Malawi: Two Mini Vacations

As much as I enjoy living in Lilongwe for the personal and professional life it affords my daughter and I, there are times when it wears me down.  Times when the grinding poverty weighs heavily, when the stories of those who are trying to claw their way out yet are foiled again and again, just gnaws at the heart.  When a simple drive to the supermarket exposes all my deepest seated frustrations – the begging boys who tried to block my car to get cash (nope!), the car that signaled a turn and then just stopped in the road not turning (get out of the way!), through the traffic lights that haven’t functioned for weeks (is it 4 weeks or 8?  It’s hard to recall how long we have all been inconvenienced, playing chicken at that intersection), the guys selling kittens and puppies along the side of the road (sad and illegal!), and a parking lot full of ridiculously poor attempts at driving and parking (%&#*&#!).  And the mosquitoes are making a comeback as the weather warms.  One might think each morning and evening I am applauding an encore performance for all the clap, clap, clapping I do trying to kill them in my room…

Whew.  OK.  It may be clear at this point that I just might be in a wee bit of a funk, hanging out at the low point on the culture shock graph.  It’s not that it’s Malawi, not really.  We all feel like this at times.  The fed-up-ness with the routine; the craving for something to break through whatever morass we find ourselves in.  The tremendous desire to just get away, to have a change of scenery.  That can happen anywhere.  Or at least I keep telling myself this…  No, its true, I know it.  I think back to the loooooooong, busy summer of 2016 when we lived in Shanghai, a city with many, many things to do.  I also needed to arrange a few mini vacays then to keep my sanity.  Knowing how busy this summer would be (though not really knowing how crazy it would be until in it), I planned for similar getaways to help preserve my mental equilibrium.

Kumbali

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View from the upper floor of the main lodge

Located just 13 kilometers from the center of Lilongwe, and about 9 kilometers from my home, sits the 650 hectare working farm with a beautifully appointed lodge at its center.  This is the place where Madonna stays when she comes to Malawi.  C and I had visited Kumbali before for lunch, but this time we would stay overnight.

I booked for the Friday before Labor Day.  C’s school is international, but not American, so she does not get the U.S. holidays off.  I did not want her to miss a day of school, nor did I want to miss out on my holiday.  With our half day Fridays, we could still have lunch at home and be at Kumbali in early afternoon.  And it did not take long for us to pack up the car and head out — a few quick turns to Presidential Way, following it nearly up to the gilded, guarded gates of State House, the residence of the President of Malawi, where a sharp turn to the left has us skirting the high State House walls on one side and a few fancy homes on the other, but which quickly give way to a modest village as the paved road gives out.  We bump along a slim dusty, dirt road another 10 minutes til we reach the Kumbali estate, and five minutes more the road peters out in front of the lodge.

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Our favorite cow is the one hiding in the back

We quickly settled in to our room, a simply appointed space with its quintessential white linens, with four posters draped with white mosquito nets, but with a soaring 25 foot high ceiling exposing the beautiful wooden and bamboo rafters. I took some minutes to drink it in before hurrying C so we could take part in an activity we had been looking forward to: milking cows.

Kumbali is a working dairy farm, and although their herd is small, they make enough milk to use in preparing their own milk, yogurts, and feta cheeses. I had only once milked a cow in my life, as a child visiting a community fair in the historic town of Leesburg, VA. I must have been 8 or 10 year since old when I sat on the metal pail, guided by a fair volunteer dressed in 18th century garb, in my attempt to free milk from what appeared a very full udder. But my ministrations were in vain and I have always remembered it as extremely difficult work. So of course I wanted to inflict this particular joy upon my daughter!

C was initially game to give it a try but as she watched the cows file into the milking area, she had a change of heart. Perhaps seeing the size of the cows in front of her, she had some serious second thoughts, so she pushed me forward exclaiming, “mom, you go first.” Remembering my own frustrating experience many, many moons ago, I wanted her to go first.  With a bit of wheedling she agreed.  And wouldn’t you know it but she managed it with ease!  I also gave it a go and made it happen with little effort.  Well, how about that.

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C and Bwenzi survey the Kumbali livestock

We also took a tour of the farm, joined by the Kumbali dog Bwenzi, which means “friend” in Chichewa.  A mix of Rhodesian ridgeback and local dogs, Bwenzi seemed the perfect companion, and happy to act as C’s temporary dog.  As C begs me every few months for a dog, this worked out well.

After surveying the cattle, goats, and sheep, we headed back to the room for a rest.  Work had been busy for weeks and I had had allergies and a cough for about the same time; I was exhausted.  I just needed to stay awake through dinner.  C happily drew in her sketchbook and I read on our patio.  We arranged an early dinner at 6:30 and we just barely made it.  The food was delicious -a custom made menu to suit us made with fresh incredients from their farm.  Right after dinner we went to bed.  Its a good thing that the African Bat Conservancy, with offices on the farm, was unavailable to give us a bat tour that night; we could not have stayed up.

IMG_3197The following morning after breakfast we took part in a one hour farm tour, just our guide, C, and I in a dilapitated, push start, bare bones truck used just for tooling around the farm.  There is a picture of Madonna with four of her children posing in this vehicle, published in People magazine.  We didn’t tap our inner Madonnas though, C and I are plenty adventurous ourselves.  Still, it was kinda cool to be in the same vehicle.

We were taken from the lodge, past the animal pens and staff quarters, to the banana plantation.  Bwenzi the dog ran behind and alongside the truck.  We passed row upon row of banana plants, from those heavy with fruit to the small shoots just getting going.  We headed down to the edge of the property, which borders the Lilongwe River.  In two years in the capital, I had seen little of the river that gave the city its name.  Those parts we had passed over seemed mere trickles of what surely had been at least a somewhat substantial waterway.  But here at the edge of Kumbali the water was full, it flowed, it glistened in the sun.  It was beautiful.  We walked along the bank for awhile as our guide pointed out areas where locals forged the the stream or used well placed rocks to cross.

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C and Bwenzi survey the far bank of the Lilongwe River

C convinced me to move from the front seat of the truck to the bed — this certainly upped the adventure factor as we bounced back along the dirt lanes of Kumbali, back past the banana plants, to the permaculture center, where sustainable farming methods are taught to Malawian farmers.   Then we jumped back into the truck, headed past the horse pens, and arrived back at the lodge.  Our short, less than 24 hour getaway, had come to an end, but it was worth it for a different look at Lilongwe.

Ntchisi Forest Lodge

Soon after getting C’s school schedule, I noticed a random Friday off in September.  With our half day Fridays, I could take 5 hours off and have the whole day, so I booked a night at the Ntchisi Forest Lodge, located about two hours north of Lilongwe.  We also invited friends to join us on this adventure.

Ntchisi 2The lodge is a refurbished historic colonial building, once cool, higher altitude leisure residence of a British district commissioner, then a resthouse of the Forestry Department.  Dating from 1914, its actually one of the oldest buildings in Malawi.   It is located within the Ntchisi Forest Reserve, one of the few remaining indigenous rainforests.  Its been on my Malawi bucket list and sounded like a great one night getaway.

On Friday morning, C and I packed up our car and headed over to collect our friends AS and her two daughters, one of whom is one of C’s bestest friends, then we hit the road.

From the outset my GPS would not pick up the route.  But we had a handwritten map and figured we could figure it out.  It was easy enough to begin the drive north on the M1, the main artery through Malawi from Tanzania in the north to Mozambique in the south.  We found the turn to the right easily enough after 55 kilometers as it was the only main road heading east since the road to Salima.  Then we had to make a right after a hospital.  OK, got it.  Then a right at a t-junction.  Good to go.  We then had to make a slight left after a radio transmitter and we almost mucked that up, but we made a quick corse correction.  Then things got interesting.

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Where are we?

We were to drive past a yellow house on the left and then veer to the right.  A yellow house among mostly brick ones should stand out, but the color was not as bright as expected and sort of blended into the scenery.  Still, there it was and we made the turn.  We were close.  The next step was to pass a school on the left and then make a sharp right hand turn then follow that for 4.2 kilometers more to the lodge.  Except, we missed it.  I saw a school, but there was no road to the right, and we drove on.  We were talking, and talking.  I just kept driving without paying attention to the time.  We drove over a cement bridge over a small river.  AS noted that something like a river would be on the map and it wasn’t….and we kept driving.  Finally, at one point I wondered aloud how long we had been driving past that school and we turned around.  I paid attention then and discovered we had driven 30 minutes past that school, and it was not even the right school.

By the time we found the right turn, with the help of a friendly local who luckily spoke English, I had begun to feel the strain of the adventure.  Our two hour drive had become four.  I was hungry.  The kids were tearing through the snacks and beginning to grow restless.  I had previously thought, if my aunt comes back to visit, maybe I would take her here, but now I said, aloud, I never wanted to drive here again.  Then we found the lodge, turned into the parking lot, and I ate my words.

Ntchisi 32It is set on a lovely open piece of land surrounded by the forest, on an escarpment with views across the East African rift valley.  The scenery is immediately relaxing.  We got ourselves settled into our respective rooms, C and I in the lodge, and AS and her family in the forest cabin.  Then C and I had fresh sandwiches for lunch.  As C quickly finished and ran off her friends (well her friend, she tolerates her friend’s sister), AS and I sat talking, looking out the window, breathing in the beauty.  There are plenty of hikes the lodge can arrange, but I wanted to do little but be away from Lilongwe.  The gardens of the lodge, full of flowers as well as herbs and vegetables used in their meals, were also full of butterflies.  I am a huge fan of nature photography and enjoyed just wandering the grounds in search of lovely things.

In the late afternoon, we headed out to Sunset Rock, a large granite promontory with views across the tree tops, oddly enough with Malawi headed into Spring the leaves turning autumnal colors.  DS, AS’s husband arrived, he had driven up after work, apparently without navigational issues, just in time to watch the sun sink into the clouds over the distant hills.  Perhaps one of the best sunsets I have had to pleasure to be present for in Malawi.

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We all enjoyed a homecooked meal prepared for by the lodge’s excellent staff, and chatted and laughed.  I am by far a lone traveler, or now just C and I, so it was novel to be spending this getaway with lovely new people we have met here.  C dumped me in favor of spending the night with her bestie, so I retired to a bedroom with three beds that would sleep four, alone.  Exhausted by the drive, the darkness, and even comfortable happiness, I fell asleep early, sleeping more than I had in weeks.

We woke the next morning just before a half seven breakfast.  I strolled the gardens some more with my camera, DS went for a run, the kids chased each other on the lawn, and AS had quiet meditation time in the forest cabin, before we all regrouped to take a very short hike to a very small waterfall.  Then we packed up the cars and prepared for the drive back.  Just before leaving, the wonderful managers and hosts of the lodge pointed out their resident chameleon, clinging photogenically on a red flower.  All of us took an extra 30 minutes to check him out and thank the staff for their hospitality before heading back to the capital.

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Leon the Chameleon

These little getaways have not been quite enough to compeletly chase away the strong emotions of nostalgia and displacement I have found sneaking up on me at unexpected times the past few weeks, but they did keep that at bay for a little bit.  These mini vacations may not have provided all I needed, but they gave me some.

 

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Malawi: Two Year Anniversary

Two years in one place.  Its something to celebrate.  Not that I haven’t spent two years in other places; I have.  Japan. Jakarta.  Juarez.  Shanghai.  But this is the first time, in a long time, in which I am staying on past the two years or am not in the midst of those final months of packing up and preparing to leave to the next location.  We have two more years ahead of us in Malawi.

It seems a little hard to believe that a little over two years ago I was sitting at the table – the same exact table I had had in Jakarta, in Juarez, – in an unfurnished, characterless dining room around three in the morning, jet lagged, wondering what in the world had possessed me to bid on a job in Malawi.

Here I was in a new country, on a new continent, in a new position I had not yet done before.  In all the other places I had lived — with the exception of the small town of Kogushi in Western Japan – I was in a large city.  From my home I could get around on my own from day one, on foot or by taxi or other public transport.  The first few weeks in Malawi I felt very isolated.

Yet here we are two years later and it is very much our home.  Those early lonely days feel so long ago.  C loves her school.  When we arrived she was just starting kindergarten.  Two years later and she has graduated lower primary and begun upper primary.  This is not a distinction we have in the U.S. school system; it seems particular to the International Baccalaureate program taught in many international schools around the world.  This year as an older primary student she has a longer school day and eats lunch at school.  While C really doesn’t know any different, I know how incredibly lucky she is to attend a school like Bishop Mackenzie.  She has five classes a day Monday through Thursday and three classes plus assembly on Fridays.  Physical Education class is offered twice a week; once the weather warms, one of those will be swimming.  She also has French, drama, library, art, and music once a week, just built into the curriculum.  I not only am glad that C will have the opportunity to spend two more years at a school, but that it is this school.

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Our chickens enjoy some freedom in the garden

Our yard continues to be a wonderful sanctuary.  We continue to grow fruits (bananas, avocados, lemons) and vegetables (onions, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and, new this year, edamame).

One of my favorite things to do is to get up on a lazy Saturday morning and head into the yard for the chores.  I first open the chicken hutch to let them out into the pen.  Then I collect the fresh eggs and bring them into the kitchen, where I will grab the key for the garage off the key hook.  Once in the garage I scoop out the chicken feed for the day.  It’s really cute to see how our chickens – Carmen, Can, Lou, and Leash – rush to me as I bring in their food, sometimes arching their backs for a pet.  Some Saturdays or Sundays I give them free reign in the whole yard – if we haven’t recently planted any new crops.  The gardner, a really cheerful and good natured guy named Stephen, does not take kindly to the chickens rooting up the newly planted shoots.  After squaring away the chickens I head over to the rabbit pen where our bunny Sarah, spends most of her time.  (The pen was built by our former Regional Security Officer from blueprints I found online and with wood from the crates that had shipped my Household Effects and Consumables.  Recycling and Embassy goodwill)  I check Sarah’s water and make sure she has enough food.  If she is not pissed at me I will give her a few nice scratches on her forehead and cheeks.  If she is mad, she retreats to the far end of the lower level, under the run, where it is near impossible to get her out.

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Uh-oh.  Sarah the bunny may make a great escape.

Back inside I get my morning Coke Light (I don’t drink coffee) and sit on our konde (screened in porch) to enjoy some bird song and meditation.  Night or day there is birdsong in the yard.  I do not recall any place I have lived where I could hear so many birds.  The musical cacophany is truly magical.

To celebrate two years in Malawi I decided to upgrade our background playground.  When we were first to arrive, I had arranged for the previous occupants of our assigned house to leave behind their custom made playground.  Things did not work out quite as expected as just days before our arrival our housing assignment was changed due to necessary security upgrades, so I had to pay someone to dig up, take apart, move, and reassemble the playground at our house.  But when we first arrived C was 5 1/2 years old.  Now she is 7 1/2 and the small slide, mini wall climb, sandbox, regular swing and tire swing were not quite age appropriate, so I hired the carpenter who had moved the playground two years before to execute a custom designed upgrade.

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The Playground: Before and After

We now have three swings – a regular swing, a disk swing, and a trapeze and rings bar, a much taller rock climbing wall, a rope climb, a tire tower, long-leveled balance beam, a fort, and a curved metal climbing ladder.   The sandbox is now gone, replaced with a wooden floor and walls, and together with the inside of the climbing wall, creates a fort.  It’s a pretty awesome upgrade if I do say so myself, and C had better use it (or else!).

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The backside of our (awesome) upgraded playground

As part of my playground upgrade I found myself in communication with a guy, by the name of Cobra, who welds metal playground equipment.  C and stopped one day at a dirt field, where several different pieces of playground equipment lay strewn about.  There we met Cobra, apparently his real name (perhaps not so unusual here – I have met/heard of Malawians named Gift, Blessings, Lonely, Voice, Loveness, Poverty, and James Bond), and I got his WhatsApp number.  After I worked out what I wanted I sent him a photo and instructions.  Within days he had completed it.  I could have bought it on Amazon and had it shipped to Malawi, but for the same price I engaged a local to make essentially the same thing.  I honestly am not sure what is more extraordinary, that I was WhatsApp’ing with a so-named person or that I was WhatsApp’ing at all.  If you want to be in the loop, know or share information in Malawi, one has got to be on WhatsApp.  This might be one of my single greatest accomplishments here thus far — from a WhatsApp newbie to a someone who can WhatsApp with the best of them.

Driving in Lilongwe, while still challenging (I certainly got my money’s worth out of the department’s required evasive driving class known affectionately as “crash & bang), has become less imtimidating than it was when I arrived.  Yet, I have also have gone from a mild-mannered motorist to a very determined driver.  From using the horn once in a blue moon, to laying on it liberally.  (I have also come to use swear words rather liberally when driving here) I had no choice if I wanted to survive on the roads.  I will fully admit that Malawi traffic is probably in comparison still “Africa-lite” yet in my two years, with a boom in building construction, and a proliferation in vehicle registrations, there has been little comparative upgrade in roads.  Nor an improvement in driving skills.

My little Japanese RAV4 has received its fair share of bumps and scratches.  Before I came to Malawi, I had a pretty good record with vehicles.  I had a puntured tire in Juarez.  I backed into a cement column in a particularly tightly designed parking garage.  A professor sideswiped my sweet red Fiero in college.   And one week after I got my license at age 16, a 17 year old blew through a light, swerved, and pulled off my left front bumper.  A lifetime of driving (though not as much as some Americans given my time overseas) and few accidents.  But here I was sideswiped in a gravel lot at the fabric market.  A bicycle taxi, whizzing downhill with likely non-existent brakes, plowed right into the back of the car, denting the wheel cover.  A parking guard helpfully assisted me in backing into another car.  I backed into a tree (I swear it jumped out at me!)  And once when I made a wrong turn, thought I could Dukes of Hazard it over a dirt bank onto the road I wanted, but ended up getting pretty stuck.  I am grateful to the random Malawian passerbys who came to my aid (and only a little sorry for the scrapes on the lower part of my bumper — it was for the most part kinda fun).

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The rescuee

But I am comfortable enough on the road that when I recently drove home soon after 5 PM — Lilongwe rush hour I suppose — and saw a pygmy hedgehog curled up on a busy road, scared but hoping all the ruckus would just go away, I made a quick u-turn, parked half on, half off the road, and ran out into traffic, stopping it with my palm out.  I then yanked off my cardigan, swooped the little guy up, and bounded back to my car, much to the bemusement of all spectators.  Banana, as C named him, is now living his best life in our car-free hedgehog heaven of a yard.

Basically C and I have come a long way in our two years in Malawi.  That is not to say that all is sweetness and light, rainbows and puppies; its still not an easy place to live.  Poverty here, in one of the world’s poorest countries, is crushing.  The distance between the haves and the have nots, gaping.  My secure and coveted seat among the priviledged, often acutely uncomfortable.   The politics and corruption of this country, the coverage of which is the bread and butter of a political officer, continue to frustrate.  Days in which my impotence to effect change feel especially acute, draining.  I have had a bad cold or allergies for the past five weeks — a reaction to the changing season, the dust kicked up at the tail end of the dry season, the regular fires set to brush and yard waste, and who knows what else across the capital.

But the days in which C demonstrates how much she loves being here, is thriving in the school, or when just hearing the birdsong in my yard or I find myself chasing our chickens or rabbit around, can be a salve for the wounds of boredom, isolation, or frustration.  And sometimes, just sometimes, when I talk to a particularly passionate Malawian making a difference in the lives of vulnerable people, when I have the opportunity to meet with those who fight for justice and human rights, or even on the rarer times I personally seem to have said or done something that had a direct impact for positive change, those times feel especially rewarding.

IMG_1734Take these two boys.  I have seen them, part of a group of some 5 to 7 boys aged around 8 to 14, begging at a traffic light near the Parliament building the whole two years I have lived here.  They hail from Kauma, a predominantely poor community in Lilongwe, basically a slum, not far from my own home.  I do not give the boys money, but I have from time to time given them boiled eggs, bananas, apples, crackers, bottled water, and the like.  From a few months ago, the gang seems to have split up — perhaps finding the corner of an oft-busted traffic light, on a road sometimes closed due to protests, not the plum place it once was.  These two boys seem to have migrated to my very own neighborhood where they pound up rocks and bricks to fill potholes the local and city government fail to ever fix.  They do the work and then sit back waiting for residents to pass by and reward them for the favor.  I have started giving them a little money — they are after all providing a real service now.  Imagine recently as I pass them, they stand, and one unfurls, of all things an American flag, that he had held tightly in his fist.  They jump up and down happily chanting “America.”

For all these reasons and more, the good and the bad, C and I are ready for two more years in Malawi.  Happy anniversary to us!

 

Malawi Elections: Politics Front and Center

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The stage is set for the third and final Presidential debate

I generally do not blog about my job.  Not that I do not have an interesting one, I do, but my blog is instead about myself, my daughter, our travels, our life abroad.  And my job enables much of that, but its not all I am about.  One thing I like to write about though is what I see around me, the everyday of Malawi.  And right now my job and the everyday are one and the same.

I am a political officer, so my job is to understand the political situation in a country – how the structure of government, the methods of decision making, the form of representation, the formation and implementation of policies come together to shape the country and its domestic and international relationships.  As a traveler, I have always been intrigued by more than just the tourist sites, but also the interplay of history, politics, and culture.  Elections brings politics front and center and give one a fascinating peek into the character of a country.

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Makeshift voting booths in a school courtyard in the October 2017 by-elections

Malawi will hold its general elections on Tuesday, May 21.  Ten days from now, Malawians will go to the polls to elect their President, Parliamentarians, and Local Councilors.  This will be their sixth democratic election.  And I am here to see it happen.

Actually, this whole shebang has been unrolling since I landed in Malawi.  Within weeks of my arrival in August 2017, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) held six by-elections for parliamentary and local councilor seats that had been vacated.  Already, the rivalries for 2019 were on display.  Like the good ole U.S. of A, Malawi starts campaigning real, real early.

With my observer identification, I had an opportunity to visit several polling sites to observe the process.  Although I have voted in a good many elections in the U.S., I have almost always, by nature of my nomadic overseas lifestyle, done so by absentee ballot.  On only three occasions have I voted in person and two were small local elections.  In 2008, I voted in person in a presidential election.  At the time I lived in Washington, D.C., and I found it thrilling to stand in a line that spilled outdoors and around a corner.  For the first time I truly felt the thrill of exercising my right to vote.  Watching Malawians do the same was at least equally exciting, perhaps more so given how much more Malawians have to go through in order to vote.  There is no early voting, no absentee ballots.  Polling stations are often at schools, many in poor shape.  October is hot and dry, there may be little or no shade.  Though these were just by-elections in a few constituencies, and turnout was not high, I was nonetheless impressed, even moved, by those who made the considerable effort to vote.

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Seeing election fever first hand (from left to right) Democractic Progressive Party youth supporters; dancers open up the People’s Party convention; United Transformation Movement supporters show off the new party clothing

As the pre-election season continued I attended many election-related events.  The MEC launched its electoral calendar; I was there.  Some government events turned into political rallies; I was there.  After April 2018 by-elections in the southern district of Mulaje turned violent, the Multi-Party Liaison Committee, a district-level conflict management group made up of district election officials, traditional chiefs, political party representatives, local police, and more, met to hash out what happened; I was there.  When the current Vice President defected from the ruling party to launch his own; I was there in the crowd.  And when the People’s Party held its convention and re-elected former Malawi President Joyce Banda to lead the party again, there I sat, just one row behind her, the only mzungu (“white person” in Chichewa) in the audience.

As the country moved into its voter registration exercise (prospective voters cannot register whenever they want but only during specific two-week timeframes in their respective constituency), I too had the opportunity to observe the process.

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I was thrilled to be in the audience at the final Presidential election, the signing of the national peace pledge by presidential candidates, and attend the National Prayer Breakfast held at State House, the equivalent of the U.S. White House.  I have met in person two of the presidential candidates (the President of Malawi and the leader of the Malawi Congress Party), the former President Joyce Banda, and the wives of the Health Minister and the current Vice President (both accomplished women in their own right).  Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

There is so much excitement and pageantry in Malawian elections.  While in the U.S. we have a two-party system, in Malawi there were 52 registered parties at the beginning of this election season.  In reality, many of those are small “briefcase” parties, but there are seven running for President (one Independent) and 14 contesting parliamentary seats.   Supporter clothing is vibrant, and often in traditional fabric called chitenje; its so much more than just red and blue.

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The three main contenders — get these to hang on your rear view mirror

I feel incredibly privileged to be here in Malawi at this time, to watch a young and vibrant democracy in action, in a country that serves as a model in the region and the continent.  It is of course my job to cover these issues, and as such I have had greater access than most, but my interest goes beyond my career.  This is history in the making and the outcome — no matter who wins (and its anyone’s game at this point) — will shape this country for years to come.

 

Malawi: Travels with My Aunt Part Two

The continuation of my aunt’s one month visit to Malawi.

After two out of two weekends out of town, we spent the third weekend in Lilongwe.  Not that there is a whole of excitement in the capital, but I am generally not used to being out and about quite so much.  Malawi has let C and I slow down a wee bit.  The Lilongwe weekend had been planned from the beginning and it came at a good time.  The previous year, February had been the quietest month at work, but this year the month was proving anything but.  I stayed late at work several nights a week so that we could have our fun when I was home.

southern 1Our Lilongwe weekend included a visit to another grocery store (wow), a stop at the Woodlands Farmers Market, held on the last Saturday of the month, and a lunch at the lovely Kumbali Country Lodge, where Madonna stays whenever she is in Malawi.

For our fourth and final weekend would be our longest – five days traveling down south.

On the first day we drove three hours from Lilongwe to the town of Balaka, where a friend of a friend had opened up an art & craft center and Italian restaurant.  Down a bumpy dirt road we found a beautiful grassy courtyard full of flowers and lemon trees encircled by villas that looked as they had been spirited there from Italy.  The artist/manager showed us around her workshop, the craft and art store, and the property.  Then we sat down to a splendid authentic Italian pizza lunch, well the most authentic one can probably find in Malawi.

We continued south to Game Haven, a lodge in rural Blantyre, and our stop for the evening.  What should have been a two hour drive though took about an hour longer for a combination of reasons that include:  Malawi roads generally suck, there were a lot of painfully slow moving trucks on two lane curvy and hilly roads that made passing difficult, we had to right through the city of Blantyre because major roads do that in Malawi (no beltways or ring roads here), and it was the last day of the month when the majority of Malawians get paid and thus more people were out and about spending money.

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Roan, zebra, and nyala at Game Haven

But pulling into Game Haven, walking through the lobby, finding a grassy lawn with zebra, wildebeest, and nyala grazing, and a stunning view of unspoiled, undulating hills in the light of a late afternoon African sun, and my frustrations melted away.  C quickly found some other children from her school were also staying at the lodge and she ran off to play while my aunt and I enjoyed sundowners on the patio.  We followed this with a good dinner and then a good sleep.  (Well, C and I slept well, Aunt C had a defective mosquito net and spent the night hiding under the covers from the buzzing of insects set on devouring her.  Ah, well.  #Africa).

The next morning we started our day with breakfast and then a 1.5 hour game drive around the property.  While I have taken a few safaris in national parks, this would be my first time in a game reserve.  It turned out to be rather pleasant to have the vehicle to ourselves and in a place where we were pretty much guaranteed to see all the types of animals in the reserve.  (Our guide told us “I will find you a giraffe.  If you go on a game drive and do not see a giraffe, then you are NOT at Game Haven.  And he found one!)  A 1.5 hour drive, instead of the four hours I have found most game drives last, too was a treat.

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Welcome to Huntingdon House

Then we headed on to our second destination, the historic Huntingdon House on the Satemwa tea estate in Thyolo district.

Well, wait, that makes it sound easy.  And it should have been, but thanks to a quirk with Google Maps it was not so straightforward.  Instead of just taking us 20 minutes down the road to the entrance of the Satemwa Tea & Coffee Estates and then through to the lodge, we were taken on an unusual detour.  Google Maps has one actually pass the estate gates, through Thyolo town, then on to a small earthen road, that quickly becomes only a dirt track through a maize field, then down a ravine where at the bottom there were only a few wooden planks over a stream.  Ummmm…this cannot be right.  I thought, even had there been two plank bridges for both sides of my car, I could not have trusted the wood would hold the weight of my SUV.  Turning around on the steep rutted path, with one-foot deep ditches on either side presented a bit of a challenge.  Luckily, once back to the main road the GPS single returned and we drove back to Satemwa.

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C strolls among the Huntingdon gardens

Established in 1923 by a Scottish immigrant via the rubber plantations of Malaya, Satemwa may not be the largest of Malawi’s tea estates, but it is probably its most well-known, largely because its former family home is now an idyllic getaway among stunning, picturesque grounds.  In the rainy season (though we were blessed with little rain), we were treated to miles and miles of rolling green hills, most of it covered with the verdant leafy bushes of tea.

We settled in the Planter’s Room, one of the five beautifully-appointed suites, and then sat down to a fabulous lunch whipped up by the Huntingdon House kitchen.  Then C and I set off through the gardens on one of the scavenger hunts.  At 4 pm we all piled on to metal seats jerry-rigged in the back of a pick-up truck for an hour drive through the estate, partially up Thyolo Mountain to the picnic spot, from which one can look out over hillsides of tea bushes,  Thyolo town, and the countryside extending to Mt. Mulanje.  On the other side one can see the Shire River sparkling in the valley below.

southern 4Following breakfast on our second day we took an hour guided walk.  We strolled from the Huntingdon gardens on to the red-orange dirt road fenced in on both sides by the bright green hedges of tea.  Then we turned and waded through it uphill heading to the taller shrubs of coffee.  The blindingly azure sky against the emerald green tea took my breath away.

We stomped through tall grasses full of flowers and stopped to watch colorful birds.  We paused for the guide to tell us about the estate history, tea and coffee processing, and the nature around us.  I generally love learning things like that and my Aunt seemed particularly interested.  Yet, I also felt preoccupied by the thick, tall grass around us and the thought of snakes.  (The day before on our game drive we had come across a black mamba lying prone across the track, its head raised aggressively in the direction of our jeep.  I kept thinking of that snake, one of the most venomous in the world, slithering angrily into the brush.) We circled round to another road and passed by the grove of towering eucalyptus trees, planted originally on the property in 1895, and returned to the house.

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C among the tea

We spent the afternoon just enjoying the room, the house’s portico fronting the lawn, and the grounds.  As my aunt and I sat out on our room’s patio we heard crashing through the trees and I realized we were paid a visit by a local monkey troop.  I ran off to get my camera and followed them as they leapt from branch to branch, tree to tree.  C and I took part in another treasure hunt.  At 2:30 we headed to the garden to enjoy high tea.  We had skipped lunch to make sure we had plenty of room.  It was a very good thing we did as we were plied with hot and cold tea, finger sandwiches, tomato and cheese tartlets, scones with cream and jam, chocolate and coconut snowballs, various cookies, and three massive slices of chocolate cake.  It was all so good.

Thinking back I felt we were there at Huntingdon for much longer than two days.  Our stay there was one of the most calming and relaxing trips I have ever taken.  I think we will go back.  I just have to decide which other room to request.

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Flora and fauna of Huntingdon House (bats, coffee beans, monkey, flowers)

We stopped next in Blantyre to stay at the Protea Ryalls Hotel, the oldest (and probably the classiest) hotel in Malawi.  I wanted to show both my aunt and C this place — for my aunt as she would appreciate the history and beauty of the place and C so she can picture where I usually stay when I take my work trips – and take an hour off the drive we would make back to the capital.  Otherwise I find there is even less to see tourist-wise in Blantyre than Lilongwe.  Just for a wee bit of fun we went to the Museum of Malawi, where you can see the skulls of a zebra, leopard, lion, and rat as well as various poorly-marked and dusty old agriculture tools, food containers, weapons, musical instruments, and Gule Wamkulu masks (a ritual dance of the Chewa people listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage), and old vehicles from Malawi’s bygone days in the overgrown yard.  We also visited the Mandala house, the oldest house in Malawi, but only the exterior as it was closed.  But we dined at Bombay Palace and Grill 21, two of the best restaurants in the country.

On the final day we made the long drive back to Lilongwe stopping at Dedza Pottery and Lodge for lunch about 1.5 hours south of home, a surprising little place with a lovely yard It was a lot of driving — it rather cannot be helped in Malawi if you want to get to anywhere of note — and there are few stops along the way.  But the we weather we experienced was fantastic as were the locations, meals, people, and company.

Two days later my aunt C returned to the U.S.  After weeks of beautiful weather with little precipitation, soon after she took off the skies opened up and it rained for about 60 hours straight, the first time I have seen it rain so consistently since arriving in Malawi.

The visit of our first guest to Malawi was a success.  Who knows if anyone else will visit — but Aunt C left a bag of coffee behind for her next trip…

 

Malawi: Travels with My Aunt* Part One

*Yes, this is sort of an ode to Graham Greene, one of my favorite authors.

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She arrives–I would know those black leggings anywhere!

On February 7, C and I welcomed our first visitor to Malawi, my Aunt CW!  How wonderful to finally share, in person, our home and life in this corner of Africa with a family member.  I felt giddy as I drove to the airport to greet her flight, I even paid extra to access the observation deck at the Lilongwe airport so that I could watch her disembark and enter the terminal.

Arriving from the east coast of the U.S. can take a lot out of a person.  There is the at least 24 hour door-to-door journey and the seven hour time difference.  Just transiting the airport in Addis for any flight can take a lot out of a person.  There was also the visa-on-arrival rigmarole and an unexpected “produce your boarding pass upon disembarking” challenge, but at long last I had my aunt in the car traveling down the M1 toward our home.  There I dropped her off, gave her the grand tour, and left her to rest as I returned to the office for a few hours.  That evening we ordered dinner from a nearby Italian restaurant for carry out (C was feeling a bit under the weather).

My aunt is visiting for one month and although I have planned for some (fabulous!) weekend getaways, she will be spending many days just hanging out at our lovely home while I continue work.  Not just anyone would be able to enjoy this kind of holiday, but my aunt enjoys getting to see our every day lives. Frankly, Lilongwe is not a usual vacation destination — there is very little to hold the interest of an overseas tourist and we live in the leafy suburbs of a city with little viable public transport.  For my aunt, who recently lost her beloved husband of 30 years, a low-key getaway to our home far away from the everyday reminders and tasks, where she can sit in our screened in porch enjoying a cup of coffee while looking out at our yard, lush with the rains and full of birdsong, is just the ticket.  (Or so she says she enjoys seeing us in our natural habitat and lounging on our porch — maybe she is just humoring me?)

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Crazy light at sunset = a storm is coming

For our first weekend we drove the two hours out to Senga Bay to stay the night at the Sunbird Livingstonia, the oldest hotel on Lake Malawi.  Despite it being the “green season” (a lovely tourist-luring way to describe the rainy season), we had a beautiful day for driving, walking along the lakeside beach, dining alfresco, and sitting poolside.  That evening the sunset was something extraordinary — the light through the clouds turned the water and the sand a vivid, diaphanous burnt orange.  Had I been in the desert I would have thought it a precursor to a sand storm, so I knew that our good weather was coming to an end.  That night the skies opened up and it poured all night, knocking out the hotel’s electricity, but that was just icing on the cake as no visit to Malawi is complete without a power outage.

Tongole 2For our second getaway over the three-day President’s Day weekend, we headed east and north to the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, a new destination for C and I.  Google maps told me the drive would take approximately four hours — three to Nkhotakota town, then an additional hour to the park entrance and through the park to our lodge.  But Google maps does not account for Malawian roads.  Turning north from Salima the road initially was better, but soon grew worse.  There were many potholes, pedestrians, single lane bridges, and construction work to Nkhotakota town.  Eight kilometers later we turned on to an “earthen” road for another eight kilometers to the entrance were we were met by a safari jeep from the lodge.  Although I drive a SUV, the lodge suggested I arrange transport to and from the park gate to the lodge due to the rainy season effects on the park’s dirt roads.  To drive the 18 kilometers (11 miles) over the rutted, undulating earth took 45 minutes.  So all told from door to door took 5 1/2 hours.

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View of the Bua River from our room

As we transferred to the lodge jeep, our lodge guide gave us two rules for the journey: 1. if we see an elephant, keep quiet and do not jump out of the jeep, and 2. if flies get close to you, swat them away, they may be tsetse flies and their bites are unpleasant.

  1. Nkhotakota is the receiving location of the world’s largest elephant translocation in history.  Decades of poaching reduced the once magnificent park to a shadow of its former self, with its animal populations decimated.  African Parks, a non-profit conservation NGO that takes over the rehabilitation and management of national parks in Africa, took over Nkhotakota in 2015.  As part of the efforts to restock the park, African Parks, over the course of two years, moved 500 elephants from Liwonde and Majete National Parks to Nkhotakota.  African Parks also relocated an additional 2,000 animals, but it was the elephants we really hoped to see — though we know better than to hop out of the safari vehicle and embrace the animals.
  2. Tsetse flies!  What?! My knowledge of tsetse flies is limited to the Atari 2600 Raiders of the Lost Ark video game I had WAY back in the day.  As I recall tsetse flies were bad news in that game – its bite would render Indiana Jones incapacitated with African sleeping sickness.  When I asked our guide however, he noted that the flies have to be infected with the sleeping sickness parasites to transfer the illness and these flies did not have it.  Turns out tsetse flies also really like the color electric blue (the park has set up blue and black tsetse fly traps around the land) and their bites really are quite painful.
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Not your average mac and cheese with chicken

Arriving at Tongole Wilderness Lodge we were greeted with cold washcloths and welcome drinks.  We were escorted to our rooms and then served a delicious lunch of macaroni and cheese and grilled chicken.  As soon as we finished the staff asked when we would like our “tea” — beverages of our choice served with samosas and Victorian sandwiches — normally served at half past three.  We requested tea be served as our sundowner during our trip to the waterfall that afternoon.

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Our African Parks guide surveys the waters

At 4:30 we meet our guide for the waterfall activity.  It had been described as a short 15 minute drive followed by a walk to overlook the falls.  Somehow a boat had not been mentioned in the first discussion of this activity, but at the stop the guides unloaded a boat from top of the jeep.  This seemed, um, unexpected.  We walked down to the river banks as if this was a perfectly fine idea and there we all stood looking at the fast-moving, tea-colored, frothy waters of the Bua River.  Seriously?!  After what seemed like a long several minutes the guides announced the river was not safe to cross.  Whew.  We could hold our heads up high as the intrepid adventurers we were — it was the guides who made the call, we did not chicken out (though we were certainly contemplating it!).  Instead we headed to a flat rock where David Livingstone is rumored to have camped during some surveying in the area.  Though still next to the turbulent waters, we were not in them.

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The exquisitely designed main lodge

Although two activities a day were included in our daily fees, the “green season” meant that our choices were limited.  Canoeing was out with the swollen river.  Game drives were out due to rainy season road closures.  The waterfall visit was clearly out.  Hiking was out because we did not want to hike in the hot and humid air, or maybe at all.  We thus decided that lazing about the lodge and eating yummy meals would be our primary activities.  We were the only people at the lodge, there was no one else to push or prod us into doing anything more.  We were not disappointed.

The lodge design is stunning — unexpected curves and details all around.  Our rooms were eco-simple and elegant.  The views, they too seemed deceptively simple — brown churning river flowing by lush green foliage — but it was nature’s beauty at its best.  We heard the sounds of the rushing water (so calming), the hoots of baboons, the calls, tweets, and trills of birds.  At lunch, while dining alfresco on a lower deck beneath a fruit tree, we watched two African ground squirrels frolic in the branches of another tree.  Later we were visited by a few monkeys.  Butterflies flurried all around.  And, at last, an elephant known as Short Trunk slid into the river waters in front of the lodge.

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Some of the Nkhotakota wildlife

On our second and last evening the winds picked up, thunder grumbled from a few miles away, and lightening lit up the hills in the distance.  Once again we were spared from a full day of mood dampening rain but treated to the beauty of an evening storm.

It rained a good part of the night but we slept well with the sound of the rain and the rushing waters of the river lulling us.  Our greater concern with the rain was its effect on the “earthen” road we would have to traverse in my RAV4 from the park entrance to the main road.  Our transport let us know they would survey the road conditions from the lodge to park entrance and determine whether they would accompany us all the way to the tarmac.  The 18 kilometer trip took an hour this time as even the safari jeep fishtailed and spun its wheels in the mud, so all the way to the tarmac it would be.  That $54 I parted with for the transport from gate to lodge and back is some of the best money I have ever spent.  And though my aunt and I were equally impressed with my control over the RAV4 in similarly slippery conditions, we were grateful to have that chaser jeep with us for that bit, just in cases.

 

Hunting and Gathering the Goods: Shopping in Lilongwe

*Caveat: This is how I, a U.S. diplomat, obtain foodstuffs and household goods in Lilongwe.  I am also including photos so people outside of Malawi have a more realistic *picture* of what things are like here.  Before I came to Malawi I looked all over the Internet to find photos of a Malawian supermarket without luck.  For reasons I cannot clearly articulate, grocery availability and presentation worried me, though I had not been concerned when moving anywhere else.  While shopping can be quite exhausting in Lilongwe (I know many who outsource it to staff or hand it off to their very kind spouse because it just makes them too crazy to do it themselves), especially if one makes the mistake of trying to get one’s shopping down on the last Friday or Saturday – pay day – of the month.  But its a part of the experience, something I prefer to do myself.  And its not half bad.

chipiku fixed license plates

Old Chipiku

I will not lie, I miss the convenience of shopping in Shanghai.  Shopping in Lilongwe is….different.  It takes so much more time and work to get the groceries here.   In Shanghai, we had supermarkets downstairs from our apartment, across the street, downstairs from the office, and a few blocks away.  All within easy walking distance.

In my intro to Lilongwe I tried to explain how the capital is laid out.  I live in Area 10, located in the newer part of town, the “City Centre,” although one would be hard pressed to truly locate a center of this sprawling, low-lying city.  There are a few supermarkets on this side of town, a People’s located in Area 12, a Sana in Area 43, another People’s in City Centre, but these are smaller stores and the few times I have been the selection has left me wanting.  With the exception of the Kapani supermarket located on the M1 as you head from town to the airport, I do not shop on my side of town.

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C is happy to visit Gateway – Lilongwe’s only mall

Although on a good, no-to-light, traffic day, it does not take long to get to my favorite supermarket, Old Chipiku, maybe 20 minutes?  (It is not actually named Old Chipiku, just Chipiku, but we Lilongweans call it that so that we distinguish between the more established Chipiku on Paul Kagame Road from the newer Chipiku located in the Game complex, i.e. “New Chipiku.”)  But traffic in Lilongwe is getting worse and worse — with some 500 new cars entering the Lilongwe road scene daily — the old two lane roads cannot accommodate.  Even in the 16 months I have lived here, I have seen the traffic situation worsen considerably.  I used to head to the supermarket after work because the Embassy is half way there, but these days the traffic is nearly always backed up down Kenyatta Road past the Embassy and I do not have the energy most evenings to face it.  So I do most of my shopping on the weekend.

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Food Lovers definitely knows how to attract the fruit lovers*

Old Chipiku is my most often go-to store, but it does not have everything at any given time.  To really get all of my list, I have to go to more than one store.  Sometimes three or more.  If it is produce I need, I head to Gateway Mall, Lilongwe’s only western-style mall.  Within Gateway there are two supermarkets – Food Lovers and Shoprite.  The former is generally very good for produce.  When stocked it is a thing of beauty.  One can also find some imported items like tahini or special trail mix at inflated prices.  But I can never find everything on my list at Food Lovers so I also head to the Shoprite at the other end of the mall.  Shoprite too gets some imports, but different ones from Food Lovers.  Of course.  I have found shredded cheese (be still my heart) and the french cheese spread Rondele.  Shoprite is also more like a Target, carrying household items like plates and flatware, and they have a toy and holiday section.

But I am wary of meat products in these stores.  Early on I purchased meat products that were off.  Oftentimes “fresh” still means “thawed.”  My Malawian nanny refuses to buy  frozen chicken and instead buys her chickens live and takes them to her mom to kill and pluck.  I generally only head to Kapani, which in addition to having a nicely stocked small grocery store (once again with some imports and products found nowhere else), is a specialty butcher.  Yet even there sometimes the chicken is frozen.  Sigh.

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The Golden Peacock version of the sauce aisle

There are a few other shops I sometimes frequent.  Foodworths is a small Lebanese-Malawian owned supermarket located only five minutes walk from the Embassy along a foot-worn path.  My nanny tells me Foodworths has the best bread in Lilongwe, so I often pop over to grab a loaf between bigger shopping trips.  Foodworths also has some great peppermint licorice tea I have not found elsewhere, and they often have light Cola when other places do not.  There is also the Golden Peacock supermarket, sort of like a Chinese Target, I guess.  When we first moved to Lilongwe, I found comfort in the Golden Peacock.  Its long too-wide aisles filled with random made-in-China stuff and loud piped-in C-pop made me feel nostalgic for Shanghai.  But after a few months as I have found the sheen wore off.  It reminds me of when I first arrived in the Philippines in 1996.  I walked down to a supermarket my first jet lagged night and moved in wonder through a store that seemed much better stocked than I had expected.  Yet, when I went back a few days later to shop, I discovered an entire aisle dedicated to soy sauce and ketchup.  Dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, low salt soy sauce, fishy soy sauce, regular ketchup, spicy ketchup, super hot burn-your-face-off ketchup…anyway you get the point.

Yet these grocery store runs are not the only way I acquire my foodstuffs and household items.  There are also people selling items alongside the main roads, on street corners, and parking lots.  More often than not they are selling fruit, such as my favorite fruit sellers near the Old Chipiku, though there are plenty of other things for sale from handmade brooms and mops, plastic tarps (good for covering small maize fields), large dog collars with chains (I see these all the time–I guess for guard dogs?), birds, puppies and kittens,  pirated CDs, toys, and more.  I buy fruit 99% of the time, though I did buy my daughter a pink soccer ball while sitting in traffic in Old Town one day.

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Roadside fruit sellers

I have a few other Foreign Service tricks up my sleeve in order to get the goodies. One is that Malawi is designated a consumables post, meaning an officer can ship up to 2,500 pounds of foodstuffs and other household goods that you generally use up (i.e. consume).  During our summer in the US, I purchased a whole lot of qualifying items but in the end my supplemental HHE (household effects) shipment was only about 700 pounds, so my intended consumables were wrapped up and shipped with them.  Therefore, I still had 2,500 consumables I could ship before reaching a year in Malawi.  I then had three options: give up on my consumables, fly back to the US at some point within the first year and spend time shopping for a bunch of stuff to have shipped back. or order from the European Logistical Support Office (ELSO) in Antwerp.  I went with the last.  I poured over their massive spreadsheet of items available, made my selections, and then ordered.  Seemed straightforward, though similar to what I happened when I purchased a car from Japan to ship to Malawi, I ran into credit card issues.  I had emailed my purchase spreadsheet to Antwerp, they then sent the request to the PX at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.  They tried to run my credit card, and surprise, surprise I ran into issues.  An American living in Malawi who is ordering groceries from Germany via Antwerp…  The credit card company blocked the charge.  I called and explained the situation.  Ramstein tried to run it the next day.  The credit card company blocked it again.  I called the company again.  FOUR TIMES they blocked it.  Sigh.

Of course I also order from Amazon.  I probably order something from the retail giant two to three times a week.  There is no Diplomatic Post Office (DPO) box for Malawi, so our mail goes through the State Department pouch.  Both the DPO and pouch have liquid restrictions, though for the latter it is more limited.  To help us in desperate need of certain beverages, about three times a year we are able to order wine, beer, and sodas from South Africa.  I do not drink alcohol but I have a strong (though totally healthy) addiction to Diet Coke.  Malawi has a Coca Cola bottling plant, but the emphasis is on “bottle” and I prefer cans.  Every so often Coke Light (the preferred name for Diet Coke outside of the US of A) cans can be found in Lilongwe stores, but if one does not act fast and stock up appropriately, then supplies dwindle.  And things get ugly.  The Embassy Diet Coke support group (not really a real thing, well, kinda) pounces into action, keeping those with the need informed of supermarket sightings.  The Special South African Beverage Order (SSABO) (I just made that up) can keep us poor slobs stocked during the lean Lilongwe times.

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Lilongwe Farmer’s Market

There is also the once monthly Lilongwe Farmer’s Market, held on the last Saturday of the month, which provides a venue for enterprising Malawians and expats to sell their wares.  Sure there are paintings and jewelry and items made from the local Chitenje fabric, but there are also people selling homemade salsa, ice cream, sticky buns, and organic eggs, grain-fed poultry and other meat, baked goods, Indian breads, and homegrown farm produce.

At the end of the day, there are a good number of shopping options in Lilongwe, more and better than I expected.  It just might take several hours and several stops to get what I want, and more often than I like come back without a good number of things on the list.  Yet there are few food items from the US that I miss, which I cannot get here somehow.

* My photos at Food Lovers had to be taken on the sly as just as what happened in Shanghai, I was told not to take photos.  What is it about people not being allowed to take photos in supermarkets?

Restoration on the Lower Lake

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Beautiful early morning view of Lake Malawi from Sunbird Nkopola

It was a long summer.

I mean, weeks and weeks and weeks of covering for other positions empty during a transition gap, different duties due to a dearth in staff, and the unexpected because it was summer and we were short staffed and by Murphy’s Law this meant an uptick in political, economic, and consular activities.  It is one thing to anticipate it, but another to live it.  Do not get me wrong–I am not lamenting the work, much was quite interesting–but I was envious scrolling through the photos from weeks-long Home Leave or vacations of friends.  I might have had a wee bit of uncharitable, or rather undiplomatic, thoughts when a colleague told me in mid-August how he was so ready for a vacation, six weeks after returning from a month off in June.   It took a great deal of my diplomatic training to just smile and say “I hear you!” and not trip or shove him.  Diplomacy is such an amazing art.

It will still be six more busy weeks before C and I take off on a much deserved out-of-Malawi mommy-daughter holiday, but I decided that at least for the Labor Day weekend we would get out of Lilongwe, tackling some place on my Malawi bucket list.

Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa and is sometimes called the “Calendar Lake” as it is approximately 365 miles long and 52 miles wide.  On the western shore of Lake Malawi, about ten miles north from where the lake ends, narrowing drastically as it flows into the Shire River (pronounced Sheer-ray), lies the small lakeside town of Nkopola.  This was our destination for the weekend.

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The road through the high hills

Malawi is surprisingly hilly (surprising to folks like myself who prior to arriving had little knowledge of African geography).  The country sits at the southern end of the East African Rift; the north and central western portions of the country an undulating series of hills rising and falling between 2,000 and 5,000 feet above sea-level.  I decided instead of heading east and then south, we would first head south on the M1 and then just past Dedza, which skirts the Mozambican border, turn to bisect a high hill range towards the banks of the lower lake.

I had heard the road would bend and curve, yet I was still unprepared for the serpentine twists that with each turn would reveal yet another stunning view of the stark, yet beautiful, countryside.  Little traffic (there was more foot traffic than vehicles) meant I could stop on the road now and again for a few moments to snap a photo or simply gaze in happy astonishment at the vista before me.  C too gasped occasionally from the back seat.  This road took only about 40 minutes of the three and a half hour drive, but it stands out in my mind.

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Rooms built against the rock face

We arrived at the hotel just at lunch time and happily checked in, finding we had been assigned one of the unique rooms built into the face of rocky outcrop fronting the beach.  The rooms themselves were nothing to right home about.  There was a decent queen sized bed, a nondescript desk, and a too large chair that would not push under the desk enough to allow easy passage between the bed and desk.  Outside our window a large cactus obscured almost all view of the beach.  But you could hear the waves, see the bright sunlight glinting off the cacti thorns and a brilliant blue sky between cactus spines, and C breathed in deep and declared the air to be fresh and clean.

The room may not have been all that, but the lush hotel landscaping, particularly on the side of the grounds where are room was located (the other side were ground level rooms and rondavals with much less greenery) certainly made up for it.  Hungry we headed to lunch.  The tasteless interpretations brought to us left so much to be desired, but it being hot and beachy, we had little appetite anyway.  C just wanted to get her swimsuit on and enjoy the water.  Pool, lake, whatever.  We headed to the pool where C quickly made friends (it helps to bring diving fish toys and a giant inflatable sea turtle on which at least four kids can ride), and I enjoyed a book.  I felt inexplicably angry about the lunch service, but I could feel the tension beginning to melt away.

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The pathway to our room

We had a quiet evening.  By that I mean we did little but hang out in our room watching a Marvel movie on the television and dining on the half decent version of room service pizza.  However, a large conference of Malawian auditors rocked on late into the evening, the thumbing music from their venue reaching even to our location at nearly the furthest room away.  Still we slept well.

After breakfast on Sunday we drove the twenty or so minutes to the township of Mangochi.  Once called Fort Johnston during colonial days, it was originally established in the 1890s as a defense post on the Shire as it flows from Lake Malawi and as a deterrent to the Yao slave traders.  Today there are few traces of this colonial past.  We stopped to look at the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower built in 1901, its dilapidated clock face almost entirely missing, and a cannon from the Gwendolen, the Mangochi-built British gunboat and the largest ship to patrol Lake Malawi. It took almost as long for me to write that sentence as it took to circle the clock tower and read its historical markers.

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Despite its condition, the fact it remains standing and its placement at the edge of town and ahead of a bridge over the Shire, make it worth at least a cursory visit

C and I then headed over to the Lake Malawi Museum.  I only know of three museums in all of Malawi and I have been to “museums” in developing countries before, so I had set the bar appropriately low despite the surprisingly high marks on Google Reviews (six reviews giving it an average of 3.8 stars out of 5).  As we approached the single story ranch style building, which resembled a cross between a warehouse and a home, a sad metal playground consisting of a slide and the cross bars of a swingset without the swings in the yard to the right, it was not immediately clear it was open or operational.  The wide concrete slab in the yard likely a parking lot for cars that never come.  But two individuals, a thin older man and woman, sat on the porch next to the open door, giving more the impression of squatters than museum curators.  As I read the entrance fee of 500 Malawian Kwacha (USD 70 cents) and tried to hand over the money to cover both C and I, the man informed me in garbled English that the museum, though technically open, had no electricity.  I said that was fine, we would still go inside, figuring some windows would still provide some light.  But there were no windows and the darkness inside was near complete.  Not wanting to miss out on one of the major attractions of Mangochi, I asked the man if he had a light.  He pulled out a small torch and I lit up the flashlight on my phone and together we made our way through the tiny museum, past sad dioramas of Malawian wildlife, a replica of the deck of the Gwendolen, and a pathetic aquarium.  Well, if it had had fish it would have been poor, but the four small tanks empty of water and life did not even rate it the name “aquarium.”

As I handed over the money and thanked our torchbearer, and turned to leave, I mentioned to C it had been a waste of time.  She however insisted we go back inside one more time!  She said she had not seen enough of the boat deck, though I noted given how dark it was, it was hard to see anything at all.  She was adamant so we had a second visit.  C gave the museum 5 stars; I give it 1/2 a star, due in a large part for the amusing adventure of going through it in the dark.

14

Beach view from the rockface stairs (the monkey on the roof also enjoying the scene)

Not relishing another poor lunch at the Sunbird, we had lunch at another nearby resort and then stopped at a wide expanse of dirt where dozens of goats were lazing about.  C dubbed it “Goatland” and boasted that she would easily catch a baby goat and implied we would then toss said goat into our car in and add to our growing menagerie.  Though I made it clear we would not be making off with some villager’s goat, I am glad C is not as good at goat catching as she proclaimed.  We then spent several hours on the beach – C playing in the surf and in the sand, with myself again reading a book.

The following morning I felt completely refreshed.  I took some time to just breath in the lake air and listen to the soothing sounds of the lake waves and the twitters of morning birds.  The restorative powers of a beach, nature, rhythmic swells, felt almost overwhelmingly strong.  Once again I felt surprised how even a few days of a change of scenery could do so much for my spirit.  C and I snuggled for a bit; how I love sharing these moments and places with her.  Then we packed up for the trip home.  Even the drive made me happy.