South Luangwa, Zambia: The First Safari

3Safaris.  African animals large and small.  It’s one of the reasons I bid to come to Malawi.  My daughter is at an age where she loves to run and explore outside and she loves animals (When I ask her what is her favorite animal she replies “all of them.”)  Shanghai was good for us in many ways, but playing outdoors was not one of them.  However, given my daughter’s age, there are actually not that many safari experiences she can participate in.  But there were opportunities in Malawi.

Soon after arrival I learned the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO) had organized a 2 1/2 day safari to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia for the Columbus Day weekend.  I signed us up immediately.

Departure day arrived.  Two months into our Malawi sojourn.  I wish I could say we were settled, but we are not quite there yet.  The house and yard are still works in progress as is my gradual learning about all things Malawi.  In this frame of mine I really needed a change of scenery, a new perspective, and some quality Mommy and C time.

We met our fellow Embassy safari enthusiasts at a central location bright and early at 7:15 AM on Saturday morning and from there boarded our Kiboko Safaris shuttle van for the trip.  The 90 minute drive to the border went quickly.  The scenery repetitious – two lane road, bicyclists, walkers, goats alongside.  Occasional village scenes.  And then we arrived at Mchinji and disembarked for immigration proceedings.

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Our South Luangwa camp accommodation

It was dusty and colorful.  There were lots of large trucks idling and parked in the space between the two immigration buildings.  Lots of people moving seemingly unencumbered between either side.  This was C’s very first land border crossing and at first she seemed annoyed to have to get off the bus for the formalities.  She has been through passport control many times in her young life, but never by land, and never quite like this.  As I already had my visa and C, as an under-16 minor did not require one, we completed immigration rather quickly on both sides.  At the Zambian immigration office I presented our World Health Organization immunization cards to prove we had been vaccinated for Yellow Fever.  Though not really an issue in either Malawi or Zambia immigration officials nonetheless ask and one can be denied entry or fined.  But on this day the official told me her Yellow Fever certificate colleague was not at work and thus it was not required. Of course not.

 

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A beautiful bee-eater in the park

The next three hours too were not eventful, which when you are careening down shoulder-less paved roads where goats and bicyclists and villages come out of nowhere is how you want your trip to be.  The smooth drive was punctuated by stops for random traffic police checks and poorly marked speed bumps, both of which Zambia has in common with Malawi.  The big surprise though was the Zambian border town of Chipata. Just 20 minutes from the border, Zambia’s fifth largest city is about half the size of Lilongwe, but it stood out in developed glory.  Parking lots with clearly defined parking spaces and no pot holes!  Four lane roads!  With curbs and sidewalks and even bike lanes!  My eyes bulged in wonder.  It had already been two months since I had seen such order and it seemed strange and foreign and magnificent.

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Neighbors

We arrived at our camp just outside South Luangwa National Park around noon.  C picked out tent, one of the closest to the river bank, and we unpacked and relaxed.  We had a few hours before 3:30 tea time and the 4 PM start to our evening safari drive.  C enjoyed the pool and I caught up on some reading.  We also met some of the other guests at the camp, which included antelope, monkeys, baboon, and white frogs.  In the river sSeparating our camp from the park, which at the height of the hot and dry season had shrunk a good 100 meters from the bank, wallowed several hippos and most likely hid more than a few Nile crocodiles.  On the other side of the camp, several bachelor hippos stood submerged in a grass-chocked pond.  At our 3:30 tea break we were informed that upon return from the four hour evening and night drive, we could no longer freely roam the camp.  Flashlight wielding sentries were posted outside our tents to escort us to and from the ablation block and cafe/bar because hippos, elephants, and other wildlife have been known to wonder through the camp at night.

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He stops on the hunt to pose for pictures

As we headed out on the first drive both C and I were giddy with excitement.  About seven years ago I had spent five days at Kruger National Park in South Africa, so this was only my second safari experience.  I had been looking forward to doing this with C for quite some time.  Within minutes we saw the hippos and elephants and antelope and baboons and cranes.  We passed over the bridge to the park and spotted more hippo in the river, then a warthog and giraffe.  All within ten minutes of starting.  Thirty minutes in and our driver’s radio sparked to life.  A leopard had been spotted!  We picked up speed and bumped over the dirt roads and across a grassy plain to a ravine where he lay out of sight of several zebras, antelope, and waterbuck.  He picked his way through the ravine, alternating between stealthy runs, picture perfect poses, and languidly laying about.  Though we had hoped to watch a kill, or at least a chase, he could clearly wait us all out.

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Safari C.  I could barely hide my pride at how well she handled herself

We went on to see more animals as the sun set over the park, including a herd of Cape buffalo.  In the night our “spotter” stood in front of the jeep scanning the darkness for animals with a spotlight.  Though we did see a few animals C and I were tired and would have liked to return to the camp early.  But the night sky stood clear and bright.  Overhead we could make out the Milky Way, Orion and other constellations, and the International Space Station as it made its way across the night sky.  The radio again crackled, news of a lion far across the park.  C, on my lap, and I, sitting in the back of the jeep, held on to the seat bar and closed our eyes, turning the zig-zagging, bumping, drive into a kid-friendly roller coaster ride.  At last we arrived, the lion far from the jeeps, barely visible in the spotlight even with binoculars.  A bit anti-climactic.  All the jeeps turned quickly and sped toward the park entrance — we crossed the gate threshold at 7:58, just two minutes before the park closed for the night.

The following day began bright an early with a 5 AM wake-up call.  5:30 AM we had breakfast and by 6 AM we headed out on our early morning safari drive.  Immediately after crossing the bridge to the park we were greeted by monkeys and lioness!  We spotted a tree squirrel, a family of warthogs, giraffes, zebras and more.  At a watering hole in the shade of a giant baobab tree we saw massive stork, cranes, guinea fowl, an African Fishing Eagle, hippos, crocodiles, and impala.  As a group, our jeep decided to return to the baobab tree for sunset that evening.

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While C hung out with other kids, I made a friend of my own

Back at camp at 10 am we again communed with other guests of both the two and four footed kind.  C joined with other kids (the next youngest was 11 years old but she wanted to spend some time with them rather than her mom) to play a card game.  We had lunch.  C swam in the pool.  We both took a lovely mid-afternoon nap in the heat of our tent, cooled only with the slow rotating movement of an electric desk fan.

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Sunset at the baobab – storks and their nests in the branches

Tea time and then out again for another sunset and night drive, our third and final safari.  We headed across the park towards the massive baobab tree.  Across a grassy plain we watched impala and giraffe meander together.  A warthog running nearby.  Alongside the river, high on an escarpment, hundreds of brightly colored bee eaters soared and darted from their nests in the bank.  In the water dozens of hippos bellowed and a Nile crocodile cut smoothly through the water.  An old, very tall giraffe later grazed on high branches above our jeep.  And still later a bull elephant stood firmly across the path, and we waited him out.  But soon behind we found his his young male scion and his mate.  Finally we arrived at the baobab for tea and the languid sinking of the African sun.

After dark the safari was uneventful.  Note to self: in the future, when safaring with a young child, see if there is an option for a 2 1/2 hour sundowner drive.  The four hour ones were too long for us.  C fell asleep.  I too might have been able to close my eyes, despite the rough and bumpy road.  I cannot recall eating dinner upon return, just an early lights out.

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My Zambian acquisition – an exquisite wall hanging

On Monday, the holiday, we were able to sleep in until 6:30 AM.  Breakfast at 7 and we were all off for the return to Lilongwe by 7:30.  Thirty minutes into our journey we stopped off at Tribal Textiles (http://www.tribaltextiles.co.zm/), where hand painted batik-style fabrics are turned into beautiful handicrafts for the home.  After a short tour of their processing facility they took us to their amazing shop.  Bright, bold colors and gorgeous designs popped off beautifully crafted fabrics.  I could not help but by something for our new home.

As we headed back to Malawi, C asked me “How long to the border?”  I stopped myself.  Just two days before when I explained the border crossing, she had no understood a land border.  Now she understands, at least in part, the imaginary line that divides two countries.  She took her own passport and confidently handed it over to the immigration officials.  She stood at one point approximating half her body in Zambia, half in Malawi.  She’s five.  We may not quite be settled here in Malawi, but I was reminded of why I wanted to come here, to expand both mine and my daughter’s horizons.  And to safari.

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Car & Driver Lilongwe Edition

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The entrance of the road where we live

One needs a car in Lilongwe.  Well, wait, let me back up a bit already.   A large percentage of Malawi’s approximately 1 million residents do not own a vehicle.  They get around on foot, by bicycle, keke, or mini bus.  But for the expat community a car is pretty much essential.  Due to safety/security issues we are generally either high discouraged or even barred from taking the mini buses and taxis, as you know them in large cities, are non-existent.  So, prior to our arrival I needed to go about acquiring a vehicle for  Malawi.

The Acquisition Saga

I had two options for buying my car: either purchase at post from a departing diplomat or buy from Japan and have it shipped to Malawi.  After some consultation with my predecessor and colleagues I opted for option B.  Information provided by the Embassy indicated I would need to start the process early as it could take as long as four months from beginning to end, so in late February of this year (2017) I contacted IBC Japan to begin my search for my dream Malawi car.

Why buy from Japan?  Well, in Malawi we need a right-hand drive vehicle as the country drives on the left, i.e. the opposite as the US.  Japan is a huge market of used right-hand drive vehicles.  I recall from when I lived in Japan that the Japanese have to pay a vehicle tax every two years that as one’s car depreciates can quickly become more expensive than people are willing to pay on an older car.  So, the Japanese have a tendency to unload their used vehicles once they are over six years old.  With an excellent local and long distance train network, Japan also does not really have a “road trip” culture, so personal cars also generally have low mileage.

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My ride.  Her name is Stella.

I decided on the type of car I wanted–a Toyota RAV4 (the ubiquitous Toyota brand means parts are more readily accessible, cheaper, and more mechanics are familiar with them (though I still bought FOUR spare tires, extra oil filters, and high quality oil to bring with me); a RAV4 for the road conditions)–and searched through the IBC Japan database for one within my price range.  I was connected with an agent.  By the end of March we had agreed on a car and a price.  So far, so good.

Payment was tricky.  I had the option to do a bank transfer or, if I wanted to pay by credit card, to pay through PayPal.  I opted for the latter.

I should not have been surprised to receive an email notification of “unusual activity” from PayPal immediately after submitting payment.  It was not so much surprise as a long, heavy, resigned sigh.  Because it is odd to have an American PayPal account with an American credit card, purchase a vehicle from Japan, to be shipped to Africa, while using the Internet in China but through a VPN saying my location is Canada.  That probably does not happen every day for good reasons.  But it can be the reality for Foreign Service Officers.  Luckily a quick call to PayPal, a few good chuckles over my situation, and a little hoop jumping to prove I was who I said I was and the payment went through.

Stella – my sweet silver 2006 Toyota RAV4 – began her journey from Kobe port in Japan to Durban in late April.  By late May she arrived in South Africa — I have little doubt happy to get off the boat.  I too was glad to hear of her arrival as the flurry of emails regarding her paperwork during my Home Leave was a little nerve-wracking.  The Japanese company had mailed all the documents but unfortunately, although they always do this in every other case, had failed to scan a copy to email to me.  The Embassy could not locate the original documents and thus would be unable to clear the vehicle through customs.  Eventually they were located (misplaced in the mail of another agency) and Stella rolled off the boat to freedom.  Well, to waiting until a truck could be filled to capacity and then driven to Malawi.

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A “station” for the ubiquitous mini bus.  It seems random, but I expect the stations are not–this is near the city market.  Mini buses are known for being overcrowded, in poor repair, and driven recklessly.  But they get most people from Point A to Point B.

I received occasional reports of her journey.  The truck has left the port.  The truck is at the Mozambican border.   The carrier is at the Mwanza Border under clearance to Blantyre, will then proceed to Lilongwe once offloaded in Blantyre. Your car has arrived in Lilongwe.  The last happened sometime in late June or early July.  There were further clearance and registration processes for the car before she could be released.  Just a week before my arrival I received notification that Stella was cleared but she had a flat tire, a dead battery, and an empty gas tank.  They would run diagnostics.  I nearly had a nervous breakdown — after all Stella and I had been through… I had visions of having to scrap her and buy yet another car.  I called Lilongwe, six hours ahead, and learned that it is very normal for cars to arrive in this condition as they have been chained up in boats and trucks for months, have not been driven, and gas tanks were kept low for transport.  A quick test and Stella roared back to life.  When I arrived she was sitting pretty in my driveway at my new home.

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The keke – Malawian version of the tuk-tuk

I wish I could say that was the end of it.  That Stella and I lived happily ever after.  Stella is Japanese after all and we have had more than our fair share of communication issues.  Her manuals are all in Japanese.  Initially, whenever I started the car, a voice chirped in an overly-caffeinated voice a Japanese greeting informing me to “insert my card.”  That is until in a wee bit of a fit I might have ripped out the cord attached to the card reader.  The radio only goes to 90.0 FM and thus plays only one Malawian station, sometimes.  The automatic windows have to be raised incrementally to close or they will only roll themselves half way down again. The second key — not a key, but a “smart key” fob — was misplaced for a few weeks.  The folks in South Africa didn’t have it, the Embassy didn’t have it, it wasn’t in the car… Until it was found in an envelope in a file drawer.  As the temps have raised with the change in seasons from the Malawian “winter” to summer, I found the A/C only blows hot air.  A colleague checked and deduced the fuse was missing.  Another colleague, with a mechanic background, took a look.  He said it is common sometime during transit for parts to “go missing” and his own A/C fuse had experienced a disappearing act.  He confirmed it was gone and also informed me my two large headlight bulbs had been stolen as well.  <sigh>  A friend who had served in another post in Africa though was less sympathetic — she told me to look at the bright side, they could have stolen my engine block.  Very true.

Getting Around

Before arriving in Malawi I had tried to Google images of Lilongwe roads to have a sense of what was in store for me.  Frankly, I found little.  No surprise there, roads are, in general, not the most photogenic of subject matter.

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Lilongwe Roads

I am not quite sure what to say.  The roads were both better and worse than I expected.  They are paved.  Some have center lines.  There are streetlights and traffic lights.  But I also found that the edges are often eroded in jagged lines — as if a giant animal had gnawed off huge chunks.  There are frequent potholes and even, surprisingly, some speed bumps.  The holes are often visible — filled with rust colored dirt.  The speed bumps on the other hand have few markings and can catch you by surprise.  There are rarely shoulders other than dirt — so cyclists (often with loads of sticks or straw several feet wide) and pedestrians generally choose to walk on the asphalt.  The streetlights rarely turn on and the four traffic lights (that I know of) are often dark, not functioning.  Not so surprising in a country where only 10% of the people are connected to the power grid — electricity is a luxury.

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The roundabout on Presidential Drive (left); City Center with broken (again!) traffic light (right)

I found driving initially difficult, not because I was driving on the left side of the road, but because I was driving an SUV, which I had not done before.  Stella’s top left corner seemed very far away and I found it difficult to gauge where I was in relation to the side of the road.  When possible, I give the pedestrians and cyclists a very wide berth.  Driving at places where there are traffic lights and they are not working, which more often than not seems to be the case, provides an extra level of difficulty and sometimes seems like a game of chicken.   The roundabouts, which are more common than traffic lights, appear straightforward.  Arrows indicate which lane go get in if you want the first, second, or third turn off.  But almost daily I have to battle it out with a local driver who seems to think all lanes of a roundabout lead wherever they want to go.

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Not so legible street signs mixed with advertising

Additionally, I found it difficult to find my way around.  Lilongwe is not a particularly large city and in the eight weeks I have been here, I have now learned the basic routes to and from work, to the various supermarkets, to key points of interest, and to my colleague’s homes.  It is compact enough that two weeks ago my five year old directed me to her school from memory of the route her school bus takes.  (a very proud moment for me).  Street signs though are uncommon and when they exist are not always easy to find or easy to read.  I often use landmarks instead — turn right at the T-junction where there are tires under the tree or take the third exit from the roundabout and then turn left a the store with the big blue letters.

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Rush hour and traffic light on Kenyatta Drive is out (again!) leads to a Lilongwe-style traffic jam

One cannot really do relaxed driving. My defensive driving course comes in handy here.  Besides the pedestrians and cyclists and other things that might run out on the road (maybe a hyena), the other drivers keep you on your toes.  As a gross generalization, Malawians are not good drivers.  Again, there are not that many people driving, and many may be those mini bus and keke drivers.  There are a fair number of people who seem to have licences but are not very good drivers.  The newspapers are full of front page stories of car accidents; I saw an accident on my way to work today.

As a working single mom with a school aged child, I realize that I probably need a back up driver.  My nanny, a young woman, also the single mom of a 5 year-old, with a good head on her shoulders, has a driving license, but is not a confident driver.  To her credit, she admits this (as I have heard from others the tendency is to over inflate one’s driving ability).  To boost her driving confidence, I have enrolled her in some remedial driving classes, and on occasion I have her drive C and I somewhere, such as to the Embassy to visit the clinic or to the gas station.  She is slow and careful, which I rather prefer.  There are times though it feels as if I am a parent of a daughter with a newly-minted license, and it struck me that I am old enough to be my nanny’s mother.  In fact her mother and I are the same age.  I hope however the courses and practice give her, and me, the confidence in her ability to some day drive my daughter to school functions on her own.  My colleague’s experience with this, does give me pause.

Eight weeks in and I am fairly confident with the car and driving though still trying to figure so much more out.

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For those who complain about gas prices.  It works out to about $4.28 a gallon

The 2nd Home Leave Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2nd Home Leave Begins

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C at the USS Yorktown at Patriot Point in Charleston, SC

After months of planning my second Home Leave finally is here.   Okay, really, after saving for, daydreaming about, and plotting my Home Leave from my arrival in Shanghai (and only finalizing after securing my onward assignment), the Home Leave arrived!  Well, before it could begin I would have to clear one more hurdle: the PCS trip.

PCS=Permanent Change of Station, i.e. the trip that moves you from one assignment to another or to the US for home leave or training at the end of a tour.  It sounds fairly simple I guess.  Well it is and it isn’t

Now I want to be clear here.  I know there are people facing far more difficult challenges in their lives than the government paying to fly them from Point A to Point B.  I might not be a complete news junkie but in my particular line of work I am, of course, aware of news and world events.  And no one made me have a child, get two cats, or pick this career.  That was all me. But now here I am and, with all things being relative, I do not want to forget the stress and discomfort experienced with this move.

So just try to imagine yourself embarking on an international flight that will consume approximately 24 hours of your life door to door and take you across 12 time zones.  Sure, no problem, you are an experienced traveler.  But add in your 2 checked bags and 1 carry on suitcase.  And a good-sized carry on backpack.  Still with me?  Add in a 5 year old child.  A good one who is also experienced at flying, but nonetheless is still 5.  And gets a checked bag and carry on allowance but who claims her 10 pound miniature backpack is making it hard for her to walk more than fifty feet.  SHE IS SO TIRED!  Also the car seat — you can check that too, for free, but you still need to bring it as you will need it as soon as you arrive at your destination.  Oh, and a stroller.  It folds up and you can check it at the airplane door.  But wait, I am not done.  You are also carrying two cat carriers because, why not?  They will fly in-cabin, under the seat in front of you.  So your 5 year old does not really get to sit in the stroller — the cats do.

There is no way to get to the check in counter, to the gate, or board the plane and look anything close to a suave, experienced flyer, diplomat.  Nope.  The flight attendants see me moseying up to the plane with the grace of a drunk penguin, hair askew, a cat cage on each shoulder and they peg me as the first time flyer I have GOT to be.  “Ma’am, can we help you find your seat?” they ask me slowly, enunciating each word.  I want to tell them that I am pretty sure I can figure out that row 25 comes after row 24 but I just smile.  A strained, crazy smile.

So the crazy parts:

1. I fly this particular airline quite a lot and my profile has me always in a window seat.  Yet for some reason we are booked for a middle and aisle seat.  And also for two in-cabin pets.  Every single aisle seat has a weird box taking up half of the space under the seat in front of me.  Where a cat needs to go.  I alert the flight attendant.  After surveying the situation she suggests I move one row back.  To a middle and aisle seat.  Yes, the exact same seats one row back.  I look at her quizzically.  Is she kidding?  She isn’t.  I point out that will not solve the problem.  She says one of us can just take the window seat and surely that passenger will switch.  I am extremely skeptical.  In fact said person has just arrived and is adamant that will not happen.  He says he doesn’t want to be a jerk, but… I say no problem, I get it.  He figures out two cat carriers will fit under the middle seat.  Problem solved.  Passenger ingenuity.

2. I spent a lot of time previously deciding between the midnight flight with on-demand entertainment on in-seat TVs and the noon flight that had personal device and way-overhead no-choice-of-movie movie.  I went with option 2 and downloaded the app to my daughter’s Kindle (you have to download before the flight or use the expensive wi-fi on board to do so in flight).  The app had not downloaded properly.  I could not access wi-fi for three hours due to Chinese airspace.  Then I purchase the overpriced wi-fi for one hour. But the personal device entertainment system malfunctioned.  As did the “no-choice-screens-from-overhead” entertainment — it was stuck on the welcome screen.

3. Flying from the US to China even with one stop was easier.  Returning, not so much.  Think customs and immigration at the first point of entry, picking up all checked bags, then re-check bags and then go through security again.  Scroll back to my list of stuff I traveled with and my travel companions.  FYI – pets need to be taken out of their carriers to go through security.  Yes.  Think about it.  Oh yes it was just about as much fun as you can imagine.

4. I am SO glad I did not opt to take the 2 checked-bags each we were allotted per government PCS travel regulations or the 3 checked-bags per my airline status.  For some reason the luggage carts located in the baggage claim area, before customs, seemed ridiculously small.  Remember the list of stuff we were traveling with?  It just would not fit.  Even with all my experience playing Tetris.  C pushed the stroller with one cat and her backpack through customs to re-check.  She is 5.  If she had been 3, the age she was when we PCS’d to China I would have been SOL.  She really stepped up.  Thank goodness.

But it was only 24 hours.  And honestly the worst parts were maybe 2-3 hours of my life.  The getting through security with the cats (in Shanghai I used pillow cases to bring one cat through at a time, which inexplicably caused my daughter to cry; in the US after some confusion by TSA, we were led to a private room where the cats were removed from their carriers so those could go through security and one cat might have hidden behind some boxes in that room in an attempt to escape, which might have made my daughter laugh hysterically and me expect I made the TSA agents’ weirdest passenger of the day list).  The boarding and disembarking.  The whole immigration and customs and re-checking of luggage.  Other than that it was just fine.

And THEN my home leave could begin!

Within 24 hours of landing I was in attendance at one of my best friend’s wedding.  As a Foreign Service Officer, often overseas, I miss so many life events.  Had her wedding been a week or even a day before or a week or a day after I could not have attended.  Newly arrived and jet lagged, with my parents watching my daughter, I headed in to Washington, DC to witness this beautiful event.  And during the reception I was seated next to a married couple with ties to Africa who had a friend moving to Malawi in six weeks.  Kismet!

The following morning I drove to my aunt’s home.  It was Easter.  My daughter had her first real egg hunt on the lawn — though without competition of course.  But oh was she happy.  For such a simple thing.  I was happy too.  American traditions re-created overseas are important (and often very creative and so necessary to our community) but naturally cannot quite be the real thing.

Two days later we drove — well I drove, 5 year olds are terrible drivers — to Charleston, SC to begin the first phase of our Home Leave holiday.  I had decided early on I wanted to spend some time in South Carolina on this trip, having only previously driven through the state on my way to college outside of Atlanta many, many years ago.  I hemmed and hawed about where.  Hilton Head?  Greenville/Columbia?  But settled on Charleston.  I know I made the right decision.  The purpose of Home Leave is for employees serving overseas for extended periods of time to reorient and reconnect to the US.  I see it as a time to see more and learn more about my country.  Charleston is beautiful and it has strong ties to just about every major historical period in our nation from the colonial period, early Republic, to the civil war and present day.  So it has plenty for a history and museum oriented mom and also children’s activities for fun-loving 5 year old C.

We visited the Children’s Museum of the Low Country and the South Carolina Aquarium. C enjoyed them both.  I think she was particularly struck by the aquarium’s bald eagle named Liberty as she kept asking me for the name later so she could use it during her imaginative play.  We also took one of the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriage tours.  C loves horses and has talked about it for days.  A visit to the Charleston Museum was also in order.  I was not sure if C would like it but she was struck by the giant whale skeleton (from the late 1880s), the dress up hoop skirts, some silver spoons shaped like shells, and the Egyptian mummy, purchased by one of the city’s early prominent men.  Purchased no less from one of the US’ first Vice Consuls to Egypt.  (I am in no position to purchase priceless artifacts at this time).  In addition, one could visit two period homes belonging to the museum, which we did along with strolls through the historic district.  We took a ferry out to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War rang out and visited the USS Yorktown located at Patriot Point.  At Magnolia Plantation, founded in 1676, C liked the train ride, petting zoo and mini horses and tolerated our garden walk.  A friend of mine and her family drove down from another part of South Carolina to lunch with us and visit Charles Towne Landing, the original site of the first permanent settlement in the Carolinas.

So we have seen and done quite a few things.  But what is it really like to be on Home Leave?  Honestly?  Well, this is only the first two weeks (we are required to take a minimum of four) and it feels very much like a vacation.  It also feels surreal – a jet-lag-fog fueled holiday, except one in which I know at the end of we do not return to our home in Shanghai.  It is no longer our home.  It feels wonderful to have this time to spend with friends and family in the US and the ability to travel around to wherever we would like in our country during this time. But it is also feels a little weird.

It isn’t cheap.  I know cost is one of the biggest complaints about Home Leave.  And that is true.  But I start my Home Leave savings account as soon as I arrive to my overseas post.  And this Home Leave I am lucky that my father loaned me a car for the 3.5 months we will be in the US and my aunt is watching my two cats for the five weeks we are traveling.  That saved me a bundle in rental car and kennels/hotel pet fees.  It does not mean I do not feel a little twinge of panic as the hotel, food, gas and entertainment bills roll in, but the time I get to spend with my daughter together in our country is priceless.

C is taking some time adjusting.  For these first two weeks she could not stop breathing deeply whenever we stepped outside.  As soon as we stepped out of the airport she took a gulp of air and declared it was “so fresh and smelled good!”  Yet whenever we are in a public place and need to use the restroom she says “I hope they don’t have the squatty potties!”  After Shanghai she is not used to such fresh air and all sit down commodes.  It is such a novelty.  Oh and the candy aisles.  They are presenting a bit of a challenge.  It has been a year since we have been in the US and she does not recall such a dizzying array of sweets.  She also often says “I miss Shanghai!” though when I ask her if she is sad it she says no, she is looking forward to our new home.  That seems a surprisingly mature answer for five but I will take it because the alternative would come with a side helping of mommy-guilt.

I too am taking time to adjust.  I have difficulty completely relaxing.  I have received emails about upcoming training with tasks that need to be completed and emails regarding the vehicle I have purchased from Japan and am shipping to my next post.  I think through all the things that still need to be completed before we take the next steps for our move to Africa: plane tickets, shopping for consumables, arranging pet travel to post, finding a nanny, and more.

Despite this I am so grateful for this time.  And just might already taking part in some preliminary plotting about the next Home Leave.  There are so many places to visit in our beautiful country, it is so hard to decide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

45 1/2 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

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Time for spring cleaning and spring moving. (Blossoms in bloom in Century Park, Feb 2017)

The food (in my cabinets) is no longer interesting.

I have zero interest in my clothes.

Retail therapy cannot help me anymore as I have stopped making purchases.

I am not 100% sure, but I might want to never, ever, EVER move again.

Welcome to that time when the move is soon, but not really all that soon.

I am not a fan of this time; it makes me uncomfortable.  I do not feel like I have free time — because all the time I think I should be doing something to prepare.  I feel as though my life is divided into segments:  work (yes, I have to keep doing my job but also wrapping up work-related projects), preparing the logistics of the move, sorting through our things for the physical move, hitting the bucket list hard, and sleep.  The last is the hardest to do because if I am not doing one of the other things then I am thinking about doing them.

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Moving is fun!

In the last 45 days or so I have made real headway on some big and some small projects.  I made several hotel reservations for during home leave and purchased our tickets to Disney World.  I completed two really large personal projects — finally moved the last of my photos to a file hosting site in The Cloud and put together a photo book for C’s 4th year.  If you have ever made a photo book in your life then right now you are shaking your head in wonder at my incredible ingenuity completing it in just a few weeks.  Seriously. I am amazing.  My taxes are done.  So is a huge nine page document I prepared for my supervisor on my work accomplishments over the past year.  I scheduled my pre-pack out survey and pack out, requested a pay advance, filled in two departure related surveys for different Consulate offices, reserved our plane tickets as well as transport for our two cats, and wrote a recommendation letter for our wonderful nanny.  And perhaps THE MOST FUN was taking my two cats to the Shanghai Shenpu Pet Hospital to get their required-for-export vaccinations.

I wish I could tell you that I am done and for now on it is smooth sailing.

But that would be a lie.

There still is so much to do.  From completing my annual evaluation report to buying a car from Japan and shipping it to Malawi.  There is more fun with pets and export authorities still to come.  I also still need to organize childcare for when I am in training in the US and later in Malawi. And organize all our things for the actual moving day.

I am obsessed with the organization of stuff aspect.  There are the things to keep and the things not to keep.  Seems pretty simple.  But it isn’t.  Of the Things Not to Keep there are the Things to Use Up, the Things to Throw Away, the Things to Give Away and the Things to Try to Sell.  Of the Things to Keep there are the Things that Go in the Household Effects (the “HHE” i.e. the things that will go from Shanghai to Malawi and we will not see again for many moons), the Things that Go in the Unaccompanied Baggage (the “UAB” which we will see again in the US after several weeks of home leave), and the Things that Go in the Luggage (the items that I will try to stuff into our two pieces each checked suitcases).  BTW – these phrases are all official moving terminology.

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C’s vision of Malawi?  Disney hyenas and gifts?

Every. Single. Day I try to make a decision about some item.  I use things up — the mound of foodstuffs featured previously is mostly gone. Sometimes I put an item into a suitcase and add it to the suitcase list, which is a piece of paper where I write the contents of said suitcase (I am brilliant at naming things, my cat’s name is “Cat” just in another language).  I toss things out, and, it is a bit embarrassing to admit this, I have a list for that too.  This is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, particularly for a child of Pack Rats.  My parents saved nearly everything.  I do not want to, but I agonize over possessions anyway.  Now it is not only my things but also my daughter’s.  Try convincing a 5 year old she does not need every drawing she ever drew or every picture she ever colored or every stuffed animal ever given to her.  I believe I have at least been successful in telling her we will buy no more here in Shanghai.  It is part of my The Best of Moving to Malawi Mix-Tape in which I regal her with all the benefits and wonders of moving to our new home.  She will go to school full time!!  (this works wonders because she is a half day student here in Shanghai and she wants more than anything to go to school FULL DAY)  She gets to decide on the theme of her new room!! (Moana.  No, horses.  No, I changed my mind, definitely Moana) We get to live where there are hyenas (Mom, do not let the cats out of the house in Malawi or the hyenas will eat them).  We will have a yard in Malawi (and she can kick the soccer ball in the house and not worry about downstairs neighbors.  She is right on not bothering neighbors, wrong on soccer in the house).  And the best of all is that there will be toys, toys, and more TOYS to be had in Malawi!  She seems to have confused Malawi with Christmas, but if it helps her to focus on our new home and not feel too sad about leaving, then I am willing to let the illusion stand for awhile.

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Shanghai’s three giants at night (from left to right: SWFC, Shanghai Tower, Jin Mao tower)

Meanwhile I am also Shanghai bucket-listing like crazy.  Yes, I just made bucket list a verb.  Two weekends ago I reserved one night at the Grand Hyatt hotel in the Jin Mao Tower in Pudong.  The Jin Mao building is one of the tallest in the world and the third tallest in Shanghai and the Grand Hyatt is one of the highest hotels in the world occupying floors 53 to 87.  We had a river view on the 66th floor.  Wow!  The weather was pretty great with sunshine, low air quality index readings, and blue sky.  We visited the huge Century Park, strolling through blooming orchards and enjoying kiddie rides at the amusement park.  We also went to the top of both Jin Mao tower (on the 88th floor) and the Shanghai World Financial Center Tower observation deck on the 100th floor.  We went up the latter in the evening to get the bird’s eye view of Shanghai at night — C fell asleep thus enjoying one of the highest napping areas in the world.

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My ticket to the fascinating world of Shanghai policing – past and present

On President’s Day I visited the Shanghai Public Security Museum, reportedly the country’s first museum dedicated to policing and one of the few small museums in Shanghai open on Mondays.  This somewhat out of the way museum also appears on numerous “museums to visit in Shanghai” lists and as such made the bucket list.  It occupies the second, third, and fourth floors of what what appears to be a police building.  A uniformed policeman asked me to sign in and handed over my free ticket.  Although there was only a little English signage other than that introducing the content of each room (traffic policing, criminal investigations, domestic and international police cooperation) it was actually rather interesting.  I realize that people may call foul and say I do have the language, and you would be right, to an extent.  My Chinese long ago boiled down to little more than “why do you want to go to America?” and I have practically given up on reading.  I certainly do not have the vocabulary to read up on police procedures.  And yet, the graphic photos of a Black Dahlia-like case, a stuffed police dog, and fish sewn up with drugs inside were fairly self explanatory.

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C enjoys the rooftop cafe and viewing area at the Power Station of Art

I took advantage of another beautiful weekend day in Shanghai to drag C to the Power Station of Art, a contemporary art museum housed in the digs of a former power station on the west bank of the Huangpu River.  Although I am not a fan of modern art by a long shot, the museum had its highlights.  The use of the building architecture would be a plus.  I love re-purposing buildings and retaining a lot of the old structure to create a new space.   People watching too kept me busy — the museum was packed with a line out front, something I had not expected at all — and some of the hippest, most fashionable people of Shanghai were out in force.  I even found several pieces that I liked!  And yet the art installations of a block of 40-some black standing electric fans and the one of half empty paint cans, paint stained rags, and a half finished painted area had me scratching my head and wondering if I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in the supply cabinet.

On yet another day (I told you I was bucket listing — talk about action verb!) while C was in the care of the nanny I visited the Shanghai Railway Museum, the Duolun Cultural Street and the Lu Xun Memorial Park including the Lu Xun Museum and Mausoleum. I could hardly believe my luck with the weather — Shanghai wants me to see all of its places in the best way possible.

There is still more to see and still more to do before we leave.  And there is still a bit more time to do it in.  Just about 45 1/2 days, give or take a 1/2 day.

A Krabi Chinese New Year

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The confusing duck display at Pudong Airport.  Our first year seemed to be the year of the ram/sheep/goat/deer so I guess for the Year of the Rooster any fowl, water or land, will do

It is Chinese New Year again and our third (and final) one in Shanghai.  Having already done our Chinese New Year in the city penance once, it was time to get out of Dodge yet again.

Initially the plan was to visit to a new country.  I mean a new-for-me country and that is becoming increasingly hard for me to do in Asia.  I had a few ideas.  I had been debating about someplace in the Middle East, particularly a country where a good friend is posted, but as I was bidding one country in the region I decided to hold out until after I had secured my onward assignment.  Having waited until that auspicious time I discovered it was going to cost me an arm and a leg and maybe a few digits to make that trip, so I started to look closer to home.  I hemmed and hawed.  I recalled a friend from Shanghai had visited Krabi.  I looked up the ticket prices.  Yikes!  Chinese New Year price gouge.  I closed my eyes and hit “purchase.”

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Long-tailed boats in Ao Nang Bay.  Nope, not a mistake to come here.

This will be our last big trip from Shanghai.  It comes in the middle of the crazy wrapping-up-my-work-and-life-in-Shanghai and preparing-to-move-across-three-continents period so I wanted it to be easy.  I have been to Thailand so many times I have lost count (I can say that about no other country).   Although I had never been to Krabi, and that appealed to me, it is, for the most part, just a beach destination.  As a result there was no pressure to go here and there to see things.    I made few plans other than to book a resort hotel with kids amenities.

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The magical and wonderful Kids Club

This vacation has turned out like no other.  First it is because of the kind of hotel where we stayed.  While we did stay at an all-inclusive resort hotel in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic in October 2015, this is not my common travel practice.  That hotel too was quite isolated.  The Holiday Inn Resort Krabi Ao Nang beach is not.  It is located on the main strip in the beach town.  We have options to head out and about.  But for the first several days I simply chose not to do so. Secondly, C is finally old enough to go to the Kids’ Club all by herself.  I had no idea how this would impact the vacation, but my goodness, what a change!  She spends hours and hours there coloring, making crafts, watching kid-friendly television and movies, playing with LEGOs, and making friends.  The very first day she won the title of “dancing queen” at the Kids Club dance party (complete with crown and snack prize) and was invited to a birthday party to be held at the club the following day.  This has led to the third difference in this vacation- the amount of things that I have been able to do on my own.  Unfortunately, given that this trip comes at a time when I am under a lot of pressure to manage our move on top of other commitments, I did bring some “work” with me.  In the course of the week I have written three blog posts (this one included), completed uploading a huge number of photos from my computer to a cloud storage (and in so doing learned just how incredibly slow my Internet is in Shanghai), have reserved several hotels for during my home leave in popular places where hotels are likely to sell out, started and finished my next book club book, and started and completed my taxes!

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Do not feel too bad for me.  This was my view as I did my taxes.

I know, I know.  Not exactly the things dream vacations are made of.  While my daughter was at the Kids Club I did also go for an ill-advised run (my first in months) in the sweltering noon heat and took advantage of the hotel spa more than once for some very much-advised massage.  My daughter and I also were able to spend a lot of quality time together in the pool, at meals, walking along the beach or to shops in town.  I asked her about her time in the Kids Club and she shared her artwork and stories with me.

We also did some special activities together.  On the fourth day of our vacation C and I went horseback riding.  C loves horses and the only brochure to catch her eye at the nearby travel and tour booth was the one with horses.  I grimaced.  She’s 5.  In most of my online research, places generally allow horse riding from 8 and a few places from 6.  I quietly informed C of this and she burst out in tears.  I told her we would ask.  We sat at the booth with baited breath as the attendant made the call and had what felt like the longest conversation possible to find out the answer to what seemed a simple question “what is the minimum age for this horse riding activity.”  C patiently waited the verdict.  Just kidding.  She asked me every 5 seconds if she could go horse riding.  Imagine my surprise when the woman told us that C could in fact go horse riding as all of the horses are led.  C gave a few fist pumps and danced for joy.

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C on the beach during our ride

We waited in the hotel lobby for our pick up.  C scanned every vehicle and immediately noticed the truck with the pictures of horses when it drove up.  We sat in the back of the songthaew, on the long benches, a side for each of us.  There were no other passengers and we made no stops to pick up anyone else.  The wind blew through our hair and C let out whoops of delight.  I felt an incredible feeling of lightness and bliss.  At the riding center, some 15 minutes away by truck, we disembarked and were quickly given our mounts.  C could hardly contain her excitement — her own horse!

The ride was one hour along the beach.  I felt fairly confident that C would grow bored with the riding after 10 minutes, 15 minutes tops.  But she did not.  We had gone a full 50 minutes before she told me that she would like to go back to the barn.  The beach was okay — the tide was high and there was little beach at all, with the horses stepping into the shallow water to get around low hanging branches.  There was little scenery.  A few long-tailed boats floated near the shore and a few of the iconic rocks jutting out of the sea that Krabi is famous for were visible in the distance.  Yet none of that really mattered.  My horse followed behind C and as I watched her sit proudly on her very own horse, chatting away to no one in particular(the horse? the Thai boy who led the horse?  To me?) I simply felt happy.

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C helps this elephant take a bath

When you ask C what her favorite animal is she will tell you that she loves ALL THE ANIMALS.  But I know she does have a particular fondness for cats, horses and elephants.  To round out our holiday I decided on one more activity–elephant riding coupled with an elephant bath.  This time the truck that picked us up would pick up 8 more passengers, filling the back of the songthaew.  There were no other children and though at first I worried about this – is this a child appropriate activity? what kind of mother am I? – I soon felt an absurd amount of pride to be able to give C this kind of experience.  We set off on the elephant trek through the jungle, crossing some streams.  Our elephant ride in Chiang Mai was 15 minutes and plenty long enough (ooh, my bum!) so I had some concerns about a full hour but again it was just right.  After the ride we were given fresh pineapple and water but C had disappeared – I found her sweeping up leaves with a Thai mother and her 2 year old son.  We all then headed to the river to help a playful 7 year old elephant take her bath.  The laughs we had!  Some of the best money ever spent.

It was not easy to leave Krabi after such a wonderful week especially now that I am back in cold, grey, poor air quality Shanghai.  We relaxed.  We played.  We had adventures.  I wrote.  C made friends.  I saw a glimpse of C’s increasing independence (and mine).  It was just what C and I needed and I am ready (sorta, kinda, do I have a choice?) to tackle the last ten weeks here.

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(I am also VERY happy to report that I neither forgot to pack something for the trip nor lost anything, which given the last few trips and all that I have on my mind is a major accomplishment.)

 

 

 

Mauritius for Christmas

Even if you have never heard of Mauritius or are not quite sure where it is, you have probably heard of its most famous bird, the Dodo.  Yes, the large hapless, flightless bird extinct since the 17th century is a symbol of the island country.   It is on their coat of arms, their currency, their postage, and tourist maps.  Yet there is so much more to this crowded tiny island nation.

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A major feature of Northwest Mauritius is the Moka Mountain range featuring Pieter Both Mountain, the island’s second largest peak with a large rock perched on top

I was giddy with excitement as C and I headed to the airport to begin our trip to Mauritius.  This trip had been long in the making–when some three years before a FS friend of mine learned her second post would be to the island nation.  Initially we were to visit our first Christmas in Shanghai but an unexpected addition to KB’s family meant we had to place our trip on hold for another year.   But at last it was time for our trip and for the first time in what seemed a very long time I would be etching a new country into my travel belt.

Mauritius might seem a long way to go for vacation and honestly before my friend was posted there I had not given much thought to visiting.  Once in Shanghai though it seemed that the former Isle de France was the place to go given the number of billboards advertising Air Mauritius flights around where I lived.  On the visa line, even the applicants with little foreign travel might list Mauritius among their international destinations alongside South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Maldives.  It was destiny.

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One of our first views of Mauritius

We landed at 7 am.  Yes, 7 am.  Almost immediately I was given a lesson in island patience.  While on the plane, the Air Mauritius flight attendants had given out the immigration landing cards.  Unfortunately they did not have enough for everyone on the plane and we were two of the unlucky ones.  No problem, the flight attendants assured us, we could get them before immigration.  Except they were out too.  It was maddening to see almost no line for immigration and yet be unable to do anything because no forms were available.  Several of us waylaid an official-looking person but he too seemed perplexed by our situation and asked yet another person to locate the forms.  It took about 20 minutes for someone to return with forms in hand and we swarmed around him.  He had only 7 to 10 forms and there were more than 10 people waiting.  I decided this was not the time to be polite and grabbed two forms from his hand.  I filled them out quickly and vowed to not look back at those who were left behind. I had a vacation to get started!

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C and M enjoy the crystal clear waters of Grand Baie

We were picked up at the airport by a driver arranged by KB and then whisked off to the other side of the island, a whole hour and change away.    We slept most of the way.   Then we arrived at KB’s home and were immediately welcomed by the family.  We had an easy day.  First KB and I sat by the pool and talked as the kids swam.  Then we took the kids to the Beach House Restaurant for lunch.  As we drove into Grand Baie and I caught sight of the water for the first time I gasped.  Wow.  The Beach House is located right on the bay and as we waited for our meal (the service was on island time so we waited quite awhile) the kids frolicked on the beach and in the shallow warm waters.  The afternoon involved more play time for the kids and then we attended a birthday party for a local boy.

On our second day KB, myself and the kids drove from the northwest to the southwest (again a whole hour to cross the island!) for a day at the Casela Nature Park, a mix of zoo, petting farm, and activity park.  There is quite a lot to do at the park, but much of it, like walking with lions, driving ATVs, riding horses or camels, or ziplining, were for those aged well above 4 or 5 years old and thus not on our agenda.  Still, the kids enjoyed watching the 4D movies (well, 2 of the 3 kids did) seeing the birds, feeding the bunnies (not so much the rather aggressive deer), seeing tortoises, feeding the giraffes and playing on the playground.  We still managed to spend nearly 5 hours at the zoo (nearly 45 minutes of it in the line for a shuttle bus from the giraffes back to the main park. Major fail.).  That evening KB showed us around La Croisette, one of the few true shopping malls in the country sporting one of only two cinemas on the island.

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The Chateau de Labourdonnais – this just does not do it justice.

The third day began with KB and I leaving the kids with KB’s extremely amenable husband while she and I indulged in some mommy only massages.  We then picked up the kids and headed to Labourdonnais, a 19th century sugar mill and estate restored to a museum, garden, and working orchard.  We all had lunch first at a lovely cafe adjacent to the grounds and then KB insisted she would take all the kids through the gardens so I could have an hour of peace to visit the chateau museum.  (I am SO grateful)  Then after some waiting (with some very impatient small children) we all took the toy train through the orchards.  Following the Chateau our next stop was the L’Aventure du Sucre Sugar Museum and Factory.  As you may begin to guess sugar production has a long and checkered history in Mauritius.  The sweet stuff has been manufactured there since 1696 and remains the country’s second largest export today (after processed fish)!  So the history of sugar is intertwined with the island’s history.  The museum makes great use of its space in an old sugar factory.  Informative displays of sugar’s role in the history and economy of the island wind around actual gears and boilers and the chimney, all part of the production of this important crop.

Our fourth day started with a glass bottom boat adventure in Grand Baie with KB’s husband and the three kids.  (KB gets sea sick easily and sat this activity out).   Then KB and I escaped again to have a just friends (sans kids) lunch and then we headed to Goodlands for some shopping in a colorful Indian bazaar (the majority ethnic group is Indo-Mauritian, making up 68% of the population) and a visit to the Shipmodels Factory and Museum.  We returned in time to collect C for a late afternoon photo shoot on the beach with a talented local photographer and then the whole lot of us had dinner at Luigi’s, reportedly the best Italian restaurant on the island.

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A worker puts some finishing touches on a model ship

The following day we said farewell to KB and her family and we headed back across the island to pick up a rental car at the airport.  It was a little hard to find my rental car as I had apparently booked with the one company that does not have an office at the airport (OLA) and I spent 30 minutes wandering around until I found a guy with a sign.  We followed him to the parking lot where he did the paperwork in the trunk of the car.  But it was a car, it looked good, it had a child seat included, and so I rolled with it.  Immediately I was reminded that I would be driving on the left hand side of the road as I backed out of the parking space and ran over the curb.  I did manage to get us out of the parking lot and to the hotel, all of a mile away.  Once checked in and fed I got us back out on the road and on our way to La Vanille Nature Park.  

It was an adventure being on the road with only a basic tourist map with a bunch of squiggly lines that I hoped approximated true roads.  We drove through several small towns that presented challenges to driving–two lane roads with no shoulder, no sidewalks, just a couple of feet to the residences and businesses.  Along the sides of the road people walked, sometimes two or three abreast, others pedaled old bicycles weaving like drunks, dogs trotted without a care in the world.  Buses stopped with little warning and little room to pull over.  Delivery trucks and people stopping at stores or to talk to a friend did the same.  Every turn I tried to make, I first turned on the windshield wipers.  And road signs tended to announce a turn just feet before I needed to make it.  It is a wonder I found the park at all!.

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And when not passing through a town these are the roads of Mauritius. Lovely but no indication of where you are or where you are going.  Yet amazing for a country with one of the world’s highest population densities to have open areas like this

I think La Vanille was originally just a crocodile park and then a crocodile and tortoise park and now it is a Nature Park because they added a few other animals like some Indonesian deer, some sad Indonesian macaque monkeys, and reportedly some mongoose and lemurs although their enclosures appeared empty.  Still, I am not a crocodile fan the giant tortoises were great.  Their enclosure was large, you could feed them, and kids under 10 were allowed to sit on large, resting ones.  It is also a breeding facility and they have extensive information on their program and animals of all ages from egg to likely nearing 100 years.  C especially liked this part and the pony rides in the petting zoo.  The funny part was the tour bus loads of 40-60 year old visitors.  Something just seemed odd about that — the lack of children visitors.

The following day I was pretty worn out by my Mauritius driving experience and bored by our food choices at the hotel.  So I came up with a plan to head to La Bagatelle, the largest mall in the country and then the nearby Eureka creole plantation house.  But I missed the exit.  I figured I would turn around at the next roundabout, but there were no more.  So instead I just kept going and ended up at Le Caudan waterfront in Port Louis.  It seems to be the shopping and restaurant district in the capital.  After I figured out not only how to get there but to also park in the crowded parking garage (yay me!), we had lunch, a stroll along the waterfront, and visited the Blue Penny Museum, so named after one of the most famous, rare, and valuable stamps in the world, and the first to be issued in Mauritius.  Like the Sugar Factory Museum, the Blue Penny presents the cultural and economic history of Mauritius, tying it to the history of a product and a service — the postal system.  It is a small but lovely museum — just the right size to visit with a 4, almost 5, year old.

On December 23rd I struggled with trying again to find the Eureka plantation as it would be closed on the 24th and 25th, or a visit to the Chamarel area.  I went with the latter.  Things started off rocky as I drove through the same town Plaine Magnien a good 5 times.  I cannot exactly explain why. Every turn I made, every time around a roundabout, it all led to that darn town.  I started to sing a made-up song about the town that would not let us go in order to calm my nerves (and keep me from just giving up and driving back to the hotel) and to amuse C in the back seat.  It worked because once I started singing I finally figured out what I was doing wrong.  And then we drove through several more really small towns.  For what seemed like forever.  At long last I saw a turn off for the Bois Cheri tea plantation and factory.  It seemed a good place to stop.

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A view of the Bois Cheri plantation from the hilltop restaurant

Bois Cheri is the island’s first tea plantation, established in 1892.  Tea is the country’s second major crop, after sugar.  A visit to Bois Cheri includes a visit to a small museum, a tour of the factory (interesting enough for a 4, almost 5, year old!), and a tea tasting.  It was just the stop I needed before getting back in the car and driving on to Chamarel.  At long last we arrived.  I had begun to suspect the whole thing was an elaborate joke on tourists.  Honestly, the whole purpose of driving all this way is to visit the 7 Colored Earth of Chamarel, and some of the reviews I had read online had warned me of the likely disappointment.  But perhaps since I had rather low expectations I found the place larger and prettier than I had imagined.  But the drive back was longer and less fun than I expected.  I joked with friends online that I had driven through every small town in the south with the hashtag #leavenotownunseen.  It sure felt like it.

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Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden

Christmas Eve we drove to the far north of the island to meet up with RS and her son K who previously served in Shanghai and are now in South Africa.  (RS is also a single mom in the Foreign Service and is awesome).  I had thought we might visit them from Malawi but when I found out just days before our departure that they too would be in Mauritius it was too much of an opportunity to pass up.  My plan was to visit the National Botanical Garden on the way up — I checked my phone before heading out and it was supposed to take about 30 minutes to get to the Garden.  Um, yeah.  Nearly two hours later I gave up and just headed toward RS’s hotel.  And just for fairness sake I made sure to drive through every small town on the north of the island.  C and K were thrilled to have some time to play and as they frolicked in the pool, at lunch, and in the room RS and I had a chance to catch up.  Luckily enough on the drive back I quite easily found the botanical gardens (you know, Murphy’s Law).

Our last day was Christmas.  With a late flight back we took full advantage of a late check out and just binge watched the Disney Channel, as one does.  Then I realized I had lost C’s one pair of pants and we were heading back to winter.  Oh no! I cannot seem to go on vacation anymore without losing something and I did not want 1. my child to freeze and 2. to face the hard stares and tut-tutting disapproval of the Chinese mom mafia when they see my child without pants.  Don’t worry, I improvised. Shorts but a pair of the Air Mauritius in-flight socks pulled up to her thighs.  Yeah, I’m smart.  I’m no dodo.  (see what I did there?)