Conakry: Living the High Life

Conakry’s Kakimbo Towers stand out

Housing at overseas post is crucial. Where you live can really make or break an assignment. If one’s place is isolated from most or all of the Embassy/Consulate community, or makes for a long commute to the Embassy/Consulate or the school, or the place is especially dark or a myriad of repairs are necessary, these could all make one’s tour more challenging. I believe that at more difficult posts, the housing is even more important.

I have had pretty good luck with my housing. Though I have not always been assigned my first choice from the housing questionnaire and there were certainly times I experienced some housing envy (I am especially looking at you Jakarta), each of my government assigned homes have been very good. In Conakry, we hit the proverbial lottery and were placed in the capital’s most exclusive address: the Kakimbo Residences.

Also known as the les tours jumelles de Kakimbo or the Twin Towers of Kakimbo, the four-year old building stands 100 meters (328 feet) tall with 27 floors. It is the tallest building in Guinea by a long shot and is one of the tallest in West Africa. In my not very scientific online research I found only three other countries in the region with taller buildings – Nigeria, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire – and only 20 countries on the African continent with a taller structure. Guinea may be one of the poorest countries in the world (despite its vast and mostly untapped natural resources), but it has put itself on the map with the Kakimbo Towers.

A bird’s eye view of the Bambeto area of Conarky; the green field just before the sea is the airport; mangroves to the back left

We do not live on the 27th floor, but we are close to the top. We have tremendous views across both sides of the peninsula. From one side we can see the runway of the Ahmed Sekou Toure International Airport, a mere three kilometers away, and watch the few planes take off and land. We can see the blue waters of the sea and the seemingly empty green mangroves that border the packed city.

Though Conakry is not known to have a lot of green space, from our height we can see a surprising amount of trees. In the neighborhood directly behind our building we watch life go on down below. We watch school kids in uniform walking down the dusty streets. We see games of soccer on those same roads — the players just pick up the ball when cars pass by and then resume the game as the vehicle passes. We see laundry being hung to dry.

The Bambeto traffic circle is often a bottleneck. The three kilometers to the airport can take an hour or more to drive. That was before the construction began to turn that traffic circle into an overpass; Now it is even worse. Before heading to the supermarket or the Embassy I can get an idea of how backed up the traffic is with a quick glance out the window.

On protest days, we watch as the crowds of youth surge from the side streets on to the main Rue Le Prince. There we can watch the demonstration play out in real time but in miniature. Youth advancing and throwing. Then the trucks of the police and gendarmerie advancing; tear gas canisters emitting smoke. The protestors running to the side streets. Then youth slinking back out to challenge the law enforcement again. Makeshift barriers of tires set alight. Back and forth.

It can feel odd observing all of these goings on from on high.

A 180 degree view from my balcony toward the northern part of the Kaloum peninsula

On the other side of the apartment the views are no less spectacular. My legs always feel a wee bit jelly-like as I step out on our balcony. It is a long way down! Looking out though one can see so much greenery – a massive, verdant ravine stands between the Kakimbo property and that of the U.S. Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To our right we can watch dawn break over the distant hills where the peninsula broadens and meets Kindia prefecture and to the left see the setting sun swiftly sink into the sea in a bed of cotton candy pink clouds. From high above we can also see the deep red of Guinea’s soil that produces so much in the way of the fruits and vegetables we see in roadside markets. Much of the exposed earth near Kakimbo though is obviously being cleared for plots where government buildings will be moving from the crowded historic heart of downtown Conakry. In just four months I have watched two new roads through these areas be prepared, graded, paved, and opened.

From our apartment I feel I can see Conakry’s potential spread out before me. From that height, most everything looks beautiful, innocuous, possible.

View through the clouds – just some of the ravine, some shapes of buildings with early morning lights, and the tip of the radio tower are visible.

We are often in the clouds. I have looked out more than once and seen wet streets below but no precipitation, and assumed any rain had stopped, only to go downstairs and find it is pouring. As we were above the clouds, we didn’t see the rain.

Storms have a way of magnifying around Kakimbo. In Shanghai, we lived on the 19th floor of a 30 story building, but there were similarly tall buildings all around us. Here though, Kakimbo stands solitary. Nothing else is as tall for miles. When the wind really whips up, the clouds fly past the windows, and drafts send high pitched whistles through the apartment. The air pressure pops panels in the ceiling of the bathrooms. In our early months, in the height of the rainy season, I could not sleep through the night for all the odd creaks and groans and whistles.

Despite the height, it is not all that quiet. Sounds float up easily. Conakry is a real city. It is a busy, chaotic place. In Lilongwe, our single story ranch style home not far from the city center, was often quiet in the evenings. The noises were that of nature, of night birds singing, bats flying, the whirl of termites in the early months of the rainy season. Cars were rare in the evenings. Here, however, the traffic seems non-stop. Certainly weekdays and daytime hours are the busiest, but I can look out at any time of the night and find a steady stream of vehicles on the roads below. Their tinny, angry beeps reaching my ears at all hours.

Dawn sweeps across Conakry

There are pleasant sounds too. Roosters crowing, when far enough away, have a lovely ring. There must be many roosters in the neighborhood behind Kakimbo. Also goats, as I regularly hear their soft bleating, usually on weekends as I putter around my kitchen making breakfast. Guinea is a majority Muslim country and the competing calls to prayer of nearby mosques drift and linger in the air. I have not always had a warm relationship with the adhan. I recall in particular being brusquely woken at 4 am by a pre-recorded muezzin call broadcast loudly on a scratchy megaphone in the mosque next to my cheap accommodation in western Java. But here, with the height, it is euphonious.

There is also a commuter train, the “Conakry Express,” which transports folks from the Conakry suburbs to the tip of the Kaloum peninsula. There is a stop at the western end of the ravine and the train’s whistle as it approaches and leaves the station is audible from my apartment. I have lived near trains before – in Georgia and Japan – and just the right amount of distance can turn the drawn-out “toot-toot” into something soothing.

Our swimming pool with water features and the authentic Thai massage room

The amenities of the Kakimbo are without match in Conakry. There are two restaurants; one stand alone at the entrance to the grounds where weddings, happy hours, and other events are regularly held and another on the 27th floor of the East Tower. There is a large pool divided one part into swimming lanes and the other graced with water features – from submerged chaise lounges with massaging jets to power showers. Next to the pool is a sauna and a hammam. Below the pool are the tennis courts, basketball court, and sand volleyball court.

On the first basement floor there is a gym, squash court, karaoke room, and a yoga/dance room. For games there are pool tables, ping pong tables, foosball, and those basketball games you find in arcades where you have to sink as many baskets within a certain amount of time. But here the coins are included, thus unlimited games are free. I have spent quite a bit of time down there perfecting my arcade free throw. I plan to sweep the tickets next time I am at a Dave & Busters. There is also a Thai massage room with actual masseuses from Thailand here on one year working visas. And on the first floor there is a mini mart. Shopping is time consuming with the traffic and the need to go to two or three stores to get maybe half of what you need for at least three times the price it would be at home. To be able to get the basics from salt to soy sauce, bread to bottled water, or toilet paper and shampoo, milk and eggs just downstairs makes life in Conakry a wee bit easier.

Living in Kakimbo has many advantages, though disadvantages too. Not all is rosy here. The electricity goes out about once a day for example. Twice all the outlets on one side of the apartment stopped working. There are those wild winds whipping around the building during storms and sometimes stray bullets from police actions against protests. One is in Conakry and yet oddly removed. Though I freely acknowledge this I am also quite sure that living here was the best decision for C and I.

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A Big Birthday in Lisbon: Part Two

At Cabo de Roca, the end of Europe

This is the second of two posts about my birthday trip from Guinea to Portugal.

Thankfully, the day after my action-packed, wee bit frustrating birthday my daughter recovered from her stomach bug. We were leaving beach town Cascais for the heart of Lisbon. Before doing so, we caught another Uber (the message here is that Uber is very, very convenient in and around Lisbon) to Cabo de Roca, the windswept rocky coast that is the westernmost point of the European continent. A few years ago, C and I had visited the southern most point-ish place in Africa (because many brochures say the Cape of Good Hope is it, when its actually Cape Agulhas; we were close), so it seemed fitting. I was not quite prepared for the height of the cliffs and the cold air sweeping off the Atlantic, but the glimpses we were afforded when the clouds shifted were breathtaking.

We headed back to our hotel then to grab our luggage and then went straight to our central Lisbon hotel. I did not have big plans as I thought we should keep things more low key after all the sights from the day before. We simply walked from our hotel near the Edward VII Park to Commerce Square, about 30 minutes direct. But we meandered and took photos, passing Restauradores Square and Rossio Square, along the pedestrian shopping street through the Augusta Street archway, crossing Commerce Square, and ending at the Cais de Colonas, the stone pillars that mark a historic pier where arrivals on the Tagus River would alight in old Lisbon (Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Lisbon this way in 1957).

Fountain and theater on Rossio Square

We headed back to our hotel then to grab our luggage and then went straight to our central Lisbon hotel. I did not have big plans as I thought we should keep things more low key after all the sights from the day before. We simply walked from our hotel near the Edward VII Park to Commerce Square, about 30 minutes direct. But we meandered and took photos, passing Restauradores Square and Rossio Square, along the pedestrian shopping street through the Augusta Street archway, crossing Commerce Square, and ending at the Cais de Colonas, the stone pillars that mark a historic pier where arrivals on the Tagus River would alight in old Lisbon (Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Lisbon this way in 1957). We purchased a 48-hour Lisbon card at the Tourist Information center on Commerce Square and then retraced our steps back to the hotel for an early evening in.

Belem Tower

The next day we were to be up bright and early so we could use our Lisbon Card for free transportation to and included entry to the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Belem. Although both sites do not open until 10 AM, as many sites in Lisbon have a later start than most Americans are used to, I still was unsuccessful in my plan. We just got started a bit late, then got on the bus going in the wrong direction, and the bus took longer to wind its way to Belem. By the time we arrived it was 10:30 AM and there was already a significant line outside the Jeronimos Monastery. The Lisbon Card advertised a “fast track” entrance to the monastery but the two guys manning the ticket purchase area had themselves a hearty laugh at my expense when I asked about it. Thinking back to that line at Pena Palace, I just could not bring myself to join the queue.

Monument to the Discoveries

I made the executive decision to skip it for the day and instead head over to Belem Tower. I figured that there might be a similar line there as well, and then I would have to do some hard thinking about what we were going to do that day. Imagine my surprise when we approached the iconic 16th century fortification, that there was no line at all. None. I began to wonder if it were closed given it was a public holiday (Republic Day). But it was open. I could not believe out luck. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly last as the stairwell to the tower’s top terrace, hailed online as the crown of any visit, was closed for no discernible reason. I found no explanation at the site itself or online. Still, it was another beautiful day and we were visiting one of Portugal’s most recognizable historic buildings.

As it was close by, we then walked over to the Monument to the Discoveries, a massive sculpture commemorating the Portuguese Age of Discovery with figures of Henry the Navigator and Vasca de Gama and 32 other Portuguese explorers along the river where many of their vessels set out on their journeys.

The Madre de Deus Convent at the National Tile Museum

We hopped on the 15E tram to head back down to Commerce Square where we did the 20-minute Virtual Reality experience at the Lisbon Story Center. With that it feels like you are flying over the key locations of Lisbon, Sintra, and Cascais, which was pretty fun since we had just visited nearly all of those sites recently. We got lunch and then rounded out our day with a visit to the National Tile Museum. The glazed ceramic tiles, or azulejos, can be found all over Portugal, in and on public buildings and private homes. The National Tile Museum incorporates the 16th century Madre de Deus Convent. It’s church is an extravagant display of carved exotic wood, golden framed paintings, and exquisite tile work. It is overwhelming and stunning. When we lucky the chapel was open during our visit.

The following day we headed first to the monastery. This time leaving earlier, on the correct bus, and arriving thirty minutes before the 10 AM opening. It was a completely different scene — we were one of the first in line and though there were a good number of people milling around, there was not the two long lines to get into the monastery’s cloister and the adjacent Church of Santa Maria. Instead of two guys laughing at my asking about the Lisbon Card’s “fast” line, we were actually let in to the cloisters at 9:45. I do not know if this happens regularly or not, but it wonderful to be some of the first people inside for the day.

The cloisters of the Jeronimos Monastery

The cloisters are breathtaking. There is zero doubt as to why UNESCO declared the monastery and the Tower of Belem as world heritage sites. The stone craftsmanship, the attention to detail, the architecture… I have run out of superlatives for this post. We saw so many beautiful sites on our trip but the cloisters were hands down my favorite. We also visited the Church of Santa Maria, which includes the tomb of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

We once again headed back to Commerce Square, stopping briefly to check out the Pasteis de Belem, which has been making Lisbon’s famous pastel de nata, an egg custard tart, since 1837. I had planned for us to give this Portuguese dessert delicacy a try there at the shop, but the lines out the door and down the block had made me change my mind. The tart was ubiquitous in and around Lisbon. Each of our hotels had them out for breakfast. Many restaurants had them on the menu. Pastry shops around town sold them. So we did have one and it was flaky and creamy and so, so good. But it was probably not the original, and that’s okay.

Back at Commerce Square we went into the Lisbon Story Center, an interactive museum where visitors follow a set route through the museum with a headset that told the history of the city. Though some displays were a little campy, overall it was really well done.

Some views from our walks including the Santa Justa Lift (center)

Then we walked. And walked. And walked. Lisbon is a city built on hills and walking can be challenging but also rewarding with something beautiful on every block. We walked a lot during our trip in Portugal and it felt wonderful. I have always loved walking and it really hits me how much so when we are at a Post where we are unable to walk much. Conakry is one of those places. With few to no sidewalks, few shoulders and often deep ditches next to the road, and high vehicle traffic that will take as much road space as possible, we do not walk. I am grateful my 10-year old is usually up for walking during our holidays as I am.

Because of the hills, Lisbon has also built quite a few public transportation options to include the metro, trams (or trolleys), tram-like funiculars, and even one elevator – the Santa Justa Lift, inaugurated in 1901. With a strong desire to get around on our own two feet we did not use much of the transport — the bus and trolley a few times, and the lift, which is also a tourist attraction.

I had debated about taking a day trip from Lisbon to Obidos or Evora, both of which I had visited 20 years before and unlike Lisbon I actually remember some of. However, every time I looked at the train or tour options, I did not feel strongly about going. Honestly, the move and settling phase of Guinea has been challenging and tiring and I did not want my vacation to be more of the same. There was plenty to keep us happy and occupied right in Lisbon.

With that in mind I booked us a two hour tuk-tuk tour of the city’s street art. We had already seen (or planned to still see) most of the historic sights on foot or by Uber, so I wanted to do something a little different. And after we had seen the comic art murals of Brussels, I loved the idea of seeing something similar in Lisbon.

Some of my favorite Lisbon murals

It was a great tour on yet another beautiful, warm day. We saw mostly painted murals but there were also tiles, stenciled art, and stylized graffiti. The tour included getting us to some neighborhoods and viewpoints that we would not have likely gotten to on foot. I also loved that our guide was a former investment banker who after some 25 years of the grind retired and now motors tourists around in eco-friendly tuk-tuks. If it were not for Lisbon’s narrow streets and tricky parking situations, I might have put in an application.

After some lunch we then headed up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a mid-11th century Moorish fortification that overlooks Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods. In the park, that affords gorgeous views toward the sea, peacocks roam. C and I were flagging some. We were gung-ho about walking, but we had done quite a lot and we might have also been getting a wee bit tired of castles (it is possible!). But we enjoyed the visit and the ice cream that helped give us strength to walk back down the hill and back to our hotel.

Our final day in Lisbon, we visited yet one more palace, the 18th century Queluz National Palace, which took us briefly back into the Sintra district. C and I had been looking online at the top castles and palaces in the world and one listed Queluz. It did not seem wrong to miss out it when it was so close. To my untrained eye it seemed similarly decorated as the Pena Palace but with larger rooms, less furnishings, and far fewer tourists. The highlights for me were the extraordinarily tiled canal, the Don Quixote room where a former Portuguese king had both been born and died, and the fountain of Neptune.

Queluz Palace

There was no use denying though that we had exceeded our palace viewing threshold. In fact, as incredulous at it seemed, I was beginning to miss our Conakry apartment, our cats, the joy of a quiet weekend with no pressure to get out and sightsee.

We made one last stop at the 18th century Aqueducto des Aguas Livres, part of the Museum of Water that showcases the fascinating efforts to bring drinking water to the city. We walked along the top of the aqueduct about a kilometer out and back and then once again walked back to our hotel with a stop for lunch.

C enjoyed seeing another part of Europe and declared that she liked Lisbon even more than Brussels. She even said that perhaps she would like to retire there. Though at 10, it might be a wee bit premature for her to be contemplating retirement. I am so glad I chose to spend my special birthday in and around Lisbon. As a backpacker 20 years ago I had not given nearly enough time to the city, and I feel this trip rectified that mistake.

A Big Birthday in Lisbon: Part One

It isn’t every day one turns a certain venerable age. Months before arriving in Conakry, I thought I could maybe make do with a three-day weekend but I was not sure there would be a place in Guinea that could really fit the bill. When I saw my daughter’s school schedule for the year included two holidays that same week, meaning she would miss only three days of school, I knew I wanted to take a week off. I initially zeroed in on Senegal, as one of my goals was to visit a new country. But after our trip to Belgium in August I realized that travel from Guinea is tricker than from other places I have lived and I wanted a bit more of Europe to celebrate such an important milestone. Lisbon is the easiest from Conakry, a direct, four and a half hour flight. Though I had been to Portugal before, it was twenty years ago, and I hardly remember the Lisbon part at all.

It may be a short, direct flight, but the schedule, like most flights from Guinea, kind of sucks. The TAP Portugal flight takes off from Ahmed Sekou Toure International Airport at 11:45 PM and lands at Lisbon’s Herberto Delgado Airport at 5:15 AM. That does not give one a whole lot of time to sleep and be able to do much of anything the next day. With that in mind, I reserved us a hotel quite close to the airport. After we touched down on time, went through immigration, and found ourselves in arrivals, it was 7 AM. But the sun was not yet up. We grabbed some breakfast, took a little break, and then we decided to walk to the hotel. By the time we arrived it was 7:30 AM and they were nice enough to check us in. We took a long nap and by noon we could head out.

An unbelievably gorgeous day in Lisbon

My daughter and I jumped into an Uber to head down to the Parque das Nações for a quick lunch. We then visited the Oceanarium, Lisbon’s top-notch aquarium. I love aquariums; I have visited some thirty of them worldwide. We had a great visit except that one of its stars, Stella the Sunfish, had passed away just a few weeks before. And my daughter’s second favorite fish (yes, she has favorite fish) is the sunfish. (Her first is the pufferfish) Afterwards, we rode the cable car for a fantastic view. The weather was absolutely perfect. Then we had an early, low-key evening with Uber Eats back in our hotel. Delivery is few and far between in Conakry (at least to my knowledge) so something so simple can be a treat.

The following morning we took another Uber out to our hotel in Cascais, the once fishing village turned royal retreat and reportedly playground of the rich and beautiful. Someone told me that it was like the Portuguese Hamptons. I did not know this when I made the reservation. I also did not know when I booked my hotel, the Grande Real Villa Italia, that it had once been the home of Humberto II, the last king of Italy. I just wanted to be somewhere lovely by the water.

The chapel and initiation well at Quinta de Regaleira

The Grand Real Villa Italia Hotel (quite a name, don’t you think?) could not accommodate an early check-in, so we placed our luggage with the concierge and then took another Uber to the Quinta de Regaleira in Sintra. I had only just read about this destination the day before; it had, for some reason, not been on my radar. However, I am very glad we were able to visit this gorgeous estate. There is a 19th century Manueline villa (late Gothic) where guests can see some of the rooms, but the highlight of the visit are the extensive extraordinary gardens full of surprises like towers and grottoes, benches, underground passageways, and water features. The most popular is the Initiation Well, a 27-meter deep spiral passageway to subterranean tunnels that immediately reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Like many pre-teens C had zero interest in the well when I explained it to her. I thought she might find it cool that there are few, if any, other places in the world where one can descend into a well. My enthusiastic description immediately had the opposite effect on C who declared she would not go down in the well. Until we got that there, that is. Funnily enough, once she saw it she suddenly became keen to give it a try. After our visit to the Quinta, we walked down to the historic center of Sintra town for a late lunch and then an Uber back to the hotel.

That evening we had the pleasure of visiting my friend SMK, who had been a coordinator for my entry level class for the Foreign Service 11 years before. SMK is currently at the Embassy in Lisbon and invited us for a casual dinner with her family. She surprised me with a cake, ice cream, and a card. It seemed so apropos the Foreign Service to meet after 11 years, multiple countries, and several children in a coastal Portuguese town on my birthday.

C leaps for joy in front of the Sintra National Palace with the Castle of the Moors overlooking the historic town

On our second day in Cascais, my birthday, I wanted us up and out early so we could arrive at the famous Pena Palace ahead of the crowds. Though in Portugal one never needs to get up too early to visit the sites as many of them open on the later side; Pena Palace opens at 9:30 AM. We arrived at the ticket area for Pena Palace later than I would have liked, at 10 AM, but I had thought things would not be so bad on a random Monday in October. I had thought very, very wrong.

After purchasing our tickets, that included a timed entry to the palace interior at 11 AM, we walked up the steep hill. According to the information provided, it would take as much as 30 minutes to walk from the ticket area to the palace entrance, so I figured we would have a little time to walk around the park, also included in our entry. Wrong again. It actually only took us 15 minutes to get to the palace, but when we did so, we then saw a really long line outside. What could that be for given the timed entries? I found out it was the line for the 10:30 entry and up ahead some 50 people were already in line for the 11 AM entry. There was nearly 45 minutes to go, but we got in line. And we waited. And waited. The 10:30 AM entry did not begin to move until 11; we did not begin to move until 11:30. The only positive part to waiting was the woman behind us had purchased the famous travesseiros pastry from Sintra’s popular bakery Piriquita, which has been making the puff pastry dusted with powdered sugar since the 1940s.

Tourists crawling all over the stunning Pena Palace; the ruins of the Castle of the Moors (not pictured: stony faced preteen and her sweaty, exasperated mother)

Those pastries and our one bottle of water between us could only get us so far though. Even after we were finally let through the castle gates, we only ended up in yet another line to get into the palace itself. That line moved only inches per minute. It took us nearly another hour. It is hard to say because it seemed time had stood still. At least we had. Once again I made the mistake of thinking THAT would finally get us moving. But no, once inside we continued to shuffle slowly room to room. It was maddening. While online I see it is recommended to take no less than 40 minutes for the palace, we did probably take that long but not because we were admiring the rooms, reading descriptions, soaking up the atmosphere. We took longer because we could not move. I, who normally love history and palace tours (you may recall I have willingly taken tours in languages I do not speak just to get into a palace), but I grew irritated. Imagine dragging along a 10 year old? Once we finally broke out from the glacial pace of the palace on to the terrace, I very much regretted getting in that line at all and I wanted to run from person to person still waiting to tell them to save themselves and not bother, especially when I saw families with small children.

We were a bit hungry but could not stand the sight of the line at the palace restaurant. I had bought a combined ticket to see the palace and grounds, but also a ticket to the nearby Castle of the Moors. What I had thought would be maybe a two hour visit to the palace and grounds had turned into a 3 hour palace crawl (except that sounds fun, and it wasn’t fun). I was hot and thirsty and annoyed. It was my birthday. The palace is beautiful but the experience was not. I had not wanted to miss out on the surrounding park but I wanted to get away.

View of the Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel

We grabbed some water and chugged it down and then bought some more for our walk over to the ruins of the Castle of the Moors, or what C dubbed “The Great Wall of Portugal.” Though there were a good many people there it was nothing like what we had seen at Pena. It was a relief to be in the open air and be able to move, unimpeded, at our own pace. The views down to Sintra town and across the valley, all the way to the coast and also over to Pena Palace on an adjacent hilltop, were amazing.

As we had already tasted Sintra’s most famous pastry, we opted to just Uber back to Cascais, stopping in the town for some lunch and then meandering our way through the historic area, the art district around the old fortress, and then back to our hotel.

Reinvorgated by lunch we decided to enjoy some time in the hotel pool. Though it was October, the temperatures had been in the lower 80s all day. This was our only hotel with a pool on the trip and we wanted to take advantage. The sun though had not warmed the pool which felt almost as cold as an ice bath. We slowly lowered ourselves in laughing at our faces as we braved the water then swam a few laps. We cut the swim short though because we could not get used to the chill.

Perhaps Cascais’ most famous view of the Santa Maria House Museum and Lighthouse

Unfortunately, soon after the pool C got sick. I do not know what was the cause, but the long wait in hot weather and then in the warm, confined rooms of the palace, with little water, then a late lunch and a dip in an icy pool certainly did not win me any Mom of the Year points. What it did get me was a birthday evening spent taking care of my sick girl. It wasn’t great, C was miserable, but honestly, I knew she would be okay and I welcomed a quiet evening in a nice place after an action-packed day. I was still glad to be in Portugal with my daughter on my birthday.

Three Months in Conakry

Our nanny AD sitting with goats her family will donate to the needy for Tabaski

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.

The weather forecast for the coming 11 days in Conakry and a photograph I took today when I stopped to buy fruit

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.

My HHE from Malawi (stored in Europe for the past year) arrives in Conakry; the 12 man team that delivered my goods

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.

Guinea Or Bust

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.

Kucing the Diplocat gets a wee bit of air before we have to close the carrier for our long journey

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!!)

On approach to our new home in Guinea

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 touched ground in Conakry just as the sun was setting.

2022 Home Leave: Out West Adventure Part 2

Old Faithful does not disappoint; Neither does the weather

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.

Lewis Lake — from a distance the ice looked like a white sand beach

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.

At the Grand Prismatic Spring boardwalk view

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.

Some of the animals I captured with my Nikon during our visit

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.

A pronghorn deer in the Lamar Valley

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.

Petrified / Bleached trees at Mammoth

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.

The famous Flaming Orange and authentic remodeled Conestoga wagon accommodation at Chico Hot Springs

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.

The Pine Creek Road Bridge on the afternoon of June 13

And now we prepare for our next adventure: heading to Conakry, Guinea. I hope our trip there will be uneventful.

2022 Home Leave: Out West Adventure Part 1

C jumps for joy with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop

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.

A brief foray into Idaho so we could enter Grand Teton from the south via the Teton Pass

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.

I manage a money shot of the John Moulton Barn at the historic Mormon Row

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.

At Colter Bay Village’s Swim Beach

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.

Some wildlife in the Grand Tetons

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!

Our last view of the Tetons across Jackson Lake as we drove north to Yellowstone

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.

Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Home Leave

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.

C and her nanny JMC enjoy the candy store, the Jacksonville Zoo, and at James Weldon Johnson Park in downtown Jacksonville

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).

We lived it up – with COVID mitigation measures – at St. Augustine and Disney

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!)

JMC and C pose at a bus stop in Savannah, GA

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.

Coming to America Pandemic Edition: The Final Days and the Journey Back

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.

The Somewhat Reluctant Spring Break

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.

Malawi’s newest COVID-related billboard featuring the President touting the “Three W’s,” i.e. Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands

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.

One of the cats of Norman Carr Cottage living her best life

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’s original lakeside cottage (left); The beautiful carved bed in our room (right)

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.

A view of our eco-chalet from the cove entrance

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, 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.”

An extraordinary tree along our Mumbo Island hike and the view from Pod Rock

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.

C gets her zen on

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.