To Belgium and Beyond: Part Three

I awoke on my last full day without my kiddo in Vianden, Luxembourg. I took one final walk along the river and one last look at the castle on the hill, before I headed back into Belgium.

The casino at Spa

With that one last solo day I figured it was best to head to where the name had become synonymous the world over with relaxation: Spa, Belgium.

Spa is an old, old town with lots of historic firsts and a UNESCO World Heritage designation to boot. Discovered by and used for mineral bathing by the Romans, Spa reportedly truly became a stopping of point for its curative waters from the 14th century. The world’s first casino opened in Spa in 1763 and the world’s first recorded beauty pageant was held there in 1888, won by an 18-year old Creole woman from Guadeloupe. In 2021, UNESCO recognized Spa and 10 other European towns for their historic value as Great Spa Towns of Europe.

Part of the designation centered on the other industries that built up around European spa towns like hotels, casinos, and beauty contests. In Spa, a postal system was set up in 1699 that allowed those lucky enough to be able to afford to travel and “take the waters” could then send letters and postcards to friends and family boasting of such.

Spa — well known for its bottled water and for the leap frogging guy on the Spa water bottles

At the Museum of the City of Waters, I learned that collectible items made in Spa became all the rage for visiting tourists. Hand hewn and painted decorative boxes or colorful delicate painted glassware sporting the name of the spa town were what 18th and 19th century tourists loved to bring home after being enticed by colorful tourist brochures.

My joint ticket also gave me entry to the Museum of Laundry. I had honestly expected little from this place but was pleasantly surprised at the amount of information and fascinating displays. An oft-ignored by-product of tourists and hotels is a proliferation in items needing laundered, from clothes to bed sheets to towels, and the people, usually women, who washed those items. The museum gives a history of laundering and the advances in technology that made washing and drying at least easier on the laundress (from washing machines and detergent to dryers and irons) if not more interesting. I ended up spending more than an hour there.

The big thing I was in town to do though was of course to soak in the waters of the Thermes de Spa, the facility for bathing in Spa’s thermal waters built in 1868 on a hill overlooking the town. My hotel helped me to make a booking to arrive at the spa at 6 PM where I would then have three hours to enjoy until closing. Unfortunately, right after I made my reservation and went to put on my suit I realized I had not packed it. Luckily though the bathing house sells inexpensive suits to silly tourists who forget theirs. Had I still been a backpacker watching my money carefully, this might have been a real dilemma, but I came to take the waters and I would do so even if it meant forking over more money.

I stayed about an hour and a half enjoying the large heated indoor pool, the heated outdoor pool, the sauna, and the Hammam. Just enough time to give those waters time to do some wonders.

The Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel and narrow streets of the medieval town

The following morning I had one last hour-long stroll around Spa before saying goodbye. I needed to be at the Euro Space Center by 3 PM for a camper presentation, so I thought I would break up the hour and a half drive with a stop in Durbuy, Belgium’s smallest incorporated town.

Durbuy was once a thriving medieval village on the Ourthe River at the crossroads of commerce. Today it is a very small, very walkable historic town chock full of character. It is dominated by the Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel (unfortunately closed to the public), which stands alongside the river and bridge. Though the current castle is 18th century design, records indicate a castle stood there since at least the 11th century. The little warren of cobblestone streets adjacent to the castle are full of restaurants, bars, stores, and homes of stone and timber. I was kicking myself for not having more time here. Durbuy warranted an overnight stay so I had the time to slowly explore, especially after most of the tourists departed. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the time. I had lunch and then headed to pick up C from space camp.

Fun in central Brussels

After five nights apart, I felt absolutely giddy to arrive at the Euro Space Center auditorium to see my daughter at the presentation of graduation certificates. She was sitting front row right next to the doors as I came in, huddled together with the other American girl with whom she shared a dorm. C did not want to leave. I had wondered how she might handle five nights away at an unfamiliar place; five nights is the longest we have ever been apart but previously she was at her dad’s or my sister’s. I need not have worried; she told me she could have done another week.

We drove back to Brussels, returning the car at the airport and then taking the train to our city center hotel. C did not understand why I gave up the car, but, as I tried to explain, we had no use for it in the capital. I had very much enjoyed the freedom the car had given me to drive from town to town, but there had also been challenges on narrow old town streets, with parking, and when the GPS failed as I drove from Vianden to Spa.

We had three additional days in Brussels before our return to Guinea. On our first day, we walked from our hotel near the Brussels North train station to the Royal Palace. Like the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg, the Belgium Royal Palace is open to the public just once a year, six days a week for six weeks between mid July and September. Unlike the Grand Ducal Palace no guided tour is required and photographs are allowed. We did need to buy timed tickets but after arriving and going through security we were able to walk through at our own pace. That certainly worked better for C and I; I am pretty sure my daughter would not have enjoyed the German guided tour one bit.

After the palace visit we walked, meandering through Brussels Park, past the St. Michel and St. Gudula Cathedral, and back to the Great Square. We had lucked out to be in town and get tickets to see the Royal Palace but also it turned out that weekend was the festival for the Flower Carpet, held only the the three days on the weekend around Assumption Day, every other year. I do not know what the crowds are normally like, but I was surprised that as many people as there were on the Great Square, we could still easily walk get to the cordoned rope to have a view. We also easily bought tickets to the Brussels City Museum (which is very interesting in its own right!) with a balcony surcharge so that we could view the flower carpet from the third floor.

On our second to last day we visited the Magritte Museum, again putting in the steps on foot. I am a fan of surrealism and the museum was top notch. What surprised me though was how much C enjoyed it. I had paid to get audio tours and selected the one for teens for C but she wanted more information than that was giving her and she asked to take mine. I didn’t get it back. From the museum we walked a little ways to have Thai for lunch and then rode “The View” an observation wheel near the Palace of Justice. Our route back to our hotel took us past key comic murals around the center of town.

C finds a friend at the Comics Art Museum

Belgium has embraced comics as a so it was perhaps little surprise that we found more than a few stores catering to Japanese anime fans. My daughter C is one! This added to the high marks that C gave Brussels as the trifecta of waffles, fries, and anime was too much to ignore. We spent our last morning at the Comics Art Museum where we learned about the art of comics and animation. The most famous Belgian comics characters are probably the Smurfs and Tintin, that have a worldwide audience, but there is an incredibly rich culture of Belgian comics beyond these.

That afternoon we headed back to the area around the Magritte Museum and the Royal Palace to meet friends of ours from our Shanghai days. RG and BG are a Foreign Commercial Service family and their daughter OG had been in C’s preschool class in China. Though the girls only vaguely remembered each other when we first met for drinks, several hours later they were playing together as if no time had passed. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip — a reminder of the amazing connections we can make in this lifestyle despite our nomadic lives.

As we headed back to Guinea the following day, it was with a renewed sense of excitement for our new post. The first six weeks had been a rather challenging whirlwind and I am not going to lie that it was more than a little hard to leave behind the order and conveniences of Europe, but when our plane touched down in Conakry that evening I felt glad to be there. We were home.

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To Belgium and Beyond: Part Two

I sat in the Euro Space Center parking lot for a few beats after dropping C off at space camp. It reminded me of when I took her to her first drop-off-and-depart birthday party. At first I did not know what to do with myself. This time, however, that period of confusion lasted much less time. I did know what I was doing. I set my GPS directions, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed to Luxembourg City. I was on a mission.

View of old Luxembourg from the Pont du Grund

In 1998, when I was living in the western part of Japan, I took a vacation to visit my aunt and uncle in Frankfurt, Germany. We decided to take a multi-day driving trip to Luxembourg City along the Moselle River. My uncle was behind the wheel as we meandered along with the river, through small riverside towns. We stopped frequently for castles and wineries (for my aunt and uncle, not me) and other beautiful vistas. We made a lot of private family jokes along the way that my aunt and I still rehash again and again. Like when we left the fried camembert from lunch in the car overnight outside the B&B and the car stunk to high heaven the next day. Or when we visited Trier and my uncle and I lay in wait from my aunt as she came out of McDonald’s so we could cluck our disapproval. You really had to be there. On the third day we drove into Luxembourg. I had long been awaiting this, to walk the 1000 year old streets of the old town. But what did we do? We had dinner, went to bed, and the next day we went to the Villeroy and Boch Outlet Factory to get some replacement porcelain pieces for my aunt’s dinnerware set. Then drove back to Frankfurt. That never sat well with me (though my aunt and I laugh about it), so here I was, 24 years later, to right that wrong.

Luxembourg graffiti

I was a bit nervous as I approached the capital. I had been okay driving out of the Brussels airport and on to highways and to small towns, but here I was about to enter a major European City. On Google Maps it seems simple and straightforward enough, but I could see the one way streets here and there and anticipated there could be a problem. There was. Google Maps kept directing me down a pedestrian street. I drove past it the first time, but on my second go turned in thinking, maybe it isn’t actually pedestrian only? Except it ended in a sidewalk café. My three point turn in front of diners felt more like a ten point turn in slow motion with everyone staring at me. I pulled over in front of a shop shuttered for the evening, as if I were just there to conduct some business that I had every right to be parked on a pedestrian street in Luxembourg to do, so that I could call the hotel. As I drove around, the friendly hotel receptionist Yves gave me directions. I was still required to drive up that pedestrian-only street, just from the opposite direction, and then park briefly in front of the hotel for check-in. After check-in Yves told me, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “And now we will park, which is an adventure in and of itself.”

The lovely Hotel Beaux Parc Arts – I briefly parked right there, on the pedestrian street, in front of those chairs, so I could check-in

He was not kidding. I got back in my car and made another 3-5 point turn on the pedestrian street, trying to avoid the low pillars blocking the area in front of the adjacent museum, the couple on the park bench, and people just strolling by, and then followed Yves, who was on foot, about 50 meters away. There he put in the code on a key pad on the side of a building and he motioned me to drive into an elevator. Yes, an elevator for cars. One floor down I drove out and met Yves who directed me to park the car into a grooved walkway on a circular panel in the floor. I did so and then exited the vehicle. “You have the parking brake on, right?” Yves asked. “I think so,” I answered, “It’s a rental and rather a new model, so I think that is what this symbol means.” “Ah, yes,” Yves replied, “these new cars make the parking automatic. We need the brake on or it will be catastrophic.” And with that ominous prediction, he had me fold in the side mirrors, and leave the car. Yves then pushed some more codes into another wall panel. Glass doors sealed around the circle and then the car spun around, lifted up slowly, and then the floor dropped out and the car disappeared. Underground apparently it is sorted into small car slots by a robot. I imagine its a bit the vinyl Matchbox car container I had as a kid, just on a really grand scale. And there my rental sat for three days, nice and safe. I had dropped C off only two hours before and I had already had these adventures in driving and parking!

I stayed at the beautiful Hotel Parc Beaux Arts, located smack dab in the middle of the old city, not even 600 feet from the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace. The building dates back to the 15th century and some parts of the stone work are original. I lucked out with the only room to have a loft, with the king bed located on a partial second floor. I loved it.

In Luxembourg, even the statues are having a good time

After getting settled in, I set out to explore the city on foot. Here I was walking in the UNESCO World Heritage town, parts of which are more than 1000 years old. I meandered past the Grand Ducal Palace and over to the Place d’Armes. I decided to find a place for dinner and headed over to a Mexican place I found online. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and already closing in on 9 PM, so the kitchen was closed. I had forgotten how late the sun goes down during a northern European summer. I Googled “best burger in Luxembourg” and found another place just about five minutes walk away. I had a nice, very late dinner, there, at a little table on the sidewalk, having the best burger in town, reveling in the fact that I was on my own in Europe for the first time in a very, very long time.

The next day, I went to the tourist information center to find out about tours of the palace and the casements. The casements, a network of subterranean tunnels built into the promontory rock of the old town, are one of the main tourist activities in the city. Unfortunately for me, the Bock Casements were closed for renovations and tours of the Petrusse casements were sold out until a week after I would depart. The Grand Ducal Palace, the official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, is only open for tours one month each year, excluding weekends. All the English tours were sold out. I thought, maybe I can muddle through with French? But no, I did not even get a chance to try as those tours too were sold out. There were only a few slots available in German. I had to take it or not get to go.

View of the Bock Casements (denied to me!) from the Alzette River in the lower town

With my tour set up, I decided to just sightsee on my own. I signed up for a little tourist train to give me an overview of the historic town. The train was a little silly, I did not get too much from the commentary, but it did take me from the upper town to the lower, across the river, up the Rham Plateau, and back. The tourist train gave me the lay of the land and as soon as I returned to the start I then began exploring on foot. I walked and walked and walked. I absolutely love to walk and I miss taking long ones. My daughter is less keen. It was easy enough when she was still in a stroller; I walked a lot in Shanghai that way. But now she is older and she complains a lot. “Where are we going?” “How much longer?” “Are we there yet?” “Why do we have to walk?” I could walk just for walking sake in Luxembourg, without a real destination in mind, not knowing when I might stop and rest or turn back. It sure felt good.

At a quarter to 10 AM on my second full day, my last in Luxembourg City, I headed to the Place Guillaume II, the central square, to meet my tour group for the Grand Ducal Palace. My German tour. I speak a total of maybe 25 words of German, a combination of very basic greetings, numbers, foods, WWII war battle vocabulary, and cursing. Yet, the only way I was going to get a tour of the palace during this trip was to sign up for the German tour. I was not the only person with this idea as there was also a group of six Brazilians who appeared as clueless as I.

Funny faces groaning at spitting out water for eternity at the fountain outside Luxembourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral

This was not the first time I had signed up for a tour in a language I did not speak in order to get in to some place. I recalled when I signed up for a tour in Polish in Malbork castle or the two day French and German tour in Tunisia or the Serbian tour of the Royal Compound in Belgrade (I have yet to put this story onto the blog). At one point I asked another tourist if they spoke English and she clucked her tongue in disappointment as she noted, “Do you really speak no German? That is a pity. This is a really good tour and she is giving lots of information.”

Perhaps it was a pity. But my choices were a tour in German, a tour in Luxembourgish, or no tour at all. I figured German was my best bet. And I still had my eyes. I could drink in the ornate furnishings and decor, gawk at the luxurious though overstuffed rooms, and wonder at the Grand Duke’s family’s passion for very large chandeliers. No photographs were allowed so I had to pay extra attention.

After my tour I opted for a Thai lunch (as I was trying to eat all the foods while I was able), and then resumed my walking until I could not walk anymore style of touring. I headed to the Pfaffenthal Panoramic Elevator that would take me, for free, from the High City to the Pfaffenthal quarter in the valley below, then walked to the 17th century Vauban Towers, up to Fort Obergrunewald (also built by Vauban), then through the gates beneath the Bock Casements, across the Alzette River, to Neumunster Abbey, then beneath La Passerelle, a 19th century vaulted aqueduct bridge, along the Petrusse River, til I climbed back up the High City at the Petrusse casements and Gelle Fra War Memorial, crossed the Adolphe Bridge and back, on to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, then back to my hotel. The weather was perfect and the walk was glorious. I finished up with a sampling of chocolates from The Chocolate House, located by the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace.

The following day I checked out of the hotel and retrieved my rental car from the depths of the mechanical parking garage and headed out of the city.

The beauty of Echternach – the Orangerie, the town square, and Abbey’s Basilica of St. Willibrord

It was only a 30 minute drive northeast from the bustling center of old Luxembourg the oldest town in the country on the border with Germany. Echternach grew up around the Benedictine abbey founded in the year 698. The current abbey has been built and rebuilt many times over the centuries, though parts of the original remain and the tomb of the abbey’s founder, Saint Willibrord, is inside. The Orangerie, part of the Abbey’s gardens, was established in 1736. It is currently used as a school and not open to the public. It turned out I was there during the monthly Wednesday market, so the town’s historic square was full of modern-day merchants. Initially, I found myself somewhat annoyed — I had wanted to really see the square and the buildings surrounding it, and instead I saw food trucks and white tents. I thought though, that there had probably been markets on that square or nearby for near on 1000 years. So, I walked around the town and had lunch, basically waited the market out, so I could catch a glimpse of it less crowded before I left.

From Echternach I drove another 30 minutes north to the town of Vianden. I had wanted to drive entirely in Luxembourg but eventually gave in to the GPS and I ended up crossing the Saeur River into Germany for at least half the trip.

I pulled into Vianden around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and after working out the parking (which just doesn’t seem straightforward in any European town) and getting into my room, I headed out soon to see Vianden Castle.

Vianden’s castle stands high on a steep hillside overlooking the Our River and the town. Once considered by UNESCO for inscription (but for some reason denied in 2013 – though the UNESCO plaque at the entrance tells nothing of its denial) it is still an outstanding fortress. The famous French writer Victor Hugo stayed four times in Vianden during his exile and reportedly found the castle “magnificent.” In 2019, CNN listed the castle as one of the 21 most beautiful castles in the world.

View of Vianden (the castle and town) from the upper chairlift station; Bust of Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin at Vianden’s bridge

To get there, I walked. It was not far from the hotel where I stayed across the river, but to get there one has to head up a steep incline making it take longer than Google Maps would have you believe. Plus, I found lots to stop and admire along the way. I had little doubt that my daughter would not have been a fan. I am 100% sure she would have asked why we didn’t just drive up (which you can certainly do). But I was grateful for the opportunity to work my legs.

I spent probably an hour and a half in the castle. It was going on 5:15 when I looked out from the castle ramparts to see what looked like folks on an adjacent hill in the distance. I discovered there was a chairlift where I could probably have an amazing view of the castle. I checked online and found it was open until 6:30, with the last ride up at 6 PM, and if I walked quickly I could get there in about 15 minutes from the castle parking lot. I was going to go for it!

Had I been with my daughter I am not sure I would have made it. I had already been walking for hours that day — around Echternach, through Vianden, up to the castle, around the castle, and now I was going to speed walk my way to the chairlift station down the hill and across the river. I did make it though. The chairlift was a wee bit scary, but the views were worth it. I only stayed up top for the 15 minutes I had to make the last trip down. Then I could meander slowly back to my hotel where I savored a delicious meal finished off with a popular Belgian dessert — La Dame Blanche (vanilla ice cream topped off with dark chocolate syrup). A fitting reminder that the following day I would return to Belgium.

To Belgium and Beyond: Part One

First, before I get into the trip itself, I want to explain how it is I found myself on nearly two weeks of leave not yet six weeks after arriving in Conakry. It is not my usual modus operandi to arrive at a new post and then take off so soon after. Then again, this is a new year, a new arrival time, at a new point in our lives. Earlier in the year, I looked ahead at our arrival in Conakry, and thought how it would be for my daughter C. We would arrive in Conakry just two weeks after the school year ended and still have seven long weeks before the new one would begin. We would be new people in the community, one in which there were not a whole lot of kids and many would be away for the summer. I needed something for C.

Poking around online I discovered that the Euro Space Center in Belgium has an overnight summer space camp and beginning in June, Brussels Airlines would be reinstating its three times a week flights between Conakry. Given that C had been expressing interest in more science-based classes, this seemed to be a sign from above. I checked in with the space camp organizers to find out if there was space available and which weeks were in English and then with my leadership at Post, who quickly approved my time off to get C to and from the camp. We were all set to go.

Belgium is waffle paradise. These looked way too sweet, but it was a pleasure just seeing them and knowing they were there, just in case

Then a week before our departure on the first Thursday in August, there were protests in Conakry. Demonstrations had been scheduled and cancelled before, or scheduled but not amounted to much. But these protests turned out to be more than expected. They lasted longer and were more violent and they spilled over into the following day. Though they did not block access to the airport, they did make the most direct route difficult, changing a 30 minute drive into a possible multi-hour journey. When protest organizers announced that there would be more scheduled the following Thursday, I asked my bosses if they would approve my leaving a day earlier; they approved wholeheartedly.

I spent several hours on the phone and online the Sunday before departure, working to change our flights. Brussels Airlines only flies Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; the Tuesday flight was full and the Saturday flight did not give me a comfortable margin to get C to space camp should it be delayed or cancelled. The agent tried to route me using miles as that was how I purchased my original flight, but the only routing was to Lisbon, through Munich with an overnight, and then on to Brussels. Unfortunately, the Munich flight on Lufthansa could not be confirmed due to a potential airline strike. We were contending with not only protests at our origin, but labor disputes in Europe that was part of the chaotic travel summer. That was not going to work. The United agent, however, could not directly book me on the Lisbon to Brussels flight, so I needed to book that one online myself, while keeping the agent on the line. I did not want to cancel my flight and return the miles until I had another flight secured. Finally, success.

If you do not want Belgium waffles, then you gotta have Belgian fries.

All of this gave me a solid glimpse into how challenging it may be to take leave away from Conakry. There are limited flights, challenging schedules, usually with late evening or early morning departures, frequent delays, and higher price tags. Toss in a demonstration day and airline snafus and it just gets more interesting.

Our trip started on Wednesday at midnight on a four-hour flight to Lisbon. The flight left late and there was not enough time to really sleep. We had two hours on the ground and then another three hours to Brussels. It turned out the extra day was very helpful as we had little energy to do much of anything. Luckily, I had booked a hotel close to the airport and they let us check in early. After napping and relaxing, our only activity was to walk in the cute little neighborhood near the airport to the grocery store and back.

On our second day in country, we took an Uber to Laeken, the northern part of Brussels, to visit mini Europe and the 1958 World’s Fair landmark, the Atomium. Though these sites are listed as two of top ones to visit in Brussels, I did not visit them during my first trip to Belgium in 1998. I have no memory of even knowing they existed. Nonetheless, C and enjoyed hours there visiting the top sites of Europe in miniature and exploring inside the giant sculpture that marries science fiction and modern art. Afterwards, we took an Uber down to the stunning Grand Place. C and I were started to tire, but I wanted to give her just a glimpse of the majesty and beauty of probably the most stunning of European central squares. At first C complained she wanted to just go back to the hotel, but for a moment or two she completely forgot about that as we stood in that square. After we turned in wonder around at the architecture and fed our sweet tooth with some decadent ice cream from the Godiva chocolate shop and took a short stroll down to the Mannekin Pis, C told me that she no longer wanted to return to Paris very soon. “Mom,” she said, “we have been to Paris twice now, but I think I like Brussels more. I want to see more of Europe.” Mission accomplished.

The following morning, Saturday, we returned to the airport to pick up a rental car. I am usually a wee bit nervous starting out driving in a new country, but after the chaos of Conakry, the roads of Belgium were welcoming. We drove just an hour south to the Wallonian town of Dinant. In planning for our trip, I looked for the best places for us to visit south of Brussels on our way to the Euro Space Center. Other than Brussels, the biggest tourist draws tend to be Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, all to the north and northwest of the capital. The photos of Dinant kept pulling me back again and again and I knew if nowhere else, we needed to visit this town. It did not disappoint.

Dinant’s location, squeezed between a rocky promontory and the river Meuse, has guaranteed human interest for millennia. It’s 13th century Gothic cathedral is built into the rock face just below the 11th century citadel and alongside townhouses that range from 16th century to 20th. The oldest house in town is a 16th century townhome built by a Spaniard.

C and I walked up the steps to the Citadel, where we spent at least 90 minutes enjoying the historic displays and panoramas. We took the cable car down and had lunch alongside the river and later an hour long tourist boat cruise on the Meuse. This little town is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, so we also were on the hunt to find as many of the painted saxophone sculptures around town, as well as a golden saxophone, and a saxophone shaped water clock, and the statue of Adolpe Sax sitting in front of his former home.

Sites of Dinant

In the afternoon we drove six kilometers south to the 19th century manor home turned hotel where we would spend the evening. After a long day of walking and sightseeing, C crashed immediately in the room. I took a short stroll around the grounds, drinking in the quiet, the nature surrounding the manicured lawns. We are still getting used to Conakry and I have no doubt that the vibrant, chaotic city will grow on us, but its difference from the grand historic cities and laid back countryside of Europe suddenly felt quite stark.

In the morning, before heading to our next destination, I drove a short way up the road to try to catch a glimpse of the Walzin Chateau, an imposing gothic-revival castle that stands on a cliff overlooking the Lesse River. I had quite by accident seen it on Google Maps as I was planning out our drive. Unfortunately, the best few of the castle is across the river and on some private land, which we quickly found we could not cross (the barbed wire fence and the “do not trespass” signs were pretty clear). So, we could see it only in profile before we gave up, returned to the car, and then drove on to Han-sur-Lesse.

I had had this idea. C loves animals and has a particular fondness for wolves and foxes. When working out what to do before dropping her off at space camp on Sunday evening, I found a wild animal park only 20 minutes north of the Euro Space Center. The Parc Animalier du Domaine des Grottoes de Han looked like it had some nice walking trails where we could see wolves. I planned for an hour or so walking and then lunch and perhaps time at the caves. I am afraid I did not do much more research than that.

It turns out the park is huge. Set on 620 acres of land, the park has both forested areas and wide lawns. At the ticket counter, I learned we should have a minimum of THREE hours to walk all the trails. A quick look at the map and I calculated we would likely have to cut short the expedition and return to the tourist center after the first trail.

Right away we got off on the wrong foot. We waited for the historic trolley train to take us to the first trailhead, but there seemed to be no train coming for at least 15 minutes. I insisted that we just go ahead and take the walking trail to the walking trail. This did not go over well with C who angrily stomped alongside. It went over even less after 20 minutes when we heard the trolley pass us by. We made it to the start of the trail after nearly 30 minutes and the first animals were just large highland cows and wild boars, both of which were far back in the enclosures and frankly not something we had a hankering to see. I got the full force of C’s pre-teen silent treatment (which isn’t all that silent because it involves random stomping, some small rock kicking, and the occasional heavy sigh).

This is not at all how I had hoped this would go. I told C this. I got some deep heat seeking laser eye flashes in return. I said we could turn back at the first opportunity, but C noted that in doing so we would skip the wolf and lynx enclosures. These were now her sole raison d’être. I had dragged her here and so we *would* see these animals. I agreed. And then things got better. The walking trail really is nicely maintained and includes a small sky bridge course with a view over the valley. We saw animals, including the wolves. We had some ice cream. We rode a open bus for the last section and returned to the park entrance by trolley. On the pedestrian street of Han-sur-Lesse we found one place still open for a late lunch at nearly 4 PM. The Belgian fries were restorative. Then off we were to space camp!

At the Euro Space Center solar system yard

At the Euro Space Center, C and I completed check-in procedures and then together we were shown to her dorm room where she would sleep and hang out for the next five nights. We picked out her bed, a bottom bunk, collected the bedding and got her set up. Other kids, including another American, were arriving. Then suddenly it was time for me to go; I did not quite what to do with myself. My daughter’s first overnight camp and I decide it should be in a foreign country?! Of course I did…we spend most of our lives living and traveling in foreign countries. But what did I do now? C noted that some of the other campers had their favorite stuffies with them so she asked if I would return to the car and bring her hers. I happily did so, grateful for something to do. But once I handed it over C gave me a very meaningful look, telling me it was time for me to go.

I headed to the parking lot and off on my own adventure.

Arrival in Guinea: The First Four Weeks

It has been topsy-turvy since we arrived in Conakry, Guinea a little more than four weeks ago. Though I am fairly used to uprooting myself frequently (it is something I have done my entire adult life and with the U.S. government for 13 years), it never seems to get easier. I am beginning to sense it is getting harder the older I get. I had forgotten how it is to be the new employee, the person who knows nothing about the office procedures, where things are located, exactly who to ask, or the local issues. I know the mechanics of the job of course, this is not the same as the steeper learning curve I faced when I first arrived in Malawi, yet it is daunting nonetheless. My Malawi arrival was five years ago!

Surprisingly, I have seen more than a few school buses that seem American plying (ore more often haphazardly parked on) the streets of Conakry

Naturally, it is not just work that is new, it is everything. It is a lot to take in all at once. It’s a new job in a new city, in a new country, in a new region, living in new housing, driving a new (to me) car, sending C to a new school, and so on. But it is more than those things. I have to rely on other Embassy folks to help me with me with some fairly basic things. It makes me crazy not to know how to do these things, like how to set up the Internet or to get gas for the car or where to buy groceries. On our first night in our new apartment, I had to call another person from the Embassy to ask how to operate my stove! I am still a bit unsure with the oven; there is a thick instruction pamphlet on its usage, most of it is in German. Good thing I am not much of a cook!? I sure do miss knowing what is going on.

As a first impression, Conakry is a cacophony of sights and sounds and smells that assault the senses. It is lush, crowded, busy. I cannot help but compare Conakry to Lilongwe. I had hoped that nearly a year in America would curb that tendency, but while it isn’t fair, it is natural. Lilongwe is just my most recent reference point.

There seem to be few precautions for COVID-19 left here, but this billboard remains.

Conakry is bigger than Lilongwe, about double the size in population with Conakry over 2 million to Lilongwe’s 1 million. Though both cities had mostly single story or two storied buildings, there are many more taller buildings in Conakry. It’s no New York, Shanghai, or Dubai, but I have found this to be an aspect that stands out to me. Many of these buildings though leave a lot to be desired. Some are unfinished with bare cement sidings and gaping holes where balconies or windows ought to be, others still have the scaffolding, and yet they are clearly inhabited.

There are two main roads in Conakry – the Autoroute Fidel Castro and the Rue Le Prince – running more or less parallel to one another on either side of the narrow peninsula where the capital is situated. Both are two to three lanes in each direction, and the Autoroute, which was built in the 1960s, has an overpass or two. Lilongwe opened its first four lane road with overpass in early 2021, just a few months before my departure. There seems to be few rules to driving. Most roads do not have lane designations and there are almost no traffic lights. Some traffic organization is attempted with roundabouts, but the rules of them seem somewhat optional. We share the road with pedestrians, who walk on the road and cross freely as there are no sidewalks or crosswalks, and motorcycles, which are in far more abundance than in Malawi. Bicycles still were frequent in Malawi, even in Lilongwe, but I cannot say I have seen bicyclists here, and I would be rather worried for them if I did.

Billboard in Conakry regarding the transitional government, in place since the September 5 coup

My commute from home to the office is only three minutes! Short commutes seem so far to be my specialty. In Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, I was only a 10-15 minute walk from home to office, and in Malawi and Conakry I have had drives of ten minutes or less. I am glad for the short distance as I had (still have) some serious doubts about being able to drive on these roads. The only way to get to used to it though is to get out there and do it. On my first few drives I white-knuckled my way, praying the GPS was working and I would not get lost. And still I ended up on some side streets I had not intended.

Last weekend, C and I headed out on our Saturday supermarket run. Wanting a bit of a lie in, I put off leaving until the afternoon. I think that was a mistake. The roads were more congested than the week before, and within minutes we were inching along in bumper to bumper traffic. Without lane markings, people just make whatever lanes they want, and thus what is intended to be a two or three lane road can become a three or four lane road, leaving much less room to maneuver. Taxis stop when and where they want. Sometimes they get over toward the far side, sometimes not so much. A large truck also disgorged several passengers in the middle of the road – some jumping out from the cab while others came out of the back. Ahead, part of the main road was closed with a manned, makeshift blockade. Motorcycles were getting through, but no cars. There seemed no discernable reason for it. Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I started to come alive sitting there in traffic. After days in the office feeling like a fifth wheel, here were C and I OUT and ABOUT in Conakry! I have no doubt that a traffic jam like that will frustrate me to no end, but that day it let me take in life happening roadside.

My successful tool-about-town (which lasted three and a half hours for a shopping trip — I have learned that shopping here is very time consuming), I found the next day I really wanted to take a walk, and to get a little bit outside my comfort zone outside of the walls of my residential compound. Not knowing what to expect, I left C at home, and ventured up the street to the busy roundabout to check out the roadside market. I brought my camera too, in case I might see something worth capturing on film.

Colorful kola nuts for sale at the roadside market

Right off the bat I felt self conscious. I saw no other obvious foreigners taking a stroll and it did feel as if all eyes were on me. Curious, not menacing, but definitely watching. I had made sure to wear long pants and long sleeves and covered my hair, but there was no way to hide that I was not from here. There was no sidewalk so I walked along the edge of the road, careful not to get too close to the massive six foot deep drainage ditches while also keeping an ear out for traffic alongside. It being a Sunday the traffic was not too intense though the market vendors, whose stands spill on to the road, were out and had large stocks of their goods. I was not interested in the large piles of flip flops or mechanical parts, but I was glad to see the small fruit stands with good selections of pineapples, mangoes, apples, oranges, and avocado.

Woman and child at the market

But the woman at the first fruit stand, selling bananas, oranges, and surprisingly small plastic bags of popped popcorn, refused to have her photo taken. I could take one of her wares, but she would only hid behind it. And the next stand, two Muslim men, an older and a younger, dressed in traditional clothing, had an attractive display of kola nut for sale. Again, I could take a photo of the goods, but not the people. A guy wearing his wares of bright stainless steel spatulas and stirring spoons and tongs on his head also refused to be photographed. I was disappointed, but respected their wishes. A few, however, did allow. A young man working at a butcher’s was proud to stand in front of the hanging carcasses surrounded by buzzing flies while his older boss refused. And when I did a double take at a beautiful woman with her baby I fully expected a no to my ask for a photo, but she smiled shyly and said yes. Her husband also delighted that I took an interest as he proudly told me, “That’s my wife! That’s my baby!”

It was gritty. There was garbage on the streets, overflowing from bins, and clogging the drainage ditches. The detritus ranged from plastic bags and food wrappers to old clothing or tires. Just about anything turned into a waste mush by rain and time in the elements. Chickens and dogs rooted among the piles. The traffic was loud, disorderly, and often too close. And again, though some of it was shocking and sad, there was also life and activity, and I felt myself transported back to past times I walked through markets in foreign countries, mostly in my pre-State Department days. As the call to prayer sounded from nearby mosques, I particularly felt the tug of a memory from a walk through the streets of Jakarta near the Sunda Kelapa harbor. I smiled.

This is but a snapshot of my first few weeks in Conakry. It has been hard to capture it all because there is just so much that it is new, and I can only take in so much. I will not lie; it has not been easy. It may never be easy. But I think it will get easier.

Our Nanny Heads Home

Last week our nanny, JMC, headed back to Malawi after nine months with us in the United States. It was a bittersweet moment at the airport as JMC and my daughter C sobbed as they hugged goodbye just outside of airport security. We didn’t have a whole lot of time as it had taken a bit longer to check in as one checked bag and one carry on bag were too heavy by Ethiopian Airlines rules and we had to make some last minute adjustments on the floor in front of the check-in counter that ended up with JMC checking FIVE bags. There was a lot to take back home to remember this time in America by.

We met JMC in the Spring of 2020 just as the pandemic was beginning. She lived with her mother (also a single mom) and her sister in the staff quarters at a close friend’s house, where her mother worked as a housekeeper and nanny. My friend had hired JMC, who was set to finish high school shortly, to start tutoring her young daughters in several subjects. When the pandemic first hit, I juggled home schooling and teleworking, but when summer arrived I hired JMC to help C with reading and preparing for the new school year. JMC and C really hit it off. Maybe because they were closer in age than most kid/nanny relationships? And JMC was also just a really good, thoughtful, and helpful person. By November JMC had finished her national high school exams (which had been postponed from the previous Spring due to COVID) so I asked if she would like to work for us full time to make some extra money until she received her exam scores and decided on her after high school plans. A few months later, I also asked her if she might be up to joining us in the US for the time I would be in training and she enthusiastically said yes.

Bringing a nanny to the US is not a super straightforward process. There are a lot of steps! Passport, visa, plane ticket, employment authorization, health insurance, social security number, payroll, taxes, and more. Sometimes the administrative parts felt overwhelming, but I felt it was worth it, and I know now how very much it was.

JMC is an extraordinary young woman. At 20 years old she agreed to head nearly half a world away to a place she had never been to help my daughter and I navigate school and home life during the ongoing pandemic. She approached absolutely everything with a positive attitude and a willingness to try new things. As we took off from Lilongwe on her first ever flight, she told me she could feel her soul leaving her body as the plane climbed to its cruising altitude. When we drove from Virginia to Florida for Home Leave at the beginning of our sojourn and I asked her her first impressions she told me that the highways of America were amazing! (So clean, straight, wide, with few potholes, and often lined with so many, many trees). At Disney World as we rode the Barnstormer, her first ever rollercoaster, she screamed in delighted terror, but never once said she wished she had not tried it. She coined what would become her signature phrase “America has done it again!”

If we went to a restaurant and she ordered a hot dog and a milkshake and they brought out a foot long dog and a milkshake a foot tall, she would laugh, shake her head, and say, “America has done it again!” When we went trick-or-treating at Halloween along a top decorated street in Arlington, where the neighbors compete hard for the biggest and best decorations, she once again said, “America has done it again!” She might say this when riding the metro (“Are you telling me this train is going under the river? America, you have done it again!”) or when she saw the swimming pool on the roof of our building or ate at a teppanyaki restaurant for the first time (which, I had to point out, was actually something Japanese).

When we moved into our apartment in Arlington, Virginia, where we would reside through my training, we discovered it was probably the most dog-friendly building in an extremely dog-friendly area. JMC, however, has a huge fear of dogs that stems from being attacked and bitten as a child when she lived in South Africa. Owning a dog as a pet is not common in Malawi and often when Malawians own dogs it is for security, not companionship. While there were some stray dogs in Lilongwe, I found it a much more rare occurrence than in other countries where I have lived or visited like Indonesia and Romania, the latter where I myself was attacked by dogs. While I am not 100% comfortable around large dogs, JMC was downright terrified. Imagine when on one day we visited my aunt out in Winchester and strolling along the walking street came across an Irish Wolfhound, a Tibetan Mastiff, and a Great Dane. Then in our building in Arlington people are riding the elevators and casually strolling through the lobby with dogs big and small. I felt badly that our building posed so many opportunities for her to feel scared. But like everything, she took it with a huge dose of humor and grace.

Strolling together in Arlington

She really was game to give nearly everything a try and to approach it with excitement and wonder. When we went to see Disney on Ice she cheered and laughed with unbridled joy (with far more enthusiasm than my daughter). In late November, we met my friend CZ and her son Little CZ at King’s Dominion on a Winterfest evening, JMC agreed to ride the Delirium, one of those pendulum rides that also spins, with C and DZ, while I sat it out with Little CZ. (I never liked those kinds of rides, ever) Breathless after the ride, her eyes sparkling, JMC again reported her soul temporarily disconnecting from the rest of her. Later when she and our kids were invited to join in the dancing of a winter parade float, JMC grabbed the proffered tambourine and started dancing while C hid behind me refusing to participate. Experiencing her first snow fall, she agreed to head out to play with C though she really dislikes cold weather. I watched them from apartment window making snow angels and throwing snowballs. She willingly tried ice skating (and quickly got good at it) and indoor skydiving (she kept trying to swim toward the exit).

JMC and C in Colonial Williamsburg (they even switched shoes as they wear the same size)

I tried to have a mix of activities this whole nine months in the states — mixing American history (the National Air and Space Museum, the African American History Museum, Mount Vernon, the National Mall, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Savannah, St. Augustine, Harper’s Ferry), and culture (Cherry Blossoms, the Nutcracker ballet, a baseball game, a small town Christmas parade), to fun activities (Disney on Ice, ice skating, indoor skydiving, the International Spy Museum, the Baltimore Aquarium) and Americana (like a massive corn maze, trick or treating, Disney) and more (see here, here, and here). It is wonderful to experience America with my daughter who has spent far more time abroad than in her home country (and this was her longest time in the States), but to experience it with JMC made it all the more special. Sometimes my daughter just took some things for granted. But JMC did not ever. She regularly reminded me of all the wonderful things that America has to offer – not by saying so, but by just living her experience to the fullest.

It feels strange without JMC – she has been a big part of our family the past two years, in both Malawi and the United States. Her departure is another reminder of how our interregnum in the US is coming to a close and we soon head off to our next overseas adventure.

The Final Stretch: PCS Preparations and Making the Most of America

Preparing to Leave Again

Sigh. I really and truly just let out a big sigh as I began to type. Here we are about to move yet again. Sigh. There is another one.  You might think we would get used to it – the constant moving – in this career. However, I think it is only getting harder the older I become. And as my daughter gets older too.

When we arrived in Arlington, Virginia last September for my training, we met another single parent Foreign Service Officer. Her older son and C became fast friends. They walked to and from the bus stop together, rode the bus together, and had hours and hours of playdates, and even more hours online chatting and playing Roblox. He and his family moved to the Dominican Republic a month ago. It was the beginning of the end.

This happens every year. Even when we are not moving, there is always someone in our Foreign Service Community who is leaving. Unfortunately, the frequency of people coming into and out of our lives does not make the goodbyes any easier.

We too are focused on our own approaching departure. I am always saying that in the last few months before our PCS (permanent change of station) that it’s like picking up a part time job with terrible, unpredictable hours. While trying to keep doing one’s day job, whether that is serving as a political officer or a French language student, you must also take care of other things related to the move. These tasks include enrolling your child in school in the next country, applying for visas, preparing to move your pet, having final medical appointments, hiring childcare in the new country, and purchasing a vehicle for the next Post. These tasks require leg work, internet research, emails and/or calls, filling out forms, and so on.

We have received our housing assignment for Guinea.  C and I are very excited about our new place and have been working on decoration planning.  But it is not easy working out what all to buy now and have shipped as the global supply chain slowdowns mean what might normally take three months could take up to six months (or longer) to reach us.  There is our HHE (Household Effects) shipment from the U.S. but also the HHE shipment from Europe, where most of our things from Malawi have been sitting in storage for nearly a year.  Will what we had in a three-bedroom house in Lilongwe fit into a two-bedroom apartment in Conakry?  The moving company that packed us out from Malawi left me a cryptic list of our belongings, and my own memory of everything I own is most definitely flawed.

There are also the “consumables.”  Guinea, like Malawi, is a consumables post. The definition is: “a post at which conditions make it difficult to obtain locally the consumables required by employees and their eligible family members.  Consumables are referred to as expendable personal property because they are used up as opposed to wearing out.” Working with a list of provided by the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO) of consumables families typically bring to Guinea, I am making purchases and creating piles of stuff in our current apartment.  These include jars of Vlasic dill pickles, containers of lite pancake syrup, and bottles of shampoo and conditioner that work best on my daughter’s hard-to-tame hair.  And like in Malawi, I will be buying four brand new tires for our Conakry-based car because it is reportedly difficult and costly to find quality replacements. 

Perhaps this does not seem like a lot?  Even as I write it, I note that the words completely belie the amount of time and effort and cost that goes into preparing to move internationally.  I am, frankly, exhausted by the effort, but keep trying to rally myself because I don’t want to forget something important.  I do not know how married couples manage the division of labor, but in my case, it is just me managing the move. 

I feel at odds; I am being pulled in two directions.  I am here, still in the US, but also very much focused on getting to Guinea.  I am in the final weeks of a long, exhausting language program, but I also must obtain plane tickets and apply for visas and manage the logistics of moving.  There is a lot of excitement, but also a lot of anxiety.    

 Making the Most of Our Time in America

I have found it difficult to balance the pandemic and my language study with activities, but all in all I think I did a pretty good job giving both my daughter and our young nanny a wide range of experiences in the United States. Since my halfway post, we have managed to squeeze in a good number of events. After trying for months to score tickets, we were finally able to visit the National Museum of African History and Culture in early February. I however had completely underestimated the time it takes to see a good portion of the exhibits and after 3.5 hours we left having only scratched the surface. In February, we headed to iFLY to give indoor skydiving a go. I had initially reserved for January for C’s birthday, but a snowstorm had forced me to reschedule.

We drove up to Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium and when my good friend CZ and her son Little CZ came into town, we all visited the International Spy Museum and strolled around the tidal basin to see the cherry blossoms. Both our nanny JMC and I served as chaperone’s for C’s school field trip to Jamestown and we stayed an extra night so we could visit Williamsburg and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary. We caught one of the season opening weekend games at Nationals stadium, visited Luray Caverns, and also met up with my aunt out at Harper’s Ferry.

But now here we are closing in on the last month and a half of our U.S. sojourn sandwiched between our Malawi and Guinea tours. I do not know what else is in store for our time here, though I have some ideas much depends on the results of my French exam. There is an incredible amount of stress placed on U.S. diplomats to pass the exam on the first go, but it is by no means guaranteed. Here’s to hoping for the best outcome, whatever that may be. And then, on to Guinea.

Omicron Effects

As I sat thinking about what I might write about next, it occurred to me I should say more of how COVID has been affecting us while in the U.S.. Part of me had thought this might not be all that interesting or at least less so than how we experienced the pandemic in Malawi. And that might be true. There are probably far fewer people sharing online what it like to experience COVID in Malawi, and certainly to be a foreigner doing so, than those who chronicle their experience in the U.S. And yet, I also realized our experience – as a foreign service family temporarily back in our home country – is somewhat unique to us and I want to remember it, record it, and recount it as a both a personal experience and one that becomes part of the collective memory of this global event. I figure that I wrote on COVID in Malawi (here, here, and here for example), and also about how COVID affected our R&R to Kenya, and even on my experience with SARS in as a graduate student in Singapore nearly twenty years before, so it makes sense to continue writing on this topic.

The pandemic has certainly had an effect on our lives back in the States. Arriving just as the Delta variant surge began, we spent our home leave in one of the most affected cities (Jacksonville, FL) trying to balance enjoying our time home while also keeping up with COVID mitigation measures. The training for my next post, beginning in mid-September, has also been affected by the continued pandemic, with all of it so far conducted online. But as the highly transmissible Omicron variant began to catch hold in the U.S. in December 2021 and early January 2022, we began to experience new disruptions.

Right at the beginning of the year, on January 3, the northern Virginia area was hit with a major snowstorm. Compared to other places that handle winter weather in greater quantity and frequency, it might seem that folks in Virginia have no idea what they are doing when snow hits. There is a grain of truth to that, though this storm was the biggest to hit the area in several years.

Yet when the district announced the school closure the night before – when nary a snowflake had shown up and the temperature remained above freezing – I was skeptical. When I was a kid growing up in this area, the thing to do in the morning of a snow storm was to sit by the television watching the local news as the names of school districts scrolled up announcing if school were open, cancelled, or had a late opening. I guess that morning-of decision was not great for working parents, teachers, and school staff, but I remember it with a certain amount of nostalgia. Still, I thought it premature because there are times when the forecast predicts snow but we get none.

This time though the snow absolutely showed up, falling fast and hard and blanketing the area in a few hours. I am not generally a fan of snow. It can be very beautiful in its immediate pristine state or in picture-perfect postcards, but it needs to be cold for snow and I dislike being cold, and after it gets walked through and driven through and pushed aside by plows, it is no longer pretty. But for my daughter C and our nanny JMC, this first snow was exciting. C has experienced snow so few times that they stand out — once in Ciudad Juarez and in Shanghai where flurries showed up and dusted the ground but didn’t stick. It also snowed once in the fall of 2014 when we lived in Herndon, VA when I was in Chinese training and then again on the day we flew to Shanghai in January 2015. There was also snow in Virginia when we were back for a week of training in December 2017. For our other snow experience we visited Finland in December 2019 knowing full well that snow would be a part of it. JMC had never experienced snow at all.

So it was fun at first. But then Omicron stepped in and made things weird.

Within an hour of the snow falling, I could see crews outside clearing the sidewalks and streets around our apartment building. Therefore, I was surprised when the county announced that there would also be no school the following day (Tuesday) because a COVID-related shortage of road workers meant that too many neighborhoods were still uncleared for kids to return to school. OK, I guess, what could we do? But on Tuesday evening the county announced that school would be closed AGAIN on Wednesday. Every parent I talked to was perplexed and a tad annoyed; our kids wanted to be back in school. On Wednesday afternoon our county said it would be open the following day, then that evening reversed the decision as surrounding counties would be closed. A shortage of teachers, bus drivers, and other school staff, who often live in other areas, and would not be able to come in if their kids were home, would likely end up in too few staff at our schools. So a snowstorm that would normally lead to a day off from school ended up keeping kids home for four days. Thanks Omicron.

But then, once school started in the new year, the COVID notifications for C’s school increased. Between the start of school on August 30 and the last day of school before winter break on December 17, my daughter’s school sent out a total of seven positive COVID notifications. Between January 13-31, however there were 16 notifications. For several days my daughter’s class of 26 kids was down to 17 with a combination of kids out with COVID or with symptoms awaiting test results or staying home to protect vulnerable family members.

Around our neighborhood in Arlington, we also began to notice signs new signs on store windows and doors. Maybe they had been up before, earlier in the pandemic, but we were not in the U.S. then. At my gym, people started to work out in masks. I had not seen that in my four months there. And then there was a noticeable increase in delivery times for packages. Where normally I could place an Amazon Fresh order in the afternoon for delivery the next day, but deliveries were two or three days later. Other deliveries too took longer, reportedly due to staffing shortages. After waiting three to four weeks for mail from the US when in Malawi though, we could handle it. And my Facebook feed started to fill up with reports of fully vaccinated and boosted friends and their families coming down with COVID. The majority mild cases, only one was hospitalized, but the virus felt closer than it ever had before.

The Foreign Service Friend Countereffect

I think having been in Malawi for the first 17 months of the pandemic has helped us to weather the past six months in the U.S. better. That is not to say there are not challenges. A childless friend of mine overseas asked me if I thought being a parent was a major factor in my different outlook on the pandemic. A resounding yes. Though I will note I have never been particularly worried that my daughter would get COVID or rather should she get it that it would be serious. And at 10 she is now vaccinated so our situation is different than parents of younger children. But as she is school aged and in in-person schooling, there are regular reminders of the pandemic’s tenacity that non-parents or parents of children not yet in school do not have. I receive a survey by text and email from the school that must be completed daily and the school notifications of positive COVID cases, mask and testing policies and more is fairly constant.

But having been in Malawi where we had no Whole Foods or Door Dash, no movie theaters or shopping malls, few to no sidewalks and no string cheese, made for a different experience than those who had such things. More importantly are the friendships we made in Malawi before COVID that changed and strengthened during it. We have been so incredibly fortunate to have made one really good friend in our building in Arlington — another single mom in the Foreign Service currently in language training for her next assignment with two boys, one of whom is just a year younger than C. They get us in ways that few others do. Also, three of our closest friends from Malawi have also been here in the U.S. One family lives just 15 minutes drive away. Another family is in upstate Pennsylvania but has come down to the northern Virginia / DC area on several occasions. And as luck — or more like the twists of fate — would have it, the third family whose tour after Malawi was Ethiopia ended up nearby while on authorized departure from Addis Ababa at the height of the civil conflict. Though we have seen them less often than in Malawi, being able to see them on occasion during this stint back in America has made the transition easier.

We have done less here in American than if it were not a pandemic; I have met with fewer friends than I might have done, cocooning ourselves away. It is in part due to my introversion heightened by language study (I get a wee bit weird when in language training), but experiencing nearly a year and a half of the pandemic in Malawi with our particular restrictions, small circle, and limited activities, shaped how continue to react now. So though an overwhelming majority of my U.S. based friends are vaccinated, their circles are not my circles, and it feels weird to branch out. I hope these friends understand and forgive me for being physically distant, as though I were not in the U.S. at all.

As we reach a stage where I daresay signs are pointing toward the pandemic slowing (though we have seen this before, of course), I can feel a wee shift within, a hope that this will come to an end in the near future. I am very cognizant this is not the case for everyone around the world, and yet, the glimmer is there nonetheless. I started bidding on my next assignment in September 2020, a year and a half ago; I never thought we would be going to this new place — Conakry, Guinea — still in the pandemic. Here we are just months away from that move. To a whole new country. Without the comforts of Americana, our family, and friends. It’s all part of this crazy foreign service life though. I’d just like to get back to doing it without a pandemic too.

Halfway Through Our U.S. Sojourn 2021-2022

Here we are already halfway through the eleven months we have in the U.S. between our Malawi and Guinea tours. I have been wrestling with what to write about – having already covered home leave and trying to adjust, what to say about being sort of, at least temporarily, adjusted? When overseas, especially in the often less traveled places where I have tendency to live and work, or while on once in a lifetime vacations, the stories are easier to write. Sitting in a nondescript apartment in Northern Virginia as I telework feels far more conventional, even if in a global pandemic. I have lived a little more than half my adult life outside of the United States and the other half often working toward those times. I sometimes long for something more conventional, but honestly, I don’t know how to do conventional. And even this, being paid to learn a language by the Department of State in order to assist with my upcoming assignment in West Africa, frankly, isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill either.

Language Learning in a Pandemic

This is my third go at learning a language through the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). I took Spanish ahead of my assignment to Ciudad Juarez and Mandarin before Shanghai, but in both cases I had the advantage of having studied the language before in high school, college, or another setting (or a combination of). This time I am learning French and have no background whatsoever in it. Though, honestly, that is a wee bit untrue. I mean, English speakers have been exposed to at least some of the language through cognates or popular culture. It is not like I am taking up Turkmen. Yet, I have no formal training and I feel the difference keenly.

I will not beat around the bush: I am not a fan of FSI’s language training method. I do not think I can describe it adequately if you have never been through it or a similar program. To me, the first few months are a bombardment of vocabulary and grammar. Often we will cover a grammatical point for one hour of the day and the teacher will say something like, “now that we have learned gender of nouns or the conditional tense, we can now move forward with another topic” and I balk because I might have understood some, but I definitely have not “learned” the concept in such a short timeframe. Imagine this happening every hour, five hours a day, five days a week for some eight weeks before your first assessment? Homework certainly reinforces concepts as does the daily build on — but I can feel myself fighting it day after day. (This is not to say I don’t have fun — I laugh every single day in class!) After this, the class then pivots to regularly putting students on the spot with impromptu discussions and then short speeches on societal topics such as gender equality, climate change, or vaccination mandates. I didn’t like this method when I studied Spanish or Chinese and I do not like it now. And I was no spring chicken when I started the Foreign Service (see my complaints about being too old for language training from 7 years ago). And yet, at the end of the day, despite the method and my resistance (and it almost galls me to admit), I get to a good level of language acquisition.

Doing all the training online has taken some getting used to. I sometimes miss the camaraderie of the halls of FSI, the running into friends and colleagues from A100 (our onboarding course), past posts, or past training, and getting to know new folks as we all muddle our way through new languages. Also, since so many people – thousands – are there at any given time pursing language or functional training, the Department offers other services such as passport or badge renewals, research for next posts at the Overseas Briefing Center, a clinic to get vaccinations, a child care center (for those lucky enough to get one of the very coveted spots), a gym, and more. All of this set on some really lovely grounds. FSI is a base sorts for those that often have none, a place someone can come back to again and again where you find yourself among others who get the quirks of the job and lifestyle.

Yet, I do love my 20 second commute to my desk, the wearing of comfy pants and no shoes, and rummaging around in my kitchen for snacks during breaks. And though there are some technical challenges at times (for some reason my microphone has worked only 50% of the time in class the past week and a half) I have not felt much difference in the quality of training from my previous two times at the Institute. I have 19 weeks of my 30 weeks of training left to go, so we shall see when it comes round to testing time how well I actually do.

Milking America for All Its Worth (in a Pandemic)

Despite the intense pressure to abandon all in favor of only activities that further my French and a continuing pandemic that makes the decision to get out and about sometimes difficult, I am still trying to make the most of our time in the United States. For my daughter who has spent the majority of her life overseas and our young nanny who has not had many such opportunities, I want to introduce them to a variety of activities we could not do in Malawi and won’t be able to in Guinea.

One of our first sightseeing trips was down into the heart of iconic Washington, DC. Just riding the metro was a treat as there had been nothing like that in Malawi. We walked past the Washington Memorial, visited the World War II Memorial, and then strolled along the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. We then rented some scooters and zipped back toward the Capitol, stopping to eat from several of the food trucks lining the streets. We also popped into the National Air and Space Museum.

As the weather cooled, I took us to Mount Vernon, for a tour of the house and walks around the grounds. There is a lot of history to learn and confront at the home of our first President and we lucked out with a glorious day to do it. I also scored tickets for the Disney on Ice show — I waited until the last minute, you know, just in case there was some COVID issue. We all loved the show but I think JMC loved it the most. Her whoops of delight at every major stunt were infectious. We met my sister and her family and a family friend at Liberty Mills Farm in central Virginia to take our chances in the country’s largest corn maze. We took the trail with no map and got happily lost (and then somewhat desperately), then, once free, picked out some pumpkins and scarfed down some farm-inspired desserts. I don’t know what says fall in Virginia more than heading to a farm for a pumpkin. And I took us to a Halloween inspired light show at a nearby zoo — one I used to go to when I was a kid. Afterwards we all tried some fried Oreo. Ah, Americana.

I found myself pretty excited that Halloween would be in-person. With the Delta wave still causing havoc through the fall, I really had not been sure it would happen and it made me a bit sad for my daughter. She had not had much experience with Halloween in the U.S.: In 2014 when she was 2 1/2 and we lived for five months in a Staybridge Suites hotel and trick-or-treated briefly in the adjacent townhouse community and in 2015 when we were in the U.S. for an unexpected medevac and I was recovering from an intense procedure. I had had maybe an hour of energy to take C trick-or-treating through our temporary apartment housing. And trick or treating in our past posts was different, especially last year. At three months shy of 10, this is the perfect age for my daughter to trick-or-treat. If we return to the U.S. for training after our next assignment, she will be 13. So, I decided to forego the likely sad trick-or-treating to be found in our apartment building and took us to the most celebrated Halloween street in Arlington for some big-time candy demanding.

For Thanksgiving, I opted for the typical non-typical American activity of dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a movie – only our second movie in a theater since returning to the U.S., the first being in Jacksonville, FL on Home Leave. That weekend though we drove down to King’s Dominion to meet up with one of my best friends CZ and her son Little CZ for the amusement park’s Winter Fest. As the weather grew colder we went ice skating at the National Sculpture Garden (the first time for C and JMC and the first time in a looooong time for me), strolled by the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House, and attended a breathtaking performance of the Nutcracker performed by the Washington Ballet company. The Nutcracker was one of the highest priorities on my “while in the U.S. bucket list” as it was the kind of performance we could not see in Malawi and will likely be limited or unavailable in Guinea. I know we have had the opportunity to see many amazing places and cultural activities in every place we have been, but I really am trying to boost our Americana while we have the chance and C is at this age. And introducing all of this to our nanny JMC is so fun as she approaches each and every activity with a positive attitude. At King’s Dominion she rode the scariest of rides and even though afterwards she said she was sure she felt her soul floating out of her body, she did not regret riding; and when a character from the parade invited her to join him in dancing she did so with great enthusiasm while C hid behind me shaking her head.

We had a more typical Christmas at my sister’s place, a little over an hour’s drive from us, where we could also see my parents. Then C flew to see her dad and stepmom in Kentucky, the first time she had seen them in two years. One reason I had opted to bid on a language-designated position for my next tour was the opportunity to have C see her dad a bit more. We had initially planned on a visit in August but scrapped it with COVID on the rise. Things were still dicey in December, but it was too important to skip.

And now, we are in the final five months of our U.S. interlude. It will be punctuated with increasing bouts of panic on my part as my language test and our departure to Guinea grows closer. While I will still seek out special activities for us all, my to-do list has to start accommodating things like dentist and doctor visits, obtaining visas, vaccinations, plane tickets and working out the intricate requirements for international cat travel while cramming more and more French into my skull.

Here’s to the second half.

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.