Malawi: Settling In…At Last


Home Sweet Home

We have been in Malawi for six months!  Long before coming here, I knew this first six months would be crucial and it would not be easy.  I knew reaching this milestone would be very important for both myself and my daughter — to finally put 2017, the year of two intercontinental moves, three countries on three continents, two jobs plus training, two schools, two nannies, one childcare center, and so much more behind us.  So often colleagues told me (warned me?) that it would take at least six months to be comfortable in the new job and country.  In my previous government assignments in Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, it did not take me so long to acclimate; I felt comfortable within three months.  That did not happen here.  Not even close.


99 boxes of stuff in the hall, 99 boxes of stuff… (actually only 91 boxes)

In the Foreign Service we seem to have an uncanny ability to forget how incredibly difficult it is to move each and every time, how difficult it is to arrive at a new place and wait weeks, if not months, before making the new house a home.  It is a defense mechanism.  If we remembered, perhaps we could not keep doing it.  We arrived in mid-August.  Amazingly, just 12 days later our Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB) arrived.  Even more incredible is my Household Effects (HHE) arrived from Shanghai, via a storage facility in Europe, in mid-September.  It was not until November that my supplemental HHE from the U.S. arrived after its epic journey from my apartment in Arlington, VA to the port at Baltimore, MD, then by boat to Beira, Mozambique, where it was loaded onto a truck and driven to Lilongwe.  Every day that passed C and I became more comfortable with our lives in Malawi, with the school, with work, with the grocery stores, with the ways to get around town.  The first time I drove to C’s school she guided me based on what she had seen out the school bus window.  The first time I figured out the other way to the supermarket was like winning the lottery.


First room completed – C’s jungle bathroom

It was slow going.  New job.  New position.  New country.  New continent.  New colleagues.  New car.  New house.

In the Foreign Service, at the vast majority of posts, where you will live is mostly out of your hands.  We do fill out a housing survey to help direct the Housing Board in making their decision — but this is my fourth move with the government and every survey I have completed was fairly basic: your name, position, rank, family size, and maybe an area for few requests (near the school? shorter commute? pool or no?).  The Housing Board will do its best to assign you but are limited by when you arrive and what houses are available at that time.   At some posts, like Malawi, the pool of houses is tight, so there may only be one or two available when you roll into town and you are probably not the only person showing up then either.  And the houses available in each place is only as good as the local construction allows — in many countries/cultures built in closets may be non-existent or hall closets a luxury.  A bathtub might be really hard to get.  Or medicine cabinets or outlets in the bathroom.  Storage space may be plentiful or nowhere to be found.


C’s play room

Building codes or shoddy construction practices or local preference may present you with some fairly interesting housing designs.  In Jakarta I had a room in the middle of my house.  Yes, right in the middle.  Four walls, no windows.  In Juarez there was no insulation in my bedroom floor, which sat right above the garage.  In the winter the floors were like walking on ice.  I had a patio but the cemented part of the patio was reached via a rock garden where scorpions lay hidden.  In Shanghai there were no hall closets to hang coats and all our bedroom closet doors were made of leather.  Yes, leather doors.  My cats liked those.  I did not so much like paying the $200 for damages and the inventive plastic cover I had custom made to protect them.


My red and white (and horrid cabinet) kitchen

Our home in Malawi certainly has its quirks.  There are no outlets in the bathrooms.  So I plug my hair dryer in an outlet next to my bed where if I stretch out the cord I can check myself from a distance in the bathroom mirror.  The kitchen cabinets appear not to have been updated since the house was built, probably in the 70s, the off-white paint with wooden trim makes me think of wood paneled station wagons of the time period.  I hate them.  And they either do not close or they close so well I have to use all my strength to yank them open.  There is no hall closet anywhere near the front door though there is a nice built in wooden cabinet where I can store shoes and other random items — though when you look inside it seems about half of the back of the cabinet has been eaten away.  Luckily, I expect no one will ever look inside but me.  There is an odd bench-thing that divides my living room from the dining room.  I puzzle over its purpose and how I feel about it.  For C’s birthday party I used it to place some food and drinks but with kids it just seemed like I was asking for an accident.  Usually C uses it as a play platform — it can be the savanna in the Lion Guard or the forest for princesses or a surface to launch off cars.  We have a non-functioning fire place in the living room as well.  And our corrugated roofs… during hard rain the sound is so deafening we cannot hear each other speak and when the large ubiquitous black and white pied crows scamper around on top they sound like pterodactyls.


C’s Moana inspired bedroom

Our bedrooms are small-ish and boxy.  And there is little wall space to hang pictures or artwork.  One side is all closet and a built in desk with mirror, one side is all window, and one side has to fit the bed with large frame to hang the mosquito net.  It is the same configuration in all three bedrooms.  I lose the fourth wall in the master bedroom to the dresser, the built in mirror, the door to the bathroom, and the door to the room.  There is only one small space to hang anything.  I know, why should I complain?  I have a built in desk and mirror.  I have LOADS of closet space.  And I have three bedrooms for two people.  I am honestly not complaining — just giving the facts, ma’am.


The dining room.  Same old, same old furniture.  Zambia wall hanging, chair covers (because the cats like the chair backs too much) and my knickknacks in the China cabinet make it mine

As is usual for Foreign Service homes we have bars on all our windows.  We have bug netting attached to all our windows, which I assume is par the course for mosquito prone countries.   And like most homes in the Foreign Service we have the same old tried and true, and much maligned Drexel Heritage furniture.  Although I did not have this furniture in Shanghai (as we had furniture provided by the apartment complex), I have had this same furniture in Jakarta, Juarez, and now Malawi.  In one way it is comforting to know exactly what the dressers, dining room tables, side tables, china cabinets, sideboards, desks, chairs, sofas and more will look like.  Although I have little to no idea how my house might really look until I arrive, the furniture is not a mystery.  I plan decor around the furniture.


Exhibit A

However, it can be really hard for friends and family to understand this lifestyle.  I have never picked out my own home.  Although some people paint, I have never done so and just use my wall art to change things up (you have to paint it back white before you leave).  With the exception of a few accent pieces, I do not bring or choose my furniture.   Sometimes we might be able to give some pieces back or exchange, but at some posts you cannot.  See exhibit A: the “between room.”  Another quirk of this house is this random room.  It is located between the living room and the room I have designated as C’s play room.  It has only two walls; it has no doors.  It has two cute, but strangely located windows.  It had the same boring but functional beige curtains found all over our house, in every single government provided housing I have had (again with that Shanghai exception).  It has an odd cut out in one wall and a built in shelf in the stucco of one of the walls.  It has plastic wiring covers snaking across the walls and a few oddly placed spot lights.  It’s weird.  I know.  But it is the house I have to live in for a few years and I must make the most of it.  But the picture I posted on my Facebook drew the ire of friends and family.  It is ugly!  Get rid of ALL that furniture!  Get a rug!  Throw away the curtains! The lamps and spotlights are dumb — get rid of those too!  People did not understand that A. I had changed out that sofa.  Initially it had been brown.  The same exact not-so-fetching brown as the sofas in the living room.  I thought this mustard an improvement.  In fact, knowing what was available in the warehouse, I had requested it!  and B. the photo represented my completed attempt at decoration and not a plea for help and design tips.


Our living room with its unusual divider

But, here we are at last.  Six months, one quarter of the way, into my two year tour in Malawi.  Just now we are beginning to feel settled — in no small part because we have finally made our quirky, randomly assigned house into our home.  There is much to love about it.  From the wonderful enclosed but open air porch or konde where in the morning I sit quietly meditating and hear the sweet chirps and tweets and caws of no less than ten types of bird song and where I have had many a satisfying afternoon nap in my hammock.  To our high ceilings, pitched in the living room.  My daughter loves her Moana-inspired bedroom and does not care about the curtains or the carpet or the lack of wall space.  She and her friends love the play room (and let’s be honest the living room too — do not let that photo fool you, normally it is covered with toys).  No one else has to love it, just C and I.  And we know we are lucky to call this house and Malawi our home.



Single Parent Dilemma: The Business Trip

woman with suitcaseIt may come as a surprise to some that I spent more than six years working in the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer without going on an overnight business trip.  I managed  due to a combination of my positions and locations (serving as a Consular Officer in two large high volume visa posts — i.e. my job was identical to that of 30-40 other officers) and personal choice.  There were certainly opportunities for travel.  While serving in Ciudad Juarez colleagues regularly took part in the Mission Mexico “swap” program in which Consular Officers at different posts would change places for a month.  So for instance an officer in Juarez would go to Guadalajara to adjudicate visas and a counterpart there would come to Juarez.  In swaps you also swapped homes, even cars.  There were also the occasional TDY (temporary duty = business trip) opportunities to places like Las Vegas for a trade show or Baja in support of G-20 (occurred a few months before my arrival), and even trips to Cairo and other far-flung locals.   Shanghai too had opportunities, many similar: Mission China swaps, TDYs to India and Haiti, and travel to Hangzhou in support of the G-20.

I could have volunteered.  A few well meaning, though generally childless, colleagues would offer various scenarios.  It would not have been impossible, just quite difficult.  In Juarez with an infant, and later in Shanghai with a preschooler, a nanny, and pets, swapping presented a more logistical and financial challenge for me than for my single or married colleagues.  I also rationalized that given the majority of the opportunities presented were basically doing visas in another place, I could simply continue to do work hard on visas and other tasks where I was assigned.  These choices I made may have cost me tenure the first time around and later promotion; it is hard to tell.  But, they were the best choices for myself and my daughter at the time.

Fast forward to Malawi.  Here I am in a different position.  I am no longer one of dozens of Consular Officers; I am the sole Political Officer.  Though I bid this position high due to the family-friendly atmosphere and the reported work-life balance, I knew it would be inevitable that travel would come up.  It may be a small nation, and this presents opportunities to really learn the issues and see a good part of the country, yet there is so much happening here and as the Political Officer I must get out and about on occasion.  What I had not expected were three TDYs in three months; to what essentially worked out to be three trips in seven weeks.

Trip One

mother and daughterFor my first trip it would be just three days and two nights within Malawi.  In late October I joined my locally-employed colleague on a familiarization trip to the southern Malawi cities of Blantyre and Zomba.  Lilongwe may be Malawi’s capital since 1975 but Zomba, the original colonial capital, and Blantyre, the business and judiciary center, together make a triumvirate of modern Malawi’s social, cultural, and political scene.    We would depart Lilongwe early on a Tuesday for the four hour drive to Blantyre and take meetings all day beginning with a lunch meeting and ending with a dinner meeting.  The following day would be spent 2/3 in Blantyre and then we would travel to Zomba to stay at the Embassy cottage that evening.  Original plans for a dinner meeting in town were scrapped due to the ongoing bloodsucker situation.  The final day would be a half day of meetings in Zomba before the nearly 4 1/2 hour drive back to Lilongwe.  Easy peasy, right?

Well, first when traveling as a single parent in the Foreign Service, you need to fill out a few items of paperwork when away from home but leaving family members, especially children, behind.  There is the usual out-of-town locator all employees must complete when traveling.  For all those folks who do not work for the government overseas, think about having to complete a form every single time you take a personal or professional trip.  In the event of an emergency, Post must be able to account for all personnel.  If heaven forbid an airplane or train crashes or a boat capsizes or there is a vehicle crash, Post needs to know if personnel traveling in the area may have been on board or on that road.  Security and facility personnel need to know who is or is not at your residence.  Even payroll needs to know in case pay needs to be adjusted.  It is one of the less-than-glorious aspects of Foreign Service life.  On top of the usual away-from-home forms a single parent needs to complete a Power of Attorney and a Medical form for the staying-behind-child or children.  I also left behind a contact list of friends and family…just in case.  Along with my daughter’s passport in an accessible spot.

I had asked a colleague if she would mind serving as Power of Attorney and the Medical back-up and she said no problem and then even suggested my daughter stay at her house.  She has a daughter just a year older and with whom my daughter likes to play with.  A sleepover!  This would be very exciting for C.  Her only other sleepovers have been one night at her aunt’s in NY, one night at her grandparent’s in NY, several times at her father’s in KY, and one week at my sister’s in VA last summer.  This would be the first time not with family.  She could. not. wait.  This did involve me having to pack her suitcase — full of school clothes (including uniforms and P.E. clothing) and play clothes.  I also had to contact the school bus to give instructions to pick up at my house on Tuesday morning, deliver her to the other house on Tuesday afternoon, all day Wednesday at the other house, Thursday morning at the other house, and Thursday afternoon drop back at our home.  The bus went off without a hitch, but I cannot say I wasn’t worried.

Though initially nervous about leaving my daughter, once on the road I did feel a wee bit of a sense of freedom wash over me.  Then I came back down to Earth.  It was a work trip after all.  But it was not too long.  It would all be okay.  However, unexpectedly that evening I received a call from my colleague.  My normally very independent daughter, who has been left with babysitters in many a city as I ran half marathons (always fingerprinted, bonded, licensed sitters), was on her third nanny, and also previously spent time at two child care centers, a preschool, and just started Kindergarten, who had NEVER had separation anxiety before, was crying because she missed her mom.  She told my colleague she could not sleep because normally she snuggles with her mom before bed.  My heart broke.  I called the following night and talked with C again.  My colleague told me C had said she could not sleep because she had left all her dreams in a dresser drawer at home.  I smiled at her creativity, but felt guilty too.  Soon enough though I was back in Lilongwe and apparently forgiven.

Trip Two

mother daughter goodbyeIn November I flew to Harare, Zimbabwe for five days and four nights to participate in some professional training.  This time I made the decision for my daughter to remain at our home with the nanny.  (Yes, I have a nanny.  And she lives on property.)  While my daughter had mostly enjoyed her two nights sleepover at her friend’s house, working out the bus schedule and packing her bag did add an extra layer of work for me.  Besides just feeling too tired and lazy to go the extra mile, it was also a big ask for my (extremely kind) colleague.   By staying at our home C also had access to all her clothes, toys, usual foods, and familiarity.  Well, all the familiarity a child could establish in a home she had lived in for all of three months, with our household goods from the US not yet arrived in country.   Additionally, the nanny was eager to demonstrate she could do the job and I wanted to give her the opportunity.

This time, instead of departing after my daughter headed off to school, I left on a Sunday morning.  I had to say goodbye to my daughter at the front door and her sad little face looking up at me tugged at my heart strings.  Though once I arrived at the beautiful bed and breakfast in Harare, I did feel a wee bit better.  On both Sunday and Monday evening I called the nanny using What’s App.  This time C did not want to talk to me.  She reluctantly came to the phone,  then giggled, and ran off.  When I made the nanny get her back on the phone, C sniffled and told me how much she missed me.  After I let her go I asked the nanny if she was faking.  She was.  It seemed her staying at home had been the right choice.  She was more comfortable.

Tuesday evening tanks rolled into Harare.  Well how about that?  In all the single parent travel scenarios I had envisioned I had not thought through what to do in the event of a coup d’état.   At least, I supposed, the government takeover was in Zimbabwe and not Malawi.  It directly affected me and not my daughter.  Although the outcome was unknown for awhile — we were confined to our B&B on Wednesday and escorted to the airport in armored vehicles through the military checkpoint on Thursday — the coup ultimately turned out to be one the most peaceful ever.  Still I was glad to get out when I did.  Landing back in Lilongwe and returning to the house and C was the first time I felt Malawi was home.

Trip Three

mother daughter welcome homeIn December I had to fly back to Virginia for three days of training.  It is a loooooong trip from Lilongwe to Virginia and I had no intention on leaving behind a not-yet-6-year-old.  So, for the third of three business trips C would come with me.  There would then be no need to fill out the medical and power of attorney forms.  No need to arrange to leave her behind.  But, I would need buy her plane ticket out-of-pocket and arrange child care while I was in training.  Child care is not particularly easy to find in the Washington DC area in the best of circumstances, and becomes a little trickier in less than ideal situations.  Though I would be taking my course at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia, I opted to again stay out in Herndon, close to my parents, my sister, and the school/daycare my daughter had attended three years before.  As a State Department employee I would also have access to up to five days of emergency back-up child care.  I would have options.  Just as I was planning to begin my babysitter search my parents let me know they would be available.  Thank goodness!  For three full days she had time with her grandparents and then her cousins when they came home from school.  It turned out to be a crazy quick trip but I was glad to have C along with me on the adventure.

Three months, three different business trips, and three different single parent solutions.  We both survived them.  After a wee bit of no travel time we may be ready for another.


The Holidays in Lilongwe

1. Holidays

I do not always carve watermelons for Halloween, but when I do, my carving is awesome

I grew up in the US and had the usual holidays.  My mother used to sew our Halloween costumes.  She asked my sisters and I what we wanted to be several months before and then made it.  We trick or treating door to door in our neighborhood.  When I was younger, my aunt, and grandparents would come to our home for Thanksgiving dinner.  Once we realized we were not huge turkey fans we switched to our favorite: chicken schnitzel.  My mother made her own advent calendar and we made cookies and made crafts leading up to Christmas.

But there is a strangeness to moving frequently that challenges holiday traditions.  One never knows what will be available from one country to the next and what local customs may or may not exist.  We have to get creative.  Also, in the Foreign Service most of us head to a new post over the summer, and as we are struggling to settle in to new schools, new jobs, new homes, new routines, the holidays of autumn arrive.  One after another.

Prior to arriving in Lilongwe, C and I had already decided on her costume for Halloween.  She would either be Wonder Woman or a genie / belly dancer; one was packed in our UAB (unaccompanied baggage), arriving not long we we did, the other was ordered in August to arrive many weeks before the big day.  About a week before the holiday, the Embassy hosted a family-friendly snacks and happy hour with BYOP (Bring Your Own Pumpkin) for carving.  As the day approached I wracked my brain for where I might buy a pumpkin.  I vaguely recalled having seen something pumpkin-like at a supermarket.  But which one, I did not remember.  And, thinking back, the pumpkins had been white or green, but definitely not orange.  I asked around.  People were not sure.  An orange pumpkin seemed a tall order.  On the other hand, watermelons were in season and sold at regular spots alongside the road… Our first Halloween in Malawi also turned out to be my first time ever watermelon carving.  It turned out almost every had the same idea.  It also turned out that carving a watermelon is a little easier than carving a pumpkin, and the insides are more immediately consumable.

2. Holidays (1)

My “very confused holiday” trunk or treating decoration representing Halloween, Easter, Christmas, Birthdays, and Valentine’s.

The Embassy also arranged a little “trunk or treating” and party for the community.  I have now learned that other posts do this, but it was my first experience with it.  In Juarez there was trick or treating at the Consulate and in Shanghai residents of our apartment complex signed up with apartment management to give out candy.  In Malawi, we all live in free standing houses and although none of us live more than 15 minutes drive from another, we are somewhat spread out.  With trunk or treating, approximately 20 community members volunteered (me included!) to decorate the trunks of their vehicles.  The cost of admission for each trick or treater was a bag of candy.  Then bags of candy were distributed to each trunk decorator so there was plenty to go around.  Trunk decorators parked at the party location and kids trick or treated from trunk to trunk.  There was PLENTY of candy to go around, especially as kids could visit every vehicle in twenty minutes or less and then circle back around and do it all over again.  I had a few visitors come by about ten times!

Halloween in Malawi this year had an extra wrinkle.  Starting in September, rumors of supernatural “bloodsuckers” began in the southern part of the country.  Over the course of approximately two months, the rumors spread, accompanied by vigilante justice to capture, and even kill, those suspected of either being bloodsuckers or their associates.  While this may seem rather unbelievable–the rumors and the violent response–it was all too real and had a sobering effect on our work and celebrations.  The international school cancelled the costume dress up day; the Embassy cancelled an evening party; and I kept my scarier decorations in a box at home and came up with something else.

3. Holidays

Not my usual Thanksgiving tableau

For Thanksgiving C and I stayed in town.  There is just the two of us and I am not really much of a cook.  Certainly not Thanksgiving dinner kind of cooking.  You know, a meal that involves more than two dishes.  The Embassy Community Liaison Officer organized a event at a nearby lodge with a restaurant set by a pool and among gardens.  There, in 80 degree weather, approximately 20 of us met up for swimming and lounging poolside and a custom-made dinner.  The hotel staff did a pretty good job re-creating a traditional meal complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn on the cob.  The corn unfortunately was too tough / too raw to eat, but everything else was quite good.

Then of course the Christmas season followed.  Unlike other places I have lived overseas, Malawi went full on Christmas-mode.  In late October I headed to the Shoprite supermarket at Gateway Mall for some grocery shopping.  There the entrance was decorated in all its holiday splendor – a Christmas tree, gigantic tinsel arches, large dangling ornaments, and even a huge silver bow.  Inside there were two aisles of plastic trees, tinsel, lights, tree topping stars, Santa and elf costumes, and loads of wrapping paper.  Wrapping gifts would be no problem. Getting them is a little bit more work.  In late October the Embassy mail room notified the Embassy community that in order to ensure delivery for Christmas orders would need to be received at the mail facility in Virginia by November 10!   Impromptu gift shopping can be tricky for many of us overseas. Not even a chance to use Black Friday deals for Christmas gifts.

4. Holidays

Gingerbread house in the subtropics

C and I headed back to the US in early December; I had training. The stores there too were chock full of Christmas.  As usual the back corner of Target was as if Santa’s workshop had exploded.  C wanted ALL the Christmas decorations.  In particular, she wanted a three foot tall light-up lawn unicorn.   I tried to explain that it would not fit in the suitcase.  And that the plug and voltage would not work in Malawi.  And finally, that in America people decorate their lawns for other people to see, but we had a high wall all the way around our house.  C said that without that unicorn it would be the WORST Christmas EVER! But she also desperately wanted a gingerbread house, so I bought one.  I put it in the suitcase, snug so that it would not get crushed, and transported it the two flights and 17 hours back to Lilongwe.  Not a piece broken. C said it would be the BEST Christmas EVER!

We missed the Embassy Christmas parties, but returned in time for our own Christmas celebrations. We made the gingerbread house.  We put up our tree and decorated it–C had insisted I trade in the small tree I bought in Shanghai for a larger one, so I had purchased a five foot fake in the US and brought in my household goods shipment.  I hung up our stockings, with two new stocking holders just bought at Target — great for those who have no idea if they will have a fireplace or anything resembling one as they regularly shift around the world.  And I began the my tradition of the weeks of gifts for C.  We also prepared gift baskets for the staff.  I know, I still feel weird saying–and writing–that I have staff.  But it is a reality for many in the Foreign Service and there is no reason to pretend otherwise.  I had initially not been sure what to include thinking I might get something special while back in the States.  But I learned that what most people want are the staples – rice, sugar, salt, cooking oil, biscuits for tea – because Christmas in Malawi is about food and family.  I really enjoyed buying the baskets and the contents and assembling them, though giving was most definitely the best part.  Because I spend so much time overseas and even when back in the US my family has opted for the past several Christmases to do a gift exchange, it had been a long time since I had given gifts to so many people.

5. Holidays

The Christmas baskets

Then we headed to Majete for Christmas.  New Year’s was a quiet affair for us.  We headed out again to Gateway Mall – the closest thing to come to a US-style mall in Lilongwe.  C rode a motorized animal and we goofed off in the equivalent of the dollar store.  At home we had ice cream and watched The Goonies.  C, snuggled up against me on the couch, dozed off long before midnight — probably a good thing because when 2018 rolled around it sounded as if the neighborhood was under attack.  I hugged her tight.  Our holidays here, and our first five months, were different, but pretty okay.

Travel to and Arrival in Malawi: On Bugs, Hyenas, Darkness, and Home


Our new home! A view of our backyard our very first morning in Malawi

We made it to Malawi!

And when I say “we” I mean myself, my daughter, our two cats, and all our luggage.  There were more than a few times I thought this day would not come.

Departure Comes at Last.

Those last few weeks before departure are madness. I find myself questioning my choices regarding packing — I seem to have kept back way too much clothing for the final two weeks, and odd choices at that.  We eat out more because the food supplies at home are dwindling.  And the procedures for another international cat transport move into high gear.

Oh boy, the cats.  I love them.  But nothing tests that love more than when it comes to crunch time before the move.  To get the cats to Malawi I need to first have reservations on the flight.  That was hugely challenging because the Ethiopian Airlines call center appears to have no idea what I want.  It took a month of emails and phone calls to finally get the cats a reservation.  A little more than two weeks out, in desperation, I call Ethiopian Airlines at Dulles Airport where someone in baggage answers.  This person gives me the same number I have been calling repeatedly with no result for weeks.  When I lament this turn of events he says, “What if I gave you the direct number of some international ticketing supervisors?”  I, sir, would nominate you for Man of the Year.  Two of the three supervisors lines when direct to voice mail, but the third, a hero in my book, not only answered her phone but had corrected my problem within 24 hours.  But then the fun really began.


The money is going to take some getting used to.  I needed this stack to open up my Internet.

In order to transport the cats internationally, I must have a USDA-APHIS certified vet conduct an examination certifying they are healthy enough for travel.  For Malawi, this must be conducted no more than 10 days before the flight.  Those examinations and paperwork, to the tune of $210, must then be scanned and emailed to Malawi where a Ministry will issue me an import certificate.  That takes a few days.  And then those docs are mailed back to me.  I receive them three days before departure.  Stress nearing critical mass.

Also three days before departure I am notified that the housing we had originally been assigned is now unavailable due to necessary upgrades.  The housing I had the pictures of since April.  The housing I had purchased items for since May.  Nothing to be done about it.  Oh, and I also receive an email informing me my car – bought and shipped from Japan – has a flat tire, a dead battery, and no gas.  I must take a deep breath.  Several. Its time to be Foreign Service Flexible again.  As always.


A restaurant around the corner from my Malawi home.  I am highly likely to become a regular

Finally, it is the eve of departure.  I am in training until 4 PM.  I pick up C from her final day of international preschool, we ride the shuttle home, and the final packing begins in earnest.  As I fill suitcases to the brim I take them to the car.  C — trying to be helpful as we catch the cats to put in their carriers — somehow locks the bathroom door.  I then have to go to the front desk to see if their is still a locksmith available after 5 PM.  Luckily there is.  Packing the car proves troublesome.  I had a Honda Civic — a loan from my father.  There is the car seat in the back.  And two large cat carriers.  And four suitcases – two small, one medium, one large.  And a stroller.  And two backpacks.  I pack one of the two apartment keys somewhere…thus incurring a US$50 fine in our last hour at the apartment.  We had arranged dinner with my family at 6:30 PM near Dulles Airport, near the hotel where we would stay, 45 minutes away from our apartment.  We finally depart at 6:45.  We miss dinner with the family though they buy us food and meet us at the hotel.

Departure day: 11 AM flight.  We have to check in around 7:30 AM with the cats.  We are up at 5:30.  Around 6:30 AM my brother drops off my dad, who will take us to the airport in his car.  We determined the night before we cannot go in one car, so my aunt loads the cats in hers and we caravan to the airport.

And then suddenly it is happening.  Cats’ flight fees paid.  Cats’ examination by TSA and then they are whisked away.  We check in.  Security.  And off we are to Addis Ababa.  There I ask to see the cats, as we had been told at Dulles we could see them in transit.  We are told no.  Boarding in Addis is hectic and confusing.  But when I ask a flight attendant on our Malawi flight about the cats, she confirms with ground staff they are on board.  I make her confirm they are also ALIVE.  Four hours later we are landing in Lilongwe.  As the plan descends, I can see no proof from the air that a city is anywhere nearby.  But there is an airport.  Blurry-eyed we deplane.  We are met by P from the Embassy.  I have been in contact with him for months.  It is so good to see a friendly face.  He helps whisk us through customs and immigration.  He helps at the baggage carousel, where I am surprised to see two large pet carriers with mewing cats come along.  They made it!  Our social sponsor and daughter met us outside to whisk us to our new home.

sterilizing fruit

Sterilizing fruit

First impressions and challenges.

I have traveled to approximately 100 countries around the world, but the vast majority of those have been in Asia and Europe.  Next would probably be Central America and the Caribbean.  On the African continent I have visited only Tunisia, Egypt, and South Africa, for 10 days as a tourist in 2010.  I am not sure anything compares to Lilongwe.

The moving process is never easy.  No matter how many times I have done this, arriving at a new home, filled with Embassy-provided furniture, and a welcome kit of pots and pans, bland towels and sheets, but devoid of anything personal, never seems to get easier.  Our social sponsor had filled our fridge with food essentials, drinks, and prepared meals.  Yet this is the first time I have arrived somewhere I could not just go out on my own to shop on day one.  I felt very out of sorts.

Buggy Friends

Our place in Lilongwe is about as different from Shanghai as can be.  We traded in a small, but swank high-rise apartment, on one of Old Shanghai’s oldest, and happening, streets, where we are surrounded by luxury stores and international supermarkets, to a large single ranch style home on approximately a half acre of land, which though located in one residential nucleus of the new city, there are few buildings over two stories in the city.  We went from the largest city in the world with a population of over 24 million people, to a city of approximately one million.  In Shanghai we had little interaction with bugs.  I am sure there are plenty of insects in the city, but rarely did we encounter them.  Never before had I received this email: We have been notified there is a swarm of bees at your house and we are sending someone. Or this phone call: Ma’am, your guard informed us there is a swarm of wasps at your house; we are sending someone. Nor did I have to submit a housing work order like this: There is a termite nest on my property; please send someone to take care of it.  In our four weeks, we have also had ants, crickets, beetles, and cockroaches attempt to make our acquaintance.  The last, unfortunately, has been a source of glee for C, who after seeing the Disney movie Wall-e believes roaches to be pet material.  She named the first one, no kidding, “Dead.”  And I agreed it was a fitting name.


Seems romantic but our nets are a necessity

There are of course also mosquitoes.  Though we encountered these in both Juarez and Shanghai, this is the first place I have lived that is critical for malaria.  C and I take malaria prophylaxis daily and we sleep under nets.  Our arrival coincided with the cool season so we have not yet had many mosquito sightings, but as the hot and wet season comes, this will change.

These however have been the extent of our bonding with nature’s creatures thus far.  Well except also for a few lizards.  I do not mind them at all.  It is the snakes that I worry about.  And the hyenas.  Lilongwe is one of, if not the, only African capital where hyenas roam.  One colleague pointed out a corner where hyenas like to congregate, not far from the US Embassy.  Another told me of a recent evening when he came across an injured hyena, who had been struck by a car.  I have yet to hear their high-pitched sounds at night, but I expect it to be only a matter of time.


Believe it or not but this is a main thoroughfare in the capital.  The streetlights though are for show.  They do not come on.

A Place for Early Risers

I am a night owl.  My daughter is a night owl.  Malawi is probably more a place for early birds.  The sun rises around 5:45 AM and sets 12 hours later, before 6 PM.  C’s school begins at 7:15 AM and her bus picks her up around 6:30.  I wake her up at 5:30, before the sun has risen.  I wake up 15 to 30 minutes before.  Embassy hours begin at 7:30.  We wake up and go to sleep in darkness.  And it gets very, very dark here.  I appreciate the lack of light pollution.  In Shanghai night was never truly dark.  From our window there were hundreds of thousands of lights visible throughout the night.  Here, it is pitch black by 6:30 PM, with little light to pierce it.

We once walked from our home to a nearby Italian restaurant, located around the corner, at 5:30 PM.  Many restaurants and businesses operate out of people’s homes and are located in residential areas.  I generally would say 5:30 is early for dinner, but of course 15 minutes later the sun went down, and by the time we began our walk home an hour later it was like deep night.  Though we live just around the corner, less than five minutes walk, we stumbled blindly back.  There are few streetlights, and the only light that cut through the darkness were the security lights from my own property, projecting just a little over the high wall of my property.


Embassies take security of their personnel seriously.  I am used to living with bars on my windows and concertina wire around a property.  I am used to regular tests of our Embassy-provided radios to ensure we know how to operate them to contact and be contacted by Post One, usually the Marines but sometimes the Regional Security Officer, in the event of an emergency.  We take part in drills.  It is par the course as a Foreign Service Officer and their family members.  Shanghai though was different.  Living in a leased apartment in a high rise, we were without the window bars, without the radios, without the concertina wire.  Now we are back to that and more.  As this is my first time to live in this kind of housing, it takes some getting used to having a guard on the property 24/7.  To have the floodlights scattered around the yard.  And to have so many, many locks.   All told I have something to the tune of 43 locks: 16 door bolts, 12 doors with keys, and 15 locks on closets and cabinets.  This does not count the locks for the garden gate, the garden sheds, the garage.  We are certainly security conscious.

Just the beginning

It is a little hard to believe we have already been in Malawi a month. I struggle daily with not knowing things– not knowing how to drive to places, not knowing where to buy things, not knowing so many aspects of my job, not knowing many things about the city and the country where we now live.  Yet with each day I know more than I did the day before.  And there are so many more adventures to be had.






The DC / NoVA In-Between 2017

The Home Leave honeymoon is over.

And now I am in purgatory.

Just kidding! Well, sort of.  Leaving Shanghai was An End.  And when we depart the US to move to Malawi that represents A Beginning.  The majority of Home Leave was a lovely interlude, a chance to see friends and family, have quality mother-daughter time, re-charge after the previous months of frenzied departure preparations, and see more of our incredible country.  But now we are in the DC area and it feels like neither a beginning nor an end.  It is an interregnum, an interim, an intermission.

We are in the in-between.

I have struggled with writing this blog post because I have struggled to define how I feel. There are just so many things all wrapped up in being back here temporarily at this time.

Nostalgic in the Moment


C’s first time buying from the Ice Cream Man – so MUCH more selection than when I was a kid!

A few weeks after we moved into the temporary apartment in Arlington, we set out for a stroll to a nearby much-lauded playground.  I enjoyed the walk and C very much enjoyed the playground.  C also enjoyed a Spongebob Squarepants creamsicle from the Ice Cream Truck.  I felt transported back to the summers of my childhood when the familiar musical chimes of the truck in my neighborhood had me scurrying back to home to beg my mother for ice cream — and the change to buy it.  I usually went for a Push-Up, an orange creamsicle concoction in a cylinder that you pushed up the tube as you ate, or a red, white, and blue American rocket popsicle.  These days the Ice Cream Man has much more selection and accepts credit cards yet he seemed no less the symbol of a suburban Americana summer.

On the walk home, in the fading summer light, along tree-lined sidewalks, some brick-laid, past the chic residences, restaurants, and stores that make up the mixed-use development area where we live, I suddenly felt sad.  I thought, “I miss this.”  And the thing is I did not think I will miss it, but that I already felt a wistful yearning for what was right there in front of me.  And it is a sensation that has cropped up again and again.

We are in the DC area for a total of twelve weeks (ten weeks of training and the two final weeks of my Home Leave).  While it is the shortest amount of time I have been in the DC area since joining the State Department, it is not an insignificant amount of time.  As an actual chunk of time it is neither short nor long.  Or maybe it is both? I have not been able to decide.  I have swung from feeling that the time is nowhere near long enough to do everything I need/want to do and then to feeling as if the days are far too many.  A few weeks back my daughter summed it up pretty well when she announced Mom, we have been in this apartment hotel TOO long!  It is keeping us from getting to Malawi!


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The unstoppable C makes her way across a wood and cable obstacle at the Adventure Park

In part due to that sense of nostalgia–the feeling of needing to cram in as much Americana as possible, to enjoy the things that were we in the US longer we might come to take for granted (like sidewalks, world class museums, the DC metro)–I have tried to squeeze in as much fun for us as I can.  Despite that we are moving to Africa where safaris abound, I took C to the National Zoo.  It is free and it is amazing and it has animals from all over the world.  C loved it.  We visited the Natural History Museum, a place I visited often as a child on school trips or with my mom and siblings.  Just like me, C wanted to seek out the dinosaurs, Egyptian mummies, and insects.  She still, out of the blue, remarks how the largest and most beautiful of butterflies, the Blue Morpho, landed on her arm in the butterfly exhibit.  My intrepid 5 year old bravely faced the tree-top climbing and zip line courses at the Adventure Park at Sandy Springs.  During my training in West Virginia, C spent the week with her two cousins.  At the end of the week we all met up for a drive-in movie theater experience in Stephens City, Virginia.  My sister and brother-in-law are drive-in movie buffs but it was both C’s and my first time.  Americana.  After I posted a video of C dancing to her newest Shimmer and Shine DVD, a friend mentioned that the following weekend, just days away, AwesomeCom, DC’s answer to ComicCom would be in town and Shimmer and Shine, the twin genies in training that have captured my daughter’s heart, would be there.  I bought us tickets and a few days later we stood in a giant hall in the convention center surrounded by costumed enthusiasts. Next time, C told me, we will also dress up. We attended a baseball game at Nationals Stadium and spent the evening of July 4th watching fireworks over the Washington Mall from the Iwo Jima Memorial in Virginia.  We had dinner with a long time friend of mine at Medieval Times – eating chicken and bread and corn with our hands while watching knights jousting.  Sure knights and princesses are more a European thing, but watching them in this day and age as dining entertainment has got to be Americana, right?  C and I also braved some wall climbing at the very unique Climbzone in Laurel, Maryland.  Despite being one of the smallest climbers, C again tried an impressive number of climbs.  We also enjoyed one of the Cinema in the Park experiences that abound in the DC/VA/MD area in summer. Before the movie, Moana, C had the opportunity to learn hula dancing and get her picture with the Polynesian princess herself. Each one of these experiences have been priceless.

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It might have been cloudy and there was a large tree in the way – but still the view…America!

I have also tried to pack in time with friends and family. We had a special half-birthday for C. Though I started the tradition several years ago given either our lifestyle or C’s January birthday might make it difficult to celebrate on her actual birthday, the half birthday has thus far been a low-key affair. A cupcake with mom and a single present. This year we celebrated the half-birthday big time with a specially ordered cake and a party with her maternal grandparents, grand auntie and grand uncle, two aunts, an uncle, and two cousins. It isn’t often we can celebrate with family.   With friends I have had lunches and brunches and dinners, and when those are not possible, squeezed in conversations in the halls of the Foreign Service Institute or phone calls while we are in the same time zone for once. One of the best parts of being back at FSI is seeing all the familiar faces – former teachers and classmates as well as colleagues from Juarez and Shanghai. And I am incredibly grateful to a group of fit and friendly women from the Sunday morning step aerobics class at the local YMCA who invited me & C to their weekly after-exercise Starbucks gathering. Moving around as much as we do it is rare for me to find a group and much less to be so invited and welcomed.

Killing Me Softly with Bureaucracy

The majority of my time here is spent in training at FSI.  Unlike in the past I have no language training; it is all functional training in courses spanning from a single day to 3 weeks.  Some of my training has been amazing.  Some of it felt as if it were purposely designed around my greatest weaknesses.  Though some could have been better, I certainly have learned a lot and am better prepared for my next assignment than I was when I began in June.  But in all of my training I wish I had had more time to focus on the training itself and less on what I often refer to as my part time job: Moving.


A picture from our Medieval Times dinner.  Just a little jousting.  It is not about bureaucracy.  Or is it??

Preparations for our second intercontinental move of the year has involved all manner of things from scheduling vaccinations, having my travel orders amended to accommodate new training, getting passport photos required by the Embassy in Malawi, and organizing our flights, which includes the cats.  International pet travel is no joke.  None of these things is particularly difficult in its own right – well except getting the cats to Malawi – but in true bureaucratic fashion none were made easy either.

For instance let me tell you about renewing my Department identification.  I work for the State Department.  I have a current badge.  I am in the system.  One might think obtaining a new badge would be straight forward.  But it is not.  One cannot just walk in with a current badge, have someone check in the system that you are in fact an employee in good standing, and then voilà! a new badge.  Our bureaucracy laughs at this naiveté.  Instead we need a form signed by someone in HR.  I obtained the form and headed to the badging office in Arlington.  But I was unsuccessful.  Why?  Because the form had been signed electronically and not with a pen.  I could not get my badge the following week because I started training at FSI – and at the time there was no badging at FSI.  I could not return to the Arlington office or go to DC because the offices are open 9-4 and my training at FSI was 9-5.  Also according to one paper the form signature remained valid for five days, while another form indicated it would be valid for 30, but the badging office told me both were incorrect – it would be valid for ten days.  In the end with a mixture of perseverance and luck I did obtain a new badge, but the ordeal to do so is indicative of how many of my necessary tasks went down.  Do not even get me started on what I went through to get my cats reservations on our flights.  I shutter to recall.

I absolutely know I am not alone in this.  I have stated it before and I will state it again – every single Foreign Service Officer puts a huge amount of effort into getting them and their things, and, if they have them, their family and pets, from Point A to Point B.


In addition to soaking up America, training like a ninja, and working my tail off to get us to our third country of the year, I spent a lot of time, effort, and money in another endeavor: shopping til I dropped!

Your order of Skywalker Trampoline and 47 other items has shipped


The consumable stockpiling.  Will 850 freezer pops really be enough? Inquiring minds want to know.

That is an actual recent email I received.  It would be impressive in and of itself, but it is more so given it was followed in quick succession by:  Your order of Tide Pods Laundry and 48 other items has shipped and Your Body Track Glider and 49 other items have shipped.  You might wonder what possessed me?  Why am I buying out all the things from Amazon? No, I did not suddenly come into an inheritance.  One, Malawi is a Consumables Post, where local conditions make it difficult to obtain the usual consumable items an employee and family would use.  “Consumables” are items that are used up rather than worn out. Consumables are items like food stuffs, household maintenance supplies such as laundry detergent, and personal care items such as shampoo or bubble bath for the kiddo. It can also include items for our furry companions. Two, I had not maxed out our HHE (Household Effects) and given we are moving from Shanghai, where we had a smallish 19th floor apartment, to Malawi where we will have a large home and yard…Well, I wanted to take advantage of our time in the US to purchase a few items, such as a bicycle and trampoline for C (often listed among the top things to bring to African posts) and a rowing machine and FOUR spare tires for myself and our “new to me” car from Japan.

At Consumable Posts employees are authorized up to an astounding 2,500 pounds that can be divided into two shipments, provided they both are shipped within a year of arrival in the country. I have no doubt that some larger families can meet this amount easily. For just the two of us it felt like a challenge. I would find myself in Target or a supermarket pondering questions such as “how much salsa DO I eat in a year?” At first it was kind of fun, but overtime those kinds of decisions grew exasperating. C lost all interest in going to the store with me. I get it; small children have a hard time delaying gratification. These are things we are not only NOT using this summer but would instead only receive 2-3 months after arriving at our new home. That is a long time to wait.  But C even began to beg me to get her a babysitter so she would not have to go with me. Believe you me — I did not want to go shopping anymore either.  And I think it is due to this shopping fatigue that I failed in my pursuit.  Somehow I only managed 555 pounds.

Time to Say Goodbye, or Rather, Hello

We are now just days away from departure. The to-do list is basically done. We are no longer shopping. What we have now has to fit into our suitcases. We are no longer trying to fill hours seeing friends and family or trying out a new activity. I do not have the bandwidth for it. We are instead eating out at our favorite places or eating up the last of our supplies at home. I am having last-while-in-the-US calls and chats with friends and family.

Last Saturday we took another stroll down to that playground. On the way home, in the twilight of another beautiful Northern Virginia summer evening, I came to the realization that we are both now ready to leave. I will of course still miss so much about this part of the US, just about being in the US, but the feeling of nostalgia had been replaced.  What I miss most now is working (instead of training), of being settled, of having a home. There is a sense of excitement (and nervousness) about what is next.  I think back to a few weeks ago when I heard my daughter singing an original song in our temporary living room:   Goodbye America!  Goodbye America!  I really love to live here but I really need to leave.

It’s time. No more in-between. Time for yet another new start.

The 2nd Home Leave Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2nd Home Leave Begins


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

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

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

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

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

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

So the crazy parts:

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

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

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

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

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

And THEN my home leave could begin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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