R&R in COVID Part 5: Nairobi Time

The fifth in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

Following our adventures in the Mara, at Lake Naivasha, and Mombasa, it was time to wrap up our trip with a final week in Nairobi. In normal times, I would not be keen to spend this many days in one place; we could have visited two, maybe three, places. But COVID has rendered travel to nothing but normal. In order to return to Malawi we needed to get another negative COVID test certificate and thus we had to spend the last part of our vacation in Nairobi and given the pandemic and the holidays it made sense to spend more time there just in case anything might delay our ability to get testing.

This factored into my calculus for planning my trip. Not only did I want to visit a country with plenty for us to see and do, but to stay in a capital city that would also offer us the same during an overly long stopover. Nairobi offered that over our other choices.

We returned from Mombasa in the early afternoon, headed back to the same business hotel we had stayed on our first night, left our luggage, and immediately headed out to Westgate Shopping Mall. There we strolled the walkways, rode the escalators, and shopped. We also had a late lunch. This might not seem like much, but Malawi does not have shopping malls. Well, there is one, Gateway, that tries to pass itself off as the one and only mall in Lilongwe, but while it is an enclosed shopping complex, its two meh supermarkets, a bank, a Poundstretcher (like a Dollar Store), a salon, a shoe store, a children’s clothing store, and a few restaurants, do not, in my opinion, a mall make. Nairobi though has malls. It is rich in them. And while there is security (armed guards, metal detectors, pat downs) and COVID requirements (masks, hand washing, social distancing as much as possible), we were keen to live it up just as much as watching a cheetah on the plains of the Mara.

That is all we did — our late lunch and some groceries sustained us for the rest of the day. Our following day we had a late start — not something we had done much of on our trip thus far — and then head out again to the Junction Mall. It was nice enough with a different layout though many of the same stores as Westgate. Two malls in two days and I could already feel a sense of malaise fall over me. Though I doubt it had much to do with the mall. We had been away from home already for nearly two weeks after having not been on a vacation longer than four days in a year. We had been home, literally isolated in and around our house, for half a year. I know I had desperately wanted not just time away from home, but time traveling in another country. But the fatigue of traveling had set in. Good thing I had a little something up my sleeve to combat at least some of it while in Nairobi.

The Karen Blixen home, estate, and museum in Karen District, Nairobi

On the morning of December 24, C and I checked out of our hotel and head to The Hub Karen. Yes, another mall, but that’s okay. It had a few things that the others had not, including a Dominos Pizza. And it was open at 9 AM. And we ate breakfast there. Go ahead and judge if you want. Though Dominos is not my thing while in the U.S. its pizza was the best pizza ever on that drizzly Christmas Eve morning. We then hailed an Uber (yes, they have Uber in Nairobi! Yet, in Malawi there isn’t even a regular taxi service) and headed to the Karen Blixen museum.

I could not visit Nairobi without a pilgrimage to the Out of Africa author’s home. It had been probably two decades since I had watched the film, but I had never forgotten the story. A love story, not only of a strong woman in the early decades of the 20th century but of the affection she developed for a country and a people not her own. Of course its not so straight forward and my thoughts on it have changed as I have grown older and with my own experience in Africa, but C and I enjoyed a one hour tour of the home and grounds (perhaps I enjoyed it quite a bit more than C). We then headed to the parking lot where our transport to our next destination awaited.

Scenes from day one at Giraffe Manor. Left: Christmas Combined with Giraffes – part of the beautiful spread at our Christmas Eve high tea with giraffes. Center: I have her eating out of my hand. Right: A view of our stunning room, the Betty

Giraffe Manor, the beautiful 1930s colonial manor house set in the Karen suburbs of Nairobi that houses a dozen-strong herd of Rothschild’s giraffe on its expansive grounds, is one of the most well known hotel properties in the world. I have long wanted to stay here but years ago a search that revealed its nightly rate and a rumored 18-month wait list made it seem a bucket list item that would always remain unchecked. Yet with Kenya looking like a best choice for an R&R, I revisited this particular dream.

I’ll be honest off the bat: this place is not inexpensive. I spent many years traveling on a shoestring budget and though today I travel differently I still cannot help but try to stretch my vacation dollar. Yet after a year of no travel, of canceling multiple domestic and international trips in 2020, I had money to burn and a desire to “go big or go home.” I wanted to make Christmas special for both C and I after a very challenging nine months. And amazingly enough, this much sought after property had space available two months out from Christmas. I might have planned almost the entirety of our trip to Kenya on being able to stay at Giraffe Manor.

There is a large animal outside!

On arrival we were greeted as VIP guests. We started off with a welcome drink and then shown to our room — the Betty room in the main Manor House. I cannot imagine there is a single room that isn’t gorgeous at this property, but we scored big with the Betty. As a corner room on the upper front of the manor we were afforded views south across the 12 acres of land that house the resident giraffes and to the west, from our patio, we could see out to the Ngong hills of Out of Africa fame.

Unlike other places we had stayed, Giraffe Manor was nearly at capacity — though there are only 12 rooms in total. Besides us there was a couple from Colorado, a newlywed couple from Mexico City, a family of 12 from New York, a family of four (I think from India), two couples and a child from Eastern Europe, and one more couple who stayed very much to themselves (which is totally natural, especially in the time of COVID). We were served a lovely two course lunch and then C and I requested a trip to the adjacent Giraffe Center.

The Giraffe Center was established in 1979, directly adjacent to Giraffe Manor. I knew we could walk there from the manor but had not realized exactly how close the two were and that walking would require an escort given that we were off the manor’s immediate lawn and into the giraffe’s grazing area. At the center we could learn all about giraffes, the conservation programs to protect, rehabilitate, and breed the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes, a subspecies found only in East Africa. We also got our first up and personal experience with the giraffes of the manor, in particular which ones were more tame than others.

C feeds a giraffe — the patio of our room is visible just behind

We returned to the manor for an hour wait before high tea and our first manor experience with the resident giraffes. Out our window we could see the giraffes, especially the more eager, slowly move their grazing closer and closer to the manor lawn. The food set up was beautiful (though the gorgeous cake turned out to be fruit cake! Not a big favorite of mine — or anyone I know!). Once we dug into our tea the giraffe pellets were brought out by the bucketful. And the giraffes who had not already arrived made their way to the feeding area. The resident warthogs joined as well, as they know what the giraffes miss, they get.

Nothing is quite like feeding a wild animal from your hand, especially a 14 foot tall, 1500 pound animal who will hoover the pellets from your hand in seconds with a lick of their 20 inch long tongues. And if you want one of those cool pictures of you facing the camera with giraffes on both sides literally eating out of your hands, then you better hope the photographer is quick, because if you run out of pellets too quickly some of these hungry giraffes with little patience might just butt you with their massive heads to urge you to get some more. It might be a love pat, a little reminder to hold up your end of the deal, but it feels like anything but. After an amazing hour of snacking and giraffe feeding the guests retired to their rooms to prepare for dinner, which was served by candlelight on the moonlit patio under the stars.

We waited up to hear Santa given the Giraffe Manor managers had told her that in Africa Santa lands at Giraffe Manor to hitch up the giraffe for the continent’s deliveries, giving the reindeer a much needed break. As we watched NORAD’s Santa tracker near Nairobi we quickly switched off the lights and lay still and C is one hundred percent sure she heard the sleigh land. We were up at 6 AM on Christmas day with the sounds of shuffling and snorting of giraffes on the hunt for more pellets.

Feed us now! Left: Giraffes get a breakfast snack; Center: Giraffe looking up to our patio; Right: Giraffe bursts into the breakfast nook

It was extraordinary to look off the patio balcony to find giraffes on the lower patio, making their way a little clumsily across the brickwork to snarf up snacks from robed guests. But we had a bucket of pellets too and it did not take long for at least one giraffe to notice us and shuffle over. I never thought we would have the opportunity to look down on a giraffe. We headed down to breakfast where first the humans eat and then after the human plates are cleared, plates are placed on the tables with more giraffe pellets and the large windows are opened for the giraffes to poke their heads in, butting the humans out of the way as they gobble up those pellets!

Check out was at 10 AM. Lots of people have asked me — was it worth it for the price? And I will say that yes, one hundred percent, for my daughter and I it was worth it. It is a one of a kind, unique experience that at any time would be amazing. At this time, with us really craving something wonderful, it was perfect. The only issue is how to top it for future Christmases?

Well, actually, within hours, once back into the same business hotel we had been in before, another issue popped up. Most times with Christmas with kids there is so much build up to the event. Months of planning, of carefully reviewing Christmas lists and other signs, and shopping — especially when overseas and one needs to order by early November to guarantee a by-Christmas delivery, then Christmas Eve traditions, and the frenzy of gift opening on Christmas morning. By Christmas afternoon there is this sudden lull, a sense of emptiness. After our visit to Giraffe Manor, this felt even more pronounced.

C rides the Eye of Kenya

Over the next few days we continued to keep busy. We visited the Nairobi National Museum, which though huge, was one of the best I have visited in a developing country and the building itself and the sculpture out front were worth seeing. Even more exciting though was the co-located Snake Park. It was not much extra and seemed a good enough thing to do to while away some time, but as we turned a corner in the area we came face to face with an Egyptian cobra out of its enclosure! No worries, there was a snake handler complete with one of those snake catching things you can on National Geographic’s Snakes in the City. After that unexpected excitement we met up with a friend of mine working with USAID in Kenya whom I had met in book club in Jakarta. She took us to eat good Mexican food (shut the front door!) and then to the Two Rivers Mall. The mall was not all we had hoped as several entertainment venues were closed due to COVID and yet the place was really crowded, which made me uncomfortable. We rode the ‘Eye of Kenya’ the observation wheel outside the mall — not as fabulous as wheels I have ridden in London, Singapore, or Paris, but still a fun little ride that gives a glimpse of the mall and how urbanization of Nairobi has — or will soon — reach these suburbs.

On our next to last full day we headed to the Nairobi hospital to get our return to Malawi COVID tests and then joined a very small tour (us and one other guy — and Economist from Sudan who lives in France) to the Nairobi National Park. The park itself is quite extraordinary – established in 1946 as Kenya’s first game reserve and the only such park in the world that sits so close to a capital city. Just five miles from Nairobi’s Central Business District, the park is fenced on three sides, but open to the south for migratory animals. Its variety of bird and animal species, including big cats and rhino, is extraordinary for a park its size. However, we had just been to the Maasai Mara just two weeks before and while a great place that should be supported, it could not compared. On our final day, we spent the morning on the walking trails of Karura Forest, another excellent urban park. Its well marked trails and sporting facilities another reminder of how something simple like this can transform a location. How I wished Lilongwe had a place like this; it would have made getting through the pandemic that much better.

Left: Zebra in Nairobi National Park with a plane coming in for a landing at Wilson Airport in the background; Right: C on the trail at Karura Forest

After nearly three wonderful weeks in Kenya, it was time to return to Malawi. While we were glad to be going home – because Malawi after three and a half years is very much our home and we missed it, pandemic and all. There still remained uncertainty of when we might be able to travel again, but I am glad we jumped at the chance to spend our R&R in Kenya.

R&R in COVID Part 4: Relaxing on the Swahili Coast

The fourth in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

I had had some reservations about making an additional domestic flight in Kenya. When I planned our trip, Kenya Airways flew between Lilongwe and Nairobi only every Wednesday and Friday. If we flew to Kenya on Friday, December 11, we could fly back two weeks later on Friday, December 25, but flying on Christmas was not my cup of tea. Returning on the 23rd was not either. My next option was the 30th, which would give us nearly three weeks in Kenya. With that kind of time, we had an opportunity to see more of the country.

Domestic flights do not require a negative COVID-19 tests. Travel to and from Kenya would require every passenger to produce a negative test to board. Our small six person aircraft with two pilots to and from the Mara did not particularly concern me. I had hoped our flight to Mombasa would be largely empty, like I had seen in more than a few online photos of persons traveling on planes almost to themselves — or if fuller, middle seats would be blocked out by the airline. I had heard of some airlines doing that. Yet the plane was full. Old school, pre-COVID kind of full. I was not super worried, but I did take notice and it did give me pause.

A camel on the beach — my palm-fronded view of the beach on the Indian Ocean

An hour later we were landing at Mombasa. We quickly found a taxi and headed to our hotel, the Voyager Beach Resort, thirty minutes from the airport. The traffic was heavy heading north from the city, away from Mombasa Island, to where our hotel was located in a leafy and apparently somewhat well-to-do neighborhood along Nyali Beach. But as we drove to the resort gates, it was immediately apparent that this was not a tourism location — there were no restaurants or souvenir shops lining the road. The resort was stand alone – so there would be no options to walk to eat or shop anywhere other than the resort.

View of one the Voyager Beach Resort’s three pools

The resort was nice. We had a nice third floor room facing the slim beachfront. The room was small and the bathroom outdated, but the balcony, lovely grounds, swimming pools, and kids’ club made up for it. But it was crowded. This was the most people we had been around in some time, in both Malawi and Kenya. The manager told me that the hotel was required to have 20% of their rooms blocked out due to government COVID mitigation strategies, but that left still some 180 rooms filled with holiday making couples and families. I recalled that the hotel had only recently re-opened and clearly many Kenyans (and some expatriates and tourists) were eager for some fun in the sun after over half a year of pandemic imposed travel restrictions. Part of me was pleased to see so many happy people on vacation, it gave a sense of pre-COVID normalcy, but another part of me initially felt uncomfortable with the unexpected crowds. Still, the hotel had a 100% mask in public spaces (except when eating and swimming) policy, daily random temperature checks, and C and I kept largely to ourselves.

We did not do much. We swam. We ate. We strolled. We relaxed. Although December is part of Kenya’s “short rains” season, we had no rain. Each day bright, sunny, with startlingly blue skies, and very warm. The beach was not much to write home about. In retrospect, perhaps a hotel at the more lauded Diani beach south of Mombasa would have been the place to go. At Nyali Beach, white sand, yes, but often covered in washed up seaweed. The low tide was dramatic, with the shoreline exposed for at least a hundred yards. Yet while it tempted me for a shoreline stroll, during the hottest part of the day the beach was haunted by touts. We went down once for a short walk and were immediately accosted. Did I want to buy some souvenirs? (Mostly the basic cheap stuff you see everywhere in African tourist spots) Perhaps a massage? I would have loved a massage — all the hotel services at every hotel were closed due to COVID — but not enough to have one by a random person on the beach behind a rock face during a pandemic. Did we want a tour? (I actually did, and booked one, although I had my doubts I would see the guy again). C and tried to walk into the tidal pools to see what we could see, but it was impossible to do so without a “helpful” guide. I said multiple times we were good and did not need, but it was like shouting into a wind tunnel — pointless. C was very uncomfortable with the people surrounding us to push their various pitches; I was not thrilled because, well, COVID.

Colorful sarongs for sale on the dried seaweed covered beach (Nope, I don’t need any!)

I went down to the beach during high tout time only once more — without C because she refused. I really just wanted some alone walking time, but the beach was not really all that pleasant and there were too many people who wanted to sell me something I did not want or need.

The following day our beach-comber tour tout was right on time in front of the hotel with our very own personal van with pop-up top — which would allow us to socially distance from our driver and take in the city sights with a clear view even when stuck in traffic (and in traffic, there was a camel!). We headed first to a park on the southwest side of Mombasa Island, the crowded coral outcrop that anchors an inlet of the Indian Ocean. From our vantage point, we could watch the Likoni car and passenger ferry disgorge its cargo onto the island and a line of vehicles and people waiting on the other side to also join us. Mombasa Island is the place to be. But we were ultimately heading to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Fort Jesus and Old Town.

I am a bit of a history buff and a fan of UNESCO sites. It was in a large part that these sites had drawn me to this area rather than other more beachy parts of the coast. I have been to a good number of UNESCO sites around the world and the majority of them are jaw-dropping, mind-blowing amazing. Though I will admit that for a small number you really have to have your imagination cap on to see through the dirt and dust and grime of centuries or the modern kitsch tourism display (for example the Sanigran Early Man site in central Java, Indonesia, was rather sad in a rundown sort of way and amusing for its odd life-sized dioramas). Unfortunately, and maybe I was just not in the right frame of mind (it was hot and humid and I had an 8-year-old already determined to be mildly bored from the beginning in tow), but I found both of the sites, though interesting, did not live up to my expectations.

We visited Fort Jesus first. Its huge imposing presence stands sentinel on the southeastern face of Mombasa Island at the mouth of Tudor Creek. It might be far better to have approached the fort from the water to really see its size and imagine how this edifice has withstood the test of time — but the hotel (and my beach tourist touts) did not have such a tour. Thus we had to make do with touring the fort from the inside. It was first built by the Portuguese in the late 1500s and it stood as a fort until 1895, when it was last captured and then converted into a prison. An extraordinarily diverse group of people held control of the fort and lived within and outside its walls, from the Portuguese to the Swahili traders, from local sultans to Omani sultans, from the British to everyone in-between. The stylized Omani doors and the Oman House, the residence of the governing East Africa coast sultan, were my favorite parts. As were the cannons and their embrasures, opening out to the view of azure waters and cerulean sky.

My snapshots of Fort Jesus

C though was not a huge fan.

No problem. We headed next for a walking tour of Old Town – a warren of narrow streets and a mixture of African, Arab, and European architecture. We had loved our trip to Zanzibar two years ago and were hoping to see some of the same sense of history and splendor we had experienced there. Sadly, though, for us at least, Mombasa Old Town was the very poor cousin to the magnificence of Zanzibar’s Stone Town. Underneath the neglect, the overabundance of exposed wires, the peeling paint, and crumbling exteriors, you can still make out some of the architectural beauty, the exquisitely carved balconies or wrap-around porches of Indian teak, the elaborately carved exterior window frames, and the ubiquitous decorated Zanzibari doors. It’s all there but in dire need of some TLC. Ever the diplomat, I was pretty excited to come across a plaque marking the location of the first U.S. Consulate in Kenya 1915-1918.

Photos around Mombasa Old Town

Maybe if we had had more time? If we had stayed in or near Old Town? Or if it weren’t so hot and in the time of COVID? Then perhaps we might have enjoyed the historic area a little better. A 45-minute walk through the area sufficed and we headed back to our hotel. I had thought I would also book a tour to take us to the UNESCO World Heritage site the Gedi Ruins, located about two hours north of Mombasa, on another day, but I no longer had the energy. I just could not wrap my head around a four-hour round trip to see a site that might not float my boat. If it had been just me, perhaps, but I also had C to think about. So, I took a deep breath and accepted that it would not be in the cards for this trip.

Back at the hotel, C and I had a nice lunch and then headed for the pool. C quickly made some friends and after some time the girls invited C to the Kids’ Club — and then the magic really happened. I had been a bit worried about the Kids’ Club during the time of COVID, but they had the protocols — handwashing and masks — though social distancing was limited; I get that though, it’s kids. But as mentioned previously, daily temperature checks were conducted randomly at the resort. And C was SO happy. She had already spent over a week just hanging out with me and had slogged through “mom’s history tour morning” with minimal complaint. She just wanted to spend time with kids her age. For the next day and a half, she spent most of her time at the Kids’ Club – they played on the beach, in the pool, had kids meal dinners, and watched movies. And I read and took walks and dined by myself. Our last full day though was a Monday and most of the other children had left, so she and I spent our last day together. And it was Turkish Night at the buffet; C did not want to miss it and she declared it the best of the buffet nights (vs. Indian, Japanese, and Kenyan).

Good morning Mombasa

On our last morning, I woke early to head down to the beach to watch the sunrise. Mombasa was not all I had expected but it was everything we needed. It had been so long since we had seen the ocean. Lake Malawi is an extraordinary place and it is so large it can feel like the sea, but it’s not. And I had just needed to be somewhere other than Malawi and somewhere different than safari. There are few things in life that will soothe the soul like watching waves on the sea and seeing your child happy. Mombasa delivered.

R&R in COVID Part 1: Decisions & Preparation

C is tested for COVID-19 at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe

How do you decide where to go on vacation during a pandemic?

Overall, for me, it was a somewhat wrenching, but ultimately easy decision.

R&R, i.e. “Rest and Recuperation,” is a “travel benefit that provides temporary relief for employees and eligible family members from posts with distinct and significant difficulties.” The State Department (and other federal agencies with presence overseas, like the military), set the number of R&Rs an employee and their family are eligible for from each location overseas. If you serve in Australia or Hong Kong or even on the Mexico border with the U.S., you are not eligible. If you live somewhere like Malawi, you are granted one R&R for every two years you serve.

But in 2020, the pandemic halted many (most?) R&Rs. Here in Malawi, international commercial flights were halted from April 1 until September 5. And even once flights resumed in September, they were limited in number. But Embassy personnel were still restricted from taking flights out of the country, unless in an emergency or with special circumstances, until late October.

I have traveled to over 100 countries and territories and been on more flights than I can count, but the idea of being on a long plane ride at this time filled me with a great amount of anxiety. I desperately wanted to travel outside of Malawi — the living room staycations and the long drives on the same pockmarked Malawian roads were just not doing it for me anymore. I needed the kind of vacation that involved stamps in my passport. Yet, I just could not stomach going somewhere really far away. If you know me or have read my blog travels, you know that in usual times, that does not concern me. It is the destination, not how long it will take us to get there. By the time she was three, my daughter would ask how many planes it would take for us to get to our destination. This time, I wanted it to be just one.

One reason that COVID-19 came to Malawi later in the game than most (it was one of the last countries in the world to record a case), is that it is not on many tourist itineraries and it is a destination point, not a transit point. And just as few flights arrive here, few depart. In non-pandemic times, we could fly direct from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe to six locations: Johannesburg (South Africa), Harare (Zimbabwe), Lusaka (Zambia), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Nairobi (Kenya). However, once commercial flights resumed we were limited to just three: Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi.

Initially, South Africa seemed the most logical choice as I still held an airline credit with Ethiopian to Johannesburg and a hotel credit at a lodge in Lesotho. Except, Ethiopian had not resumed flights to Johannesburg; only Malawian Airlines (though 49% owned by Ethiopian) was running that route and their track record was less than stellar. Although Malawian Airlines had announced daily flights to Johannesburg, on average, only two of those flights were actually taking off each week. Not the kind of odds you want to bet your vacation on. Also, to visit both South Africa and Lesotho, we would likely need negative PCR COVID test certificates a few more times to cross another border and back, and even the lodge, which had only partially re-opened (and not the more expensive rooms I had previously booked), advised me not to travel given the challenges of testing. South Africa was out.

I only briefly looked at Ethiopia. There is a lot to see in Ethiopia and I have wanted to visit for awhile, but I did not think the sights conducive to travel with an 8-year-old. And although the daily reported COVID-19 cases for Ethiopia were, in late October and early November, lower than in both South Africa and Kenya, there was also the worst locust plague in 25 years and the beginning of the government conflict with the northern state of Tigray. Ethiopia also requires arrivals, even with a negative PCR COVID test result, to self-isolate for seven days. A week of our vacation would be spent sequestered in a government-designated hotel. Ethiopia was out.

And thus our vacation destination was clear. Nairobi is just over two hours by plane from Lilongwe and there is no quarantine or self-isolation period on arrival as long as you have a negative PCR COVID test result. Bonus points: neither C or I had ever been. Well, hello Kenya.

It was great to know where we were going and there was a sense of the old fun in vacation planning, but there was still a lot of stress related to making sure I dotted all i’s and crossed all t’s in the COVID department. Kenya requires a negative PCR COVID test taken conducted within 96 hours of travel. Malawi also requires a negative COVID test to depart, the timing is less clear on this, but the test must be completed by a government approved testing facility, and there are only three of these. Though the guidelines are constantly changing. The third hospital was added about a week before our flight and the good news was they would make a house call. But just as that seemed the best option, the government announced new regulations requiring additional stamps on the test certificate that the third option did not have. We then went with Kamuzu Central Hospital, the easiest of our options.

It was not a great experience. We went with friends with kids that C knows so they would have one another to lean on. There were patients and others loitering around the hospital grounds, almost none wearing masks. We had to ask the person administering the tests to put on a mask. (He did put on the mask and PPE to conduct collections). After waiting about an hour for the slow procession of testing, he ran out of forms. Once we finally went in, it was really uncomfortable. C, holding the hand of one of her best friends, cried. I might have stopped on the ground and said “Oh, come on!” when it seemed to take a bit too long.

We then had to wait several days. The hospital — no matter when you take you test — only allows pick-up of the results the day before your flight. Talk about pins and needles, wondering if you are in the clear or not, if you can fly or not. Our bubble has been so small since this pandemic began. A very small subset of the already rather small Embassy community. Still, the what ifs sit in the back of your head.

Three of us went to the hospital to pick-up the tests for our group of 14. Pick-up was not straightforward either. I offered to help rifle through the results looking specifically for the names I recognized because it was taking forever, just the three of us standing in a small room crammed with a desk, two chairs, some shelves, and tons and tons of papers. Thank goodness we were all negative (and while you might think — if any of us had been positive then, surely, the hospital would have informed us. But, I have it on good authority that is not always the case)!

With negative COVID test results in hand, a fair amount of the anxiety seeped away. Still, for me that was just step one. Step two was surviving the Lilongwe airport gauntlet – checks, double checks, and triple checks of our negative COVID certificates and multiple temperature checks. Step three was the flight — only two hours long, but after no flights for nearly a year, it felt so much longer. Step four was the Nairobi airport gauntlet — COVID certificate checks, immigration and e-visa checks, health surveillance form checks, and temperature checks. It was not until we stepped out of the airport and were on our way to the hotel that I could really relax. We were on vacation!

Rest & Relaxation: Americana, Jamaica, & Disney Magic Part 2

The continuation of the story of our first R&R from Malawi to the U.S. and Jamaica.

On the morning of our second full day in Jamaica, we had no plans.  Having no plans kinda makes me crazy.  But we were at an all-inclusive in Montego Bay, so it was not hard to find something as the resort had a list of the many, many activities they had going on.  We had breakfast, then took a walk around the property.  I found an intense pool aerobics class and C played in the water just behind me.  We has some of the all-inclusive “free” ice cream, and part Native-American C enjoyed more pool time while fair and freckle-skinned me hid under a towel watching.  We had lunch.  Then we prepared for our PM activity – horseback riding into the sunset of the last day of 2018.  Is that awesome or what?

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C rides confidently through the surf

Once again it was a group tour with a third heading out on ATVs, a third went with dune buggies, and the rest of us had signed up for horseback riding — an hour on a trail through historic farm land, complete with a 17th century windmill, ending in a short trot through the surf.  This would be followed by a ten minute horseback ocean jaunt.

C loves horses.  I try to get organize a horse experience for her whenever I can.  She always insists that she is old enough to handle her own horse and is annoyed over an over when someone holds the reins or rides alongside or even with her.  Boy was she stoked to not only have a horse all her own.  This would not pass muster in the U.S. at all, and I would be a liar if I said watching her did not raise all kinds of nervous butterflies in my stomach, but we did have several experienced guides who rode up and down the line checking on us all and the whole “ride” was more a horse walk, and C was the picture of pride, sitting tall on her horse.

It was a lovely ride along shaded trails and across grassy fields lit golden by the setting sun.  We arrived back at the mounting station and then switched horses for the ocean ride.  It turned out to be a full on ocean plunge.  The horses were quickly up to the base of their necks in the water, fighting the waves, which were on the rough side with the strong, steady wind.  I was immersed past my waist, practically floating over the saddle.  It was exhilarating and somewhat terrifying at the same time.  C was ahead laughing with delight.  I was so grateful when we turned around and headed out; C started to cry because it was over already and she wanted to go again.  The guide offered to take her out again.  And out they went.  C said it was the “best day ever!”

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Happy 2019!

That night we attended the huge New Year’s Eve buffet dinner.  There were mounds of food on dozens of tables decorated with half a dozen ice sculptures and an entertainment revue.  Being NYE the music was louder and went longer than the other days, our room reverberated with the noise.  Still C fell asleep long before midnight; I heard the count down, then nothing more til morning.

I woke to an overcast, yet sunny morning, a rainbow across the sky.  It was so perfect.

That and the next day were spent doing very, very little.  Sleeping in, pool time, mini golf, watching movies, eating ice cream, doing water aerobics.  Then on our next to last day we had a full day adventure — another group tour, this time to Mystic Mountain for the sky lift, which takes visitors 700 feet above the forest floor, then a Jamaican bobsled ride, and finally a zipline course.  C, not quite 7 years old, did it ALL, even as some adults were not so keen and even backed out.

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C zips through the Jamaican rainforest

Following Mystic Mountain the tour group shifted to Dunn’s River Falls, another of the “top” tourist sites in Jamaica, or so every Internet search told me.  If you take everyone on a cruise ship to only a few places, then naturally they become the top spots…  Not to say that Mystic Mountain was not fun or Dunn’s River Falls was not both beautiful and cool (both meetings of the word), but I was regretting not renting a car.  I had mentioned it to one tourist info woman and she tsk tsk’d, reminding me that “we drive on the other side of the road.”  It was with great glee that I explained I live in a country in Africa where I drive on the same side.  Still, I had not rented a car and by this point was losing interest in handing over my credit card for much more.

So we had to do the giant tour bus tango.  You know, where, no matter what, you seem to be the first to be picked up and the last to be dropped off.  Where the tour bus drives 30 minutes of an hour drive and then stops for a “break,” which is really a completely unnecessary shopping stop.  And you get herded off the bus, have to “gather around” for instructions, are only two people but have to wait for ten families of 5 people to get their wrist bands first, and the “free” lunch included in the tour is nothing to write home about it…  Oh, the joy….

We opted not to climb the falls.  I had read online that it was not such a good thing for younger children, and also that tour guides force their groups not only to buy unnecessary pool shoes but also link hands like kindergardeners, making a daisy chain up the falls.  Also, not necessary.  We did look at the falls.  C splashed around in a shallow pool.  Then we went to the splashpad and ate popsicles, blissfully away from the maddening constraints of the tour group.  At least for an hour.

It will likely come as little surprise that we opted to do nothing on our final day.  We were tour bus’d out! We needed a lazy day before another all day travel day.

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Transformed into Mulan!

Back to Jacksonville for another overnight near the airport, then, in a rented car, we drove to Lake Buena Vista, the home of Disney.  Oh the joys of driving on a fully sealed, pothole-free, multi-lane highway with clear lanes and actual shoulders!  We stopped at a gas station to stock up on U.S.-car-trip staples like string cheese and potato chips and gum.  Thank you America!  We arrived around noon to check in to our hotel then head over to Disney Springs where we had a lunch reservation at the Rainforest Cafe followed by C’s appointment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for her princess make-over.

The next day we began our Disney park experience.  This was our 10th visit to a Disney park and our 3rd visit to Disney World.  I have seen a few articles on taking your child traveling but NOT to Disney.  I absolutely understand giving a child the gift of travel, but I believe mixing in a bit of Disney (or more than a bit in our case) not only does not hurt, but can also richly reward a family.

We had tickets for an early morning experience at Hollywood Studios, it seemed the only way to guarantee we could experience all the new Toy Story Land had to offer.  We had a chance to ride all three of the new rides several times before the park opened to everyone and the lines grew rapidly.  And there we were at 9 AM having already done all we had wanted to at Hollywood Studios.  So I upgraded to a park hopper pass and we headed over to the Magic Kingdom.  By the time we were done for the day – with C still going strong running to the car in the parking lot – I had 27,000 steps on my pedometer!

On Tuesday, after a painful vacation club presentation (never again I always tell myself – when will I ever learn??),  we drove about 45 minutes to Winter Haven, FL to visit Legoland.  C loved it because she could ride every single ride (and we did) and there were no crowds.  On several rides we rode it multiple times in a row, on two of them the ride operators did not even make us disembark and run around, we just stayed in our seats for another go.  My limit though was three times in a row.

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We had been dreaming of Disney sweets

Wednesday was Epcot; our first time to that park.  Crowds were relatively light and we were able to ride all but two of the rides.  More importantly though we lunched with princesses at the Akerhaus Royal Banquet Hall and caught up with a few others — C’s photos with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, and Jasmine meant we had completed the goal of meeting all the Disney princesses.

By Thursday we were about theme-parked out, but I had bought a four day Disney ticket and we had two more days left.  We dragged ourselves to Animal Kingdom on a suddenly chilly day, and then back to the Magic Kingdom on the final day.  Lesson learned: three days at Disney might be our limit and/or build in some rest days!

Before heading back to Jacksonville for yet another night we stopped for another bit of fun Americana style.  When in Jamaica lazing about our room on one of our no tour days the movie Happy Gilmore came on.  In it, there is a scene where the mentor of Adam Sandler’s character Happy takes him to a fancy mini golf course to refine his short game.  C could not believe such a crazy mini golf place could be real and not just a movie set.  So I vowed to take her to one.  Congo River golf, complete with a realistic plane crashed into a waterfall, fit the bill.

We made it back to Jacksonville in time to meet my aunt for a late lunch – Mexican of course!  No telling when we could have it again.  The following day we flew to Dulles Airport to spend the evening before our flight back to Lilongwe.  My family lives right near the airport, one of my sisters works there, so we all met at my other sister’s place for a few hours.  We had a few less hours than originally planned as a snow storm had delayed flights — but for C the snow was the cherry on top of seeing her cousins and was the grand finale to our pretty perfect trip.

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C loves Disney


A note on the shutdown:  This is not a political post; this is not that kind of blog.  But as a State Department employee in a designated “non-excepted” position, the shutdown, which started at some point as we flew over the Atlantic Ocean, meant I was among the 800,000 federal employees furloughed without pay.  It was a strange time — hearing some officials characterize the furlough as a “vacation,” which is patently incorrect, yet here I was on an actual vacation, an R&R earned for serving overseas in a location that has “distinct and significant difficulties.”  As the shutdown wore on, I did feel increasingly uncomfortable.  In the past I was “excepted” and worked through the shutdown.  One of my sisters, who works for the Transportation Security Administration, continued to report to work as scheduled, without promise of a paycheck.  I had colleagues at State both at work and at home.  I earned my R&R and my daughter and I deserved to enjoy it to the fullest, but it was not completely without guilt.  I returned to Malawi with the shutdown still in effect and remained at home furloughed another week.  Although the shutdown focused on Washington, D.C., the majority of federal government workers serve outside the capital, and there are tens of thousands of us working overseas.  We have families, pets, responsibilities, go to the office to do our jobs, and for the most part live normal lives, just like other Americans.

 

 

Rest & Relaxation: Americana, Jamaica, & Disney Magic Part 1

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Sunrise at Jax Beach our first morning

Finally, our first rest and relaxation (R&R) vacation was upon us.  It seemed very long in coming after a whole lotta planning and a seemingly endless busy season at work.

It had been over a year since we had been to the United States.  Initially I had planned to return in July as I had a three-day capstone course topping off a year-long, mostly distance learning, interactive leadership course.  I had hoped to take another week plus and bring C so she might spend the week I was in training with her dad, and then we would have another week together seeing friends and family, maybe going somewhere new.  But a complicated transfer season at a small post, the timing of my training and proposed leave, and a few other factors resulted in my not returning to Washington last summer.  This denied time away from the U.S. and my uncle’s congestive heart failure diagnosis led me to plan for a winter R&R stateside.

As the R&R shaped up in early August, I became especially determined for it to include all things: some time with family, including C spending time with her father, some time reconnecting with the little bits of Americana we missed, and some mother-daughter fun somewhere new, somewhere often described as “paradise.”

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C looks out to sea at Jax Beach

Unfortunately my uncle D declined rapidly and passed away in mid-September.  In this lifestyle we often miss rites of passage from weddings to funerals, to births and graduations.  This reality hit particularly hard this time; he had played a prominent role not only in my life but in my daughter’s.   For this often solo traveler, I realized I had visited my aunt C and uncle D in Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, and Germany; they had visited us in Ciudad Juarez and Mexico (where few people would despite the proximity), and we had traveled together to the Bahamas, France, Luxembourg, and South Dakota.   We would not get a final visit.

After a long trip that involved stops in Addis Ababa, Dublin, and Washington, D.C., we landed in Jacksonville, FL.  My aunt picked us up.  We headed to her condo first to relax and get cleaned up (we had just spent 30 hours traveling) but soon headed to the beach to watch the rise of a very full moon, eat Mexican food, and check out the Jax Beach Deck the Chairs holiday light display.  It was all very special.  Normal if we lived in America perhaps, but special because we do not.

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Family bonding over fantastic puzzles

The following morning we woke up early so we could also welcome the sunrise at the same beach.  However, a cold snap had descended on Florida, temperatures were in the 40s.  I had packed a few cold weather clothes for C, but had none for me.  So we bundled up in spare items my aunt had; I put on my Uncle D’s sweat pants and sweat shirt.  As we stood on the beach watching the sun break over the ocean’s horizon, I felt like my Uncle was with us.

Then we took C to the airport to meet her stepmom TG, who was flying in from KY to bring C back to her father’s place for Christmas.  Yes, indeed.  My not-quite-7 year old daughter would be flying for the first time without me.  This is a pretty big deal, right?  Early on when I made this plan with C’s father, I had felt a wee bit nervous, but once the day arrived, I was okay.  And C was super excited to fly with TG and see her dad.

And I got five days with my aunt, just she and I.  We went to the movies.  I am sure I mentioned before that there are no theaters in Malawi.  But we went to see Mary Queen of Scots, i.e. not an animated children’s movie.  We hung out at Target, ate out at Mexican and other restaurants or just had chips and guac at home, and built puzzles.  We laughed at our ridiculous struggles with my aunt’s cable and when the young 20-something at the movie theater charged me the retiree price.  Then C returned from KY and we celebrated my aunt’s birthday with lunch at one of her favorite places.

My aunt drove us to our hotel next to the Jacksonville airport where we would stay one night before heading out early for the next phase of our trip.

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There was no direct way to get from Jacksonville to Montego Bay, so once again we spent much of the day traveling.  Generally I am okay with it because even the journey can be relaxing and fun, and it is a means to an end.  And I booked the flights after all.  But as I was quite eager to get to Jamaica — it is someplace I have wanted to visit for awhile — even with the upgrade to business on our first leg could not make that trip go fast enough.

We landed at 4 and checked into our resort, only 15 minutes from the airport, by sunset.  Our room had a beautiful view out toward the main pool and the ocean beyond.  The warm Caribbean breeze felt wonderful.  The all-inclusive hotel had pre-booked us for one of the reservation only restaurants for the dinner.  We enjoyed our meal and then headed back to the room.  Then the entertainment began, so loud it sounded as if the band was at the foot of our bed.  The front desk told me it would last until 10 pm, but we were so tired we fell asleep anyway.

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Stately and ghostly Rose Hall

On our first full day I was eager to get started.  We arranged a taxi to Rose Hall, a late 18th century plantation house.  The Georgian style mansion commands a lovely view towards the sea, but also is representative of the sometimes dark history of plantation life in early colonial Jamaica.  It is most famous for being haunted by Annie Palmer, the “White Witch of Rose Hall,” who murdered slaves and husbands indiscriminately.  I love me some historic houses and tours of them — I have taken C on plenty of them (from the historic Adams House in Deadwood, SC to the Mary Todd Lincoln house in Lexington, KY) so she knows the drill and tolerates them.  She seemed rather excited to see a haunted house, especially as it was during the day.

The only scary thing that came out of that trip was the price the taxi driver demanded upon return to the hotel although he had failed to show up at the appointed time.  It turned out the hotel info desk had incorrectly informed me of the fare; taxis really do charge an arm and a leg from tourist hotels.

My mood had soured as a result but a good lunch renewed my spirits and we set off on an afternoon tour on the Martha Brae river.  Floating down the river on a bamboo raft is one of the top attractions for Jamaica.  All started out okay.  We were picked up from the hotel about 1:30.  As luck would have it, we were the first guests to be picked up.  We then drove to two other hotels to pick up a family of nine, then a family of 11, after which we drove the 30 minutes to the rafting village.  And there we stood around for at least another 30 minutes, ostensibly to pick up our “welcome drink” included in the rafting trip, but it seemed designed for alcoholic visitors to booze up.  Finally, someone brought life jackets and led us down to the rafts.  C and I were in the middle of the pack — the family of nine before us, the family of 11 somewhere behind.

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The Martha Brae

As we floated down the river, I figured we would go at a leisurely pace given our older Rastafarian captain, but soon enough we were passing everyone else.  Our guy might have seemed slightly out of it, but he was slow and steady, while the other guests, mostly liquored up folks making a mess out of poling on their own (but having a blast doing so), and the romantic couples, were especially in no hurry.  We blow past them all.  While C thought this was super awesome, I realized the faster we reached the end, the longer we waited.  And sure enough, we waited about 15 minutes before the nine-person family rolled in.  And then we waited, and waited, and waited.  Only 45 minutes later the rafts of the other family finally arrived.  There had apparently some kind of payment issue, but I was still annoyed we waited an extra HOUR.  I was reminded why group tours can be a huge pain in the a$$.

We arrived back tired, had a quick dinner, and hit the hay, lulled to sleep by the rambunctious stylings of the entertainer of the evening.