Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Home Leave

We had made it to the U.S. from Malawi in the time of COVID. Whew! And now we could begin our congressionally-mandated period of readjustment, reacquaintance, and relaxation in the U.S. known as Home Leave. Unlike Home Leaves past, where we traveled from place to place to place, we would spend the majority of this one in one location, Florida, where, for the first time ever, I own property. Do not get me wrong, I had initially intended another whirlwind Home Leave journey that would take us to multiple U.S. states and experiences on the bucket list, but a combination of timing, getting older (which I hate admitting), bringing our Malawian nanny, and COVID, led me to make some adjustments. Though it was far and away due to the pandemic, and I will admit a continued sense of identity loss with reduced travel, there was something satisfying about slowing down and staying put, familiarizing ourselves with our new U.S. home town, and introducing America to a newcomer.

After successfully emerging from the security and immigration at Dulles Airport, we were met by my sister and then our transport driver, who whisked myself, the nanny, my daughter, the cat, and our odd collection of baggage, off to a nearby car rental. There we were met by my aunt, who took some of our luggage off our hands, and then we were on the road to Florida.

Yes, I had decided to drive to Florida. Sure, we could have flown, but there were all sorts of reasons that made me not want to deal with the 8 1/2 hour layover and boarding another flight. I can distill it down to my deep desire to be on the road and (seemingly) more in control.

And as we merged onto I-95, the main artery linking the American east coast from Miami Florida to the Maine-Canadian border, I felt pretty darn happy. Maybe ecstatic. I felt free. This was not the Malawi roadtripping of the past four years. This was not potholes and missing shoulders, it was not narrow two lanes that double as livestock crossings or pass suddenly through small market villages with people and goods spilling right onto the road. It was six beautiful lanes (actual lanes! with visible lines!) of smooth asphalt. Even when it became bumper to bumper traffic that turned our 2 to 1/2 hour drive to Richmond into an exasperating 4 1/2 hours causing me to let loose some expletives I thought I had reserved exclusively for Malawi driving, I was still thrilled to be driving in America.

That first day’s drive took so much longer than anticipated we ended up stopping our first night in Richmond instead of the planned stop around Fayettville, NC. Already exhausted by jet lag and jacked up with drive excitement, I had to call it quits early. The second day we would not make it to Jacksonville either, making our overnight pitstop in Santee, South Carolina. But what this afforded me was the opportunity to wake up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, around 3 AM, and then drive for hours in the dark along the highway. This, too, was an indulgence I could not pursue in Malawi as we were prohibited from driving after dark outside of the three major cities due to unsafe roads and lack of ambulance and police services. But in the U.S. I could glide along those roads in the pre-dawn hours with little other traffic.

C and her nanny JMC enjoy the candy store, the Jacksonville Zoo, and at James Weldon Johnson Park in downtown Jacksonville

My nanny, JMC, a hard-working and eager 20-year-old, who had described her first airplane flight with wide, bright eyes (“I could feel my soul leaving my body!”) gave our highways high marks. She remarked on the sheer number of trees flanking the road. “Amazing!” she called it all. A good reminder of something many Americans take for granted: an extensive and efficient road system.

I view Jacksonville, Florida as more a place to live than a tourist destination. It has its beaches, of course, and museums and other similar attractions found in large U.S. cities, but it does not scream “vacation” to me. That being said, this Home Leave would be the longest we would consecutively spend in the area and I had put together a decently list of activities for our visit. It turned out that even my plans for Florida were wildly ambitious.

After nearly 18 months of limited (frankly, nearly zilch) activities outside our home in Lilongwe and few getaways, we were not used to having options and found it harder to muster the energy for back-to-back pursuits. The luxury of just sitting around a living room other than the one we had in Lilongwe was so very tempting (Okay, we were not just tempted. We totally embraced it). We were not only jet lagged, but exhausted — by the flights, the drive, the last week of departure preparations. In addition to my list of fun things to do, I also had a list of less-fun but necessary things to be done, from medical appointments that could not be taken care of in Malawi to items to buy (both my phone and my computer were on their last legs) and paperwork (insurance and employment authorization applications for the nanny).

We lived it up – with COVID mitigation measures – at St. Augustine and Disney

And there was the pandemic. I guess I had this odd idea that once we left Malawi, we could also leave it behind us. That was, of course, not the case. We had departed Malawi in the middle of a rising third COVID wave only to arrive in Jacksonville, Florida, which had become an epicenter of the U.S.’ Delta wave. This would slow my Home Leave roll too.

But I still managed to get us out and about. In the initial few days, I took us to the Jacksonville Zoo and to the Museum of Science and History (MOSH). I suppose one might wonder why a zoo after four years in Africa? I know some might wonder this as this is exactly what my daughter asked me when I told her I was dragging her there against her will. Because zoos — well good zoos that support animal welfare and research — can be amazing places to see animals that one might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. Animals that even on a four hour game drive in Africa cannot coax into appearing before you. JMC had been to the zoo once when she lived in South Africa as a child, but her only experience seeing animals at a game park in Malawi was when we took her and her sister with us to the Kuti Wildlife Reserve the year before, and though we had a good time, I’ll mention something I didn’t mention then, that the animals were limited in variety and mostly hid from us. I attribute the fun we had to the fact we were with good friends and that it was the first trip we took after the six months ban on leaving the capital in that first half year of the pandemic. Both C and JMH loved the Jacksonville Zoo. They also liked the MOSH, though disdained the history portion (C: “There is too much to read here. This is boring.”) but embraced the pay-to-experience hurricane contraption.

I also took them to St. Augustine to see the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and eat ice cream while melting in midday 90 degree heat in August in Florida. I like taking C to places of American historic significance, to try to pack in some Americana since she spends so much time outside her homeland. And making her visit a historic place in the height of sweltering summer is, I believe, an American parent-child relationship right of passage. JMH told me that she thought she, an African, would be well-prepared for American summers, but that that day in St. Augustine had proven her wrong.

After our visit to the Zoo and MOSH, I buckled down with my paperwork for about a week and then when I emerged took us all to Disney World. We might be people you would call “Disney people.” We have visited a few parks a few times (for example, here, here, here, and here). C and I wanted our Disney fix and I wanted to give JMC a taste of Disney fun. With COVID, I was a bit concerned. I reduced our planned park time from three days to two – with one day at Magic Kingdom and one at Animal Kingdom – and we kept our masks on all the time at the park, and it worked out for us. Disney was keeping its actual park capacity limits secret, but it was clear as soon as we arrived that levels were still not what they were pre-COVID There were a few rides that were hard to get on but we rode on nearly all we wanted to and had a spectacular time and scored with some really gorgeous weather.

Back in our condo in Jacksonville we slowed down more. I had more paperwork; I joined a gym for the first time in a very, very long time. C and I took walks or drives to capture Pokémon in Pokémon Go, something we could not do in Malawi as my personal phone had not connected to any network away from home. I took them to Sweet Pete’s, a famous candy shop in downtown Jacksonville, for a make-your-own-chocolate-bar and factory tour experience, and then paid beaucoup bucks for giant bags of candy they giddily picked out. We took walks to Target (because it is a destination in and of itself, especially for American devotees who spend a lot of time overseas where there are none) and at Castaway Island Preserve or on the beach, JMC’s first time to see the ocean.

Then suddenly the vacation part of Home Leave was coming to an end. I had opted to spend nearly four weeks in Florida and then an additional two in our State Department provided lodging to get C into school and all of us settled into our new apartment and neighborhood. (PS: the two weeks before my training began were out of my own pocket, but so worth it! The Department only picks up the tab the night before training begins and it is really hard to adjust when starting school and training and life in a new place all at that same time. Oh, that is what we do overseas!)

JMC and C pose at a bus stop in Savannah, GA

I decided I wanted one more shot at an experience sort of like Home Leaves past, so arranged for us to spend two nights in Savannah, Georgia, on our way north to Virginia. I have long wanted to visit Savannah but had never done so and it was sort of on the way… And as the oldest European settlement in Georgia it fit in with a minor theme of our Home Leave (St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in Florida and New Bern, where we would stay a night with one of my best friends, is the second oldest European settlement in North Carolina).

We kept our Savannah visit COVID compliant. We did not join a hop on hop off bus, we did not take a group tour. What we did was walk. And I will tell you that walking is not only a great way to see a town but a glorious pastime that Americans often take for granted. It was here in Savannah that I realized my 9-year-old daughter did NOT know how to walk in a town. I knew that I would need to discuss the finer points of walking in an urban area with the nanny; a good friend who facilitates the visits of foreigners to the U.S. on exchange programs had told me that one major point he emphasizes is that jaywalking is illegal in America. In Malawi, as in many developing countries, it is a necessity, an artform even. There are few to no sidewalks or crosswalks or traffic lights. Unlike myself, who had grown up learning to look both ways before I crossed a street, C had not. Another missing piece in her informal education. In Savannah she just walked off each curb with a blithe confidence that caused my heart to stop.

So we learned some Georgia history, and American history, and life skills during our walking tours of Savannah. Two days was not enough time to cover any of that in any great detail, but we really enjoyed our stay. Next we moved on to a night in New Bern with one of my best friends and her son, a much needed respite from our drive, and then before I knew it we had arrived in Arlington, Virginia, where we will spend the next 9 1/2 months in training before heading on to my next assignment.

This Home Leave may not have been what I had initially planned and hoped for, but it is the one we got in a pandemic and turned out to be just what we needed.

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.