lakes. We stopped briefly at Jenny Lake Lodge to find workers from the Teton Raptor Center giving an educational talk on the lawn with some of their rehabilitated birds. At one of the lake overlooks we encountered the first of very many rather forward chipmunks. I have certainly seen chipmunks before on the East coast, but in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, I saw them with great regularity. And I am a fan of chipmunks. Who isn’t?

We went on to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center where we walked around some and C and I decided we wanted to take the ferry across the lake to the west shore and a short, easy hike to Hidden Falls. My aunt opted to hang back on the East Shore to wait for us, so it was a quick out and back. Frankly, once we got to walking I wish we could have gone on to Inspiration Point and walked back around the lake, but besides my aunt waiting for us I had not planned for the unexpected boat trip at all. We had no water and I was carrying a large handbag! Maybe next time we will be prepared for actual hiking! Though lucky us we happened to catch sight of more wildlife — a marmot!

Our last view of the Tetons across Jackson Lake as we drove north to Yellowstone

The next morning we said farewell to Grand Teton National Park as we headed north to Yellowstone through the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. I felt pretty grateful we had had this opportunity to spend the time with my aunt and daughter, to provide a special tribute to my uncle, and see an amazing part of the United States.

Our Nanny Heads Home

Last week our nanny, JMC, headed back to Malawi after nine months with us in the United States. It was a bittersweet moment at the airport as JMC and my daughter C sobbed as they hugged goodbye just outside of airport security. We didn’t have a whole lot of time as it had taken a bit longer to check in as one checked bag and one carry on bag were too heavy by Ethiopian Airlines rules and we had to make some last minute adjustments on the floor in front of the check-in counter that ended up with JMC checking FIVE bags. There was a lot to take back home to remember this time in America by.

We met JMC in the Spring of 2020 just as the pandemic was beginning. She lived with her mother (also a single mom) and her sister in the staff quarters at a close friend’s house, where her mother worked as a housekeeper and nanny. My friend had hired JMC, who was set to finish high school shortly, to start tutoring her young daughters in several subjects. When the pandemic first hit, I juggled home schooling and teleworking, but when summer arrived I hired JMC to help C with reading and preparing for the new school year. JMC and C really hit it off. Maybe because they were closer in age than most kid/nanny relationships? And JMC was also just a really good, thoughtful, and helpful person. By November JMC had finished her national high school exams (which had been postponed from the previous Spring due to COVID) so I asked if she would like to work for us full time to make some extra money until she received her exam scores and decided on her after high school plans. A few months later, I also asked her if she might be up to joining us in the US for the time I would be in training and she enthusiastically said yes.

Bringing a nanny to the US is not a super straightforward process. There are a lot of steps! Passport, visa, plane ticket, employment authorization, health insurance, social security number, payroll, taxes, and more. Sometimes the administrative parts felt overwhelming, but I felt it was worth it, and I know now how very much it was.

JMC is an extraordinary young woman. At 20 years old she agreed to head nearly half a world away to a place she had never been to help my daughter and I navigate school and home life during the ongoing pandemic. She approached absolutely everything with a positive attitude and a willingness to try new things. As we took off from Lilongwe on her first ever flight, she told me she could feel her soul leaving her body as the plane climbed to its cruising altitude. When we drove from Virginia to Florida for Home Leave at the beginning of our sojourn and I asked her her first impressions she told me that the highways of America were amazing! (So clean, straight, wide, with few potholes, and often lined with so many, many trees). At Disney World as we rode the Barnstormer, her first ever rollercoaster, she screamed in delighted terror, but never once said she wished she had not tried it. She coined what would become her signature phrase “America has done it again!”

If we went to a restaurant and she ordered a hot dog and a milkshake and they brought out a foot long dog and a milkshake a foot tall, she would laugh, shake her head, and say, “America has done it again!” When we went trick-or-treating at Halloween along a top decorated street in Arlington, where the neighbors compete hard for the biggest and best decorations, she once again said, “America has done it again!” She might say this when riding the metro (“Are you telling me this train is going under the river? America, you have done it again!”) or when she saw the swimming pool on the roof of our building or ate at a teppanyaki restaurant for the first time (which, I had to point out, was actually something Japanese).

When we moved into our apartment in Arlington, Virginia, where we would reside through my training, we discovered it was probably the most dog-friendly building in an extremely dog-friendly area. JMC, however, has a huge fear of dogs that stems from being attacked and bitten as a child when she lived in South Africa. Owning a dog as a pet is not common in Malawi and often when Malawians own dogs it is for security, not companionship. While there were some stray dogs in Lilongwe, I found it a much more rare occurrence than in other countries where I have lived or visited like Indonesia and Romania, the latter where I myself was attacked by dogs. While I am not 100% comfortable around large dogs, JMC was downright terrified. Imagine when on one day we visited my aunt out in Winchester and strolling along the walking street came across an Irish Wolfhound, a Tibetan Mastiff, and a Great Dane. Then in our building in Arlington people are riding the elevators and casually strolling through the lobby with dogs big and small. I felt badly that our building posed so many opportunities for her to feel scared. But like everything, she took it with a huge dose of humor and grace.

Strolling together in Arlington

She really was game to give nearly everything a try and to approach it with excitement and wonder. When we went to see Disney on Ice she cheered and laughed with unbridled joy (with far more enthusiasm than my daughter). In late November, we met my friend CZ and her son Little CZ at King’s Dominion on a Winterfest evening, JMC agreed to ride the Delirium, one of those pendulum rides that also spins, with C and DZ, while I sat it out with Little CZ. (I never liked those kinds of rides, ever) Breathless after the ride, her eyes sparkling, JMC again reported her soul temporarily disconnecting from the rest of her. Later when she and our kids were invited to join in the dancing of a winter parade float, JMC grabbed the proffered tambourine and started dancing while C hid behind me refusing to participate. Experiencing her first snow fall, she agreed to head out to play with C though she really dislikes cold weather. I watched them from apartment window making snow angels and throwing snowballs. She willingly tried ice skating (and quickly got good at it) and indoor skydiving (she kept trying to swim toward the exit).

JMC and C in Colonial Williamsburg (they even switched shoes as they wear the same size)

I tried to have a mix of activities this whole nine months in the states — mixing American history (the National Air and Space Museum, the African American History Museum, Mount Vernon, the National Mall, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Savannah, St. Augustine, Harper’s Ferry), and culture (Cherry Blossoms, the Nutcracker ballet, a baseball game, a small town Christmas parade), to fun activities (Disney on Ice, ice skating, indoor skydiving, the International Spy Museum, the Baltimore Aquarium) and Americana (like a massive corn maze, trick or treating, Disney) and more (see here, here, and here). It is wonderful to experience America with my daughter who has spent far more time abroad than in her home country (and this was her longest time in the States), but to experience it with JMC made it all the more special. Sometimes my daughter just took some things for granted. But JMC did not ever. She regularly reminded me of all the wonderful things that America has to offer – not by saying so, but by just living her experience to the fullest.

It feels strange without JMC – she has been a big part of our family the past two years, in both Malawi and the United States. Her departure is another reminder of how our interregnum in the US is coming to a close and we soon head off to our next overseas adventure.

The Final Stretch: PCS Preparations and Making the Most of America

Preparing to Leave Again

Sigh. I really and truly just let out a big sigh as I began to type. Here we are about to move yet again. Sigh. There is another one.  You might think we would get used to it – the constant moving – in this career. However, I think it is only getting harder the older I become. And as my daughter gets older too.

When we arrived in Arlington, Virginia last September for my training, we met another single parent Foreign Service Officer. Her older son and C became fast friends. They walked to and from the bus stop together, rode the bus together, and had hours and hours of playdates, and even more hours online chatting and playing Roblox. He and his family moved to the Dominican Republic a month ago. It was the beginning of the end.

This happens every year. Even when we are not moving, there is always someone in our Foreign Service Community who is leaving. Unfortunately, the frequency of people coming into and out of our lives does not make the goodbyes any easier.

We too are focused on our own approaching departure. I am always saying that in the last few months before our PCS (permanent change of station) that it’s like picking up a part time job with terrible, unpredictable hours. While trying to keep doing one’s day job, whether that is serving as a political officer or a French language student, you must also take care of other things related to the move. These tasks include enrolling your child in school in the next country, applying for visas, preparing to move your pet, having final medical appointments, hiring childcare in the new country, and purchasing a vehicle for the next Post. These tasks require leg work, internet research, emails and/or calls, filling out forms, and so on.

We have received our housing assignment for Guinea.  C and I are very excited about our new place and have been working on decoration planning.  But it is not easy working out what all to buy now and have shipped as the global supply chain slowdowns mean what might normally take three months could take up to six months (or longer) to reach us.  There is our HHE (Household Effects) shipment from the U.S. but also the HHE shipment from Europe, where most of our things from Malawi have been sitting in storage for nearly a year.  Will what we had in a three-bedroom house in Lilongwe fit into a two-bedroom apartment in Conakry?  The moving company that packed us out from Malawi left me a cryptic list of our belongings, and my own memory of everything I own is most definitely flawed.

There are also the “consumables.”  Guinea, like Malawi, is a consumables post. The definition is: “a post at which conditions make it difficult to obtain locally the consumables required by employees and their eligible family members.  Consumables are referred to as expendable personal property because they are used up as opposed to wearing out.” Working with a list of provided by the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO) of consumables families typically bring to Guinea, I am making purchases and creating piles of stuff in our current apartment.  These include jars of Vlasic dill pickles, containers of lite pancake syrup, and bottles of shampoo and conditioner that work best on my daughter’s hard-to-tame hair.  And like in Malawi, I will be buying four brand new tires for our Conakry-based car because it is reportedly difficult and costly to find quality replacements. 

Perhaps this does not seem like a lot?  Even as I write it, I note that the words completely belie the amount of time and effort and cost that goes into preparing to move internationally.  I am, frankly, exhausted by the effort, but keep trying to rally myself because I don’t want to forget something important.  I do not know how married couples manage the division of labor, but in my case, it is just me managing the move. 

I feel at odds; I am being pulled in two directions.  I am here, still in the US, but also very much focused on getting to Guinea.  I am in the final weeks of a long, exhausting language program, but I also must obtain plane tickets and apply for visas and manage the logistics of moving.  There is a lot of excitement, but also a lot of anxiety.    

 Making the Most of Our Time in America

I have found it difficult to balance the pandemic and my language study with activities, but all in all I think I did a pretty good job giving both my daughter and our young nanny a wide range of experiences in the United States. Since my halfway post, we have managed to squeeze in a good number of events. After trying for months to score tickets, we were finally able to visit the National Museum of African History and Culture in early February. I however had completely underestimated the time it takes to see a good portion of the exhibits and after 3.5 hours we left having only scratched the surface. In February, we headed to iFLY to give indoor skydiving a go. I had initially reserved for January for C’s birthday, but a snowstorm had forced me to reschedule.

We drove up to Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium and when my good friend CZ and her son Little CZ came into town, we all visited the International Spy Museum and strolled around the tidal basin to see the cherry blossoms. Both our nanny JMC and I served as chaperone’s for C’s school field trip to Jamestown and we stayed an extra night so we could visit Williamsburg and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary. We caught one of the season opening weekend games at Nationals stadium, visited Luray Caverns, and also met up with my aunt out at Harper’s Ferry.

But now here we are closing in on the last month and a half of our U.S. sojourn sandwiched between our Malawi and Guinea tours. I do not know what else is in store for our time here, though I have some ideas much depends on the results of my French exam. There is an incredible amount of stress placed on U.S. diplomats to pass the exam on the first go, but it is by no means guaranteed. Here’s to hoping for the best outcome, whatever that may be. And then, on to Guinea.

The Failed Conquest of Kinabalu: Part Two

This is the second of two posts recalling my September 2005 attempt to climb up Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest mountain.  This was written soon after my trip in an email to friends and family. 

Laban Rata Guesthouse was, at first, an oasis. Smiling, bubbling trekkers (happy I think not only to have made it to this point on the trek but to have also gotten out of the rain) bustled about or sat at tables munching down on warm bowls of noodles and sipping cups of steaming beverages.  I had a bowl of chicken ramen and AG had Tom Yam soup.  He had tea and I had hot Milo.  And we just sat there slurping away, our hands caressing the hot bowls and mugs, content to have arrived.  I did not want to take off my wet clothes because I knew that soon enough we would have to slosh our way back down the hill a little ways to the Waras Huts, now synonymous in our minds to the worst possible accommodation imaginable.  This was especially true when we learned the Waras Huts were not heated!!!  I could not help but stammer dumbfounded at the receptionist: “You have got to be kidding.  Why would you have an unheated dormitory on the top of a mountain at 3300 meters (10,826 feet)??”  I mean, really?  Why have 100 beds in heated dormitories and then have just 16 or 24 beds in an unheated hut??  Why be that cruel? 

AG tried to convince them they wanted to upgrade us, but they were very, very firm that they were full in the main lodge.  So, I changed into my dry clothes, and we hung out in the main lodge as long as we could (the downstairs was not heated either) and then rolled up our pants legs, put on some flip flops, put our wet trainers in a bag, put our emergency ponchos back on, and braved the storm outside.  I managed to get my flip flop stuck in a big muddy puddle, but I was back in good spirits and laughed about it.  I also laughed when AG’s rain slicker he had tied around his waist fell down and it looked like he had lost his pants and he was hopping around trying to fix it while the rain pelted him.  I think the thin air was getting to me, too. 

But then we were faced with the reality of the Waras Huts.  It was cold and sparse.  A single thin blanket on each of the eight dorm beds in our room.  Four slatted windows rattled in the wind allowing cold air to blow in.  The bathrooms were outside; one had to brave the elements and leap over a big cold muddy puddle in order to pee. Oh, it was a joy to behold.  We must have stood incredulous for a few minutes.  They had to be kidding, right?  We chose a lower bunk and decided it would be ours, figuring the only way we would survive the night is if we huddled together.  We took our two blankets, put on all our dry clothes and huddled.  But the drafts from the windows were terrible.  We switched to another bed that was not under the windows, and when it became clear that we were sharing the room with only one other person we grabbed 2 more blankets from the other beds.  Then AG fashioned two other blankets into large drapes over the drafty windows.  Our poor dormitory-mate was left with his one blanket, though he didn’t seem to mind (seeing as how we had covered the windows) and he had on some pretty warm looking gear and made himself into a blanket cocoon.  We missed dinner, but I didn’t really care because I could not face going outside again.  AG did brave the elements one more time around 8 PM to get water and ask one more time if there was ANY way at all for us to move up to the main lodge.  None. 

We woke at 2:30 AM, although truth be told, even with four blankets we were never really warm enough to sleep well.  The rain had stopped in the early evening the night before, but the wind was still high and the fog thick.  The fog was, in fact, terrible – visibility was no more than 10 feet.  Our guide had told us the night before if the weather remained bad, we could not climb.  Although the rain had stopped, the low clouds threatened rain at any moment.  The summit climb involved holding on to ropes while walking over granite.  The ropes and rocks would be slick from the constant rain of the day before.  Usually, the clouds roll in about 30 minutes to an hour after sunrise.  With the cloud cover already well in place, there would be no views at all of the mountain or the surrounding area.  And a climb that is already a tough one would become very risky.  Folks have been known to fall off the mountain (I only confirmed this afterwards).  I was not having warm fuzzy feelings about it. 

We decided to ask around to other climbers to see what they were thinking.  It seemed most were not going to try the climb – though of those polled in the lodge it was probably 50-50.  Except that most had not even bothered to get out of their warm beds.  Our dormitory-mate had not moved from his cocoon, so it looked like he was not climbing.  In fact, none of the other people in the Waras Huts were climbing.  One guy said that his guide had told him he had climbed the mountain 502 times, and this is the worst he had ever seen it.  Sounded great!  I asked one group why they would climb if they would see nothing but mist and one guy said “George Mallory: Because it’s there.”  “Yeah”, I said, “but he died.”  “Good point,” the climber said, but they were still going to give it a go. 

AG and I decided to question our guide.  AG asked Janeul very slowly what did he think of the conditions?  Janeul looked thoughtful.  “Is it dangerous?” AG asked.  “Yes, dangerous,” said Janeul.  “So should we climb?” AG asked.  “Yes, can climb,” said Janeul sagely.  What?  Janeul just said it was very dangerous, very slippery, but if we would climb, he would climb.  Passed the buck right on to us.  I wanted Janeul to say there was no one in his/her right mind that would climb the mountain in these conditions so that I could in good conscious say, well I tried, but the guide said we would kill ourselves, so what can you do?  This lackadaisical-leave-it-in-the-climbers-hands made us look like chickens.  I did not like that one bit.  I WANTED to climb.  I had not flown halfway around the world for a week to almost climb a mountain.  But I also was not interested in getting myself killed to see nothing but fog.  Frankly, I was not even interested in being very, very cold and wet and scared to see nothing but fog. 

Thus, we decided not to climb.  We sat in the cold lounge and played a few games of cards. Some groups who had started off for the summit returned noting the conditions were poor and they had had to turn back. AG went to see if someone in one of the heated rooms would take pity on us and let us sleep in the beds of those who had decided to make the stupid climb.  Success – and for two hours we huddled in a very warmly heated room while cursing the Waras Huts.  (I can still remember – perhaps the most vivid of my memories of this trip – the sheer pleasure of snuggling beneath the cheap, scratchy, but substantial blanket in a top bunk in a toasty room.  I feel into a deeply satisfying sleep).  At 6:30 am we were up again and went down for breakfast, but we were too early.  With nothing really to do, we decided to trek down as soon as it was light.  Just before leaving the lodge Janeul told us we should get our climbing certificates, BUT since we had not climbed to the summit we could only get SECOND CLASS certificates.  Well, no thank you!  I think even if someone does not climb to the very top because of dangerous fog, but they climb up two-thirds of the darn mountain in cold, driving rain and stay the night in the Waras Huts then they deserve a FIRST CLASS certificate.  But obviously Janeul thought differently.  I just know he thought we were chicken.  I was pretty sure on the way down when we would pass Malay porters heading up they would ask “Hey, Janeul how goes it?  Did your people climb?” and Janeul would answer in Malay “No, these two are big chickens.” 

The trek down was rather pleasant.  I was disappointed, yes, but also relieved.  The fog was still thick, but the air was crisp and fresh.  As we were one of the first groups to start down, the trail was quiet, with only the occasional porter bringing up a sack of rice or a propane tank.  There were only the sounds of water trickling, birds singing, frogs croaking, and the swish of the wind through the tropical leaves.  It was beautiful.  We practically flew down.  AG almost ran at parts.  I, however, was not so sure of my feet.  About halfway down, it started to rain again and we donned those emergency ponchos once more, but by then we were under the forest canopy by then and it did not really bother us.  We were thrilled though when we reached the waterfall and knew we had only five more minutes of trail.  We celebrated under the Timphonon Gate with a Coca-cola each.   

From here it was a whirlwind of vans and taxis and planes.  The story should have ended there, except that it turns out mountain climbing immediately followed by over 24 hours of transportation may not be a good recipe.   Back to Kinabalu by minibus, a few hours wait at a guesthouse, then a flight to Johor Bahru, Malaysia, then a taxi into Singapore and the airport, then a flight back to Washington, D.C.  All with very little sleep – and certainly not sleep that would allow me to be horizontal.  When we came down the mountain, AG and I kept remarking about how good we felt, that our legs felt absolutely fine.  No cramping.  No pain.  We chalked it up to being pretty darn fit.  How wrong we were!

By the time I was boarding my flight in Singapore back to the U.S. my calves were starting to ache. I could hardly lift my legs while on the plane and ended up sitting for far too long.  By the time I arrived back in DC, my feet, ankles, and lower legs had swollen so that my toes looked like little Vienna sausages and my ankles were no longer identifiable as separate from my log-like legs.  I figured this was nothing a good night’s rest could not cure, only to wake up the next day still swollen.  I hobbled off to work, avoiding stairs as much as I could.  Yet after lunch, when my legs seemed to have swelled even more, I started to think maybe, just maybe, something was not quite right.  I went to see the doctor on base (I worked at the National Defense University on Fort McNair in Washington, DC) and he took one look at my swollen feet and said it looked bad. He squeezed my calves and I yelped in pain.  He told me I should go to the hospital to have deep vein thrombosis ruled out.  He called an ambulance, and I was strapped to a chair and carried downstairs, then a gurney, and rushed off to the hospital.  I waited in the emergency room for about eight hours to be seen (!), but thankfully the ultrasound revealed I did not have any blood clots, just badly swollen legs. So, I got an extra vacation day staying at home and off my feet.  Thanks to Mount Kinabalu (and some spectacularly terrible planning).

Seventeen years later I still wish I could have stood at the summit of Mount Kinabalu, though I know given the circumstances I made the right decision at the time.  I neither regret the decision nor the attempt. It is highly unlikely though I will try again; I have to accept that some things just are not meant to be finished, and that is okay.    

*Just a note that in researching online to refresh my memories for this post, I found out two interesting tidbits:  As a result of the 2015 earthquake, Waras Huts is currently unavailable.  No great loss in my opinion!  Also, due to 2009 cable damage there is no longer any heating in the Laban Rata dormitories and bathrooms.  Yikes!  Granted, online sites offering climbing tours these days seem far more organized than when I was there 17 years ago. There are even three day / two night packages on offer that include a night at the base of the mountain to help with acclimatization. As we could not climb the day we arrived at the park, this was ultimately what we did. Staying that unexpected night at the base — at 1,520 meters (4,980 feet) — might have actually helped us! Sometimes being unprepared works in one’s favor!

The Failed Conquest of Kinabalu (Part 1)

As part of my blog, I sometimes find former travelogues I sent to friends and family of my travels before I joined the U.S. government and brush them off, spiff them up, provide some context, and then publish them here. 

This is about my attempt – and ultimately, failure – to climb Southeast Asia’s largest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, located in the Malaysia state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.  It is more an uphill walk than a climb, with casual climbers making the round trip in two days.  Most climbers begin in the morning on day one climbing for three to six hours to a location approximately two-thirds of the way up where they overnight; then in the early morning hours they start the final ascent, returning to the base the same day.  I would make this trip with my Indian friend AG, whom I had met when I studied for a master’s degree at the National University of Singapore, 2002-2003.  He and a group of friends also from India had made the climb the year before. 

It seems almost unbelievable to me that this trip took place in September 2005, already 17 years ago.  But I enjoy going back through my old travel stories to remember the amazing things I have done. Sometimes I wonder what this younger woman was thinking!  I also revisit this story at a time when we have been in the pandemic for two years and our travel has been very limited. 

As per usual when I share stories of my former travels, I try to include as much as I can of what I wrote then and supplement with background information on the place and my memories.  I have few photos of this excursion, largely due to the poor weather that provided few views of anything other than fog, scrubs, and muddy trails as we climbed.  I imagine I was also just too tired. Though I do remember that during the summer before this climb I often put weights in my backpack and took long walks around Washington, D.C., to prepare for the hike, walking at near sea level on flat surfaces was not enough.

The mountain adventure begins with a stunningly long journey from the U.S. east coast to the Malaysian state of Sabah, located on the northeastern corner of Borneo, the world’s third largest island.  This would not be my first trip to Borneo as I had visited the country of Brunei, the Malaysian state of Sarawak, and into the Indonesian state of West Kalimantan in July 2003.  I had also previously visited Brunei in February of the same year. 

I flew two hours from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, then 15 hours to Hong Kong, then three hours to Singapore.  I arrived late the next evening.  I spent three full days in Singapore catching up with friends and trying to shake some of the jet lag.  On the fourth day, AG and I took a taxi from downtown Singapore to the Malaysia border.  Then another taxi to the Senai International Airport and a two-hour flight to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital.  Fun fact: Sabah used to be known as “Api-Api” meaning “Fire, Fire” because it was burned down so often by pirates (or so I read when I was researching my graduate thesis on maritime piracy in the region).  We stay one night in Kota Kinabalu and the following morning we wake up early to catch a minibus for the two hour trip to the park entrance of Kinabalu National Park. 

I could not have traveled much further away from Washington, D.C. than the mist-dusted slopes of Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain – the tallest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea.  At 4,095 meters or 13,435 feet above sea level, Mt. Kinabalu (meaning house of the spirits of the dead) is the youngest non-volcanic mountain in the world and is apparently still growing by approximately five millimeters per year.  This mountain would be my challenge.  I had wanted to climb this mountain before when I lived in Singapore, but when SARS hit travel plans were squashed and I let this idea go for a while.  I wasn’t sure I could climb the thing anyway.  It is one of those things like training for a marathon that one says they might like to do but never seem to work up the gumption to do.  Oops! I AM training to run a half marathon this year.  And so, it seemed time to put my mountain trekking dreams to the test. 

Up until the time that my friend AG and I set out on the trail to the top, I had a hard time imagining myself really going up the mountain. It then was no surprise to me that when we arrived at the park headquarters on Thursday that we were told that accommodation on the mountain was fully booked. Ah, here then was one of those times when my devil-may-care attitude toward reservations (and apparently AG’s too) was going to get the better of me. We tried; we really did. We asked about sleeping on the floor, about cancellations, about other ways to stay on the mountain. The hotel however only suggested that maybe we could climb up and down the mountain in one day.  This option most definitely did not appeal to us, but still, we asked a guide about this option, and his look clearly indicated this would be on this side of crazy.  (It seems these days permits for a one day climb are no longer offered) So, we accepted this temporary setback, made our accommodation bookings, paid all our fees for the park and guide, and then made our way to the lodge where we would be stay that night.

As we could not check in to the hotel until 1 PM, we joined a nature walk through a nearby botanical garden to learn about the flora of the area. Kinabalu Park became Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 due to the incredible diversity of its flora and fauna.  The main plants to see – or rather what I wanted to see – were some of the orchids and the oddly fascinating pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant shaped like a pitcher with an umbrella cap.  The pitcher fills with digestive fluid, bugs fall in, and the plant devours them. Even if the insects try to climb out, the downward pointing spikes at the lip of the pitcher prevent them from escaping.  Really cool. 

Our money was limited.  I had tried to change a U.S. 100-dollar bill when in Johor (Malaysia) before flying to Sabah, but the money changer refused. Apparently the 1996 series of bills had been counterfeited one too many times by some Southeast Asian mafia.  And AG’s ATM card was not working.  Luckily our credit cards were accepted so we were paying for as much as we could with them to conserve our little cash.  I had planned to keep expenses modest but with our spirits dwindling I opted instead to shell out big time – thus we dined very fine, stayed in a luxurious room, and had drinks by the lodge fireplace.  (Unfortunately, I never wrote down the name of the lodge where we stayed.  I tried searching online for clues but with nearly 20 years between now and then, I just do not know.  But I recall the room – a two story loft with a sitting room with massive windows on the first floor and a king-sized bed with super soft sheets upstairs – was fancy indeed.  And we watched the news that night on the large television and learned of the death of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist.  We would have missed that had we been on the mountain.)  As the rain poured down outside – though September was supposed to be still the dry season – we wondered if we should not just hang out in the lodge for three days.  But I was there to climb that mountain!

Early on Friday morning we were up for breakfast.  There we met a couple who had returned the day before.  Although they said it had been cold and wet and their legs were now so stiff so they could not walk properly, it was “brilliant.” They passed on their walking sticks and told us to buy gloves (because one pair would get wet) and the cheap emergency ponchos to cover our bags.  We made the requisite purchases (with credit card of course) then off to the park headquarters where we met our guide Janeul. 

Every climbing group must have a licensed guide.  Yet it was not all that clear that there was much training involved in one becoming a guide.  AG said it was simply job creation, that all one needed was to be fit enough to go up and of stoic enough personality to climb the mountain again and again and again leading all manner of tourist.  It was pretty clear early on that one did not need to have strong communication skills to be a guide.  Janeul immediately, though in very few words, informed us he would be taking us to the Laban Rata guesthouse.  Unfortunately, we would not be staying there since we had not made advance reservations, Laban Rata remained full and we had had to take accommodation in the unknown-to-us Waras Huts.  AG tried to correct the guide but who only then repeated “Laban Rata” and “Please wait here five minutes.”  AG noted again that we needed to go to the Waras Huts and Janeul again repeated, “Yes, Laban Rata.”  So we gave up.  We had the whole walk up to set this guy straight. (Though it turned out of course that we did have to go to Laban Rata to check in)

A minivan took us to Timphonon Gate, which marks the start of the mountain trail.  There, decked out in our start of trek gear – shorts and t-shirts with our rain jackets tied around our waists and our small packs on our backs and our walking sticks in hand – we began.  The first 50 feet is downhill, and I said, “Oh this is great!” and AG said, “Yes, Mt. Kinabalu is 4100 meters below sea level.”  Ha Ha Ha! Just before the trail slopped upwards, we stopped at a small waterfall; it would be our sign when we returned that we were almost done.  From there it was literally all uphill. 

The first part of the trail is dirt with steps fashioned out of tree limbs and wood, clearly put together by someone with a special hatred of trekkers.  These were monstrously sized steps and it seemed slow going.  But we had sun and it looked like it would be a beautiful day.  By the time we reached the first of the rest stops 30 minutes in I was feeling a little tired, having not quite yet hit my stride.  But AG said it had taken him and friends over an hour to reach that stop the year before and I felt buoyed.  We rested just a few minutes and then set out again.  The sun was still out, and the mountain was lush and green.  But the trees were thick, and we were still fairly low, so there were not any views. 

AG and our guide Januel

Within half an hour the rain started to fall.  It was a light rain, but we stopped to put on our five-ringgit Emergency Ponchos (made in China) to keep our bags, and spare clothes, dry.  We met lots of people who were on their way down and though they were tired they were almost always full of hellos and encouragement.  Mostly the trekking was just a matter of putting one foot in front of another, and while that sounds monotonous, it did not seem that way at first.  Although AG and I did not trek side by side, him first being a bit faster than me and then when his legs started to cramp up, I took the lead.  But we generally kept in sight of one another and at the rest stops would sit and briefly chat with ourselves and other trekkers and eat our chocolate (AG) or marathon Gu (me).   Yet the rain continued, and soon became harder.  As we climbed in altitude the trees became shorter until they were only shrubs.  The wind picked up and instead of climbing over dirt and tree branches we were soon climbing over granite boulders awash in small rivers of rainwater.  AG stood atop one high exposed boulder barely hanging on in the wind and raised his arms in jubilation and laughed.  It looked scary to me, and I wondered if the thinner mountain air might be affecting his sanity.  We slogged on.  Now we met few others on the trail and our guide Janeul stayed closer to us.  Before he would disappear, and we might look around thinking where in the world is our guide, and then suddenly he would be there again.  The trail was by no means poorly defined, we didn’t really need a guide to follow, and yet it was comforting to know that someone was supposed to be looking out for us when we might become too tired to do so ourselves. 

We had been trekking for three hours and now were at almost 3000 meters (9,800 feet) and I suddenly got very, very tired of walking over slick rocks, with very wet shoes, while the wind whipped my emergency poncho hood off and forced it to billow around me.  I was tired of looking down to keep the hard rain out of my eyes.  I was very, VERY sick of looking at grey rocks. I thought to myself if I see another G*dd**m grey boulder it will be too soon.  We could see nothing of the view.  There was the trail and then the low fence to keep us from wandering off the side of the mountain and then nothing but mist.  We could hear the roar of a large waterfall but could not see it.  Suddenly the wind was out of my sails, and I was thrilled to see the sign for Waras Huts – our mountain abode – appear before us out of the fog.  But we still had to hike up another 10 minutes to the main lodge, Laban Rata, to eat and check in.  But we had made it to the first leg of the hike! We also managed to do it in three and a half hours* despite the weather – what AG said took him and his friends nearly six hours last time. 

Here I was – sitting in a café at 3,272 meters (10,734 feet) above sea level.  The only other time I had been at this altitude was when I took a six-day tea house trek in Nepal’s Annapurna region.  Then, Poon Hill at 3,210 meters (10,531 feet) had been the highest elevation and I had begun to feel the affects of altitude sickness with a tight pin-pricking headache and an intense need to move downhill.  This time though while certainly fatigued and tired of the cold and wet, I was not feeling ill.  Climbing the whole way was beginning to feel very possible!

*Recently, I have seen online it is recommended to take one’s time on the ascent due to the altitude and 5-6 hours is better. Ooops.

Omicron Effects

As I sat thinking about what I might write about next, it occurred to me I should say more of how COVID has been affecting us while in the U.S.. Part of me had thought this might not be all that interesting or at least less so than how we experienced the pandemic in Malawi. And that might be true. There are probably far fewer people sharing online what it like to experience COVID in Malawi, and certainly to be a foreigner doing so, than those who chronicle their experience in the U.S. And yet, I also realized our experience – as a foreign service family temporarily back in our home country – is somewhat unique to us and I want to remember it, record it, and recount it as a both a personal experience and one that becomes part of the collective memory of this global event. I figure that I wrote on COVID in Malawi (here, here, and here for example), and also about how COVID affected our R&R to Kenya, and even on my experience with SARS in as a graduate student in Singapore nearly twenty years before, so it makes sense to continue writing on this topic.

The pandemic has certainly had an effect on our lives back in the States. Arriving just as the Delta variant surge began, we spent our home leave in one of the most affected cities (Jacksonville, FL) trying to balance enjoying our time home while also keeping up with COVID mitigation measures. The training for my next post, beginning in mid-September, has also been affected by the continued pandemic, with all of it so far conducted online. But as the highly transmissible Omicron variant began to catch hold in the U.S. in December 2021 and early January 2022, we began to experience new disruptions.

Right at the beginning of the year, on January 3, the northern Virginia area was hit with a major snowstorm. Compared to other places that handle winter weather in greater quantity and frequency, it might seem that folks in Virginia have no idea what they are doing when snow hits. There is a grain of truth to that, though this storm was the biggest to hit the area in several years.

Yet when the district announced the school closure the night before – when nary a snowflake had shown up and the temperature remained above freezing – I was skeptical. When I was a kid growing up in this area, the thing to do in the morning of a snow storm was to sit by the television watching the local news as the names of school districts scrolled up announcing if school were open, cancelled, or had a late opening. I guess that morning-of decision was not great for working parents, teachers, and school staff, but I remember it with a certain amount of nostalgia. Still, I thought it premature because there are times when the forecast predicts snow but we get none.

This time though the snow absolutely showed up, falling fast and hard and blanketing the area in a few hours. I am not generally a fan of snow. It can be very beautiful in its immediate pristine state or in picture-perfect postcards, but it needs to be cold for snow and I dislike being cold, and after it gets walked through and driven through and pushed aside by plows, it is no longer pretty. But for my daughter C and our nanny JMC, this first snow was exciting. C has experienced snow so few times that they stand out — once in Ciudad Juarez and in Shanghai where flurries showed up and dusted the ground but didn’t stick. It also snowed once in the fall of 2014 when we lived in Herndon, VA when I was in Chinese training and then again on the day we flew to Shanghai in January 2015. There was also snow in Virginia when we were back for a week of training in December 2017. For our other snow experience we visited Finland in December 2019 knowing full well that snow would be a part of it. JMC had never experienced snow at all.

So it was fun at first. But then Omicron stepped in and made things weird.

Within an hour of the snow falling, I could see crews outside clearing the sidewalks and streets around our apartment building. Therefore, I was surprised when the county announced that there would also be no school the following day (Tuesday) because a COVID-related shortage of road workers meant that too many neighborhoods were still uncleared for kids to return to school. OK, I guess, what could we do? But on Tuesday evening the county announced that school would be closed AGAIN on Wednesday. Every parent I talked to was perplexed and a tad annoyed; our kids wanted to be back in school. On Wednesday afternoon our county said it would be open the following day, then that evening reversed the decision as surrounding counties would be closed. A shortage of teachers, bus drivers, and other school staff, who often live in other areas, and would not be able to come in if their kids were home, would likely end up in too few staff at our schools. So a snowstorm that would normally lead to a day off from school ended up keeping kids home for four days. Thanks Omicron.

But then, once school started in the new year, the COVID notifications for C’s school increased. Between the start of school on August 30 and the last day of school before winter break on December 17, my daughter’s school sent out a total of seven positive COVID notifications. Between January 13-31, however there were 16 notifications. For several days my daughter’s class of 26 kids was down to 17 with a combination of kids out with COVID or with symptoms awaiting test results or staying home to protect vulnerable family members.

Around our neighborhood in Arlington, we also began to notice signs new signs on store windows and doors. Maybe they had been up before, earlier in the pandemic, but we were not in the U.S. then. At my gym, people started to work out in masks. I had not seen that in my four months there. And then there was a noticeable increase in delivery times for packages. Where normally I could place an Amazon Fresh order in the afternoon for delivery the next day, but deliveries were two or three days later. Other deliveries too took longer, reportedly due to staffing shortages. After waiting three to four weeks for mail from the US when in Malawi though, we could handle it. And my Facebook feed started to fill up with reports of fully vaccinated and boosted friends and their families coming down with COVID. The majority mild cases, only one was hospitalized, but the virus felt closer than it ever had before.

The Foreign Service Friend Countereffect

I think having been in Malawi for the first 17 months of the pandemic has helped us to weather the past six months in the U.S. better. That is not to say there are not challenges. A childless friend of mine overseas asked me if I thought being a parent was a major factor in my different outlook on the pandemic. A resounding yes. Though I will note I have never been particularly worried that my daughter would get COVID or rather should she get it that it would be serious. And at 10 she is now vaccinated so our situation is different than parents of younger children. But as she is school aged and in in-person schooling, there are regular reminders of the pandemic’s tenacity that non-parents or parents of children not yet in school do not have. I receive a survey by text and email from the school that must be completed daily and the school notifications of positive COVID cases, mask and testing policies and more is fairly constant.

But having been in Malawi where we had no Whole Foods or Door Dash, no movie theaters or shopping malls, few to no sidewalks and no string cheese, made for a different experience than those who had such things. More importantly are the friendships we made in Malawi before COVID that changed and strengthened during it. We have been so incredibly fortunate to have made one really good friend in our building in Arlington — another single mom in the Foreign Service currently in language training for her next assignment with two boys, one of whom is just a year younger than C. They get us in ways that few others do. Also, three of our closest friends from Malawi have also been here in the U.S. One family lives just 15 minutes drive away. Another family is in upstate Pennsylvania but has come down to the northern Virginia / DC area on several occasions. And as luck — or more like the twists of fate — would have it, the third family whose tour after Malawi was Ethiopia ended up nearby while on authorized departure from Addis Ababa at the height of the civil conflict. Though we have seen them less often than in Malawi, being able to see them on occasion during this stint back in America has made the transition easier.

We have done less here in American than if it were not a pandemic; I have met with fewer friends than I might have done, cocooning ourselves away. It is in part due to my introversion heightened by language study (I get a wee bit weird when in language training), but experiencing nearly a year and a half of the pandemic in Malawi with our particular restrictions, small circle, and limited activities, shaped how continue to react now. So though an overwhelming majority of my U.S. based friends are vaccinated, their circles are not my circles, and it feels weird to branch out. I hope these friends understand and forgive me for being physically distant, as though I were not in the U.S. at all.

As we reach a stage where I daresay signs are pointing toward the pandemic slowing (though we have seen this before, of course), I can feel a wee shift within, a hope that this will come to an end in the near future. I am very cognizant this is not the case for everyone around the world, and yet, the glimmer is there nonetheless. I started bidding on my next assignment in September 2020, a year and a half ago; I never thought we would be going to this new place — Conakry, Guinea — still in the pandemic. Here we are just months away from that move. To a whole new country. Without the comforts of Americana, our family, and friends. It’s all part of this crazy foreign service life though. I’d just like to get back to doing it without a pandemic too.