The Somewhat Reluctant Spring Break

Spring Break. Sigh. This used to be a time I really looked forward to planning a getaway, you know, in the before times, before the pandemic. Although the 2020 Spring Break trip had been upended, at the end of last year it started to look like things we turning around. I had begun to have visions of a 2020 Spring Break Redux. But by the time we returned from our Kenya R&R at the end of 2020, travel again seemed to be in jeopardy.

COVID-19, naturally, continues to throw a major monkey wrench into any sort of international travel. Malawi’s second wave, though subsiding now, had been much more disruptive and deadly than its first. But the indirect effects, the fewer flights, testing regimes, and other restrictions are still in place. Malawi has never been a major hub; before the pandemic there were daily flights to Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, and Nairobi, and less frequent flights to Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, and Harare. Now there are just the Addis, Jo’Burg, and Nairobi flights, and they are less consistent. Friends of ours were to fly to South Africa the previous week and the airline cancelled a few days before without reason.

Malawi’s newest COVID-related billboard featuring the President touting the “Three W’s,” i.e. Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands

Though honestly, I love travel so much, that I was willing to go through the flight, COVID testing, and mitigation measure gauntlet, but we had another problem: passports. Last fall I noted our diplomatic passports (we hold both diplomatic and tourist passports) were expiring in the summer of 2021 and thus we would need to renew before the new year as many places frown on or even outright disallow travel during the final six months. As the Acting Consular Chief (a post I held for six months during 2020), I diligently applied for our new passports at the end of October. Our paperwork was FedExed to the State Department on November 4. And then, it seems, we got tangled up in the whole U.S. election mail issue / COVID-related mail issue and was lost. (Luckily for most American citizens this is NOT how we do tourist passports overseas and its much faster and more reliable!) I did not know this until by the end of January I wondered what had become of them. We had to apply again. Though we received our new passports by the end of March, it was not in time to plan a vacation outside of Malawi’s borders.

One of the cats of Norman Carr Cottage living her best life

That left a trip within Malawi. And I was torn. With nearly four years in country, even with a pandemic mucking up domestic travel for a good five months of 2020, C and I had already covered most of the major sights and lodging on my Malawi bucket list. Yet, the thought of spending another staycation hanging out in my living room, lounging on the tired dung-colored State Department-issued Drexel Heritage sofa was too much to bear. We needed to go somewhere. Well, truth be told, *I* needed to go somewhere. I am afraid my formerly world traveling companion kid had grown a bit too comfortable with couch surfing. But if I did not get out of my house, I thought I might go mad.

The two major places left on my bucket list seemed out of reach because they were either quite far (two days driving or one really long day for those with a penchant for torture) and still on a self-catering basis (and my desire to drive really far to just cook the same stuff in a different kitchen is at an all time low) or required a charter flight which would trigger an Embassy-imposed stay at home order upon return. And while I was uber-productive with my telework the first six to eight months, my at-home productivity has most certainly waned after a year. And that my friends is actually the understatement of the year. “Working from home” has become an oxymoron as I tend to just stare into the abyss when confronted with this option; I make every effort to go into the office.

With this in mind, I booked two nights on Kayak Africa’s Mumbo Island and one night at Norman Carr Cottage.

With the Mumbo Island transport departing Cape Maclear at 10:30 AM, I was not keen to depart Lilongwe just after sunrise, and thus Norman Carr Cottage, located just south of Monkey Bay, would give us a nice overnight stop and ensure more relaxation. (Note: Embassy employees we are not permitted to drive after dark outside the three major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu for safety reasons)

Norman Carr’s original lakeside cottage (left); The beautiful carved bed in our room (right)

Norman Carr was a British conservationist who in the 1950s and 1960s helped launch the first national parks in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (then the British protectorate known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) and started the first walking safaris in these countries. In the 1970s he built himself this idyllic lakeside cottage where, reportedly, he wrote several of his books. I love me a little history with my vacations and this bit of Malawi history suited me fine.

We did not do much here, but that was rather the point. We arrived and had lunch. And then my daughter promptly broke one of her flip flops — because she had carefully selected the oldest, on its last legs, pair despite my having presented her with brand new ones a month ago. Sigh. Thus, we found ourselves driving into the thriving metropolitan (just kidding) village of Monkey Bay in search of replacements. We parked at a small grocery store, but they did not have any shoes. They did have soft serve ice cream (will wonders never cease?) and as the young man whose job was to serve this up was preparing to do so, I asked if he knew where we could get shoes. He pointed at a makeshift wood kiosk across the street and we walked over (well, I walked, C hopped on one foot). The small shop sold a random assortment of goods such as clothes detergent and a limited selection of fancy ladies slip ons. I shook my head — these looked like adult sizes — but C said she would try them and in some odd African village version of Cinderella, they fit perfectly.

A view of our eco-chalet from the cove entrance

On our second day, we drove 30 minutes north to Cape Maclear on the Nankumba Peninsula where we boarded a boat for the 10 kilometer (6 miles), 45-minute ride to Mumbo Island, located within the Lake Malawi National Park (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Mumbo Island is a small, only one kilometer in diameter, uninhabited island and the eco-“resort” covers only a small part of that space. Five of the six thatched chalets are perched high on rocks located on an even smaller island connected to Mumbo by a wooden walkway. There is no WiFi, no cellphone signal, and no electricity. And it is beautiful.

After an extremely rainy March, we had perfect weather – temps in the uppers 70s and sparkling azure skies. The lake waters lapped against the sandy shore. I never tire of how the lake seems like the sea.

We disembarked from the boat and were shown our chalet, where C immediately claimed the hammock strung across our porch overlooking the Lake. And there we just took a little time to soak in the atmosphere. For the first time in weeks I really could feel myself relax.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Douglas, the Mumbo Island chef, in the dining area on the main island. We watched a pair of hornbills alight on a nearby tree and a chatty bulbul waited impatiently on a ceiling rafter hoping for any of our leftovers. Monitor lizards crawled through the underbrush beneath the floorboards and sunned themselves on the rocks by the water. Afterwards, we relaxed in the room, on the small beach, and swam in the lake. Around 5 PM we headed out with Marriott (one of the other Mumbo Island staff) for a circumvention of the island by boat and a sunset viewing. Writing now I was sure we had done more that day, but thinking back, that was all and yet it was full. After dinner, we snuggled together in the hammock watching the stars. With the vast expanse of Lake Malawi lit with only a few fishing canoes, the sky overhead is at its darkest and the stars at their most brilliant. Though the 19th century Scottish explorer David Livingstone reportedly named it the Lake of Stars for the way the fishing lanterns reflected on the evening water, its the incredible view of the night sky that is more arresting. I am quite sure we could clearly see the swath of the Milky Way though I am far less sure of the constellations. Regardless, we talked until we grew sleepy and then we crawled into our beds, letting down the mosquito net but leaving the doors and windows open so we could hear the waves all night.

Early the next morning C again commandeered the hammock, lazily rocking back and forth, flipping her shoe casually from her toes. Exactly as I had asked her not to. And wouldn’t you know it, but as I got up to tell her to stop, one of those shoes we had only just bought at Monkey Bay was launched from her foot, sailing over the edge of our porch to the waters below. Sigh. Luckily, we could see it floating below. I told C to put on her suit and I would put on mine and we would swim out to get it. But then realized we could take a kayak to retrieve it. And as luck would have it, one of the Mumbo Island staff was willing to make the rescue. I may have had some choice words regarding her lack of footwear care, but told C one day (in fact later the same day) we would laugh about it. She said I should call this blog post “The Shoe Incidents.”

An extraordinary tree along our Mumbo Island hike and the view from Pod Rock

It is a good thing we located that shoe as after breakfast we headed out on a hike around the island. Not that those fancy lady sandals were the best shoes for a hike, but they were far better than nothing. Our sweaty hike around Mumbo must have taken about an hour though I am not entirely sure as my watch stopped working early in the pandemic and I have not yet bothered to replace it. The hike afforded us incredible opportunities to experience nature from three to four foot monitor lizards scurrying from our paths, symbiotic trees, the high pitched cries of the African fish eagle, and a gorgeous view across the Lake from atop Pod Rock.

C gets her zen on

We spent the rest of the day alternating between reading flopped on a bed or swinging in the hammock (you can guess who got the hammock again) and lake activity. We kayaked around the small island, swam, and together steadily worked up our courage to leap off the wooden walkway into the water. Eventually, C made friends with the 9-year old daughter of a visiting French family and the two of them spent the rest of the afternoon in one another’s company swimming and giggling, heads together in deep conversation. I sat on the beach in the warm sunlight reading.

We had another nice dinner but headed to bed a bit earlier than the evening before; the hike, kayaking, and swimming surely had tired us out. I had another great sleep lulled by those lightly crashing waves on the rocks below our chalet, and dreamed of rain.

It was hard to leave the following day. I could have stayed another night, maybe two. I meditated on the boat ride back, the warm sun on my face. And before driving back to Lilongwe, we stopped at another small historic site in Cape Maclear, the grave site of 19th century Scottish missionaries.

This may not have been the Spring Break I had initially hoped for but it turned out to be exactly what C and I needed.

Malawi: The COVID Second Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malawi Signs

A woman and her baby stroll by beautifully painted advertisements in Area 3 Lilongwe

Signs. I have a thing for them. I don’t know why. Maybe everybody does? But in my travels abroad, I have found myself photographing quite a few signs. Street signs were my thing in Indonesia. There were so many child or person crossing signs — some with very skinny stick figures, some with chunky. In China, I think it was the signs of rules translated to English that got me the most. There were so many rules and so many that were amusingly lost in translation. I have taken pictures of so many different kinds of animal crossing signs from horses, cows, and ducks to kangaroo, penguin, and warthogs. In the U.S. we have so many, many signs that tell us what to do and what not to do (park here, don’t park there, go this fast or this slow) and what to buy. I find that signs reveal much about the environment, culture, and interests of a society.

Although there has been an increase in billboards and other physical advertisement signage in the three and a half years I have lived here, Malawi still has relatively few. There just is not that much money to advertise, and not that many persons with money to buy what is advertised. The signs one sees stand out because there are so few. When driving between cities and towns, you can go for 50 miles, maybe longer without seeing a single sign. That may not sound like much given distances one can drive say in Texas, but Malawi is densely populated — the 10th most densely populated country in Africa — and the sixth poorest in the world (by one index).

If you need some assistance, these guys are here to help

The first signs to catch my eye were those posted around the neighborhood advertising various services. Most are for house services such as electrical, plumbing, lawn mowing and such. It is hard for me to pick my favorite. I am a big fan of the handwritten signs nailed on to tree trunks. But then the toilet seat attached to a dead tree trunk advertising plumbing maintenance is kind of genius. Still, Doctor Mutaka and his miraculous cures and potions has got to be an all time favorite. I am not sure how much business he would get in my neighborhood of expats and wealthy Malawians, but he has put up signs all over, so he is at least hopeful. And I sort of respect that. I might feel less respect for those that seek out his services.

Staples on sale

The next signs I really started to notice were those for staple items. Most are hand painted on wood or cement billboards. I appreciate the time and patience someone took to paint them, and there is an artistry to them, but I am less clear why the advertisements are necessary. Soap, detergent, long-life milk, sugar, cooking oil, juices, maize seeds, TNM and Airtel (the two national telecommunications networks), cement (for housing), steel (basically corrugated steel for roofs), soda, and Carlsberg beer (fun fact: the first Carlsberg brewery outside of Denmark was set up in Malawi in 1968; its sort of Malawi’s unofficial beer), these are the basics. At the store there does not really seem to be so many brands or variety and my guess is most buyers in Malawi are going to get the cheapest they can find. But the advertisements are there nonetheless.

Society “Be Better” Signs

Another popular theme of Malawian signage is to present positive societal practices. Child labor, child marriage — especially for girls — and the exclusion of women in decision making are all issues in Malawi, and therefore there are signs to promote ways to combat these issues, generally paid for by international organizations or businesses. I think there is something to be said for aggressive societal campaigns to eradicate issues through education and indoctrination. When I visited and lived in Indonesia in the early 2000s, there were still vestiges of the very successful “dua anak cukup” (two children is enough) policy campaign from the 1970s. Mostly in the form of statues of the perfect family of two parents and two children, though some written materials and billboards still existed. The thing though is that the campaign was in the local national language – Bahasa Indonesian. Most of the signs encouraging certain behaviors in Malawi are in English and though it is the official language, I would not be surprised if many of the persons for whom the signage is aimed at, struggle with English. This begs the question of who then are these signs for? I appreciate them, but then, perhaps, I am part of the target audience?

You have been warned!

Another favorite of mine — though not generally so easy to find — are the hand painted warning signs. I have only see a handful, but when I do see them, I usually pull over to the side of the road to capture them on my SD card’s memory. I came across the dangerous bridge warning on the M5 maybe 30-60 minutes north of the town of Nkhotakota. I expect the nearby villagers had become tired of speeding motorists taking the turn and then the narrow bridge too quickly. I found the “Beware the Dog” sign while on a walk near the Luwawa Forest Lodge – and though I approached the sign with caution, I had a feeling I knew the subject, and though very large, the canine in question had spent the previous afternoon in a game of fetch the ball with my daughter.

Campaign billboards

As a political officer, I cannot help but notice politically inspired signs. With national elections occurring here twice during my four year tour (May 2019 and June 2020), I have had a chance to see my fair share of political signage. Mostly it was just the parties’ political flags flying from a tree or electricity pole. Larger signs varied from those that encouraged voting eligible citizens to get out to the polls (usually sponsored by international donors), while others (though fewer), extol the virtues of a particular candidate, paid for by the campaigns or sponsors. I had to hand it to the re-election team for the former President Peter Mutharika for its optimistic billboard with the inspired hashtag #OperationLandslide. Depending on the politics, the billboards may be built to last or suffer the political tides. The Mutharika billboard on the left was ripped down by vandals even before the 2019 election. The Atupele Muluzi campaign billboard for the 2014 election was still there — at least in part — even in early 2018. And just a month ago I came across a perfectly intact 2019 campaign billboard for a third party candidate who did not run in 2020. I have seen other well worn signs — beaten by weather and age — still standing silently alongside the road months or years after the event it advertised has passed.

Nothing to see here

By far the greatest number of “signs” I see in the capital are signposts lacking in signage. There are so many of these sad skeletal frames missing their purpose in advertising scattered across the city. For at least a year, my favorite billboard had to be the forlorn Welcome to Lilongwe sign on the M12 as one would come into the city from Zambia. Cracked, peeling, greyed with age, and absolutely empty, it seemed to say, “just keep driving, nothing to see here.” Do not get me wrong, I very much like living in Lilongwe and Malawi, but there is just not a lot of externally provided activities. This is very much a make-your-own-fun kind of place. But maybe, I could look at it another way — Lilongwe is a blank space, where its up to you to decide what to make of it?

As I begin my countdown to leaving Malawi (eight months to go), I find myself thinking a lot on what this place has meant to me and what I will miss. For the most part, my life in Lilongwe is pretty small, confined to an area of approximately five square miles. Those streets have become so familiar to me, and the landmarks on those streets as well. These signs I have seen have marked the territory of our lives for the four years we have made Malawi our home. I cannot say that they have necessarily passed the message to me that was intended, but I have noticed them and thought about them and stopped on my journey to take a picture to remember them.

Something Like Normal

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

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

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

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

My little Pokemon enjoys a socially distanced Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

“Fall Break” in COVID Times

View of Lake Malawi from the Makokola infinity pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grassland, marshland, forest, and fresh air

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

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

Luwawa Nature: a bejeweled locust and a rainbow of berries

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

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

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

The horses return to the stables on their own

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

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

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

My COVID Birthday – Liwonde National Park Getaway

Liwonde’s riverside savannah at dusk

Earlier in the year we had a great plan for August with our friends from the U.S. Of course, the best laid travel plans have a habit of being disrupted in a pandemic and these were no different. Like many travel and tourist related companies caught in the pandemic spiral with cancellations right and left, I was issued a credit, not a refund, on our deposit.

As Embassy domestic COVID-19 restrictions eased and we could again travel outside the capital, stay overnight in lodges, and dine in limited exposure situations, I began to plan a trip. After days and weeks morphing into months (six of them) doing nearly everything — working, schooling, cleaning, reading, writing, eating, sleeping, child care — in my home, I was incredibly motivated to not spend my birthday weekend in yet another COVID staycation, if I had options to do otherwise. So, I contacted the travel company and booked two nights at the Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park using our credit to cover half the costs.

Ulongwe Village entrance to Liwonde National Park

Liwonde is an approximately 4.5 hour drive from our part of Lilongwe, despite what my map app said. First, its always surprising to me that it takes about half an hour winding through the warren of narrow, overused roads of the capital til finally breaking free at the round-about on the M1 south from the city. I had just barely emerged from the capital’s chaos when I had to take a pre-arranged call. It is early in the official bidding season, when those of us transferring the following year are taking interviews with potential future posts. The hiring manage had one day and one time available, so I had to make it work. It was hardly ideal having an interview while on speakerphone in the car, but the pandemic has turned everything upside-down, so I gave it my best. But the interview helped the first half of the drive go by quickly and once it was over, we cranked up the tunes and sung our way south for another hour.

At Balaka, where we turned off the M1 and headed east on the M8, we moved into unfamiliar territory. So often driving in Malawi requires just going along the same roads again and again and again, but as we headed down a new-to-us road — even one as pockmarked with potholes and with sides eroded significantly that in some places the two lanes became one as this one — and drew closer to the park, I could feel the stress of the past several days (weeks? months?) ebbing. We spent some 20 minutes on a new, nicely paved road named after the President who lost the landmark court-mandated new election in June, and then meandered through dusty dirt roads through small villages until we reached the end of the village of Ulongwe and the back gate to Liwonde National Park.

Our ride across the Shire River from the Ulongwe side to Mvuu Lodge arrives

Liwonde National Park is neither Malawi’s oldest or largest park (both of those honors go to Nyika National Park), but it is Malawi’s most accessible, and thus most popular. Just five years ago, Liwonde was a park in extreme decline; decades of poaching had left more wildlife snares in the park than wildlife. That year, 2015, Africa Parks, a South African non-profit conservation organization (and whose President is Prince Harry), took over the management of Liwonde. Africa Parks has turned Liwonde around, cleaning up snares, developing a top ranger force, and providing key community awareness to mitigate human and wildlife conflicts. In 2016, Liwonde was the source of one of the world’s largest elephant translocations when Africa Parks moved over 300 elephants from the park to another of its Malawi parks, Nkhotakota. And in 2017, predators were re-introduced, first with lions and later cheetahs, as Africa Parks works to restore the park and animal populations. C and I had visited Nkhotakota and Majete and had saved Liwonde for the last of Malawi’s Africa Parks’ run national parks.

To reach the park from the Ulongwe side we registered at the park ranger lodge and notified the manager of Mvuu Lodge of our arrival. We drove a short distance further to the banks of the great Shire (pronounced “sheer-eh,” not like the homeplace of the Hobbits) River, which is the only outlet of the massive Lake Malawi and flows to the Zambezi. There Chifundo, our guide, met us with a small boat to pilot us ten minutes across the river to our accommodation. The exchange from car to boat had to be made quickly, as almost as soon as we parked, we saw antelope, monkeys, and most ominous, a troupe of baboons emerged from the brush to circle the clearing. Chifundo would take my car keys and after dropping us off at Mvuu Lodge, return to drive our vehicle back to the ranger station (you do not want to know what baboons might do to your unattended vehicle).

A White Headed Black Chat captains our boat; Malawi’s national bird the Fish Eagle surveys the river

Immediately, we could spot wildlife from the boat. Hippos lurking near the river’s edge. Elephants on the shore or in a bath party in the river. Antelope grazing on the river banks. And birds swooping alongside the boat or perched on branches – from slim reeds to massive boughs — nearby. A crocodile lazily swished through the water.

We disembarked after a 20 minute ride, including a short detour to see elephants, then climbed aboard a jeep for a short drive to the lodge. We were served lunch in the main building, built above a beautiful spot with views over savanna, marsh, forest, and the river, where in a lazy woman’s safari we could already make out seven types animals without any effort — warthog, bushbuck, baboon, hippo, waterbuck, striped mongoose, and a crocodile.

After a lazy lunch and an even lazier layabout in the room for an hour, it was already time to head out on our sundowner game drive. It was just C and I, our guide Chifundo, and a park ranger. It took literally seconds to spot more wildlife. Impala, bushbuck, warthogs, and baboon were the most plentiful, but the occasional rarity such as a southern ground hornbill or a tree squirrel, would make an appearance. It is October now, the tail end of the dry season, and the daytime heat is intense. But driving in late afternoon to evening in an open safari vehicle, feeling a delicious breeze as the African sun dips and the air is suffused with a rich, golden light, is magnificent. It was hard to believe that morning I had been in the capital. We felt a world away.

The next morning – my birthday – we were up at 5 AM. C and I have not seen that time of day in a long, long time. We are natural night owls, and the COVID experience has accentuated and cultivated our late evening tendencies. Amazingly, both of us, refreshed by an undisturbed sleep beneath a large white mosquito net canopy, the lulling sound of the ceiling fan, and the sounds of nature, woke up easily.

We were on the hunt for predators — cheetahs or lions or both. Cats are naturally a big draw for game drives, but even in a well stocked park like Kruger in South Africa, catching sight of the big cats is never a guarantee. Liwonde has a total of eight lions (though ten were introduced in 2018, battles for dominance among males has already reduced the population). The cheetahs — seven of whom were introduced in 2017 — have fared better, with cubs born each year more than doubling the population.

Monkeys, lions, and bushbuck, oh my!

We spotted the usual suspects, but also hippo grazing on open savanna in the early light, a herd of sable, another of eland (the largest antelope) some hartebeest (the fastest antelope), and zebra. And as luck would have it, the eagle eyes of our ranger caught sight of a lion in the distance. We arrived at the bank of a dry riverbed where two lionesses were snoozing. It was exciting to see two of the eight, though they made sure to be as absolutely boring as possible, and C quickly asked if we could drive off. But wouldn’t you know it, a male was lurking nearby, behind a dry ridge of earth in the riverbed. He popped his head up a few times to give us a look–Who had disturbed his nap? And then he rose majestically, standing on the ridge, his head raised as if sniffing the air, and began to saunter with purpose in our direction. And that is when C lost it. She began saying in a stage whisper “Oh, my gosh, oh my gosh, its coming, its coming, let’s get out of here!”

Of course, that lion lost interest in us very quickly, and languidly stepped over to the ladies and flopped down beside them. The excitement over. We drove for another hour or so, enjoying being together away from home, with our reverie occasionally interrupted by a wildlife sighting, but there were not more cats.

We had a light breakfast and lunch, and several more hours of lazing about in our room or sitting on our balcony, which faced a marshy plain backed by tall trees and attracted all manner of wildlife. I felt more content than I had in a long while. Then in the late afternoon we headed out on a sundowner boat safari.

A safari from the water is an entirely different thing from a game drive. The pace is slower (and far less bumpier — as my very first Malawian game driver called it “The Malawian Massage”). There is just as much a sense of excitement with a lick of danger — just as C was sure the male lion intended to leap across the ravine, up the bank, and dive into our jeep to eat us, she was wary of crocodiles and hippos, sure they would upset the boat. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t) Again, an abundance of hippos, crocs, and bird life, including, unexpectedly, four wayward flamingos, on the water and elephant and antelope on the banks. And as the sun set on my birthday, we were treated to the quintessential swift but deep red African sunset; I felt as if I were in the movie the African Queen.

Sunset from the Shire – A very happy birthday to me

The following morning we opted not to take advantage of another included game drive as we had seen so much wildlife and preferred to a lazy lie-in along with the sounds of the African bush. I wanted to hang on to that languid relaxation as long as I could before making our way back to Lilongwe.

But all good things come to an end. And just as the sense of calm had increased the closer we got to the park, the stressful feelings returned the further we drove away. Liwonde was wonderful, but a short weekend away was not never going to be restful enough to reverse the past seven months of pressure, frustration, and melancholy. We were still in Malawi. And we love Malawi, but it can still be a challenging place. And as I drove home, I could feel my irritation grow with the piles of bricks lying unused by the sides of the road in villages where people work hard yet barely eke out a living, with maddening drivers (too fast or too slow or too), with the poorly maintained roads…and when I was pulled over by the police (for the first time ever in Malawi) and the traffic cop tried to extort a bribe, the weekend’s spell was completely broken.

Still, there are certainly far, far worse places to be, and Liwonde was a great birthday getaway. I have also used up one of my COVID travel casualty credits, only three more to go.

Mini Getaways in the Time of Covid

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

Sable antelope eye us warily at Kuti Wildlife Reserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our super fabulous Superior Family Cottage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Pros and Cons of Being Posted to Lilongwe

To continue the tradition of writing the five pros and cons of serving as a Foreign Service Officer abroad and following my similar posts on Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai, its has come time to write about Lilongwe.

PROS

The fabulous yards make up for the somewhat odd houses

1. The Housing, Most Especially the Yards. The houses in Lilongwe are okay in my book. These are the residences one generally expects when posted to Africa: large, ranch-style homes. They are quirky, often 70s-style (perhaps the worst decade for architecture) with odd layouts and/or odd features, and require frequent calls to facilities to address issues. For example, I have a room with only two walls that is more like a large square hallway between two other rooms. And in that room there is also an unusual recessed wall. I also have a random, I don’t even know what to call it, a raised platform? dividing my living and dining spaces. Still, I love my home. But its really the yards that make the Lilongwe homes. I can wax lyrically about my yard for hours on end. I even wrote a whole blog post about mine. Every Mission home I have visited has a wonderful yard. They are large, lush, and leafy and filled with birdsong day and night. We have trees, so many trees, from fruit-bearing (avocado, citrus, banana, mango, papaya) to flowering (jacaranda, flame, poinsettia, palm, frangipani), and various other hardwood and softwoods. Many of us have gardens growing vegetables and herbs. I did not grow up with a yard, only a balcony, and the only other yard was the rock strewn one where scorpions liked to hide in Juarez; I shall always be grateful to have had the opportunity to live in my Lilongwe home surrounded by such an expanse of nature.

2. Climate/Weather/Nature. One thing that is universal among those who live here are the raves about the weather. If you are a fan of the snow and ice kind of cold, then Malawi is not the place for you. But if you enjoy warm weather with a touch of chill in the winter months, then this is the place. There are three seasons: the cool and dry (roughly April-August), the warm and dry (approximately September-November), and the warm and wet (around December-March). In the first, it can be surprisingly chilly overnight and in the early morning, with temperatures in the mid-40s to mid-50s (Fahrenheit). But it does not remain cool all day; in a way it reminds me of the winters of Ciudad Juarez with its high desert chill as low as the 30s but up to the 60s or even 70s during the day. Lilongwe is not high desert, but its elevation at 3,440 feet (1,050 meters) above sea level may take some by surprise. Its rarely humid; its heat in the warmest months in the 80s. It’s rainy season turns the leafy areas of the cities (like our yards) and most especially the countryside, a blindingly lush, verdant green. And while all is not perfect, of course, as the rust brown dust invades our homes, and climate change, poor government planning, and deforestation can wreck havoc in this poor country, there is always some natural beauty to be found.

The entrance to my street — no matter the season this view gives me life

3. Wildlife. Something one thinks of when bringing young children to Africa is the opportunity to take them on safari — to see the forests and savannas teeming with African animals. The reality though is that many game parks and lodges on the continent do not welcome small children. Many have policies of no children under 12 or even under 16. However, Malawi is different. While there are a few activities my daughter cannot take part in (generally walking safaris are out — and from the one time we visited a cheetah sanctuary in South Africa and saw how the animals tracked her as we walked through the facility, I get why), but she is welcome most anywhere. And its not just the wildlife in parks, but that in our very yards and neighborhoods. From the monkeys we may see at or near the Lilongwe Wildlife Center (including at times on the Embassy roof) to the haunting high-pitched whoop of a hyena (I’ve heard it twice in the capital and a colleague saw one once). Within our own yard we have seen hedgehogs, mongoose, and snakes — a giant blind snake, a herald, and a brown house snake (all harmless to humans, thank goodness, but still inspire fear in our gardener and guards who often assume all snakes are mambas) — and once we saw a genet (a cat-like animal similar to a mongoose or a civet) run across the road at twilight in our neighborhood.

A rainbow arches over Mulanje Massif

4. Travel. Okay, Malawi does not have the attractions of many of its nearby neighbors — there is no equivalent of Victoria Falls or Zanzibar or the Maasai Mara. But there are many posts in Africa where travel is extremely limited for security reasons — such as being unable to drive beyond the ring road of Abuja. In Malawi, you can travel. And while the costs of a few nights at one of the fancy lodges will set you back more than many might like (I see a lot of complaints on TripAdvisor, but Malawi does not get the tourists that more well-known African destinations do, thus small market equals higher prices), the costs may be more reasonable than other African destinations. Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa (10th in the world); it is also the most biodiverse lake in the world for freshwater fish. You can snorkel (away from the shores where the crocs and hippos hang out) or just admire the way the waters lap the shore and fall asleep to the sounds of the waves — the closest tourist part of the lake is just a two hour drive from the capital. But there are also great national parks, including those that are under management by the South African conservation NGO African Parks (Prince Harry is the President) — Majete, Liwonde, and Nkhotakota. There are unique travel destinations from Likoma Island, a Malawian exclave surrounded by Mozambican waters in Lake Malawi, to the tea estates of the south. And if you hanker to cross a border to travel, the beautiful South Luangwa Park in Zambia is just a three hour drive from Lilongwe.

5. Colleagues / Meaningful Work. There is something about Malawi, to its “Warm Heart of Africa” motto; it gets under your skin, burrows into your heart. Yes, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, so development money is welcome and needed. But its not just that. While there can no doubt be incredible frustration with the level of corruption uncovered, the seemingly backward steps the country has made since independence, there is also an indomitable spirit and an extraordinary amount of talent in this country. There is an incredible amount of progress being made compared to many other countries on the continent or around the world — one of the first countries in the world to launch a national Adolescent Girls and Young Women strategy; it will likely be one of the first to reach epidemic control on HIV/AIDS; its apolitical, professional military one of the first on the continent to receive U.S. certification as peackeeping trainers; and the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court’s landmark decisions to overturn a presidential election — and for that court mandated new election to be held peacefully — brought the country worldwide attention and admiration. And maybe because it’s a lovely, generally quiet place with a good school, or because one can get an immense amount of satisfaction from the work, the Embassy attracts some of the finest officers and staff I have ever had the pleasure of working with. These are people who have impressed me with their professionalism and kindness, and made me want to be better.

CONS

This “flattie” wanted to be my friend — but I was not happy with the arrangement

1. Insects, Insects, and More Insects. In general, I would say I have a “live and let live” attitude toward insects. I am not a huge fan of being in close proximity to creepy crawlie bugs, but with as much backpacking as I did back in the day in Southeast Asia, I could maybe be described as “chill” when it comes to bugs. Not that I will not screech at the top of my lungs when faced with a giant flying coachroach or a good-sized spider — I absolutely will — but I have seen others really freak out. Of course, I cannot say I was quite prepared for the buggy world that Africa had to offer me. Exhibit A would be the Great White Moth Invasion of 2017. Some sort of small white mealy moth and about 10,000 of his friends hatched in my yard in the Fall of 2017. They were everywhere outside — well in my yard, no one else seemed to have these — and would get in my face, on my clothing, covering every square inch of my garden wall. I completely lost my sh*t one day, grabbing a shoe and vowing to kill, at a minimum, 1,000 of those buggers. And I did — so much crazed whacking that I developed a painful blister. Thankfully, those seem to not be an annual occurrence, but unfortunately, Exhibit B, the termites and flying ants are. With the first rains, these horrible winged creatures rise from the wet earth like the living dead and hover around every single external light in massive swarms. My guards and staff delight in this season — frolicking among them gathering them for snacks — but I also tend to lose my mind at least once every termite season. Its also a battle with them on the property — they have eaten through bits of my chicken coop, rabbit hutch, my daughter’s playground. Exhibit C would have to be the spiders. Until COVID, we did not have wall crab spiders (or “flatties”), approximately 2-3 inch diameter, dark brown/black arachnids, but I encountered them elsewhere: in the B&B and my friend’s home in Harare, in several Malawian national parks, and other lodges. I learned they can run surprisingly fast and have a propensity to run toward me rather than away. Twice when we visited Pumulani, the beautiful lakeside lodge in the Malawi National Park, large, and I mean the size of my hand large, spiders found their way into our chalet. Lots of screaming ensued. The Ambassador recently found a juvenile baboon spider in his son’s bedroom. I haven’t see one of those….yet.

2. Lack of Entertainment. Lilongwe is most definitely a “make your own fun” kind of place. If you require external modes of entertainment, then Malawi is probably not for you. There are no cinemas, no malls (no, the 20 store Gateway Mall, anchored by two supermarkets, does not count), no museums (even in the whole country there are only a handful and they are sorely in need of some TLC). Entertainment venues are limited — not nonexistent, mind you, I am sure you can find something if you really put your mind to it. For instance, there are the huge Tumaini Festival held at Dzaleka Refugee Camp and the Lake of Stars, a three day international musical and cultural festival that draws acts from around the world, both usually, but not always, held annually. For nearly two years we had no Community Liaison Officer, so even few Embassy organized social gatherings or trips, and now there is the pandemic. As a single introverted parent working as the sole political officer, I have had enough to keep myself busy. However, COVID has exposed how very little there is to do as even the quarterly trips to the Lake or a National Park or within the region that would restore us are mostly unavailable.

What Does 1GB of Mobile Data Cost in Every Country?
Visual Capitalist’s awesome infographic on the cost of 1 GB of data around the world

3. Internet. Some might say, “Oh, no worries on the lack of entertainment venues. Give me a good Internet connection and a Hulu, Disney Plus, Netflix, or Amazon Plus membership and I am good.” Well, in Malawi, you then have to contend with the country’s poor telecommunications infrastructure. First, its expensive. The infographic demonstrates that in 2020 Malawi ranked as the most expensive for internet data among 155 countries worldwide. If you pay an arm and a leg but in return you receive speedy connectivity and top quality service, then you could live with it. However, second, the service provided leaves so much to be desired. There are many times I clearly have a strong signal, and I know I have the data, but for mysterious reasons the Internet still does not work. This extends to telephone services. Dropped and poor quality calls are the norm. Sometimes related to hops, skips, and jumps in electricity, and other times the theft of communications equipment. For instance, the Embassy’s landlines are knocked out about once a month when someone steals the cables.

4. Roads/Traffic/Parking. Potholes, lack of road markings, non-existent shoulders, sometimes even half a lane missing from continued erosion, a limited road network, and sharing the roads with everything from poorly maintained, speeding mini buses, long-haul trucks, bicycles, livestock, and all manner of humanity, make driving in Malawi, well, um, interesting. It’s not terrible. I have seen and heard of worse in places like India, Vietnam, China (recall the 3 day traffic jam in Beijing a few years ago), Kenya, Indonesia, Philippines and the like, but driving in Lilongwe has changed me. I have gone from a mild mannered driver to someone who lays on the horn and yells obscenities. My daughter has heard ALL the bad words just as a function of being in the car with me. I guess part of my frustration is because Lilongwe is NOT a megacity soI do not understand the traffic. There are clearly not enough roads and much-referenced anecdotal reports indicate that some 100 new cars are registered each day in the capital. I certainly get behind quite a few “student driver” cars on the road, and from what I have seen, I am not sure the teachers know how to drive either. But while I am not impressed with the driving here, the general inability for persons living in Malawi to park well exceeds the poor driving. There is one parking area in a large shopping complex in the City Center that attracts the worst of the worst. Diagonal parking, parking that overlaps two spaces — whether side by side or pulling well into the space in front, parking in make-believe spaces, parking behind other people…

5. Poverty Exhaustion. This is probably the hardest to deal with and the most difficult to write about, and to admit. You cannot get around the fact that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and that you, an expat with a good paying job, are living here, behind the high brick or cement walls topped with razor wire of our compounds. Relationships with many Malawians are compromised by privilege. Our privilege. My privilege. Attempts to help often end up in cycles of dependency. A simple one-time gift meant to “help” could open up repeated asks, of expectations, that on some days threaten to pull you under. Then the guilt. You have so much, they have so little. It is necessary, even crucial, to understand one’s level of privilege in the world, to not take for granted the access to education and healthcare afforded me by an accident of birth country and skin color. I feel it every single day here and some days I wish I could ignore it. I am not sure I deserve to, but I want to. Yet living here has opened my eyes to my many blessings and I hope has also given my daughter a dose of that reality as well.

The negatives can be hard, some days more than others, but the positives far outweigh them. My daughter and I would not have signed up for two consecutive tours, four years, here if they did not. And most others I know have also extended here — there really is something special about Malawi.

The Face Mask: So Fashion Forward

Every so often I write about something a wee bit different. Not about my travels or life abroad. And this particular topic has been worming its way into my brain for a few weeks. First as a few throw away thoughts, jokes to friends and acquaintances, until it filled out, and surprisingly, or maybe predictably, turns out it is sort of about my living overseas.

The author contemplating the past and future of face masks

The Face mask: finally, an accessory I can embrace. I have, at times in my life, hoped I could carry off a particular accessory to accentuate my personality. Well, not really, but I read that on a rather silly website that this is something accessories do, in addition to defining an occasion or defining one’s style. I do have jewelry, mostly necklaces and pendants, including some very interesting and much loved pieces I picked up in my travels. And for a time I was quite into shoes. I wear spectacles, but that’s so I do not bump into things and, you know, be unable to do my job. My prescription makes them expensive and I am unwilling to buy more than one pair.

I have tried to hats — cute baseball caps, a floppy straw beach hat, comfy beanies — but my head must be oddly shaped because they never look quite right. There are also those really simple but colorful fabric headbands that seem to render certain women who exercise to also look effortlessly chic. In case you are wondering, no I am not one of those women. Those bands will not stay on my head, but instead steadily, stealthily slide across my crown until they slump listlessly to the ground. I also, briefly, tried to up my game with neck scarves. I have a few I purchased in Nepal and Southeast Asia, some I bought at a fancy shop at the mall in the building where the Consulate was housed in Shanghai, a really beautiful one brought back from Pakistan by a former boyfriend. Sigh. I tried, I really did. But those did not amplify my style either.

But face masks. Whew, its like I have finally found the accoutrement for me. They fit my face. And they cover up my slightly bulbous, fleshy nose, with its high bony bridge I wanted, in high school, to reshape, and they play up my blue gray eyes and my quite flattering forehead. Oh yes, I have found the accessory for me.

The thing is, I realized after some introspection, face masks are not a new thing for me. I have actually been sporting them for some time, or at least at different phases in my life. And, I thought, how about that? For once I might just have been fashion forward.

My mask from my Korea days

From September 1995 to October 1996, I lived in Seoul, South Korea, where I worked six days a week as an English teacher in one of those institutions of after school cram instruction, called a hagwon. Between teaching, working out at the gym, and studying Tae Kwon Do (and weirdly, all three locations resided in one single building in Il-won-dong, Kangnam-ku, yes, the district in Seoul made famous by the Gangnam Style song), I had little free time, but when I did I often went clubbing with my friends. And there, I was on the ground floor of K-pop, before it was really known as K-pop. I bought cassette tapes (yes, it was that long ago) of my favorite Korean bands, and the favorite of my favorites was just about everyone else’s favorite: Seo Taiji and the Boys. And on a Sunday, my only day off, in the fall of 1995, I bought myself a knock-off Boy London face mask from a street vendor in Itaewon. I could probably write a short novella at least of my time in Itaewon, just up from the Yongsan Garrison of the United States Forces Korea, where by day I could find American goodies snuck off base and sold in hole-in-the-wall stores and by night could dance away with my friends and soldiers. But the point is I bought that mask, which because I had no clue about the British Boy London clothing brand, thought it referred to Seo Taiji and the Boys, forever associating it with my first, brief love for a band that sang lyrics I could not understand. I loved that mask. And I still have it!! I fished it out of a box just yesterday as I searched for something else.

Generic — until I made it special with a sharpie

Fast forward seven plus years. Boy London has been in a box for a long time and the Seo Taiji and the Boys cassette long ago lost. Now, I am in Singapore for graduate school. I have roommates again and there might have been a wee bit of clubbing on occasion, though more often small parties usually hosted by Indian friends and roommates, with Bollywood-infused dancing. A little more than halfway through my year, the SARS pandemic made its Singapore debut. It would be dramatic to say things changed overnight, because they didn’t, but things did change. And lo and behold, the face mask came back into my life. Though this time it was, of course, not about wanting to keep half my face warm during a cold Korean winter or temporarily brand my visage in cottony pop culture fabric. This time, I had to wear the mask for public health purposes. And I had no special mask, just generic single-use ones. But I still found it, not fun, but, me?

Jump ahead to the fall of 2014 as C and I are preparing for our move to Shanghai. Now, I am told, I’ll need a mask again, this time for the poor air quality days of Chinese cities. Though this time I also get to inculcate my daughter into the wonderful world of face masks from a young and impressionable age. I go for the top-of-the-line N95 masks in fetching plain colors for me—including a wonderful pale grey/blue that really accentuates my eyes—and a snazzy oriental print for C. So enthralled am I with this purchase that I schedule a photo shoot for C and I with my photographer sister, to truly capture this momentous moment when I bequeath my fetish for fetching face fixtures to my offspring.

For the love of face masks

I discovered though that getting a 3-year-old to wear and keep on a face mask is no mean feat. The photo shoot had not quite instilled the fun factor I had hoped. I also wear glasses and in the winter months, when the pollution levels tended to be higher and the masks were more often needed, I had to choose between wearing the mask and seeing where I was going. My warm exhalations steaming from the mask’s ventilation valves would fog up my glasses and though Chinese cities had come a long way since my first days in the country in 1994, there was still a chance a manhole or drain cover might be left off and I would plunge to my death (or just injury and pride as what happened when I fell into such in Japan of all places), so I needed full vision to navigate the sidewalks. My affection for face masks might have slipped a bit then, just a bit.

And now, here we are in 2020, and everyone (well most everyone, I guess not the anti-maskers who just are not getting into the spirit of it all) is getting in on the face mask action. But C and I, we are old hats at this. In fact, I would like to note that in 2016 I wrote, on this very site, a blog post about the growing face mask fad in China. Seriously, I kid you not, you can go back and look, but here is my prophetic prose: “Is this what it has come to? My coveting anti-pollution masks as an accessory? As far as I know Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture are not yet into designing face masks, but is it only a matter of time?” And yes, I not only covet more face masks, but Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture and many more brands and designer houses are now in on the action (and huge kudos to Louis Vuitton for repurposing studios across Europe to produce and donate non-surgical protective masks to frontline healthcare workers).

Malawi during COVID: Sunshine and chic chitenje face coverings

C and I, like most people in the world, wear our masks much more often now and have traded in, or at least swap our, out heavier N95 Shanghai masks with the colorful, lightweight, and simpler masks made from the traditional Malawian chitenje fabric (much of which is actually made in Indonesia as the higher quality, more expensive fabric is known at the markets as Java). But unlike many others, C and I are not newbies to the face mask scene, and eased into our mask wear with greater ease than most. Alas, my face modeling days are mostly behind me, though maybe C has a bright future in this no-doubt growth industry.

I would be remiss if I did not also point out that my cat too was way ahead of the face mask for pets curve. While I see photos and articles on the trend in China nowadays, I would like to just post here again a photo I posted four years ago of my cat, Kucing (pronounced “Ku-ching;” it means “cat” in Bahasa Indonesian) temporarily sporting my daughter’s face mask, which she wore without resistance.

It is amazing to recognize that for once, I was on the forefront of a trend. Me, who still had an 8-track player in the eighth grade (when everyone else was on to cassette tapes) and still had a cassette player in 2006 (and someone at the gym mocked me for it). Finally, my time has come.

Malawi Three Years: An Odd (COVID) Anniversary

Three years. I have not lived somewhere for three consecutive years since my stint as a Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program teacher in Yamaguchi, Japan from 1997-2000. In the twenty years since I left Japan, I backpacked around the world over the course of a year and then changed addresses some 18 times to or within 11 different locales until our move to Malawi in August 2017. Yet here we are, three years into an unexpected, but very welcome, four-year tour in Malawi, though, of course, the last half of this third year has not been quite what we had planned given the coronavirus pandemic.

Happy Coronaversary

No question the pandemic has turned everyone’s worlds inside out one way or another.  My struggles with teleworking, child care, homeschooling, and housework are not unique.  Friends around the world are wrestling with these same concerns.  And for when the particular idiosyncrasies of being a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in Malawi during the pandemic (because no, we don’t have a State or National Park to take a walk or hike or bike ride in nor can we have Whole Foods deliver), I have my friends and colleagues here to lean on and commiserate with. 

After the presidential election re-run, on which I had focused on since the beginning of the year, had come and gone and the new administration had begun governing, I found myself suddenly, painfully aware of the pandemic and the isolation and limitations it had placed on us.  At the beginning of July, I found myself feeling unmoored.  School had ended for the summer, the election was over and the results accepted peacefully, and a few other major work projects had wrapped up.  And the hope I had held for months that the pandemic would be over by July, like SARS had been when I had lived in Singapore, had been completely ripped up into tiny pieces.  Instead of being close to the end, it was still going on, and the numbers of confirmed cases were and are still increasing in Malawi.

Confirmed cases accelerate: 2,000 to 5,000 cases in four weeks

Confirmed cases, which began in early April, had reached 1,000 by early July, then doubled to 2,000 by mid-July, and the case numbers continued to climb.  A month later, by our anniversary date of August 13, cases had nearly reached 5,000 (they did the following day). Those numbers may not seem like much in comparison to other places, but coronavirus response capabilities are not created the same. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and resources like medical staff, hospitals, and equipment are not at the levels of more developed countries. Just think about testing capacity: I have heard that neighboring Zambia tests as many as 7,000 individuals a day.  In the U.S., the average daily tests between 1 March and 30 July were over 350,000.  Even if you just take the state of Florida, which is close in population to Malawi, there were approximately 27,000 tests daily in June.  In Malawi, testing averages a few hundred a day. 

On August 8, the government at long last issued stricter coronavirus measures — this after the initial lockdown attempt in April was slapped with an injunction when human rights activists took officials to court over their implementation. Masks are now mandatory in public spaces, businesses in close proximity to hospitals are closed, church services are limited, and weddings and other large public gatherings banned. Before the restrictions went into effect I had already seen an increase in mask wearing in Lilongwe, with persons from all walks of life wearing their masks while driving, taking buses, selling their wares, and even walking in the open air.

And while I have not heard of anyone beating up anyone who has asked them to wear a mask to enter a store, compliance is not universal. Churches bristled over the regulations forcing a reversal on the restrictions on places of worship. Wedding parties are most certainly still happening – there are wedding reception venues embedded into our neighborhoods and the past few weekends my friends and I have been treated to hours and hours and hours (I mean, like 1 PM to 9 PM) of non-stop dance tunes.

Our primary supermarket’s notice – Lilongwe City instituted its mask policy before the national government

Malawians have reacted to the pandemic and the restrictions much in the same way people have in other countries around the world. Some comply with measures, some do not. Some escape from quarantine, others voluntarily submit themselves. Some push for school and airport re-openings while others warn about the repercussions of doing so too early. When I am not frustrated by my inability to work at normal levels or being unable to travel, I am fascinated to have this ringside seat to the Malawian debates and to compare them to what I am seeing back home.

C tries out the new handwashing station at the supermarket

Perhaps the most interesting to observe and experience has been the innovation local businesses have implemented to keep customers. Before the pandemic there were only ad-hock delivery or pick-up in Lilongwe. Now however there is a food delivery service utilizing motorcycles, which can zoom around traffic, and pick up from just about any restaurant. Some supermarkets are also now delivering and the recycling group comes to pick up once a month in my area.

I have not regretted once staying here in Malawi for the pandemic. There are many other FSOs who are not as fortunate. Some may have only arrived at their Post a few months to half a year before the pandemic hit, giving them scant time to settle in, receive their belongings, learn their jobs, and meet colleagues and classmates and make friends before the quarantines and isolating began. Others were preparing to leave their assignments in the summer and opted to take the Global Authorized Departure (GAD) to shelter in the U.S. until they could make the move to their new duty station – quarantining in hotels or with family or in other temporary digs for an indeterminate period of time; unable to say proper goodbyes to friends and colleagues and leaving behind most of their belongings to be packed by others. And if they have been lucky enough to secure orders to their new assignment, many are quarantining in new, unfamiliar places and starting new jobs and schools from impersonal new homes.

Still others who were to transition this summer but chose to ride out the pandemic in a familiar place may now be unable to depart as commercial flights have not resumed in either their losing or gaining Post, or both. Some FSOs who had a year or more left in their assignment but chose to take GAD in the U.S. are now facing decisions of whether to break their assignment and try to find a position in a place they can get to or continue waiting for who knows how much longer to return. There are thousands of FSOs and other overseas government employees across the State Department, USAID, Foreign Commercial Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, Department of Defense and other agencies such as the Center for Disease Control, Department of Justice, Customs and Border Patrol, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Peace Corps (yes, all these agencies and more have overseas positions) and their family members who are in these circumstances.

There may be all sorts of masks available in Lilongwe now, but my favorites are those made of the local chitenje fabric.

But C and I are just riding the pandemic out in our home. While there were and still are adjustments for managing work and school in these circumstances, we did not have to add in other uncertainties. There was no need to pack, no need to move, no need to familiarize ourselves with a new city. I did not have to start a new job with all new co-workers. C did not need to start at a new school with new friends. And I am so incredibly grateful during these strange and trying times that we have this place where we are so comfortable, so at home. One more year to go.