A friend of mine asked me just today how I was finding living in Conakry. I did not have a great answer. I said it has been ok. And it has been. Really. It has also been challenging. There have been days when I thought I would hit this milestone, three months here, and say “Three months down, only thirty-three to go!” The truth is I have not yet formed an opinion. I am only beginning to get into the swing of things.
It is no secret that Guinea can be a challenging place to live – for Guineans and expatriates alike. The State Department does struggle with getting personnel to serve here; it is what is called a “historically difficult to staff” (HDS) post. To recruit Foreign Service Officers to work in Guinea there are extra financial incentives. There is a high post differential (currently a 30% bump in pay) and also an additional 15% bonus if one agrees to stay a third year at this two-year posting. Even with these extra monetary inducements there are still vacant positions.
I do not know, however, what all has been difficult because it is Guinea or because it is hard to move and to start over in a new job in a new country. I have lived in challenging places before. Each of my tours with the Defense and State Departments has had some difficult aspects from Jakarta (25% post differential; terrible traffic, terrorist attacks, religious and ethnic divides) and Ciudad Juarez (10% post differential , 15% danger pay; gang and narco-trafficking violence, desert dryness, major visa post), to Shanghai (15% post differential; language/cultural differences, lots of crowds, major visa post) and Malawi (25% post differential when I arrived; one of the poorest countries in the world, limited flights in and out, limited entertainment venues in town). Now though I think of all of these places with great fondness. They were all good tours.
I arrived in Conakry at the tail end of June, part of the “summer transfer season” that sweeps embassies and consulates worldwide every year. This past summer seems to have particularly transitional for our embassy in Conakry. I think my experience of it was exacerbated by the timing of my arrival. Many staff were on their way out. I would meet someone and he or she would tell me, “I am leaving tomorrow/next week/next month.” In other cases, the person incumbering the position had already departed and the incoming officer had yet to arrive, leaving gaps. I struggled to complete the Embassy check-in procedures because there was either no one to check in with or the person was soon on their way out. This contributed to the isolating feeling I already had as a newly arrived employee.
At my previous tour, in Malawi, we arrived mid-August. At the end of that week, the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) organized a “sips and snacks” event at a colleague’s house where all Embassy staff and families could join. Just three weeks after arriving, our social sponsor and family took C and I on a weekend trip in the south of the country. Five weeks after arriving, the Ambassador held a welcome picnic at her residence for all the Embassy, new and old, to meet one another. Eight weeks after arriving, C and I joined a CLO-organized safari trip in Zambia over a long weekend. And around three months after arrival, C and I took our first trip to Lake Malawi.
Nothing remotely like any of this has happened yet in Guinea.
Besides my early summer arrival date being likely at least party at fault for the rougher start, there is also the rain. Guinea has two seasons: hot and dry and hot and wet. The wet, rainy season is very, very wet. I recall reading somewhere that Conakry is the fourth rainiest capital in the world. The monsoonal season begins in late May/early June. For context, the annual rainfall for Washington, DC, is 43 inches; for Conakry it is 149 inches. Conakry may see as much rainfall in the month of July as DC gets all year.
That is not to say that there are not nice days. There have been some gloriously bright sunny days. In fact, our first week in country was deceptively rain-free. The accumulation of this amount of rain though also has its affects on soil and infrastructure. I do not know what the roads here might look like when its the dry season. In Malawi at least there were some attempts to fix roads and fill potholes that had eroded during the rains. That may or may not happen here. Right now though many of the capital’s roads are in poor shape and easily flood making the traffic situation and travel more challenging.
For me, it feels like it is taking longer to settle here. One reason may be the longer time it has taken to receive my effects. My Household Effects (HHE) arrived a little less than eight weeks after we arrived in Conakry. That is pretty good. However, the unaccompanied baggage (UAB), the smaller air shipment that is supposed to be items you want as soon as possible, that took 11 weeks to get to Conakry. At my other posts, UAB arrived pretty quickly: Ciudad Juarez (it was in my entry when I arrived at my new home!), Shanghai (2.5 weeks after arrival), and Malawi (12 days after arrival). Granted the pandemic and the residual staff shortages and global logistic and supply chain issues have led to longer shipping times. Still, I had not expected to wait so long.
No matter where one lives, having a place to come home to that is safe and comfortable and reflects your interests is key. In a tougher place like Guinea, that is arguably even more important. Now, though I am beginning to make this house more our home, there are also still quick a few boxes and piles of items around. We are still awaiting the supplemental HHE, the secondary shipment of items from the US. There will be more to unpack, sort through, and organize.
In the Foreign Service, the conventional wisdom is that it really takes six months before one can begin to truly feel at home in a new place. By that measure, I still have time to ease into the life here. Guinea and I are still trying to get to know one another.
No matter how many times one moves in the Foreign Service, it is never quite the same. As much as one tries to prepare and learn from previous moves, each one is its own beast. It does not get any easier, it just becomes different.
Unlike in moves past, where I was working or in training right up until our PCS (Permanent Change of Station, aka moving day, aka the actual day or days of travel from one location to another), this time I opted to take some leave between training and our departure. I had had an inkling way back when I was organizing my PCS travel orders around April 2021, when I had to lay out a day by day plan my PCS from Malawi through to Guinea, that I might want some time off on the back end. After nine months of training online, through Zoom, much of it trying to learn French, I did indeed need a break before heading to Conakry.
Wait, how does that work? Well, between each overseas tour a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (FSO) has Congressionally mandated time off called Home Leave. That time must be spent in the United States and is intended to reacclimate and re-expose the officer to their home country. For each year in a post overseas, an officer earns 15 days of Home Leave. An officer is expected to take at least the minimum of 20 days of Home Leave between overseas posts (which can be combined with training) with a maximum of 45 days of Home Leave. And this does not include weekends or holidays! In my opinion, it is one of the best and most important benefits we have as FSOs.
Over the course of my now 11-year career, I have taken several permeations of Home Leave. Between Juarez and Shanghai, I took eight weeks as I had also earned Home Leave days while serving with the Department of Defense at our Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Then between Shanghai and Malawi I took about seven weeks, using the last two to move into our training housing two weeks early (on my dime) to help us settle in a bit. Well, as much as you can settle into a place you will only live in for three months. In Malawi, we took a mid-tour home leave of 17 days when I extended for a fourth year, for which I had to seek a waiver to less than the 20 mandated days. This time, I opted for the first time to split Home Leave, with some taken before training and the rest after.
At first it was a whirlwind few weeks. I had my (very stressful) French exam, then final shopping and packing before the actual pack-out day (when the movers actually come and box everything up), then moving out of the State Department provided housing, and then our ten day trip out to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks that ended in an unplanned early departure to escape the flooding. Then we had 12 more days until wheels up.
As we no longer had State Department housing, I moved us into a hotel room with kitchenette close to Dulles Airport, from which we would fly out. Myself, my daughter, our cat, and our four large, hastily packed suitcases. I had started off our pack-out preparations with some more thought-out suitcase arrangements but as the day grew closer, I just started tossing things haphazardly into them. I figured one project for our final 12 days would be trying to rearrange them into some semblance of order. I would say I half succeeded. At one point I simply gave up, realizing the suitcases looked the same from the outside whether they were packed neatly or chaotically inside.
It was a bit of a relief to only have the final PCS preparations on my to-do list for those last 12 days. That is not to say they were stress-free (they were not), but they were less stressful and messy than in the past. With COVID cases again rising and our departure looming, I tried to keep our interactions somewhat limited. Although frankly it was more an issue of low energy on my part. As a single FSO all of the PCS preparations fall to me and that combination coupled with all the energy I had needed for nine months of online training and the energy reserves I was trying to stockpile for the upcoming move and adjustment to a new job and new country, well I very much needed the down time.
I did take C back to one final day of school. For us to have the Grand Teton and Yellowstone trip at the beginning of Home Leave and not just before departure, I had pulled her out of school early. In my mind it was education, once in a lifetime, and a chance for us to bond with each other and with my aunt. Yet C had formed some strong bonds with her fourth-grade class and though she welcomed having less math, she lamented leaving her friends a bit early. When her fabulous teacher suggested to me that C make one final guest appearance on the next to last day of school, for Field Day, I had to make it happen. I also arranged for a play date with three of her best classmates the following week that started out with a few hours hanging out at a playground, then taking them all to see the new Jurassic Park movie, and then a final hour hanging out at one of the friends’ houses. I really cannot thank those girls’ moms enough for letting their girls spend a day with us. FSO kids live amazing lives, but they also move a lot, and that is really hard, too.
One of the biggest items on my PCS prep list was organizing the cat’s travel. Moving abroad with a pet is never, ever, ever easy. There are always last-minute documents needed that no amount of preparation can truly prepare one for. Recent changes wrought by the pandemic and the US’ own Center for Disease Control ban on dogs entering the US without significant extra paperwork, had only made things more difficult. Lord knows we have done this before. My diplo-cat Kucing is very well traveled having been born in Indonesia and moving from there to the US, then Mexico, then back to the US, then China, then back to the US, then to Malawi, then back to the US. This last move would prove no less stressful.
Back in January I had learned that the EU had instituted new rules beginning this year that pets – dogs and cats – transiting the EU would be subject to the same rules as if they were entering the region. And that animals from any country deemed at high risk for rabies would require a titer test to transit. Initially the regulations were not well promulgated, and it was not clear if we would have to meet the latter requirement. Therefore, I had Kucing’s rabies updated a few months early, back in February, in case the titer (which needs several months lead time) would be needed. Thankfully, travel from the US did not trigger that rule. Still, I would need an import certificate for both Guinea and the EU signed by a veterinarian and endorsed by USDA-APHIS. Though Guinea would accept an electronically signed certificate, the EU would only accept an in-person signature.
The certificate paperwork cannot be completed any earlier than 10 days before travel. Many veterinarians, having just returned to pre-pandemic scheduling, were inundated with appointment requests. I managed to get a “drop-in” appointment one week before departure and that afternoon the certificate paperwork was FedExed off to the USDA-APHIS office in Albany, NY. Though there are USDA-APHIS offices in Richmond, Virginia and Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania, those offices were no longer accepting in-person appointments. The only way to do it was to FedEx. And I waited. By Friday, the paperwork was still not back. Long story short, the paperwork was completed late afternoon on Friday, but although I had paid for FedEx Priority Overnight, someone (not me!) had helpfully selected “weekday only” and thus the paperwork was returned on Monday morning to the vet’s office. But by 10 AM I had the paperwork in hand and by 2:30 PM we (C, myself, and Kucing the Cat) were on our way to the airport. (Fun fact: NO ONE looked at that paperwork at any part during our journey!!)
Mostly for our last 12 days, C and I tried to get our fill of things we would miss. Yes, we did both get our respective COVID boosters and we did some last-minute shopping. We visited two shopping malls – you know, the gigantic American kind. We also had a dinner with our family, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, and their kids, and aunt CW. And we ate all the veggie sushi, string cheese, Domino’s pizza, Taco Bell, Subway, and chicken nuggets we could. We also saw two movies. Conakry reportedly has a movie theater (unlike Malawi, which had zero), but films will mostly be in French.
Then suddenly it was time! I grabbed the paperwork from the vet and raced back to the hotel. I dropped off the car my father had loaned us for the duration of our time in the US; he drove me back to the hotel. Final, FINAL packing. The large van arrived to take us and all our luggage to the airport. We were checking in. Through security. At the boarding lounge. And then take off. Transit through Brussels. And then about 21 hours later after taking off from Dulles Airport we landed in Conakry, Guinea. Our new home.
We entered Yellowstone National Park from Grand Teton National Park via the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Highway and the southern entrance. Though the weather was picture-perfect with astonishingly blue skies and temperatures in the low 70s, there was virtually no line to get into the park.
There are no major sights in the southern part of the park and the road through heavily forested areas and along ridges and lakes, so less likely to be susceptible to large animal traffic hold-ups often seen in other parts of the park. It made for nice unimpeded driving through gorgeous scenery but it did also make it harder to stop when I caught sight of something. For instance, as we passed Isa Lake where there was not only a marker for the Continental Divide but I could see a picturesque stop with dark water and ice, I thought I should pull over. However as the parking area was small and busy I opted to continue on, saying we could go back another day, but we never did.
We headed on to the Old Faithful area. We were ready for a stop, a chance to stretch our legs and see one of the most iconic sights of the park. Though there were some exciting false starts, the geyser did not disappoint. At least not us. We did hear one person lament how it had been “underwhelming” and another guy musing out loud “I would really like to understand the mechanics.” (Um, hello? You might find information in the visitor center RIGHT BEHIND YOU.) For us, that nature would provide such a regular display of its power, was extraordinary. The good weather and perfect viewing spot were icing on the cake.
After watching Old Faithful and checking out the visitor’s center we were ready for lunch. And this is where we ran into some of the pandemic staffing issues. The National Park Service app had warned visitors of personnel shortages that were leading to the cutting of some services, including many restaurants remaining closed or having more limited hours. Lunch service was particularly affected; I assume the park guessed that many visitors could grab sandwiches or other portable foods to consume while sightseeing or hiking. This led to some very long lines.
We made a few more stops afterwards — pulling into the parking lot that led to the Fairy Falls trail as there looked like there could be some bison vs people interaction with two large bison crossing the path while dumbfounded walkers stood by (well within the recommended 25 yards) in awe. Luckily, the bison were entirely uninterested. We tried to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring but the small parking lot was overflowing, yet we had to inch through it to discover this. But having started the day in Grand Teton and ending it at the Canyon Lodges in Yellowstone, with some beautiful sights along the way, we were good.
The following day I made some adjustments to our plan based on weather and food options. With the forecast set to be warm and clear and the breakfast area a crowded, slow mess, we opting to head to the Canyon area after purchasing some breakfast and snacks at the Canyon Village grocery which opened at 9 AM. I have no idea what time the store may open when its not a pandemic, but it seemed late. Yet, the park had warned us of this, so the Canyon area, right by our lodging, seemed the most logical choice for that morning. And no sooner had we driven five minutes when we came upon an elk feeding right next to the road.
Canyon is otherworldly. Though I have never been to the Grand Canyon I have been to large canyons in other countries, but there was something about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone I could not really wrap my head around. Nearly every photo I took of it looked staged, as if I had had used a fake background. Even staring at the Lower Falls and the cascading river far below with my naked eyes did not quite feel real. It was too big, too grand, to seem possible. I have looked at other photos online and they too give off a photoshopped vibe. And yet it is all very real.
We stopped at various points on both the upper falls and lower falls roads including Artist’s Point and Inspiration Point. We caught a rainbow forming at the base of the upper falls. I drove for a very, very short time the wrong way on the lower falls road and suffered the ire of the male driver of a large vehicle who made the time to slow down, roll down his window, and shake his fists down at me while mouthing “one way!” I was embarrassed for sure but I 100% swear there is no signage regarding the traffic direction of said road (though you can find a tiny black arrow on your Yellowstone map — be forewarned!). And for the rest of the trip we would jokingly arch our backs, shake our fists, and mouth “One Way!” to each other.
We made it back in time to enjoy a nice lunch at the Canyon Fountain & Grill, a 50s style soda fountain eatery inside the Canyon Village shop. It was one of the few places in the park open for lunch so we took advantage that day. After lunch my aunt had a quiet afternoon at the lodge while C and returned to the Old Faithful area to meander around the trails to see other geothermal features and took another shot at visiting the Grand Prismatic Spring – with success this time. However, we discovered after approaching the spring that it did not in fact lead to the overlook where I had wanted to be. We had already walked for miles that day (with us tracking about 25,000 steps) and we didn’t have the energy for a two hour round trip to the overlook. So that too will need to be earmarked for a future trip.
With our third day in the park predicted to have rain, we opted to spend that morning in the Lamar Valley, known for having some of the best opportunities for wildlife spotting. This reminded me so much of self drive safaris in Africa – all safaris are a matter of luck, but in self driving you do not even have the upper hand of experienced guides and trackers. We sure did luck out that day as we came across a bottleneck along the road just before Tower Falls, where a mother black bear had been spotted lying beneath a large pine where her two cubs were safely ensconced. We could barely make out any of them, but a fellow visitor, who happened to be a retired school teacher with a powerful scope, was kindly letting everyone take a look at the bears from a safe distance.
In the valley itself, there were many bison herds, full of young calves, grazing near the road and occasionally crossing it. We also saw pronghorn deer, ground squirrels, a bald eagle, and a sandhill crane. The animals certainly did not mind the cooler temperatures and misting rain.
With the weather improving through the morning, I opted to head us to Yellowstone Lake instead of Mammoth for lunch. And it turned out to be fortuitous as we passed yet another bear in the Chittenden area just north of the Canyon lodging and a lone wolf on the far side of the river in the Hayden Valley. We were then able to stop at the Mud Volcano area and lunch at the Wylie Canteen at the Lake Lodge, which had just reopened for lunch service a few days before.
On our final day in the park, Sunday, June 12, our luck with the weather ran out. The rain of the previous morning had returned the evening before and poured down for hours and was still falling in the morning. Though I was disappointed, I hoped that as we drove out the north entrance of the park back into Montana, that we might catch a break in the storm and be able to see some of the area. In the end, we drove only one short loop, Upper Terraces Drive, braving the elements only once with rain gear and umbrellas. We stopped in to the Visitor’s Center, hoping that again we could kill some time in the educational center, but the rain only intensified. The one lunch space was packed full of people and with a very long line, so we decided to cut our losses and drive on to Gardiner, Montana, the town right outside the park at the North Entrance.
Little did we know that as we lunched on pizza in Gardiner and then drove on to the Chico Hot Springs Resort in Pray, Montana, how very lucky we would be. Chico, a beautiful 122-year old resort in Paradise Valley, is also where my friend CLK has worked for decades. Years ago, she came out after college to work for nine months and she never left. I visited her in 1998, and she took me on my previous foray to Yellowstone. My daughter and I enjoyed a swim in the glorious natural mineral spring swimming pool, and then she and I and my aunt met CLK and her eldest son for dinner in the award winning Chico dining room to feast on Montana steaks and the dining hall’s famous dessert: the Flaming Orange, a delicious concoction of orange, chocolate, vanilla ice cream, meringue and a good dousing of alcohol, including 151 proof rum, that guarantees a big flame when lit. It was amazing to catch up with CLK, meet her son, and to introduce her to my daughter and aunt.
Unbeknownst to us a disaster was brewing. By that evening, the unprecedented rain and snowmelt led to the Yellowstone River bursting its banks and swallowing parts of the park’s northern roads. The folllowing day the Yankee Jim canyon just north of Gardiner would flood and the Carbella Bridge, a historic steel-trussed bridge built in 1918, washed away. And the National Park Service would close Yellowstone and evacuate visitors and workers.
That afternoon as we lolled around Chico enjoying the quiet and beauty, contemplating another soak in the hot springs, CLK messaged me to inform me that we might strongly consider evacuating. According to reports, Livingston, the town 24 miles to the north of Chico and on the way back to Bozeman, was partially evacuating. Part of the highway, which had been already been under some construction, was flooding. There was one bridge still open heading that would get us to Bozeman, but it was not sure how much longer it might remain open. We could take our chances and stay but there was no way of knowing if we would be able to get out the next morning as more rain was predicted that night. I made the executive decision to pack our bags and leave in the next 30 minutes. CLK helped us pack quickly and hand-drew us a map that would take us on back roads to Bozeman, avoiding Livingston.
The bridge was still holding when we crossed, though the waters were high and we could see large debris, including 10 foot trees, floating swiftly on the currents. Once safely over, we got out to watch the waters in wonder. Under a dazzlingly blue sky that belied the catastrophic flooding occurring, the river was rising and widening. It did not look as though the bridge would be open much longer (note: amazingly enough it apparently never closed!). Then we headed over the hills to Bozeman where we would stay the night — meeting several other evacuees from the park and nearby areas.
It was a rather exciting end to an amazing vacation. I am glad to have had the chance to experience these parks with my aunt and my daughter. We were so incredibly lucky to be able to see the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone regardless. To have seen it first in such gorgeous weather, with so many animal sightings, was wonder enough. Then to have made it out just before the calamity fell (what the U.S. Geological Survey called a 1 in 500 years event) is truly extraordinary. It is terrible to think of the economic and environmental costs of the floods will be for years to come. It makes me all the more grateful we not only saw it just beforehand, but also made it out in time.
And now we prepare for our next adventure: heading to Conakry, Guinea. I hope our trip there will be uneventful.
There is always something new to experience with the Foreign Service. I have done a long Home Leave (8 weeks after my first post – not a usual thing but I had extra home leave days from serving abroad with the Defense Dept before joining State). I have done a mid-tour Home Leave between my two consecutive tours in Malawi. And now I am experiencing my first split home leave — when one takes part of Home Leave immediately after returning to the US and prior to long-term training and then again after training and before heading to a new assignment.
After the end of my language training, my daughter C, my aunt CW, and myself flew out to Bozeman, Montana to begin the second half of my Home Leave. This trip was a true labor of love for me. I *love* to plan travel and for the past nearly two-and-a-half years I have not really been able to plan trips. C and I lucked out with an R&R to Kenya in December 2020 just before the second COVID-19 wave hit and we had a few mini trips during the first part of this HL in August 2021, but otherwise travel has been especially limited not only due to the pandemic but also regulations that do not permit foreign service officers in training to take annual leave.
I had asked both my aunt and my daughter if they could go to one National Park then where would they want to go and both mentioned Yellowstone with the Grand Tetons a close second for my aunt. As luck would have it, being back in the US this year was fortuitous because all fourth graders in the U.S. are eligible for a free National Park Pass (the Every Kid Outdoors program) that lets them, other children, and up to three adults in with them for free. This was a great opportunity to see a bit more of America before we returned to Africa.
Travel remains complicated! I have seen various articles reporting this summer’s travel season to be “crazy,” “chaos,” and “mayhem,” because of continued staffing shortages across the travel industry coupled with lots of people taking those long-delayed trips. I spent hours on the phone changing our refundable late afternoon flight to early morning as I had heard those were less likely to be cancelled, only to have our flight cancelled. We were then rebooked on a flight where myself, my 10 year old daughter, and 74 year old aunt, were seated in middle seats around the plane. No amount of pleading could get us seated together so we made do. I at least had eyes on my daughter for the duration of the flight. On arrival in Bozeman, the car rental told me the sedan I had reserved months ago and reconfirmed the week before was not available and my choices were a 4×4 Tacoma truck or a Camaro!! I had a hard time seeing us tooling around the National Parks in either. As “luck” would have it, a sedan “just happened” to be returned at the very moment I was reluctantly checking out our options) and I jumped at it right away.
We stayed a night in Bozeman and the next day my friend CLK met us bearing gifts for our journey. With an upcoming move to tropical West Africa, I was not very keen on holding on to winter coats to pack not only for this trip but also to take up limited space in our suitcases. Thankfully, CLK lived nearby and just happened to be dropping her siblings off at the airport. She came through big time with a box of coats in several sizes and of several weights and a few snacks to feed us along the way. We then got on the road for the three hour drive from Bozeman to West Yellowstone. On even that short drive we happened to see a moose and some bison! Then once in West Yellowstone, the western gateway to Yellowstone, we visited the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center and took a short drive into the park just to get a taste. The weather was largely great (just some scattered rain showers) and it was a wonderful start to our vacation.
The following morning we set out from West Yellowstone for the Grand Teton National Park via Idaho, the Teton Pass, and Jackson, Wyoming. It was a beautiful drive through fantastic vistas beneath a deeply blue sky. The Teton Pass hits an elevation of 8,431 feet (2,570 meters) and we were a little surprised to find a good bit of snow pack on the mountainside despite temperatures in the lower 70s. We had lunch in Jackson and then drove into Grand Teton.
The vistas were breathtaking! The weather report had not been all that favorable for the parks and given the predicted low temps and regular rain, my aunt and I had even considered canceling the trip. Yet here we were with the best possible weather we could have wished for.
We drove on to Colter Bay where we would be staying for two nights. In 1959, my uncle had spent some weeks as a summer hire in Grand Teton between his freshmen and junior years of college. My aunt mentioned it after I had started planning and I had already booked our accommodation. Imagine the luck when we discovered it had been Colter Bay Village where he worked, just two years after the lodging had opened. We had only an old photograph of my uncle’s cabin captured by chance behind his car, which he cared more about remembering for posterity, but we drove around and think we might have found it or at least close to it, and my aunt left some of his ashes there. He had always wanted to come back with her.
Once at Colter Bay, we had a chance to walk around. The marina, and all of Colter Bay in fact, was dry, the result of historic low water levels, but luckily swim beach, though also at lower levels than usual, still provided a great view of Jackson Lake and the Tetons. And there is also where I saw the fox. Almost as soon as we arrived on the rocky beach I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye about 50 feet away near a picnic bench. No one else on the beach seemed aware, and at first I thought it was a dog, except I caught sight of its bushy tail and knew it was a fox. We had already seen signs warning visitors not feed the foxes, but I had not expected to see one.
On our second day in the Grand Tetons we drove down to the Jenny Lake loop. Here we got up much closer to the mountains and lakes. We stopped briefly at Jenny Lake Lodge to find workers from the Teton Raptor Center giving an educational talk on the lawn with some of their rehabilitated birds. At one of the lake overlooks we encountered the first of very many rather forward chipmunks. I have certainly seen chipmunks before on the East coast, but in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, I saw them with great regularity. And I am a fan of chipmunks. Who isn’t?
We went on to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center where we walked around some and C and I decided we wanted to take the ferry across the lake to the west shore and a short, easy hike to Hidden Falls. My aunt opted to hang back on the East Shore to wait for us, so it was a quick out and back. Frankly, once we got to walking I wish we could have gone on to Inspiration Point and walked back around the lake, but besides my aunt waiting for us I had not planned for the unexpected boat trip at all. We had no water and I was carrying a large handbag! Maybe next time we will be prepared for actual hiking! Though lucky us we happened to catch sight of more wildlife — a marmot!
The next morning we said farewell to Grand Teton National Park as we headed north to Yellowstone through the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. I felt pretty grateful we had had this opportunity to spend the time with my aunt and daughter, to provide a special tribute to my uncle, and see an amazing part of the United States.
We had made it to the U.S. from Malawi in the time of COVID. Whew! And now we could begin our congressionally-mandated period of readjustment, reacquaintance, and relaxation in the U.S. known as Home Leave. Unlike Home Leaves past, where we traveled from place to place to place, we would spend the majority of this one in one location, Florida, where, for the first time ever, I own property. Do not get me wrong, I had initially intended another whirlwind Home Leave journey that would take us to multiple U.S. states and experiences on the bucket list, but a combination of timing, getting older (which I hate admitting), bringing our Malawian nanny, and COVID, led me to make some adjustments. Though it was far and away due to the pandemic, and I will admit a continued sense of identity loss with reduced travel, there was something satisfying about slowing down and staying put, familiarizing ourselves with our new U.S. home town, and introducing America to a newcomer.
After successfully emerging from the security and immigration at Dulles Airport, we were met by my sister and then our transport driver, who whisked myself, the nanny, my daughter, the cat, and our odd collection of baggage, off to a nearby car rental. There we were met by my aunt, who took some of our luggage off our hands, and then we were on the road to Florida.
Yes, I had decided to drive to Florida. Sure, we could have flown, but there were all sorts of reasons that made me not want to deal with the 8 1/2 hour layover and boarding another flight. I can distill it down to my deep desire to be on the road and (seemingly) more in control.
And as we merged onto I-95, the main artery linking the American east coast from Miami Florida to the Maine-Canadian border, I felt pretty darn happy. Maybe ecstatic. I felt free. This was not the Malawi roadtripping of the past four years. This was not potholes and missing shoulders, it was not narrow two lanes that double as livestock crossings or pass suddenly through small market villages with people and goods spilling right onto the road. It was six beautiful lanes (actual lanes! with visible lines!) of smooth asphalt. Even when it became bumper to bumper traffic that turned our 2 to 1/2 hour drive to Richmond into an exasperating 4 1/2 hours causing me to let loose some expletives I thought I had reserved exclusively for Malawi driving, I was still thrilled to be driving in America.
That first day’s drive took so much longer than anticipated we ended up stopping our first night in Richmond instead of the planned stop around Fayettville, NC. Already exhausted by jet lag and jacked up with drive excitement, I had to call it quits early. The second day we would not make it to Jacksonville either, making our overnight pitstop in Santee, South Carolina. But what this afforded me was the opportunity to wake up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, around 3 AM, and then drive for hours in the dark along the highway. This, too, was an indulgence I could not pursue in Malawi as we were prohibited from driving after dark outside of the three major cities due to unsafe roads and lack of ambulance and police services. But in the U.S. I could glide along those roads in the pre-dawn hours with little other traffic.
My nanny, JMC, a hard-working and eager 20-year-old, who had described her first airplane flight with wide, bright eyes (“I could feel my soul leaving my body!”) gave our highways high marks. She remarked on the sheer number of trees flanking the road. “Amazing!” she called it all. A good reminder of something many Americans take for granted: an extensive and efficient road system.
I view Jacksonville, Florida as more a place to live than a tourist destination. It has its beaches, of course, and museums and other similar attractions found in large U.S. cities, but it does not scream “vacation” to me. That being said, this Home Leave would be the longest we would consecutively spend in the area and I had put together a decently list of activities for our visit. It turned out that even my plans for Florida were wildly ambitious.
After nearly 18 months of limited (frankly, nearly zilch) activities outside our home in Lilongwe and few getaways, we were not used to having options and found it harder to muster the energy for back-to-back pursuits. The luxury of just sitting around a living room other than the one we had in Lilongwe was so very tempting (Okay, we were not just tempted. We totally embraced it). We were not only jet lagged, but exhausted — by the flights, the drive, the last week of departure preparations. In addition to my list of fun things to do, I also had a list of less-fun but necessary things to be done, from medical appointments that could not be taken care of in Malawi to items to buy (both my phone and my computer were on their last legs) and paperwork (insurance and employment authorization applications for the nanny).
And there was the pandemic. I guess I had this odd idea that once we left Malawi, we could also leave it behind us. That was, of course, not the case. We had departed Malawi in the middle of a rising third COVID wave only to arrive in Jacksonville, Florida, which had become an epicenter of the U.S.’ Delta wave. This would slow my Home Leave roll too.
But I still managed to get us out and about. In the initial few days, I took us to the Jacksonville Zoo and to the Museum of Science and History (MOSH). I suppose one might wonder why a zoo after four years in Africa? I know some might wonder this as this is exactly what my daughter asked me when I told her I was dragging her there against her will. Because zoos — well good zoos that support animal welfare and research — can be amazing places to see animals that one might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. Animals that even on a four hour game drive in Africa cannot coax into appearing before you. JMC had been to the zoo once when she lived in South Africa as a child, but her only experience seeing animals at a game park in Malawi was when we took her and her sister with us to the Kuti Wildlife Reserve the year before, and though we had a good time, I’ll mention something I didn’t mention then, that the animals were limited in variety and mostly hid from us. I attribute the fun we had to the fact we were with good friends and that it was the first trip we took after the six months ban on leaving the capital in that first half year of the pandemic. Both C and JMH loved the Jacksonville Zoo. They also liked the MOSH, though disdained the history portion (C: “There is too much to read here. This is boring.”) but embraced the pay-to-experience hurricane contraption.
I also took them to St. Augustine to see the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and eat ice cream while melting in midday 90 degree heat in August in Florida. I like taking C to places of American historic significance, to try to pack in some Americana since she spends so much time outside her homeland. And making her visit a historic place in the height of sweltering summer is, I believe, an American parent-child relationship right of passage. JMH told me that she thought she, an African, would be well-prepared for American summers, but that that day in St. Augustine had proven her wrong.
After our visit to the Zoo and MOSH, I buckled down with my paperwork for about a week and then when I emerged took us all to Disney World. We might be people you would call “Disney people.” We have visited a few parks a few times (for example, here, here, here, and here). C and I wanted our Disney fix and I wanted to give JMC a taste of Disney fun. With COVID, I was a bit concerned. I reduced our planned park time from three days to two – with one day at Magic Kingdom and one at Animal Kingdom – and we kept our masks on all the time at the park, and it worked out for us. Disney was keeping its actual park capacity limits secret, but it was clear as soon as we arrived that levels were still not what they were pre-COVID There were a few rides that were hard to get on but we rode on nearly all we wanted to and had a spectacular time and scored with some really gorgeous weather.
Back in our condo in Jacksonville we slowed down more. I had more paperwork; I joined a gym for the first time in a very, very long time. C and I took walks or drives to capture Pokémon in Pokémon Go, something we could not do in Malawi as my personal phone had not connected to any network away from home. I took them to Sweet Pete’s, a famous candy shop in downtown Jacksonville, for a make-your-own-chocolate-bar and factory tour experience, and then paid beaucoup bucks for giant bags of candy they giddily picked out. We took walks to Target (because it is a destination in and of itself, especially for American devotees who spend a lot of time overseas where there are none) and at Castaway Island Preserve or on the beach, JMC’s first time to see the ocean.
Then suddenly the vacation part of Home Leave was coming to an end. I had opted to spend nearly four weeks in Florida and then an additional two in our State Department provided lodging to get C into school and all of us settled into our new apartment and neighborhood. (PS: the two weeks before my training began were out of my own pocket, but so worth it! The Department only picks up the tab the night before training begins and it is really hard to adjust when starting school and training and life in a new place all at that same time. Oh, that is what we do overseas!)
I decided I wanted one more shot at an experience sort of like Home Leaves past, so arranged for us to spend two nights in Savannah, Georgia, on our way north to Virginia. I have long wanted to visit Savannah but had never done so and it was sort of on the way… And as the oldest European settlement in Georgia it fit in with a minor theme of our Home Leave (St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in Florida and New Bern, where we would stay a night with one of my best friends, is the second oldest European settlement in North Carolina).
We kept our Savannah visit COVID compliant. We did not join a hop on hop off bus, we did not take a group tour. What we did was walk. And I will tell you that walking is not only a great way to see a town but a glorious pastime that Americans often take for granted. It was here in Savannah that I realized my 9-year-old daughter did NOT know how to walk in a town. I knew that I would need to discuss the finer points of walking in an urban area with the nanny; a good friend who facilitates the visits of foreigners to the U.S. on exchange programs had told me that one major point he emphasizes is that jaywalking is illegal in America. In Malawi, as in many developing countries, it is a necessity, an artform even. There are few to no sidewalks or crosswalks or traffic lights. Unlike myself, who had grown up learning to look both ways before I crossed a street, C had not. Another missing piece in her informal education. In Savannah she just walked off each curb with a blithe confidence that caused my heart to stop.
So we learned some Georgia history, and American history, and life skills during our walking tours of Savannah. Two days was not enough time to cover any of that in any great detail, but we really enjoyed our stay. Next we moved on to a night in New Bern with one of my best friends and her son, a much needed respite from our drive, and then before I knew it we had arrived in Arlington, Virginia, where we will spend the next 9 1/2 months in training before heading on to my next assignment.
This Home Leave may not have been what I had initially planned and hoped for, but it is the one we got in a pandemic and turned out to be just what we needed.
It has been about six weeks since we departed Malawi. I have needed this time to recuperate from the move and the weeks (months? year?) leading up to it. Undertaking an international move at any time always comes with its challenges and stressors. Add in family members, a nanny, a cat, and a pandemic and things can really leave one mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. Through much of my Home Leave I have cycled through some complex feelings as I try to come to terms that my daughter’s life and mine in Malawi were in the past. I am finally able to write.
The last days in Malawi were hard. Due to some personnel gaps and a definite COVID-19 third wave that impacted Embassy staffing (a return to near 100% telework) and an inability to get temporary staff from Washington to Malawi, I again stepped in to handle some emergency Consular cases on top off completing some final political reports. Having things to work on was important as I was the last of my cohort to PCS (Permanent Change of Station; i.e. move internationally with a change in assignments), and no longer really felt I belonged in Malawi. U.S. colleagues I had spent three years working with had all departed. Others were on leave for 3-4 weeks. COVID has ensured that meeting new people was difficult, if not impossible.
But it was harder for my daughter. As an only child she can generally entertain herself well, but school was out, her best friends had left Malawi for good – heading to their next postings – or vacation, and all but a few suitcases of our things had been packed and shipped. Although there were a few kids around we had COVID tests approaching to allow us to depart Malawi and enter the US and I could not risk opening our very small bubble. I had stayed in Malawi for four years, in part to give her more stability, but those last few weeks I felt like a pretty terrible mom. And in that last week, my independent daughter, who had never, ever, verbalized any interest in a sibling, in fact had said she did NOT want one, asked if during our time back in the US I could adopt her a kid sister. (The answer, for many obvious reasons, was an emphatic NO). This lifestyle comes with some amazing opportunities, but also some pretty hard realities.
And then suddenly it was time to go. We departed on a Wednesday, so we had our COVID tests on Monday, 72 hours before departure. The 24 hour wait seemed interminable. And then the results – Negative for us all! – hit the inbox and I could finally let out some of the breath I had been holding. Wednesday morning was about as boring as one can expect sitting in one’s empty house – that is about to become someone else’s house – eating the last bit of food, doing the last bit of cleaning, until the Motorpool driver arrived to ferry us and all our suitcases to the airport. Luckily (?) I had one last emergency visa to attend to at the Embassy to give me an hour of purpose, and a colleague checked one last political point. I was still needed!
Arrival at the airport, without leaving something behind, was the next phase to relax a little. All our suitcases: check. Child: check. Cat: check. Nanny: check. My sanity…check back for that later.
But the airline had not seated us together despite my going to the city center office a week before to make this specific request. Sigh. After some demanding and groveling, definitely not my finest diplomatic moment, that took at least half an hour and involved several employees and trips to other offices, we managed to get seats close to one another. My nanny, who had never been on a plane before, looked a little scared. My daughter, who did not want to be parted from the nanny, looked sad. Me, I was frustrated and starting to feel quite sure I had left my sanity back at the house, maybe under the bed?, but we had to accept the situation and move forward. Then the COVID test results checks, my handing over Embassy badge and phone to my colleagues (my last tether to my position there), immigration and security, and we made it to the lounge and then boarding the first plane. As we took off, I could let out a bit more of that held breath.
But not all. We had the Addis Ababa transit gauntlet still ahead of us. I will note a few lessons learned. One, traveling with a large block of extra passports looks suspicious. Old passports are a record of travel and C and I have quite a few – 12 past passports to be exact. I travel with them in my carry on to keep them safe. Yet, at the exact moment when the security person riffling through my bag found them, it dawned on me how very Jason Bourne (if Jason Bourne was a bungling idiot) this might look. I got an odd look, then a question: What are THESE? But my rushed explanation must have found a sympathetic, or simply tired, ear, and she shrugged and put them back. I dodged a bullet, in the form of having to explain myself in enhanced screening, with that shrug.
Two, do not have your child conduct air travel with light up shoes. In all the hullabaloo of preparations it did not occur to me that my daughter’s sole pair of sneakers – which light up and have a charger – would cause security issues. [Insert face palm emoji] Of course they did. I enjoyed an extra 15 to 20 minutes at security trying to explain the concept of her shoes. They wanted me to light them up to show them, but I had never charged them, did not have the charger, and they had ceased functioning long ago. I explained this to one person, then another, then possibly a third, as they ran the shoes through the security machine repeatedly. At one point I told my daughter it was highly likely we would need to leave them and she would have to travel in her socks. She didn’t love the idea. I didn’t either, but I had passed the point of caring. Then suddenly we were told we could continue with the shoes. We hightailed it away as soon as we could.
Three, traveling with a cat in cabin is getting trickier every year. When I first traveled to China with two cats in cabin, I had developed a system of dumping (gently!) the cats into a pillow case so I could carry them through security while the soft kennel goes through the machine. I have read that cats find this temporary soft prison comforting. And that this method reduced the possibility of a scenario of a freaked out cat, jumping from my arms, possibly bloodying me in the process, and leading to a mad chase through an airport. I have a vivid imagination and can see exactly how that would happen. Now, I less than elegantly shoved my one feline, who had wizened-up to this technique and did not want to participate, into the pillowcase; her black tail swishing angrily out one end as I walked through the metal detector with as much grace as I could muster. For some reason the male security agent thought I had a baby – stuffed into a pillowcase. [Insert a shoulder shrug emoji] He made a cooing sound. But when the kennel came through and I then shoved a furry body back inside, the agents, too, wizened up. They demanded to know what I had just held through security. (I will note here that to my great relief, the security gate was nearly empty — there was no line of angry passengers waiting for my circus to end). This led to some discussion and displaying of the now rather pissed off cat. But I was then asked to walk back through security with the cat in my arms sans pillowcase. My cat, who hates to be held, must have been terrified enough, as she did not move a muscle, while scanning the airport wild eyed. I held her in a death grip, pretty wild eyed myself. Convinced the furry creature I held was indeed feline and not human, and not a security threat, we were allowed to proceed.
Waiting at the boarding gate though, I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker. I thought, perhaps I have been upgraded, and will have to sadly turn it down due to my entourage. But no, the Ethiopian Airlines agent wished to inform me that he had seen I was traveling with an in-cabin pet to the U.S. and unfortunately the U.S. was not allowing any pets to enter. This was false. About two months previously the Center for Disease Control had suddenly announced an ill-timed, ill-coordinated, and ill-planned ban on dogs entering the U.S. from 114 countries. This “ban” (though not a full ban as there are ways, at least for the time being, for pet owners to obtain a waiver with certain, though often difficult to get, information) was for DOGS only. I had a cat. But I had already learned that several other airlines had taken advantage of this CDC action to discontinue pet transport. I was seized with a sudden fear that Ethiopian had decided, that day, to follow suit. But apparently, the Gods of Travel, were again on my side and simply mentioning my pet was a cat led the agent to simply nod and walk away.
We made it on the flight to the U.S. I released a bit more breath. I had one more travel hurdle ahead of me. I was bringing my nanny with me to the U.S. As a single parent, I had struggled in the past to find child care when in the U.S. Although my daughter is now 9, she isn’t quite old enough to be at home alone, and sick days, school holidays that do not match mine, teacher work days, weather-related late starts, early dismissals, or cancellations can wreck havoc on a parent’s work schedule. However, and I am going to oversimply this because it is rather complicated, when a foreigner enters the U.S., Customs and Border Patrol (i.e. Immigration) usually gives a period of stay of up to six months. I needed to ask for the maximum period of stay of a year. For that I would likely have to go to “secondary.”
If you have ever entered the U.S. at an airport or a border, you are greeted by a CBP agent, who has only so long to review your information and ask questions. If additional questions or details are needed, those frontline officers do not have the time to do it, so one gets sent for additional screening or “secondary.” Although I was exhausted by 22 hours of flight time, 28 hours of travel time, all the snafus, and all the stress of preparations, I needed to be on the ball when we landed and presented ourselves the CBP. The first officer was very nice, but had not heard of the type of visa and said we would need to present our case in secondary. I was prepared to do so. What I was not prepared for was the hour wait in the additional screening area. This was not my first time to secondary as during my last Home Leave I had been selected for the honor and when I lived in Ciudad Juarez I was pulled into secondary a few times when re-entering the U.S. from Mexico. But this time, I had asked to go there.
There we waited. And waited. And waited. We saw many many people arrive, but few people leave. CBP seemed understaffed. I am sure some cases were complicated. Though I do not know CBP work first hand, I have certainly utilized CBP information in Consular work and I imagine the kind of information they see on their screens and the questions they need to ask are similar in many aspects to visa interviews. We were all tired. I clutched the pile of paperwork I had prepared to present our case. I watched the clock. C and her nanny, JMC, watched videos together and played word games, but they were bored and confused too.
At last we were called up and again I lucked out. The officer had previously been military stationed abroad with his Foreign Service (diplomat) wife and he knew exactly the kind of visa we had as they had researched it as well. The interview and review of documents did not take long and soon enough we were released with a one year period of stay stamped in the nanny’s passport. (And wouldn’t you know it, as we walked to get our luggage we ran into the first CBP officer just getting off shift and he stopped to ask me how it went. He was genuinely happy for us and said he was glad to learn about this type of visa. I love that kind of full circle stuff).
As we came out the double doors from security and immigration, I let out that last bit of air I had been holding in. We had made it! Hello, USA.
Spring Break. Sigh. This used to be a time I really looked forward to planning a getaway, you know, in the before times, before the pandemic. Although the 2020 Spring Break trip had been upended, at the end of last year it started to look like things we turning around. I had begun to have visions of a 2020 Spring Break Redux. But by the time we returned from our Kenya R&R at the end of 2020, travel again seemed to be in jeopardy.
COVID-19, naturally, continues to throw a major monkey wrench into any sort of international travel. Malawi’s second wave, though subsiding now, had been much more disruptive and deadly than its first. But the indirect effects, the fewer flights, testing regimes, and other restrictions are still in place. Malawi has never been a major hub; before the pandemic there were daily flights to Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, and Nairobi, and less frequent flights to Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, and Harare. Now there are just the Addis, Jo’Burg, and Nairobi flights, and they are less consistent. Friends of ours were to fly to South Africa the previous week and the airline cancelled a few days before without reason.
Though honestly, I love travel so much, that I was willing to go through the flight, COVID testing, and mitigation measure gauntlet, but we had another problem: passports. Last fall I noted our diplomatic passports (we hold both diplomatic and tourist passports) were expiring in the summer of 2021 and thus we would need to renew before the new year as many places frown on or even outright disallow travel during the final six months. As the Acting Consular Chief (a post I held for six months during 2020), I diligently applied for our new passports at the end of October. Our paperwork was FedExed to the State Department on November 4. And then, it seems, we got tangled up in the whole U.S. election mail issue / COVID-related mail issue and was lost. (Luckily for most American citizens this is NOT how we do tourist passports overseas and its much faster and more reliable!) I did not know this until by the end of January I wondered what had become of them. We had to apply again. Though we received our new passports by the end of March, it was not in time to plan a vacation outside of Malawi’s borders.
That left a trip within Malawi. And I was torn. With nearly four years in country, even with a pandemic mucking up domestic travel for a good five months of 2020, C and I had already covered most of the major sights and lodging on my Malawi bucket list. Yet, the thought of spending another staycation hanging out in my living room, lounging on the tired dung-colored State Department-issued Drexel Heritage sofa was too much to bear. We needed to go somewhere. Well, truth be told, *I* needed to go somewhere. I am afraid my formerly world traveling companion kid had grown a bit too comfortable with couch surfing. But if I did not get out of my house, I thought I might go mad.
The two major places left on my bucket list seemed out of reach because they were either quite far (two days driving or one really long day for those with a penchant for torture) and still on a self-catering basis (and my desire to drive really far to just cook the same stuff in a different kitchen is at an all time low) or required a charter flight which would trigger an Embassy-imposed stay at home order upon return. And while I was uber-productive with my telework the first six to eight months, my at-home productivity has most certainly waned after a year. And that my friends is actually the understatement of the year. “Working from home” has become an oxymoron as I tend to just stare into the abyss when confronted with this option; I make every effort to go into the office.
With this in mind, I booked two nights on Kayak Africa’s Mumbo Island and one night at Norman Carr Cottage.
With the Mumbo Island transport departing Cape Maclear at 10:30 AM, I was not keen to depart Lilongwe just after sunrise, and thus Norman Carr Cottage, located just south of Monkey Bay, would give us a nice overnight stop and ensure more relaxation. (Note: Embassy employees we are not permitted to drive after dark outside the three major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu for safety reasons)
Norman Carr was a British conservationist who in the 1950s and 1960s helped launch the first national parks in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (then the British protectorate known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) and started the first walking safaris in these countries. In the 1970s he built himself this idyllic lakeside cottage where, reportedly, he wrote several of his books. I love me a little history with my vacations and this bit of Malawi history suited me fine.
We did not do much here, but that was rather the point. We arrived and had lunch. And then my daughter promptly broke one of her flip flops — because she had carefully selected the oldest, on its last legs, pair despite my having presented her with brand new ones a month ago. Sigh. Thus, we found ourselves driving into the thriving metropolitan (just kidding) village of Monkey Bay in search of replacements. We parked at a small grocery store, but they did not have any shoes. They did have soft serve ice cream (will wonders never cease?) and as the young man whose job was to serve this up was preparing to do so, I asked if he knew where we could get shoes. He pointed at a makeshift wood kiosk across the street and we walked over (well, I walked, C hopped on one foot). The small shop sold a random assortment of goods such as clothes detergent and a limited selection of fancy ladies slip ons. I shook my head — these looked like adult sizes — but C said she would try them and in some odd African village version of Cinderella, they fit perfectly.
On our second day, we drove 30 minutes north to Cape Maclear on the Nankumba Peninsula where we boarded a boat for the 10 kilometer (6 miles), 45-minute ride to Mumbo Island, located within the Lake Malawi National Park (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Mumbo Island is a small, only one kilometer in diameter, uninhabited island and the eco-“resort” covers only a small part of that space. Five of the six thatched chalets are perched high on rocks located on an even smaller island connected to Mumbo by a wooden walkway. There is no WiFi, no cellphone signal, and no electricity. And it is beautiful.
After an extremely rainy March, we had perfect weather – temps in the uppers 70s and sparkling azure skies. The lake waters lapped against the sandy shore. I never tire of how the lake seems like the sea.
We disembarked from the boat and were shown our chalet, where C immediately claimed the hammock strung across our porch overlooking the Lake. And there we just took a little time to soak in the atmosphere. For the first time in weeks I really could feel myself relax.
We enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Douglas, the Mumbo Island chef, in the dining area on the main island. We watched a pair of hornbills alight on a nearby tree and a chatty bulbul waited impatiently on a ceiling rafter hoping for any of our leftovers. Monitor lizards crawled through the underbrush beneath the floorboards and sunned themselves on the rocks by the water. Afterwards, we relaxed in the room, on the small beach, and swam in the lake. Around 5 PM we headed out with Marriott (one of the other Mumbo Island staff) for a circumvention of the island by boat and a sunset viewing. Writing now I was sure we had done more that day, but thinking back, that was all and yet it was full. After dinner, we snuggled together in the hammock watching the stars. With the vast expanse of Lake Malawi lit with only a few fishing canoes, the sky overhead is at its darkest and the stars at their most brilliant. Though the 19th century Scottish explorer David Livingstone reportedly named it the Lake of Stars for the way the fishing lanterns reflected on the evening water, its the incredible view of the night sky that is more arresting. I am quite sure we could clearly see the swath of the Milky Way though I am far less sure of the constellations. Regardless, we talked until we grew sleepy and then we crawled into our beds, letting down the mosquito net but leaving the doors and windows open so we could hear the waves all night.
Early the next morning C again commandeered the hammock, lazily rocking back and forth, flipping her shoe casually from her toes. Exactly as I had asked her not to. And wouldn’t you know it, but as I got up to tell her to stop, one of those shoes we had only just bought at Monkey Bay was launched from her foot, sailing over the edge of our porch to the waters below. Sigh. Luckily, we could see it floating below. I told C to put on her suit and I would put on mine and we would swim out to get it. But then realized we could take a kayak to retrieve it. And as luck would have it, one of the Mumbo Island staff was willing to make the rescue. I may have had some choice words regarding her lack of footwear care, but told C one day (in fact later the same day) we would laugh about it. She said I should call this blog post “The Shoe Incidents.”
It is a good thing we located that shoe as after breakfast we headed out on a hike around the island. Not that those fancy lady sandals were the best shoes for a hike, but they were far better than nothing. Our sweaty hike around Mumbo must have taken about an hour though I am not entirely sure as my watch stopped working early in the pandemic and I have not yet bothered to replace it. The hike afforded us incredible opportunities to experience nature from three to four foot monitor lizards scurrying from our paths, symbiotic trees, the high pitched cries of the African fish eagle, and a gorgeous view across the Lake from atop Pod Rock.
We spent the rest of the day alternating between reading flopped on a bed or swinging in the hammock (you can guess who got the hammock again) and lake activity. We kayaked around the small island, swam, and together steadily worked up our courage to leap off the wooden walkway into the water. Eventually, C made friends with the 9-year old daughter of a visiting French family and the two of them spent the rest of the afternoon in one another’s company swimming and giggling, heads together in deep conversation. I sat on the beach in the warm sunlight reading.
We had another nice dinner but headed to bed a bit earlier than the evening before; the hike, kayaking, and swimming surely had tired us out. I had another great sleep lulled by those lightly crashing waves on the rocks below our chalet, and dreamed of rain.
It was hard to leave the following day. I could have stayed another night, maybe two. I meditated on the boat ride back, the warm sun on my face. And before driving back to Lilongwe, we stopped at another small historic site in Cape Maclear, the grave site of 19th century Scottish missionaries.
This may not have been the Spring Break I had initially hoped for but it turned out to be exactly what C and I needed.
Following our epic adventure to Lapland (here and here) with our friends CZ and Little C, I surprised my daughter C with a trip to Paris as an early Christmas gift. C loves Paris. Even before I took her on her first trip to the City of Lights, C was already enamored with France and its capital thanks to several of her favorite Disney movies set there (Aristocats, Beauty and the Beast, Ratatouille) and several episodes of the Little Einsteins.
In the Helsinki airport, I sat C down and told her I would be revealing her early Christmas present. I had made hints for days and she was giddy with excitement though confused how I had managed to hide a gift from her and why I had checked our luggage without handing over the present. I turned on my phone’s video camera and proceeded to tell her we would not actually be flying back to Malawi that day but were instead going to Paris and Disneyland! Instead of the shouts of excitement I had expected, C sat there confused and stunned. Hmmm…looked like the Mom of the Year trophy I had thought I would clinch had slipped from my fingers.
Lucky for me, as we flew across Europe C decided to forgive me for taking her to Paris and by the time we were landing she was thoroughly thrilled to be heading to Disneyland.
The previous time we had headed to Paris in the Spring of 2018 we had also stayed a few days at Disneyland Paris. This time I opted for another one of Disneyland Paris’ hotels, the Cheyenne. Although it seemed to be the final drop off location for the Disneyland Paris Magic Shuttle from the airport, we very much liked the whimsical, Disney-touch to a wild west theme. The whole hotel complex was laid out like a western frontier town.
And we did what most people do when they go to Disney–we rode the rides, we watched the parades, we had our pictures taken with people dressed up as our favorite characters. We also do what you might expect of people in our situation — Americans who spend the majority of their time in the developed world and have just come from the frozen north — we reveled in the Christmas-y and American-ness of it all. We took full advantage of our hotel benefits, arriving early for the Extra Magic Hours and staying until closing. We got to do everything we wanted and more except for riding Crush’s Coaster, which either had lines of over an hour wait or was not running. But we just shrugged it off — we can give that a try next time we are in Paris, along with the other new attractions expected in the next few years.
After our 2.5 days at Disney it was time to head into Paris proper, and immediately we came face to face with the France outside of the Disney bubble. Like during our last visit there was yet again another transportation strike affecting the metro and RER trains. There then went my plan to take public transportation into the city so we called an Uber and enjoyed the roads with everyone else.
Once squared away in our lovely hotel near the Paris Opera, we grabbed some lunch and then took a leisurely stroll down to and through the Tuileries Garden to the Louvre. C absolutely loves to draw and had recently had a brief course in some European artists at school, so I thought she might enjoy a visit to the largest art museum in the world. I had read the best time to take younger children to the Louvre was during the evenings hours the museum offers twice a week, so Wednesday worked for us. The weather was perfect, a little cold, but not nearly as cold as Finland, and the light of late afternoon just beautiful. This was my fourth time in Paris, but I never tire of the majesty of the historic heart of this city. C loved spending time in the Louvre; we caught the highlights — the Mona Lisa, the Coronation of Napolean, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, and Egyptian antiquities — and C found a few favorite paintings of her own. I really loved seeing her make careful selections in the gift shop based on the art she most enjoyed.
On our second day in the city, dawn broke beautifully. With the metro schedule up in the air due to the strikes, we would spend the day walking. Our first stop would be the Arc de Triomphe, a 45-minute walk from our hotel. There were no lines, something that seems almost unheard of in Paris, so we headed right up to the roof. Despite the overcast skies and some rain, the view was still spectacular, even dramatic. I felt really happy to be in Paris with my girl.
We walked on to the right bank of the Seine at the Pont de l’Alma where we got some lunch in a lovely corner restaurant. My initial plan was for us to continue on to the Eiffel Tower, but we had already done quite a lot of walking, so instead, we headed to the Bateaux Mouches for a guided river tour. This was something we had planned for last time but had been nixed due to floods rising the Seine water level too high to get under some of the bridges. It was nice to get out of the cold and sit back, relax, and enjoy floating past the beauty of historic Paris. C liked the sweets I bought her, sitting down with her toys, and occasionally looking out the windows.
The weather had cleared by the time the boat returned; it was lovely for a walk. But as we headed up Rue Royale, just off of the Place de la Concorde, I caught a couple trying to steal my wallet. The sidewalk was narrow and I could sense the people behind us were walking very, very closely. I figured they wanted to pass, so I pulled C over to the building wall to let them by, and in so doing pulled my handbag, which was over my shoulder, back to my side. And it was then I noticed that the zipper on my bag was undone and my wallet half-way out. The couple–a very tall man and a petite woman, both dressed very well–immediately began to play out a ridiculous drama, pointing at shop signs in an exaggerated manner and then they ducked into the nearest store. But I walked only a little ahead of that shop and sure enough, they popped back out within 30 seconds.
There were no police around. They had not succeeded. There was little I could think to do. I rooted around in my bag and could not see anything was missing. But I felt violated nonetheless. The whole rest of the walk back I could not stop obsessing about what had just happened, what could have just happened. And trying to explain this to C – why people would do this and about my reaction. I have been many, many places in the world, at least 90 countries, and only once did someone succeed in pick-pocketing me – in China. On two other occasions, in Jakarta and Rome, someone tried but I caught them. I feel as if this is a good thing, and yet the whole situation only left a bad taste in my mouth.
Once back in the hotel room, I did not feel like going out again. But we did not like the room service menu, so I opted to head out to the supermarket around the corner. I felt irrationally fearful; I clutched my bag to my body. But just before the supermarket, I saw a family–a man, woman, and their two children–sitting on a blanket preparing to sleep for the night, and something possessed me to ask if I could buy them something. They did not speak more than a few words of English, so could not ask, but through hand signals, we worked out that the mother and the older daughter would accompany me. They moved quickly through the store, I expect fearful that if they took too long I would change my mind. When I found them in the back of the store, they had two full baskets. I could see they also were worried I would make them put something back, but I just motioned them to follow me. I paid for everything and we stepped outside. The girl thanked me and then threw her arms around my waist and hugged me fiercely. In broken English, I learned she was nine years old and they are from Syria. I had a lot of conflicting feelings, so much sadness, anger at the pickpockets and the circumstances that brought this young family to the street. These were different sides of Paris.
The next day, our last full one in Paris, we were going to try to get to the Eiffel Tower. The day started out overcast again, but the temperature was comfortable and we had a pleasant walk. About 20 minutes out I logged on to the Eiffel Tower website to buy our tickets and saw they were all sold out! Oh no! I felt bummed– the second time to the city with C and both times we did not go up the Tower. But once we arrived there, the line to buy tickets at the cashier was not long. I guess so many people now opt for the skip-the-line-admission option that it can actually be possible to sometimes just walk up, wait ten minutes, buy your tickets, and ascend.
We opted for the lift up, walk down option. Perhaps one day when C and I return we will go to the top, but I had heard the best views were really from the second level. And once again we were rewarded with a change in the weather and stunning views across Paris. I could feel the bad feelings of the day before evaporating with the sun. C was a champ, she took the 674 steps back down in stride, even after all the walking we had already done. We headed back across the river and dined in the very same establishment we had the day before, and it was just as wonderful. Then we strolled back towards the Tuileries to visit the Christmas market. I was happy to see the Roue de Paris (the Paris Ferris Wheel) that had been removed from its semi-permanent location at the Place de la Concord soon after our last visit had made a comeback in the Christmas market.
The market was fun, festive, and chock full of many, many goodies. C wanted to play fairground games as I have only once before let her do so. After many, many tries she finally won – a cellphone holder. Ha! And then we hopped aboard the Roue for a few spins with a different view. This time we could look over the Tuileries, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the Louvre, and the grand buildings along the Rue de Rivoli, again also with spectacular afternoon sunlight. And as we left the market to head back to our hotel a double rainbow appeared. It was a glorious end to an overall wonderful trip.
The following day we slept late and then caught a taxi to the airport (the hotel informed us that the Roissy bus to the airport would likely not run given it was a Yellow Vest protest day). It was okay. I did not want to run into anything else that might taint the memories of this trip. Because I was pretty sure C had by then much forgiven me for giving her the gift of Paris.
The second and final installment of our amazing trip to northern Finland in early December 2019.Rovaniemi. Fourteen months ago I had never heard of this small city located just four miles south of the Arctic Circle in Finland’s northern region of Lapland. Yet after months of planning and expectation, the name began to roll off my tongue and also come to mean grand adventure.
A confluence of events, accidents of history, turned this Arctic village into a major tourist destination. In the 1930s Rovaniemi was a good-sized trading town, a confluence for miners, loggers, and Sami reindeer herders. But during World War II, the town became a pawn between Russian and German aggression and from 1940 German forces occupied the town, building the airfield that has become Rovaniemi’s airport. As Germany’s fortunes changed, their troops’ scorched-earth tactics destroyed 90% of the city, leaving only 17 buildings standing. But in 1950 Eleanor Roosevelt made a surprise visit to survey the reconstruction efforts and the governor and mayor had a log cabin built in her honor. (And you can visit the Roosevelt Cabin today in Santa Claus Village). In 1984, the Finnish Tourism Board decided to market Lapland as the home of Santa Claus, and thus began the legend of Rovaniemi as a premier Christmas themed destination. The combination of Arctic activities and Santa Claus magic brings some 600,000 tourists a year to this city of 63,000.
Initially, we dreamed of staying in one of the glass igloos, but after looking at the prices and weighing the costs against the enjoyment, we went in a different direction. We were really lucky to find a wonderful room in a highly rated Airbnb right in the center of town. Our room at Lauri, the only 19th-century log house in Rovaniemi (not one of the 17 remaining after 1944, but was relocated to the city in 1968), had nine beds–enough for all of us and five friends, but there were few options in the city when we reserved in August. Most places other than some very pricey or characterless options were already fully booked. But the manor, located in a residential neighborhood, across from a school, and only two blocks the city center, was perfect.
We — myself, my daughter C, my best friend CZ and her son Little C — first arrived in Rovaniemi at 7:15 AM after traveling on the overnight Santa Express train from Helsinki. Traveling about ten minutes in a Santa-endorsed taxi, we were deposited at the Lauri guesthouse around eight in the morning. The hosts had given us a code that allowed us to store our luggage until we could check in later that day, and then there we were tired and hungry and a wee bit cold with children who could not pay attention because there was SNOW everywhere. We herded the kids to the one restaurant we knew would be open, a place in the nearby shopping mall. The walk took probably three times longer than it should have as C and Little C had to climb up, jump in, or touch every bit of snow along the way.
Our first day would be low key as we were all a bit knackered. Little C and I were both suffering from colds – he fell asleep in CZ’s lap and I felt as though I were still rocking to the rhythms of the train. We stayed put til 10 AM when we could make our way over to the Pilke Science Center. I would not have thought a museum on forestry and sustainable logging would be that intriguing, but the center is really well set up and kid-friendly. We easily spent a few hours here. Then we all headed back to our Airbnb to check-in and relax. CZ and I alternated time with the kids in the room so one of us could go out, do some shopping, and be child-free.
Day two was all about Santa Claus. Right after getting out of the taxi at the Santa Claus Village we made a beeline for Father Christmas’ office where we would have an opportunity to meet The Man himself. Though we waited about 20 minutes, this was not nearly as long as we expected and frankly, Santa was awesome. He is not your suburban mall Santa in a cheap red suit, but a more authentic working Santa with shirt sleeves and a traditional knitted vest and snow-covered elfish-like boots, comfy colorful socks, and a waist-length beard. He was engaging and though many were waiting to see him, we each got a bit of personal time with him. I love that he engaged the parents too.
We explored a bit around Santa’s office (i.e. the gift shop — don’t think for one second that I am some super-parent who is able to bypass such places), crossed and re-crossed the Arctic Circle, and then we had lunch at the Three Elves restaurant, where I willingly tried a bit of CZ’s reindeer burger (much to C’s chagrin). The next stop was Snowman World (which is created of ice and snow every year), where we enjoyed some beverages at the ice bar, some snow tubing, and admired the ice sculptures. Then we spent some time at the Elf’s Farm Yard petting zoo to meet a few reindeer resting after flying school, feed some very furry and ornery goats, then roasted marshmallows over a fire in the Arctic version of a teepee, and C and Little C joined some other kids in sledding down a small hill. At about 4:30 PM we called it quits. That might seem early, but the sun had already set three hours before and we had been out and about in the cold for over six hours. And we needed to rest up for our next adventure…
Dog-sledding! Although visiting Santa was a key focus of the trip, something very special for the kids, dogsledding was the top activity on CZ and my Rovaniemi to-do lists. Driving a sleigh pulled by adorable and excited dogs across the snow was CZ’s and my ultimate bucket list activity on this ultimate bucket list vacation. We were as excited, if not more, than the kids. Ok, I am 100% positive we were more excited, we could especially see this as we changed into the tour organization- provided sleigh gear. C and Little C were not so keen on the ski suit, hats, socks, and boots that turned them into stiff-armed and legged zombie-like marshmallows. But once outside getting our dog-sled driving instruction in front of hundreds of uber-excited huskies, the kids too perked up.
As the tour operator led us to our sleighs, the excitement of the dogs was palpable. The dogs were barking keenly; they were jumping, leaping, straining against their harnesses, lots of tongues lolling and tails wagging. They could hardly wait to get going. These incredible dogs – Alaskan Huskies – can four together pull 150 kilos weight, average 10-14 kilometers per hour, and often run about 150 kilometers a day. To fuel this incredible energy, the dogs consume about 10,000 calories a day!! Sitting around is not in their nature. The most important part of our dog-sled driving training was the use of the brake!
CZ and I alternated our time driving the sled, 30 minutes each. It was exhilarating. The temperature on our dog-sled day was below freezing with snow flurries. As we slid our way through the forest and then out onto an open field, small, hard snow pelted my face, the only exposed part of my body. It kinda hurt and yet I could not wipe the ridiculous grin from my face. On several occasions, I laughed out loud with joy I could not contain. My 30 minutes felt like it was up in a split second and I didn’t want to give up the driving seat. This was hands down one of the best activities I have ever done in my life.
We had already learned that being cold can be tiring. It turns out driving a dog sled is also exhausting. So the combination meant that we were not keen on doing much else. We ate at a Japanese restaurant (none of these in Malawi!) for lunch and then the kids played in the snow in the city center. That evening CZ took both kids to a baking class in a traditional Finnish home while I hung out in the room watching Finnish television.
The following day we joined a tour to the Ranua Wildlife Park, an Arctic Zoo (and second northernmost zoo in the world), located an hour south of Rovaniemi. There were some cool Arctic animals there from the Arctic fox to the polar bear, the wolverine to the grey wolf, and a nice wooden walkway through the exhibits. I had never been to a wildlife park of this kind and I knew that this was something C and I would enjoy, but, to be honest, it was not quite as magical as I had hoped. I think in part as we were on a tour, and although we hung back from the group and walked at our own pace, we still were herded on and off the bus and through the disappointing buffet lunch. And Little C was definitely not so keen on the zoo and wanted to make sure we all felt his displeasure.
That evening C and I tried to have an evening of pseudo-normalcy, to do things we are unable to do in Malawi. We planned to eat dinner at McDonald’s (once the northernmost franchise in the world, now the second most northern) and then go and see a movie. CZ and Little C do not partake of McD’s and Little C will not sit through a movie, so this was to be a mother-daughter outing. Unfortunately, the only age-appropriate movie was a universally panned movie about a dog, but C loves dogs so I was up for it. I had checked carefully that the film would be in English, but once there the ticket seller informed us that they had previously shown the English version but no one had come, so now it was in Finnish, and that was a no-go. But we did get our McD fix.
On Friday, our last full day in Rovaniemi, we returned to Santa Claus Village to get in a few more wintry activities. We took two sleighs pulled by reindeer – the kids in one and the adults in another (fifteen minutes to ourselves, hooray!). Although just a 1000 meter-ride through the village, the route slipping quietly along a path bounded by snow-covered silver birch trees was enchanting. I am not sure how the kids felt — they had indicated that the reindeer were too slow to their liking — but CZ and I would have been happy to be pulled along quite a bit longer.
To satisfy the kids’ need for speed, we headed next to the snowmobile park where children could take a spin around a track on their own. I expect for some parents it might seem crazy to let kids do this, but I expect the Finns know a thing or two about winter sports from an early age. The man running the course asked each child if they had driven a snowmobile before (many had!) and if they did not, he gave them some quick instruction on a model nearby. Both our kids kept their speeds moderate and reported the experience as top-notch.
After lunch we then headed over to Santa Park, a few kilometers away. While Santa Village is mostly outdoors and free to visit (you just pay for the experiences), Santa Park is entirely indoors. In fact, it is all underground. Surprisingly, the place was not crowded at all (the website had indicated popular times and days with large groups, so we planned our visit outside those times), and we had good seats for Elf School (where incredibly in-character performers took us through a fun activity), almost no wait for the miniature train ride, close to the stage view for a short acrobatic play, and waited all of five minutes to see Santa. It was not my favorite place in Rovaniemi, but it was enjoyable and a nice to be indoors for a change.
Our final day, Saturday, was a partial day as we would return to Helsinki on the overnight train departing Rovaniemi at 6 PM. Funnily enough, friends of mine with whom I served with in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and are now in Romania had booked a trip to Rovaniemi arriving by train the day we left, and even more improbably, had reserved at the same Airbnb! So when they arrived in town SP and their two kids came to relax in our room while RP went to pick up their rental car. All the kids seemed to instantly bond and I had a chance to catch up a little. After they headed off for the day we did our final packing, stored our luggage, and then headed out for Mexican food (Another thing we really cannot get in Malawi and honestly I did not expect in northern Finland). We then spent a few hours at the Arktikum, a museum dedicated to exploring and sharing the nature, culture, and history of northern regions. C, Little C, and I grabbed the kids activity book at the front desk and headed off into the museum while CZ checked out the Christmas market in the lobby. I had to move a bit quicker through the exhibits with two kids keen on completing their activity than I would on my own, but the center is impressive and even displays on Arctic animals, the northern lights, and, surprisingly, northern bog biodiversity caught their attention. My favorite part was the northern light simulator. Well, it was more like sitting in a planetarium and watching a movie on the formation of the aurora borealis and legends surrounding the phenomenon. In Finnish, the name for the Northern Lights is “revontulet,” which means “fox fire” and is derived from a Sámi story of a magical fox running across the snow-covered fells whose tail would emit sparks of light. My daughter loves foxes, they are her new favorite animal, and I thought she would enjoy seeing the lights based on this tale. Unfortunately, during our visit there was only one night of even middling chance to see the lights, the night after our epic dog sledding, and all of us were just too tired (it required being out in the cold until at least midnight). But the Artikum’s display kind of made up for it.
That night on the return train I marveled how this small city of 63,000 inhabitants, not only had risen from the ashes of war but had also ingeniously crafted a niche tourism industry. I also could not help but think how the small city had more restaurants, cultural activities, and entertainment venues than the nearly 1 million strong Malawi capital. It’s an unfair comparison, I know, given Rovaniemi’s location in developed Northern Europe, but the thought came to me nonetheless. However, I have to say once back in Helsinki for one more day, and being able to peel off a few layers of clothes (I wore three pairs of pants in Lapland – a pair of long underwear, then a pair of heavy leggings, then a pair of ski pants!!) and even more so to when I returned to the lush green warmth of Malawi in the rainy season, that I while glad for the opportunity to experience northern Finland in winter, I was also glad to be home.
About 14 months ago, while chatting online with one of my best friends CZ, she happened to mention her interest in taking her son Little C to Rovaniemi, the small city in northern Finland, in the region of Lapland, known as the Official Hometown of Santa Claus, around Christmas. She had just read an article about it. Funny thing is, I had also just read a similar article and had stayed up late researching the possibilities just the night before. We went back and forth a few times – excitedly discussing the possibilities, sending one another links to possible activities and lodging – but then it fell out of our conversation. Lapland seemed really far away, further away than just time and distance. Nonetheless, the seeds of this adventure were planted.
Last July during our Home Leave, we visited CZ in North Carolina, and our conversation again turned to the topic of winter vacation in Lapland. And this time, the planning came fast and furious. I messaged my colleague in Malawi to ask if he were okay with my taking leave in early December. Although likely a wee bit annoyed I was asking about it in July, he agreed. CZ and I arranged our flights – she with points, me with miles – and then a week later, with each of us in different locations, we logged on to the Finnish railway website to simultaneously purchase our Santa Express overnight train tickets (in adjacent compartments). In August, I happened to find a great place to stay on Airbnb; I messaged CZ while she was out shopping, and that afternoon (evening for me) we had our lodging. Holy moly – we were heading to Lapland in December! Nothing would stop us now (unless my new boss denied my leave – but thankfully that did not happen).
Once back in Lilongwe, with all the primary logistics worked out, I settled back into my Malawi routine. Actually, work was really busy, nothing felt routine, and thoughts of heading north for the winter were pushed to the back of my mind. Around October though, it began to dawn on me what I had done. We were going to the Arctic Circle in WINTER. What had I been thinking?? I may have grown up in the U.S state of Virginia and spent a few years working in Washington, D.C., so I had, of course, experienced some cold weather, but for much of my adult life I have largely followed what I term my “winter avoidance strategy.” I have lived in Indonesia, Singapore, Hawaii, California, the Philippines, and now Malawi: in places where it is rarely, if ever, cold. Even in Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai snow was rare. In the winter, my modus operandi is to head south, to tropical climes. I bought a condo in Florida for goodness sakes. Yet, here I was willingly preparing to head somewhere guaranteed to be quite cold, and where literally the sun would not shine, or rather never rise above the horizon in the dead of winter.
Arrival in modern developed Finland
I needed to be more prepared! I looked up websites about what to wear in Lapland in winter and either purchased the necessary gear (thick, non-cotton socks, ski gloves, ski jackets, ski pants, long underwear, waterproof winter boots, fleece hats) or CZ, who skis, would bring to loan us. Given our location and mail situation, I needed to purchase items by late October for guaranteed delivery before we departed on December 7. There could be no returns. CZ and I scoured the Internet for activity ideas and, being the planners we are, started a day-by-day itinerary for our trip. To get C excited about our overnight journey on the Santa Express, I bought the movie The Polar Express and hosted a movie-watching party for (21!) kids in our Embassy community.
And then there was nothing really more to do but wait for the day to come.
Except freak out.
Because this vacation was one in which I was putting myself WAY out of my comfort zone. If it wasn’t the freezing temperatures then it might be the 2 1/2 hours of daylight (or rather the 21 1/2 hours of darkness) that would get to me. I would bear all of this to take my child to see Santa Claus before Christmas, to possibly secure myself the Mother of the Year trophy. Or die trying.
Right: Helsinki around 2:30 PM from the steps of the Cathedral overlooking the Christmas market; Left: Downtown Helsinki around 5 PM
On December 7 we began our journey. Any travel from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is tricky. From the less-visited Malawi to Helsinki trickier still. And then throw in the random routing from my “free” ticket and you get our Lilongwe-Addis-Istanbul-Helsinki routing. It wasn’t pretty, but we landed in Helsinki around 11 AM on December 8, excited as we could be.
We changed from our travel clothes to our Helsinki in winter clothes, then caught the train to the city center. Along the way, C marveled at the sights from the train window. What caught her eye first and foremost? Orderly, pothole-free, multi-lane roads and functioning traffic lights! (“Mom, look! Look at these roads! Imagine if Malawi had roads like this?! Look at the lights, they are working!!”) Even the train and the train station were delights. We stashed our luggage in the left luggage lockers at the station, then got some lunch. While there CZ and Little C, who had arrived in Helsinki two days before, met us.
We had a few hours to kill before our 18:49 departure on the Santa Express from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, so we headed first to the Christmas market located in the square below the city’s iconic Cathedral. We browsed the quaint Christmas booths, bought hot Gluhwein and hot cocoa, and sipped our drinks in heated outdoor seating booths. It was cold, but not THAT cold. And it was after all a novelty for C and myself to be wearing winter jackets, to have our noses twitch in the chilly air. The atmosphere was festive and lively and we were with our best friends. Even the sun setting at 3:15 in the afternoon was novel and amusing.
From the market, we headed over a few blocks to the Children’s Town at the Helsinki City Museum to let the kids burn off some energy before the train. With the early morning arrival in Rovaniemi, we wanted the kids to be ready for bed shortly after boarding. The museum did its trick. We stayed til the 5 PM closing, then walked back to CZ’s hotel, gathered up her luggage, and returned to the train station.
C’s and my compartment on the Santa Express
How do I even begin to describe the Santa Express? I used to backpack quite a bit in my 20s and early 30s and spent many a time on long train journeys in Europe and Asia. I was nostalgic for the feel of riding the rails and excited to be sharing this experience with C and our friends. CZ and I had each booked a two bunk sleeping compartment with en suite bathroom for the 12 1/2 hour journey. The compartments were tiny but well equipped. We had a small chair, table, two bunks with an alarm clock and charging stations, and could shift one wall in the tiny bathroom to reveal a shower. So clever! Scandanavian efficiency at its best.
We boarded as efficiently as one can with large suitcases and small children in a foreign country (i.e. not elegant), got our things quickly into the compartments, and then headed down to the dining car so we could park ourselves at a table. Our plan worked beautifully. We had the first choice of tables and no line at the restaurant counter service and could keep the kids and ourselves busy until bedtime. By 9 PM we were ready to turn in.
I so want to be able to say that I slept like a baby, lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train as it slipped north. The berth mattress was not uncomfortable; we were not cold beneath the provided comfortor. The train’s rhythmic swaying and muffled clickety-clack were comforting. But I had a cold I had picked up in Addis Ababa where I had been the week before on a business trip and coughed enough to keep me awake, and I could hear poor Little C, also with a cold, coughing on his side of our thin shared wall. C insisted she needed to sleep with me and we were wedged together in one berth. Not terrible mind you, but I had very little space to maneuver. And though we had few stops en route, I awoke each time with the squealing of brakes then lurching re-start with the train whistle. Not altogether unpleasant sounds, but unfamiliar and I am not as sound a sleeper as C.
We woke around 6:30 to prepare for the 7:15 arrival at Rovaniemi. We changed into our “really cold weather” clothes, packed up our bags, and pulled up the compartment blinds. Outside it was dark, and yet not the sort of black night that descends upon Malawi. Perhaps it was the 3/4 sized moon (waxing gibbous) reflecting brightly off the snow-covered ground, but certainly, there were electric lights on the train and from the stations and towns we passed that also contributed to the relative brightness. There was definitely a lot of snow on the ground. Ice encrusted our compartment window. We had traveled through the night to awaken in a true winter wonderland. We were here!
Arrival at the snow and ice-encrusted Rovaniemi
We readied to disembark and then, well, things happened. Things that happen to moms when traveling with kids. In the final shuddering of the train as it braked into Rovaniemi station, Little C, sitting in the upper bunk, lost the contents of his stomach. CZ managed a record-breaking speedy clean-up and final gathering of belongings, and we all flung ourselves gracelessly off the train. C and Little C speeding like bullets aimed themselves directly at the biggest piles of snow. CZ and I circled the wagons so to speak, gathering our belongings to do the necessary arrival checks. CZ noticed Little C was in the snow sans his hat and a quick search of her bags indicated it had not made it off the train. Back onto the train, she emerged a minute later victorious, only to find her phone was then missing. I pulled off my gloves and fumbled to locate my phone with newly-installed European SIM card, turn it on, and then call her phone. Back into the train she went, once again returning triumphant. Whew!
Santa, or his spies, are everywhere in Rovaniemi
C and Little C, oblivious to the whole drama, continued to frolic in the snow. Though we were both a wee bit rattled at the close call and thanked our lucky stars the train stopped for 20 minutes at Rovaniemi before heading to its final destination, CZ and I congratulated ourselves in making it this far. We were the last people standing on the snowy platform so we corralled the kids and began trudging towards the station to flag a taxi to our lodging.