R&R in COVID Part 5: Nairobi Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a large animal outside!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C rides the Eye of Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of one the Voyager Beach Resort’s three pools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My snapshots of Fort Jesus

C though was not a huge fan.

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

Photos around Mombasa Old Town

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

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

Good morning Mombasa

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

R&R in COVID Part 3: Lake Naivasha

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

Sign ahead of the Lake Naivasha “marina” with boats to Crescent Island

Next stop after the Maasai Mara was Lake Navaisha. While I was ultimately glad for extra time our COVID-related flight change would afford us in the Mara, I was less thrilled with the loss of time at Lake Naivasha. My former backpacker self would be ashamed at my impatience. When I backpacked, a bus might not show up, or it would break down, or take five hours longer than scheduled, and while sometimes annoying, it could also be somewhat amusing and even at time exciting; I did not expect to get places on time. But while I had built in rest time on our Kenya R&R, I wanted very much to be the decider of down time, not a transportation glitch. Yet, there was nothing to be done for it but accept the schedule change.

To reach Lake Naivasha, we returned to Nairobi via small aircraft and then a driver, arranged by the same travel agent as our flights and Mara accommodation, would meet us to make the trip to our Lake hotel. But our 8:30 AM departure was changed to 11:45 AM and this time we would make one other airstrip stop before returning to Nairobi, thus returning us famished to Wilson Airport at nearly 1 PM. I had already notified our driver in advance we would need to stop at an ATM (so I could pay him in cash) and then on somewhere we could grab food. With those stops it was 2 PM before we were on our way to the Great Rift Valley Lodge (GRVL). My initial plan had to be there by noon for lunch. (Deep breaths. It’s okay T. Let it go. Let it go.)

View of the valley from our balcony at the Great Rift Valley Lodge; Steve the zebra wanders the GRVL golf course

The GRVL is situated on a cliff of Eburru Mountain, which the Maasai call Ol Donyo Opurru or “Mountain of Smoke,” has gorgeous views over the Great Rift Valley. I decided to stay at the GRVL largely because of a single photo I had seen online of the Lodge perched on the escarpment edge, dwarfed by the forest, hills, and sky around it. But the photo did not do it justice (and neither does mine) of the sheer grandeur and beauty of that view.

A sampling of flora at the Great Rift Valley Lodge

Unfortunately, our late afternoon meant we did not time for any activities, so we took a walk around the property, starting with following Steve the resident zebra. We don’t know the zebra’s real name, but I thought he looked like a Steve (I don’t even know if Steve is a he) and it stuck. Even our assigned personal concierge William told us that he liked the name Steve and perhaps the hotel will call the zebra that from now on (oh, I hope so!). C had spotted Steve from our balcony, and thus we found him there, grazing beneath the thorny acacia trees. He led us along a pathway through a thicket, up past the Lodge pool, through the parking lot, to the golf course, where he interrupted a few guests practicing their drives. While golfers might forgive an errant zebra on the golf course, they were not going to put up with two humans in pursuit of said zebra, so we then left Steve and spent the rest of our daylight meandering along the Lodge’s pathways flanked by its wild and unusual flora, with an emphasis on succulents. It grew dark and chilly quickly; we had dinner and went to bed.

On Lake Naivasha

Early on our second day we met William who had arranged transportation and a tour to Crescent Island. The island is a private sanctuary where one can take a walking safari, passing close by zebra, giraffe, impala, waterbuck, warthogs, and other such non-predator species and a dizzying array of birdlife. Unlike most walking safaris I have seen elsewhere, such as “walks with lions” or “walks with cheetahs” that often come with a 16 years of age and older label due to the predilection of big cats to find small humans more appetizing, C could participate.

Before getting to the island, we would first experience a boat safari on Lake Naivasha. We were really backing in the safaris this trip – safari by jeep, hot air balloon, boat, and our own two legs.

There is still room for a few more – cormorants at Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha is one of Kenya’s major rift valley lakes. It is the home to an abundance of bird species like African fish eagles, giant kingfishers, herons, cranes, pelicans, ospreys, and more. Especially cormorants. So many, many cormorants. The Lake is a popular breeding site of cormorants and it must have been the height of the season as there were thousands of birds perched on nearly every available branch. A water safari offers an up close and personal view of many of these birds and even some hippos. As seems a prerequisite to any lake visit in Africa where African fish eagles roam (at least Malawi and Kenya), our boat driver acquired some fish, positioned the boat within sight of an eagle and whistled. But I am not sure I could tire of the sight of one of these eagles taking flight and then swooping in, talons first, to grab the proffered bait off the surface of the water. It is pretty magnificent.

After about 20 minutes on the Crescent Island is a private sanctuary located on the eastern side of the Lake. Many sites online, including Lonely Planet, note that the island is actually a peninsula and you can reach the island either by boat or across a causeway. Not any more. Rising water levels at the Lake (and other rift valley lakes) have swallowed up the bridge, tourism facilities, and more. The makeshift marina had been relocated from its previous, but now underwater, location. As we motored out, we saw concrete buildings with just barely noticeable words (“ladies”, “gents,”store”) and signs (“car park”) just under water, as if they were desperately treading water. As we closed in on Crescent Island, a line of electricity poles, half submerged, marked the location where the causeway should have been. I was glad to hear the government had turned off the electricity. If we had not seen a few other boats out on the lake, I could well have believed this was some sort of post-apocalyptic world, which in a global health pandemic really does not seem so farfetched.

Crescent Island

We landed at Crescent Island and our GRVL guide paid for our entrance fees, then we set out, up through the bush to the highest point on the island, which was not all that high but did provide a nice vantage point to see much of the wildlife and then the shimmering blue lake and the darker blue hills beyond. Our guide, and many online resources indicate scenes from Out of Africa were filmed on the island, that the animals were brought there for the film and then left to enjoy the island in safety from predators afterwards. That may or may not be true as I could not find information on websites dedicated to the film of Crescent Island being among its filming locations. Still, the ability to walk so close to these wild African animals, to a herd of zebra or impala, to startle a waterbuck munching away in the bush next to you, or to stand five feet away from a grazing giraffe still captures the essence and awe of the movie. However the animals got there, I enjoyed our 90 minutes walk and hope C will always remember it.

Once back to the Lodge, although I really wanted to see more in the area, I made good on my promise to include rest and fun time. C and I headed to the pool for where C quickly made friends with the other children; I swam some and read.

The next morning we had some more time to look around the grounds — to see the resident peacocks and tortoises — before our driver would pick us up for our return trip to Nairobi and our flight to Mombasa. Though I had hoped for more time in the area, what we got was pretty darn good. Initially, I had considered a day tour from Nairobi, though because of COVID I could not imagine being on a tour bus with a bunch of strangers for a full day. So COVID giveth a two night plan at the GRVL, but taketh some of that time due to flight rescheduling. C’ est la vie. Or rather, hakuna matata.

R&R in COVID Part 2: The Maasai Mara

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

Giraffes on the Mara with the hills of Tanzania in the background

Arriving at our hotel in Nairobi, the impact of COVID was immediately apparent. It was late afternoon and we were hungry, its a pandemic and we are in a new town, so I had no interest in leaving the hotel until the following morning. All I wanted to order room service, but there was no room service menu to be found. When I called down to the front desk I was informed that there was nothing in the room – no menu, no hotel information booklet, no pad of paper, no hotel pen – that could be left behind for another guest. An attendant brought a menu to the room, but I saw it was really limited, with nothing that appealed to us. Another call to the front desk revealed the hotel had been closed for three months during the early part of the pandemic and when they reopened, they pared down the menu significantly. But the hotel was so eager to please, the manager, chef, and a room attendant showed up at the door – all masked – asking what they could make us.

The next morning, we headed to breakfast in the hotel. We took the wrong elevator and ended up in another part of the hotel — all the lights were off, there were no staff around. When we backtracked and got to the dining room it was also poorly lit and we were the only people there. Some food was set out but there were no staff, no other hotel guests. As we checked out, I asked the manager about this and he told me that they had closed off an entire wing of the hotel due to low occupancy; of the 200 some rooms, they had only 44 guests.

Off we headed to Wilson Airport, the domestic small aircraft terminal. We were there earlier than expected as our flight to the Maasai Mara had been moved from 10:30 AM, then to 8:30 AM, then to 8:00 AM due to limited flights (aka limited travelers) during the pandemic. So far these signs — the oddities in the hotel, the changes to our flight times — only served to remind me, rightfully, that while we were on vacation it was still during a pandemic.

But once checked in – despite socially distanced from our few fellow passengers and masked-up – we began to feel excited. We would be taking our first flight in a small plane and landing at a really small dirt landing strip just five minutes away from our accommodation. Well, let me say that I was excited; C was not (at least not about the small plane flight). But once in the air, she was good. And although we were not in a propeller plane, I did feel a wee bit like I had been transported back to the flight seen in Out of Africa as we departed Nairobi, with views toward the Ngong Hills, then across flat green plains with little settlement, and finally with a view of the winding Talek River along which our lodge, the Mara Intrepids Camp, lies. The touchdown, along a dirt landing strip, pulling up to a three shack airport — with a small covered waiting area, a Maasai Mara National Park information and ticket booth, and a restroom block — was exciting.

Despite our early arrival, the Camp staff gave us a very warm welcome. We were set up in a comfortable and rather high end “tented” room with a porch overlooking the Talek River and they ushered us to the dining room where they had prepared breakfast. This was a treat after the rather sterile and zombie apocalypse-like feeling to our quick breakfast earlier. Although my booking included three game drives a day, my intention on the trip was to have some great experiences but to also relax after the past nine months of working and distance learning in Malawi during a pandemic. Thus, we were in no hurry. We did not rush to get on a 10:30 AM game drive. Instead we lazed around our room, sipping drinks on our porch, and breathing in the sounds and smells of the Mara. Then we had lunch. And only afterwards did we head out on our first game drive.

Cheetah cubs!

Again, another sign of the pandemic, was our personal game drive. We were assigned a driver/tracker, Dennis, and had our vehicle all to ourselves. One highlight of a pandemic I suppose. Right off the bat we sighted stripped mongoose and a hyena — an animal that after three and a half years in Malawi and game drives in Majete National Park and Liwonde National Park and South Luangwa National Park (Zambia) – we had not sighted. Our previous closest hyena encounters were the on-occasion high-pitched giggle we heard on quiet nights in Lilongwe. C was thrilled and immediately named the hyena her newest favorite animal. We caught site of a pair of ostrich and some giraffe, and then soon enough were on the trail of a mother cheetah and her four cubs. After some 20 minutes of watching the cheetah and her cubs sidewind through the grass, Dennis asked if we wanted to head on to look for lions, but hey, it was just us in the vehicle, so I said no. And as luck and perseverance would have it, we got some good looks at the sleek cat and her cubs. We requested an early dinner and prepared an early bedtime with the whoops and cries of the African plains rocking us to sleep.

We had a very early morning wake up (4:00 AM) on our first full day in the Mara as I had booked us an adventure of a lifetime — a hot air balloon safari. By 5:00 AM we were being whisked through the park and adjacent lands in the dark, seeing the occasional animal — a hippo, a rabbit, a dik dik, a jackal – in the headlights. After an hour of bumping over the roads we arrived at the launch site. We checked in — mask and temperature checks in addition to the usual — and were assigned to our balloon. I meant this to be a very special occasion for C — I have been waiting until she hit the minimum age of 8 for most hot air balloon rides — but she was very nervous. As we sat crouched on our backs, legs drawn up, hands clutching rope handles, waiting for take off, I saw C was shaking. I asked her if it were the chilly morning air or fear and she confirmed the latter.

It is handy to take off with another balloon to get the best photos

However, as the balloon filled with the last bit of needed hot air, the basket righted, the aircraft lifted, and we were on our way. We first watched the sun break across the cap of a distant plateau and light spill across the plains. Unlike my only other hot air balloon experience in Cappadocia, Turkey, where we rose high above the rocky formations, this time we hovered over the savanna so that we could see the wildlife. We floated over herds of impala, Thompson gazelle, and topi. One topi in particular seemed to literally be stopped in its tracks staring up at us, its mouth agape as it watched us pass overhead. We came a family group of elephants; the largest bull blocked the baby, stood its ground, ears out and flapping, preparing to charge our threatening approach. We watched a hyena zig-zag across the grass trying to outrun us. The whole flight was extraordinary. It is hard to describe; it felt surreal, and magical. We had only an hour in the air, but it felt longer (real talk: C got a bit tired of it and at 45 minutes sat down in the basket; we also did not see as many animals as I had hoped, but we were in a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara!!).

Following the flight, there was a nice breakfast in the bush with the passengers and pilots of both balloons. Afterwards we had the hour drive back to the Mara Intrepids Camp, which also served as another game drive. Again, our lodging included three game drives a day, but with an early morning balloon safari and wildlife spotting there and back, we were content to just relax for the rest of the day. We enjoyed drinks on our porch and watched baboons treating the adjacent tent’s roof as a trampoline, and headed to the swimming pool where from its platform above the river we watched a hippo submerged in a pool, a large monitor lizard slip languidly into the water and then saunter out on the opposite bank, and mongoose scamper across the out-of-order suspension bridge.

Some birds of the Mara

On our third day, we finally had a morning game drive. Six in the morning does not seem quite so early when your wake up call was 4:00 AM the day before! Again, guided by our trusty driver, we quickly came upon giraffe strutting distantly but picturesquely across the savanna, with the early morning sun behind. A few minutes later we came across a hyena directly in our path, stumbling home from an evening of whatever hyenas get up to, along the dirt track. He walked right past our vehicle–we could have reached down to pet him had we been so inclined. This hyena, unlike the scruffy, muddy specimen of his kind we had seen our first day, was, dare I say it, cute and fluffy. We did not see many other animals — though we did come across an eland, the largest antelope, and located the cheetah and her cubs again, though she remained further from the track and largely hidden in a bush — but no matter. With another, and better, hyena sighting, C was more than satisfied. Me, too. We were on a game drive in one of the premier destinations in the world, the weather was perfect, and we were together and healthy. It would be hard to be disappointed with that.

Stunning sunset on the Mara

Our afternoon drive was far more successful in the animal sighting department. Right out of the gate — well, literally at the gate of our lodge’s grounds — we spotted a dik dik, the second smallest antelope species. We came across an extraordinary tableau: In the middle of a grassy plain stood a lone tree. Atop the tree, two large secretary birds sat upon their nest and at the base of the tree a single hyena circled, hoping for whatever scraps might fall. Gazelles grazed in the background. From there we headed on to our prize – a pride of some ten large lions napping lazily in the grass. They must have recently had a large meal as most could not bother to raise their heads or open their eyes. Except for one lioness, who did sit up and fix her eyes upon me in such as way that caused me to back up in the vehicle. On our way back to our camp we were treated to an extraordinary sighting of a lone jackal, who could have run off quickly but kept stopping to look back at us, and an incredible sunset over the Mara.

Predators of the Mara: A surprisingly cute hyena, a still-hungry lioness, and a very curious jackal

That evening in the dining hall we were one of only two families eating. The younger kids of the other family conked out and then we C and I were the only ones there except for staff. Except after a few minutes I noticed we were no longer alone. A genet had crept into the dining hall and slipped beneath the now-gone other family’s table. A genet is a similar to a civet. Its often believed to be in the feline family, but its not. It is sleek and spotted and has a very long tail — it looks a bit like a mini, skinny leopard mated with a lemur. That would have been amazing in and of itself. But then, drum roll, a black bushbaby made its way into the dining hall, expertly walking along the ceiling beams like a trapeze artist, and then sliding down the vertical pole to steal a bun from the abandoned bread basket. The evening’s entertainment was still not yet over, as a second genet joined the first and the bushbaby demonstrated interest in the crumbs beneath the other abandoned table. Naturally this led to one of those scenes generally seen in National Geographic — the bushbaby standing on two legs, arms up, attempting to look menacing and the genets looking positively puzzled. Best diner show ever.

Another COVID-related change led to our return flight to Nairobi to shift from 8:45 AM to 11:15 AM and then to 11:45 AM. Although this would complicate our afternoon plans, it did allow us one more sunrise over the Mara, another game drive. We saw a pod of 20 or more hippopotami wallowing in a stream, tracked two lion cubs through the tall grass, and then caught sight of the lioness possibly tracking us, and at the very end, with just minutes left before we had to head back to the camp and on to the airport, we were lucky to catch sight of a leopard among the foliage in a ravine.

There are just not enough superlatives to describe the Mara. I have been on game drives before but never with such beautiful endless distances across the savanna and the number of wildlife encounters. It was not easy to leave.

R&R in COVID Part 1: Decisions & Preparation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fall Break” in COVID Times

View of Lake Malawi from the Makokola infinity pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grassland, marshland, forest, and fresh air

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

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

Luwawa Nature: a bejeweled locust and a rainbow of berries

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

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

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

The horses return to the stables on their own

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

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

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

That Weekend We Tried to be “Normal”

4
We are not very good at being normal

Due to a Malawian Tuesday holiday, C’s school gave the kids a mini-break, a four-day weekend.  When we have gone out of town on long weekends here, we have tended to go to someplace on Lake Malawi.  We head out to Senga Bay or Monkey Bay.  We have also been to Mangochi and Nkhata Bay.  We have also been to the Zomba plateau, Ntchisi Forest, or to the tea plantation area of the south.  But getting to these places we have long, somewhat boring drives, on crappy Malawian roads, with little change to the scenery.  I have often enjoyed these drives and found beauty in them.  But I really wanted something different than Malawi.

On other vacations, we tend to go to far-flung locales like northern Finland or Zanzibar and I fill our days with sightseeing and/or activities.  That isn’t what I wanted either.  What I wanted was a change of scenery, but also low-key.  I wanted us to be able to do things we cannot do in Malawi, the things that I imagine the average middle-class family in America or Europe or likewise does in a given week.  I wanted convenience.

I opted for a quick trip to Johannesburg.  Just staying in a hotel near a mall with a movie theater.  That seemed so “normal.”  And yet, not at all normal with our every day in Malawi.  The normal, but not normal, which, in my opinion, just about sums C and I up.

And wouldn’t you know it, by the time the weekend rolled around, things seemed all the less normal.  There is the political uncertainty in Malawi, with the country’s High Court deciding to nullify the results of last year’s presidential elections and ordering a new poll.  I am the political officer and this is my bread and butter, but we were all entering an unprecedented political situation, not only in Malawi but on the African continent.  And then there is coronavirus pandemic, which has led to another global health emergency, widespread panic, but also necessary Embassy planning sessions.  With all this going on I was mentally exhausted.  I craved normalcy all the more.

6
There are only 2 statues in Malawi and neither are this big

The flight to Johannesburg was normal enough.  Three and a half hours with a short stop in Malawi’s southern city of Blantyre.  Long, ridiculous lines at immigration greeted us in Johannesburg.  I sure hope that is not how they normally do business, but I suppose it is normal enough.  Yes, there were individuals with high-tech thermometers, that looked more like a radar gun used by police to check speed, scanning everyone’s forehead but few travelers wearing medical face masks (the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Africa was the day we flew back).  Once through all the arrival rigamarole we grabbed some snacks and a taxi and headed to our hotel in Sandton City, our home away from home for the long weekend.

Our first stop then was the Sandton City mall, right off of Nelson Mandela Square, the site of a gigantic statue of the hero himself.  There are no shopping malls in Malawi.  Well, there is the covered shopping center on the outskirts of Lilongwe (“the biggest mall in Malawi!”).  It’s made up of perhaps a dozen stores – anchored by two supermarket chains, which are a shadow of their South African cousins, a few restaurants, a salon, a pharmacy, a dentist office, a bank, the Malawian version of a dollar store, a shoe store, a South African children’s clothing chain, a barber’s, and one or two other stores I have never actually seen anyone in.  It might be named “Gateway Mall” but using the word doesn’t make it so.  On the other hand Sandton City Mall has around 300 stores!

We ate a late lunch in a South African family sit-down restaurant.  The only similar restaurant I know of in Malawi is Wimpy — and there are only two of those in the whole country.  Then we did something really quite ordinary for many families in a lot of countries – we saw a movie at the theater.  C and I really enjoy going to the movies and we did so regularly in Shanghai.  But in Malawi there are no movie theaters.

This was no ordinary theater though — the movie (Sonic the Hedgehog) was shown in a kids theater complete with colorful bean bag chairs and a slide.  The popcorn though was not all that normal, at least not compared to U.S. cinemas, instead of melted butter you could top off with there was powdered butter.  And not a napkin to be found.

On our second day we woke to a rainy Sunday.  C looked out our hotel room window at the uninspiring view of half of the neighboring building and a nondescript six lane road.  But what she saw was instead was wondrous.  “Mom,” she exclaimed, “look at that! I wish we lived here and every day we could look out on that road. There is no road like that in Malawi.”  And she is right.  There are only a handful of roads in Malawi’s three main cities (Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu) that are four lane, and those only span a few kilometers at best.

Sci bono discovery center
Math, science, and physical activity is so fun at Sci-Bono

Off we headed to the Sci-Bono Discovery Center, an interactive children’s STEM museum located in a former power station.  Wow, this place is cool.  When we headed first to a water exhibit on loan from the U.S.’ Smithsonian Museum and there was no one there but us, I worried the museum might not capture C’s attention.  Thankfully, I was wrong.  We ended up spending four hours there – taking in the planetarium show, filling a small hot air balloon and watching it soar up the four stories to the ceiling, using various displays to learn about circuits and voltage to create electric charges, learning interesting animal facts, trying out PlayStation interactive golf and tennis games, and of course sprinting up the climbing wall.  I have taken C to children’s museums across the U.S. and in many places around the world, but there are none in Malawi.  In fact, there is only a handful of museums in the whole country – we have been to three and only one was worth a visit.

We spent the afternoon back at the Sandton City Mall having another late lunch (Hard Rock Cafe) and then C picked out her LEGO characters, which I bet would be hers *if* she made it to the top of the rock climbing wall.  Despite her fear, she made short work of that wall to get those toys, so I had to deliver.  We then had a quite evening just hanging out in the room.

Montecasino

For our last day the plan was to head to the Montecasino bird gardens, but we woke to more rain and a weather prediction that it would last all day.  However, Montecasino also had a indoor shopping area and best of all — an arcade.  There are few things C likes more than playing a bunch of ticket-producing games and trading in those tickets for cheap toys.  I might have to admit I rather enjoy it all myself.  So, I went all out.  I bought hundreds of tokens and we played for HOURS.  Claw games, skee ball, video games, wheel spins, games where we tossed basketballs, bean bags, or ping pong balls to see how many we could get into a receptacle or knock over some pins in a period of time.  All in the name of maniacal, obsessive fun so we could get enough tickets to get the prized stuffed lion that had C’s name on it from the moment we walked in.  It might not seem like much, and may even seem a waste of time and money on vacation, but we had so much fun.  And there is nothing like it in Malawi.  (Thank goodness, or I would be broke, our hands would be calloused, and we would have even more stuffed animals than we already have).

Then we wandered the covered mall of Montecasino, which, with its faux cobblestone lanes and ceiling painted and lit like the sky, reminded me much of the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian in Las Vegas.  We had our choice of 30 restaurants and 10 fast food joints for lunch.  I am not sure there are 40 restaurants in all of Lilongwe.  C and I frequent about eight.  We had (yet another late) lunch at a Mexican (Mexican!!) restaurant and then called it a day.

Heading back the next day was hard for me; I could have used another night or two in Johannesburg.  We hadn’t visited a department store or gone to an amusement park or even a decent playground.  But once home I thought our weekend away had, at least temporarily, restored me.  It might not be that normal to fly to another country to try to do “normal” things.  And honestly, these normal activities we did felt extraordinary because we do not do them all the time.  Many people in developed countries take it for granted that they will have wide pothole-free roads to drive on, nice sidewalks to walk on, well-stocked supermarkets to shop in, and entertainment and shopping complexes to go to, and it just isn’t that way for many in the developing world.  Don’t get me wrong — I know we have it good.  With our privilege, C and I straddle these worlds, living (very well) in one, and with the means and opportunity to travel to another.  The “normal” things we (I) miss are not normal at all for the vast majority of Malawians.  They are not even that normal for my daughter who has spent most of her eight years overseas.

It’s really something to think about — and as I begin to contemplate where we might head next after Malawi I wonder how well we would do somewhere with all these amenities and conveniences that we often do without?  How would we handle being more normal?

Namibia: Superlative Spring Break Part 2

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Heading up the Spreetshoogte Pass — sometimes the best view may be behind you

After our visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund we headed west to the seaside town of Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast.  Leaving Cheetah View Lodge we picked up a mother and son hoping for a lift to Otjiwarongo, the closest town.  On our trip we had already seen at least a handful of people standing by the side of the road hoping for a lift.  Though later we also saw quite a few no-hitching signs, at this point we had not yet.  I would not pick up a single male or a group of males, but a mom and young son, dressed in his school uniform?  There was little along that dirt road and they could be waiting quite some time.  Along the way we chatted.  The mother told me their lift had left them behind and she needed to get her son to town to complete some paperwork before school resumed after the Easter break.   She asked me what I thought of Namibia so far and I raved about the great roads, which, to my surprise, she responded that many Namibians complained about the state of the road system.  This really made me think of relativity — sure, there were places with more paved roads, but in comparison to the roads of Malawi, Namibia seemed a road paradise.

road to the coastWe dropped them in the center of Otjiwarongo and then headed southwest.  This road too was paved and in good shape, but I had miscalculated the distance and it took us an hour longer than expected.   As we approached the coast the green scrubs gave way to desert, and a fog descended, the clouds swallowing up the blue sky.

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Swakopmund in sun, from the end of the jetty

Arriving in Swakopmund we were surprised to find it chilly.  Before coming to Namibia I had set my weather app for Windhoek, and had packed accordingly.  However, while the app indicated a wonderful 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Windhoek, it was hovering in the upper 50s in Swakopmund!  We checked into the hotel, headed out for a late lunch, visited the small museum, and then I purchased myself my very own souvenier fleece jacket (I had had the forethought to bring C’s jacket).

The following day we were up early and soon on our way to the Cape Cross seal reserve.  Cape Cross is so named for the cross Portuguese explorer Diego Cão placed in that location in 1485.  The seal colony is the largest breeding colony of cape fur seals (actually a type of sea lion), with numbers over 200,000 animals!

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Seals between us and the parking lot; surrounded by seals at the replica cross

The sky was an overcast grey, the fog thick, as we made our way out of Swakopmund north to Cape Cross.  Although friends’ had noted the gravel road could be rough, it had been paved in the years since they left the country.  Yet, the sand had blown over the road and soon everything from the road, to the sand, to the mountains, and the sky took on the same steely tan color.  Every so often there were small stands set up on the roadside with various sizes of quartz locals had dug up in the desert.  However, no locals manned the stands, instead the purchaser is on their honor to leave the correct amount in the makeshift plastic banks.  As we closed in on the reserve entrace, a lone jackal made its way across the sands; I was far too slow to capture it with a photo.

Seals as far as the eye could see!  Hundreds of thousands of noisy honking, snorting, seals lying around nearly every available surface, loping across the sand, and cavorting in the waves.  The parking lot was surrounded.  The smell…was, um, frangrant.  We made our way to an enclosed boardwalk, we had to hoist ourselves over to one wall as there seemed no entrance.  Once inside, we could get quite close to the seals hanging right next to the boardwalk.  In fact, towards the end  two seals, who had sneakily made their way onto the walkway, blocked our forward movement.  When we tried to have our pictures taken near the replica of the Portugese cross, one seal kept making aggressive lunges toward me.  I screamed and the laughed as hard as I have in a long while.

Back at Swakopmund the fog lifted and the sky shone gloriously blue.  We had another incredible lunch, then headed for a walk along the beachfront to the very small national marine aquarium, then to the jetty.   Finally we headed to the Krystal Gallerie — mostly a super fancy quartz jewelry store, but it also has a small museum, a little cave to walk through, and a “scratch patch” where kids can buy a small bag and then pick out as many stones as they can fit into a bag.  C LOVES this kind of stuff and a really great time picking out her own “precious jewels.”

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C horseback in the moonscape

Our third day began with an hour horse ride to the moonscape outside of town.  Okakambe stables set us up with a wonderful guide, Noah, who knew exactly how to give C the perfect ride.  Although initially they had us set up with Noah’s son who would walk holding C’s lead, I convinced him C had enough horse experience to do it on her own.  He trusted me and C did a great job.  But that was not it, Noah gave C riding tips, and made her laugh at silly things, like when his horse began wandering away on its own.  Afterwards he tasked her to help remove her horse’s tack, clean its hooves, brush its coat, and then lead him back to the field.  The whole experience completely made C’s morning.

We then drove over to Walvis Bay, as I wanted to see some of the flamingos that flock there each year.  We were able to catch sight of some (maybe there were close to a thousand?), far fewer than the tens of thousands that are there at the height of the season.  Back in Swakopmund we were met by our living desert tour.  With our guides we headed into the dunes just south of Swakopmund and with a miraculous eye they saw tiny trails — little footprints, slither marks, small indentions in the sand.  They found us a Namaqua desert chameleon, a Fitzimmons burrowing skink, a shovel-nosed lizard, a sidewinder adder, a horned adder, and a super friendly Gray’s lark.

17 living desertThere was so much more to do in Swakopmund I was reluctant to leave, but we were heading south-east, back inland, to the Namib-Naukluft Desert, the oldest desert in the world.

It was Good Friday and as we headed south toward Walvis Bay, we were stopped in a long line of cars waiting at a police checkpoint.  Ugh.  There was nothing to worry about of course, but no one likes to wait in a police checkpoint.  And this one turned out to be absolutely nothing to worry about — they were handing out paperbags of Easter candy to motorists!  Another score for Namibia.

After Walvis Bay we headed into the desert and, for the first time, off the tarred roads.

road to solitaireMiles and miles of sandy gravel — stunning vistas but with few, if any, signs of civilization.  No houses, no gas stations, and almost no other cars.  It was exhilarating and also a wee bit scary.  This is where I was especially worried that I would blow a tire, run out of gas (although I had filled up before leaving Walvis Bay), or have some other car trouble, like run into an oryx that suddenly jumped out in front of me.  I had a long, long time to think, to daydream, and also come up with crazy stranded by the side of the road scenarios.  There were enough cars that should something happen someone would likely be along in about an hour, and we had plenty of water, but not something I wanted to experience with C on vacation (or ever).

166At long last we arrived at the town of Solitaire.  Well, town might be a bit of a stretch.  Solitaire is a gas station, bakery, lodge, cafe, general store, and mechanics at a t-junction, the only stop between the coast at Walvis Bay and the dunes at Sossusvlei.  The population is probably less than 100 souls.  The sandy yard around the settlement is littered with colorful and photogenic old rusting cars.  We stayed at the Solitaire Desert Farm seven kilometers away, down a sandy track towards some rocky red hills, that at sunset burned crimson.  The evening was still, with the exception of what I guess were jackals yipping playfully somewhere near our lodge.

We woke early, grabbed our pre-packaged breakfasts from the refrigerator and headed south to Sossusvlei before the sun rose.  This road too was gravel, yet rougher than the one from the coast.  But the hour drive went by quickly as watching the sun rise across the desert was truly magical.  We paid our fees at the park gate and headed straight for Dune 45.  There were some 30 people trudging their way up, a dozen at the top, and probably a dozen on their way down.  Whew.  Here we would go — a middle aged woman, not at her peak physical condition, and a seven year old child.  The climb, according to what I had read online would take 45-60 minutes; we made it in 35 and I felt really, really good about that.  No matter though the view would rejuvenate anyone.

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C heads back down Dune 45

Next we drove on to the parking lot at Sossesvlei where we caught a park shuttle bus to take us out to where we would walk out to Deadvlei.  Along the way we saw the results of stubborn people intent on driving themselves those last few kilometers — many a 2×4, and even a few 4x4s, tires spinning, sunk several inches into the sand.  Our shuttle picked up a few who were at least temporarily abadoning their vehicles in the interest of making the walk before the sun got too high.

We trudged through the now burning sand (we were barefoot for the hike up Dune 45, but now the sand was far too hot) a difficult 20 minutes to the white clay pan dotted with the skeletalized remains of 900-year-old trees known as Deadvlei (“dead marsh”), surrounded by some of the largest sand dunes in the world.

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C at Deadvlei

Whew, it felt like much longer than 20 minutes.  I snapped a few pictures as I caught my breath.  C never seems to need to catch hers.  We were both quite hot though, sweating despite the dryness.  I would have liked to have stayed longer had the temperatures been cooling, but with the heat seeming to rise several degrees per second, I was ready to get back to the air conditioning of the car.  Slogging back through the sand to the shuttle stop, I ended up in step with another visitor.  He seemed quite pleasant, a doctor from Australia traveling with his family.  Though when I think about it, I might have felt a bit more of annoyance when he expressed his surprise first that I might be a U.S. diplomat and then second that I could have ever run half marathons given my huffing and puffing across those dunes at high noon.  Luckily, I was a wee bit too tired to protest.

We drove back to Solitaire for another night, then the next day drove back to Windhoek, this time heading across the stunning Spreetshoogte Pass.  For a good two hours we  passed maybe a total of ten other vehicles, though at the top of the pass I took a picture of an American couple from Manhattan.  Back in Windhoek we had lunch then headed to our lodge for the final night, a room at the lovely Etango Ranch Guestfarm, conveniently located across from the airport, but which felt a world away.

Our road trip finished with 2,674 kilometers (1,661.5 miles) on the odometer.  It was a truly extraordinary journey to the north, west, and south of the country.  It was a journey of superlatives – the third youngest country in Africa, one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the oldest desert in the world, the largest fur seal colony, the oldest national park in Africa, the greatest concentration of cheetahs in the world, the most German of any of Germany’s former colonies…and some of the most stunning scenery anywhere.

 

 

Pumulani Thanksgiving

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Pumulani from Lake Malawi

I love the spirit behind the holiday, but the American celebration of Thanksgiving is not the easiest for a nomadic single introvert.  I have celebrated in many ways over the years from a makeshift dinner cobbled together in a Beijing student dormitory to a turkey and muenster sandwich while writing a graduate student research paper before heading to a Thanksgiving-weekend movie opener.  I have had dinners at friends’, teachers’, colleagues’ houses–and while there can be wonderfully unexpected highlights, I am naturally uncomfortable with strangers around a table.  My preference is to spend the day doing something I enjoy and in the process take time for introspection, ideally, I like to get away.

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Our Pumulani villa’s living room

On Thursday morning C and I began our drive east to Salima, then south to the Cape Maclear area.  Once reaching the Nankumba Peninsula we turned off the paved road onto the burnt orange dirt lanes of the Cape Maclear Nature Reserve.  We bounced along  alternating between small villages of sunbaked brick and rocky scrub until reaching a gate, the entrance to the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then up a steep cement tracked dirt lane to the parking area of Pumulani.

At first it was just a gravel parking lot.  But as we got out of the car, staff spilled out of the main building, greeting us by name.  We were invited to the main lodge patio, provided cool wash cloths, and welcome drinks.  Then we were led across a bridge, along a boardwalk path, to our villa.  And every step revealed more of the incredible beauty of Pumulani.

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The upper pool and the lake

The villa was stunning.  Built into the hillside, its olive green painted cement walls, green corrugated roof, and mahogany-stained wooden window frames, blended into the yellow of the scrub grass and the green of the palm fronds and tree leaves.  Inside was spacious, really, really spacious.  High ceilings, lots of windows, simple but with beautiful details.  I took a lot of photos because maybe some day I will build a home exactly like this.

We took in the villa, settled in, then headed down for lunch.  On the way we saw a monitor lizard swim across the pond, the first of many wild animals we would encounter.  Sitting at a table, enjoying our lunch, looking at C and out across an expanse of the Lake looking west, I could feel a wave of peaceful happiness.

C wanted to swim.  She always wants to swim.  We decided on the upper pool (there are two) as was closer to our villa.  C enjoyed the pool while I lay on a deck chair under an umbrella reading a book.  It was hot, very hot.  Late November is when the rains are supposed to begin, but as they had not yet the sun scorched.

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Sunset on Lake Malawi

Just before 4 PM we made our way down the series of wooden steps and platforms to the Pumulani’s private beach where we boarded a traditional dhow for a sunset cruise.  As it was a seemingly random Thursday in November, we were the only guests who had arrived in time for the dhow, so C and I had the vessel to ourselves with the exception of our captain and a guide.  It was nice to be on the water, to feel the warm breeze.  Our guide said we would head out north and west, near one of the four villages on the opposite bank, where we might find hippos.  I was skeptical.  Hippos might hang out in the muddy Shire (pronounced Sheer-ray) River but in the Lake?  Come on!  And I was joking around with C and pointed out toward the water near the beach and said “It’s a hippo!”  I had not seen anything at all.  But then the guide said there was a hippo there.  I thought he was pulling my leg until I saw the beast breach the water some 25 feet away from the dhow.  Holy moly! A hippo in the lake!

We dined after dark, another delicious meal, and headed to our room to sleep.  It had been a wonderful, active day.  In Malawi, when the sun goes down, it is dark, even in the capital.  Outside the cities, the darkness is very deep.  We planned to turn in early.  As we entered the bedroom, I switched on the light and C pointed behind my head and said, “What is that?!”  I turned and saw the largest spider I have ever seen – its body over nearly 2 inches long, its legs made it as large as my hand – lurking on the curtain.  I must have jumped and I am fairly sure I said some bad words.  There was some shrieking and funny shaking, mostly on my part.  I grabbed C and a flashlight and we hightailed it back to the main lodge so I could recruit some person, any person, who would take care of that arachnid.  If it were still in the bedroom, I was not going to sleep very well.  The staff member I convinced to help grabbed a broom and followed us back to the villa.  He identified the spider as “friendly” but could tell me no more.  I insisted I needed no new friends so he escorted our unwelcome guest out the front door.

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Just some of the Lake Malawi National Park wildlife

After that excitement we really wanted to get to sleep, though I made sure the mosquito nets were tightly closed.  I expected to sleep like a baby.  The room was cold, too cold.  The turn down service had left the A/C blasting on a low temperature and the fan just above the bed on the highest setting.  I fell asleep but a few hours later woke, my head aching with the cold air.  After some angry hunting, I finally found the switch and turned the fan down.  Two hours later I awoke bathed in sweat — the power had gone out, but the generators had not kicked on.  If your power doesn’t go off regularly, you haven’t been to Malawi.  I did not quite get the sleep I had expected.

On our second day, after breakfast, C tried fishing for the first time.  As its a national park it is strictly a catch and release policy (though tell that to the fishermen out in the lake waters!), but we fished in the Pumulani pond.  Garth, one of the managers and an avid fisherman, helped C get started.  She was so excited to reel in a “chambo,” Malawians favorite fish to eat (I have heard it is like tilapia; I don’t eat fish, so I don’t know), and then some cichlids, the colorful fish for which Lake Malawi is so famous.  All was well until we got the line – and a fish – stuck in a tree branch.  Then it was not so much fun anymore (the fish was eventually freed).

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Who are you telling to keep it down?

We enjoyed a lazy, quiet day at our villa.  Well until loud thumps across our roof could not be ignored.  Some teenage male baboons were using our roof as a wrestling pad.  The ruckus they made, well they put the pied crows that scamper across our room in Lilongwe to shame (I call them the pterodactyls).  I went out on to our deck and yelled up to them to keep it down, and one by one small baboon faces peered over the side of the roof top to check out who was telling them what to do.  I wish I had had my camera then – to catch four baboons looking down at me – but I had left it in the villa and closed the door (we were given strict instructions by the staff upon check in to never leave our doors or windows open or the baboons might just let themselves in and make off with our stuff).   Unhappy with my demands, the naughty baboons pulled off part of the roof siding and tossed it down on us.  This required another trip to the main lodge to explain an animal encounter.

In the afternoon we took a 45 minute guided hike across the rocky hillside to a small beach where we were met by double-passenger kayaks.  C also kayaked for the first time, and I have to say for a 6-year old she did quite well.  I could not help but feel a great sense of pride about my kiddo.  She could not paddle the whole 40 minutes, and often her paddling ended up more a “paddle battle” with me, but she sure gave it a shot and sometimes we were wonderfully in sync.

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A fish eagle grabs a snack

On the third day we set out with a guide and a Danish doctor for some snorkeling off a small rocky island about 30 minutes away by speedboat.  I am not a boat person.  My long time friend CZ will tell you this, as she is a boat person.  I am more a boat-avoidant person.  But I really wanted to finally get out on the lake and to see the colorful and famous Lake Malawi cichlids in their element.  Again, my girl, bravely tried another new activity.  Unfortunately, the four meter deep water was more than she was comfortable with and the full face mask unfamiliar, so after four attempts in which she clung to me in the water, she decided she would just see the fish from the boat.  Armed with some bread provided by our guide, she happily kept the fish fed as they swarmed around us snorkelers.

On the way back, we purchased some fish off a fisherman floating on the water in his dugout canoe, in order to feed the fish eagles, Malawi’s national bird.  The guide whistled loudly using his fingers and then called out something in Chichewa but ending with “eagle” in English.  Basically, he was yelling “hey fish eagles, over here, I got something for you.”  Incredibly enough the birds, perched on trees on the island some fifty feet away took off in flight as the guide tossed the fish on to the water, and the fish eagles gracefully swooped down, talons stretched out, to scoop up their treat.  Watching them was absolutely thrilling.

Oh, I forgot to mention that just before beginning our snorkeling endeavor, as I sat in a swing chair and C played on the private Pumulani beach waiting for the captain and other passenger to arrive, I saw a lodge staff member approach C and tell her something.  It looked like he was admonishing her and immediately afterwards she scampered up the stairs off the beach.  I called out to the staff member, asking if anything was wrong, and he told me only that there was a crocodile hanging in the water just off the other side of the beach.  I could have sworn someone had told me that the crocs and hippos, while possibly in the Lake, do not hang out near human settlements.  Just a few days at Pumulani was, quite literally, blowing that theory right out of the water.

For our last afternoon C enjoyed some more pool time; I enjoyed more time reading by the pool.  After another nice dinner we turned in, and slept like babies.  The next morning we did not want to leave.  It was not only the beauty of the location and the hospitality, but the people we met there.  On the final morning, all the guests were hugging one another and wishing each other well.  Pumulani is an extraordinary place that attracts extraordinary people.  There was the Danish doctor, now living in Sweden, who was in Malawi to look into possible work in the health sector.  He had also spent summers in Malawi as a teenager with his father, who worked for the Carlsberg factory in Blantyre.  He and his effortlessly beautiful wife, also a doctor, were very friendly and kind.  There was also the Brazilian-Austrian man with his Austrian-Swiss partner.  The former had come to Africa some ten years ago for a short internship and had stayed five years.  Finally, there was Garth, one of the managers, an amazing individual whose kindness and zest for life are so apparent.  If you visit while he is there ask him to share just one of his extraordinary life vignettes.

The visit to Pumulani was just what C and I needed.  As we prepared to depart I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  I am so thankful for the opportunity to live and work in this country, to have been able to visit a place of such beauty, to have crossed paths, even briefly, with the other people at the lodge, and to have had this time to spend with my wonderful daughter.

And that neither the hippo nor the croc nor that giant spider got us.

Zanzibar: A Spice Island Getaway

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Approach to Stone Town with the ferry

We needed a holiday.  I needed a holiday.  The head honcho told me it had been awhile since she had seen one in such need of a vacation as myself.  She was not wrong.  After a busy summer wearing multiple hats, followed by a visit by FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States), immediately followed by the visit of a member of Congress, I was desperate for more than a long weekend away.  I really love Malawi, but I needed a bit of time and distance away.

Zanzibar  It is one of those place names that evokes the exotic. It hints of history and adventure.  I have wanted to visit for quite some time and at last we would.  It did not hurt that it is one of the closest island beach places we can get to from Malawi.

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C getting lost in Stone Town alleyways

We flew to Dar es Salaam on a Friday evening.  We flew south to Blantyre, Malawi’s second city, and then back up to Dar.  We landed at 9 PM; its not my preference to arrive in a new place after dark, but we have to work with the few flights we have available, which often have less than ideal schedules.  I arranged for airport pick up and direct transfer to our hotel.  At nearly 10 PM at night there was little traffic, and as we whizzed down the road in the darkness I was struck that the road had four lanes, nicely white painted lines, and a flyover.  There is not a single flyover in all of Malawi (though one is currently under construction).  And it occurred to me we had not been outside of Malawi for five months.

The next morning we took a short taxi to the Azam Marine ferry terminal for our two hour trip to Zanzibar.  Arriving, the taxi was immediately surrounded by mesh-vested men, their vests I suppose declaring they work in some capacity there, but frankly, I thought, anyone can buy a vest.  I jumped out of the taxi quickly because I knew as soon as the trunk was open these guys were going to jostle one another to grab our suitcases.  I swooped in first, but made a quick calculation that we might be better off with one of these men than without, so made eye contact with one and nodded.  He took charge of the luggage and we followed swiftly behind.

Vested-man’s help got us to VIP luggage check and, what I can only guess is the equivalent of “economy-plus,” waiting area, a no-AC area just slightly less crowded than the waiting area for the masses, where I sat on a plastic chair and C sat on a cement stair.  Our two hour trip was uneventful and we slipped into the dock at Stone Town right on time at 11:30.  Here we went through immigration for the Revolutionary Republic of Zanzibar.  A psuedo-official looking woman told me to get our yellow fever certificates out, but then neither she nor anyone else actually asked for them again.

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Stone Town?  More like Cat Town.

I knew our hotel, the Doubletree, was located somewhere close by, about ten minutes on foot, within the rabbit warren of narrow streets, but I had no map.  Yet I knew approximately where to go and what it was near, so C and I headed off, each with a backpack and a rolling suitcase, through the gauntlet of “helpers” despite their warnings that it was “too far.”  At Forodhani Gardens I asked a group of three men the general direction and one opted to lead us with apparently only hope, but not a solid expectation, of a payoff.  Within five minutes we were checking in.

We settled in, had lunch at the rooftop restaurant with a beautiful view of rooptops and the sparkling Indian Ocean beyond, then headed out on our own walking tour.  We visited the Old Fort, walked past the under-renovation Palace of Wonders, sought refuge from the burning sun at the Sultan’s Palace now a historical museum, and then visited the finely decorated historic Old Dispensary.  Along the way we came across many, many stray street cats, much to C’s delight.  Just walking back from the Old Dispensary, we counted at least 20.  Cats quickly shot up to C’s favorite part about Stone Town.

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Walkway through the mangrove forest of Jozani

For our second day we headed out on a tour of Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, the only national park in Zanzibar.  It is the home of the endangered red colobus monkey, found only on Unguja, Zanzibar’s main island.  We drove for nearly an hour through the island’s villages.  Look for images of Zanzibar online and you will first find pictures of sparkling blue waters, dazzling white sands, palm trees, and beautiful people in beach ware.  Then you would find photos of the crumbly, colorful, crooked streets of Stone Town.  But there are few if any pictures of the island interior, the poor, tumbledown, desperate looking villages.  Looking around, I thought a lot about Malawi.  Zanzibar has 2.5 times the GDP per capita than Malawi, though Malawi has nearly 20 times the population.  I push the uncomfortable thoughts aside.

The park is lovely and green.  We take a short hike through the trees and are lucky to see blue monkeys and the red colobus.  We actually see quite a few, very close to the parking area.  Then we walk on a wooden walkway through a mangrove forest, catching sight of fish and crabs below us.  On the way back to town I have the tour guide drop us at an Italian place on the outskirts of historic Stone Town.  My daughter orders a burger — perhaps the best we have had in five months.  Following lunch, we head back into the maze, stopping first at the Old Slave Market, now a small, but extremely informative museum.  We slowly make our way back to our hotel — we count stray cats along the way.

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Doors of Stone Town

On our third and final day in Stone Town we opt for a spice tour, probably the most popular tour on the island.  And why not?  It makes perfect sense as Zanzibar is one of the original spice islands, a centuries old location of trade in cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cloves (one the world’s number one producer of cloves).  I worried C might grow bored, but the guide catered to her, giving her ample opportunities to try and guess the different spices we encountered.  He also wove grass handbags, headbands, and bracelets as we walked.  C did not want to wear them but was happy to put her beloved stuffie into the bag.  After our excursion and lunch, we again wandered the narrow alleys of Stone Town, visiting Jaws Corner, where old guys go to sit around and chat (and there is an old phone tied to a telephone poll with a sign advertising “free international phone calls”), the old Hammani baths, and the Mercury House, where lead singer of Queen Freddie Mercury spent some of his formative years, had mother/daughter henna designs painted on our hands, and I took pictures of more Zanzibar doors.  And we played with more cats.  Of course.

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One cannot deny how pretty the view is

From Stone Town we moved about an hour north to a resort on the western coast, the Sea Cliff Resort and Spa.  This was a real change of pace — from sightseeing around the island and walking around the historic city, to the leisurely pace of an all-inclusive beach resort.  Well, not quite beach, it isn’t called sea “cliff” for nothing.  Hanging out by the pool is not usually my thing.  I love sunshine and a view of sparkling ocean water, but I am very fair skinned…yet, my daughter loves the pool, the ocean, the beach, sunshine.  I try to make sure each vacation has something for each of us.

 

I had hoped we might do a few activities at the resort, but it turned out that few of them were actually held there, with the exception of horseback riding, one of the key reasons I decided on Sea Cliff.  C LOVES horses.  She envisions herself some kind of horse whisperer.  While at the age of 6, she has had more horse experience than I have, but it is still limited to horse-sitting other than horse-riding.  I also reserved the Sea Cliff because of its kids’ club.  A few years ago we visited the Dominican Republic; it was our first time at an all-inclusive and it was magical.  Before, an all-inclusive was the antithesis of what I looked for in a holiday, that is before I began traveling as a single mom.  Now, it is not always what I like to do, but I do like to throw at least one into the vacation mix every year if possible.

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No beach, but this lovely boardwalk out to a sunset pavilion made up for it

Unfortunately the kids’ club was under renovation.  And although they had moved it to another part of the resort, actually in the game room where there was a pool table and foosball, both things C likes to play, and they had a bouncy castle and trampoline, C was the only child dropped off at the kids’ club.  We saw other children at breakfast and dinner, but only one or two during the day.  Though I did drop her off a few times for only an hour or so, she preferred to sit in the back of the gym with her tablet while I worked out.  So we spent more time together than I had anticipated.  That is not a bad thing at all, of course, part of the purpose of the trip was not only to have some distance from Malawi and our usual routine, but to have quality mother-daughter time.  Unfortunately for us both, some work had followed me on vacation.

 

It is another of those small post realities.  I am the political officer but as we have a small State Department footprint, I also back-up the Economic and Consular officers.  The recent departure of the Management Officer (retired) without an immediate replacement, the Financial Management Officer (FMO) would need a back-up certifying officer… I only needed to take a 40 hour course and pass a four hour test before the FMO went on a two week training session the first week of November.  So while C had some pool time, I had some fiscal data time.

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C and I walk into the sunset on the back of horses

Still it was a beautiful place and we had some good time together.  Despite the work, it was a perfect holiday together.

Until we had to head back to Dar es Salaam.  Although C had been fine on the ferry over, we were not so lucky on the way back.  I had purchased business class tickets, which were exactly like the economy class seats we had on the way over, with the exception of their location on the boat.  I chose front seats, in front of the aisle and the television.  None of it mattered.  About 45 minutes into the trip, C declared she was not feeling so good and then without warning projectile vomited on her backpack, my backpack, the seat, the floor, miraculously missing most of herself.  A boat attendant was at our side in approximately 30 seconds with a roll of paper towels, apparently well-trained for such incidents.  I got C to the restroom at the back of the boat to clean her and our backpacks off.  We sat back down, only to 30 minutes later get to experience the whole magical experience again.  Except this time she made sure she got it all over her clothes and her stuffie and somehow in her hair.  There was only so much I could do to clean her up.

We disembarked in Dar rather smelly, others gave us a wide berth.  At least at first.  Once we stood ready to gather our two rolling suitcases and walk the 10 minutes to the hotel, we were suddenly the hottest tickets in town, no matter how much we stunk.  We probably just looked all the more pathetic and susceptible to “assistance.”  Men tried to grab out suitcases out of our hands and almost demand we accept their help.  My “No, thank you,” and “we are fine, thanks” were completely ignored.  Men on foot, and men in taxis, and men in other forms of transport pursued us.  At one point I was completely fed up and angrily told the man walking behind us that we were “JUST FINE” and to “PLEASE LEAVE US ALONE.”  And of course he said, “ok, ok, Hakuna Matata.” And I about lost it.

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Mother-Daughter henna

Perhaps the biggest annoyance of our visit to Dar/Zanzibar was the overuse of the swahili phrase appropriated by Disney for the Lion King so everyone knows it.  And very irritating “helpers” used this phrase to guilt tourists into coughing up money.  In Stone Town, while C and I followed signs around a corner to stairs leading to a Japanese restaurant, a “helper” appeared at our sides to “help” us find our way.  I told him repeatedly I did not need help, but he refused to go away, insisting “its my job. Hakuna Matata.”  His “job” to lead people where they already know they are going? No doubt, hoping I would slip him a few dollars (as if not more useful in Zanzibar as Tanzanian shillings).  I did not.  As I headed to a shop about 9 PM to get C and I some snacks a man began to videotape me with his phone, right in my face.  I asked him to get out of my way and stop recording, but he said I needed to “help him or let me die.”  At that moment I completely and utterly understood why a celebrity might punch a paparazzi.  But hey, “Hakuna Matata.”

We made it past the “helpers” and to the hotel, our sole thought to check in and clean up.  Maybe exercise — the gym for me, the pool for C.  Only to find out once in our room on the top floor that the hot water was not working, the hot water tank was on the roof, just above our heads, so while waiting in our executive floor suite we could hear every clang and bang of someone attempting to rectify the water situation.  The executive floor lounge was closed on Saturdays.  The pool and rooftop bar closed for renovation.  We were told two hours until the water would be fixed.  It took four.  C and I tried to make the best of it, but it was not easy.  Though I can laugh about it now.  Sort of.

Overall a good trip.  Overall being the key word.  Certainly not boring and a trip we will not forget.