Malawi: The First Summer Begins

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Sleepover fun with star light

Summertime.  Remember when you were a kid and you looked forward to the hot, leisurely days with your friends through a long school-less summer?  Maybe you even piled into the family car for a drive to the beach for a week?  Spent a week or more at a summer camp?  Or maybe you do not even have to think back that far — you might be on your summer holiday right now.  Perhaps a road trip?  Or spending some time at the lake or at a mountain cabin?  Have your toes dug deep in some sand?  Whenever summer comes around I still associate the season with those long languid days.  I long for Summer Americana.

Foreign Service summers though are different.  In the Foreign Service, summer generally means either you are transferring or you are covering for those who are (or those who have to take mid-tour home leave), and thus watching colleagues, some who have become good friends, leave.  Summer is the end of an era.  One in which you are too busy to mourn until September rolls around.

As this summer gets underway, it feels even stranger.  In Shanghai I did not take any leave between May and September for either of the two summers.  But then again, neither did anyone else — all my co-workers in the visa trenches slogged through the high visa season together.  Here though, in this much smaller Embassy, we are on the cusp of a very busy, and somewhat lonely, summer.

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Sleepovers mean sleeping fun in the living room

OK, hold up.  I know, do not cry me a river.  I DO get vacations.  Absolutely.  I was just in Cape Town last month, Paris in April, and last Spring you would have found me enjoying a not-at-all-shabby seven week Home Leave.  I am not at all vacation deprived.  But indulge me if you will, because while the Foreign Service certainly has its perks, it has its downsides and sacrifices too.  I try to keep it real.

One downside is the transfer season position pile-up.  This is not my first rodeo–summers in the service are always busy, but this is the first time as the sole direct-hire Foreign Service officer in a section at a small Embassy.  I am the political-military officer.  I also cover the economic-commercial office in the absence of that individual, and back-up the Consular officer.  This summer there will be gaps–multiple weeks with no Economic, Consular, or Public Affairs officers.  I am also a social sponsor for an arriving family, an office sponsor for another new officer, and will serve my duty week (when Embassy personnel man the after hours American citizen emergency line) this summer.  And politics in the country are heating up ahead of next year’s elections.

Another downside is the wee bit of mommy guilt that sometimes tickles in the back of my brain.  Here I am giving my kid an international life full of once in a lifetime experiences, but my parental conscience pricks me all the same.  She is the single child, of a single mother, whose job requires us to move every few years.  Maybe “guilt” is not quite the word, but I wonder at times about this lifestyle and the effect it will have on my daughter.  Last year we lived in three different countries on three continents, so while it is a relief to not be moving this year, the goodbyes happen regardless.

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Now that her friends are leaving, C has to get creative with her playmates — she invited our chickens into her play fort.  (the cats are also thrilled at her increased desire to cuddle and play with them)

C just finished up her first year at the international school.  She has 8 1/2 weeks off before the next school year begins.  It is not just that it is the summer holiday and she will not see school friends for awhile, it is more than that.  Several of her friends are leaving, or have already left, Malawi for good.  And now that she is older these friendships mean more to her than in the past.

To help her say goodbye, we hosted sleepovers for the first time at our house for four of C’s best mates who would move away this summer.  I tried my best to make them Sleepovers To Remember.  We had movies and popcorn, turned our rooms into dance clubs with revolving colorful star displays on the ceiling and C’s favorite pop songs “blasting” from my mini speakers, and did fun crafty things like make suncatchers or Shrinky Dinks.  We stayed up late.  We went to the Italian restaurant around the corner in pajamas.  We had chocolate chip pancakes.  The guest child got to collect the eggs from our chickens in the morning.  I repeatedly heard THIS IS THE BEST SLEEPOVER EVER.  Top Parent Award Achieved.

The final sleepover was perhaps the hardest.  C’s best friend is our next door neighbor WW.  Like C he is six, enjoys music, playing for hours, and butt jokes.  He and my daughter are thick as thieves.  I think back to when I was five and six and my next door neighbor Kent was my best friend.  He too moved away after Kindergarten.  Dang, this is going to be hard.

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Ready to walk to “summer” camp in the chill

It is what it is.  A phrase that rolls off my tongue with increasing regularity.  To try to stem the summer boredom and sadness I have come up several ideas to keep C engaged.  She will attend “summer” camp the first week of July (actually one of the coldest months in Malawi with temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit overnight/early morning) with the possibility of additional weeks (the nearby preschool offers up to four weeks for children aged 2-8 at a cost of $5.50 per day).  I am increasing her guitar lessons from once a week to twice.  Recently I started reading chapter books to C, so I bought several books to read this summer such as James and the Giant Peach, The Indian in the Cupboard, and My Father’s Dragon.  One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year is to do more arts, crafts, and activities with C, so I ordered several things to facilitate this (because I just do not have the energy to be a Pinterest mom).  I have art supplies, Kiwi Crates, and an Easy Bake Oven I gifted C as an early half birthday present.   I ordered “American History in a Box” for Kindergarten and First Graders, a great resource for American kids living overseas and attending schools that do not teach U.S. history.

Basically, I have got a ton of things for C to do.  I just wish I could take some time to spend with her doing them, but that is not in the cards for me this summer.  It is certainly not going to be Summer Americana.  It’s more Summer Foreign Service Style.

 

 

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Packages & Patience

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Monday = Mail Day!

Mail.  Once upon a time, way back when, getting mail was exciting.  As a child my sisters and I would compete for the opportunity to check the mailbox.  We lived in what we called a condominium — I am not sure this phrase is even used any more — but it is basically a townhouse, if not somewhat smaller.  The mailbox was located across the street in a cluster box unit.  Getting hold of the key from my mom was like winning the lottery, or at least on the same level as scoring money for the ice cream truck.  Sure, there was junk mail then, and of course bills, but receiving a card or handwritten letter would happen with a fair amount of regularity.  Arriving at college, mail — letters from friends and family and care packages — also held a special magic.  Even when I lived in Korea and Japan, before the internet and email really took off (dating myself again), I regularly composed and received long missives. Yet these days in the world of instant messaging via smart phones, email, Facebook, and a whole host of other social media sites that I have no clue about, waiting for the post has lost its significance, at least for the majority of Americans.

Not so for the American expat, especially those located in more out of the way places.  First let me caveat all that I write here with the fact that I am a Foreign Service Officer and thus have access to Embassy mail; other expats generally have to rely on the local postal system.  This means I actually have a U.S. address located at a State Department facility in Virginia.  My mail goes to that facility where they then forward it on to our Embassies.  Some overseas missions have the Diplomatic Post Office (DPO), which essentially establishes a branch of the U.S. Postal System at select diplomatic missions overseas.  Here in Malawi we have the former, which is a little slower and has more restrictions than using the DPO.

These days of course I do the vast majority of my correspondence via the Internet, but when it comes to packages, well,  “snail mail” it is.  While folks in the U.S. are getting their packages within a few days, even same day, our mail takes just a wee bit longer, on average three weeks.  At certain times of the year, for instance Christmas, it can take longer as our mail flies “space available.”  There are then no quick last minute online purchases. Last year we received notification in late October that packages should be ordered for receipt at the Virginia pouch facility by November 10, to ensure delivery before the holidays.  When C’s school emails on Monday that Thursday is book character day, there is no way to order something to arrive in time.

Until recently we received two air shipments a week, with the mail being sorted for pick-up on Monday and Tuesday.  But a few weeks back the mail room supervisor notified the Embassy community that shipments would be reduced to once a week, and due to the short notice we would not receive a delivery either that or the following week.  However, overall we are a large mission, with lots of employees.  And, as it turned out, we had quite a lot of mail heading our way.  So, in the second week the decision was reversed — an Emirates air freight flight would arrive Friday afternoon in Lilongwe bringing in our many, many kilos of mail, and to accommodate the large delivery the mailroom would re-open for pick-up between 5 and 5:30 PM.  (This is an especially big deal as we work longer hours Monday to Thursday so the Embassy closes for business at 12:30 on Fridays)

At a quarter to the appointed time, C and I began our drive to the Embassy.  The late afternoon sun directly in my eyes; I felt giddy.  There is always excitement surrounding an out-of-the-ordinary event.  Once in the Embassy parking lot we saw many more of my colleagues’ cars pulling in.  I smiled and recalled a story a fellow book club member had shared when I lived in Jakarta.  The woman and her husband had served in Yemen in the 70s.  Naturally, foreign products were hard to come by, so when someone got word the cargo plane from France was landing, the news traveled fast.  People stopped what they were doing, jumped into their cars, and drove down to the airfield to welcome the flight carrying wine and cheese and other goodies from Europe.

Our convergence on the mail room at Embassy Lilongwe in the Spring of 2018 cannot really compare to dozens of international diplomats flocking to the sand swept Sana’a airfield of the late 1970s.  The latter holds a certain element of romance to me.  And yet, the diplomats of today were likely no less desperate for their delivery as the diplomats of yesteryear; its all relative after all.  Of course we have access to the internet and thus online shopping with our favorite retailers like Amazon and Walmart.  But whether we rush to pick up a package of our kid’s favorite cereal or hoof it to meet a plane with some much desired fromage, we are trying to have a little taste of home while soaking up the culture of afar.  And that Friday the mail room and the area just outside had a festive feel.  Coworkers and spouses gathered around catching up and laughing. For the children, it was as if we had organized a spontaneous play date – several clamoured into one of the mail carts, others ran impromptu races, they played on the gymnastic bars outside the gym.  In the fading light as we awaited our names to be called so we could sign for and carry off our boxes, there was most certainly a sense of shared community and happy anticipation.

Oftentimes when I receive the “you’ve got mail” notification in my in-box I cannot even recall what I have ordered.  Not so much because I purchase a lot but because I barely remember what I did the day before.  Just kidding.  It’s more a function of never quite being sure which order made it into which pouch and plane.  It’s a bit like Christmas every time, sort of a secret Santa gift exchange with yourself.  And while there can be a level of frustration marking time for the arrival of  that one thing I really need (or convince myself I need), I must admit to an overall enjoyable level of satisfaction in the biding of time.

Waiting for the post for weeks does, I believe, teach patience.  In a world of ever increasing desire for the instantaneous – and an ability to meet those expectations –  it is almost refreshing to have to cool our heels in anticipation.  Over time one finds there are many things one (and one’s children) can do without.  If I cannot order some seemingly needed item for the  book character/international day/Star Wars themed event at C’s school, then, well, it’s not really that vital.  We can in fact soldier on quite well without it.  Little by little I order less, I find local substitutes, or my tastes change and I no longer crave those same favorites from home.  Not that I stop ordering altogether mind you, I have a fairly strong, bordering on unhealthy, addiction to Amazon.  I cannot quit just any time.

I miss composing and posting long letters.  The stationery, the stamps, dropping them in a mailbox.  Yet, I love that living overseas means mail still holds a wee bit of mystery – even if it’s just wondering if the package contains the special diet cat food or chocolate Lucky Charms.

 

 

 

Easter Over and Over

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C finally doesn’t run the other way when confronted by an adult in a giant bunny costume (played by one of our fine U.S. Marines)

I did not used to care much for celebrating U.S. holidays while overseas.  In many of the places I lived before the Foreign Service – Korea, Japan, China, Philippines, Singapore – most of the big U.S. holidays celebrated when I was a kid (Easter, July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving) were, while not always completely unknown, not of any local consequence.  Only Christmas seemed to have penetrated these countries to varying degrees.  And that is usually when I went on vacation.

Now that I have a child, and C is of a certain age, building holiday traditions is important to me.  And having her participate in U.S. cultural activities can give her a foundation in “American-ness,” even though she has spent most of her life outside her country.  Yet even though we live in Embassy and expat communities, the translation of U.S. traditions abroad is, well, sometimes, creative.  It’s a combination of what is available overseas, budgets, and local interpretation.

This year we celebrated Easter four times and each time we got something a bit different.

Our first Easter event was that organized by the Embassy’s Community Liaison Office.  The USAID Director graciously volunteered to host the event at his beautiful home, complete with very large – perfect for Easter Egg hunting – yard.  It was a lovely Spring, er, Fall (Malawi is in the Southern Hemisphere after all) day and C was dressed in Easter-appropriate finest.  There was face painting, Easter Bunny photo ops, and brunch potluck.  And, of course, an egg hunt.  Divided into age groups, the Embassy children lined up for their chance to participate.   A huge swath of the yard was littered with eggs.  For the littlest group this was perfect – but by the time even C’s group stepped up to the starting line, the kids were already plotting how to go beyond the little group, to the far end of the lawn.  The rope dropped and they flew past the eggs in front of them, running at full speed.  While there were a few eggs placed on top of large rocks on in trees, all the eggs were hidden in plain sight.  Once the time was up, the children turned in their eggs to receive a prize bag with candy, stickers, tattoos, and pens.  C very much liked her gifts but disapproved of the ease of the hunt.

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C blows by dozens of easy eggs

No problem.  Our next hunt would solve that issue.

One of the (if not the) nicest hotels and restaurants in Lilongwe advertised an Easter event including an egg hunt.  As I had not yet been there I thought it a good opportunity for us to have lunch, check out the hotel, and secure more Easter booty.  C had been sick as a dog the night before, but rallied for a chance to join another egg quest.

Approximately 35 children lined up to participate.  And waited.  Some baskets were handed out.  We waited some more.  Some hotel staff said it would start “soon.”  More kids showed up and needed baskets.  More baskets were fetched.  More waiting.  After awhile it was apparent this event was running on Malawian time.  At last the kids were released.  Almost immediately there was confusion.  The organizers had pointed the kids toward a walled area and said the eggs were hidden in that area…and also the area to the right of the pool…and around the building.  Everyone headed first into the walled garden and we looked and looked and looked.  For a good ten minutes no one found a single egg.  Even parents helping were unsuccessful.  This was an event for children aged 4-12, yet the eggs were hidden so well that the kids might have had a better chance unearthing Jimmy Hoffa, the Fountain of Youth, or the Lost City of Atlantis.

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Hunting in Paris

Finally a few older children found some eggs and a sense of hope resurfaced in the others.  C actually found an egg!  I was so proud of her.  Then the organizers said all the eggs on that side had been found and we should return poolside to look some more.  C found another egg!  But she would not pick it up, requesting I do so, because it was broken.  And then I got a good look at what we were hunting for.  They had not hidden plastic eggs.  They had not even hidden hard boiled eggs.  They had hidden brown, haphazardly painted, raw eggs!!  I asked an organizer how many eggs there were — 40.  Forty brown chicken eggs masterfully hidden in two large hotel yard areas for 35 children with a wide age span.  I tried to put myself into the shoes of whoever planned this life lesson in massive disappointment…

C and a few others had managed to find 3-4 eggs.  An older boy, maybe 10 years old, had found 8 eggs.  Another older boy had 9.  A girl a few years older than C had 13.  She won.  (Later she revealed she had simply asked those sitting next to her to contribute their eggs to her basket so someone would beat the older boys – brilliant)  Most of the kids had found none. Only the top three winners received a prize.  Again C felt disgruntled.  This hunt had been (WAY) too hard.

DSC_1303Our third Easter hunt took place in Paris.  As my friend and I had planned our trip to arrive in Paris just before Easter, it made perfect sense to track down a Parisian egg hunt.  And we found one advertised online at the Parc Andre Citroen for a mere five Euros.  We only had to wait for the tickets to go on sale; we checked online regularly for the release date.  It was like waiting for Taylor Swift concert tickets.   Purchasing opened and we snapped up two, one for each of the kiddos.  Once at the park, we went to the registration booth, showed our tickets, and received instructions.  The kids 3-6 years of age were to find only three eggs- one white, one orange, one pink.   In a field there stood several red cardboard boxes.  Inside were plastic eggs — one box would hold all blue eggs, another box all green, another all yellow, and so on.  So the kids had only to run to a box and if it had the color egg they need, pluck one out.  It never would have occurred to me to set up an egg hunt in this way.

The kids finished so quickly and then turned in their three eggs for a gift bag that contained a juice box, pan de chocolate, applesauce, and Kinder Eggs.  The real thing.  Not that stuff passed off as Kinder Eggs in America, the Kinder Joy, but the real, honest to goodness, banned in the U.S., Kinder Surprise.   Oh boy!  Although C seemed to find the hunt on the lame side, she forgot all about it once she received her reward.

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Find me quickly before the poultry does!

Our first weekend back in Malawi I prepared our fourth and final egg hunt — this one would be at home and based on the at-home searches organized by my mom when I was little.  I filled a mismatched pile of some 37 plastic eggs with jelly beans and miniature chocolate bunnies.  For the largest and most decorative of the eggs, I inserted a piece of paper on which I had written a clue.  Then I hid them in our living room, on the konde (our screened in porch), and the backyard.  Then I called for C to begin looking.  Some eggs were easy to find, some not so much.  My nanny and her sister sat in the living room observing the proceedings with what seemed a mix of amusement and wonder.  After C had found all the eggs, she opened the three with the clues.  One read “I am not a chocolate chicken, but I can be found among my feathered friends.”  C raced off to the chicken coop to find a large chocolate bunny nestled in the wood shavings.  Another clue led her to a drawer embedded in the stairs to her loft bed, and the third to the playground outside.  At the latter two she found gifts to unwrap.

Truth be told — I had never had an Easter egg hunt like that growing up.  As a child, my siblings and I would come downstairs on Easter morning to find our Easter baskets filled to the brim with goodies — always a solid milk chocolate rabbit, jelly beans, maybe Peeps, and some small gifts.  Then we would have an egg hunt in our living room.  But here I was making do, making my own tradition, and C declared it the BEST Easter egg hunt EVER.

 

Malawi Yard Wonders

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View of my backyard from my porch

Growing up I did not have a yard. We lived in a two story condominium.  There was a small patch of grass in the front and a common area to the side, as we were located on a corner lot.  Come to think of it, even as an adult I had never before had a yard.  I lived in a series of dormitories and apartments.  We did have a back patio in Juarez, half cement and half rock garden, but I would not call that a yard.  Now here in Malawi we are blessed with SO MUCH YARD.  While we do not have the conveniences we had in Juarez and Shanghai, our yard is a highlight of living in Lilongwe.

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Flowers of our yard

Each morning I sit in my screened in porch or konde to meditate.  With my eyes closed I hear the chorus of bird song, from tweets and trills to caws and coos.  I hear the rustling of the wind through the branches and fronds.  With my eyes open I see only foliage and sky and it feels as if we are miles from other people, and certainly not living in a capital city.  (okay, as you can see from my photo I can also see my brick wall and concertina wire, but that detracts only a wee bit from the reverie).

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A view of one side of the back yard with playground and trampoline

To be honest, having a yard was a part of the calculus I made bidding on my job in Malawi.  Every other place I applied to had apartment living.  Every other place had a larger political section.  There is much I enjoy about my work here, but when the pressures of being the sole political officer bear down, I need only to sit on the konde and breath in the sights and sounds of our yard, talk a stroll around our house, or watch my daughter on her playground or run through the grass to know we made the right choice.

We arrived in August, at the tail end of the cool season, after there had been little rain for many months.  The grass was brittle and yellowed and much of the back garden bare,  but the jacaranda tree with its lilac blossoms and the small flame trees in full fiery bloom gave the yard color.  The palms, though with some brown fronds, still tall and green.  The papaya and banana trees were bearing fruit.  C and I began to make plans.  I hired a gardener.  We bought flowers and planted seeds.  I have never had much of a green thumb and was not sure what would grow but we planted green beans, peas, watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, romaine lettuce, corn, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, onion, strawberries, tomatillos, turnips, and maize.  We started a compost pit.  We learned we not only had banana and papaya trees but also lemon, avocado, peach, mango, pomegranate, and guava.  We also had aloe and lemongrass.  Our yard was filled with wonders.

3. Growing Fruit

Some of our trees bearing fruit

Then like most of Malawi, where 80% of the population is involved in small hold agriculture, we waited for the rains to arrive.  From late November our patience was rewarded.  With each rain the plants became greener and more lush.  New plants sprouted, pushed out of the ground, and quickly grew.  The fruit trees became heavy with ripening bounty.  The transformation was astonishing.

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Our garden section transforms from October to February

Not everything was a success.  The broccoli, cauliflower, watermelons, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and more did not grow.  The papayas and peaches were poor.  The pomegranate and guava immature, withered on their bushes.  Our sweet yellow corn matured quickly, soon we had a good 20 stalks with one to two ears, but once picked the flavor was bland, the produce tough.  I am not sure what went wrong.  Was it poor soil, bad seeds, inconsistent rains?  At times the rainy season burned hot and dry like October, and at other times torrential storms pummeled the earth.  Having never cultivated plants in my life, I could not say.

9. fruits of our labor

We were rich in tomatillos, avocado, and carrots

Yet some plants did remarkably well.  Our banana trees regularly ripen massive bunches of 100 plus fruits.  We keep about 20 ourselves and then divide the rest among the nanny, gardener, and guards.  The five small mango trees produced a good 25 delightfully sweet fruits – deep green on the outside with bright yellow flesh.  I had not before been a fan of mangoes and had given several away before finally trying one of our fresh ones right off the tree.  My feelings on mangoes may have changed forever.  The massive avocado tree produced so many fruit we could not keep up.  Even eating countless bowls of home made guacamole, tossing some into smoothies, and giving them away like hotcakes, many ended up in our compost or fertilizing the ground where they fell.  The lemon tree has done well, the green fruits still turning yellow.  The scent of fresh lemon is wonderful, but given my limited culinary skills (to put it mildly), I am at a loss with what to do with so many.  C wants to make home made lemonade and sell it — not realizing that we do not exactly have a market here.  When the nanny informed us our carrots were ready, C and I spent a fun afternoon pulling them up and rinsing them off — only to learn later from our rather surprised nanny, that she meant we should pull them up gradually.  Oops, rookie gardener mistake.  The tomatillos did amazingly well, much to the amusement of the nanny, gardener, and guards, who had never seen them before.  They were even more tickled to learn that I had little idea what to actually do with them once picked.  I have a large bag frozen just waiting for me to make salsa or home made chilaquiles some day.

4. high maize

C and the maize.  C is not quite 4 feet tall

But it was the maize that grew the most.  Maize is the number one staple crop of Malawi and is part of the every day diet of most Malawians.  During the growing season, nearly every available plot of land is turned into a field of maize.  You will see it along the roadsides.  This is not the sweet yellow corn favored by Americans, but rather a more bland, white version.  In Malawi it can be eaten boiled or grilled but is most often dried and ground up into flour to make nsima, a thick porridge.  Unbeknownst to me my gardener planted a 15 x 15 foot area of my garden with maize.  Not that he could keep it a secret for long as the shoots sprung up and up and up.   I was surprised how tall it did grow.  First three feet, then five, until some was at least eight feet high.  I had the space so I did not so much mind, and I felt some solidarity with Malawian farmers.  In a way, I too was a small hold maize farmer.  When the President of Malawi announced a state of emergency when a fall army worm outbreak devastated at least ten percent of the crop in affected areas, my nanny pointed out that the insect was attacking my crop as well.  When a massive rainstorm flattened about 80 percent of my plot, I realized how quickly nature can destroy a crop.

To round out our small farm experience we also acquired some chickens!  I never imagined I would own chickens; however, prior to our arrival in Malawi, the former occupants of our home offered to leave behind not only their playground but also their fowl.  I was unsure at first, but C was smitten with the idea, so I agreed.  Unfortunately for those chickens, there was a miscommunication with the former residents when they moved out, and although a neighbor was looking in on them, a few days passed and the guards decided they had been abandoned and made a quick meal of them.  We ended up being reassigned another house just days before arrival so we did not even have the left-behind-coop.  So, soon after arrival I commissioned a local carpenter to build us a coop and I placed an order for some layers (chickens that are best for egg laying vice broilers that are for meat.  Look at me, up on the chicken lingo!).  Just two weeks ago we took possession of our four point-of-lay chickens.  I had no idea how much I would like having chickens.  They are actually quite soft and they like to be pet.  One runs up to me when I open the gate and arches her back for a scratch between her wings.  We look forward to visiting them each day.  C named them Carmen, Car, Lou, and Leash.

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Our coop and the chickens proudly show off their first egg

We have also had encounters with lizards and frogs, with a two foot long blind worm snake (we both touched it), and even an African pygmy hedgehog that waddled up to me and let both C and I touch her quills.

I look forward to spending more time in our yard – to getting more seeds and trying again with the garden, with I hope more success.  Our yard has offered us so much more than I could ever have expected.

Malawi: Settling In…At Last

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

I Hope They Have Cheese

I have to be quite honest here, grocery shopping in Shanghai is pretty great.  I want for few things.  It is China after all, where they manufacture and grow just about everything under the sun.  That is not to say you may not miss some things.  For example if you are a die hard fan of Trader Joe’s or Amy’s Enchiladas or the shrimp and avocado sushi rolls they make at the deli at Whole Foods, then you are gonna have to do without.  But with a few adjustments you can find most of the things you need and want.  Sure, sometimes you might pay through the nose for your must-have items (see my earlier post) and other times you might have to set aside some of your food safety and security concerns.

I generally shop at four supermarkets, all within a half mile radius of my apartment.  The one I patronize the most is the City Shop supermarket located in the basement of my apartment complex.  Located in one of the swankest addresses in town (voted several years running as one of the top serviced apartment complexes in the city), the prices are not going to be the most competitive, but I am all about paying a little extra for convenience.  And being able to stop in on my walk home, or during lunch, or a quick visit before the nanny heads home (i.e. without my daughter) is worth the extra money to me.  I will also go with my daughter.  They have child-sized shopping carts so the kids can help out, which C generally loves to do.  They also sell, right next to the front cash register, medium-sized jars filled with water, plants, and tiny fish that serve as mini aquariums or a bunch of cheap plastic kids toys with candy — either of these items will keep my daughter entertained while I shop.  And when all else fails (i.e. C opts to roam free at the supermarket — though not in the fish tank aisle, which she is afraid of because sometimes the shrimp jump out of the tanks), I know my daughter is safe there as all the staff know her.

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The Olé fruit section is a thing of beauty

Once or twice a month we head across the street to the Olé supermarket.  This place is so swank that they have an accent over the “e” in Ole.  Reportedly some 70% of their items are imported and their places reflect that.  If I buy a single can of Diet Coke at City Shop it costs me 2.5 RMB (US$ 0.36) but I can get what appears to be an identical can at Olé for 9 RMB (US$1.30) because it is imported from South Korea.  Still their fruit section is dazzling.  I may not want to spend 80-100 RMB (US$12 to $14.50) for a few pints of raspberries or some white cherries, but sometimes I like to look at them stacked up beautifully in the section and wonder about the people who do.  There are times though that City Shop’s fruit section is sometimes wanting and a trip across the street will mean acquiring the strawberries or pomegranates I know are in season.  Olé also has this super-delish Italian-imported vanilla gelato made with Madagascan vanilla bean that makes my heart leap.  I do not often eat ice cream, but when I do, I forever want it to be this kind of creamy goodness.  Olé also has better seasonal – i.e. Halloween and Christmas – selections when those times of year roll around.  C sees heading to Olé as a real treat – she often asks at odd times, like 9 PM at night, to go to the “across the street supermarket” because they have carts in the shape of cars and sell miniature hot dogs baked in bread.  Dreamy.

Then on the rare occasion I also shop at Pines, a mom-and-pop kind of enterprise that tends to have imported goodies you can find no where else.  I have found Country Kitchen pancake syrup, Betty Crocker cake mix, and some Chef Boyardee.  OK.  I realize that some people might have just balked at calling these “goodies” but it is all a matter of perspective and upbringing.  For me, these preservatives in a bottle/box/can remind me of my childhood and America.  I do not buy them often, but sometimes I  feel better knowing they are available if and when I want them.  There is also a supermarket in the basement of the Westgate shopping center (梅龙镇广场 or Plum Dragon Town Square if you were to translate it directly), where the U.S. Consulate visa section is located.  It is part of the Isetan Department Store and so has lots of Japanese imports.  Fruits are often astronomically expensive but so perfectly beautiful that at some price points I cannot help but buy.

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A Trader Joes/Whole Foods-kind of experience at Hunter Gatherer

There are also tons of little family run stores, often for fruits and vegetables.  Urumuqi North Street is one not too far away that has dozens of these along its length, including the famous “Avocado Lady.”  If I happen to be walking back from the main Consulate building, located on the same street, I will pop in for some bargain priced locally-produced fruit.  Some people make an effort to head out to wet markets to buy their produce.  If you scroll up to paragraph two you will note that I shop very close to home.  Some might say I am lazy but really I am just a time-strapped working single mom who chooses time-saving proximity to less time conscious bargain-hunting (!).  Wet markets also tend to be places where one can buy “fresh” meat, sometimes so fresh it is still alive, and live seafood.  C does not just avoid the seafood aisle of our City Shop due to spontaneously jumping shrimp, but because she also has a history of sudden, um, illness when she sees crabs, lobsters, and such.  Not really my idea of fun.

There are also other grocery experiences for those who want something different.  Hunter Gatherer is an organic, farm-to-table, restaurant/grocery or a “seed-to-table ecosystem that serves and celebrates real food” according to their website.  In addition to store shopping you can also order online at one of numerous places like Kate & Kimi, Fields, and Epermarket.  I used to do the online grocery shopping and delivery when I lived in Washington, DC as a childless hipster.  (Okay, when I was childless because I do not think anyone would have ever called me a hipster)  However, I was really slow to catch on in Shanghai.  While I had colleagues who had ordered their first grocery delivery within a week of arrival it took me, oh, I don’t know, 18 months?  I received an online invite to join in the grocery delivery revolution, and all I had to do was order my first order and I would receive a welcome basket of seasonal veggies for free.  I ordered something like 250 RMB (US$36.20) of groceries to give it a go.  Imagine my surprise when they were not only delivered on time but the box of free stuff was enormous!

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The free welcome box!  It contained a bag of potatoes, a bunch of eggplant, a box of tomatoes, a box of mushrooms, a box of carrots, 2 ears of corn, 2 avocados, 2 bell peppers, 1 zucchini, 1 head of broccoli, and 1 pumpkin!!

Shopping in Shanghai is not always bliss.  Although I prefer to head to one supermarket each one has special things that the others do not.  One will have Japanese soy bean rice crackers.  Another will have frozen raspberries.  A third will have Tartare, the French cream cheese with fine herbs.  Yet another will have Tostitos.  Or at least they will some of the time.  There is always the chance that a store that has a favorite import today will not have it tomorrow or next week or maybe ever again.

About six months into our time in Shanghai, C and I are on one of our trips visiting Olé when C spies a box of chocolate Lucky Charms.  She has never had them before but declares suddenly she must have them.  I am reluctant to spend US$12 on a box of cereal she might only eat two bites of, but I find myself buying it anyway.  She loves it. I buy a second box.  She wants to eat it for breakfast every day.  I go to buy another box, they do not have anymore.  Not that week, or the next, or months after that.  I buy a couple of boxes while on Medevac and again on R&R and bring them back in our suitcases.  Friends bring a few boxes when they visit.  But I do not find it at my supermarkets again.

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Where did the rest of the cheese go?  Evidence of the beginning of the Great Cheese Shortage of 2015

There was also the Great Cheese Shortage of 2015, followed by another Lesser Cheese Shortage of 2016.  It was the first that prompted me to first consider writing a blog post about grocery shopping in Shanghai with this title.  It was right around the National Day.  In mid-September the once full shelves of cheese began to empty out.  Little by little the good, imported cheese was gone leaving only “cheese” cheese — you know, the kind of cheese that has to be put into parentheses.  I took the photo above of the limited cheese selection and another of a depleted imported processed meats section and a supermarket employee tried to stop me.  Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  I was approached and told to stop taking pictures and she tried to swipe my phone.  I guess the Great Cheese Shortage was supposed to be kept under wraps, not shared with the outside world.  But now you know.

I cannot remember how long the cheese shortage lasted either year but they did not appear to be isolated incidents because the cheese selection diminished in all the shops I frequented.  This past year I thought I might circumvent the shortage and order my cheese from Epermarket, only to find that they too reported that the items I wished for were currently out of stock.  Yet eventually the stocks returned and appeared even more bountiful than before.  Huge bags of Monterey Jack cut into cubes for the ridiculous price of US$20.  I will leave you wondering if I bought them or not.

It has taken me far longer to get around to writing this particular post than I had anticipated.  And here I am nearing my time in Shanghai.  This puts things into perspective.  I know how good we have had it here.  I am ready to have some extended time back in the US during home leave and training to get my fill of all those food items I have missed and a good ole US of A prices, not high-import-taxes prices.  But then we head to Malawi and I think about what might be in store (or not in store, get it?) for us there.  I have heard about some food shortages that make my complaints here seem especially petty.  I am really not sure what to expect, but I still hope they have cheese.