A friend of mine asked me just today how I was finding living in Conakry. I did not have a great answer. I said it has been ok. And it has been. Really. It has also been challenging. There have been days when I thought I would hit this milestone, three months here, and say “Three months down, only thirty-three to go!” The truth is I have not yet formed an opinion. I am only beginning to get into the swing of things.
It is no secret that Guinea can be a challenging place to live – for Guineans and expatriates alike. The State Department does struggle with getting personnel to serve here; it is what is called a “historically difficult to staff” (HDS) post. To recruit Foreign Service Officers to work in Guinea there are extra financial incentives. There is a high post differential (currently a 30% bump in pay) and also an additional 15% bonus if one agrees to stay a third year at this two-year posting. Even with these extra monetary inducements there are still vacant positions.
I do not know, however, what all has been difficult because it is Guinea or because it is hard to move and to start over in a new job in a new country. I have lived in challenging places before. Each of my tours with the Defense and State Departments has had some difficult aspects from Jakarta (25% post differential; terrible traffic, terrorist attacks, religious and ethnic divides) and Ciudad Juarez (10% post differential , 15% danger pay; gang and narco-trafficking violence, desert dryness, major visa post), to Shanghai (15% post differential; language/cultural differences, lots of crowds, major visa post) and Malawi (25% post differential when I arrived; one of the poorest countries in the world, limited flights in and out, limited entertainment venues in town). Now though I think of all of these places with great fondness. They were all good tours.
I arrived in Conakry at the tail end of June, part of the “summer transfer season” that sweeps embassies and consulates worldwide every year. This past summer seems to have particularly transitional for our embassy in Conakry. I think my experience of it was exacerbated by the timing of my arrival. Many staff were on their way out. I would meet someone and he or she would tell me, “I am leaving tomorrow/next week/next month.” In other cases, the person incumbering the position had already departed and the incoming officer had yet to arrive, leaving gaps. I struggled to complete the Embassy check-in procedures because there was either no one to check in with or the person was soon on their way out. This contributed to the isolating feeling I already had as a newly arrived employee.
At my previous tour, in Malawi, we arrived mid-August. At the end of that week, the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) organized a “sips and snacks” event at a colleague’s house where all Embassy staff and families could join. Just three weeks after arriving, our social sponsor and family took C and I on a weekend trip in the south of the country. Five weeks after arriving, the Ambassador held a welcome picnic at her residence for all the Embassy, new and old, to meet one another. Eight weeks after arriving, C and I joined a CLO-organized safari trip in Zambia over a long weekend. And around three months after arrival, C and I took our first trip to Lake Malawi.
Nothing remotely like any of this has happened yet in Guinea.
Besides my early summer arrival date being likely at least party at fault for the rougher start, there is also the rain. Guinea has two seasons: hot and dry and hot and wet. The wet, rainy season is very, very wet. I recall reading somewhere that Conakry is the fourth rainiest capital in the world. The monsoonal season begins in late May/early June. For context, the annual rainfall for Washington, DC, is 43 inches; for Conakry it is 149 inches. Conakry may see as much rainfall in the month of July as DC gets all year.
That is not to say that there are not nice days. There have been some gloriously bright sunny days. In fact, our first week in country was deceptively rain-free. The accumulation of this amount of rain though also has its affects on soil and infrastructure. I do not know what the roads here might look like when its the dry season. In Malawi at least there were some attempts to fix roads and fill potholes that had eroded during the rains. That may or may not happen here. Right now though many of the capital’s roads are in poor shape and easily flood making the traffic situation and travel more challenging.
For me, it feels like it is taking longer to settle here. One reason may be the longer time it has taken to receive my effects. My Household Effects (HHE) arrived a little less than eight weeks after we arrived in Conakry. That is pretty good. However, the unaccompanied baggage (UAB), the smaller air shipment that is supposed to be items you want as soon as possible, that took 11 weeks to get to Conakry. At my other posts, UAB arrived pretty quickly: Ciudad Juarez (it was in my entry when I arrived at my new home!), Shanghai (2.5 weeks after arrival), and Malawi (12 days after arrival). Granted the pandemic and the residual staff shortages and global logistic and supply chain issues have led to longer shipping times. Still, I had not expected to wait so long.
No matter where one lives, having a place to come home to that is safe and comfortable and reflects your interests is key. In a tougher place like Guinea, that is arguably even more important. Now, though I am beginning to make this house more our home, there are also still quick a few boxes and piles of items around. We are still awaiting the supplemental HHE, the secondary shipment of items from the US. There will be more to unpack, sort through, and organize.
In the Foreign Service, the conventional wisdom is that it really takes six months before one can begin to truly feel at home in a new place. By that measure, I still have time to ease into the life here. Guinea and I are still trying to get to know one another.
I awoke on my last full day without my kiddo in Vianden, Luxembourg. I took one final walk along the river and one last look at the castle on the hill, before I headed back into Belgium.
With that one last solo day I figured it was best to head to where the name had become synonymous the world over with relaxation: Spa, Belgium.
Spa is an old, old town with lots of historic firsts and a UNESCO World Heritage designation to boot. Discovered by and used for mineral bathing by the Romans, Spa reportedly truly became a stopping of point for its curative waters from the 14th century. The world’s first casino opened in Spa in 1763 and the world’s first recorded beauty pageant was held there in 1888, won by an 18-year old Creole woman from Guadeloupe. In 2021, UNESCO recognized Spa and 10 other European towns for their historic value as Great Spa Towns of Europe.
Part of the designation centered on the other industries that built up around European spa towns like hotels, casinos, and beauty contests. In Spa, a postal system was set up in 1699 that allowed those lucky enough to be able to afford to travel and “take the waters” could then send letters and postcards to friends and family boasting of such.
At the Museum of the City of Waters, I learned that collectible items made in Spa became all the rage for visiting tourists. Hand hewn and painted decorative boxes or colorful delicate painted glassware sporting the name of the spa town were what 18th and 19th century tourists loved to bring home after being enticed by colorful tourist brochures.
My joint ticket also gave me entry to the Museum of Laundry. I had honestly expected little from this place but was pleasantly surprised at the amount of information and fascinating displays. An oft-ignored by-product of tourists and hotels is a proliferation in items needing laundered, from clothes to bed sheets to towels, and the people, usually women, who washed those items. The museum gives a history of laundering and the advances in technology that made washing and drying at least easier on the laundress (from washing machines and detergent to dryers and irons) if not more interesting. I ended up spending more than an hour there.
The big thing I was in town to do though was of course to soak in the waters of the Thermes de Spa, the facility for bathing in Spa’s thermal waters built in 1868 on a hill overlooking the town. My hotel helped me to make a booking to arrive at the spa at 6 PM where I would then have three hours to enjoy until closing. Unfortunately, right after I made my reservation and went to put on my suit I realized I had not packed it. Luckily though the bathing house sells inexpensive suits to silly tourists who forget theirs. Had I still been a backpacker watching my money carefully, this might have been a real dilemma, but I came to take the waters and I would do so even if it meant forking over more money.
I stayed about an hour and a half enjoying the large heated indoor pool, the heated outdoor pool, the sauna, and the Hammam. Just enough time to give those waters time to do some wonders.
The following morning I had one last hour-long stroll around Spa before saying goodbye. I needed to be at the Euro Space Center by 3 PM for a camper presentation, so I thought I would break up the hour and a half drive with a stop in Durbuy, Belgium’s smallest incorporated town.
Durbuy was once a thriving medieval village on the Ourthe River at the crossroads of commerce. Today it is a very small, very walkable historic town chock full of character. It is dominated by the Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel (unfortunately closed to the public), which stands alongside the river and bridge. Though the current castle is 18th century design, records indicate a castle stood there since at least the 11th century. The little warren of cobblestone streets adjacent to the castle are full of restaurants, bars, stores, and homes of stone and timber. I was kicking myself for not having more time here. Durbuy warranted an overnight stay so I had the time to slowly explore, especially after most of the tourists departed. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the time. I had lunch and then headed to pick up C from space camp.
After five nights apart, I felt absolutely giddy to arrive at the Euro Space Center auditorium to see my daughter at the presentation of graduation certificates. She was sitting front row right next to the doors as I came in, huddled together with the other American girl with whom she shared a dorm. C did not want to leave. I had wondered how she might handle five nights away at an unfamiliar place; five nights is the longest we have ever been apart but previously she was at her dad’s or my sister’s. I need not have worried; she told me she could have done another week.
We drove back to Brussels, returning the car at the airport and then taking the train to our city center hotel. C did not understand why I gave up the car, but, as I tried to explain, we had no use for it in the capital. I had very much enjoyed the freedom the car had given me to drive from town to town, but there had also been challenges on narrow old town streets, with parking, and when the GPS failed as I drove from Vianden to Spa.
We had three additional days in Brussels before our return to Guinea. On our first day, we walked from our hotel near the Brussels North train station to the Royal Palace. Like the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg, the Belgium Royal Palace is open to the public just once a year, six days a week for six weeks between mid July and September. Unlike the Grand Ducal Palace no guided tour is required and photographs are allowed. We did need to buy timed tickets but after arriving and going through security we were able to walk through at our own pace. That certainly worked better for C and I; I am pretty sure my daughter would not have enjoyed the German guided tour one bit.
After the palace visit we walked, meandering through Brussels Park, past the St. Michel and St. Gudula Cathedral, and back to the Great Square. We had lucked out to be in town and get tickets to see the Royal Palace but also it turned out that weekend was the festival for the Flower Carpet, held only the the three days on the weekend around Assumption Day, every other year. I do not know what the crowds are normally like, but I was surprised that as many people as there were on the Great Square, we could still easily walk get to the cordoned rope to have a view. We also easily bought tickets to the Brussels City Museum (which is very interesting in its own right!) with a balcony surcharge so that we could view the flower carpet from the third floor.
On our second to last day we visited the Magritte Museum, again putting in the steps on foot. I am a fan of surrealism and museum was top notch. What surprised me though was how much C enjoyed it. I had payed to get audio tours and selected the one for teens for C but she wanted more information than that was giving her and she asked to take mine. I didn’t get it back. From the museum we walked a little ways to have Thai for lunch and then rode “The View” an observation wheel near the Palace of Justice. Our route back to our hotel took us past key comic murals around the center of town.
Belgium has embraced comics as a so it was perhaps little surprise that we found more than a few stores catering to Japanese anime fans. My daughter C is one! This added to the high marks that C gave Brussels as the trifecta of waffles, fries, and anime was too much to ignore. We spent our last morning at the Comics Art Museum where we learned about the art of comics and animation. The most famous Belgian comics characters are probably the Smurfs and Tintin, that have a worldwide audience, but there is an incredibly rich culture of Belgian comics beyond these.
That afternoon we headed back to the area around the Magritte Museum and the Royal Palace to meet friends of ours from our Shanghai days. RG and BG are a Foreign Commercial Service family and their daughter OG had been in C’s preschool class in China. Though the girls only vaguely remembered each other when we first met for drinks, several hours later they were playing together as if no time had passed. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip — a reminder of the amazing connections we can make in this lifestyle despite our nomadic lives.
As we headed back to Guinea the following day, it was with a renewed sense of excitement for our new post. The first six weeks had been a rather challenging whirlwind and I am not going to lie that it was more than a little hard to leave behind the order and conveniences of Europe, but when our plane touched down in Conakry that evening I felt glad to be there. We were home.
I sat in the Euro Space Center parking lot for a few beats after dropping C off at space camp. It reminded me of when I took her to her first drop-off-and-depart birthday party. At first I did not know what to do with myself. This time, however, that period of confusion lasted much less time. I did know what I was doing. I set my GPS directions, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed to Luxembourg City. I was on a mission.
In 1998, when I was living in the western part of Japan, I took a vacation to visit my aunt and uncle in Frankfurt, Germany. We decided to take a multi-day driving trip to Luxembourg City along the Moselle River. My uncle was behind the wheel as we meandered along with the river, through small riverside towns. We stopped frequently for castles and wineries (for my aunt and uncle, not me) and other beautiful vistas. We made a lot of private family jokes along the way that my aunt and I still rehash again and again. Like when we left the fried camembert from lunch in the car overnight outside the B&B and the car stunk to high heaven the next day. Or when we visited Trier and my uncle and I lay in wait from my aunt as she came out of McDonald’s so we could cluck our disapproval. You really had to be there. On the third day we drove into Luxembourg. I had long been awaiting this, to walk the 1000 year old streets of the old town. But what did we do? We had dinner, went to bed, and the next day we went to the Villeroy and Boch Outlet Factory to get some replacement porcelain pieces for my aunt’s dinnerware set. Then drove back to Frankfurt. That never sat well with me (though my aunt and I laugh about it), so here I was, 24 years later, to right that wrong.
I was a bit nervous as I approached the capital. I had been okay driving out of the Brussels airport and on to highways and to small towns, but here I was about to enter a major European City. On Google Maps it seems simple and straightforward enough, but I could see the one way streets here and there and anticipated there could be a problem. There was. Google Maps kept directing me down a pedestrian street. I drove past it the first time, but on my second go turned in thinking, maybe it isn’t actually pedestrian only? Except it ended in a sidewalk café. My three point turn in front of diners felt more like a ten point turn in slow motion with everyone staring at me. I pulled over in front of a shop shuttered for the evening, as if I were just there to conduct some business that I had every right to be parked on a pedestrian street in Luxembourg to do, so that I could call the hotel. As I drove around, the friendly hotel receptionist Yves gave me directions. I was still required to drive up that pedestrian-only street, just from the opposite direction, and then park briefly in front of the hotel for check-in. After check-in Yves told me, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “And now we will park, which is an adventure in and of itself.”
He was not kidding. I got back in my car and made another 3-5 point turn on the pedestrian street, trying to avoid the low pillars blocking the area in front of the adjacent museum, the couple on the park bench, and people just strolling by, and then followed Yves, who was on foot, about 50 meters away. There he put in the code on a key pad on the side of a building and he motioned me to drive into an elevator. Yes, an elevator for cars. One floor down I drove out and met Yves who directed me to park the car into a grooved walkway on a circular panel in the floor. I did so and then exited the vehicle. “You have the parking brake on, right?” Yves asked. “I think so,” I answered, “It’s a rental and rather a new model, so I think that is what this symbol means.” “Ah, yes,” Yves replied, “these new cars make the parking automatic. We need the brake on or it will be catastrophic.” And with that ominous prediction, he had me fold in the side mirrors, and leave the car. Yves then pushed some more codes into another wall panel. Glass doors sealed around the circle and then the car spun around, lifted up slowly, and then the floor dropped out and the car disappeared. Underground apparently it is sorted into small car slots by a robot. I imagine its a bit the vinyl Matchbox car container I had as a kid, just on a really grand scale. And there my rental sat for three days, nice and safe. I had dropped C off only two hours before and I had already had these adventures in driving and parking!
I stayed at the beautiful Hotel Parc Beaux Arts, located smack dab in the middle of the old city, not even 600 feet from the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace. The building dates back to the 15th century and some parts of the stone work are original. I lucked out with the only room to have a loft, with the king bed located on a partial second floor. I loved it.
After getting settled in, I set out to explore the city on foot. Here I was walking in the UNESCO World Heritage town, parts of which are more than 1000 years old. I meandered past the Grand Ducal Palace and over to the Place d’Armes. I decided to find a place for dinner and headed over to a Mexican place I found online. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and already closing in on 9 PM, so the kitchen was closed. I had forgotten how late the sun goes down during a northern European summer. I Googled “best burger in Luxembourg” and found another place just about five minutes walk away. I had a nice, very late dinner, there, at a little table on the sidewalk, having the best burger in town, reveling in the fact that I was on my own in Europe for the first time in a very, very long time.
The next day, I went to the tourist information center to find out about tours of the palace and the casements. The casements, a network of subterranean tunnels built into the promontory rock of the old town, are one of the main tourist activities in the city. Unfortunately for me, the Bock Casements were closed for renovations and tours of the Petrusse casements were sold out until a week after I would depart. The Grand Ducal Palace, the official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, is only open for tours one month each year, excluding weekends. All the English tours were sold out. I thought, maybe I can muddle through with French? But no, I did not even get a chance to try as those tours too were sold out. There were only a few slots available in German. I had to take it or not get to go.
With my tour set up, I decided to just sightsee on my own. I signed up for a little tourist train to give me an overview of the historic town. The train was a little silly, I did not get too much from the commentary, but it did take me from the upper town to the lower, across the river, up the Rham Plateau, and back. The tourist train gave me the lay of the land and as soon as I returned to the start I then began exploring on foot. I walked and walked and walked. I absolutely love to walk and I miss taking long ones. My daughter is less keen. It was easy enough when she was still in a stroller; I walked a lot in Shanghai that way. But now she is older and she complains a lot. “Where are we going?” “How much longer?” “Are we there yet?” “Why do we have to walk?” I could walk just for walking sake in Luxembourg, without a real destination in mind, not knowing when I might stop and rest or turn back. It sure felt good.
At a quarter to 10 AM on my second full day, my last in Luxembourg City, I headed to the Place Guillaume II, the central square, to meet my tour group for the Grand Ducal Palace. My German tour. I speak a total of maybe 25 words of German, a combination of very basic greetings, numbers, foods, WWII war battle vocabulary, and cursing. Yet, the only way I was going to get a tour of the palace during this trip was to sign up for the German tour. I was not the only person with this idea as there was also a group of six Brazilians who appeared as clueless as I.
This was not the first time I had signed up for a tour in a language I did not speak in order to get in to some place. I recalled when I signed up for a tour in Polish in Malbork castle or the two day French and German tour in Tunisia or the Serbian tour of the Royal Compound in Belgrade (I have yet to put this story onto the blog). At one point I asked another tourist if they spoke English and she clucked her tongue in disappointment as she noted, “Do you really speak no German? That is a pity. This is a really good tour and she is giving lots of information.”
Perhaps it was a pity. But my choices were a tour in German, a tour in Luxembourgish, or no tour at all. I figured German was my best bet. And I still had my eyes. I could drink in the ornate furnishings and decor, gawk at the luxurious though overstuffed rooms, and wonder at the Grand Duke’s family’s passion for very large chandeliers. No photographs were allowed so I had to pay extra attention.
After my tour I opted for a Thai lunch (as I was trying to eat all the foods while I was able), and then resumed my walking until I could not walk anymore style of touring. I headed to the Pfaffenthal Panoramic Elevator that would take me, for free, from the High City to the Pfaffenthal quarter in the valley below, then walked to the 17th century Vauban Towers, up to Fort Obergrunewald (also built by Vauban), then through the gates beneath the Bock Casements, across the Alzette River, to Neumunster Abbey, then beneath La Passerelle, a 19th century vaulted aqueduct bridge, along the Petrusse River, til I climbed back up the High City at the Petrusse casements and Gelle Fra War Memorial, crossed the Adolphe Bridge and back, on to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, then back to my hotel. The weather was perfect and the walk was glorious. I finished up with a sampling of chocolates from The Chocolate House, located by the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace.
The following day I checked out of the hotel and retrieved my rental car from the depths of the mechanical parking garage and headed out of the city.
It was only a 30 minute drive northeast from the bustling center of old Luxembourg the oldest town in the country on the border with Germany. Echternach grew up around the Benedictine abbey founded in the year 698. The current abbey has been built and rebuilt many times over the centuries, though parts of the original remain and the tomb of the abbey’s founder, Saint Willibrord, is inside. The Orangerie, part of the Abbey’s gardens, was established in 1736. It is currently used as a school and not open to the public. It turned out I was there during the monthly Wednesday market, so the town’s historic square was full of modern-day merchants. Initially, I found myself somewhat annoyed — I had wanted to really see the square and the buildings surrounding it, and instead I saw food trucks and white tents. I thought though, that there had probably been markets on that square or nearby for near on 1000 years. So, I walked around the town and had lunch, basically waited the market out, so I could catch a glimpse of it less crowded before I left.
From Echternach I drove another 30 minutes north to the town of Vianden. I had wanted to drive entirely in Luxembourg but eventually gave in to the GPS and I ended up crossing the Saeur River into Germany for at least half the trip.
I pulled into Vianden around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and after working out the parking (which just doesn’t seem straightforward in any European town) and getting into my room, I headed out soon to see Vianden Castle.
Vianden’s castle stands high on a steep hillside overlooking the Our River and the town. Once considered by UNESCO for inscription (but for some reason denied in 2013 – though the UNESCO plaque at the entrance tells nothing of its denial) it is still an outstanding fortress. The famous French writer Victor Hugo stayed four times in Vianden during his exile and reportedly found the castle “magnificent.” In 2019, CNN listed the castle as one of the 21 most beautiful castles in the world.
To get there, I walked. It was not far from the hotel where I stayed across the river, but to get there one has to head up a steep incline making it take longer than Google Maps would have you believe. Plus, I found lots to stop and admire along the way. I had little doubt that my daughter would not have been a fan. I am 100% sure she would have asked why we didn’t just drive up (which you can certainly do). But I was grateful for the opportunity to work my legs.
I spent probably an hour and a half in the castle. It was going on 5:15 when I looked out from the castle ramparts to see what looked like folks on an adjacent hill in the distance. I discovered there was a chairlift where I could probably have an amazing view of the castle. I checked online and found it was open until 6:30, with the last ride up at 6 PM, and if I walked quickly I could get there in about 15 minutes from the castle parking lot. I was going to go for it!
Had I been with my daughter I am not sure I would have made it. I had already been walking for hours that day — around Echternach, through Vianden, up to the castle, around the castle, and now I was going to speed walk my way to the chairlift station down the hill and across the river. I did make it though. The chairlift was a wee bit scary, but the views were worth it. I only stayed up top for the 15 minutes I had to make the last trip down. Then I could meander slowly back to my hotel where I savored a delicious meal finished off with a popular Belgian dessert — La Dame Blanche (vanilla ice cream topped off with dark chocolate syrup). A fitting reminder that the following day I would return to Belgium.
First, before I get into the trip itself, I want to explain how it is I found myself on nearly two weeks of leave not yet six weeks after arriving in Conakry. It is not my usual modus operandi to arrive at a new post and then take off so soon after. Then again, this is a new year, a new arrival time, at a new point in our lives. Earlier in the year, I looked ahead at our arrival in Conakry, and thought how it would be for my daughter C. We would arrive in Conakry just two weeks after the school year ended and still have seven long weeks before the new one would begin. We would be new people in the community, one in which there were not a whole lot of kids and many would be away for the summer. I needed something for C.
Poking around online I discovered that the Euro Space Center in Belgium has an overnight summer space camp and beginning in June, Brussels Airlines would be reinstating its three times a week flights between Conakry. Given that C had been expressing interest in more science-based classes, this seemed to be a sign from above. I checked in with the space camp organizers to find out if there was space available and which weeks were in English and then with my leadership at Post, who quickly approved my time off to get C to and from the camp. We were all set to go.
Then a week before our departure on the first Thursday in August, there were protests in Conakry. Demonstrations had been scheduled and cancelled before, or scheduled but not amounted to much. But these protests turned out to be more than expected. They lasted longer and were more violent and they spilled over into the following day. Though they did not block access to the airport, they did make the most direct route difficult, changing a 30 minute drive into a possible multi-hour journey. When protest organizers announced that there would be more scheduled the following Thursday, I asked my bosses if they would approve my leaving a day earlier; they approved wholeheartedly.
I spent several hours on the phone and online the Sunday before departure, working to change our flights. Brussels Airlines only flies Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; the Tuesday flight was full and the Saturday flight did not give me a comfortable margin to get C to space camp should it be delayed or cancelled. The agent tried to route me using miles as that was how I purchased my original flight, but the only routing was to Lisbon, through Munich with an overnight, and then on to Brussels. Unfortunately, the Munich flight on Lufthansa could not be confirmed due to a potential airline strike. We were contending with not only protests at our origin, but labor disputes in Europe that was part of the chaotic travel summer. That was not going to work. The United agent, however, could not directly book me on the Lisbon to Brussels flight, so I needed to book that one online myself, while keeping the agent on the line. I did not want to cancel my flight and return the miles until I had another flight secured. Finally, success.
All of this gave me a solid glimpse into how challenging it may be to take leave away from Conakry. There are limited flights, challenging schedules, usually with late evening or early morning departures, frequent delays, and higher price tags. Toss in a demonstration day and airline snafus and it just gets more interesting.
Our trip started on Wednesday at midnight on a four-hour flight to Lisbon. The flight left late and there was not enough time to really sleep. We had two hours on the ground and then another three hours to Brussels. It turned out the extra day was very helpful as we had little energy to do much of anything. Luckily, I had booked a hotel close to the airport and they let us check in early. After napping and relaxing, our only activity was to walk in the cute little neighborhood near the airport to the grocery store and back.
On our second day in country, we took an Uber to Laeken, the northern part of Brussels, to visit mini Europe and the 1958 World’s Fair landmark, the Atomium. Though these sites are listed as two of top ones to visit in Brussels, I did not visit them during my first trip to Belgium in 1998. I have no memory of even knowing they existed. Nonetheless, C and enjoyed hours there visiting the top sites of Europe in miniature and exploring inside the giant sculpture that marries science fiction and modern art. Afterwards, we took an Uber down to the stunning Grand Place. C and I were started to tire, but I wanted to give her just a glimpse of the majesty and beauty of probably the most stunning of European central squares. At first C complained she wanted to just go back to the hotel, but for a moment or two she completely forgot about that as we stood in that square. After we turned in wonder around at the architecture and fed our sweet tooth with some decadent ice cream from the Godiva chocolate shop and took a short stroll down to the Mannekin Pis, C told me that she no longer wanted to return to Paris very soon. “Mom,” she said, “we have been to Paris twice now, but I think I like Brussels more. I want to see more of Europe.” Mission accomplished.
The following morning, Saturday, we returned to the airport to pick up a rental car. I am usually a wee bit nervous starting out driving in a new country, but after the chaos of Conakry, the roads of Belgium were welcoming. We drove just an hour south to the Wallonian town of Dinant. In planning for our trip, I looked for the best places for us to visit south of Brussels on our way to the Euro Space Center. Other than Brussels, the biggest tourist draws tend to be Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, all to the north and northwest of the capital. The photos of Dinant kept pulling me back again and again and I knew if nowhere else, we needed to visit this town. It did not disappoint.
Dinant’s location, squeezed between a rocky promontory and the river Meuse, has guaranteed human interest for millennia. It’s 13th century Gothic cathedral is built into the rock face just below the 11th century citadel and alongside townhouses that range from 16th century to 20th. The oldest house in town is a 16th century townhome built by a Spaniard.
C and I walked up the steps to the Citadel, where we spent at least 90 minutes enjoying the historic displays and panoramas. We took the cable car down and had lunch alongside the river and later an hour long tourist boat cruise on the Meuse. This little town is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, so we also were on the hunt to find as many of the painted saxophone sculptures around town, as well as a golden saxophone, and a saxophone shaped water clock, and the statue of Adolpe Sax sitting in front of his former home.
In the afternoon we drove six kilometers south to the 19th century manor home turned hotel where we would spend the evening. After a long day of walking and sightseeing, C crashed immediately in the room. I took a short stroll around the grounds, drinking in the quiet, the nature surrounding the manicured lawns. We are still getting used to Conakry and I have no doubt that the vibrant, chaotic city will grow on us, but its difference from the grand historic cities and laid back countryside of Europe suddenly felt quite stark.
In the morning, before heading to our next destination, I drove a short way up the road to try to catch a glimpse of the Walzin Chateau, an imposing gothic-revival castle that stands on a cliff overlooking the Lesse River. I had quite by accident seen it on Google Maps as I was planning out our drive. Unfortunately, the best few of the castle is across the river and on some private land, which we quickly found we could not cross (the barbed wire fence and the “do not trespass” signs were pretty clear). So, we could see it only in profile before we gave up, returned to the car, and then drove on to Han-sur-Lesse.
I had had this idea. C loves animals and has a particular fondness for wolves and foxes. When working out what to do before dropping her off at space camp on Sunday evening, I found a wild animal park only 20 minutes north of the Euro Space Center. The Parc Animalier du Domaine des Grottoes de Han looked like it had some nice walking trails where we could see wolves. I planned for an hour or so walking and then lunch and perhaps time at the caves. I am afraid I did not do much more research than that.
It turns out the park is huge. Set on 620 acres of land, the park has both forested areas and wide lawns. At the ticket counter, I learned we should have a minimum of THREE hours to walk all the trails. A quick look at the map and I calculated we would likely have to cut short the expedition and return to the tourist center after the first trail.
Right away we got off on the wrong foot. We waited for the historic trolley train to take us to the first trailhead, but there seemed to be no train coming for at least 15 minutes. I insisted that we just go ahead and take the walking trail to the walking trail. This did not go over well with C who angrily stomped alongside. It went over even less after 20 minutes when we heard the trolley pass us by. We made it to the start of the trail after nearly 30 minutes and the first animals were just large highland cows and wild boars, both of which were far back in the enclosures and frankly not something we had a hankering to see. I got the full force of C’s pre-teen silent treatment (which isn’t all that silent because it involves random stomping, some small rock kicking, and the occasional heavy sigh).
This is not at all how I had hoped this would go. I told C this. I got some deep heat seeking laser eye flashes in return. I said we could turn back at the first opportunity, but C noted that in doing so we would skip the wolf and lynx enclosures. These were now her sole raison d’être. I had dragged her here and so we *would* see these animals. I agreed. And then things got better. The walking trail really is nicely maintained and includes a small sky bridge course with a view over the valley. We saw animals, including the wolves. We had some ice cream. We rode a open bus for the last section and returned to the park entrance by trolley. On the pedestrian street of Han-sur-Lesse we found one place still open for a late lunch at nearly 4 PM. The Belgian fries were restorative. Then off we were to space camp!
At the Euro Space Center, C and I completed check-in procedures and then together we were shown to her dorm room where she would sleep and hang out for the next five nights. We picked out her bed, a bottom bunk, collected the bedding and got her set up. Other kids, including another American, were arriving. Then suddenly it was time for me to go; I did not quite what to do with myself. My daughter’s first overnight camp and I decide it should be in a foreign country?! Of course I did…we spend most of our lives living and traveling in foreign countries. But what did I do now? C noted that some of the other campers had their favorite stuffies with them so she asked if I would return to the car and bring her hers. I happily did so, grateful for something to do. But once I handed it over C gave me a very meaningful look, telling me it was time for me to go.
I headed to the parking lot and off on my own adventure.
It has been topsy-turvy since we arrived in Conakry, Guinea a little more than four weeks ago. Though I am fairly used to uprooting myself frequently (it is something I have done my entire adult life and with the U.S. government for 13 years), it never seems to get easier. I am beginning to sense it is getting harder the older I get. I had forgotten how it is to be the new employee, the person who knows nothing about the office procedures, where things are located, exactly who to ask, or the local issues. I know the mechanics of the job of course, this is not the same as the steeper learning curve I faced when I first arrived in Malawi, yet it is daunting nonetheless. My Malawi arrival was five years ago!
Naturally, it is not just work that is new, it is everything. It is a lot to take in all at once. It’s a new job in a new city, in a new country, in a new region, living in new housing, driving a new (to me) car, sending C to a new school, and so on. But it is more than those things. I have to rely on other Embassy folks to help me with me with some fairly basic things. It makes me crazy not to know how to do these things, like how to set up the Internet or to get gas for the car or where to buy groceries. On our first night in our new apartment, I had to call another person from the Embassy to ask how to operate my stove! I am still a bit unsure with the oven; there is a thick instruction pamphlet on its usage, most of it is in German. Good thing I am not much of a cook!? I sure do miss knowing what is going on.
As a first impression, Conakry is a cacophony of sights and sounds and smells that assault the senses. It is lush, crowded, busy. I cannot help but compare Conakry to Lilongwe. I had hoped that nearly a year in America would curb that tendency, but while it isn’t fair, it is natural. Lilongwe is just my most recent reference point.
Conakry is bigger than Lilongwe, about double the size in population with Conakry over 2 million to Lilongwe’s 1 million. Though both cities had mostly single story or two storied buildings, there are many more taller buildings in Conakry. It’s no New York, Shanghai, or Dubai, but I have found this to be an aspect that stands out to me. Many of these buildings though leave a lot to be desired. Some are unfinished with bare cement sidings and gaping holes where balconies or windows ought to be, others still have the scaffolding, and yet they are clearly inhabited.
There are two main roads in Conakry – the Autoroute Fidel Castro and the Rue Le Prince – running more or less parallel to one another on either side of the narrow peninsula where the capital is situated. Both are two to three lanes in each direction, and the Autoroute, which was built in the 1960s, has an overpass or two. Lilongwe opened its first four lane road with overpass in early 2021, just a few months before my departure. There seems to be few rules to driving. Most roads do not have lane designations and there are almost no traffic lights. Some traffic organization is attempted with roundabouts, but the rules of them seem somewhat optional. We share the road with pedestrians, who walk on the road and cross freely as there are no sidewalks or crosswalks, and motorcycles, which are in far more abundance than in Malawi. Bicycles still were frequent in Malawi, even in Lilongwe, but I cannot say I have seen bicyclists here, and I would be rather worried for them if I did.
My commute from home to the office is only three minutes! Short commutes seem so far to be my specialty. In Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, I was only a 10-15 minute walk from home to office, and in Malawi and Conakry I have had drives of ten minutes or less. I am glad for the short distance as I had (still have) some serious doubts about being able to drive on these roads. The only way to get to used to it though is to get out there and do it. On my first few drives I white-knuckled my way, praying the GPS was working and I would not get lost. And still I ended up on some side streets I had not intended.
Last weekend, C and I headed out on our Saturday supermarket run. Wanting a bit of a lie in, I put off leaving until the afternoon. I think that was a mistake. The roads were more congested than the week before, and within minutes we were inching along in bumper to bumper traffic. Without lane markings, people just make whatever lanes they want, and thus what is intended to be a two or three lane road can become a three or four lane road, leaving much less room to maneuver. Taxis stop when and where they want. Sometimes they get over toward the far side, sometimes not so much. A large truck also disgorged several passengers in the middle of the road – some jumping out from the cab while others came out of the back. Ahead, part of the main road was closed with a manned, makeshift blockade. Motorcycles were getting through, but no cars. There seemed no discernable reason for it. Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I started to come alive sitting there in traffic. After days in the office feeling like a fifth wheel, here were C and I OUT and ABOUT in Conakry! I have no doubt that a traffic jam like that will frustrate me to no end, but that day it let me take in life happening roadside.
My successful tool-about-town (which lasted three and a half hours for a shopping trip — I have learned that shopping here is very time consuming), I found the next day I really wanted to take a walk, and to get a little bit outside my comfort zone outside of the walls of my residential compound. Not knowing what to expect, I left C at home, and ventured up the street to the busy roundabout to check out the roadside market. I brought my camera too, in case I might see something worth capturing on film.
Right off the bat I felt self conscious. I saw no other obvious foreigners taking a stroll and it did feel as if all eyes were on me. Curious, not menacing, but definitely watching. I had made sure to wear long pants and long sleeves and covered my hair, but there was no way to hide that I was not from here. There was no sidewalk so I walked along the edge of the road, careful not to get too close to the massive six foot deep drainage ditches while also keeping an ear out for traffic alongside. It being a Sunday the traffic was not too intense though the market vendors, whose stands spill on to the road, were out and had large stocks of their goods. I was not interested in the large piles of flip flops or mechanical parts, but I was glad to see the small fruit stands with good selections of pineapples, mangoes, apples, oranges, and avocado.
But the woman at the first fruit stand, selling bananas, oranges, and surprisingly small plastic bags of popped popcorn, refused to have her photo taken. I could take one of her wares, but she would only hid behind it. And the next stand, two Muslim men, an older and a younger, dressed in traditional clothing, had an attractive display of kola nut for sale. Again, I could take a photo of the goods, but not the people. A guy wearing his wares of bright stainless steel spatulas and stirring spoons and tongs on his head also refused to be photographed. I was disappointed, but respected their wishes. A few, however, did allow. A young man working at a butcher’s was proud to stand in front of the hanging carcasses surrounded by buzzing flies while his older boss refused. And when I did a double take at a beautiful woman with her baby I fully expected a no to my ask for a photo, but she smiled shyly and said yes. Her husband also delighted that I took an interest as he proudly told me, “That’s my wife! That’s my baby!”
It was gritty. There was garbage on the streets, overflowing from bins, and clogging the drainage ditches. The detritus ranged from plastic bags and food wrappers to old clothing or tires. Just about anything turned into a waste mush by rain and time in the elements. Chickens and dogs rooted among the piles. The traffic was loud, disorderly, and often too close. And again, though some of it was shocking and sad, there was also life and activity, and I felt myself transported back to past times I walked through markets in foreign countries, mostly in my pre-State Department days. As the call to prayer sounded from nearby mosques, I particularly felt the tug of a memory from a walk through the streets of Jakarta near the Sunda Kelapa harbor. I smiled.
This is but a snapshot of my first few weeks in Conakry. It has been hard to capture it all because there is just so much that it is new, and I can only take in so much. I will not lie; it has not been easy. It may never be easy. But I think it will get easier.
In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the fifth and final in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.
When I was in Japan on the JET Program – and it could very much be the same now, I do not know – the vacation days were set by the prefecture. The vast majority of prefectures gave the JET teachers 15 days of vacation, though some lucky JETs got 20 days, and the sad folks in Tottori Prefecture got only 10. Yamaguchi Prefecture, where Kogushi was located and where I taught, gave 15. The thing was, there were far more than 15 days with the school closed. The school year was divided into trimesters with the first beginning the second week of April and ending around July 20, the second starting around September 1 and ending around December 20, and the third beginning around the second week of January and ending the third week of March.
Basically school was closed for 12 weeks of the year. The students were at home; the teachers, who often had been transferred from far away, headed to their home prefectures. I came to love the small fishing village of Kogushi in many ways, but I just could not sit there alone in that apartment, that town, for all but 15 days a year. Part of loving it was being able to leave and then return. The prefecture had another policy — if you traveled within Japan, you did not need to use your 15 days. You didn’t need to tell me twice.
I did travel outside of Japan – a trip to New Zealand, also to Australia, one to Bangladesh, another to Thailand, a two week trip to Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and a week in Taiwan. But I also made the most of living in such a fascinating country. I traveled all across the country – to three of the four main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku), and to at least 22 of the 47 prefectures. I went by slow local train and fast (the shinkansen or bullet train). I took overnight ferries (from Kitakyushu to Takushima, Ehime to Osaka, Kitakyushu direct to Osaka, and from Kobe to Kitakyushu). I also twice took long distance buses — but after a bus breakdown followed by being left behind at a rest stop at midnight on the way back from Tokyo (I ran after the bus through the parking lot and luckily one person remembered the foreigner on the bus and the driver stopped – this was memorable!) and having the bus on which I was traveling on a return trip from Tottori getting hit by a truck…I did not find Japanese bus travel as reliable. Sadly, my memories are so faded, but there are some that still stand out.
Okinawa. I wish I remembered more about my trip here. I do not remember how many days I visited or where all I went; I do not even remember visiting Shuri Castle though I have photographic proof that I at least stood in front of it. What I do remember are two incidents. In the first, I took a bus north of the capital of Naha to visit the 18th century historical Nakamura residence. The bus I ended up on was the wrong one or it was not going all the way to the house that day because of the day or the time. By car the trip would take 25 minutes, but by bus over an hour. And when after an hour I realized the bus was not going to the right spot, I was pretty bummed. But I was the only one on the bus and the kindly bus driver decided to take me straight to the site, completely off his route. A backpacker’s hero! In the second instance, I just went to the mall to buy clothes. I figured that with the U.S. military base, there might be more sizes that fit me. Though I was a size small in the US, I felt like Gigantor in Japan. But sadly, I tried on a pair of jeans in size “large” and could not get them over my thighs and found myself stuck in a “one size fits all” shirt. I thought I would have to ask a Japanese sales clerk to come to the dressing room to help me out though I knew that would probably be worse as the women often ran away giggling when I tried to ask questions (a perennial problem in Korea and Japan, at least at that time).
Tokyo and its environs. Between my first and second years in Japan, I signed up to take part in a two week Japanese course through the Tokyo YMCA. The YMCA set up a homestay for me with a family in Yokohama. I remember almost nothing from the Japanese course itself — I don’t think it did much for my Japanese — it was more the being in Tokyo, about as far away in Japan from Kogushi as I could get: the opposite side of the country and a megapolis compared to a village. What sticks out the most from that trip was my homestay family — a two parent family, with dedicated working dad, a stay at home mom, two elementary aged kids. What made them so memorable was their keen dedication to Disney. The had annual passes to Tokyo Disneyland, had Disney decor around their home, and they named their two girls after Disney characters. I also remember meeting up with Miyako, a young mother who had befriended me in Kogushi when I entered a local government building seeking information on town recycling. No one could help me, but her husband called her — with her excellent English — to assist. We started to hang out and I even briefly joined her husband’s band. I sang the Beatles songs at a wedding. Miyako was back in Tokyo with her son and we went for a cruise on the Sumida river. Then I visited Senso Temple, Tokyo’s oldest. It is a magnificent temple of bright, colorful red buildings, including a pagoda, and is one of the city’s most significant — though anyone can tell this from reading online. I do not actually remember. What I do recall is demonstrating a high level of patience waiting by the massive red paper lantern at the “Thunder Gate” until there were few people so I could jump in and get a silly photo of me below it.
Osaka to Yamaguchi. One year for Golden Week, a period at the end of April and early May when multiple Japanese holidays (Showa Day to honor the WWII Japanese Emperor on April 29, Constitution Day on May 3, Green Day on May 4, and Children’s/Boy’s Day on May 5) coincide, I decided to take an overnight ferry to Osaka and then work my way back to Yamaguchi. While in Japan I took several overnight ferries — and even twice to/from Korea — and they were rather fun — much less expensive than the bullet train and it saved a night of accommodation. These boats were huge with large sleeping rooms for maybe 50 people complete with roll out tatami mats with blankets (at least in the 2nd class dormitory) and a massive dining room. There was a gentle rocking throughout the journey, though I fared better on these big boats than I have on smaller vessels. I docked in Osaka and spent a night or two there (I had a few trips to Osaka — once for a JET Program second year conference, another time to meet up with my friend CZ who came to visit me in Japan, and then this trip — so they blur together a bit). I recall visiting Nara and feeding the wild deer and running into a Japanese celebrity. Well, its a bit embarrassing, but the “celebrity” was a young, blonde American girl of about 12 who starred in a Japanese kids show. I watched the show regularly because they mixed in English and so I could follow the plot… From Osaka, I took the train west to the town of Himeji in Hyogo province to visit the incomparable Himeji Castle, considered Japan’s best. I wish I remember the castle itself; I don’t even have any photos of the interior, but what I remember is walking the grounds, crossing the moat, and catching a beautiful view of the castle and the streamers of carp flags strewn in celebration of Children’s Day. I headed next to Okayama city, Okayama Prefecture. I had almost forgotten about this stop completely til as I was writing this I had a sudden recollection of biking through some fields and of a very strict hostel. My roommate from my Korea days had been a JET in Okayama and had recommended the Kibi Plain cycling route, which wound past historic sites and rice paddies. My next stop was Hiroshima and then the iconic Itsukushima “floating” shrine before heading home.
The Kyushu Hot Springs Tour. While in Japan, I came to really love the hot springs or onsen. I had been introduced to the concept while teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, where I lived on the top floor of a four story walk-up. The building, painted a deep purple, and over a shoe store, had terrible plumbing, and the large, cheerless, bathroom, I shared with two roommates was not really up to task. But down the street, just a few blocks away, was a traditional public bathhouse. It was here where I 3-4 times a week (in conjunction with the shower at my gym) came to suds up alongside other neighborhood women. I was quite thrilled when I moved to Kogushi and learned that just one town over was the famous Kawata Onsen. But I was not satisfied to just head over there to fulfill my onsen interests, I started to motorbike around the district and prefecture to other hot springs and to seek them out in other locations. There were indoor onsens and outdoor onsens. Modern onsens and traditional onsens. Obscure onsens and famous onsens. And onsens that offered unique experiences such as varying temperatures, an electric bath (this was quite literally shocking and made me really uncomfortable), and more. I never did get up to Hokkaido or northern Honshu (known as “snow country”) for an au naturel soak surrounded by snow and mischievous monkeys, but I did visit the famous Tamatsukuri Onsen in Shimane prefecture and the Dogo Onsen Honkan in Ehime Prefecture, reportedly Japan’s oldest hot springs resort. Thus, in my third year in Japan, I made it my mission to visit some of Kyushu’s most famous.
I traveled first with my friend Hiroko to Saga Prefecture, where we bathed to our hearts content at the 1000+ year old Takeo Onsen. We then traveled together to Nagasaki to visit the Peace Park commemorating the atomic bombing of the city that ended WWII. Hiroko headed back home while I continued on to Kurokawa Onsen in Kumamoto Prefecture, among the country’s top ten. Further south I visited Kagoshima and Sakurajima for their onsen and I finished up at the famous springs of Beppu in Oita Prefecture. Of this whole trip, my biggest memories are of Kagoshima. Here, I partook of the famous “sand bath,” where women bury you in hot sand warmed by the very active Sakurajima volcano. It seemed innocent enough — undressing and then wrapping oneself in a specially provided robe, following two women with buckets and pails out to the beach, and then have them dig a hole in the sand to get into. And this though is when it got weird. I realized I never liked being buried in sand at the seaside. Heavy enough when it is perfectly dry, when its damp and steaming hot, it was suffocating. Ten minutes in that inferno is supposed to be enough to sweat out all one’s impurities, and I was counting down the seconds. My other big memory was of staying on Sakurajima – literally Cherry Blossom island – which was turned into a peninsula after a 1914 volcanic eruption. I stayed two uncomfortable nights. The hostel was comfy enough, it was the proximity to the smoking mountain that made me leery. But it was after enjoying a soak at the Sakurajima Maguma (I am pretty sure this is Japanese for “magma”) Onsen, with its beautiful view of the ocean from its outdoor bath, that I hitchhiked for the very first time.
Not that I have made it a habit — I’ve done it I think five times in my life? But when I came out of the onsen and realized it would be awhile before a bus came — if at all — and the walk back to the hostel would take an hour at least, the Japanese teenager that stopped to give me a lift was like a godsend. I remember a tape deck, some music we both liked, and the both of us trying to muddle our way through a conversation in broken English and broken Japanese.
Shimonoseki. Travel did not even have to be particularly far afield. There were onsens and the Mara Kannon fertility temple (with its hundreds of large and small stone phalluses) and the five story pagoda in Yamaguchi City to be found in my own prefecture. My favorite place though was the Akama Shrine in Shimonoseki. Dedicated to the child emperor Antoku who was drowned by his grandmother during a major sea battle in the Shimonoseki Strait between warring clans in the year 1185. When in Shimonoseki, I would often stop by here, it commands a beautiful view over the strait and towards the Kanmon bridge linking the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. I took my mom and aunt here when they visited, I went with friends, I glimpsed a wedding there once. But the best time was when I attended the Shimonoseki Kaikyo Festival. I had missed this festival my first two years as it fell during Golden Week, a time I was normally away, but I was low on vacation time and money, so I stayed in Kogushi. I was pretty intent on being miserable stuck in my little town, but friends invited me to attend the festival with them. It recreates the naval battle and the capitulation of the Heike clan to the Minamoto. But the most anticipated part is the walk of the Heike women to the shrine. A bridge is erected for the women, dressed as geisha, and representing different ranks. The higher the rank, the higher the geta or traditional Japanese wooden shoe and the more exaggerated their walk. The finale is when the highest of the women representing the fallen Heike women, dressed in the most gorgeous and elaborate kimono, with her multi inch high geta, slowly, and deliberately walks toward the shrine, the sides of the geta dragging along the path as she makes wide arcs with her feet, puffing out her heavy robes. It is sober and beautiful.
It is interesting to delve deep into my memories to see what survived the decades. I am a huge fan of travel and have been all over the world and yet despite my love of visiting new countries and cultures, there is only so much that I have retained. My three years in the town of Kogushi, Little Stick, have no doubt shaped my life in myriad ways. Just as I am sure my four years in Malawi will forever be a large part of who myself and my daughter are going forward.
In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the fourth in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.
Food is an art form in Japan. Like many traditional arts and practices in Japan, such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, food presentation and consumption can be highly formalized, governed by centuries-old techniques and ritual. Traditional Japanese meals focus on awakening all five senses; it is not just how the food tastes or smells – though the combinations of tastes like savory and sour, sweet and bitter, seem heightened – but also its texture, sound, and appearance is also important. Is the food warm or cold? Is it smooth or chewy? Is it served in a smooth ceramic bowl and eaten with freshly broken wooden chopsticks? As you chew, does the crunch reverberate? Do you smack your lips in appreciation? What are the plays of color of the different foods and the plateware in different sizes and shapes on which it is served?
I grew up eating a combination of home cooked American comfort foods and packaged convenience foods. Macaroni and cheese. Pork chop casserole. Baked chicken and mashed potatoes. Beef Pasta a lá Hamburger Helper and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Our plateware was nothing special and the drinkware a mismatch of plastic and glass, some from yard sales, some from various fast food restaurant promotions. I found the Japanese way of food difficult to grasp.
A few months after arriving in Japan I wrote this little story for myself, called “The Uslurper.”
One day I was working away at my desk. Because it was lunch time, I expected to have a bit of peace and quiet while I worked. Even though most teachers eat their lunch at school, it was a testing period so there were few teachers around. I set about coloring. Then, I heard it. SLURP! The teacher who sat cater-cornered from me, a small, wiry man with whispy white hair, bushy eyebrows, age spots on his face, took a sip from his tea cup I eyed him wearily and went back to work. SLURP. SLURP. Again! I tried to shake off the feeling that was coming over me. Then, he got out his bento box. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. SMACK. SLURP. SMACK. The hair on the back of my head stood up. SMACK. SLURP. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. CRUNCH. I could feel my nerves tensing for the next onslaught. SMACK. SMACK. Argh! When would it end? My hands clenched. My lips pursued. My shoulders bunched up around my head. I did not know if I could control myself. I wanted to march over and snatch his chopsticks away and snap them in half.
SMACK. SMACK. SMACK. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. SLURP. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. CRUNCH. SLURP. I could not work anymore. I looked over and saw him get up and throw away his trash and then move to the sink to rinse out his lunch box. He put away his chopsticks carefully in their case. Thank goodness, it was over! I let out a sigh of relief. I relaxed. He sat down, and in signify a very satisfying meal he let out a loud BELCH and then two more sips, SLURP, SLURP. Then, at last, he was done.
This seemed emblematic to me of the cultural differences associated with food and eating between the U.S. and Japan. In one we are taught to be quiet when chewing our food, to apologize for noise; in the other, the noises of chewing and crunching and belching showed an appreciation for both the food and the audible parts of the eating experience.
I am also, I will admit it, not a particularly adventurous eater. As mentioned before, I grew up on a particular set of American staples, and I rarely strayed from it as a child and only branched out some as a young adult. And here I was in Japan where fish, that I never ate, is a staple and pickled octopus is served on sticks and packed in plastic containers like sweets next to the cash register. Therefore, in my introductory letter to my new school, sent a few weeks before arrival, I told them I was a vegetarian. I didn’t want loads of questions about the limited meat I consumed, so I just took meat out of the equation.
Or so I thought.
Turned out that many people I met just did not know what to do with this information. It seems rather unbelievable, but for a country that embraces Buddhism and has at least a stereotype of embracing nature (because at the same time they are one of the few countries in the world to still hunt whales and eat them) many Japanese could not wrap their head around vegetarianism.
Just a week or so after classes started at the high school in Kogushi, teachers from my school were out and about and we stopped for lunch at a small noodle shop. Like many small shops like this, the menu was all on wooden blocks in Japanese and I knew only a few basic phrases I had learned in six weeks of night classes at a community college in Miami before accepting the job, certainly not enough to figure out the menu or say much of anything. The same older teacher who had been to pick me up at the airport when I arrived at the Yamaguchi-Ube Airport about a month before, the guy who had stood languidly against the wall and showed zero excitement at my arrival, he said he would order for me. I reminded him that I did not eat meat. He said he remembered.
Imagine my surprise as I am eating and I distinctly taste fish. I ask him, “X sensei, is there fish in this dish?” He says no. I taste it again. I most certainly tastes of fish. I ask him again and he gives me an annoyed look, like one might give a child that has asked for something umpteen times, and again says no. I tell him I am sure there is fish in the soup. He looks at me again and says, “you can’t taste it.” Meaning, there IS fish in the soup. And yes, I absolutely could taste it! How presumptuous that he ordered for me and ordered something he knew I had specifically asked not to eat.
While I expect that teacher in part did it to be cheeky, this was just the first of many odd encounters I had regarding meat in Japan.
On another occasion, a few months after arrival, a family in Kogushi invited me, the exotic blonde American English teacher, to dinner. When they heard I did not eat meat they asked me to make a list of all the things that I did eat… This seemed to be quite a long list compared to the one I didn’t (i.e. meat), but I obliged: spaghetti (without meat), pizza (without meat), curry (without meat), ramen (without meat), tempura (vegetables only), etc, etc.
There was one day when I was at the hospital school where I taught a few classes every other Tuesday. The teachers asked if I might stay for lunch. I asked what they were having and if it had any meat. They went to check. Upon their return they told me that it would be Japanese curry…and that although it had meat in it, it was chopped into small pieces. I failed to see the difference, but it made them happy to report it. And the karate group I joined that seemed to want to influence more than one’s martial art skills, they tried to sneak some little fish into my food. When I pointed out that I saw the small black eyes of the shirasu (しらす), small white parboiled baby sardines, in my rice (i.e. I was wise to their attempts), they shrugged it off, noting, again, their small size. Little meat is apparently just like no meat at all.
Overtime I let good friends in on my secret, that I actually did eat meat on occasion, I just was rather particular about it. In my own time I tried foods on my own and came to have my favorites. One was a wonderful meal of meat and vegetables heated in a stock enjoyed during the winter months called nabe. Introduced to me by my Yutama adult English class, I associated the steamy pots of food then dipped in a sauce of ponzu (a concoction of soy sauce, rice vinegar, rice wine, and citrus juice) and grated daikon (pickled Japanese radish) with gatherings of good friends. I also came to enjoy the Japanese traditional breakfast of rice, miso soup, pickled cucumbers and radish, and a block of chilled silken tofu with green onions and soy sauce (though I left off the fish flakes). Tempura also became a favorite. My favorite tempura being shrimp (shhhh…shrimp is the only seafood I eat) and pumpkin, which seemed a specialty of the restaurants in Kawatana, the town one over from Kogushi. In fact, Kawatana was also famous for being the birthplace of a special dish called kawara soba. Soba are buckwheat noodles a bit thicker than spaghetti. In Kawatana they used cha soba which are the soba also made with tea, giving them a bright green color, and cooked them, along with ingredients like shredded fried egg and meat, atop a kawara, or roof tile. The ubiquitous curved tiles found in Japanese villages are made of clay and hold heat well and the dish is served still sizzling at one’s table. I was not a major fan of kawara soba, but I did enjoy it on the occasional special meal with friends, in the restaurant where it was invented. My favorite Japanese dessert was mochi, a sweet made of glutinous rice with added flavorings or stuffings like red bean paste and then shaped into little decorative balls. Mochi was like ultimate celebration food, traditionally served at holidays like Children’s Day or New Year’s and also often served during the tea ceremony. The sweet mochi perfectly cut the bitterness of the matcha tea.
I am still not an adventurous eater (many persons express great surprise I survived three years in Japan and do not eat fish), but my time in Japan introduced me to a whole new world of tastes and the pleasure derived from consuming good food. I still cannot stand the sound of slurping though.
Tomorrow it is wheels up from Malawi after four years. It is very bittersweet. This is the longest I have lived in the same place since I lived with my parents before college; the longest in one place for C as well. But it is time for us to go. I am sure I feel this way in part because this is what any person moving must do — they must steel their heart against the inevitable, accept the change in location, otherwise it would be all the harder. But the pandemic has most certainly played its role as well. Malawi is an amazing place and we have loved the opportunity to put down roots, albeit temporarily, in this country, but it can be a challenging place. The pandemic exposed more of those limitations because we had no outlet. There were few chances to get out and push the reset button.
A long time ago I studied cross cultural psychology. One technique I learned was that when departing from a location to make a list of those things you will and will not miss and those you look and do not look forward to in the new place. So, here we go:
Malawi has been such a great place to really get up close and personal with wildlife. First off, we have been able to go on safari in several national parks. In other countries, safaris might not be open to young children as they are not particularly well known for keeping their cool and being quiet when faced with African animals like lions or giraffes. But in Malawi, there were no age restrictions and we enjoyed game drives in Majete, Nkhotakota, and Liwonde National Parks. Secondly, just being in the neighborhood, we have come across pygmy hedgehogs, a bushbuck, and a genet. And lastly, our yard has been full of wildlife surprises. We have had a few snake encounters – a blind snake, brown house snakes, and a few white-lipped herald snakes (and I convinced my staff not to bludgeon them but to alert me so I could see the snake and tell them to leave it alone) – and lots of geckos and skinks both inside and outside the house.
We have seen hedgehogs and mongooses in the yard too. The first hedgehog I met ran right up to me in the yard and then across my shoe. The one in the photo — I saw in the road as I drove home one afternoon. The poor thing was rolled up in a ball hoping not to be hit and I pulled over, stopped traffic, whipped off my cardigan, and scooped it up to safety. I took it home, made sure it wasn’t injured, and then released it in my car-free yard. The baboon spider (what we in America call tarantulas) first showed up hanging out on my front door (made it a wee bit scary to go in and out of the house) and then one day just ran across my living room floor while I was watching television. Very exciting! But the very best of our wildlife encounters had to be the visit of a rare bat. One day she was just roosting in my carport in broad daylight. I was able to approach and take a few pictures and sent them to the African Bat Conservation team in Malawi. I was told she was likely either a Great Roundleaf Bat – only the second ever recorded in Lilongwe and the first to have been known to roost here – or a Striped Leaf-Nosed Bat – which would be the first-ever recorded in the city. What an extraordinary find! The African Bat Conservation sent out someone right away to photograph and take some measurements — but unfortunately, their most experienced tagger was out of the country due to COVID. C and I named the bat Nutmeg and were so thrilled she made our yard her home – and stayed visible to us – for the better part of three weeks. Through these wildlife encounters, I made up the hashtag #safariinthehood as we did not need to go anywhere at all to experience incredible African fauna.
Our Incredible Yard
I have previously waxed lyrically about our yard, but I must pay homage to it once again because of all it has afforded us. Not only did we get mongoose and tarantulas, but we were also able to grow fruits and vegetables, experience incredible birdlife, and enjoy new pets. Sitting on my konde or screened porch and I can hear the calls of many kinds of birds. I can hear tweets and caws, chirps and cheeps, whistles and trills. On any given day probably 20 types of birds. My favorite birds are the pied crows — a large crow or a small raven with a snowy white breast and collar. A mated couple calls our roof home and when they hop across the corrugated metal it sounds like loud stomps; I call them the pterdactyls then. But the most beautiful is the lilac-breasted roller — we have one who loves to regularly visit. When times have been tough over this pandemic period, a brief walk around the yard, sometimes in meditation, could help restore my spirit. I’ll miss this yard very much.
Travel Around the Country
Malawi is an incredibly beautiful country and I am so grateful that C and I were able to see as much of it as we have. In all, I made it to 22 of the 28 districts. Had it not been for COVID, I would have made it to them all, I know this. If I had to choose, my favorite places were visited were the Tongole Wilderness Lodge in Nkhotakota National Park, the Robin Pope Safari lakeside property of Pumulani, the lush tea plantation of Satemwa in the south, and the island resorts of Blue Zebra and Mumbo Island.
As a first-time political officer, Malawi absolutely delivered an unforgettable tour. As the sole political officer, I have had the privilege to cover a whole host of issues from human rights, trafficking in persons, refugees, politics, and more. In the four years I have been in Malawi, I have observed two by-elections and two national elections as an election monitor, was part of the team to manage the first visit of a U.S. First Lady to Malawi, I nominated Malawi’s first-ever State Department-recognized Trafficking in Persons Hero, and helped to bring about the first Mr and Miss Albinism pageant, at which I served as the head judge. The 2019 national elections were challenged leading to a historic — only one other time on the continent — court decision to nullify the results and call for a new election. The new election, which was held peacefully, ushered in the opposition party for the first time in 26 years. I might have received an evening call at home from the White House Communications Agency after the election results were announced. I might have been very excited — though maintained my cool during the call. At the end of 2020, the Economist magazine named Malawi the Country of the Year. And I was here for it.
On this tour I have worked with some of the best the State Department has to offer — truly extraordinary officers who serve their country with distinction. And I have had the honor to meet the best and the brightest of Malawi in the course of my duties. I had in my phone contacts a high court judge, high-level Ministry personnel, members of Parliament, important persons at the Malawi Electoral Commission, prominent human rights activists, and more, and when I called, they answered! I met a former President – the second female president on the continent – twice, the wife of the Vice President twice, the previous sitting president once, and the current president, before he became president, on several occasions. But it has been the everyday Malawians (or those living in Malawi), those like I featured in my Faces of Malawi blog posts (here, here, and here), I have met that have really been a big part of this tour.
Will NOT Miss
Massive Stacks of Bills. I do not carry a wallet here in Malawi. Instead, I carry is a fabric coupon organizer so that I have the space to hold more bills flat, not folded. The largest Malawian bill is the 2000 kwacha note, which is the equivalent of $2.47. There have been rumors of a possible 5000 kwacha bill since my arrival, but it never materialized. Malawi is largely still a cash-based society, though I have been able to use my credit card at the supermarkets and mobile cash has recently been introduced, so things are changing. I will be glad to retire my coupon carrier for a while, at least until I arrive in Guinea. In related complaints, the cost of some things is surprisingly the equivalent or even more than in the U.S. One is petrol. Currently, in Malawi, the gas prices are around 900 Malawi Kwacha per liter. That is the equivalent of $4.20 a gallon versus the current average price in the US of $3.17. And the Internet – I have posted before that Malawi has the most expensive Internet data in the world and you most certainly do not get what you pay for.
Driving and Parking. I have heard that traffic in Malawi is mild compared to many other developing cities. It is not so much that there are major traffic jams — I mean there are, but they are due to a limited number of roads. But it is the quality of the driving that really drives me nuts. I have heard, anecdotally, that there are a good number of drivers on the road without valid licenses. Given some of the driving I have seen, I believe it. But the parking too… A former colleague told me that a speciality of Malawi is to always construct buildings with a fraction of the parking needed. For example, the Bingu National Stadium can seat over 40,000 people, but there are maybe 500 parking spaces only. But it’s not just about there not being enough parking, sometimes there is plenty of space, but it’s made worse by some extraordinarily bad parking. There are a few places like the Game complex and the Gateway Mall that appear to be a magnet for those with the worst parking skills. People park a third of the way into another spot or diagonally into spots or in spots that do not exist. Sure, there are people all over the world who are terrible at parking, including the U.S., and its likely that parking will be challenging in Guinea, but I do hope for a respite from the special brand of driving and parking I have encountered here.
Mosquitos, Nets, and Malarone.We have spent four years sleeping under mosquito nets and taking malaria meds. In the rainy season, from approximately November through March, the mosquitos are relentless. Each morning I find myself conducting a bizarre clapping session as I kill one after another. When we head to Guinea we will back to this but I look forward to nearly a year away from it.
Grocery Disappointments. Sigh. It is such a disappointment to order items from the US and have them take four weeks to get to us and then they are crushed or melted. But this is what has happened with probably 50% of my Tostitos (half the bag pulverized) and my gummy vitamins (half of it melted into one solid mass). But even purchases here are subject to a lot of uncertainty. About two weeks ago I bought a container of hummus for $5 and I get home, open it, and find it covered in mold! And cheese, it’s a regular game of what will I get — could it be smooth and delicious or will it taste like stale dirty socks? I would say 8 of the past 10 watermelons I have purchased from the fruit seller have been bad despite the constant assurances that they are selling me the most delicious, red, and juicy fruit possible.
Overall, Malawi has had far more positives than negatives. I do not regret staying for two consecutive tours or staying here through the pandemic. Though COVID and the related travel and life restrictions have definitely made things more difficult but Malawi was our home. Now, we both look forward to some things in America we have missed for some time. My daughter puts string cheese, slurpees, and Taco Bell at the top of her list; I especially look forward to salads, sidewalks, and more of a sense of normalcy — though I do admit I am a bit concerned about the culture shock we will encounter going from a place very much in a third wave of the pandemic to a place where many appear to believe we are past it all.
We are slipping ever closer to our departure from Malawi; we have less than a month to go though I do not today know exactly how many days are left. I had a date in early August, but realized that due to COVID I could request to depart in July. I then had a very late July date, but then the airline flying that route cancelled the flight. We have new tickets but the already paid for reservation for my cat on that flight has yet to be confirmed for the new itinerary. Therefore things are not quite settled until the cat’s ticket is settled.
The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster. Lots of preparations to wrap things up in the office and at a home. A series of actions to check items off lists. Slowly sorting items into piles of things to sell, to donate, to give away, to put in luggage, into unaccompanied baggage (UAB), and into household effects (HHE). It might seem on the surface to be a rather straightforward process, but it is not. The two of us qualify for 450 pounds of UAB, which will be sent to the U.S. by air. It seems like both a lot but also not very much. We will be in the U.S. for about a year, so we want to be able to take a fair amount with us. Our HHE will be placed into storage in Europe until we arrive in Guinea in the summer of 2022; the shipment will only be authorized after our arrival and can take a few months. Therefore its likely we will not see these items for 15-16 months. If my daughter tells me that I can put something into HHE then I might as well just get rid of it now as she will be a different child 16 months from now.
We have whittled down quite a bit of the pantry and toiletry items. It feels a little odd as Malawi is a consumables Post – a place where we are able to get a extra shipment of foodstuffs and items for personal or household maintenance – and thus we arrived with large stocks of those items. Now we are out of vitamins and down to the last tubes of toothpaste, the last bottles of shampoo, the last bits of so many things.
In the midst of these preparations, Malawi has experienced the lead up to a COVID third wave. The third wave in Africa started in early May. South Africa had been seeing increases particularly with its own variant (the Beta) and the Indian variant (Delta), and as was to be expected it did not take long for it to spill across borders. By early June, the cases in Malawi started to climb just as the county began to administer the second shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Unfortunately, before the end of the month vaccines in Malawi were finished.
I had really hoped that before we departed Malawi we might get in another vacation. We had managed to get out for our holiday in Kenya just before the second wave and we have had a few trips within Malawi after the six-month prohibition against traveling out of Lilongwe at the beginning of the pandemic was lifted. I thought we might get to South Africa and Lesotho to finally complete the trip we had had planned for April 2020, but Ethiopian Airlines refused to honor the flight credits we had and with the COVID numbers going up yet again, it seemed best to remain in Malawi. I started to look into whether we could get in another domestic vacation but we had already done a good job in getting out and about; there were few places left on my bucket list. Many we had already been to twice. Those we wanted to get to were rather far, with still limited facilities due to the pandemic, or cost prohibitive.
Thus I found myself with 11 consecutive days of off just hanging about the house. As if we have not already been hanging around the house for much of the past 18 months. Yet this time, I have the upcoming departure from Malawi, our Permanent Change of Station (PCS), fast approaching so though my inability to scratch my travel itch yet again has done a few things to my psyche, I am also grateful to have had this time to both relax (lots of sleeping in, reading, watching DVDs), manage some final play dates for my daughter, and to do some of that whittling down of things.
But I could not be content with just that. There was one more place I had hoped to visit. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malawi. One is the Lake Malawi National Park and we have visited there on multiple occasions (such as here, here, and here). The other is the Chongoni Rock Art Area. Scattered across 127 sites in the Chentcherere hills of central Malawi, around Dedza, these are a mix of paintings on rock by BaTwa pygmy hunters of the Stone Age and Chewa agriculturalists of the Iron Age and “feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa.”
On a beautiful, clear Sunday morning (after days of overcast days), C and I, with our friends CR and her daughter AR, headed about 100 kilometers south on the M1 to the Dedza Pottery Lodge. We stopped there so CR could pick up an order, we could all use the facilities, and we met our guide Samuel. CR jumped into the backseat with the girls and Samuel took the passenger seat, and we headed back north along a dirt road. We drove around 45 minutes to the turn off to the Namzeze site, which Samuel said was the best as it featured paintings of both the BaTwa and Chewa people. The road then got pretty bad. It was just a track through tall grassland. At times it was okay, but at other times there were some parts where bits of the road was missing, making ridges with fissures deep enough to maybe, if not swallow at least stall my car.
At last we came to an area just above a wooden log bridge. We stopped here as there were significant gaps between the log and it was too much of a challenge with my car (especially one I have already sold!). I was really pleased that although the road was challenging, the signposting was good.
We then walked up the rocky hillside for about 40 minutes or so (I suppose some can certainly hike it faster than two middle aged women of middling activeness with two nine year old girls) until we reached an area with a large covered opening in the rock, a shallow cavern, the Namzeze paintings. There we sat as Samuel gave us a bit of information on the drawings and the people who made them. He said the paintings done in red ochre were made by the BaTwe people, and could be as much as 10,000 years old, and the ones in white clay were made by the Chewa people and are approximately 2,000 years old (though it is not all that clear, even on the UNESCO site, that the paintings are that old). The red paintings, as they are older, are fainter, and of mostly graphic designs (lines, dots, shapes) while the white clay designs are of four-footed animals and birds, which are likely related to ritualistic initiations.
After about 30 minutes at the site we had a more rapid descent to the car. We drove part way back to the Dedza Pottery Factory to drop off Samuel and then headed back to the M1 and Lilongwe. I am glad that we went, that we had one more adventure to see another special aspect of Malawi.
It is such an odd time now. PCS’ing — moving internationally — is hard enough, stressful enough in normal times. During a pandemic puts it at a whole new level. Flight schedules are more limited. Ethiopian once flew daily to and from Lilongwe and now its four times a week. And schedules seem subject to more changes and cancellations than usual. And the testing regimes on top of it. It’s a lot to think about. And it is all mixed up in the complicated feelings of departure from a place where we have spent a significant amount of time and after already a year and a half of a pandemic. Most Embassy families we know are currently on their R&Rs and we are the last family to PCS this summer. C’s best friends leave two weeks before us. Our last few weeks are going to be hard, especially on C. There is unlikely to be another PCS like this. At least I certainly hope not.
We head next to the U.S. where it seems from where we sit that most have returned to a level of normalcy. My sister, a TSA agent at a major U.S. airport, has reported “post-pandemic summer travel,” except that implies an end to a pandemic that is very much still in progress and accelerating again in many parts of the world. I am focused almost entirely on managing our departure; the arrival in the U.S. is a whole other step. I do not know what to expect.
Today, February 3, is Setsubun, the Japanese festival to celebrate the end of winter and welcome Spring. I remembered this because I have a Japanese car here in Malawi and every day when I start her up, she chirps a welcome to me in Japanese akin to “Today is such and such day of the week and date. And here is an interesting/random fact about today.”
I am still writing up my blog posts for our R&R to Kenya and generally dislike posting a random post while still not done with a series, but we are in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Malawi and I am just feeling down. I am tired of the teleworking and the distance learning (I know, who isn’t?) and am suffering some pretty severe bouts of insomnia that is leading to headaches, exhaustion, and exacerbating the pandemic fatigue. Even though I knew that a flip of the calendar would not magically waive the pandemic away, here I am a month into the new year, deep into the Malawi rainy season, and I could really use a pick me up. So, when I got into my vehicle today and it chirped it its forever optimistic female Japanese voice, “今日は2月3日水曜日です.その節分,” or “Today is Wednesday, February 3. It’s Setsubun,” a waive of nostalgia swept over me. I was immediately transported back to when I lived in Japan and celebrated this holiday with my friends. Back to when I was younger and not a parent and not living in a pandemic.
My friend Bill has embarked on a pandemic lockdown inspired daily writing exercise — to stretch his writing chops, entertain friends and family, and perhaps pave the way into some sort of post Foreign Service career. While he is closer to retirement than I am, I too have found myself, especially when in the pandemic isolation doldrums, to flirt with my one day, perhaps sooner than expected, retirement dreams. I have long wanted to write about the years I lived in Japan. I figured I would take C to Japan and write about that trip and then as companion pieces, revisit aspects of my three years there. But a good look at the very long, minimum three flight trip, with either very short or very long connections, that would take us from Malawi to Tokyo, flattened my resolve; COVID-19 killed it. I still plan to one day write those posts. So with a combination of inspiration from my friend Bill and my Japanese RAV-4, here I am writing about Setsubun.
In July 1997, I arrived in Kogushi, a small fishing village on the San-In coast of Toyoura-town, Yamaguchi prefecture in the western part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. That makes it sound really romantic. In fact, if you literally translate most of it, Yamaguchi means “mountain’s mouth” and Toyoura means “rich bay,” and that sounds even more beautiful. Only Kogushi 小串 is not as lovely. It means “little skewers” as you can see the character “gushi” resembles a stick with two pieces of meat on it, like a kebab. I thought “little stick” more fitting, as in “I live in the sticks” or way outside the city.
I was an English teacher at the local high school through the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program through the Japanese Ministry of Education and Sports. To cut a long story short, I was plopped down in the middle of this rural area to teach English to less than enthusiastic high school students. As the only gaijin (obvious foreigner) in town, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Parents would force their children to sing me the alphabet in the supermarket and people wanted to invite me over to their houses for the sheer quirky fun of having a real live blonde American in their home, but honest to goodness friendship was hard. The other teachers in the school stayed clear of me, largely because they did not speak English well themselves and the English teacher was a bit of a creep so I didn’t want to hang with him anyway. It was not easy to make friends and after the initial excitement of the honeymoon period passed, I found myself pretty lonely.
In stepped Akiko and Isao. A couple in their 60s who lived a few towns over somehow got word to me that they would like to meet me and discuss the possibility of starting up an English course for adults that would be run out of their home. Akiko and Isao would be my saviors, they did so much more than open their home to me. They gave me adult conversation, even if in broken English (and my even more dismal Japanese), they gave me friendship, with them and with the other adults who joined the class. They introduced me to Japanese customs and celebrations. They visited me in the hospital when I had my appendix out (an odd but amazing experience to have in small town Japan). And they even had my mom, aunt, and aunt’s friend stay with them a few days when they visited Japan, to give them an authentic Japanese experience (and me a break from four adults staying in my small two tatami mat room flat).
I started my three times a month lessons for adults in Akiko and Isao’s living room in January of 1998. They had a beautiful traditional Japanese home perched on a hill overlooking the Sea of Japan. It looked like a miniature of a Japanese castle — all white with a grey tiled roof, with eaves that turned up at the ends, with animal figurines dancing on the roof spines to the edges. Inside they had tatami mat rooms, fitted with traditional recessed alcoves with Japanese shrines with photos of ancestors, dolls, and old pottery, befitting the home of the granddaughter of a Samurai, which Akiko was. It wasn’t all traditional though. The heated toilet seat with about 20 controls for all kinds of toilet experiences, was a modern treat. And the jazz musician paintings that took center stage in their living room still fit perfectly. I was overwhelmed to be invited to teach here and almost cried when I came home from the first class.
Just a few weeks after I started, February arrived and Akiko and Isao offered to host a Setsubun party for the class. I had no idea what that was but was grateful for an invitation that would have me doing something other than sitting alone, cold (my apartment, like many Japanese homes, had crap insulation), watching Japanese television I could not understand, for an evening.
Setsubun is sort of like Japan’s answer to America’s Groundhog Day. Though its origins are also old (8th century for the former and 4th century for Candlemas, the precursor to Groundhog Day) and around the heralding of spring, but do not involve anyone waiting around for the appearance of a fat rodent. Instead, it involves two people dressed up like an ogre of misfortune (oni) and the personified appearance of fortune (fuku) and the tossing of troasted soybeans. That sounds way more fun, right?
Arriving at their home after dark on a cold February night, I was a little surprised by the festivities. Neighbors dressed up like Fuku and Oni, looking a bit like a scary versions of Cookie Monster and Elmo, burst into the house as we threw the roasted soybeans (fukumame or “fortune beans”) at them with silly abandon while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out! Fortune in!). I am pretty sure I shrieked a lot. I had no idea that a Japanese celebration would be so fun; I had expected sedate.
Following this we headed in to Akiko and Isao’s house, where they had transformed the living room into a sort of dining room. Around the room where multiple kotatsu, low wooden tables with electric heat sources built into them for cold winters, each with an electric hot plate and a ceramic bowl perfect for cooking nabe, the Japanese version of the hot pot, the perfect dish for a cold winter’s night. Set out on the tables were various hot pot ingredients: cabbage, carrots, thin white Japanese mushrooms called enoki (the only mushrooms I have ever eaten), and various proteins such as tofu, shrimp, chicken, and beef. The dashi (broth) of kombo (seaweed), sake, mirin, and soy sauce already simmered and small bowls of ponzu (a light watery citrus-based sauce with a dash of soy sauce) and ground daikon (white radish) sat ready for dipping our cooked food in for added flavor. It was all very delicious, but it was the laughter and camaraderie that really warmed my heart.
I will forever remember that night as one of the best of my three year’s in Japan. We recreated it each of the three years, but it was that first setsubun that was the best. Never before (and I struggle to think of a time since) had I felt so welcome overseas. That class became more than just a class. They were my friends.
Tonight, what I would really like to do is throw the shit out of some roasted soybeans while surrounded by friends shouting Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Because we could all use some major fuku fortune right about now. Am I right?