Coming to America Pandemic Edition: The Final Days and the Journey Back

It has been about six weeks since we departed Malawi. I have needed this time to recuperate from the move and the weeks (months? year?) leading up to it. Undertaking an international move at any time always comes with its challenges and stressors. Add in family members, a nanny, a cat, and a pandemic and things can really leave one mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. Through much of my Home Leave I have cycled through some complex feelings as I try to come to terms that my daughter’s life and mine in Malawi were in the past. I am finally able to write.

The last days in Malawi were hard. Due to some personnel gaps and a definite COVID-19 third wave that impacted Embassy staffing (a return to near 100% telework) and an inability to get temporary staff from Washington to Malawi, I again stepped in to handle some emergency Consular cases on top off completing some final political reports. Having things to work on was important as I was the last of my cohort to PCS (Permanent Change of Station; i.e. move internationally with a change in assignments), and no longer really felt I belonged in Malawi. U.S. colleagues I had spent three years working with had all departed. Others were on leave for 3-4 weeks. COVID has ensured that meeting new people was difficult, if not impossible.

But it was harder for my daughter. As an only child she can generally entertain herself well, but school was out, her best friends had left Malawi for good – heading to their next postings – or vacation, and all but a few suitcases of our things had been packed and shipped. Although there were a few kids around we had COVID tests approaching to allow us to depart Malawi and enter the US and I could not risk opening our very small bubble. I had stayed in Malawi for four years, in part to give her more stability, but those last few weeks I felt like a pretty terrible mom. And in that last week, my independent daughter, who had never, ever, verbalized any interest in a sibling, in fact had said she did NOT want one, asked if during our time back in the US I could adopt her a kid sister. (The answer, for many obvious reasons, was an emphatic NO). This lifestyle comes with some amazing opportunities, but also some pretty hard realities.

And then suddenly it was time to go. We departed on a Wednesday, so we had our COVID tests on Monday, 72 hours before departure. The 24 hour wait seemed interminable. And then the results – Negative for us all! – hit the inbox and I could finally let out some of the breath I had been holding. Wednesday morning was about as boring as one can expect sitting in one’s empty house – that is about to become someone else’s house – eating the last bit of food, doing the last bit of cleaning, until the Motorpool driver arrived to ferry us and all our suitcases to the airport. Luckily (?) I had one last emergency visa to attend to at the Embassy to give me an hour of purpose, and a colleague checked one last political point. I was still needed!

Arrival at the airport, without leaving something behind, was the next phase to relax a little. All our suitcases: check. Child: check. Cat: check. Nanny: check. My sanity…check back for that later.

But the airline had not seated us together despite my going to the city center office a week before to make this specific request. Sigh. After some demanding and groveling, definitely not my finest diplomatic moment, that took at least half an hour and involved several employees and trips to other offices, we managed to get seats close to one another. My nanny, who had never been on a plane before, looked a little scared. My daughter, who did not want to be parted from the nanny, looked sad. Me, I was frustrated and starting to feel quite sure I had left my sanity back at the house, maybe under the bed?, but we had to accept the situation and move forward. Then the COVID test results checks, my handing over Embassy badge and phone to my colleagues (my last tether to my position there), immigration and security, and we made it to the lounge and then boarding the first plane. As we took off, I could let out a bit more of that held breath.

But not all. We had the Addis Ababa transit gauntlet still ahead of us. I will note a few lessons learned. One, traveling with a large block of extra passports looks suspicious. Old passports are a record of travel and C and I have quite a few – 12 past passports to be exact. I travel with them in my carry on to keep them safe. Yet, at the exact moment when the security person riffling through my bag found them, it dawned on me how very Jason Bourne (if Jason Bourne was a bungling idiot) this might look. I got an odd look, then a question: What are THESE? But my rushed explanation must have found a sympathetic, or simply tired, ear, and she shrugged and put them back. I dodged a bullet, in the form of having to explain myself in enhanced screening, with that shrug.

Two, do not have your child conduct air travel with light up shoes. In all the hullabaloo of preparations it did not occur to me that my daughter’s sole pair of sneakers – which light up and have a charger – would cause security issues. [Insert face palm emoji] Of course they did. I enjoyed an extra 15 to 20 minutes at security trying to explain the concept of her shoes. They wanted me to light them up to show them, but I had never charged them, did not have the charger, and they had ceased functioning long ago. I explained this to one person, then another, then possibly a third, as they ran the shoes through the security machine repeatedly. At one point I told my daughter it was highly likely we would need to leave them and she would have to travel in her socks. She didn’t love the idea. I didn’t either, but I had passed the point of caring. Then suddenly we were told we could continue with the shoes. We hightailed it away as soon as we could.

Three, traveling with a cat in cabin is getting trickier every year. When I first traveled to China with two cats in cabin, I had developed a system of dumping (gently!) the cats into a pillow case so I could carry them through security while the soft kennel goes through the machine. I have read that cats find this temporary soft prison comforting. And that this method reduced the possibility of a scenario of a freaked out cat, jumping from my arms, possibly bloodying me in the process, and leading to a mad chase through an airport. I have a vivid imagination and can see exactly how that would happen. Now, I less than elegantly shoved my one feline, who had wizened-up to this technique and did not want to participate, into the pillowcase; her black tail swishing angrily out one end as I walked through the metal detector with as much grace as I could muster. For some reason the male security agent thought I had a baby – stuffed into a pillowcase. [Insert a shoulder shrug emoji] He made a cooing sound. But when the kennel came through and I then shoved a furry body back inside, the agents, too, wizened up. They demanded to know what I had just held through security. (I will note here that to my great relief, the security gate was nearly empty — there was no line of angry passengers waiting for my circus to end). This led to some discussion and displaying of the now rather pissed off cat. But I was then asked to walk back through security with the cat in my arms sans pillowcase. My cat, who hates to be held, must have been terrified enough, as she did not move a muscle, while scanning the airport wild eyed. I held her in a death grip, pretty wild eyed myself. Convinced the furry creature I held was indeed feline and not human, and not a security threat, we were allowed to proceed.

Waiting at the boarding gate though, I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker. I thought, perhaps I have been upgraded, and will have to sadly turn it down due to my entourage. But no, the Ethiopian Airlines agent wished to inform me that he had seen I was traveling with an in-cabin pet to the U.S. and unfortunately the U.S. was not allowing any pets to enter. This was false. About two months previously the Center for Disease Control had suddenly announced an ill-timed, ill-coordinated, and ill-planned ban on dogs entering the U.S. from 114 countries. This “ban” (though not a full ban as there are ways, at least for the time being, for pet owners to obtain a waiver with certain, though often difficult to get, information) was for DOGS only. I had a cat. But I had already learned that several other airlines had taken advantage of this CDC action to discontinue pet transport. I was seized with a sudden fear that Ethiopian had decided, that day, to follow suit. But apparently, the Gods of Travel, were again on my side and simply mentioning my pet was a cat led the agent to simply nod and walk away.

We made it on the flight to the U.S. I released a bit more breath. I had one more travel hurdle ahead of me. I was bringing my nanny with me to the U.S. As a single parent, I had struggled in the past to find child care when in the U.S. Although my daughter is now 9, she isn’t quite old enough to be at home alone, and sick days, school holidays that do not match mine, teacher work days, weather-related late starts, early dismissals, or cancellations can wreck havoc on a parent’s work schedule. However, and I am going to oversimply this because it is rather complicated, when a foreigner enters the U.S., Customs and Border Patrol (i.e. Immigration) usually gives a period of stay of up to six months. I needed to ask for the maximum period of stay of a year. For that I would likely have to go to “secondary.”

If you have ever entered the U.S. at an airport or a border, you are greeted by a CBP agent, who has only so long to review your information and ask questions. If additional questions or details are needed, those frontline officers do not have the time to do it, so one gets sent for additional screening or “secondary.” Although I was exhausted by 22 hours of flight time, 28 hours of travel time, all the snafus, and all the stress of preparations, I needed to be on the ball when we landed and presented ourselves the CBP. The first officer was very nice, but had not heard of the type of visa and said we would need to present our case in secondary. I was prepared to do so. What I was not prepared for was the hour wait in the additional screening area. This was not my first time to secondary as during my last Home Leave I had been selected for the honor and when I lived in Ciudad Juarez I was pulled into secondary a few times when re-entering the U.S. from Mexico. But this time, I had asked to go there.

There we waited. And waited. And waited. We saw many many people arrive, but few people leave. CBP seemed understaffed. I am sure some cases were complicated. Though I do not know CBP work first hand, I have certainly utilized CBP information in Consular work and I imagine the kind of information they see on their screens and the questions they need to ask are similar in many aspects to visa interviews. We were all tired. I clutched the pile of paperwork I had prepared to present our case. I watched the clock. C and her nanny, JMC, watched videos together and played word games, but they were bored and confused too.

At last we were called up and again I lucked out. The officer had previously been military stationed abroad with his Foreign Service (diplomat) wife and he knew exactly the kind of visa we had as they had researched it as well. The interview and review of documents did not take long and soon enough we were released with a one year period of stay stamped in the nanny’s passport. (And wouldn’t you know it, as we walked to get our luggage we ran into the first CBP officer just getting off shift and he stopped to ask me how it went. He was genuinely happy for us and said he was glad to learn about this type of visa. I love that kind of full circle stuff).

As we came out the double doors from security and immigration, I let out that last bit of air I had been holding in. We had made it! Hello, USA.

Malawi: Winding Down

The countryside around Dedza, central Malawi

We are slipping ever closer to our departure from Malawi; we have less than a month to go though I do not today know exactly how many days are left. I had a date in early August, but realized that due to COVID I could request to depart in July. I then had a very late July date, but then the airline flying that route cancelled the flight. We have new tickets but the already paid for reservation for my cat on that flight has yet to be confirmed for the new itinerary. Therefore things are not quite settled until the cat’s ticket is settled.

The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster. Lots of preparations to wrap things up in the office and at a home. A series of actions to check items off lists. Slowly sorting items into piles of things to sell, to donate, to give away, to put in luggage, into unaccompanied baggage (UAB), and into household effects (HHE). It might seem on the surface to be a rather straightforward process, but it is not. The two of us qualify for 450 pounds of UAB, which will be sent to the U.S. by air. It seems like both a lot but also not very much. We will be in the U.S. for about a year, so we want to be able to take a fair amount with us. Our HHE will be placed into storage in Europe until we arrive in Guinea in the summer of 2022; the shipment will only be authorized after our arrival and can take a few months. Therefore its likely we will not see these items for 15-16 months. If my daughter tells me that I can put something into HHE then I might as well just get rid of it now as she will be a different child 16 months from now.

We have whittled down quite a bit of the pantry and toiletry items. It feels a little odd as Malawi is a consumables Post – a place where we are able to get a extra shipment of foodstuffs and items for personal or household maintenance – and thus we arrived with large stocks of those items. Now we are out of vitamins and down to the last tubes of toothpaste, the last bottles of shampoo, the last bits of so many things.

In the midst of these preparations, Malawi has experienced the lead up to a COVID third wave. The third wave in Africa started in early May. South Africa had been seeing increases particularly with its own variant (the Beta) and the Indian variant (Delta), and as was to be expected it did not take long for it to spill across borders. By early June, the cases in Malawi started to climb just as the county began to administer the second shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Unfortunately, before the end of the month vaccines in Malawi were finished.

I had really hoped that before we departed Malawi we might get in another vacation. We had managed to get out for our holiday in Kenya just before the second wave and we have had a few trips within Malawi after the six-month prohibition against traveling out of Lilongwe at the beginning of the pandemic was lifted. I thought we might get to South Africa and Lesotho to finally complete the trip we had had planned for April 2020, but Ethiopian Airlines refused to honor the flight credits we had and with the COVID numbers going up yet again, it seemed best to remain in Malawi. I started to look into whether we could get in another domestic vacation but we had already done a good job in getting out and about; there were few places left on my bucket list. Many we had already been to twice. Those we wanted to get to were rather far, with still limited facilities due to the pandemic, or cost prohibitive.

Thus I found myself with 11 consecutive days of off just hanging about the house. As if we have not already been hanging around the house for much of the past 18 months. Yet this time, I have the upcoming departure from Malawi, our Permanent Change of Station (PCS), fast approaching so though my inability to scratch my travel itch yet again has done a few things to my psyche, I am also grateful to have had this time to both relax (lots of sleeping in, reading, watching DVDs), manage some final play dates for my daughter, and to do some of that whittling down of things.

Rock Art Paintings at Namzeze

But I could not be content with just that. There was one more place I had hoped to visit. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malawi. One is the Lake Malawi National Park and we have visited there on multiple occasions (such as here, here, and here). The other is the Chongoni Rock Art Area. Scattered across 127 sites in the Chentcherere hills of central Malawi, around Dedza, these are a mix of paintings on rock by BaTwa pygmy hunters of the Stone Age and Chewa agriculturalists of the Iron Age and “feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa.”

The last bit of, um, road?

On a beautiful, clear Sunday morning (after days of overcast days), C and I, with our friends CR and her daughter AR, headed about 100 kilometers south on the M1 to the Dedza Pottery Lodge. We stopped there so CR could pick up an order, we could all use the facilities, and we met our guide Samuel. CR jumped into the backseat with the girls and Samuel took the passenger seat, and we headed back north along a dirt road. We drove around 45 minutes to the turn off to the Namzeze site, which Samuel said was the best as it featured paintings of both the BaTwa and Chewa people. The road then got pretty bad. It was just a track through tall grassland. At times it was okay, but at other times there were some parts where bits of the road was missing, making ridges with fissures deep enough to maybe, if not swallow at least stall my car.

At last we came to an area just above a wooden log bridge. We stopped here as there were significant gaps between the log and it was too much of a challenge with my car (especially one I have already sold!). I was really pleased that although the road was challenging, the signposting was good.

We then walked up the rocky hillside for about 40 minutes or so (I suppose some can certainly hike it faster than two middle aged women of middling activeness with two nine year old girls) until we reached an area with a large covered opening in the rock, a shallow cavern, the Namzeze paintings. There we sat as Samuel gave us a bit of information on the drawings and the people who made them. He said the paintings done in red ochre were made by the BaTwe people, and could be as much as 10,000 years old, and the ones in white clay were made by the Chewa people and are approximately 2,000 years old (though it is not all that clear, even on the UNESCO site, that the paintings are that old). The red paintings, as they are older, are fainter, and of mostly graphic designs (lines, dots, shapes) while the white clay designs are of four-footed animals and birds, which are likely related to ritualistic initiations.

Left: Our guide Samuel surveys the valley from the mouth of the hillside opening; Right: C and AR in front of the rock art

After about 30 minutes at the site we had a more rapid descent to the car. We drove part way back to the Dedza Pottery Factory to drop off Samuel and then headed back to the M1 and Lilongwe. I am glad that we went, that we had one more adventure to see another special aspect of Malawi.

It is such an odd time now. PCS’ing — moving internationally — is hard enough, stressful enough in normal times. During a pandemic puts it at a whole new level. Flight schedules are more limited. Ethiopian once flew daily to and from Lilongwe and now its four times a week. And schedules seem subject to more changes and cancellations than usual. And the testing regimes on top of it. It’s a lot to think about. And it is all mixed up in the complicated feelings of departure from a place where we have spent a significant amount of time and after already a year and a half of a pandemic. Most Embassy families we know are currently on their R&Rs and we are the last family to PCS this summer. C’s best friends leave two weeks before us. Our last few weeks are going to be hard, especially on C. There is unlikely to be another PCS like this. At least I certainly hope not.

We head next to the U.S. where it seems from where we sit that most have returned to a level of normalcy. My sister, a TSA agent at a major U.S. airport, has reported “post-pandemic summer travel,” except that implies an end to a pandemic that is very much still in progress and accelerating again in many parts of the world. I am focused almost entirely on managing our departure; the arrival in the U.S. is a whole other step. I do not know what to expect.

Malawi: The COVID Second Wave

When we headed out to Kenya for our Rest and Relaxation (R&R) trip on December 11, things on the COVID-19 front seemed to be looking up. There was of course a second wave already beginning in Europe, the U.S., and South Africa, but the numbers in Malawi had dwindled to almost new cases. In Kenya, there were rising numbers, too, but I had done some personal calculus and decided that if we needed a vacation outside of Malawi (and when I tell you *I* needed a vacation somewhere other than Malawi after a year, I mean it) then Kenya was the place to go.

Yet in the course of our three-week trip, the numbers started again to rise in Malawi and on December 23, with a week left in Kenya, the Malawian government announced a two-week border closure. The idea was to reduce the number of imported cases, though to be honest, these incidents were not of foreigners entering the country, as Malawi is at the end of line and even in a non-pandemic year captures only 1% of Africa’s 67 million tourists, but rather Malawian deportees from South Africa. No border closure that is not closed to citizens (which naturally it would not be) was not going to stop the cases coming in. But it was already too late.

When we returned on December 30, the country registered 83 new cases. For those in countries like the United States, Brazil, India, Turkey, Mexico, or much of Europe, this may seem an incredibly low number and not something to be concerned about. However, Malawi had not registered that number of single day positive cases since August 7. And keep in mind that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has one of the lowest doctors per person ratios in the world. In a 2020 Malawi College of Medicine survey of 255 hospitals, only a quarter reported reliable electricity, about a half had hand soap, and only one-third had oxygen supplies. In June 2020, the entire country had only seventeen ventilators and twenty-five intensive care beds for a population of 18 million (in El Paso, Texas, with a population of less than 700,000, there are 400 intensive care beds). Eighty-three positive cases, had they all been serious, would have overwhelmed Malawi’s intensive care facilities.

Soon after our return, C and I headed out to a supermarket and to get takeaway from a restaurant in downtown Lilongwe. In the supermarket, although there were signs at the entrance regarding masks, the vast majority of customers were not wearing any. The two cashiers I saw had theirs hugging their chins. At the cash register, a man got in line behind us and in doing so, brought his mask down to his chin (rather than put it up). At the food court, where several fast food joints serving chicken, ice cream, and pizza, and which was doing a roaring business, only one person other than us had on their mask. The servers, cashiers, patrons and management had no protective equipment at all. When I asked the manager why not, he told me that there were no reasons to do so, no regulations. I knew that to be false as the Lilongwe city government had put a mask policy in place back in July or August, and which included a potential 10,000 Malawi Kwacha ($13) fine for non-compliance. I suspected it was more a matter of little to no enforcement. After having spent the previous three weeks in Kenya where the government was very serious about COVID-19 mitigation measures, this came as a bit of a shock.

Despite the closed borders, there were reports of big gatherings for the holidays. The January 1 newspapers covered the New Year’s Eve events including parties and concerts, one including a South African musician.

Official COVID-19 data from the Public Health Institute of Malawi

Over the next several weeks, we watched as the numbers of positive cases climbed rapidly. Between December 11, which reflected over eight months of the pandemic in Malawi, and January 17, the total confirmed cases doubled. During this time frame, two Cabinet ministers and two other senior government officials died from COVID. The President announced on January 17 the government would impose a curfew (between 9 PM and 5 AM), enforce mask wearing, enforce early closure of markets (5 PM) and drinking establishments (8 PM), and close schools. By January 22, which would turn out to be the reported height of the second wave, the numbers were nearly threefold the eight month total. Between then and February 1, the number would be fourfold. Two more Members of Parliament, two local councilors (district level elected officials), a music icon, and 252 other Malawians died. The numbers then began to decrease. Field hospitals were set up, resources were put into the government response, the international community donated equipment. Parliament postponed the opening of its Mid-Year Budget Review Session as rumors of some 10-40+ of its 193 members were reportedly COVID positive. It took until February 19 to see the five fold increase. Another member of parliament and 291 others in Malawi died. As of February 28, Malawi had surpassed a sixfold increase of its first eight months of COVID, in a three month timeframe.

Though we all breath a bit of a sigh of relief to see those higher numbers of January gone, the current daily numbers still hover around the high marks of the first wave. Although the government reopened schools on February 22, teachers, demanding protective equipment and hazard pay, refused to work. Three days after beginning the postponed parliamentary session, the Speaker of Parliament tested positive for COVID. Yet still, with the first order of vaccines for Malawi expected to arrive soon and the vaccination roll-out to begin some time this month, there is a sense of hope that this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

Though we have been living this pandemic for a year now, and we have certainly (largely begrudgingly) adjusted, C and I too are hoping for an end to the pandemic, to a resumption of some sense of normalcy, sooner rather than later (like everyone else on the planet). We have through this year been incredibly lucky compared to so many, and I am grateful we have been able to ride out this challenging time in Malawi, a beautiful country we call home. But we are so ready to have our last months in Malawi be ones without the cloud of the pandemic hanging over us.

R&R in COVID Part 6: The Kenyan Approach to COVID

The sixth and final post in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

COVID related graffiti in Mombasa

I did not decide to take my Rest and Relaxation travel in the time of COVID lightly. And my selection of Kenya as a destination had as much to do with its close proximity to Malawi as what I perceived as a fairly robust response to COVID in order to keep the country open for tourism. I liked that only a negative PCR COVID test was required to enter, i.e. no quarantine. But once there I found myself incredibly impressed with the government was handling COVID.

I will say off the bat — this is my opinion on the Kenyan government response based on my perceptions as a tourist there for three weeks in December 2020. Others who have lived through the pandemic in Kenya may have very different thoughts on the government response. However, I looked at it through the lens not only of a traveler but also as someone who has experienced the pandemic firsthand in another sub-Saharan African country, including following the politics closely for my work.

From our first day in Kenya, we felt the effects of government measures to contain the pandemic. The hotel where we stayed first had been closed for several months but then re-opened with temperature checks, hand sanitizing stations, a plastic barrier between the guests and check-in staff, and limited items left in the room (no complimentary pads of paper and pen, no hotel directory, no room service menu). It felt alien, somewhat surreal, and yet I understood that this was part of the contract to which we agreed to travel in the time of COVID.

However, it was really once we got on the road – both out and about in Nairobi and further afield – that I really saw how Kenya was tackling the pandemic.

COVID-19 related signage in Nairobi

Signage was ubiquitous. All around us, in airports, hotels, shopping centers, restaurants, stores, museums, and parks, there were signs reminding the public of the necessity to adhere to COVID-19 mitigation measures (wearing a mask, washing your hands, maintaining social distance) and sometimes the penalties for failure to do so — usually denial of entry into whatever location but also fines. And there was serious follow-through. At every hotel we stayed we were greeted with an antiseptic wash and a thermometer and mask use in public areas was mandatory.

Our hotels in the Masai Mara, Lake Naivasha, and Mombasa were all owned by the same company and each served buffets in large dining areas. I had some concerns with how the hotels would manage this is in a pandemic but they had pretty good systems in place. In one we had a set table for the duration of our stay, at another they provided an envelope for your mask at each sitting. The key part was mask usage while in lines to get food was mandatory as was social distancing and you could not serve your own food. One breakfast at the buffet in Mombasa, some guests did not sufficiently distance themselves from one another while in line for the omelet station and a chef — who could have been a bouncer in another life — informed them they had better spread out or risk being asked to leave. I was impressed.

Billboard in Mombasa

It was maddening getting the food though. In what would normally be self-service, no guest could pick up their own plate from the plate stack or pick up any foodstuffs themselves. You had to point at each item you wanted for a masked and gloved server to provide. This made absolute sense and was no doubt required by the government, but made for some awkward (at least in my own mind) situations. Me to server: I would like some of the mozzarella, please. The server places one slice of cheese on my plate. Me: May I have some more, please. The server places another slice on the plate. Me: I would really like a few more slices, thank you. And then me feeling as if I needed to slink off and guiltily eat my bounty of cheese excess (or hummus — I asked for a lot of hummus too) away from judging eyes.

While our mask usage has been somewhat limited in Malawi (mostly because we spend so much time at home with the limited places to go; school-when it is in session, work-when I got to the office, the once a week supermarket run, and when picking up food) it became much more regular in Kenya. Except for when we were in our respective rooms, we needed our masks on. To enter any shopping center we had to pass through a combined security (metal detector, bag search) and COVID mitigation measure (handwashing, temperature check, face mask) check. Even once inside the mall, most individual stores also placed workers at the entrance to confirm face mask usage and to squirt anti-septic into the hands of every customer.

Graffiti in support of Kenyan health workers in COVID in Mombasa

In was in Mombasa that the Kenyan government and societal efforts to fight the pandemic really came to the fore. Here we stayed at our busiest and most crowded hotel, yet they had the most rigorous COVID-19 mitigation measures. And out on the town there were prominent signs – eye-catching billboards and stunning graffiti – promoting mitigation measures and celebrating health care staff. And perhaps the most extraordinary was that everyone was wearing masks. I mean everyone. As we took a taxi from the airport to the hotel, I noted the many mini buses in traffic. I asked our driver about them and he complained about their poor driving and that they didn’t really follow the rules, but as I looked over at them and saw that middle seats were empty and every passenger had on a mask. That had lasted about all of a week in Malawi. As we drove through traffic — on that trip and on our city tour — we saw lots of pedestrians on the road and they were all wearing masks. In Malawi, earlier in the pandemic there was an uptick in mask usage even with the pedestrians who walk to work along the roadside, but again, that practice only lasted a short period. And perhaps the most extraordinary sight were the beggars in traffic, also all masked up.

A tuk tuk driver in Mombasa shows off his masked stuffed companion

Transportation also seemed to take COVID seriously. In Nairobi we used Uber, and every ride we booked reminded us that we needed to wear masks in the vehicle and guaranteed that our driver would do the same. Some drivers took extra steps, providing antiseptic wipes or liquid in the back pockets of the front seats or even installed a plastic barrier between the driver and passenger. Maybe this is happening all over the world, but I have only experienced the pandemic in Malawi and Kenya. And I do not take public transportation in Lilongwe. But I was nonetheless impressed with the Kenyan approach to transport during COVID.

The final bit that impressed me was when we went to the Nairobi Hospital to get our testing for our return. Searching online for testing sites I was overwhelmed with the options and asked the very helpful hotel manager for assistance. He had a doctor on speed dial at the Nairobi Hospital and rang her for advice. She suggested that we arrive early in the morning on a Monday and sent us all the forms to complete prior to showing up. We arrived around 8 in the morning to the COVID testing center set up in the front parking lot of the hospital. We were immediately greeted by a medical assistant in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) who took our forms and asked us to sit in the outdoor waiting area where plastic chairs were set out for social distancing. Compare this to our experience in Malawi where the single person on duty for testing failed to wear even a mask as he greeted us (though changed later) and ran out of forms. And as we sat in the waiting area new patients, people we did not know, sat down *right* next to us despite many other seats available.

We waited maybe 15 minutes before being called into another tent to pay for the procedure. The cashier accepted only cashless payment — either by credit card or electronic payment. We were promptly issued a printed out receipt. While back in Malawi they were unprepared to accept payment on the day of our testing and on the day we picked up our test results we had to meander through the hospital to find the payment location, where we paid in cash and they hand wrote us receipts that were not easy to read (and no wonder that later at least one person was later arrested for providing fake certificates). After payment in Nairobi, we returned to the outdoor waiting area before being called up to the testing tent where they administered both a nose and a throat swab. And then we were done. Before 6 PM that evening I received an email from the hospital with our test results! Again compare that to Malawi where we returned to the hospital (and again entered the building) several days later and had to assist the staff to sift through the papers to find those with our names on them. The organization in Nairobi was excellent.

My absolute favorite COVID related signage found at the Karura Forest in Nairobi

There are so many misconceptions about COVID in Africa and about Africa itself. We have heard in Malawi, like in other countries, there are some that do not believe the virus is real, that it is some kind of ploy. There are also those who think that COVID is a western disease and that Africans are less susceptible (and given the African continent makes up less than 4% of total worldwide reported infections it is not so hard to see where this perception is not far from the truth). But there are also those outside the continent who I suspect think that an African country cannot manage an organized response — and they would be wrong. I thought Malawi had done OK given its limited resources, but Kenya demonstrated how a country could really respond. I know its not universal; I did not visit small towns or villages and I heard anecdotally that those places were not fairing as well. Yet the majority of cases generally happen in cities with their denser populations. I also know its not perfect — Kenya still has had relatively high numbers – with about the 9th highest numbers among 57 African countries and territories – but it is also the 7th most populous country on the continent. If it were not for the actions of the government and the population it is likely that it could have been much worse.

For us this R&R will be forever and inextricably linked to the COVID pandemic. As will my impressions of how the country made our trip generally safe in the time of COVID.

R&R in COVID Part 3: Lake Naivasha

The third in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

Sign ahead of the Lake Naivasha “marina” with boats to Crescent Island

Next stop after the Maasai Mara was Lake Navaisha. While I was ultimately glad for extra time our COVID-related flight change would afford us in the Mara, I was less thrilled with the loss of time at Lake Naivasha. My former backpacker self would be ashamed at my impatience. When I backpacked, a bus might not show up, or it would break down, or take five hours longer than scheduled, and while sometimes annoying, it could also be somewhat amusing and even at time exciting; I did not expect to get places on time. But while I had built in rest time on our Kenya R&R, I wanted very much to be the decider of down time, not a transportation glitch. Yet, there was nothing to be done for it but accept the schedule change.

To reach Lake Naivasha, we returned to Nairobi via small aircraft and then a driver, arranged by the same travel agent as our flights and Mara accommodation, would meet us to make the trip to our Lake hotel. But our 8:30 AM departure was changed to 11:45 AM and this time we would make one other airstrip stop before returning to Nairobi, thus returning us famished to Wilson Airport at nearly 1 PM. I had already notified our driver in advance we would need to stop at an ATM (so I could pay him in cash) and then on somewhere we could grab food. With those stops it was 2 PM before we were on our way to the Great Rift Valley Lodge (GRVL). My initial plan had to be there by noon for lunch. (Deep breaths. It’s okay T. Let it go. Let it go.)

View of the valley from our balcony at the Great Rift Valley Lodge; Steve the zebra wanders the GRVL golf course

The GRVL is situated on a cliff of Eburru Mountain, which the Maasai call Ol Donyo Opurru or “Mountain of Smoke,” has gorgeous views over the Great Rift Valley. I decided to stay at the GRVL largely because of a single photo I had seen online of the Lodge perched on the escarpment edge, dwarfed by the forest, hills, and sky around it. But the photo did not do it justice (and neither does mine) of the sheer grandeur and beauty of that view.

A sampling of flora at the Great Rift Valley Lodge

Unfortunately, our late afternoon meant we did not time for any activities, so we took a walk around the property, starting with following Steve the resident zebra. We don’t know the zebra’s real name, but I thought he looked like a Steve (I don’t even know if Steve is a he) and it stuck. Even our assigned personal concierge William told us that he liked the name Steve and perhaps the hotel will call the zebra that from now on (oh, I hope so!). C had spotted Steve from our balcony, and thus we found him there, grazing beneath the thorny acacia trees. He led us along a pathway through a thicket, up past the Lodge pool, through the parking lot, to the golf course, where he interrupted a few guests practicing their drives. While golfers might forgive an errant zebra on the golf course, they were not going to put up with two humans in pursuit of said zebra, so we then left Steve and spent the rest of our daylight meandering along the Lodge’s pathways flanked by its wild and unusual flora, with an emphasis on succulents. It grew dark and chilly quickly; we had dinner and went to bed.

On Lake Naivasha

Early on our second day we met William who had arranged transportation and a tour to Crescent Island. The island is a private sanctuary where one can take a walking safari, passing close by zebra, giraffe, impala, waterbuck, warthogs, and other such non-predator species and a dizzying array of birdlife. Unlike most walking safaris I have seen elsewhere, such as “walks with lions” or “walks with cheetahs” that often come with a 16 years of age and older label due to the predilection of big cats to find small humans more appetizing, C could participate.

Before getting to the island, we would first experience a boat safari on Lake Naivasha. We were really backing in the safaris this trip – safari by jeep, hot air balloon, boat, and our own two legs.

There is still room for a few more – cormorants at Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha is one of Kenya’s major rift valley lakes. It is the home to an abundance of bird species like African fish eagles, giant kingfishers, herons, cranes, pelicans, ospreys, and more. Especially cormorants. So many, many cormorants. The Lake is a popular breeding site of cormorants and it must have been the height of the season as there were thousands of birds perched on nearly every available branch. A water safari offers an up close and personal view of many of these birds and even some hippos. As seems a prerequisite to any lake visit in Africa where African fish eagles roam (at least Malawi and Kenya), our boat driver acquired some fish, positioned the boat within sight of an eagle and whistled. But I am not sure I could tire of the sight of one of these eagles taking flight and then swooping in, talons first, to grab the proffered bait off the surface of the water. It is pretty magnificent.

After about 20 minutes on the Crescent Island is a private sanctuary located on the eastern side of the Lake. Many sites online, including Lonely Planet, note that the island is actually a peninsula and you can reach the island either by boat or across a causeway. Not any more. Rising water levels at the Lake (and other rift valley lakes) have swallowed up the bridge, tourism facilities, and more. The makeshift marina had been relocated from its previous, but now underwater, location. As we motored out, we saw concrete buildings with just barely noticeable words (“ladies”, “gents,”store”) and signs (“car park”) just under water, as if they were desperately treading water. As we closed in on Crescent Island, a line of electricity poles, half submerged, marked the location where the causeway should have been. I was glad to hear the government had turned off the electricity. If we had not seen a few other boats out on the lake, I could well have believed this was some sort of post-apocalyptic world, which in a global health pandemic really does not seem so farfetched.

Crescent Island

We landed at Crescent Island and our GRVL guide paid for our entrance fees, then we set out, up through the bush to the highest point on the island, which was not all that high but did provide a nice vantage point to see much of the wildlife and then the shimmering blue lake and the darker blue hills beyond. Our guide, and many online resources indicate scenes from Out of Africa were filmed on the island, that the animals were brought there for the film and then left to enjoy the island in safety from predators afterwards. That may or may not be true as I could not find information on websites dedicated to the film of Crescent Island being among its filming locations. Still, the ability to walk so close to these wild African animals, to a herd of zebra or impala, to startle a waterbuck munching away in the bush next to you, or to stand five feet away from a grazing giraffe still captures the essence and awe of the movie. However the animals got there, I enjoyed our 90 minutes walk and hope C will always remember it.

Once back to the Lodge, although I really wanted to see more in the area, I made good on my promise to include rest and fun time. C and I headed to the pool for where C quickly made friends with the other children; I swam some and read.

The next morning we had some more time to look around the grounds — to see the resident peacocks and tortoises — before our driver would pick us up for our return trip to Nairobi and our flight to Mombasa. Though I had hoped for more time in the area, what we got was pretty darn good. Initially, I had considered a day tour from Nairobi, though because of COVID I could not imagine being on a tour bus with a bunch of strangers for a full day. So COVID giveth a two night plan at the GRVL, but taketh some of that time due to flight rescheduling. C’ est la vie. Or rather, hakuna matata.

R&R in COVID Part 2: The Maasai Mara

The second in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

Giraffes on the Mara with the hills of Tanzania in the background

Arriving at our hotel in Nairobi, the impact of COVID was immediately apparent. It was late afternoon and we were hungry, its a pandemic and we are in a new town, so I had no interest in leaving the hotel until the following morning. All I wanted to order room service, but there was no room service menu to be found. When I called down to the front desk I was informed that there was nothing in the room – no menu, no hotel information booklet, no pad of paper, no hotel pen – that could be left behind for another guest. An attendant brought a menu to the room, but I saw it was really limited, with nothing that appealed to us. Another call to the front desk revealed the hotel had been closed for three months during the early part of the pandemic and when they reopened, they pared down the menu significantly. But the hotel was so eager to please, the manager, chef, and a room attendant showed up at the door – all masked – asking what they could make us.

The next morning, we headed to breakfast in the hotel. We took the wrong elevator and ended up in another part of the hotel — all the lights were off, there were no staff around. When we backtracked and got to the dining room it was also poorly lit and we were the only people there. Some food was set out but there were no staff, no other hotel guests. As we checked out, I asked the manager about this and he told me that they had closed off an entire wing of the hotel due to low occupancy; of the 200 some rooms, they had only 44 guests.

Off we headed to Wilson Airport, the domestic small aircraft terminal. We were there earlier than expected as our flight to the Maasai Mara had been moved from 10:30 AM, then to 8:30 AM, then to 8:00 AM due to limited flights (aka limited travelers) during the pandemic. So far these signs — the oddities in the hotel, the changes to our flight times — only served to remind me, rightfully, that while we were on vacation it was still during a pandemic.

But once checked in – despite socially distanced from our few fellow passengers and masked-up – we began to feel excited. We would be taking our first flight in a small plane and landing at a really small dirt landing strip just five minutes away from our accommodation. Well, let me say that I was excited; C was not (at least not about the small plane flight). But once in the air, she was good. And although we were not in a propeller plane, I did feel a wee bit like I had been transported back to the flight seen in Out of Africa as we departed Nairobi, with views toward the Ngong Hills, then across flat green plains with little settlement, and finally with a view of the winding Talek River along which our lodge, the Mara Intrepids Camp, lies. The touchdown, along a dirt landing strip, pulling up to a three shack airport — with a small covered waiting area, a Maasai Mara National Park information and ticket booth, and a restroom block — was exciting.

Despite our early arrival, the Camp staff gave us a very warm welcome. We were set up in a comfortable and rather high end “tented” room with a porch overlooking the Talek River and they ushered us to the dining room where they had prepared breakfast. This was a treat after the rather sterile and zombie apocalypse-like feeling to our quick breakfast earlier. Although my booking included three game drives a day, my intention on the trip was to have some great experiences but to also relax after the past nine months of working and distance learning in Malawi during a pandemic. Thus, we were in no hurry. We did not rush to get on a 10:30 AM game drive. Instead we lazed around our room, sipping drinks on our porch, and breathing in the sounds and smells of the Mara. Then we had lunch. And only afterwards did we head out on our first game drive.

Cheetah cubs!

Again, another sign of the pandemic, was our personal game drive. We were assigned a driver/tracker, Dennis, and had our vehicle all to ourselves. One highlight of a pandemic I suppose. Right off the bat we sighted stripped mongoose and a hyena — an animal that after three and a half years in Malawi and game drives in Majete National Park and Liwonde National Park and South Luangwa National Park (Zambia) – we had not sighted. Our previous closest hyena encounters were the on-occasion high-pitched giggle we heard on quiet nights in Lilongwe. C was thrilled and immediately named the hyena her newest favorite animal. We caught site of a pair of ostrich and some giraffe, and then soon enough were on the trail of a mother cheetah and her four cubs. After some 20 minutes of watching the cheetah and her cubs sidewind through the grass, Dennis asked if we wanted to head on to look for lions, but hey, it was just us in the vehicle, so I said no. And as luck and perseverance would have it, we got some good looks at the sleek cat and her cubs. We requested an early dinner and prepared an early bedtime with the whoops and cries of the African plains rocking us to sleep.

We had a very early morning wake up (4:00 AM) on our first full day in the Mara as I had booked us an adventure of a lifetime — a hot air balloon safari. By 5:00 AM we were being whisked through the park and adjacent lands in the dark, seeing the occasional animal — a hippo, a rabbit, a dik dik, a jackal – in the headlights. After an hour of bumping over the roads we arrived at the launch site. We checked in — mask and temperature checks in addition to the usual — and were assigned to our balloon. I meant this to be a very special occasion for C — I have been waiting until she hit the minimum age of 8 for most hot air balloon rides — but she was very nervous. As we sat crouched on our backs, legs drawn up, hands clutching rope handles, waiting for take off, I saw C was shaking. I asked her if it were the chilly morning air or fear and she confirmed the latter.

It is handy to take off with another balloon to get the best photos

However, as the balloon filled with the last bit of needed hot air, the basket righted, the aircraft lifted, and we were on our way. We first watched the sun break across the cap of a distant plateau and light spill across the plains. Unlike my only other hot air balloon experience in Cappadocia, Turkey, where we rose high above the rocky formations, this time we hovered over the savanna so that we could see the wildlife. We floated over herds of impala, Thompson gazelle, and topi. One topi in particular seemed to literally be stopped in its tracks staring up at us, its mouth agape as it watched us pass overhead. We came a family group of elephants; the largest bull blocked the baby, stood its ground, ears out and flapping, preparing to charge our threatening approach. We watched a hyena zig-zag across the grass trying to outrun us. The whole flight was extraordinary. It is hard to describe; it felt surreal, and magical. We had only an hour in the air, but it felt longer (real talk: C got a bit tired of it and at 45 minutes sat down in the basket; we also did not see as many animals as I had hoped, but we were in a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara!!).

Following the flight, there was a nice breakfast in the bush with the passengers and pilots of both balloons. Afterwards we had the hour drive back to the Mara Intrepids Camp, which also served as another game drive. Again, our lodging included three game drives a day, but with an early morning balloon safari and wildlife spotting there and back, we were content to just relax for the rest of the day. We enjoyed drinks on our porch and watched baboons treating the adjacent tent’s roof as a trampoline, and headed to the swimming pool where from its platform above the river we watched a hippo submerged in a pool, a large monitor lizard slip languidly into the water and then saunter out on the opposite bank, and mongoose scamper across the out-of-order suspension bridge.

Some birds of the Mara

On our third day, we finally had a morning game drive. Six in the morning does not seem quite so early when your wake up call was 4:00 AM the day before! Again, guided by our trusty driver, we quickly came upon giraffe strutting distantly but picturesquely across the savanna, with the early morning sun behind. A few minutes later we came across a hyena directly in our path, stumbling home from an evening of whatever hyenas get up to, along the dirt track. He walked right past our vehicle–we could have reached down to pet him had we been so inclined. This hyena, unlike the scruffy, muddy specimen of his kind we had seen our first day, was, dare I say it, cute and fluffy. We did not see many other animals — though we did come across an eland, the largest antelope, and located the cheetah and her cubs again, though she remained further from the track and largely hidden in a bush — but no matter. With another, and better, hyena sighting, C was more than satisfied. Me, too. We were on a game drive in one of the premier destinations in the world, the weather was perfect, and we were together and healthy. It would be hard to be disappointed with that.

Stunning sunset on the Mara

Our afternoon drive was far more successful in the animal sighting department. Right out of the gate — well, literally at the gate of our lodge’s grounds — we spotted a dik dik, the second smallest antelope species. We came across an extraordinary tableau: In the middle of a grassy plain stood a lone tree. Atop the tree, two large secretary birds sat upon their nest and at the base of the tree a single hyena circled, hoping for whatever scraps might fall. Gazelles grazed in the background. From there we headed on to our prize – a pride of some ten large lions napping lazily in the grass. They must have recently had a large meal as most could not bother to raise their heads or open their eyes. Except for one lioness, who did sit up and fix her eyes upon me in such as way that caused me to back up in the vehicle. On our way back to our camp we were treated to an extraordinary sighting of a lone jackal, who could have run off quickly but kept stopping to look back at us, and an incredible sunset over the Mara.

Predators of the Mara: A surprisingly cute hyena, a still-hungry lioness, and a very curious jackal

That evening in the dining hall we were one of only two families eating. The younger kids of the other family conked out and then we C and I were the only ones there except for staff. Except after a few minutes I noticed we were no longer alone. A genet had crept into the dining hall and slipped beneath the now-gone other family’s table. A genet is a similar to a civet. Its often believed to be in the feline family, but its not. It is sleek and spotted and has a very long tail — it looks a bit like a mini, skinny leopard mated with a lemur. That would have been amazing in and of itself. But then, drum roll, a black bushbaby made its way into the dining hall, expertly walking along the ceiling beams like a trapeze artist, and then sliding down the vertical pole to steal a bun from the abandoned bread basket. The evening’s entertainment was still not yet over, as a second genet joined the first and the bushbaby demonstrated interest in the crumbs beneath the other abandoned table. Naturally this led to one of those scenes generally seen in National Geographic — the bushbaby standing on two legs, arms up, attempting to look menacing and the genets looking positively puzzled. Best diner show ever.

Another COVID-related change led to our return flight to Nairobi to shift from 8:45 AM to 11:15 AM and then to 11:45 AM. Although this would complicate our afternoon plans, it did allow us one more sunrise over the Mara, another game drive. We saw a pod of 20 or more hippopotami wallowing in a stream, tracked two lion cubs through the tall grass, and then caught sight of the lioness possibly tracking us, and at the very end, with just minutes left before we had to head back to the camp and on to the airport, we were lucky to catch sight of a leopard among the foliage in a ravine.

There are just not enough superlatives to describe the Mara. I have been on game drives before but never with such beautiful endless distances across the savanna and the number of wildlife encounters. It was not easy to leave.

R&R in COVID Part 1: Decisions & Preparation

C is tested for COVID-19 at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe

How do you decide where to go on vacation during a pandemic?

Overall, for me, it was a somewhat wrenching, but ultimately easy decision.

R&R, i.e. “Rest and Recuperation,” is a “travel benefit that provides temporary relief for employees and eligible family members from posts with distinct and significant difficulties.” The State Department (and other federal agencies with presence overseas, like the military), set the number of R&Rs an employee and their family are eligible for from each location overseas. If you serve in Australia or Hong Kong or even on the Mexico border with the U.S., you are not eligible. If you live somewhere like Malawi, you are granted one R&R for every two years you serve.

But in 2020, the pandemic halted many (most?) R&Rs. Here in Malawi, international commercial flights were halted from April 1 until September 5. And even once flights resumed in September, they were limited in number. But Embassy personnel were still restricted from taking flights out of the country, unless in an emergency or with special circumstances, until late October.

I have traveled to over 100 countries and territories and been on more flights than I can count, but the idea of being on a long plane ride at this time filled me with a great amount of anxiety. I desperately wanted to travel outside of Malawi — the living room staycations and the long drives on the same pockmarked Malawian roads were just not doing it for me anymore. I needed the kind of vacation that involved stamps in my passport. Yet, I just could not stomach going somewhere really far away. If you know me or have read my blog travels, you know that in usual times, that does not concern me. It is the destination, not how long it will take us to get there. By the time she was three, my daughter would ask how many planes it would take for us to get to our destination. This time, I wanted it to be just one.

One reason that COVID-19 came to Malawi later in the game than most (it was one of the last countries in the world to record a case), is that it is not on many tourist itineraries and it is a destination point, not a transit point. And just as few flights arrive here, few depart. In non-pandemic times, we could fly direct from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe to six locations: Johannesburg (South Africa), Harare (Zimbabwe), Lusaka (Zambia), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Nairobi (Kenya). However, once commercial flights resumed we were limited to just three: Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi.

Initially, South Africa seemed the most logical choice as I still held an airline credit with Ethiopian to Johannesburg and a hotel credit at a lodge in Lesotho. Except, Ethiopian had not resumed flights to Johannesburg; only Malawian Airlines (though 49% owned by Ethiopian) was running that route and their track record was less than stellar. Although Malawian Airlines had announced daily flights to Johannesburg, on average, only two of those flights were actually taking off each week. Not the kind of odds you want to bet your vacation on. Also, to visit both South Africa and Lesotho, we would likely need negative PCR COVID test certificates a few more times to cross another border and back, and even the lodge, which had only partially re-opened (and not the more expensive rooms I had previously booked), advised me not to travel given the challenges of testing. South Africa was out.

I only briefly looked at Ethiopia. There is a lot to see in Ethiopia and I have wanted to visit for awhile, but I did not think the sights conducive to travel with an 8-year-old. And although the daily reported COVID-19 cases for Ethiopia were, in late October and early November, lower than in both South Africa and Kenya, there was also the worst locust plague in 25 years and the beginning of the government conflict with the northern state of Tigray. Ethiopia also requires arrivals, even with a negative PCR COVID test result, to self-isolate for seven days. A week of our vacation would be spent sequestered in a government-designated hotel. Ethiopia was out.

And thus our vacation destination was clear. Nairobi is just over two hours by plane from Lilongwe and there is no quarantine or self-isolation period on arrival as long as you have a negative PCR COVID test result. Bonus points: neither C or I had ever been. Well, hello Kenya.

It was great to know where we were going and there was a sense of the old fun in vacation planning, but there was still a lot of stress related to making sure I dotted all i’s and crossed all t’s in the COVID department. Kenya requires a negative PCR COVID test taken conducted within 96 hours of travel. Malawi also requires a negative COVID test to depart, the timing is less clear on this, but the test must be completed by a government approved testing facility, and there are only three of these. Though the guidelines are constantly changing. The third hospital was added about a week before our flight and the good news was they would make a house call. But just as that seemed the best option, the government announced new regulations requiring additional stamps on the test certificate that the third option did not have. We then went with Kamuzu Central Hospital, the easiest of our options.

It was not a great experience. We went with friends with kids that C knows so they would have one another to lean on. There were patients and others loitering around the hospital grounds, almost none wearing masks. We had to ask the person administering the tests to put on a mask. (He did put on the mask and PPE to conduct collections). After waiting about an hour for the slow procession of testing, he ran out of forms. Once we finally went in, it was really uncomfortable. C, holding the hand of one of her best friends, cried. I might have stopped on the ground and said “Oh, come on!” when it seemed to take a bit too long.

We then had to wait several days. The hospital — no matter when you take you test — only allows pick-up of the results the day before your flight. Talk about pins and needles, wondering if you are in the clear or not, if you can fly or not. Our bubble has been so small since this pandemic began. A very small subset of the already rather small Embassy community. Still, the what ifs sit in the back of your head.

Three of us went to the hospital to pick-up the tests for our group of 14. Pick-up was not straightforward either. I offered to help rifle through the results looking specifically for the names I recognized because it was taking forever, just the three of us standing in a small room crammed with a desk, two chairs, some shelves, and tons and tons of papers. Thank goodness we were all negative (and while you might think — if any of us had been positive then, surely, the hospital would have informed us. But, I have it on good authority that is not always the case)!

With negative COVID test results in hand, a fair amount of the anxiety seeped away. Still, for me that was just step one. Step two was surviving the Lilongwe airport gauntlet – checks, double checks, and triple checks of our negative COVID certificates and multiple temperature checks. Step three was the flight — only two hours long, but after no flights for nearly a year, it felt so much longer. Step four was the Nairobi airport gauntlet — COVID certificate checks, immigration and e-visa checks, health surveillance form checks, and temperature checks. It was not until we stepped out of the airport and were on our way to the hotel that I could really relax. We were on vacation!

Something Like Normal

Normal. It seems hard to know what that is anymore. We have been told to adjust to a “new normal.” A normal where face masks are a required fashion accessory and obsessive hand cleansing and avoiding other people with our newfangled edict on “social distancing” is how we get through the day. At first it was novel. Difficult, but doable. I might even say I was not only productive, but jazzed by the new situation, even more so than usual. But as time wore on, the reduction in social interaction, the rise of teleworking and distance learning, and the inability to travel began to take its toll. I think back to nearly nine months ago when we took our last trip beyond Malawi’s borders, a long weekend in Johannesburg aimed at doing activities that many Americans and others in developed countries take for granted. In other words, doing what I thought was “normal.” Instead it turned into the trip just before the end of all the pre-COVID normalcy. I didn’t know what normal was until it was gone.

But slowly, gradually, over the past few weeks, there has been a lightening, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It really began with the lifting of restrictions on travel outside of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe. A city where, in normal times, even with a lack of amenities, is enjoyable when one keeps busy at the office, doing work activities and meetings, and spending time with friends and family at simple events like meals out or small gatherings. But in COVID times, with limited interactions outside the home, became suffocatingly dull. I was glad to be able to get out and about more, but still weighed down by pandemic fatigue, the vacation glow dissipated quickly.

A week after my daughter’s school’s “Fall Break,” I broke. I felt caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On one hand I could keep my daughter at home, limit her exposure, but to do so we would have to continue the distance learning program, which was declining in quality, damaging our relationship, and affecting my work. On the other hand I could send her back, but as the Embassy-provided school bus was no more, I would have to make the dreaded 30-minute drive to the other side of town twice a day. Desperate for a path back to normalcy, I chose option number two.

I coordinated with another Embassy family with kids the same age to alternate morning drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups. Sure, the first day or so seemed odd — seeing the face-masked kids shuffling into school in socially distanced lines and being greeted by thermometer wielding staff in personal protective equipment — but the return to school has changed our lives for the better. There is a lot less yelling about schoolwork because I am no longer in charge of it. And, unexpectedly, I feel more engaged as a mom driving my daughter and her friends to or from school. Additionally, as the Embassy has moved to “Phase 2” of a three phase system, I can spend time in the office, which is so much more conducive to my getting work done than the well-worn groove on my sofa.

My little Pokemon enjoys a socially distanced Halloween

Halloween arrived soon after C returned to school. At the beginning of October, it was not clear we would have any celebration of the holiday at all, but two weeks before, a team of Embassy volunteers and our Marine Security Guards began began planning an awesome socially distanced, pandemic-approved Halloween. Unmanned decorated tables were set up around the expansive lawn at the Ambassador’s residence and the Marines turned the gazebo into a haunted hallway.

It was not the usual U.S. Halloween by any stretch of the imagination, but then overseas the holiday has rarely looked like the American-style trick or treating. In Juarez, trick-or-treating was room to room in the Consulate. In Shanghai, we zig-zagged up and down floors to designated apartments whose residents had agreed to hand out candy, though the sweets were much different than one might typically receive in America. And in Malawi we have had three years in a row of trunk or treating. This was just another creative Foreign Service holiday. Though it did feel a bit odd to don face masks and just to two of us walk around to collect candy from unmanned tables. Well, that is how it started. But the kids gravitated toward one another and soon C was with several friends. And at the end several families gathered at the Jurassic Park stop, where a few of our colleagues were dressed in dinosaur costumes. For the first time in a very long time we were around more than one other family. It felt decadent, like we were getting away with something.

The following week – the first of November – gave me an almost daily dose of feeling I was on at least the normalcy. On the Monday, I received my handshake for my next assignment in Conakry, Guinea. I took Tuesday off to sit at home and watching the nail-biting results of the U.S. election. On Wednesday, my daughter’s tutor let me know she could begin immediately as my full time nanny – and for the first time in seven months I again had consistent help around the house. On Thursday, my request for time off to take our long-overdue Rest and Relaxation trip was approved. I could begin planning our first significant trip outside the country for nearly a year since our last big trip to Finland and Paris. We rounded out the week with a COVID-approved birthday party: an outdoor gathering of no more than 20 people only among Embassy personnel whose kids had returned to school. Another first such gathering in more than six months.

It was as if a dam had broken. The year has been so hard. I know I am not alone but sometimes the circumstances of the extended isolation has made it feel so.

I know things are not back to normal. The pandemic is still here; our lives remain altered. There has been a resurgence of COVID-19 in many places and previously lifted restrictions are being put back into place. When I found myself in a busy open-air shopping district surrounded by persons not wearing masks, I felt uncomfortable. When I am approached by others, I instinctively shift a good meter away so as to let them pass. Yet, even with these oddities presently entrenched in our daily lives, I have taken these recent signs of pre-COVID times to heart. We may still have a ways to go until we emerge from this pandemic, but at least for now it feels we have turned a corner.

“Fall Break” in COVID Times

View of Lake Malawi from the Makokola infinity pool

There are days during the pandemic when things feel almost normal. And then I wonder if it means I am getting used to the “new normal” or if things really are returning to a sense of normalcy? But I am unconvinced of the latter and still find myself struggling with restrictions and the mental strain of entering our eighth month of this (and I cannot even articulate well what “this” is). Having gone through SARS in Singapore in 2003, I had been confident the pandemic would end in July. When July came and went I felt a pretty solid sense of having been let down. Yet, I convinced myself that by mid-October, by C’s school break, that probably, maybe, things would have returned largely to normal. Wrong again.

On September 30, C’s grade returned to in-person classes, but C did not return to school as there are no longer buses to take her the 30 minutes to and from the campus. As a single working parent, I did not see how I could spend upwards of 15 hours a week (to account for traffic and waiting in the complicated pick-up line) chauffeuring C back and forth and keep up with everything else. I would trade the frustration of online learning with the frustration of hours in Lilongwe traffic.

Seven schooldays after the majority of children returned to the international school (I was not the only hold-out), Fall Break began. But I figured I have to call it “Fall Break” in quotes because it is never the cool autumn of the U.S. and, frankly, I could not really put my finger on what it was a break from. Yet, I knew, once again, that if I could take off some days and get out of Lilongwe, then I needed to do that. Still, as hard as I tried to consider taking the entire week to travel around Malawi, I could not stomach it. There are many lovely places in this country, but most of them are at least three hours away according to Google Maps, which when you factor in police road stops and getting stuck behind a slow moving truck on a two lane road (and they are all two lane roads) or a person driving 20 kilometers below the speed limit for no apparent reason, it is always more on the order of four hours.

One of Malawi’s road travel challenges: eighteen wheeler accidents on the road – the first on the way back from Makokola and the second on the way to Luwawa

I broke our holiday into two parts, each visiting a new location on my Malawi sightseeing bucket list: We would first head south for the three-day Indigenous Peoples Day weekend to spend time at the Makokola Retreat on the lower end of Lake Malawi. After a two day respite back in Lilongwe, we would then turn northward to spend a four day weekend at Luwawa Forest Lodge.

Our first mini getaway was to Makokola. At first the drive was pleasant enough, but 2/3 of the way in (i.e. about two hours) I had had about enough of the endless monotony of scrub brush alongside the potholed tarmac. I have driven that particular route one too many times and it does not get more interesting. But at last we arrived at the lush lakeside retreat. Due to renovations under much of the older part of the resort, children are, at this time, allowed to stay in the newly built lakeside suites. And they are lovely.

Our mini Retreat condo — water features are rare in Malawi (in fact I don’t know of any other place with them)

After the monotony of the Malawian roads, pulling into the lush, landscaped grounds of the Makokoka Retreat was a noticeable physical and mental relief. The grounds are beautiful, even with portions of them churned up for renovation. As we were walked over to the Lakeside suites, our home away from home for two nights, I was struck by how much it reminded me of a model American condo subdivision. There were sidewalks and water features. Water features! I think I have seen one other water feature in all of Malawi – a fountain at a roundabout in Lilongwe – but never once has there been water in it!

In pre-COVID times, I heard that the Makokola Retreat had a bunch of watersports like wakeboards and water skis and those floating banana things. However, although speedboats were on offer (only $200 to rent!) there didn’t seem to be anything attached to them in pandemic times. And that’s okay — I am not really the speed on the water kinda gal. C and I were keen on just lazing about. The American development feel gave a sense of really having gotten away. COVID-19 measures meant our meals would be delivered to our room. Walks along a beach (albeit a lakeside beach) or through the gardens, slow laps around the infinity pool, and leisurely meals in our room or on our patio while reading — that is exactly what C and I needed.

And then I had to drive home. Just like after our recent trips to Satemwa and Liwonde, the return trip winds back the relaxation clock. At least this time, we would have two days at home — still on leave and off school — before heading out again.

The sign on the M1 indicating the turn off to the Luwawa Forest Lodge

The drive north to the Luwawa Forest Lodge turnoff was not so bad. Not because the road quality or drivers were better, they were not, but it was a new-to-me route. I had only driven north on the M1 once, when we visited Ntchisi Forest Lodge, but an hour into our journey we had already passed the familiar behind.

There was nothing special about the first three hours, but after turning onto the red dirt road into the Brachystegia woodland and riverine forest of the Viphya Plateau’s highlands, it was as if we really been transported somewhere else.

Grassland, marshland, forest, and fresh air

At Luwawa I had booked a self-catering cottage. I was not sure what to expect, but I found the slightly musty two-story cabin, with its small fridge and retro-style mini gas oven, under the wooden stairs lounge area, and large loft-like upstairs, homey. It reminded me of my grandmother’s house. We unpacked, made and ate sandwiches for lunch, then took a look around the property. We met Bob, the Lodge’s massive, yet playful, Saint Bernard; C played on the playground, and I wandered the garden. Then, with the assistance of the Lodge, trudged up the narrow steps of another cottage, and in another musty room designed for studies when the schools use the dormitories for their “Week Without Walls” programs, with chairs haphazardly stacked along the walls, we played the worst, yet hilarious, game of ping pong.

Luwawa Forest Lodge has an impressive range of activities from canoeing and kayaking on the reservoir, trail walking, abseiling, bird watching, fishing, archery, and a few guided tours. I had plans for us to do several of these over the course of our three days, but our first morning we had a one hour horseback ride lined up.

Luwawa Nature: a bejeweled locust and a rainbow of berries

C loves horses. Unfortunately there are no public horse riding stables in Lilongwe — nor were there any in Shanghai that would not have taken us less than two hours to get to — so I have always looked for horse riding opportunities when we head on vacation.

What a treat that there are stables just a 15 minute walk from the Luwawa Forest Lodge and they are run by the wonderfully patient and kind Maggie, who worked as a medical practitioner at the US Embassy for 30 years. She took us on a lovely ramble along trails and through the woods surrounding her property. Along the way, she told me about being born and raised in Kenya, studied in South Africa, and then after her degree she relocated to Malawi where her grandfather had purchased land in the early part of the 20th century. We passed ripening multi-colored berries, caught vistas of misty covered rolling hills, and breathed in the fresh air. C was in her element.

Immediately after our ride, C asked if she could have another ride that afternoon. Maggie said she had some siblings, one of which was a precocious 7-year old she thought C would hit it off with, scheduled at 1:30 that afternoon.

The horses return to the stables on their own

Boy did they hit it off! H and C became fast friends. After the ride — reportedly full of giggles — C wanted to spend more time with H. They hopped on an ATV with Gift, one of the stable hands, and headed up to the stables to muck them out and prepare for the evening feeding. Yes, my daughter volunteered and happily mucked out horse stables!

The following day C signed up for two additional rides with her vacation best friend. As C rode the trails around Luwawa, I walked them. I used to be a great walker. I love to walk, but there are not many places to do so in Lilongwe; there are few sidewalks and no trails that I know of. In Luwawa I had hours to myself to walk and meditate in nature. I have not had such time to do so at any other time in Malawi. We didn’t do much in Luwawa; C rode horses and I walked, and we relaxed in our little cottage. But it was just what we both needed.

Once again, a few trips out of Lilongwe restored myself and C just a wee bit. It was not the fall break I had initially planned on pre-COVID or even as I kept hoping the pandemic would end sometime in the summer months. But while it wasn’t perfect, it was unexpected and unexpectedly good.

Mini Getaways in the Time of Covid

Twenty-one weeks after the Embassy went on alternative telework as a Covid-19 mitigation measure and 24 weeks since we last took a trip outside of Lilongwe, we were once again able to venture outside the capital for day trips. We still needed to limit our interactions, liberally wash our hands or apply antiseptic, and wear face masks, but for a first time in a long time we could drive further than the exciting (dripping with sarcasm) 10-20 minute drive to the supermarket. For those in developed countries this simple change in our restrictions might not seem like much. For those that have access to national, state, and city parks near your home or other venues such as skateparks, waterparks, amusement parks, cultural parks, indoor parks, cinemas, shopping malls, museums, playgrounds…or even those ubiquitous things in developed cities and suburbs where one can stroll without being in the street, you know, sidewalks. Well, just imagine if none of those were available to you. Then you might get an idea of what it might be like to hang out in Lilongwe — not just in a pandemic, but all the time.

Sable antelope eye us warily at Kuti Wildlife Reserve

And then suddenly after half a year we could leave the city, do more than work and school from home with occasional outings to the office or the grocery store. I immediately set about organizing a day getaway to Kuti Wildlife Reserve with good friends. And we were like horses chomping at the bit eager to bolt at the starting gate. We packed up our picnic items and headed out on the 90 minute drive along the M14 toward to Salima. At Kuti, we drove through the reserve looking for animals and came across a few baboon, bushbuck, and sable antelope. We didn’t see many animals but we had a lot of fun anyway. Back at the reception lodge we unpacked our coolers, bought some drinks, and sat back with each other in their open-air dining area for some lunch. We were just so happy to be somewhere other than our own homes in Lilongwe.

Just before leaving the Reserve, we popped over to the Sunset Deck (even though it was not sunset – as we are not allowed to drive outside of the capital after dark), as it overlooked a watering hole. There were a few birds but nothing else…until my friend AS looks out in the distance, and, I kid you not, spots the Reserve’s sole giraffe at least half a mile away in a treeline. We drive over, park, and after a short walk through the trees emerged onto grassland standing some 15-20 feet from a herd of zebra, sable antelope, and the giraffe. Icing on the cake.

A room with a view: Chawani Bungalow, Satemwa Tea Estate

After that weekend, the Embassy announced we would be able to take overnight trips again, though still with restrictions (only self catering or takeaway), and I knew I had to find something, somewhere for the Labor Day weekend. A little over a year before, friends and I had planned a getaway to the self-catering Chawani Bungalow at the Satemwa Tea Estates over the 2019 Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately, the lead-up to Malawi’s general elections that year made it quite clear that in my position, I would not be going anywhere at the time (indeed I ended up working nights and through the weekend). I talked with my friends and they were game, then checked with the Estate and it was available, and I began planning again.

It is a five hour drive from our part of Lilongwe to the Satemwa Tea Estate in Thyolo District, in the deep south of the country. Previously, when I made the trip with my aunt we made a few stops along the way, yet this time we made only one short stop at the Chikondi Stopover – a well known shop and bathroom break approximately halfway between Lilongwe and Blantyre. Otherwise, we were on a mission! And after only those short drives to the store or the Embassy for months on end, that five hour drive to the tea estate went by in a flash.

A brief late afternoon walk on this path behind the bungalow – restorative beauty

C and I had been to Satemwa before, but our friends had not yet been, so we were eager to share this wonderful place with them. The Chawani Bungalow, an historic tea planter’s cottage, is nestled within the heart of the Satemwa Tea Estate, between tall trees and verdant rolling hills of tea shrubs. Its expansive gardens full of flowers and its lawn a massive tree perfect for kids to climb.

We did little. We made and ate meals together. The kids ran or biked around the yard and jumped into the pool — even though a final Malawian winter cold snap had dropped the temps to not-pool-weather-chilly. We went for walks along wooded paths, along the red-dirt lanes, among the tea. We gathered in the main living space before a warm fireplace with tea and chatted. We fired up the braai (southern African for grill) for a family-style picnic. We had high tea on the lawn of Huntingdon House and took the kids on a scavenger hunt. The kids climbed trees and fed the fish at the Huntingdon House pond. We got to know one another.

Satemwa trees — kids in a climbing tree; kids dwarfed by giant Blue Gum trees

For the first time in a long time I felt “normal.” Seeing and being with other people face to face (not on Zoom or Google Meet calls), without masks, just enjoying one another’s company. And, of course, being away from Lilongwe, having a change of scenery.

Returning to work that week I did feel let down. That taste of almost pre-Covid normalcy, of a holiday, that had been so sweet on my tongue over the weekend turned a wee bit bitter. I longed for more. I had not had more than a single day off since our winter wonderland trip to Europe the previous December, and pre-Covid feels so very long ago.

Our super fabulous Superior Family Cottage

Luckily I anticipated just such a post-getaway pandemic funk and had organized yet one more mini vacation with friends for the weekend after. This time, we headed to Blue Zebra, a small lodge on Nankoma Island, part of Marelli Archipelago, within Lake Malawi National Park. Just 15 minutes by speed boat from the shore, its like a world away.

Bumping along the choppy waves — and yes, Lake Malawi has waves, its a huge lake (3rd largest in Africa and 10th largest in the world) — we laughed and felt a carefree-ness we had not felt in awhile. I had booked the largest guest chalet on the island for myself, my daughter, her tutor, and tutor’s sister (who all live at my friend’s home — the daughters of her housekeeper — thus within our Covid isolation bubble). We had been so few places this year I was fully embracing the “go big or go home” philosophy. The large cottage has two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and wrap around porch with another large dining table. With all these tables we were able to have all our meals together at our Cottage instead of in the Lodge’s dining area. The things we have to think of to travel in the time of Covid…

Blue Zebra Views — (left) the view from our Cottage porch and (right) the view from the pool to an exclusive lakeside dining area

We tried to make the most of our time — trying to find that balance between relaxation in a new setting (just listening to the lapping water) and having fun. We spent time at the pool, hung out in the game room playing billiards (well as well as one can with adult amateurs and children) and trivia, talking and game playing at meals, and kayaking. We had just over 24 hours on the island — arriving around 11:30 on one day and leaving at 2 PM the following. It was too short of time.

It was a great getaway– absolutely. Even just the two hours in the car each way singing to our CDs (yes, CDs, because I have a 2006 Japanese vehicle that picks up only one Malawian radio station, and internet data roaming is poor), was wonderful. But I will say that the Monday after that last trip, my mood dropped precipitously. To take these trips I took no time off.

A spectacled weaver (?) in the marsh grasses around Nankoma Island

Limited commercial flights returned to Malawi on Saturday, September 5, the first such flights since the borders closed to all but special charter flights or buses since April 1. But restrictions remain — limits to the number of interactions with others, mandatory mask usage, and no dining-in at restaurants domestically, and Covid testing and quarantines for international arrivals, for example. I am so grateful that we did have a chance to get out with friends, though I am desperate for more travel freedoms. Still, we may not have sidewalks or amusement parks, but what Malawi does have is pretty spectacular.