That Weekend We Tried to be “Normal”

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We are not very good at being normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montecasino

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Escape to the Cape (Town)

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C jumps for joy atop Table Mountain

Cape Town.  I have long wanted to visit.  In 2010 I visited South Africa.  I was living in Jakarta and one of my best friends was living in Luanda, so we met up in Johannesburg for ten days of Jo’burg, Pretoria, and Kruger National Park.  But not Cape Town.  So after years of hearing about the city that some say is their favorite in Africa, and others say is their favorite in the world, it was time to experience it for myself.

Cape Town.  I have long wanted to visit.  In 2010 I visited South Africa.  I was living in Jakarta and one of my best friends was living in Luanda, so we met up in Johannesburg for ten days of Jo’burg, Pretoria, and Kruger National Park.  But not Cape Town.  So after years of hearing about the city that some say is their favorite in Africa, and others say is their favorite in the world, it was time to experience it for myself.

First we had to get there.  Seems simple enough.  Go to airport.  Get on plane.  Fly to South Africa.  If it is just you traveling, it probably is that straightforward.  If you are traveling with a minor…  Nope.  In 2015, South Africa instituted new laws for anyone — South African or otherwise — traveling with children under the age of 18.  Along with a passport, your child(ren)’s unabridged birth certificate is now an essential travel document.  This is if you are one or two parents traveling together with your kids.  If you are married but not traveling together, you need to have the affidavit granting permission.  And if you are a single parent you are supposed to travel with whatever document gave you that status — a divorce decree, a death certificate.  My status is fairly simple; I have never been married and I am the only parent on the birth certificate.  Yet that fact seemed to complicate things when traveling to South Africa with my child. The year before the American Citizen Services section in Pretoria had said I would be good with just my daughter’s birth certificate.  It was time to check that.

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View of Chapman’s Peak and Hout Bay from SC’s home

We rolled up to the check-in desk.  I smiled at the woman.  She smiled at me.  I handed over our passports.  Then she asked for the birth certificate and an affidavit.  I handed over the BC but said I did not have an “affidavit.”  The woman left the desk with the BC and huddled together with another woman.  They looked at the BC.  They looked at me.  They looked at one another.  What the what?  She then returned and began typing away on the computer – not a word to me.  Were we getting boarding passes or not?  After some seconds that felt much, much longer, I asked.  She told me the BC was sufficient.  Whew.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  But then she stepped away again.  Again some consultations with the supervisor.  She returned.  “I am afraid that we are going to need the affidavit.  Please step aside.”  Oh no!  I pulled out my secret weapon–a notarized document everyone had told me was unnecessary.  She looked it over, told me all was in order, and then printed out our boarding passes.  Crisis averted.  We were on our way!

Our flight took us to Johannesburg, where we cleared immigration (no single parent issues there), and then flew on to Cape Town.  My friend from college, SC sent an Uber to pick us up.  It took a wee bit of work to find him.  Once in the car I joked with the driver that the parking garage at the airport is larger than most buildings in Malawi (though I expect its true).  We wound through the darkened streets from the airport to SC’s home.  Even in the darkness, the development compared to Malawi was obvious.  At SC’s home, a smallish but beautifully appointed condo fronting the beach at Hout Bay, SC and I spent time catching up on old times and new while C and SC’s daughter M got to know one another.

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Norval Foundation sculpture garden

On our first full day we puttered around in the morning in our pajamas having a long leisurely breakfast while the kids played.  We took advantage of SC’s amazing view of the bay from both her yard and balcony.  Then we all headed out to the Norval Foundation to meet a half dozen of SC’s mom friends and their kids for a Mother’s Day lunch.  It was an interesting group, including another American Foreign Service Officer (working at the Cape Town Consulate) and another single mother.

The Norval Foundation is a just-opened (only two weeks before our visit) private museum of contemporary and South African art and sculpture garden, in addition to an incredibly beautifully designed restaurant.  There we gathered for an epic luncheon lasting over three hours.  Part of the reason it took so long was extremely slow service, but it was also the conversation.  And while the moms talked, the kids took advantage of the garden.  I regret I did not walk the whole garden or visit inside the museum!

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C as a squirrel monkey playground

On Monday SC had some morning meetings and M had preschool, so I booked my very first Uber driver to take C & I to the World of Birds (and surprise, surprise, our first Uber driver was a woman from Malawi!).  My initial impression of the place was not favorable.  I thought we might only spent 30 minutes, maybe an hour there.  But I was wrong.  World of Birds may predominantly feature birds, but there are many other animals there.  C particularly enjoyed seeing the guinea pigs, marmoset, servals (mostly she enjoyed that one serval took an immediate dislike to me and growled and hissed at me), and the squirrel monkeys.  The last were the absolute best as visitors can go inside the enclosure, sit still, and if monkeys crawled on you, then so be it.  We easily spent 30 minutes there alone.  C also loved the birds.  She took a liking in particular to the golden pheasant, which she immediately (and correctly) identified as Chinese.

 

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Penguins at Boulder’s Beach

That afternoon we met up again with SC and M, and headed to Noordhoek via the stunning Chapman’s Peak drive (rated as one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world).  There we enjoyed a long, late lunch while the children wore themselves out on the playground.  At 4 SC headed out–she would fly to London that night on business.  The girls and I returned to SC’s house for an evening of play and silliness.

Tuesday found C and I saying goodbye to M and her nanny, then Uber-ing to our hotel in the heart of Cape Town.  We settled in quickly and then walked to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront.  There we rode the Cape Wheel, visited the Two Oceans Aquarium, and searched for the best rocks at the Scratch Patch.  These were all fun, but there were also simple pleasures we had missed in Malawi — eating at McDonald’s (please do not judge — there are none in Malawi), walking through a shopping mall, the presence of sidewalks.

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View of the Peninsula from the Cape Point lighthouse

The following day we headed out on an epic tour of the Cape Peninsula.  We were once again blessed with stunning weather.  I had planned for weather in the region of 60-70 degrees but we were getting mid to upper 70s, even 80s.  The sky a dazzling blue.  While some may eschew the group bus tour, I sometimes find it provides just what we need.  This tour took us to Boulder’s Beach at Simon’s Town to see the penguins and the Cape Point National Park, to include the lighthouse, funicular, and the Cape of Good Hope.

IMG_0807This is someplace I had long wanted to visit, but I can not even begin to describe seeing it in person, being there with my daughter.  Everything was perfect.  Well, not everything.  There are downsides to taking a group tour after all.  One being having to wait for folks who are not conscious of other peoples’ time.  There was a walking tour from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope.  The guide informed us all beforehand that the hike would require a level of fitness, i.e. those with heart, back, feet, knee, breathing or other such problems should not join.  And still someone joined who should not have, and we all had to wait an extra hour for that individual to make their way to the bus.  This brought us back to the city late and earned us another hour sitting in traffic.

The obligatory trip up Table Mountain was next on our agenda.  Again, the day broke to reveal another absolutely beautiful day.  We took the hop on hop off sightseeing bus to the Table Mountain visitor’s center.  I had read of the potential long lines at the aerial cableway and could hardly believe our luck to find there was no line at all!  We simply paid and walked right on.  The gondola is large, it can hold 65 passengers, but it too was only half full.  What magic was this?  And then, the car began to rotate.  No kidding.  Although I had read up enough to know the aerial cableway existed, I had not known it would turn.  Mind blown.  And the views.  Wow.

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View from the cable car as it nears the top; a dassie chills out

At the top we took our time.  With the temps in the 70s and us standing 3500 feet atop a near-bare stone plateau, we were in need of some popsicles.  While looking out towards the southwest, with the spine of the mountains directly in front with the ocean against one slope, we caught sight of what appeared to be a large rodent of sorts on the terrace below.  My daughter, being the animal lover she is, identified it as a hyrax.  Turns out locals call them dassies.  But dassie or hyrax they were plentiful and inquisitive, and our visit to Table Mountain turned into as much about spotting these creatures as drinking in the breathtaking views.

We continued on the sightseeing bus back to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront for lunch and then a short cruise of the harbor.  We were sleepy, lulled by the warmth of the afternoon sun and frankly little else we would see that day could compare with Table Mountain, though having Thai food and frozen yogurt at the mall sure came close.

DSC_0068The next day C and I ventured 45 minutes out of Cape Town to the Cheetah Outreach Centre.  C loves cheetahs.  They are her spirit animal.  In fact, she has told me for at least two years that she is half cheetah.  It’s true – that she tells me that.  In researching Cape Town I had found out about this place where one could not only see, but also touch cheetahs.  I had not realized how far out of town it is located.  I began to think it would be easier not to go, except that C would never forgive me.  Though I tried to explain the distance, she looked stricken at the idea of not going.  I had to make it happen.  Part of the problem was that my data roaming, though on, did not work.  I could order an Uber when connected to wi-fi, but otherwise could not.  There is no wi-fi at the center.  I thought of renting a car, but just was not keen.  I thought of pre-ordering an Uber for pick-up but was not sure how long we would need and concerned that without a connection to data, I would not be notified of the pick-up car details.  I took a chance though of just ordering an Uber and leaving it to fate to figure it out later.  And it worked.  The driver asked us how we were getting back and I took down his number and called him when we finished.

Given C’s age we were only able to take part in the adult cheetah encounter (she was too young to pet baby cheetahs, meerkat, or bat eared foxes).  No matter.  It is not every day you get the chance to stroke the fur of a live cheetah.  Though the Uber there and back cost more than the entrance and encounter fees by double, the big smile on my daughter’s face was, as they say, priceless.

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C and a squirrel have a chat

Afterwards, we headed back to town and on to the Company’s Garden.  Originally set up in the 1650s to grow produce for the Dutch East India Company “refreshment station,” where ships restocked on the voyage from Europe to the East Indies, it is now a heritage park on prime real estate in the center of old Cape Town.  And while the site of a beautiful historic garden is a good enough reason to visit, it is also the home to some incredibly hungry, and tame, squirrels.  At the park entrance several vendors sell packages of nuts to feed the very friendly rodents.  We hardly made it ten steps when a squirrel confronted us.  He knew the deal.  He knew we were newbies.  He knew enough to try to get our attention before we even entered the formal part of the garden.  Before we met his many friends.  He lucked out but so did many other squirrels.  I have never before in my life seen squirrels just run right up to people, climb up their leg, sit on their shoulder, and try to pry nuts from one’s hand.  It was so awesome.  I almost forgot that we had pet a cheetah that morning.

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Guinea fowl in Kirstenbosch

For our final day, we headed to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.  Located on the lush Eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch is touted as one of the most beautiful botanic gardens in the world.  Certainly the setting is hard to beat and the dramatic backdrop reminded me of the Limahuli Gardens in Kauai.  Our favorite part of the gardens was probably the tree canopy walkway, which literally snakes its way through the tree tops 12 meters off the ground, so much so that it is referred to as the “boomslang” (tree snake).  Our visit coincided with our first cloudy day, yet the views were no less amazing.  SC and M joined us for another long lunch at the wonderful Moyo restaurant located at Kirstenbosch.

It was not easy leaving Cape Town.  It is easy to see why it is a favorite destination.  I very nearly had to drag C kicking and screaming to leave.  She insisted she wanted to stay.  I could hardly argue; the trip had been near perfect.  We hit so many of the highlights, enjoyed fabulous weather, spent time with friends, and had many, many great experiences with wildlife.   The Cape has spoiled us for upcoming vacations.