The second half of my home leave return trip between my two tours in Malawi.
After leaving Williamsburg we headed south to New Bern, North Carolina, where my long-time friend CZ and her son Little C live. CZ and I go way back. In fact, back to the College of William and Mary, when like Seinfeld and Kramer, we lived across from one another in our senior dorm. We are also both single moms. Back during our first Home Leave after two years in Mexico, we spent a week in New Bern when Little C was just a month old. CZ and Little C visited us in Shanghai, and we met up with them in Paris. Here we are returning to see them for a few days; Little C is now five.
New Bern is a bit like Williamsburg — lots of history but also plenty of natural activities. We visited some places we had been before – such as my taking C and Little C to lunch at the Cow Cafe and then over to the Birthplace of Pepsi Cola (I may be a die-hard Diet Coke fan, but Diet Coke shortages in Malawi have led me to embrace Pepsi Light) – but other places like Tyron Palace did not fit this trip. We did picnic near Atlantic Beach and then head out on pirate boat for some fun out of Beaufort. We also took a National Park ferry service to Shackelford Banks for some beach time and wild horses. Mostly, though the kids just were happy to see one another again, as were CZ and I. It was bittersweet leaving CZ and Little C — the kids did not want to part (C had told another child we met along the way “Little C is like my brother, he just has a different mom”). But CZ and I knew it would not be too long before we meet up again.
In the car again, we headed to our next destination: the Outer Banks. A good destination for those with younger kids is almost always the beach, but I was still determined to shove some American history into C. Wait, I mean, expose her to the wonders of America’s rich history. And though C may not know a whole lot on that subject, she does know the story of the Wright Brothers and their first flight on the sand dunes of Kill Devil Hills.
Funnily enough, the last time I was in the Outer Banks was 1994, where I headed with my sorority sister CZ, just after graduation from the College of William and Mary. The one other time before that, I was 16 years old, as the long-time babysitter for family friends. (I remain friends still with this family — in fact just as I wrote this sentence a message box popped up from one of them). Another American and personal history trip.
On our first day, we checked into the hotel, and then immediately we headed out to grab some quintessential American beachside food. Ahhhh, ordering at a small window of a short order takeout place, then sitting at picnic tables, in the summer beachy heat under the shade of an umbrella. There is nothing like it in Malawi. Maybe nothing quite like it outside of the U.S.A.
That evening we headed over to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island to see the production of The Lost Colony, the nation’s longest running outdoor symphonic drama (that’s a mouthful, right?). In its 82nd season, the play depicts the history, drama, and mystery surrounding the ill-fated first settlement in the “New World.” The stage is set at the actual location of the settlement and has run every summer since 1937, only stopping briefly during WWII with the threat of German U-boats off the coast being able to see the lights from the theater. Having already visited Jamestown and Williamsburg, I thought C would really enjoy the play. Nothing could quite have prepared me for the emotional roller coaster that was to come. C loved the antics of Tom, the drunkard turned heroic settler, and the pageantry of the scenes with Queen Elizabeth. But the scenes of fighting between Native Americans and the settlers had her on her feet, full on sobbing, “Nooooooo! Stop it! Stop it! Mom, why did you bring me here????” I felt like a bit of a jerk making her sit through the entire performance and yet at the end she asked if she could have her photo with the actress who played Queen Elizabeth and she patiently waited in line to chat her up (Sir Walter Raleigh was there too, but she could have cared less), and on the car ride home she asked me lots of questions about it. (“Mom, so why were the settlers always talking about God?” “Mom, why are they lost if they carved where they were going on the tree?” “Mom, why didn’t the guy from England just go to Croatan to find them?”) So, despite wanting to sink into my seat at the theater as those near us observed my daughter’s very raw, and rather noisy, emotion, C seems to have gotten out of it what I had hoped.
When we returned the following day to visit the rest of Fort Raleigh, she had even more questions about the missing settlers. Then we headed over to the North Carolina Aquarium because we are simply incapable of passing up on an aquarium. We followed up with a visit to Dare Devil’s Pizza so I could introduce C to the massive stromboli I remembered from my visit 30 years before and then we had some time to stroll and play on the beach.
Our activity for the following day involved driving an hour south to visit Hatteras Island and its famous lighthouse. Nothing is more fun to do in the middle of long drives between destinations is to take another drive. No, really, I love driving. And while overseas I always miss American roads. The state of Malawian roads especially has me hankering for the smooth, largely pot-hole free, clearly lined arteries that criss cross America. I also love to hear C repeatedly asking from the back “How much longer?”
We didn’t just visit the historic site, but we climbed the 257 steps to the top. My heart pounding, not so much from hauling my increasing out of shape self, but from the genuine fear that seized my heart walking up the curved staircase, holding (no, gripping) its low, surely not regulation height, handrail, trying not to look down at the increasing distance between my location and the ground floor. Nah, just kidding, it was loads of fun, especially once back on terra firma.
Once back in Nags Head we stopped at Kitty Hawk Kites because its an Outer Banks institution and I remembered visiting when I was 16. It is also the place to go to book adventure tours and activities. By the time we left about an hour later, C had convinced me to buy her a fox kite (word to the wise: know the dimensions of your extra suitcase so you do not buy a kite that is 4 inches too long to fit) and for me to sign us up for mother-daughter hanggliding classes on the dunes for the following day.
Ever since I had visited Jockey’s Ridge State Park at the age of 16, and watched the hanggliders on the dunes, I have wanted to go back and try it myself. It took a bit of fast talk to convince C to give it a go. She wanted to go to mermaid swimming school, but that was not on offer at the time. But with a promise to give her a SpongeBob SquarePants ice cream after we successfully completed the course, she reluctantly agreed.
Together with the rest of our class, we marched up the dunes. At the top we were re-instructed on the basics covered in the classroom and then we divided into three groups, with the children under 16 in their own group. We all had five flights — two flights, then a rotation through the group, two more flights, another rotation, and then a final flight — I was able to watch all of C’s flights. C seemed nervous at first, but in an all kids group she relaxed, soon in her element. At one point she was surrounded by the other kids, all older, as they asked her about life in Africa. When C went to do her flight, one of the other kids told me that “she is pretty great.” I beamed.
It was an incredible day on the dunes. I found it somewhat frightening and exhilirating. We never really flew on our own. The adults had a single instructor who ran with us the length of our flight, tethered to the contraption so we could only get so much lift and distance; the children had two instructors. We only flew short distances, but I felt absurdly happy as my stomach dropped as the wind lifted me up. I laughed. A lot. A storm moved across the Roanoke Sound. The skies darkened, the wind picked up. The instructors had to double up even for the adult fliers. C finished up first so she could watch my final flight, then the two of us made our own way back to the training facility as the skies opened up.
Later that afternoon we drove about 45 minutes north to meet my sister, husband, and kids, and their friends at a popular seafood restaurant. We had found out at the very beginning of our Home Leave that my sister and her friend’s annual beach week in Duck, North Carolina, the northern Outer Banks, would coincide during our week in the area. It was fun to catch up in an unexpected way.
On our final day, we finally headed to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. At last, C would learn more about the history of aviation in America right at the source. It was a hot July day so we started off first in the wonderfully informative (and air conditioned!) museum. Then we walked the flight path and up Kill Devil Hill, where the brothers conducted many of their glider tests and where now stands the 60 foot tall granite monument to their achievements. We then returned to the car and drove around to the First Flight Centennial Memorial, where Orrville, Wilbur, the plane, and other observers of that first day are memorialized in bronze. C and other kids (and many adults) loved that visitors can actually climb all over the sculptures, a sort of interactive historical playground. I then took C to Dairy Queen to enjoy her first ever Blizzard, a wonderful, fattening, concoction of thick soft serve ice creams and yummy goodies. Ah, America.
Next stop: Chincoteague, Virginia. Finally, a place I had never been, but which has long been on my bucket list from way back when to I was a little girl. Chincoteague and its sister island Assateague are two Virginian barrier islands (the northern two-thirds of the long and narrow Assateague falls into Maryland’s jurisdiction) are both part of the national park system – the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore – but they were made famous by a children’s novel (Misty of Chincoteague) written in 1947 about the wild horses of Assateague and the annual pony swim to Chincoteague. The book, still in print, still fires the imagination of young readers, especially those who love horses. I read the book to C just before we began our trip.
Chincoteague has small town American charm (population about 2,800), but with its protected spaces and history of wild ponies woven into popular literature, it just has more. Soon after checking in to our hotel (hours later than anticipated thanks to an accident on the ONE northern bridge off the Outer Banks), we headed out to dinner, walking up to a family-style italian restaurant to appease C’s hankering for some simple pasta. Afterwards we played mini golf.
Monday, it rained. We had a lazy morning, carry out lunch in the room, then in the afternoon headed over to Assateague to visit the two Visitor Centers. Although they are not too big, C enjoyed finding out about the flora and the fauna, especially because one really fantastic young park ranger encouraged C to work on a park booklet to become a junior ranger. As the afternoon waned, the sun came out just in time for a beautiful drive along a nature loop road. On our last full day we went out on an early morning boat tour. The weather was perfect and we not only had the opportunity to see the famous ponies, but also some other wildlife, including a bald eagle. Then back over to the Visitor Centers on Assateague, including a climb up the Assateague Lighthouse.
Before we departed Chincoteague, I rented a bicycle with a trailor, so C could sit in cool comfort (even with her tablet) while I did all the work. I love cycling and I have been waiting for when C is able to ride with me. Our overseas life has not exactly been conducive to her learning to ride though. In Shanghai, there was a rooftop linking the eighth floors of the two apartment buildings and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It was not an empty area; there were tennis courts, an area for a bouncy castle, a trampoline, the swimming pool, and covered area with tables and bar-b-que areas. A small child could cycle a little on a small bike, but scooters were all the rage in Shanghai. And then here in Malawi, the roads are not all that safe. There are no sidewalks or shoulders. The bicycle carriage was the perfect compromise. It felt AMAZING to out and about — the hour riding the trails and roads on Assateague was perfect.
We then drove on to Winchester, Virginia to spend a few days at my Aunt C’s, including a night at her cabin in West Virginia, and then a few days in Sterling, Virginia, my original home town. We caught up with friends and family. And then it was time to say goodbye to the U.S. How did four weeks pass by so quickly? But we squeezed a lot in. C had time in NY with her father, her paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I had time in Jacksonville with my Aunt C and doing more in my home-away-from-the-Foreign-Service. We caught up with CZ and Little C in New Bern. We visited my college town and soaked in some early American history, and had another walk down my memory lane and more American history in the Outer Banks. And we both made new memories enjoying time in the beautiful barrier islands of Virginia. We visited a total of five places in the U.S. National Park system. Not bad at all for four fabulous weeks.
Then we needed to begin the journey home. And it was going to be a loooooooooooooooooooong trip back, even longer than when we flew to the States. Due to the amount of money authorized for our Home Leave travel by Washington, and the limited time between that authorization (early May) and our departure (mid-June), being in the northern Hemisphere summer time, we had to fly a different routing. So we would fly from Washington Dulles on the eight hour red-eye flight to Frankfurt, Germany, arriving at noon. Then spend 10 hours on a layover in Frankfurt before our ten-hour red-eye flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. Then five hours in Jo’burg before our two-hour flight to Lilongwe. But I was determined to make the most of our time in Germany.
Long, long ago, also when I was 16 years old, my sisters and I spent a month in Frankfurt with my Aunt C and Uncle D. So the plan was to give C just a wee bit of a taste of Germany and a touch more of a walk down mommy-memory-lane. We freshened up in an airport shower, went through immigration, stored our luggage, and then caught a train from the airport to the Frankfurt Main Train Station. Then we headed to the Old Town to do a little sightseeing. In three hours we had lunch and hit many a place from my store of old family photos.
Then it truly was the end of our mid-tour Home Leave and time to return home – to Malawi.