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.

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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.

 

The Paris Excursion

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It was a trip loooooong in the planning.  We had easily been talking about it for a year.  I bought my plane tickets and booked my hotels six months beforehand.  It was Springtime, even Easter time, in Paris after all.  There was no time to waste.  We both had visited Paris in the past and this was just about seeing each other and introducing the kiddos to the City of Lights.  Single parent friends with a 25 year old friendship.

As the departure date grew closer, I began to have a few misgivings.  The forecast indicated cooler and wetter weather than we had hoped for.  And work, it was busy.  Very busy.  I began to think this could possibly be the worst time I could have chosen for a holiday.  But it was C’s school holiday.  Also, our first longish vacation since arriving in Malawi.  And, as one person told me, “croissants still taste good in the cold and the rain.”

We departed on a Friday.  Ethiopian Airlines from Lilongwe to Addis Ababa via Malawi’s second city Blantyre.  A two hour layover in possibly one of the worst airports in the world (Bole International Airport seems to be in constant construction mode), then a seven hour flight to Paris, arriving at 6:30 AM.  Yes, AM.  We both had the sniffles and had developed a cough, but we were no worse for wear.  After a wee bit of difficulty finding our shuttle to our hotel, we checked in before 10.  CZ and Little C, who also visited us in Shanghai, were already in Paris, though at a different hotel.  CZ reserved her hotel with points and had been able to redeem at the swanky Westin.  Swank was too dear for me, so I booked around the corner at half the cost.

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View toward Montmartre from the Roue de Paris

We met up and hit a sidewalk cafe for brunch.  It was simple.  Avocado toast.  Fruit salad.  Hot cocoa.  It cost a pretty penny but there is nothing like it in Malawi.  We headed then to the Tuileries where C and Little C enjoyed the carousel and trampoline park.  Next, we rode the Roue de Paris, the Paris Ferris Wheel, located at Place de la Concorde.  This summer the wheel will be disabled so I wanted to ride it before it is gone.

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I just wanted a picture of my kid on the carousel, but that metal scaffolding in the background…

Not having tired out our 6 and nearly 4 year olds nearly enough, we hustled them on to the metro and headed over to the Eiffel Tower.  We had no plans to go up but both kids wanted to see it.  And the moment when they caught sight of it — fantastic!  They were so taken it with it took a little convincing to get them to move along to the beautiful double-decker carousel across the street.  Several rides and a snack later they were satisfied.

Next up we planned to take the one hour cruise on the River Seine with the Bateaux Parisiens.  We could all use a little time off our feet and give the kids a good view of many famous landmarks.  But here is where we ran into our first bit of trouble.  The boats were running, but due to heavy rainfall the Seine levels were too high to take the usual route.  We declined.  We headed back to our hotels.

Day 2.  Easter Sunday.  We had been lucky to score tickets to an egg hunt and Easter festivities at the Parc Andre Citroen.  We had a late start in the morning – CZ and Little C still had jet lag and C and I had overnight-flight-itis.  It was also on the cold side and quite overcast.  Yet the Easter event turned out to be quite a lot of fun, and all for 5 Euros.  The kids took part in a super easy egg hunt and then turned in their eggs for a fabulous gift bag.  They also were able to play a few free games and pick up some more toys and books.  Afterwards though the plan had been to ride the hot air balloon (actually a gigantic helium balloon) that is also located in the park; however, due to high winds it was not operating.  The kids were happy to play at the park’s many playgrounds but I felt a bit grumpy to miss out on something else from my Paris 2018 must-do list.  We had lunch and headed over to the Paris Aquarium.  At least that was on my list (because I have a passion for aquariums — I am serious).

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The children play in the shadow of Notre Dame

By the third day, the sniffles C and I had acquired during our flights had turned into full on colds with hacking-up-lungs strength coughs.  Instead of admiring the Moulin Rouge as we awaiting the mini train to the top of Montmartre, I headed to a pharmacy.  I came all the way to Paris to go to a pharmacy… Then as I drugged myself and C and we waited for the mini train, C and Little C played on a giant sewer grate with air flowing up.  One of our best 30 minutes in Paris.  I kid you not.

The train ride was fun.  The massive crowds of people at the top, less so.  We grabbed lunch in the square.  C tried chocolate mousse for the first time.  Declared it delicious.  No doubt about it, it was really, really good.  The architecture beautiful.  The artists’ works amazing.  I had been to Montmartre in 1989 and 2003; I love it.  Yet the low temps, light rain, pushing a stroller on cobblestone through swarms of people, and our colds were getting to us.  We decided to locate the Dali Museum — CZ had read that kids actually respond well to Dali’s whimsical and quirky works of art and it would be a chance to be indoors for awhile.  We found it, but wouldn’t you know it, closed for renovation!  And then C had had it.  She had no interests in taking the funicular, no interest in finding the carousel.  Something is definitely wrong when my kid does not want to ride a carousel!  CZ and Little C stayed at Montmartre and C and I made our way back to the hotel for a nap.

I expect right about now everyone is really, really jealous of our trip to Paris.  Flooding, high winds, chilly temperatures, a closed museum, and taking care of a sick kid while feeling under the weather yourself.  It certainly had all the hallmarks of a magical getaway.  Then we learned of the transportation strike to be held over the next two days.  #winning

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C as Princess Anna in front of the Disneyland Paris entrance

On our fourth day luckily I was not the only tired mommy.  CZ too was flagging.  With the strike we were not sure of our transport options and wanted to stay close by.  Lucky for us we were staying in the heart of Paris, so we walked through the Tuileries to pass the Louvre and then over to Notre Dame to show the kids the church and gargoyles.  They oohed and ahhed and then made haste for the playground.  Given the state of the few playgrounds in Malawi, this still made our trip to Paris worth it.  Although it felt the coldest day so far, the restaurant in the Latin Quarter warmed us all right up.  It was cosy, crowded, with good food, and the waiter messed up multiple things on our order.  C’est la vie.

No worries.  The following day we headed to one of the happiest places on Earth: Paris Disneyland.

First though we needed transport.  We had had the idea to take the RER train to the Paris Disneyland station.  Kids love trains.  CZ and I love trains.  But there was the transportation strike.  Although both of us were beginning to think walking 15 minute from the hotel to the train station with 2 little kids, their strollers, and our luggage might be too much.  (OK, I was still convinced we could do it though I was strongly sensing CZ thought me off my rocker on this point.) So we booked an Uber – and we rode to our Disneyland hotel in the comfort of a sleek Mercedes van.  And the sky was blue!  And the weather warm!  C’s cough was gone!  The magic of Disney?

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I watched the kids so CZ could ride Space Mountain

I would like to say our 5 days at Paris Disneyland were idyllic, but any parent of a child would see right through that.  Little kids passing the Rainforest Cafe gift shop, the World of Disney, and LEGO stores every single day, not to mention all the goodies in Disneyland itself, is not a recipe for contentment — well unless the parent buys many of said goods.  C managed to wrangle a whole Princess Anna costume, including cloak, out of me.  She wanted the boots too but I negotiated for 2 LEGO sets instead.  Yeah, I have never been very good at haggling, clearly.  We all just had a really good time.

It was with great sadness that our final day in France arrived and we had to say goodbye to our friends (and to Paris and all it has to offer, which is, no surprise, different from Malawi).  C and I had our final dinner in Paris in the airport — at McDonald’s.  Don’t judge.  There is no McDs in Malawi.  Then we boarded our overnight flight from Paris to Addis Ababa.  We settled into our seats, preparing to start snoozing as soon as possible.  We watched the safety video, the flight attendants prepared for push back…

Then someone in the back of the plane, about ten rows back, started yelling.  In the first few seconds I will admit my thoughts went to terrorism — when someone in the back of the plane suddenly starts yelling “Listen up people!” once we are all buckled in, it is probably natural to think so.  But as he continued his purpose became clear “Help me!  I am a refugee.  They are taking me back to my country and they will kill me.”  He repeated this over and over and over in loud yelps.  He was a handcuffed deportee being escorted by 2-3 armed French police.  What was amazing — still amazing — to me is that so many other passengers inserted themselves into the drama.  Passengers were verbally sparring with the police officers and the flight attendants.  I am fairly sure in the US this would guarantee these passengers an escort off the plane.  But in this case, it did not.  Over time, other passengers came from the front of the plane to also throw in their two cents.  There was definitely a camp for the deportee and a camp against.  And no respect for the police or flight attendants.  It took over an hour to resolve the issue — the removal of the deportee from the plane.

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CZ watched the kids so I could get my hot air balloon flight at the Disney Village

Our Addis to Lilongwe flight too had a late departure.  No reason given.  I fell asleep soon after boarding only to wake up two hours later and find we were still on the tarmac!  As soon as we landed I sent a message to my nanny/housekeeper/driver who had come to pick us up at the airport.  She said she was there though not feeling very well.  I tried to get C and I through immigration and baggage claim and customs as quick as possible.  TJ, our nanny, waited outside.  As we walked to the car, she collapsed in the parking lot.  Malaria.  There I am after traveling for 14 hours with C, a cart with 2 suitcases, a stroller, a backpack, still with my racking cough that doubles me over, attending to my disoriented and very ill nanny lying in the parking lot.  I do not know where my car is — TJ has the keys in her hand but can barely talk or lift her head.  But a bunch of good Samaritans help us out.  One man runs through the parking lot with me looking for my car — my nanny had been able to whisper my license plate to him.  We find it and I drive quickly to where my nanny and C wait.  I had left my 6 year old and my handbag with my wallet and passport sitting on the luggage cart.  Two men helped TJ into the back seat.  Another put my luggage in the trunk.  And yet another got C into her car seat.

My nanny went to the hospital for four days.  I was diagnosed with a lower respiratory infection and stayed home from work for two days.

So wow, yeah, that was certainly not the Paris getaway I had planned.  Never a dull day for sure.  CZ and I cannot wait to plan our next trip!

 

The 2nd Home Leave Part 2

For whatever reason I have found it difficult to write this blog post.  And yet I knew I had to write it for if there were a Part 1 there had to be at least a Part 2, or in this case if there is a beginning to the Home Leave there then needed, eventually, to be an end.  Perhaps it is because this second part of the trip felt so much longer than the first?  From Charleston, SC we continued on with our trip – traveling from SC to Orlando, Florida, on to Lexington, Kentucky,  then to Salamanca, New York, and returning to northern Virginia – all told some 2,500 miles by car.  Or maybe because all of these miles driven have provided me ample opportunity to think on so many, many topics ranging from career trajectory, life choices, the meaning of family, an appreciation for things in the US often taken for granted (such as our incredible highway system or our extensive candy selections)?  Or because we have wandered through so many states, and different climates, and interacted with so many people?

Following Charleston, SC I drove us south to Orlando, FL.  It was time for more mother-daughter time.  Although I had of course made sure to include C-friendly activities in Charleston (the aquarium, the children’s museum, the horse carriage ride), it was on the itinerary more for me than her.  So I booked six (yes SIX!) days at a very kid-centric Waterpark Resort hotel.  Our room included a small kid’s room with bunk beds, bean bag chair and even a TV where C could watch Disney Jr–and I could actually watch my very own shows and news in the other room.  Be still my heart.  As C watched the giant bucket fill with water spill over the massive water slide center she jumped up and down and hugged me.  I had done good.

Our days there were filled with sleeping in and staying up late, playing games in the arcade, frolicking in the pool, playing a round or two of miniature golf, and challenging one another to races to the bottom of water slides.  We only left the resort twice — once so I could attend a timeshare presentation (oh indeed, I got suckered in, again!) and then the second time to SeaWorld to use those free tickets I had earned fending off the timeshare professionals.  It rained once briefly but afterwards C breathed deeply and declared the air even fresher and more beautiful than before.  The joys of not having to check the Air Quality Index!  We even had wildlife encounters with C delighting in spotting the anhinga (waterfowl) and turtles and fish that made their home on the resort’s pond.  Together we found a baby orange ringneck snake near the pool and a raccoon crossed our path one night as we walked the resort grounds.

I did realize one glaring mistake – the lack of child care!  I was sure when I booked this family friendly place that it included parent-friendly child care.  It did not.  As a single parent it meant I was “on” all the time.  C swims well but is still too young to swim or hang out in an hotel arcade unattended.  I thought back to the glorious resort we had stayed at in Thailand where C was finally old enough to play at the Kids Club without me.  I had all that free time to myself.  I was envious of the dual parents who could split child minding time.

From the waterpark resort we drove just a few miles down the road to the Art of Animation Disney hotel for more Florida fun.  My long-time (nearly a quarter of a century) friend CZ and her son met us there for single mom and kid fun at Disney.  It was at times hectic.  Despite us being two adults with two children it still sometimes felt we were outnumbered.  And yet we were able to tag-team parent in ways we on our own are unable.  One could get lunch while the other watched the children.  One could take the kids on a kiddy ride while the other could sneak off to enjoy a ride where the height restrictions were over 48 inches tall.  During a very brief moment both children were wiped out asleep in strollers and we grabbed a drink together at a poolside bar – my one drink of the year.

After five days we said farewell to CZ and son and we turned back north.  After an incredibly long and frustrating drive we stopped in Suwanee, GA to stay the night with my friend SG, who had been one of my roommates in Singapore where we had both been graduate students over a decade before.  This was not initially on our itinerary but SG had reached out to see if we would be passing by and when I checked our route I found it worked.  I struggle to describe how extraordinary social media can be to maintain linkages with friends from across one’s life.  But the ability to see someone in person and meet their family, even if for a short time, is unparalleled.

Our destination after Florida though was Kentucky, just south of Lexington, where C’s father lives.  C would spend four days and nights with him and his wife.  C was so incredibly excited, chanting “daddy! daddy!” the last few miles in the car and bouncing from one foot to the other as she stood on his front step after knocking on the door.  For me it was a little bittersweet.  Four days is the longest C and I have been apart, yet I know it is important for her to have the connection with her father.  After thirty minutes of catching up C desperately wanted me to leave so she could have her dad to herself.  I drove to a nearby hotel lobby to figure out what in the world to do with all of my free time.

Over the course of the next few days I visited the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park and Mammoth Cave National Park.  At the latter I took a two hour very non-5-year-old-friendly historic cave tour and 45 minute surface walk and talk.  I watched a non-animated film at a movie theater.  I went to a spa for a facial.  I toured Ashland, the Henry Clay estate.  I stayed in a historic hotel.  I listened to NPR in the car as I drove around and did not once have to hear how my backseat driver was tired of listening to all that talk, talk, talk.  I watched adult television shows without hearing a complaint about how boring it all was and could we now switch to kid TV?  On Facebook I took pictures of myself for a change and my friends noted I looked refreshed. I missed my chatterbox and caught myself numerous times pointing out cows and horses alongside the road to an empty backseat, but I also savored the quiet.  As an introvert I can say one of the things I miss most as a single mom is silence.

After picking C up at her dad’s we headed for Ohio.  We were on our way to New York but I had discovered in looking at our route we would pass by my cousin Lucky’s place.  I had messaged her and she was glad to have us stay with her for a night.  Lucky and her husband are accomplished artists and extraordinary people.  Their home, for lack of a better description, gives off an aura of happiness and positivity.  We enjoyed dinner out and breakfast in, and an impromptu art session on the living room coffee table.

Our next stop was upstate New York where C’s paternal family lives.  I again struggle for the right words to articulate how fortunate we are that they embrace us as they do.  Her father and I were never married, our pre-C relationship rocky and short-lived.  But his family welcomes us–they welcome me–openly.  We met with her grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin, whom we had met before, but also met another aunt and cousin for the first time.  Her grandmother’s brother stopped by to see “the girl” he had yet to meet.

From New York we returned to Virginia, to my aunt’s home for a few more days.  We collected the rest of our things and the cats and then moved into an apartment in Arlington to stay in through the end of my training.

I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to take a journey like this – to have both the time and the means.  All the gushing about Home Leave in the beginning piece is very much how I feel.  Not to say that somewhere around 2.5 weeks into this I had just about had enough.  I did, at times, find the driving monotonous.  I tired of hauling around our suitcases from one hotel or home to another and longed for some semblance of continuity and routine.  Yet for every thought about how nice it would be to just get some place and stay more than a few days there were ten or twenty thoughts about how I wish we had more time to see more of the country, to spend an extra day or two or three with a friend or relative.  Home Leave is the closest I get these days to my former backpacking self, who would spend weeks on end traveling around a country or from country to country, moving every day or two, sometimes deciding the next destination on a whim.

Still this home leave did feel more difficult than my first in the summer of 2012 for three reasons: child care, the timing, and politics.

In 2012 I, smart cookie that I was, arranged child care for then-2.5 year old C at most of our locations.  This included taking C daily to the Sheraton Waikiki daycare while we were in Hawaii, to the incredible drop in child care center in New Bern, NC, a community gym with child care in Pigeon Forge, TN, and friends and family who minded C so I could run in San Francisco, South Dakota and New York.  For some reason I neglected to work out anything this trip except when C was with her father or the one night she spent at her grandparents in NY.  This was a mistake.  I needed more downtime.

My first Home Leave lasted an amazing eight weeks after which I started 19 weeks of language training, then a week of consultations/pack-out/administrative tasks, to prepare for heading to Shanghai, where I would continue visa adjudications as I had in Juarez.  This time I had seven weeks of home leave, five of which I spent traveling, two I am spending in the DC area, before either seven to nine weeks of functional training, and then head to Malawi to take up a completely new position.  During the course of my home leave I fielded emails regarding the maritime shipment of my newly acquired car from Japan to South Africa then on to Malawi, the air delivery of my UAB (Unaccompanied Baggage) from Shanghai to Virginia, and reviewing advertisements, contacting references, and interviewing for child care in Malawi, among other things.  Truth be told I sometimes felt resentful these things encroached on my Home Leave.

Finally, this time the political climate is also different.  At this point I will remind the reader that my blog comes with a caveat – that the viewpoints expressed here are mine and mine alone and do not represent the State Department or any office of the Federal Government.  My blog is not political; I have strong opinions on things but I rarely state my views on social media.  Yet it would be disingenuous to say the current state of affairs does not directly and indirectly affect me–it does.  I have never been so attuned to political news in my life as I am now.   During my Home Leave I have consumed news and political commentary at an alarming rate.  It has been stressful.  And also strange because I am not currently at work.  But what I did do was to introduce myself and what I do to people I met along the way.  Not out of the blue mind you, but when asked “where do you live?” I answered honestly: That is not such a straightforward question.  I am a US Foreign Service Officer and currently between assignments.  I just returned from Asia and will soon be moving to Africa.  I am on my Congressionally-mandated Home Leave traveling around the US with my daughter.  And this opened the door to some incredible conversations.  Some did not know what a diplomat is or what they do.  Some thanked me for my service.  Some asked how they could become one themselves.  Outside a restaurant in Charleston I met a young man, waiting for a table with his wife, mother, and infant child.  His dream is to become a diplomat.  I gave him, a couple from New York I met at the Disney hotel pool, and a waitress at a pizza place in Bowling Green, KY my contact information.  At each National Park I thanked the Park Rangers for their service.  At Mammoth Cave I discovered one, a former Army Officer, also spoke Chinese.

It was an extraordinary five weeks.  Stressful.  Fun.  Tiring.  Eye-opening.  So many things come to mind.  Having now written out the trip I think the biggest thing I feel is gratitude.

Farewell, Shanghai

When I arrived in Shanghai there was a bulldozer parked on the sidewalk on one of my two ways to walk to work.  There it sat day after day after day, month after month.  Then the other day, two years and 31 days after I arrived in Shanghai, the bulldozer was gone.  It was like a symbol that my tour had come to an end.

Bucketlisting Bonanza

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The former Morris residence, built in 1917.  Built by Henry Morris, the owner of the North China Daily News, the first English newspaper in China.  Now part of the Intercontinental Ruijin hotel..

The last several weeks have been a whirlwind of final preparations but the bucket-listing has continued!  With spring arriving in Shanghai, bringing unpredictable temps (some days deliciously warm in the 70s and other days depressingly cool in the lower 50s) and rain, I played my bucketlisting by ear.  When we had an unexpectedly beautiful weekend I packed up C and headed to the French Concession to wander around the Sinan Mansions area, an upscale chic area of beautifully renovated 1930s era homes where you can also visit the former home and office of Zhou Enlai, now a museum.  Nearby there is the beautiful former Shanghai Official State Guest House and historic Morris home where many of the celebrity and historic elite of Shanghai once entertained and visited.

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The massive Chinese sailing junk in the middle of the China Maritime Museum

I took a day of leave so I could participate in C’s preschool field trip to the Zotter Chocolate Factory.  It was a long bus trip on a drab and dreary Shanghai day but I felt so happy to be able to take part with my daughter and the other parents.  I took C to the plaground at the historic Shanghai Children’s Palace just a few blocks down the street from our apartment.  We happened to catch the soft (re) opening of the Hard Rock Cafe.  The restaurant chain had been in Shanghai in the 1990s but closed in 2004 — but just re-opened, and again is located just a few blocks from our Shanghai apartment.  We went down to the international cruise port — nothing at all was happening there despite the information I had found on a Shanghai tourist brochure saying otherwise.  On another nice weekend we headed out to the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, reportedly one of the best zoos in China.  Hmmmm….I probably could have given it a miss though C loved it.  The enclosures were pretty good, the animals looked healthy, but it was the behavior of the other visitors, Chinese who ignored the signs EVERYWHERE, even broadcast on loudspeakers on loops, to not feed the animals, that made me crazy.  But it was on the bucket list.  Finally on our last weekend we headed WAY out (two hours by metro one way) to the China Maritime Museum out at Dishui Lake.  Though that far out it is still in the Shanghai municipality.  But it is a pretty cool museum.

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While not the entertainment complex as advertised, this interesting architecture at the Shanghai International Cruise Port was cool to see up close

In addition to the above I have in our two years in Shanghai visited:

  • Jing’An Temple
  • Jade Buddha Temple
  • Shanghai Aquarium
  • Nanjing Pedestrian Street
  • M&Ms World
  • Hengshan Moller Villa
  • People’s Park
  • Shanghai Museum
  • Shanghai Municipal History Museum
  • Shanghai Urban Planning Museum
  • Tianzifang
  • Shanghai Postal Museum
  • Propaganda Poster Museum
  • Oriental Pearl Tower
  • Bund Sightseeing Tunnel
  • Dishui Lake
  • Soong Qing Ling’s Residence
  • China Art Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • Fuxing Park
  • Sun Yatsen’s House
  • Fuxing Park
  • Shanghai Natural Wild Insect Kingdom
  • Science and Technology Museum
  • Soong Ching Ling Mausoleum
  • Shanghai Acrobatics show (at Shanghai Centre)
  • Jiangnan Shipbuilding Museum
  • Shanghai Himalayas Museum
  • Shanghai Circus World
  • Xintiandi
  • 5

    Samples at Zotter Chocolate Facotry

    Yu Gardens

  • Nanxiang Ancient Town
  • Moon Boat
  • Shanghai Glass Museum
  • Shanghai Legoland Discovery Center
  • Changfeng Ocean Park
  • Site/Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Party of China
  • NBA Playzone
  • Shanghai Astronomy Museum
  • Chenshan Botanical Gardens
  • Jewish Refugees Museum
  • City Sightseeing Bus
  • Huangpu River Boat Tour
  • Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum
  • Shanghai Disneyland (4 times!!)
  • Shanghai Tower
  • Jin Mao Tower
  • Shanghai World Financial Center tower
  • Century Park
  • Shanghai Public Security Museum
  • Power Station of Art
  • Lu Xun park, museum and masoleum
  • Duolun Cultural Street
  • Shanghai Railway Museum
  • Puppet show and exhibition
  • Film Museum
  • Yuan Dynasty Watergate Museum
  • The Bund
  • Telecommunications Museum
  • Rockbund Art Museum
  • Shanghai Children’s Museum

Not too shabby, eh?  There were other places we tried to visit but were denied.  For example, we visited the Shanghai Matchbox Museum, with it’s unique design to look like a giant matchbox.  Although the exterior remained, it had been closed and gutted, with furniture and exhibits strewn in front.  A visit to the only residence of Mao Zedong’s in Shanghai open to the public found it closed and under renovation.  Wild Animal Park, Shanghai Maritime Museum

There were also places we did not get to like the Shanghai Tobacco Museum (odd hours) and the museums for Chinese Traditional Medicine and the China Imperial Examination System, because, um, not only were they located in the suburbs but, um, not even a museum lover like myself could muster much enthusiasm for a visit.  Also as much as I like the odd Jackie Chan movie I did not visit the Jackie Chan Film Museum.  And I did not ride the Maglev train.  I gave myself multiple attempts to do it in the last few weeks when it was apparent I would never ride it to or from the airport (as we would have to walk to the metro, then ride to the Maglev transit point and then the Maglev itself) and in the end I simply did not want to pay to just ride a train, no matter how fast it was.

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Beautiful courtyard at the former Zhou Enlai office and residence at Sinan Mansions

We also did some travel further afield making it to Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou by train, and Beijing and Sanya (on Hainan Island) by plane.  Unfortunately our epic trip to Chengdu with friends was cancelled due to my unexpected month-long Medevac back to the U.S.  I am a bit sorry we did not make it there.  Yet honestly, two years and several months ago as I prepared for our travel to Shanghai I thought long and hard about my daughter’s age and travel in China and figured two places outside of Shanghai a year would be the minimum and we did that.  So all in all I feel good.  There is just an inexhaustible number of places to see and things to do in Shanghai and China that one really cannot do it all.  I feel C and I certainly made a dent though.

Saying Goodbye

Something I learned many years ago while studying cross-cultural psychology is the importance of saying farewell to places you live.  It is important to recall the things you will miss but also those you will not — the latter so one does not get too nostalgic for all the good things while sugar-coating the bad.  Every place has it’s positives and negatives.

What I will surely miss:

My daughter’s preschool.  I was not previously sold on preschool.  It is not covered by the educational allowance and in Shanghai it is not an inexpensive proposition.  I did not attend preschool as a child and somehow I did alright.  But I am ever so glad I took the leap (and opened my wallet) because the Shanghai Centre preschool is amazing.  My daughter was a smart, verbal, imaginative, creative, thoughtful Chinese-speaking child before preschool but this school tapped into something she was not getting at home with only her nanny (and me, let’s be honest).   Somehow in three hours a day her two incredible teachers, through play time, song, crafts, and snacks taught leadership, cooperation, kindness, and personal expression.  And to top it off, although parents were not allowed to drop in, at the end of each week the teachers shared some 50 to 80 pictures of the children learning and at play alone and with classmates.  I look forward to those photos every Friday night when I get home from work.  For any parent who has asked their child “what did you do today?” and if lucky received a few sentences and at worse a sullen “nothing” and a shrug, this is like gold.  I kinda want to give her teachers in Malawi a disposable camera each Monday to record the week.

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This is where we lived.  Yeah.  Pretty awesome.  Still counting my lucky stars.

Our apartment/complex.  The 15 minute door to door commute on foot.  The location on one of the oldest commercial streets in Shanghai and between two metro stops on one of the first and arguable most convenient metro lines (Line 2).   Consistently awarded as one of the city’s best serviced apartments in the city’s original multi-purpose skyscraper complex.  What is there not to like?  This is where statesmen stay and celebrities get married.  This is where they hold waffle making and bench press competitions and Zumba-thons.  This is where I do my grocery shopping, eat at restaurants, see the doctor, have my hair cut, my nails done, work out, and where C has had her swim and ballet lessons, her preschool and her Kids’ Club activities.  There is a monthly farmer’s market and annual back-to-school and Christmas markets among others.  Every day I come home to a beautiful 19th floor apartment with views across one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

The city.  Shanghai may not have the thousands of years history of Beijing but it is still a historical city that has played a prominent role in world events.  And still there is SO much happening here.  This is where the entrepreneurs – whether Chinese or foreign – set up their businesses.  The Shanghai subway system–16 lines and counting–is fast, efficient, inexpensive, and can get you just about anywhere you need to go.  The juxtaposition of modernity with history, tradition with innovation, is on display everywhere in Shanghai.  Walking the streets of the former French Concession, where my apartment complex is located, is all of this right up in your face.  That was not always a negative feeling.  It is thought-provoking and astonishing and humbling.  I loved the energy of Shanghai, even if some days it wore me down.

The people. I had the opportunity to work with some of the absolute best officers in the Foreign Service and most proficient locally employed staff anywhere (though the local staff of Juarez were without a doubt also top-notch).  The level of professionalism, creativity, efficiency, and innovation on display every day in the visa section was amazing.  It was sometimes exhausting and did not give us a lot of time to get to know one another, and yet on occasion I had the chance to talk more at length and get to know some very extraordinary people.   And these were just some of the people I had the pleasure to get to know.  Even the  random strangers who helped me when out and about with C.

What I will not miss:

Poor Air Quality. I know there are places in the world with worse air quality.  Heck, there are places in China that have it much worse.  But still it is a drag.  It is checking the Air Quality Index on the computer or phone.  After only a short while here you do not need to check the AQI to know it is a bad air day, but you check the AQI to know how bad.  It is that we have air masks to wear (although after awhile I stopped wearing mine — since I wear glasses and the worst of the poor air quality days come in winter, when I wear the mask my glasses fog up and I have to choose between breathing better or seeing where I am going) and we have air purifiers running 24/7 in each room in the apartment and also at work.  As an asthmatic who has to use my inhaler more frequently here than in other places.  It is not awful, but I would generally prefer to live somewhere this is not an issue.

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What do you mean I cannot feed this lemur?  A sign?  Where? I do not see any signs.

Crowds. I am never alone.  Granted no matter where I would have been in China at this time in my life, coming with a 3 year old and leaving with a 5 year old, I find it nearly impossible to be alone.  But in a city of some 24 million it really is not possible.  Even if you take off a random Tuesday from work, leave your child with the nanny, and head to a museum, said museum will still be full of people.  It might not be jam-packed, but you will not be alone.  And in crowds people push.  In my last several weeks in Shanghai I have been very much reminded of this — as I forced us to go out and see these last things on the bucket list and we ride the metro or trains and get in lines.  People push and people jump the line.  The Chinese culture reveres children and my daughter gets a LOT of attention – some positive and some negative.  But it amazes me how many times when standing in line how someone has not only walked right up and stood in front of me, but they have stepped over my daughter’s stroller to do so.  And when I cough loudly or tap that person on the shoulder and ask them, in Chinese, why they thought they could stand in front of me, the answer is almost always “I didn’t see you there.”  It seems impossible you could miss us, particularly when going out of your way to step around or over us, and yet it has happened so often that I begin to wonder if it could be true?  This is not everyone — as I noted before I see a real change in the culture for waiting ones turn — and yet it still happens far too frequently for my taste (its a big pet peeve of mine).

And what about adjudicating all of those visas day in and day out?  I do not yet know how I feel.  As you probably know I am a Political-coned officer who has yet to serve in a political position.  I have instead served in the Consular section at two high volume visa posts – in fact two of the largest in the world.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about it.  Too many to go into now.  But there are things I enjoy about visa work, things I find satisfying.  But also the volume in Juarez and Shanghai…there were just some days I had a hard time with it.

My final Shanghai tally is:

Total visa adjudications: 52,178

Total hours scheduled to interview: 1,208

Total fingerprints taken: 15,834

The numbers make my end of Juarez post about the 10,000 club seem naive.  I have adjudicated over 71,000 visas in my four years as a visa officer.  Whoa.

The final weeks were stressful and bittersweet and, if I am honest, a teeny bit boring.  I had fewer responsibilities at work and could not volunteer for new ones.  At home I had only the final packing to do and I did it half-heartedly.  Even on the last day, which I took off work, I went into the office “for just a few minutes” because I could not stand a moment longer packing the suitcases.  Then suddenly it was time to go to the airport. It was time to bid farewell to Shanghai and head off on the next adventure.

Single Parent in the FS: DC Childcare Trials

In September 2011 I placed my 17 week old fetus on the Foreign Service Institute Child Care Center waitlist.  Yeah, you read that right.  Only a handful of people even knew I was pregnant – my sister, my aunt, a few friends, my doctor, my A-100 coordinators, two other pregnant FSOs in my A-100 class, my Career Development Officer…it was an interesting time.  So as weird as it was it also sort of made sense to find myself filling out a child care form for my yet-unknown-gender Baby C.

Arranging child care in America is hard.  If you do not have a child or know someone with a child or have never seen a news story on this topic, then crawl out from under your rock and Google it.  Finding child care in the Washington, DC area is notoriously difficult.  Summer is especially hard as kids are out of school.  Try finding short term child care in the Northern Virginia area in the summer as a single parent while living half a world away…  It is like buying a book of Sudoku puzzles and skipping right to the Expert Samurai level at the back of the book.

I never got off the waitlist.  When I signed up we were number 17 on the waitlist, when I checked in December, at 31 weeks, I felt hopeful when I saw were were number 5.  That is until they told me there was no chance that would change; the next openings were in May, several months after my due date.   Other places in the area wanted non-refundable deposits of between $100 and $250 to place my unborn child on their waitlists.  Just to be on a waitlist, no guarantee.  These same ones also wanted to schedule meet and greets and I wondered how that worked for kids still in the womb.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I had other things going on in my life besides trying to find a child care provider.  I had a job (learning Spanish for my upcoming assignment).   I had homework.  I had friends.  I met up with my family.  I was pregnant.  Yet the child care problem hung over me until I could find a solution.  My mother started to talk about retiring.  I mentioned I might have a little something for her transition.  I lucked out.

Fast forward two years later.  It is January.  I am preparing for my departure from Mexico six months later and training at FSI to begin nine months later.  Once again I am put on the waitlist for FSI.  I am not particularly hopeful.  I call FOUR additional child care centers in the vicinity of the housing unit I am likely to be placed.  ALL of them tell me that unfortunately they have no space.  Nine months before I even arrive they all already know there will be no space in their two-year-old class.  I opt to move further out and deal with a 50-minute one way commute so I can put my daughter in a place that has space and again, luckily, near my parents.

So once again I recently found myself returning to FSI for seven weeks of training.  The first three and last three will be at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia but the fourth week will be in West Virginia.  I start looking online for in-hotel babysitting services or a company that will send sitters to hotels in that city in West Virginia.  Nothing.  After days of this I reach out to my sister and she agrees to have my daughter over for an extended play date/sleep over with her kids for five days and five nights.  Right after returning home from her ten year anniversary trip in Jamaica.  I lucked out.  My sister and brother in law are saints.  I felt so relieved having found a solution for what I thought was the hardest part.  I was wrong.  Once again in January I began making the dreaded calls and emails.   But third time is supposed to be the charm, right?

I call the first place.  It is located only 5 minutes walk from where we will live.  The website is great.  They receive high ratings.  Sounds amazing!  I call and am told right off the bat they have space.  I am over the moon!  Wow, right out of the gate.  I tell them I will hand over my left kidney if I can receive the registration papers now.  They say ok.  But then I ask how much it costs per week.  They tell me they do not have a weekly rate but the monthly tuition is $1770.  That works out to be $442.50 a week.  For two weeks my daughter will not even be there.  Not loving it.

I call the second place.  It is also within walking distance, maybe 15 minutes.  I talk to a very nice gentleman for 20 minutes.  There may be space but they are reserved first for Arlington County workers.  I am asked to sign up for a waitlist, and I do (it’s FREE!) but I never hear from them again.

I call the third place.  This place is cheaper than the first two ($385 a week) AND charges by the week.  It is further away, but only two metro stops and a short walk or a quick drive.  I have a really great conversation with one of the directors and am told they do have space and we can register soon.  I am SO happy.  It took a bit of research and I had to stay up a couple of nights to make the call (thirteen hours time difference – during daylight savings – folks!) but only the third call and I have found the place.  Hooray.

I email them right away.  The next day they respond.  FYI, they casually mention, we are not actually enrolling any children after May 31 because we are moving locations soon and we do not yet know where.  <sound of record playing stopping>  Wait, what?  I most certainly mentioned dates — first thing — the evening before.  It was if I were being punked.  Except I wasn’t.

Some friends suggested I sign my daughter up for summer camps.  That sounded like a great idea.  Except as it has been a long time since I have had the summer off from school and my daughter is not yet old enough, I do not really have a concept of summer.  And it turned out the summer camps begin June 19.  My training begins June 5.

So I call another place and they tell me their five-year-old class is currently full but the can take my name and contact me after Memorial Day.  Right, after Memorial Day.  May 29.  My training begins June 5.  That is not. going. to. work.

I call several more places and sign myself for the FSI child care center waitlist yet again.  I also contact the WorkLife4You number — it is a resource and referral service for State Department families.  They can assist with medical, financial, attorney referrals, school information, and even to help with finding child care centers with openings.  Getting close to my wit’s end I call.  The woman I speak with for about 30 minutes makes me feel like she really,  really cares and she is going to do everything in her power to help.  She tells me she will contact me in about two days with the information — however after a few days I instead received an email saying she was still working on a solution and it would take several more business days… Even the professionals were stumped.

After lots of thinking I decide to sign my daughter up for four weeks of summer camp with the before and after camp extended hours option.  I found the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer who does occasional babysitting willing to watch my daughter for two whole weeks.  The first week I would pay out of pocket and the second week I would utilize our five days of annual emergency back-up care (a State Department benefit), filing for reimbursement.  So it would look like the following:

Week 1: At babysitter’s house (out of pocket)

Week 2: At babysitter’s house (for reimbursement)

Week 3: Summer camp 1 with extended hours

Week 4: My sister’s house

Week 5: Summer camp 2 with extended hours

Week 6: Summer camp 3 with extended hours

Week 7: Summer camp 3 (continued!) with extended hours

Sure it was complicated.  Sure, I would have to keep reminding myself where I should be driving my daughter and picking her up.  But I had found child care for all seven weeks!

Then I received an email from the FSI Child Care Center.  My daughter was being offered a spot!  I read it, and re-read it.  It was like my kid just got into Harvard.

The email said I needed to call the next day, which given I live 12 hours in the future meant I needed to call that night.  I could hardly wait.  I was so excited.  OK.  Maybe I should dial it back.  I wasn’t that excited.  I totally have other things going on in my life.  Really.

So I call.  I am again informed my daughter has a spot.  I say I want it, but I have a few questions.  I was being offered a slot starting in May, two weeks before my training even begins.  That seems off.  I explain I would technically still be on Home Leave at the time but ask if I could still get a spot.  And the pause came…. Um, wait, your training doesn’t begin in March?  Um, no, it begins in June.  Oh, I see….Hmmmm…..I must have written down your information incorrectly….let me see….could you hold…. And I held for what seemed an eternity. I felt my child care dreams slipping away.  It was okay, I told myself, I had that other ten step plan ready for execution.  No problem.  She came back.  Hello?  This is Laura*, right?  (*name changed to protect me from Laura*).  Ummmmm…..no.  Oh, I see…. Another pause.  I wrung my hands.  I could feel the “I’m sorry, but….” coming.  I braced for it.  And then, “well, I already offered you the space, so it is yours if you want it and send in the deposit.  We will make it work.” (Sorry Laura*)

I will lose the camp deposit on all three camps and must pay for the week my daughter is at my sister’s.  There are somewhere around 100 forms to fill out and turn in (Ok, maybe only seven….).  No worries. We have a spot in the best place possible.  My daughter and I can ride the shuttle to FSI together; I can visit at lunch.  My DC child care trials appear to be resolved this year.*  Next up: finding child care at the next post!

*Disclaimer: I knocked on wood, threw salt over my shoulder, crossed my fingers and my toes, and waited until I had the confirmation email of receipt of my deposit before posting.

 

 

 

No G20 For Me (and Other Stories of Single Parenthood in the Foreign Service)

It has been a year and a half since I was approached to write an essay on being a single parent in the Foreign Service.  That essay was a revelation for me.  It made me reflect on, for the first time, what it meant to be both in the Foreign Service and a single parent.  It also connected me with other single parents serving in the US government overseas as I sought out advice and other viewpoints for the essay.

About a year after the publication of the first essay I was again approached to write on the topic for another book.  I had the option of just reprinting the original essay or updating.  Initially I thought, not much has changed—I am still in the same location and my daughter had yet to start school—so what more could I write about?  But then I thought about it and I realized I did not have to think all that hard to come up with more material.

keep-calm-and-single-mom-onOne of the first new challenges came early in fall 2015 when I had to make the difficult choice to be medically evacuated to Singapore for several days without my then-3 year old daughter.   I know, I know.  I am still trying to come to terms with how that particular scenario came to pass.  There was certainly pressure on me to leave her behind because it would be “easier” to do so, though easier for whom I never really understood.   I initially fought to take her.  I insisted that she would be included on my travel orders and I was successful.   I then tried to find child care, which is what proved impossible.  There was a high likelihood I would be hospitalized, though the time frame—maybe a few hours, maybe overnight, maybe a second night—was uncertain.    Although there were several hotels in Singapore listed to have babysitting services, not only were they all the most expensive in the city-state and well above the government reimbursable rates, and while I would be hospitalized the hotel would not be covered anyway, but how do you arrange a sitter for an indeterminate amount of time?   So instead her nanny stayed with her overnight three nights and two other single Foreign Service parents served as Power of Attorney, checking in on her and emailing me daily.  It was not easy – I thought a lot about the fact I was separated from my young daughter not only for several days but also by international boundaries at least a five hour flight away.  Now, I am not 100% sure of the right way through what happened but I know I will be a better advocate for us both should it happen again.

By the following summer I was presented with yet another challenge.  The G-20 was coming to Hangzhou, China, within our Consular coverage area.  Oh, how I wanted to volunteer to assist in any way I could.  As a Foreign Service officer, assisting with such multi-national organizational meetings is part of what we do.  As a political officer, particularly one who has yet to serve in a political position, it would mean so much more.  And yet I had to be realistic.

In my original essay I had said something along the lines of it not being necessary for the single parent to put his or her hand up for every volunteer opportunity because their colleagues are not.  I was wrong.  Some of my colleagues were and are.  Some of them seem to have inexhaustible reserves of time and energy.  Many of those doing so are single without dependents, but not all of them.  Many are also married and some have children.  I cannot compete.  But honestly I do not have to.  I will not say it has been easy to come to terms with these limitations and to be strategic in what I volunteer for; it has not.  But I stand by my original advice to be realistic with oneself, to set expectations, and to have a straightforward conversation with your supervisor.   I may have missed out on the temporary duty opportunities to Hangzhou and India and Haiti and Ecuador and around China, but I found other meaningful and equally important ways to support our mission.  And although I did not get a picture of myself with the US President, I did walk my daughter to preschool on her first day, something I would have missed if I had been at the G-20.

working-parent-aheadPreschool, that was my next test.  My first experience with the preschool came in the form of the email requesting payment of tuition.  The entire 17,000 RMB (US$2474) tuition and 1000 RMB (US$145) registration fee were to be paid in cash on one of two days between the hours of 9 and 9:30 AM.   Although the letter noted that should someone be unable to pay the tuition on the stated days and times then one could notify the committee and they will try to make alternative arrangements.  “Try” seemed the operative word – implying the parents who were unable to pay on those dates and times were inconveniencing the committee and it would be at the discretion of the committee to be accommodating.  Wow.

Recently the preschool teacher sent out a message to all the parents to ask for volunteers to teach a cultural class each day for a week.  The message went out on a Monday for classes two weeks later, after the Chinese New Year.   I would have loved to have participated. Unfortunately, my job required me to submit my requested leave dates for the August 2016-February 2017 time period last June!  It is not impossible to change, but it can be denied.  This very issue nearly derailed my attempt to attend the preschool Christmas pageant when the date was abruptly changed two weeks beforehand despite being on the calendar the previous three and a half months.

I had expected to feel some pangs of jealousy missing out on a few school activities, but I have had other unexpected negative feelings.  The very narrow and specific times to pay the tuition and the sudden rescheduling of the Christmas pageant (seemingly to accommodate the travel schedule of one parent on the preschool committee at the expense of others) felt at best just inflexible, based on some kind of outmoded idea of family.  At worst…well, maybe I will leave that to your imagination? I am still working out how I feel, but one thing I did realize is that my experience in this area is not unique to single parenting, but is part of a broader challenge to working parents.

In all of this my daughter C and her friends are becoming more aware of differences in family structures.  While trick-or-treating I overheard one of C’s school friends ask “How come you don’t have a dad?” And C, not yet 5 years old, responded matter-of-factly “I have a dad but he doesn’t live with us.  He lives in Kentucky.”   Although I will say that particular moment warmed my heart, I was feeling much less confident when just before the Christmas pageant she burst out crying because it would be the nanny and I attending not her father and I.  The outburst came out of nowhere and hit me like a cast iron pan to the head.   In these issues too I am not alone.

support-just-aheadNow I am in the middle of preparing to move us – myself, my daughter, our two cats, and our stuff – across three continents in a matter of four months, I am reminded again of the Herculean effort Foreign Service Officers put in to move themselves from Point A to Point B.  That is not to say we have no help, but we do a surprising amount on our own.  I am not going to say it is harder as a single parent – every FSO whether single, married, with children or some other permutation, has equal but different challenges.

Here though is where I circle around and mention again the connections I have made that have helped make single parenting in the Foreign Service easier (not easy, just easier).  The affinity group myself and a colleague started has in just two years grown from a handful of members to over 80.  That may not seem like much but it makes a difference to me and our members to know we are not single parenting in this career alone.  Beyond a support group I have also found allies and advocates.  These may be former single parents, those raised by single parents, or just plain awesome people who acknowledge my situation, support me, and lift me up.  I have been extremely fortunate at my current post where I not only serve with other single parents but also have received friendship and encouragement from two former single parents and seven, yes, SEVEN colleagues who came forward to tell me they were raised by single parents.   And they became diplomats!

Of course there is more to come!  Childcare while I am training in DC remains a challenge without resolution.   And soon enough we will arrive in a new country where I will start a new job, need to find a new nanny, and C starts kindergarten.   Whew.  At least so far, so good.