Guinea Or Bust

No matter how many times one moves in the Foreign Service, it is never quite the same.  As much as one tries to prepare and learn from previous moves, each one is its own beast.  It does not get any easier, it just becomes different. 

Unlike in moves past, where I was working or in training right up until our PCS (Permanent Change of Station, aka moving day, aka the actual day or days of travel from one location to another), this time I opted to take some leave between training and our departure.  I had had an inkling way back when I was organizing my PCS travel orders around April 2021, when I had to lay out a day by day plan my PCS from Malawi through to Guinea, that I might want some time off on the back end.  After nine months of training online, through Zoom, much of it trying to learn French, I did indeed need a break before heading to Conakry.

Wait, how does that work?  Well, between each overseas tour a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (FSO) has Congressionally mandated time off called Home Leave.  That time must be spent in the United States and is intended to reacclimate and re-expose the officer to their home country.  For each year in a post overseas, an officer earns 15 days of Home Leave.  An officer is expected to take at least the minimum of 20 days of Home Leave between overseas posts (which can be combined with training) with a maximum of 45 days of Home Leave.  And this does not include weekends or holidays! In my opinion, it is one of the best and most important benefits we have as FSOs. 

Over the course of my now 11-year career, I have taken several permeations of Home Leave.  Between Juarez and Shanghai, I took eight weeks as I had also earned Home Leave days while serving with the Department of Defense at our Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Then between Shanghai and Malawi I took about seven weeks, using the last two to move into our training housing two weeks early (on my dime) to help us settle in a bit.  Well, as much as you can settle into a place you will only live in for three months.  In Malawi, we took a mid-tour home leave of 17 days when I extended for a fourth year, for which I had to seek a waiver to less than the 20 mandated days.  This time, I opted for the first time to split Home Leave, with some taken before training and the rest after.

At first it was a whirlwind few weeks.  I had my (very stressful) French exam, then final shopping and packing before the actual pack-out day (when the movers actually come and box everything up), then moving out of the State Department provided housing, and then our ten day trip out to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks that ended in an unplanned early departure to escape the flooding.  Then we had 12 more days until wheels up. 

As we no longer had State Department housing, I moved us into a hotel room with kitchenette close to Dulles Airport, from which we would fly out. Myself, my daughter, our cat, and our four large, hastily packed suitcases. I had started off our pack-out preparations with some more thought-out suitcase arrangements but as the day grew closer, I just started tossing things haphazardly into them. I figured one project for our final 12 days would be trying to rearrange them into some semblance of order. I would say I half succeeded. At one point I simply gave up, realizing the suitcases looked the same from the outside whether they were packed neatly or chaotically inside.

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

It was a bit of a relief to only have the final PCS preparations on my to-do list for those last 12 days.  That is not to say they were stress-free (they were not), but they were less stressful and messy than in the past.  With COVID cases again rising and our departure looming, I tried to keep our interactions somewhat limited.  Although frankly it was more an issue of low energy on my part.  As a single FSO all of the PCS preparations fall to me and that combination coupled with all the energy I had needed for nine months of online training and the energy reserves I was trying to stockpile for the upcoming move and adjustment to a new job and new country, well I very much needed the down time. 

I did take C back to one final day of school.  For us to have the Grand Teton and Yellowstone trip at the beginning of Home Leave and not just before departure, I had pulled her out of school early.  In my mind it was education, once in a lifetime, and a chance for us to bond with each other and with my aunt.  Yet C had formed some strong bonds with her fourth-grade class and though she welcomed having less math, she lamented leaving her friends a bit early.  When her fabulous teacher suggested to me that C make one final guest appearance on the next to last day of school, for Field Day, I had to make it happen.  I also arranged for a play date with three of her best classmates the following week that started out with a few hours hanging out at a playground, then taking them all to see the new Jurassic Park movie, and then a final hour hanging out at one of the friends’ houses.  I really cannot thank those girls’ moms enough for letting their girls spend a day with us.  FSO kids live amazing lives, but they also move a lot, and that is really hard, too.

One of the biggest items on my PCS prep list was organizing the cat’s travel.  Moving abroad with a pet is never, ever, ever easy.  There are always last-minute documents needed that no amount of preparation can truly prepare one for.  Recent changes wrought by the pandemic and the US’ own Center for Disease Control ban on dogs entering the US without significant extra paperwork, had only made things more difficult.  Lord knows we have done this before.  My diplo-cat Kucing is very well traveled having been born in Indonesia and moving from there to the US, then Mexico, then back to the US, then China, then back to the US, then to Malawi, then back to the US.  This last move would prove no less stressful. 

Back in January I had learned that the EU had instituted new rules beginning this year that pets – dogs and cats – transiting the EU would be subject to the same rules as if they were entering the region.  And that animals from any country deemed at high risk for rabies would require a titer test to transit.  Initially the regulations were not well promulgated, and it was not clear if we would have to meet the latter requirement.  Therefore, I had Kucing’s rabies updated a few months early, back in February, in case the titer (which needs several months lead time) would be needed.  Thankfully, travel from the US did not trigger that rule.  Still, I would need an import certificate for both Guinea and the EU signed by a veterinarian and endorsed by USDA-APHIS.  Though Guinea would accept an electronically signed certificate, the EU would only accept an in-person signature. 

The certificate paperwork cannot be completed any earlier than 10 days before travel.  Many veterinarians, having just returned to pre-pandemic scheduling, were inundated with appointment requests.  I managed to get a “drop-in” appointment one week before departure and that afternoon the certificate paperwork was FedExed off to the USDA-APHIS office in Albany, NY.  Though there are USDA-APHIS offices in Richmond, Virginia and Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania, those offices were no longer accepting in-person appointments.  The only way to do it was to FedEx.  And I waited.  By Friday, the paperwork was still not back.  Long story short, the paperwork was completed late afternoon on Friday, but although I had paid for FedEx Priority Overnight, someone (not me!) had helpfully selected “weekday only” and thus the paperwork was returned on Monday morning to the vet’s office.  But by 10 AM I had the paperwork in hand and by 2:30 PM we (C, myself, and Kucing the Cat) were on our way to the airport.  (Fun fact: NO ONE looked at that paperwork at any part during our journey!!)

On approach to our new home in Guinea

Mostly for our last 12 days, C and I tried to get our fill of things we would miss.  Yes, we did both get our respective COVID boosters and we did some last-minute shopping. We visited two shopping malls – you know, the gigantic American kind.  We also had a dinner with our family, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, and their kids, and aunt CW.  And we ate all the veggie sushi, string cheese, Domino’s pizza, Taco Bell, Subway, and chicken nuggets we could.  We also saw two movies.  Conakry reportedly has a movie theater (unlike Malawi, which had zero), but films will mostly be in French. 

Then suddenly it was time!  I grabbed the paperwork from the vet and raced back to the hotel.  I dropped off the car my father had loaned us for the duration of our time in the US; he drove me back to the hotel.  Final, FINAL packing.  The large van arrived to take us and all our luggage to the airport.  We were checking in.  Through security.  At the boarding lounge.  And then take off.  Transit through Brussels. And then about 21 hours later after taking off from Dulles Airport we landed in Conakry, Guinea. Our new home.

We touched ground in Conakry just as the sun was setting.

2022 Home Leave: Out West Adventure Part 2

Old Faithful does not disappoint; Neither does the weather

We entered Yellowstone National Park from Grand Teton National Park via the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Highway and the southern entrance. Though the weather was picture-perfect with astonishingly blue skies and temperatures in the low 70s, there was virtually no line to get into the park.

There are no major sights in the southern part of the park and the road through heavily forested areas and along ridges and lakes, so less likely to be susceptible to large animal traffic hold-ups often seen in other parts of the park. It made for nice unimpeded driving through gorgeous scenery but it did also make it harder to stop when I caught sight of something. For instance, as we passed Isa Lake where there was not only a marker for the Continental Divide but I could see a picturesque stop with dark water and ice, I thought I should pull over. However as the parking area was small and busy I opted to continue on, saying we could go back another day, but we never did.

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

We headed on to the Old Faithful area. We were ready for a stop, a chance to stretch our legs and see one of the most iconic sights of the park. Though there were some exciting false starts, the geyser did not disappoint. At least not us. We did hear one person lament how it had been “underwhelming” and another guy musing out loud “I would really like to understand the mechanics.” (Um, hello? You might find information in the visitor center RIGHT BEHIND YOU.) For us, that nature would provide such a regular display of its power, was extraordinary. The good weather and perfect viewing spot were icing on the cake.

After watching Old Faithful and checking out the visitor’s center we were ready for lunch. And this is where we ran into some of the pandemic staffing issues. The National Park Service app had warned visitors of personnel shortages that were leading to the cutting of some services, including many restaurants remaining closed or having more limited hours. Lunch service was particularly affected; I assume the park guessed that many visitors could grab sandwiches or other portable foods to consume while sightseeing or hiking. This led to some very long lines.

We made a few more stops afterwards — pulling into the parking lot that led to the Fairy Falls trail as there looked like there could be some bison vs people interaction with two large bison crossing the path while dumbfounded walkers stood by (well within the recommended 25 yards) in awe. Luckily, the bison were entirely uninterested. We tried to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring but the small parking lot was overflowing, yet we had to inch through it to discover this. But having started the day in Grand Teton and ending it at the Canyon Lodges in Yellowstone, with some beautiful sights along the way, we were good.

At the Grand Prismatic Spring boardwalk view

The following day I made some adjustments to our plan based on weather and food options. With the forecast set to be warm and clear and the breakfast area a crowded, slow mess, we opting to head to the Canyon area after purchasing some breakfast and snacks at the Canyon Village grocery which opened at 9 AM. I have no idea what time the store may open when its not a pandemic, but it seemed late. Yet, the park had warned us of this, so the Canyon area, right by our lodging, seemed the most logical choice for that morning. And no sooner had we driven five minutes when we came upon an elk feeding right next to the road.

Canyon is otherworldly. Though I have never been to the Grand Canyon I have been to large canyons in other countries, but there was something about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone I could not really wrap my head around. Nearly every photo I took of it looked staged, as if I had had used a fake background. Even staring at the Lower Falls and the cascading river far below with my naked eyes did not quite feel real. It was too big, too grand, to seem possible. I have looked at other photos online and they too give off a photoshopped vibe. And yet it is all very real.

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

We stopped at various points on both the upper falls and lower falls roads including Artist’s Point and Inspiration Point. We caught a rainbow forming at the base of the upper falls. I drove for a very, very short time the wrong way on the lower falls road and suffered the ire of the male driver of a large vehicle who made the time to slow down, roll down his window, and shake his fists down at me while mouthing “one way!” I was embarrassed for sure but I 100% swear there is no signage regarding the traffic direction of said road (though you can find a tiny black arrow on your Yellowstone map — be forewarned!). And for the rest of the trip we would jokingly arch our backs, shake our fists, and mouth “One Way!” to each other.

We made it back in time to enjoy a nice lunch at the Canyon Fountain & Grill, a 50s style soda fountain eatery inside the Canyon Village shop. It was one of the few places in the park open for lunch so we took advantage that day. After lunch my aunt had a quiet afternoon at the lodge while C and returned to the Old Faithful area to meander around the trails to see other geothermal features and took another shot at visiting the Grand Prismatic Spring – with success this time. However, we discovered after approaching the spring that it did not in fact lead to the overlook where I had wanted to be. We had already walked for miles that day (with us tracking about 25,000 steps) and we didn’t have the energy for a two hour round trip to the overlook. So that too will need to be earmarked for a future trip.

A pronghorn deer in the Lamar Valley

With our third day in the park predicted to have rain, we opted to spend that morning in the Lamar Valley, known for having some of the best opportunities for wildlife spotting. This reminded me so much of self drive safaris in Africa – all safaris are a matter of luck, but in self driving you do not even have the upper hand of experienced guides and trackers. We sure did luck out that day as we came across a bottleneck along the road just before Tower Falls, where a mother black bear had been spotted lying beneath a large pine where her two cubs were safely ensconced. We could barely make out any of them, but a fellow visitor, who happened to be a retired school teacher with a powerful scope, was kindly letting everyone take a look at the bears from a safe distance.

In the valley itself, there were many bison herds, full of young calves, grazing near the road and occasionally crossing it. We also saw pronghorn deer, ground squirrels, a bald eagle, and a sandhill crane. The animals certainly did not mind the cooler temperatures and misting rain.

With the weather improving through the morning, I opted to head us to Yellowstone Lake instead of Mammoth for lunch. And it turned out to be fortuitous as we passed yet another bear in the Chittenden area just north of the Canyon lodging and a lone wolf on the far side of the river in the Hayden Valley. We were then able to stop at the Mud Volcano area and lunch at the Wylie Canteen at the Lake Lodge, which had just reopened for lunch service a few days before.

Petrified / Bleached trees at Mammoth

On our final day in the park, Sunday, June 12, our luck with the weather ran out. The rain of the previous morning had returned the evening before and poured down for hours and was still falling in the morning. Though I was disappointed, I hoped that as we drove out the north entrance of the park back into Montana, that we might catch a break in the storm and be able to see some of the area. In the end, we drove only one short loop, Upper Terraces Drive, braving the elements only once with rain gear and umbrellas. We stopped in to the Visitor’s Center, hoping that again we could kill some time in the educational center, but the rain only intensified. The one lunch space was packed full of people and with a very long line, so we decided to cut our losses and drive on to Gardiner, Montana, the town right outside the park at the North Entrance.

Little did we know that as we lunched on pizza in Gardiner and then drove on to the Chico Hot Springs Resort in Pray, Montana, how very lucky we would be. Chico, a beautiful 122-year old resort in Paradise Valley, is also where my friend CLK has worked for decades. Years ago, she came out after college to work for nine months and she never left. I visited her in 1998, and she took me on my previous foray to Yellowstone. My daughter and I enjoyed a swim in the glorious natural mineral spring swimming pool, and then she and I and my aunt met CLK and her eldest son for dinner in the award winning Chico dining room to feast on Montana steaks and the dining hall’s famous dessert: the Flaming Orange, a delicious concoction of orange, chocolate, vanilla ice cream, meringue and a good dousing of alcohol, including 151 proof rum, that guarantees a big flame when lit. It was amazing to catch up with CLK, meet her son, and to introduce her to my daughter and aunt.

Unbeknownst to us a disaster was brewing. By that evening, the unprecedented rain and snowmelt led to the Yellowstone River bursting its banks and swallowing parts of the park’s northern roads. The folllowing day the Yankee Jim canyon just north of Gardiner would flood and the Carbella Bridge, a historic steel-trussed bridge built in 1918, washed away. And the National Park Service would close Yellowstone and evacuate visitors and workers.

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

That afternoon as we lolled around Chico enjoying the quiet and beauty, contemplating another soak in the hot springs, CLK messaged me to inform me that we might strongly consider evacuating. According to reports, Livingston, the town 24 miles to the north of Chico and on the way back to Bozeman, was partially evacuating. Part of the highway, which had been already been under some construction, was flooding. There was one bridge still open heading that would get us to Bozeman, but it was not sure how much longer it might remain open. We could take our chances and stay but there was no way of knowing if we would be able to get out the next morning as more rain was predicted that night. I made the executive decision to pack our bags and leave in the next 30 minutes. CLK helped us pack quickly and hand-drew us a map that would take us on back roads to Bozeman, avoiding Livingston.

The bridge was still holding when we crossed, though the waters were high and we could see large debris, including 10 foot trees, floating swiftly on the currents. Once safely over, we got out to watch the waters in wonder. Under a dazzlingly blue sky that belied the catastrophic flooding occurring, the river was rising and widening. It did not look as though the bridge would be open much longer (note: amazingly enough it apparently never closed!). Then we headed over the hills to Bozeman where we would stay the night — meeting several other evacuees from the park and nearby areas.

It was a rather exciting end to an amazing vacation. I am glad to have had the chance to experience these parks with my aunt and my daughter. We were so incredibly lucky to be able to see the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone regardless. To have seen it first in such gorgeous weather, with so many animal sightings, was wonder enough. Then to have made it out just before the calamity fell (what the U.S. Geological Survey called a 1 in 500 years event) is truly extraordinary. It is terrible to think of the economic and environmental costs of the floods will be for years to come. It makes me all the more grateful we not only saw it just beforehand, but also made it out in time.

The Pine Creek Road Bridge on the afternoon of June 13

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

2022 Home Leave: Out West Adventure Part 1

C jumps for joy with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop

There is always something new to experience with the Foreign Service. I have done a long Home Leave (8 weeks after my first post – not a usual thing but I had extra home leave days from serving abroad with the Defense Dept before joining State). I have done a mid-tour Home Leave between my two consecutive tours in Malawi. And now I am experiencing my first split home leave — when one takes part of Home Leave immediately after returning to the US and prior to long-term training and then again after training and before heading to a new assignment.

After the end of my language training, my daughter C, my aunt CW, and myself flew out to Bozeman, Montana to begin the second half of my Home Leave. This trip was a true labor of love for me. I *love* to plan travel and for the past nearly two-and-a-half years I have not really been able to plan trips. C and I lucked out with an R&R to Kenya in December 2020 just before the second COVID-19 wave hit and we had a few mini trips during the first part of this HL in August 2021, but otherwise travel has been especially limited not only due to the pandemic but also regulations that do not permit foreign service officers in training to take annual leave.

I had asked both my aunt and my daughter if they could go to one National Park then where would they want to go and both mentioned Yellowstone with the Grand Tetons a close second for my aunt. As luck would have it, being back in the US this year was fortuitous because all fourth graders in the U.S. are eligible for a free National Park Pass (the Every Kid Outdoors program) that lets them, other children, and up to three adults in with them for free. This was a great opportunity to see a bit more of America before we returned to Africa.

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

Travel remains complicated! I have seen various articles reporting this summer’s travel season to be “crazy,” “chaos,” and “mayhem,” because of continued staffing shortages across the travel industry coupled with lots of people taking those long-delayed trips. I spent hours on the phone changing our refundable late afternoon flight to early morning as I had heard those were less likely to be cancelled, only to have our flight cancelled. We were then rebooked on a flight where myself, my 10 year old daughter, and 74 year old aunt, were seated in middle seats around the plane. No amount of pleading could get us seated together so we made do. I at least had eyes on my daughter for the duration of the flight. On arrival in Bozeman, the car rental told me the sedan I had reserved months ago and reconfirmed the week before was not available and my choices were a 4×4 Tacoma truck or a Camaro!! I had a hard time seeing us tooling around the National Parks in either. As “luck” would have it, a sedan “just happened” to be returned at the very moment I was reluctantly checking out our options) and I jumped at it right away.

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

We stayed a night in Bozeman and the next day my friend CLK met us bearing gifts for our journey. With an upcoming move to tropical West Africa, I was not very keen on holding on to winter coats to pack not only for this trip but also to take up limited space in our suitcases. Thankfully, CLK lived nearby and just happened to be dropping her siblings off at the airport. She came through big time with a box of coats in several sizes and of several weights and a few snacks to feed us along the way. We then got on the road for the three hour drive from Bozeman to West Yellowstone. On even that short drive we happened to see a moose and some bison! Then once in West Yellowstone, the western gateway to Yellowstone, we visited the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center and took a short drive into the park just to get a taste. The weather was largely great (just some scattered rain showers) and it was a wonderful start to our vacation.

The following morning we set out from West Yellowstone for the Grand Teton National Park via Idaho, the Teton Pass, and Jackson, Wyoming. It was a beautiful drive through fantastic vistas beneath a deeply blue sky. The Teton Pass hits an elevation of 8,431 feet (2,570 meters) and we were a little surprised to find a good bit of snow pack on the mountainside despite temperatures in the lower 70s. We had lunch in Jackson and then drove into Grand Teton.

The vistas were breathtaking! The weather report had not been all that favorable for the parks and given the predicted low temps and regular rain, my aunt and I had even considered canceling the trip. Yet here we were with the best possible weather we could have wished for.

At Colter Bay Village’s Swim Beach

We drove on to Colter Bay where we would be staying for two nights. In 1959, my uncle had spent some weeks as a summer hire in Grand Teton between his freshmen and junior years of college. My aunt mentioned it after I had started planning and I had already booked our accommodation. Imagine the luck when we discovered it had been Colter Bay Village where he worked, just two years after the lodging had opened. We had only an old photograph of my uncle’s cabin captured by chance behind his car, which he cared more about remembering for posterity, but we drove around and think we might have found it or at least close to it, and my aunt left some of his ashes there. He had always wanted to come back with her.

Once at Colter Bay, we had a chance to walk around. The marina, and all of Colter Bay in fact, was dry, the result of historic low water levels, but luckily swim beach, though also at lower levels than usual, still provided a great view of Jackson Lake and the Tetons. And there is also where I saw the fox. Almost as soon as we arrived on the rocky beach I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye about 50 feet away near a picnic bench. No one else on the beach seemed aware, and at first I thought it was a dog, except I caught sight of its bushy tail and knew it was a fox. We had already seen signs warning visitors not feed the foxes, but I had not expected to see one.

Some wildlife in the Grand Tetons

On our second day in the Grand Tetons we drove down to the Jenny Lake loop. Here we got up much closer to the mountains and lakes. We stopped briefly at Jenny Lake Lodge to find workers from the Teton Raptor Center giving an educational talk on the lawn with some of their rehabilitated birds. At one of the lake overlooks we encountered the first of very many rather forward chipmunks. I have certainly seen chipmunks before on the East coast, but in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, I saw them with great regularity. And I am a fan of chipmunks. Who isn’t?

We went on to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center where we walked around some and C and I decided we wanted to take the ferry across the lake to the west shore and a short, easy hike to Hidden Falls. My aunt opted to hang back on the East Shore to wait for us, so it was a quick out and back. Frankly, once we got to walking I wish we could have gone on to Inspiration Point and walked back around the lake, but besides my aunt waiting for us I had not planned for the unexpected boat trip at all. We had no water and I was carrying a large handbag! Maybe next time we will be prepared for actual hiking! Though lucky us we happened to catch sight of more wildlife — a marmot!

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

The next morning we said farewell to Grand Teton National Park as we headed north to Yellowstone through the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. I felt pretty grateful we had had this opportunity to spend the time with my aunt and daughter, to provide a special tribute to my uncle, and see an amazing part of the United States.

The Failed Conquest of Kinabalu: Part Two

This is the second of two posts recalling my September 2005 attempt to climb up Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest mountain.  This was written soon after my trip in an email to friends and family. 

Laban Rata Guesthouse was, at first, an oasis. Smiling, bubbling trekkers (happy I think not only to have made it to this point on the trek but to have also gotten out of the rain) bustled about or sat at tables munching down on warm bowls of noodles and sipping cups of steaming beverages.  I had a bowl of chicken ramen and AG had Tom Yam soup.  He had tea and I had hot Milo.  And we just sat there slurping away, our hands caressing the hot bowls and mugs, content to have arrived.  I did not want to take off my wet clothes because I knew that soon enough we would have to slosh our way back down the hill a little ways to the Waras Huts, now synonymous in our minds to the worst possible accommodation imaginable.  This was especially true when we learned the Waras Huts were not heated!!!  I could not help but stammer dumbfounded at the receptionist: “You have got to be kidding.  Why would you have an unheated dormitory on the top of a mountain at 3300 meters (10,826 feet)??”  I mean, really?  Why have 100 beds in heated dormitories and then have just 16 or 24 beds in an unheated hut??  Why be that cruel? 

AG tried to convince them they wanted to upgrade us, but they were very, very firm that they were full in the main lodge.  So, I changed into my dry clothes, and we hung out in the main lodge as long as we could (the downstairs was not heated either) and then rolled up our pants legs, put on some flip flops, put our wet trainers in a bag, put our emergency ponchos back on, and braved the storm outside.  I managed to get my flip flop stuck in a big muddy puddle, but I was back in good spirits and laughed about it.  I also laughed when AG’s rain slicker he had tied around his waist fell down and it looked like he had lost his pants and he was hopping around trying to fix it while the rain pelted him.  I think the thin air was getting to me, too. 

But then we were faced with the reality of the Waras Huts.  It was cold and sparse.  A single thin blanket on each of the eight dorm beds in our room.  Four slatted windows rattled in the wind allowing cold air to blow in.  The bathrooms were outside; one had to brave the elements and leap over a big cold muddy puddle in order to pee. Oh, it was a joy to behold.  We must have stood incredulous for a few minutes.  They had to be kidding, right?  We chose a lower bunk and decided it would be ours, figuring the only way we would survive the night is if we huddled together.  We took our two blankets, put on all our dry clothes and huddled.  But the drafts from the windows were terrible.  We switched to another bed that was not under the windows, and when it became clear that we were sharing the room with only one other person we grabbed 2 more blankets from the other beds.  Then AG fashioned two other blankets into large drapes over the drafty windows.  Our poor dormitory-mate was left with his one blanket, though he didn’t seem to mind (seeing as how we had covered the windows) and he had on some pretty warm looking gear and made himself into a blanket cocoon.  We missed dinner, but I didn’t really care because I could not face going outside again.  AG did brave the elements one more time around 8 PM to get water and ask one more time if there was ANY way at all for us to move up to the main lodge.  None. 

We woke at 2:30 AM, although truth be told, even with four blankets we were never really warm enough to sleep well.  The rain had stopped in the early evening the night before, but the wind was still high and the fog thick.  The fog was, in fact, terrible – visibility was no more than 10 feet.  Our guide had told us the night before if the weather remained bad, we could not climb.  Although the rain had stopped, the low clouds threatened rain at any moment.  The summit climb involved holding on to ropes while walking over granite.  The ropes and rocks would be slick from the constant rain of the day before.  Usually, the clouds roll in about 30 minutes to an hour after sunrise.  With the cloud cover already well in place, there would be no views at all of the mountain or the surrounding area.  And a climb that is already a tough one would become very risky.  Folks have been known to fall off the mountain (I only confirmed this afterwards).  I was not having warm fuzzy feelings about it. 

We decided to ask around to other climbers to see what they were thinking.  It seemed most were not going to try the climb – though of those polled in the lodge it was probably 50-50.  Except that most had not even bothered to get out of their warm beds.  Our dormitory-mate had not moved from his cocoon, so it looked like he was not climbing.  In fact, none of the other people in the Waras Huts were climbing.  One guy said that his guide had told him he had climbed the mountain 502 times, and this is the worst he had ever seen it.  Sounded great!  I asked one group why they would climb if they would see nothing but mist and one guy said “George Mallory: Because it’s there.”  “Yeah”, I said, “but he died.”  “Good point,” the climber said, but they were still going to give it a go. 

AG and I decided to question our guide.  AG asked Janeul very slowly what did he think of the conditions?  Janeul looked thoughtful.  “Is it dangerous?” AG asked.  “Yes, dangerous,” said Janeul.  “So should we climb?” AG asked.  “Yes, can climb,” said Janeul sagely.  What?  Janeul just said it was very dangerous, very slippery, but if we would climb, he would climb.  Passed the buck right on to us.  I wanted Janeul to say there was no one in his/her right mind that would climb the mountain in these conditions so that I could in good conscious say, well I tried, but the guide said we would kill ourselves, so what can you do?  This lackadaisical-leave-it-in-the-climbers-hands made us look like chickens.  I did not like that one bit.  I WANTED to climb.  I had not flown halfway around the world for a week to almost climb a mountain.  But I also was not interested in getting myself killed to see nothing but fog.  Frankly, I was not even interested in being very, very cold and wet and scared to see nothing but fog. 

Thus, we decided not to climb.  We sat in the cold lounge and played a few games of cards. Some groups who had started off for the summit returned noting the conditions were poor and they had had to turn back. AG went to see if someone in one of the heated rooms would take pity on us and let us sleep in the beds of those who had decided to make the stupid climb.  Success – and for two hours we huddled in a very warmly heated room while cursing the Waras Huts.  (I can still remember – perhaps the most vivid of my memories of this trip – the sheer pleasure of snuggling beneath the cheap, scratchy, but substantial blanket in a top bunk in a toasty room.  I feel into a deeply satisfying sleep).  At 6:30 am we were up again and went down for breakfast, but we were too early.  With nothing really to do, we decided to trek down as soon as it was light.  Just before leaving the lodge Janeul told us we should get our climbing certificates, BUT since we had not climbed to the summit we could only get SECOND CLASS certificates.  Well, no thank you!  I think even if someone does not climb to the very top because of dangerous fog, but they climb up two-thirds of the darn mountain in cold, driving rain and stay the night in the Waras Huts then they deserve a FIRST CLASS certificate.  But obviously Janeul thought differently.  I just know he thought we were chicken.  I was pretty sure on the way down when we would pass Malay porters heading up they would ask “Hey, Janeul how goes it?  Did your people climb?” and Janeul would answer in Malay “No, these two are big chickens.” 

The trek down was rather pleasant.  I was disappointed, yes, but also relieved.  The fog was still thick, but the air was crisp and fresh.  As we were one of the first groups to start down, the trail was quiet, with only the occasional porter bringing up a sack of rice or a propane tank.  There were only the sounds of water trickling, birds singing, frogs croaking, and the swish of the wind through the tropical leaves.  It was beautiful.  We practically flew down.  AG almost ran at parts.  I, however, was not so sure of my feet.  About halfway down, it started to rain again and we donned those emergency ponchos once more, but by then we were under the forest canopy by then and it did not really bother us.  We were thrilled though when we reached the waterfall and knew we had only five more minutes of trail.  We celebrated under the Timphonon Gate with a Coca-cola each.   

From here it was a whirlwind of vans and taxis and planes.  The story should have ended there, except that it turns out mountain climbing immediately followed by over 24 hours of transportation may not be a good recipe.   Back to Kinabalu by minibus, a few hours wait at a guesthouse, then a flight to Johor Bahru, Malaysia, then a taxi into Singapore and the airport, then a flight back to Washington, D.C.  All with very little sleep – and certainly not sleep that would allow me to be horizontal.  When we came down the mountain, AG and I kept remarking about how good we felt, that our legs felt absolutely fine.  No cramping.  No pain.  We chalked it up to being pretty darn fit.  How wrong we were!

By the time I was boarding my flight in Singapore back to the U.S. my calves were starting to ache. I could hardly lift my legs while on the plane and ended up sitting for far too long.  By the time I arrived back in DC, my feet, ankles, and lower legs had swollen so that my toes looked like little Vienna sausages and my ankles were no longer identifiable as separate from my log-like legs.  I figured this was nothing a good night’s rest could not cure, only to wake up the next day still swollen.  I hobbled off to work, avoiding stairs as much as I could.  Yet after lunch, when my legs seemed to have swelled even more, I started to think maybe, just maybe, something was not quite right.  I went to see the doctor on base (I worked at the National Defense University on Fort McNair in Washington, DC) and he took one look at my swollen feet and said it looked bad. He squeezed my calves and I yelped in pain.  He told me I should go to the hospital to have deep vein thrombosis ruled out.  He called an ambulance, and I was strapped to a chair and carried downstairs, then a gurney, and rushed off to the hospital.  I waited in the emergency room for about eight hours to be seen (!), but thankfully the ultrasound revealed I did not have any blood clots, just badly swollen legs. So, I got an extra vacation day staying at home and off my feet.  Thanks to Mount Kinabalu (and some spectacularly terrible planning).

Seventeen years later I still wish I could have stood at the summit of Mount Kinabalu, though I know given the circumstances I made the right decision at the time.  I neither regret the decision nor the attempt. It is highly unlikely though I will try again; I have to accept that some things just are not meant to be finished, and that is okay.    

*Just a note that in researching online to refresh my memories for this post, I found out two interesting tidbits:  As a result of the 2015 earthquake, Waras Huts is currently unavailable.  No great loss in my opinion!  Also, due to 2009 cable damage there is no longer any heating in the Laban Rata dormitories and bathrooms.  Yikes!  Granted, online sites offering climbing tours these days seem far more organized than when I was there 17 years ago. There are even three day / two night packages on offer that include a night at the base of the mountain to help with acclimatization. As we could not climb the day we arrived at the park, this was ultimately what we did. Staying that unexpected night at the base — at 1,520 meters (4,980 feet) — might have actually helped us! Sometimes being unprepared works in one’s favor!

The Failed Conquest of Kinabalu (Part 1)

As part of my blog, I sometimes find former travelogues I sent to friends and family of my travels before I joined the U.S. government and brush them off, spiff them up, provide some context, and then publish them here. 

This is about my attempt – and ultimately, failure – to climb Southeast Asia’s largest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, located in the Malaysia state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.  It is more an uphill walk than a climb, with casual climbers making the round trip in two days.  Most climbers begin in the morning on day one climbing for three to six hours to a location approximately two-thirds of the way up where they overnight; then in the early morning hours they start the final ascent, returning to the base the same day.  I would make this trip with my Indian friend AG, whom I had met when I studied for a master’s degree at the National University of Singapore, 2002-2003.  He and a group of friends also from India had made the climb the year before. 

It seems almost unbelievable to me that this trip took place in September 2005, already 17 years ago.  But I enjoy going back through my old travel stories to remember the amazing things I have done. Sometimes I wonder what this younger woman was thinking!  I also revisit this story at a time when we have been in the pandemic for two years and our travel has been very limited. 

As per usual when I share stories of my former travels, I try to include as much as I can of what I wrote then and supplement with background information on the place and my memories.  I have few photos of this excursion, largely due to the poor weather that provided few views of anything other than fog, scrubs, and muddy trails as we climbed.  I imagine I was also just too tired. Though I do remember that during the summer before this climb I often put weights in my backpack and took long walks around Washington, D.C., to prepare for the hike, walking at near sea level on flat surfaces was not enough.

The mountain adventure begins with a stunningly long journey from the U.S. east coast to the Malaysian state of Sabah, located on the northeastern corner of Borneo, the world’s third largest island.  This would not be my first trip to Borneo as I had visited the country of Brunei, the Malaysian state of Sarawak, and into the Indonesian state of West Kalimantan in July 2003.  I had also previously visited Brunei in February of the same year. 

I flew two hours from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, then 15 hours to Hong Kong, then three hours to Singapore.  I arrived late the next evening.  I spent three full days in Singapore catching up with friends and trying to shake some of the jet lag.  On the fourth day, AG and I took a taxi from downtown Singapore to the Malaysia border.  Then another taxi to the Senai International Airport and a two-hour flight to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital.  Fun fact: Sabah used to be known as “Api-Api” meaning “Fire, Fire” because it was burned down so often by pirates (or so I read when I was researching my graduate thesis on maritime piracy in the region).  We stay one night in Kota Kinabalu and the following morning we wake up early to catch a minibus for the two hour trip to the park entrance of Kinabalu National Park. 

I could not have traveled much further away from Washington, D.C. than the mist-dusted slopes of Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain – the tallest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea.  At 4,095 meters or 13,435 feet above sea level, Mt. Kinabalu (meaning house of the spirits of the dead) is the youngest non-volcanic mountain in the world and is apparently still growing by approximately five millimeters per year.  This mountain would be my challenge.  I had wanted to climb this mountain before when I lived in Singapore, but when SARS hit travel plans were squashed and I let this idea go for a while.  I wasn’t sure I could climb the thing anyway.  It is one of those things like training for a marathon that one says they might like to do but never seem to work up the gumption to do.  Oops! I AM training to run a half marathon this year.  And so, it seemed time to put my mountain trekking dreams to the test. 

Up until the time that my friend AG and I set out on the trail to the top, I had a hard time imagining myself really going up the mountain. It then was no surprise to me that when we arrived at the park headquarters on Thursday that we were told that accommodation on the mountain was fully booked. Ah, here then was one of those times when my devil-may-care attitude toward reservations (and apparently AG’s too) was going to get the better of me. We tried; we really did. We asked about sleeping on the floor, about cancellations, about other ways to stay on the mountain. The hotel however only suggested that maybe we could climb up and down the mountain in one day.  This option most definitely did not appeal to us, but still, we asked a guide about this option, and his look clearly indicated this would be on this side of crazy.  (It seems these days permits for a one day climb are no longer offered) So, we accepted this temporary setback, made our accommodation bookings, paid all our fees for the park and guide, and then made our way to the lodge where we would be stay that night.

As we could not check in to the hotel until 1 PM, we joined a nature walk through a nearby botanical garden to learn about the flora of the area. Kinabalu Park became Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 due to the incredible diversity of its flora and fauna.  The main plants to see – or rather what I wanted to see – were some of the orchids and the oddly fascinating pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant shaped like a pitcher with an umbrella cap.  The pitcher fills with digestive fluid, bugs fall in, and the plant devours them. Even if the insects try to climb out, the downward pointing spikes at the lip of the pitcher prevent them from escaping.  Really cool. 

Our money was limited.  I had tried to change a U.S. 100-dollar bill when in Johor (Malaysia) before flying to Sabah, but the money changer refused. Apparently the 1996 series of bills had been counterfeited one too many times by some Southeast Asian mafia.  And AG’s ATM card was not working.  Luckily our credit cards were accepted so we were paying for as much as we could with them to conserve our little cash.  I had planned to keep expenses modest but with our spirits dwindling I opted instead to shell out big time – thus we dined very fine, stayed in a luxurious room, and had drinks by the lodge fireplace.  (Unfortunately, I never wrote down the name of the lodge where we stayed.  I tried searching online for clues but with nearly 20 years between now and then, I just do not know.  But I recall the room – a two story loft with a sitting room with massive windows on the first floor and a king-sized bed with super soft sheets upstairs – was fancy indeed.  And we watched the news that night on the large television and learned of the death of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist.  We would have missed that had we been on the mountain.)  As the rain poured down outside – though September was supposed to be still the dry season – we wondered if we should not just hang out in the lodge for three days.  But I was there to climb that mountain!

Early on Friday morning we were up for breakfast.  There we met a couple who had returned the day before.  Although they said it had been cold and wet and their legs were now so stiff so they could not walk properly, it was “brilliant.” They passed on their walking sticks and told us to buy gloves (because one pair would get wet) and the cheap emergency ponchos to cover our bags.  We made the requisite purchases (with credit card of course) then off to the park headquarters where we met our guide Janeul. 

Every climbing group must have a licensed guide.  Yet it was not all that clear that there was much training involved in one becoming a guide.  AG said it was simply job creation, that all one needed was to be fit enough to go up and of stoic enough personality to climb the mountain again and again and again leading all manner of tourist.  It was pretty clear early on that one did not need to have strong communication skills to be a guide.  Janeul immediately, though in very few words, informed us he would be taking us to the Laban Rata guesthouse.  Unfortunately, we would not be staying there since we had not made advance reservations, Laban Rata remained full and we had had to take accommodation in the unknown-to-us Waras Huts.  AG tried to correct the guide but who only then repeated “Laban Rata” and “Please wait here five minutes.”  AG noted again that we needed to go to the Waras Huts and Janeul again repeated, “Yes, Laban Rata.”  So we gave up.  We had the whole walk up to set this guy straight. (Though it turned out of course that we did have to go to Laban Rata to check in)

A minivan took us to Timphonon Gate, which marks the start of the mountain trail.  There, decked out in our start of trek gear – shorts and t-shirts with our rain jackets tied around our waists and our small packs on our backs and our walking sticks in hand – we began.  The first 50 feet is downhill, and I said, “Oh this is great!” and AG said, “Yes, Mt. Kinabalu is 4100 meters below sea level.”  Ha Ha Ha! Just before the trail slopped upwards, we stopped at a small waterfall; it would be our sign when we returned that we were almost done.  From there it was literally all uphill. 

The first part of the trail is dirt with steps fashioned out of tree limbs and wood, clearly put together by someone with a special hatred of trekkers.  These were monstrously sized steps and it seemed slow going.  But we had sun and it looked like it would be a beautiful day.  By the time we reached the first of the rest stops 30 minutes in I was feeling a little tired, having not quite yet hit my stride.  But AG said it had taken him and friends over an hour to reach that stop the year before and I felt buoyed.  We rested just a few minutes and then set out again.  The sun was still out, and the mountain was lush and green.  But the trees were thick, and we were still fairly low, so there were not any views. 

AG and our guide Januel

Within half an hour the rain started to fall.  It was a light rain, but we stopped to put on our five-ringgit Emergency Ponchos (made in China) to keep our bags, and spare clothes, dry.  We met lots of people who were on their way down and though they were tired they were almost always full of hellos and encouragement.  Mostly the trekking was just a matter of putting one foot in front of another, and while that sounds monotonous, it did not seem that way at first.  Although AG and I did not trek side by side, him first being a bit faster than me and then when his legs started to cramp up, I took the lead.  But we generally kept in sight of one another and at the rest stops would sit and briefly chat with ourselves and other trekkers and eat our chocolate (AG) or marathon Gu (me).   Yet the rain continued, and soon became harder.  As we climbed in altitude the trees became shorter until they were only shrubs.  The wind picked up and instead of climbing over dirt and tree branches we were soon climbing over granite boulders awash in small rivers of rainwater.  AG stood atop one high exposed boulder barely hanging on in the wind and raised his arms in jubilation and laughed.  It looked scary to me, and I wondered if the thinner mountain air might be affecting his sanity.  We slogged on.  Now we met few others on the trail and our guide Janeul stayed closer to us.  Before he would disappear, and we might look around thinking where in the world is our guide, and then suddenly he would be there again.  The trail was by no means poorly defined, we didn’t really need a guide to follow, and yet it was comforting to know that someone was supposed to be looking out for us when we might become too tired to do so ourselves. 

We had been trekking for three hours and now were at almost 3000 meters (9,800 feet) and I suddenly got very, very tired of walking over slick rocks, with very wet shoes, while the wind whipped my emergency poncho hood off and forced it to billow around me.  I was tired of looking down to keep the hard rain out of my eyes.  I was very, VERY sick of looking at grey rocks. I thought to myself if I see another G*dd**m grey boulder it will be too soon.  We could see nothing of the view.  There was the trail and then the low fence to keep us from wandering off the side of the mountain and then nothing but mist.  We could hear the roar of a large waterfall but could not see it.  Suddenly the wind was out of my sails, and I was thrilled to see the sign for Waras Huts – our mountain abode – appear before us out of the fog.  But we still had to hike up another 10 minutes to the main lodge, Laban Rata, to eat and check in.  But we had made it to the first leg of the hike! We also managed to do it in three and a half hours* despite the weather – what AG said took him and his friends nearly six hours last time. 

Here I was – sitting in a café at 3,272 meters (10,734 feet) above sea level.  The only other time I had been at this altitude was when I took a six-day tea house trek in Nepal’s Annapurna region.  Then, Poon Hill at 3,210 meters (10,531 feet) had been the highest elevation and I had begun to feel the affects of altitude sickness with a tight pin-pricking headache and an intense need to move downhill.  This time though while certainly fatigued and tired of the cold and wet, I was not feeling ill.  Climbing the whole way was beginning to feel very possible!

*Recently, I have seen online it is recommended to take one’s time on the ascent due to the altitude and 5-6 hours is better. Ooops.

Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Home Leave

We had made it to the U.S. from Malawi in the time of COVID. Whew! And now we could begin our congressionally-mandated period of readjustment, reacquaintance, and relaxation in the U.S. known as Home Leave. Unlike Home Leaves past, where we traveled from place to place to place, we would spend the majority of this one in one location, Florida, where, for the first time ever, I own property. Do not get me wrong, I had initially intended another whirlwind Home Leave journey that would take us to multiple U.S. states and experiences on the bucket list, but a combination of timing, getting older (which I hate admitting), bringing our Malawian nanny, and COVID, led me to make some adjustments. Though it was far and away due to the pandemic, and I will admit a continued sense of identity loss with reduced travel, there was something satisfying about slowing down and staying put, familiarizing ourselves with our new U.S. home town, and introducing America to a newcomer.

After successfully emerging from the security and immigration at Dulles Airport, we were met by my sister and then our transport driver, who whisked myself, the nanny, my daughter, the cat, and our odd collection of baggage, off to a nearby car rental. There we were met by my aunt, who took some of our luggage off our hands, and then we were on the road to Florida.

Yes, I had decided to drive to Florida. Sure, we could have flown, but there were all sorts of reasons that made me not want to deal with the 8 1/2 hour layover and boarding another flight. I can distill it down to my deep desire to be on the road and (seemingly) more in control.

And as we merged onto I-95, the main artery linking the American east coast from Miami Florida to the Maine-Canadian border, I felt pretty darn happy. Maybe ecstatic. I felt free. This was not the Malawi roadtripping of the past four years. This was not potholes and missing shoulders, it was not narrow two lanes that double as livestock crossings or pass suddenly through small market villages with people and goods spilling right onto the road. It was six beautiful lanes (actual lanes! with visible lines!) of smooth asphalt. Even when it became bumper to bumper traffic that turned our 2 to 1/2 hour drive to Richmond into an exasperating 4 1/2 hours causing me to let loose some expletives I thought I had reserved exclusively for Malawi driving, I was still thrilled to be driving in America.

That first day’s drive took so much longer than anticipated we ended up stopping our first night in Richmond instead of the planned stop around Fayettville, NC. Already exhausted by jet lag and jacked up with drive excitement, I had to call it quits early. The second day we would not make it to Jacksonville either, making our overnight pitstop in Santee, South Carolina. But what this afforded me was the opportunity to wake up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, around 3 AM, and then drive for hours in the dark along the highway. This, too, was an indulgence I could not pursue in Malawi as we were prohibited from driving after dark outside of the three major cities due to unsafe roads and lack of ambulance and police services. But in the U.S. I could glide along those roads in the pre-dawn hours with little other traffic.

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

My nanny, JMC, a hard-working and eager 20-year-old, who had described her first airplane flight with wide, bright eyes (“I could feel my soul leaving my body!”) gave our highways high marks. She remarked on the sheer number of trees flanking the road. “Amazing!” she called it all. A good reminder of something many Americans take for granted: an extensive and efficient road system.

I view Jacksonville, Florida as more a place to live than a tourist destination. It has its beaches, of course, and museums and other similar attractions found in large U.S. cities, but it does not scream “vacation” to me. That being said, this Home Leave would be the longest we would consecutively spend in the area and I had put together a decently list of activities for our visit. It turned out that even my plans for Florida were wildly ambitious.

After nearly 18 months of limited (frankly, nearly zilch) activities outside our home in Lilongwe and few getaways, we were not used to having options and found it harder to muster the energy for back-to-back pursuits. The luxury of just sitting around a living room other than the one we had in Lilongwe was so very tempting (Okay, we were not just tempted. We totally embraced it). We were not only jet lagged, but exhausted — by the flights, the drive, the last week of departure preparations. In addition to my list of fun things to do, I also had a list of less-fun but necessary things to be done, from medical appointments that could not be taken care of in Malawi to items to buy (both my phone and my computer were on their last legs) and paperwork (insurance and employment authorization applications for the nanny).

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

And there was the pandemic. I guess I had this odd idea that once we left Malawi, we could also leave it behind us. That was, of course, not the case. We had departed Malawi in the middle of a rising third COVID wave only to arrive in Jacksonville, Florida, which had become an epicenter of the U.S.’ Delta wave. This would slow my Home Leave roll too.

But I still managed to get us out and about. In the initial few days, I took us to the Jacksonville Zoo and to the Museum of Science and History (MOSH). I suppose one might wonder why a zoo after four years in Africa? I know some might wonder this as this is exactly what my daughter asked me when I told her I was dragging her there against her will. Because zoos — well good zoos that support animal welfare and research — can be amazing places to see animals that one might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. Animals that even on a four hour game drive in Africa cannot coax into appearing before you. JMC had been to the zoo once when she lived in South Africa as a child, but her only experience seeing animals at a game park in Malawi was when we took her and her sister with us to the Kuti Wildlife Reserve the year before, and though we had a good time, I’ll mention something I didn’t mention then, that the animals were limited in variety and mostly hid from us. I attribute the fun we had to the fact we were with good friends and that it was the first trip we took after the six months ban on leaving the capital in that first half year of the pandemic. Both C and JMH loved the Jacksonville Zoo. They also liked the MOSH, though disdained the history portion (C: “There is too much to read here. This is boring.”) but embraced the pay-to-experience hurricane contraption.

I also took them to St. Augustine to see the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and eat ice cream while melting in midday 90 degree heat in August in Florida. I like taking C to places of American historic significance, to try to pack in some Americana since she spends so much time outside her homeland. And making her visit a historic place in the height of sweltering summer is, I believe, an American parent-child relationship right of passage. JMH told me that she thought she, an African, would be well-prepared for American summers, but that that day in St. Augustine had proven her wrong.

After our visit to the Zoo and MOSH, I buckled down with my paperwork for about a week and then when I emerged took us all to Disney World. We might be people you would call “Disney people.” We have visited a few parks a few times (for example, here, here, here, and here). C and I wanted our Disney fix and I wanted to give JMC a taste of Disney fun. With COVID, I was a bit concerned. I reduced our planned park time from three days to two – with one day at Magic Kingdom and one at Animal Kingdom – and we kept our masks on all the time at the park, and it worked out for us. Disney was keeping its actual park capacity limits secret, but it was clear as soon as we arrived that levels were still not what they were pre-COVID There were a few rides that were hard to get on but we rode on nearly all we wanted to and had a spectacular time and scored with some really gorgeous weather.

Back in our condo in Jacksonville we slowed down more. I had more paperwork; I joined a gym for the first time in a very, very long time. C and I took walks or drives to capture Pokémon in Pokémon Go, something we could not do in Malawi as my personal phone had not connected to any network away from home. I took them to Sweet Pete’s, a famous candy shop in downtown Jacksonville, for a make-your-own-chocolate-bar and factory tour experience, and then paid beaucoup bucks for giant bags of candy they giddily picked out. We took walks to Target (because it is a destination in and of itself, especially for American devotees who spend a lot of time overseas where there are none) and at Castaway Island Preserve or on the beach, JMC’s first time to see the ocean.

Then suddenly the vacation part of Home Leave was coming to an end. I had opted to spend nearly four weeks in Florida and then an additional two in our State Department provided lodging to get C into school and all of us settled into our new apartment and neighborhood. (PS: the two weeks before my training began were out of my own pocket, but so worth it! The Department only picks up the tab the night before training begins and it is really hard to adjust when starting school and training and life in a new place all at that same time. Oh, that is what we do overseas!)

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

I decided I wanted one more shot at an experience sort of like Home Leaves past, so arranged for us to spend two nights in Savannah, Georgia, on our way north to Virginia. I have long wanted to visit Savannah but had never done so and it was sort of on the way… And as the oldest European settlement in Georgia it fit in with a minor theme of our Home Leave (St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in Florida and New Bern, where we would stay a night with one of my best friends, is the second oldest European settlement in North Carolina).

We kept our Savannah visit COVID compliant. We did not join a hop on hop off bus, we did not take a group tour. What we did was walk. And I will tell you that walking is not only a great way to see a town but a glorious pastime that Americans often take for granted. It was here in Savannah that I realized my 9-year-old daughter did NOT know how to walk in a town. I knew that I would need to discuss the finer points of walking in an urban area with the nanny; a good friend who facilitates the visits of foreigners to the U.S. on exchange programs had told me that one major point he emphasizes is that jaywalking is illegal in America. In Malawi, as in many developing countries, it is a necessity, an artform even. There are few to no sidewalks or crosswalks or traffic lights. Unlike myself, who had grown up learning to look both ways before I crossed a street, C had not. Another missing piece in her informal education. In Savannah she just walked off each curb with a blithe confidence that caused my heart to stop.

So we learned some Georgia history, and American history, and life skills during our walking tours of Savannah. Two days was not enough time to cover any of that in any great detail, but we really enjoyed our stay. Next we moved on to a night in New Bern with one of my best friends and her son, a much needed respite from our drive, and then before I knew it we had arrived in Arlington, Virginia, where we will spend the next 9 1/2 months in training before heading on to my next assignment.

This Home Leave may not have been what I had initially planned and hoped for, but it is the one we got in a pandemic and turned out to be just what we needed.

Malawi: Winding Down

The countryside around Dedza, central Malawi

We are slipping ever closer to our departure from Malawi; we have less than a month to go though I do not today know exactly how many days are left. I had a date in early August, but realized that due to COVID I could request to depart in July. I then had a very late July date, but then the airline flying that route cancelled the flight. We have new tickets but the already paid for reservation for my cat on that flight has yet to be confirmed for the new itinerary. Therefore things are not quite settled until the cat’s ticket is settled.

The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster. Lots of preparations to wrap things up in the office and at a home. A series of actions to check items off lists. Slowly sorting items into piles of things to sell, to donate, to give away, to put in luggage, into unaccompanied baggage (UAB), and into household effects (HHE). It might seem on the surface to be a rather straightforward process, but it is not. The two of us qualify for 450 pounds of UAB, which will be sent to the U.S. by air. It seems like both a lot but also not very much. We will be in the U.S. for about a year, so we want to be able to take a fair amount with us. Our HHE will be placed into storage in Europe until we arrive in Guinea in the summer of 2022; the shipment will only be authorized after our arrival and can take a few months. Therefore its likely we will not see these items for 15-16 months. If my daughter tells me that I can put something into HHE then I might as well just get rid of it now as she will be a different child 16 months from now.

We have whittled down quite a bit of the pantry and toiletry items. It feels a little odd as Malawi is a consumables Post – a place where we are able to get a extra shipment of foodstuffs and items for personal or household maintenance – and thus we arrived with large stocks of those items. Now we are out of vitamins and down to the last tubes of toothpaste, the last bottles of shampoo, the last bits of so many things.

In the midst of these preparations, Malawi has experienced the lead up to a COVID third wave. The third wave in Africa started in early May. South Africa had been seeing increases particularly with its own variant (the Beta) and the Indian variant (Delta), and as was to be expected it did not take long for it to spill across borders. By early June, the cases in Malawi started to climb just as the county began to administer the second shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Unfortunately, before the end of the month vaccines in Malawi were finished.

I had really hoped that before we departed Malawi we might get in another vacation. We had managed to get out for our holiday in Kenya just before the second wave and we have had a few trips within Malawi after the six-month prohibition against traveling out of Lilongwe at the beginning of the pandemic was lifted. I thought we might get to South Africa and Lesotho to finally complete the trip we had had planned for April 2020, but Ethiopian Airlines refused to honor the flight credits we had and with the COVID numbers going up yet again, it seemed best to remain in Malawi. I started to look into whether we could get in another domestic vacation but we had already done a good job in getting out and about; there were few places left on my bucket list. Many we had already been to twice. Those we wanted to get to were rather far, with still limited facilities due to the pandemic, or cost prohibitive.

Thus I found myself with 11 consecutive days of off just hanging about the house. As if we have not already been hanging around the house for much of the past 18 months. Yet this time, I have the upcoming departure from Malawi, our Permanent Change of Station (PCS), fast approaching so though my inability to scratch my travel itch yet again has done a few things to my psyche, I am also grateful to have had this time to both relax (lots of sleeping in, reading, watching DVDs), manage some final play dates for my daughter, and to do some of that whittling down of things.

Rock Art Paintings at Namzeze

But I could not be content with just that. There was one more place I had hoped to visit. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malawi. One is the Lake Malawi National Park and we have visited there on multiple occasions (such as here, here, and here). The other is the Chongoni Rock Art Area. Scattered across 127 sites in the Chentcherere hills of central Malawi, around Dedza, these are a mix of paintings on rock by BaTwa pygmy hunters of the Stone Age and Chewa agriculturalists of the Iron Age and “feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa.”

The last bit of, um, road?

On a beautiful, clear Sunday morning (after days of overcast days), C and I, with our friends CR and her daughter AR, headed about 100 kilometers south on the M1 to the Dedza Pottery Lodge. We stopped there so CR could pick up an order, we could all use the facilities, and we met our guide Samuel. CR jumped into the backseat with the girls and Samuel took the passenger seat, and we headed back north along a dirt road. We drove around 45 minutes to the turn off to the Namzeze site, which Samuel said was the best as it featured paintings of both the BaTwa and Chewa people. The road then got pretty bad. It was just a track through tall grassland. At times it was okay, but at other times there were some parts where bits of the road was missing, making ridges with fissures deep enough to maybe, if not swallow at least stall my car.

At last we came to an area just above a wooden log bridge. We stopped here as there were significant gaps between the log and it was too much of a challenge with my car (especially one I have already sold!). I was really pleased that although the road was challenging, the signposting was good.

We then walked up the rocky hillside for about 40 minutes or so (I suppose some can certainly hike it faster than two middle aged women of middling activeness with two nine year old girls) until we reached an area with a large covered opening in the rock, a shallow cavern, the Namzeze paintings. There we sat as Samuel gave us a bit of information on the drawings and the people who made them. He said the paintings done in red ochre were made by the BaTwe people, and could be as much as 10,000 years old, and the ones in white clay were made by the Chewa people and are approximately 2,000 years old (though it is not all that clear, even on the UNESCO site, that the paintings are that old). The red paintings, as they are older, are fainter, and of mostly graphic designs (lines, dots, shapes) while the white clay designs are of four-footed animals and birds, which are likely related to ritualistic initiations.

Left: Our guide Samuel surveys the valley from the mouth of the hillside opening; Right: C and AR in front of the rock art

After about 30 minutes at the site we had a more rapid descent to the car. We drove part way back to the Dedza Pottery Factory to drop off Samuel and then headed back to the M1 and Lilongwe. I am glad that we went, that we had one more adventure to see another special aspect of Malawi.

It is such an odd time now. PCS’ing — moving internationally — is hard enough, stressful enough in normal times. During a pandemic puts it at a whole new level. Flight schedules are more limited. Ethiopian once flew daily to and from Lilongwe and now its four times a week. And schedules seem subject to more changes and cancellations than usual. And the testing regimes on top of it. It’s a lot to think about. And it is all mixed up in the complicated feelings of departure from a place where we have spent a significant amount of time and after already a year and a half of a pandemic. Most Embassy families we know are currently on their R&Rs and we are the last family to PCS this summer. C’s best friends leave two weeks before us. Our last few weeks are going to be hard, especially on C. There is unlikely to be another PCS like this. At least I certainly hope not.

We head next to the U.S. where it seems from where we sit that most have returned to a level of normalcy. My sister, a TSA agent at a major U.S. airport, has reported “post-pandemic summer travel,” except that implies an end to a pandemic that is very much still in progress and accelerating again in many parts of the world. I am focused almost entirely on managing our departure; the arrival in the U.S. is a whole other step. I do not know what to expect.

Blue Zebra Redux: The Last Road Trip

With three months left in Malawi, I have to come to terms that this was probably our last Malawi road trip. After four years of driving all over the country, our second trip out to Salima to take the speedboat to Nankhoma Island is quite likely the last of our Malawi vacations.

It is bittersweet. In years we are not moving (and not in a pandemic), I would look at a month like May and its three, count them three, long weekends, and would be busy planning the getaways. There are places still on my Malawi travel bucket list I had hoped to visit such as Nyika National Park and Likoma Island that we will not get to. Like so many things, the pandemic also took away these trips, and with Department restrictions still in place that would require my daughter, who is, of course, unvaccinated, to isolate for two weeks, some domestic trips just are not going to happen. With only three months left in-country, I am turning my attention toward departure and next steps.

But we have several new families here at the Embassy and I knew they were struggling with not being able to get out and about and start experiencing their new home. Moving is hard enough as it is, but moving internationally to a developing country with few entertainment options during a pandemic…that tops the difficulty level. And I love to plan vacations! So, I organized a weekend away at the beautiful Blue Zebra Island Lodge, located on Nankhoma Island within the Lake Malawi National Park for us and three other families – six adults and six kids in total.

We headed out together from Lilongwe in a caravan to make the two hour drive to Senga Bay to meet the speedboat out to the island. The Lake water was like glass. It was deep blue, but sparkling clear. It matched the sky and together the blue horizon seemed to go on forever.

C and I had visited Blue Zebra before, a night back in September, but I had wanted a bit more time on the island. This time we opted for a different type of room – an Executive Chalet as opposed to the Superior Family Cottage. We were all greeted on arrival with welcome drinks and then a selection of items to choose for lunch and then we were led to our respective rooms. We followed the staff along a wooded pathway around the southern side of the island to a boarded staircase that led down to our chalet on the edge of the lake. We had a large rondavel-like bedroom, a bathroom built into the rockface of the island, and a small sitting room facing the deck and the lake. It was perfect.

We all gathered together for lunch and afterwards the kids all gravitated to the pool while the adults chose a few options such as reading, having a massage, taking a walk, or simply enjoying some down time (i.e. hiding from the kids). The afternoon light over the gorgeous water called to me and around 4 PM I headed out for about an hour kayaking.

It was such a lovely paddle with the water so incredibly calm. It was so very quiet. I had a mad idea that I would go around the island like last time, but dismissed that pretty quickly, and opted instead to head nearly to one side, turn around, and then paddle over to see our chalet from the water. And to take it all slowly, and leisurely, enjoying a bit of kid-free time. I stopped paddling for a bit, closed my eyes, and felt the almost imperceptible rocking of the lake.

Back on the island, the kids were still in the pool as we watched an extraordinary sunset. In my experience, sunsets in Malawi are usually fiery but short lived, but this one was a languid slip of colors until night. Stunning.

We all had dinner together and then C and I headed off to our chalet. I was looking forward to a restful slumber lulled to sleep by the lake lapping against our deck. But in the darkness, winds had whipped up somewhere along the lake and white-capped waves were rolling hard across the lake’s surface, crashing into our deck, even splashing water into the chalet. Lake Malawi was doing its best to mimic an unsettled ocean. Instead of sleeping peacefully, I lay wide awake for several hours listening.

Despite this (or because of it?), I woke early to watch the sunrise. The lake’s mood had changed completely. Gone was the sunny disposition of the day before, replaced instead with a steely temperament. Still, the dramatic water and skies had their own beauty. I watched as the sun slowly lit up the hills across the lake and a rainbow formed. Like the drawn-out sunset of the night before, this rainbow also defied the norm, staying firmly in place fifteen minutes or more.

Though the waters were rough and uninviting for kayaking or swimming, the temperature was perfect for a walk. After breakfast, C, her friend AR, and another family of four, and I headed out on a 45-minute walk around and over the top of the island. The trail was better marked and easier than the one we had taken on Mumbo Island last month but Nankhoma Island is larger than Mumbo. And we had a proper hiking party.

After the trail walk, the kids headed right to the pool for another epic day of swimming. I had a massage — in an open-air spa facing the lake — and then did some reading and photography. The lake waters never calmed down for any further water activity.

But it did not really matter; it was a great weekend regardless. I was able to set aside thoughts of work and the upcoming move and relax. Just two hours by car and a 15-minute boat ride, Blue Zebra is a perfect antidote to the capital. C had a chance to play with other kids, to let loose in a way we have not really been able to in a year. I could chat and laugh with a group of adults – with others who work at the Embassy but are not State Department (USAID, PEPFAR, Peace Corps). It has been a really long time since the Embassy has had social events. And this is an extraordinary group of people. I did feel a sense of regret that I was getting to know this group of people just as C and I are preparing to leave. For three years we have watched others leave and now it us who are the ones leaving.

Over the course of our time in Malawi, I have driven with C all over. We went as far north as Nkhata Bay and as far south as Thyolo and more than a few times east and southeast to points on the lake. I have worked out that I put approximately 5500 miles on my sweet silver Japanese RAV4 on driving holidays around this country. I wish we had more time to get in a few more, but I have to accept that this was our last road trip.

The Somewhat Reluctant Spring Break

Spring Break. Sigh. This used to be a time I really looked forward to planning a getaway, you know, in the before times, before the pandemic. Although the 2020 Spring Break trip had been upended, at the end of last year it started to look like things we turning around. I had begun to have visions of a 2020 Spring Break Redux. But by the time we returned from our Kenya R&R at the end of 2020, travel again seemed to be in jeopardy.

COVID-19, naturally, continues to throw a major monkey wrench into any sort of international travel. Malawi’s second wave, though subsiding now, had been much more disruptive and deadly than its first. But the indirect effects, the fewer flights, testing regimes, and other restrictions are still in place. Malawi has never been a major hub; before the pandemic there were daily flights to Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, and Nairobi, and less frequent flights to Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, and Harare. Now there are just the Addis, Jo’Burg, and Nairobi flights, and they are less consistent. Friends of ours were to fly to South Africa the previous week and the airline cancelled a few days before without reason.

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

Though honestly, I love travel so much, that I was willing to go through the flight, COVID testing, and mitigation measure gauntlet, but we had another problem: passports. Last fall I noted our diplomatic passports (we hold both diplomatic and tourist passports) were expiring in the summer of 2021 and thus we would need to renew before the new year as many places frown on or even outright disallow travel during the final six months. As the Acting Consular Chief (a post I held for six months during 2020), I diligently applied for our new passports at the end of October. Our paperwork was FedExed to the State Department on November 4. And then, it seems, we got tangled up in the whole U.S. election mail issue / COVID-related mail issue and was lost. (Luckily for most American citizens this is NOT how we do tourist passports overseas and its much faster and more reliable!) I did not know this until by the end of January I wondered what had become of them. We had to apply again. Though we received our new passports by the end of March, it was not in time to plan a vacation outside of Malawi’s borders.

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

That left a trip within Malawi. And I was torn. With nearly four years in country, even with a pandemic mucking up domestic travel for a good five months of 2020, C and I had already covered most of the major sights and lodging on my Malawi bucket list. Yet, the thought of spending another staycation hanging out in my living room, lounging on the tired dung-colored State Department-issued Drexel Heritage sofa was too much to bear. We needed to go somewhere. Well, truth be told, *I* needed to go somewhere. I am afraid my formerly world traveling companion kid had grown a bit too comfortable with couch surfing. But if I did not get out of my house, I thought I might go mad.

The two major places left on my bucket list seemed out of reach because they were either quite far (two days driving or one really long day for those with a penchant for torture) and still on a self-catering basis (and my desire to drive really far to just cook the same stuff in a different kitchen is at an all time low) or required a charter flight which would trigger an Embassy-imposed stay at home order upon return. And while I was uber-productive with my telework the first six to eight months, my at-home productivity has most certainly waned after a year. And that my friends is actually the understatement of the year. “Working from home” has become an oxymoron as I tend to just stare into the abyss when confronted with this option; I make every effort to go into the office.

With this in mind, I booked two nights on Kayak Africa’s Mumbo Island and one night at Norman Carr Cottage.

With the Mumbo Island transport departing Cape Maclear at 10:30 AM, I was not keen to depart Lilongwe just after sunrise, and thus Norman Carr Cottage, located just south of Monkey Bay, would give us a nice overnight stop and ensure more relaxation. (Note: Embassy employees we are not permitted to drive after dark outside the three major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu for safety reasons)

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

Norman Carr was a British conservationist who in the 1950s and 1960s helped launch the first national parks in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (then the British protectorate known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) and started the first walking safaris in these countries. In the 1970s he built himself this idyllic lakeside cottage where, reportedly, he wrote several of his books. I love me a little history with my vacations and this bit of Malawi history suited me fine.

We did not do much here, but that was rather the point. We arrived and had lunch. And then my daughter promptly broke one of her flip flops — because she had carefully selected the oldest, on its last legs, pair despite my having presented her with brand new ones a month ago. Sigh. Thus, we found ourselves driving into the thriving metropolitan (just kidding) village of Monkey Bay in search of replacements. We parked at a small grocery store, but they did not have any shoes. They did have soft serve ice cream (will wonders never cease?) and as the young man whose job was to serve this up was preparing to do so, I asked if he knew where we could get shoes. He pointed at a makeshift wood kiosk across the street and we walked over (well, I walked, C hopped on one foot). The small shop sold a random assortment of goods such as clothes detergent and a limited selection of fancy ladies slip ons. I shook my head — these looked like adult sizes — but C said she would try them and in some odd African village version of Cinderella, they fit perfectly.

A view of our eco-chalet from the cove entrance

On our second day, we drove 30 minutes north to Cape Maclear on the Nankumba Peninsula where we boarded a boat for the 10 kilometer (6 miles), 45-minute ride to Mumbo Island, located within the Lake Malawi National Park (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Mumbo Island is a small, only one kilometer in diameter, uninhabited island and the eco-“resort” covers only a small part of that space. Five of the six thatched chalets are perched high on rocks located on an even smaller island connected to Mumbo by a wooden walkway. There is no WiFi, no cellphone signal, and no electricity. And it is beautiful.

After an extremely rainy March, we had perfect weather – temps in the uppers 70s and sparkling azure skies. The lake waters lapped against the sandy shore. I never tire of how the lake seems like the sea.

We disembarked from the boat and were shown our chalet, where C immediately claimed the hammock strung across our porch overlooking the Lake. And there we just took a little time to soak in the atmosphere. For the first time in weeks I really could feel myself relax.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Douglas, the Mumbo Island chef, in the dining area on the main island. We watched a pair of hornbills alight on a nearby tree and a chatty bulbul waited impatiently on a ceiling rafter hoping for any of our leftovers. Monitor lizards crawled through the underbrush beneath the floorboards and sunned themselves on the rocks by the water. Afterwards, we relaxed in the room, on the small beach, and swam in the lake. Around 5 PM we headed out with Marriott (one of the other Mumbo Island staff) for a circumvention of the island by boat and a sunset viewing. Writing now I was sure we had done more that day, but thinking back, that was all and yet it was full. After dinner, we snuggled together in the hammock watching the stars. With the vast expanse of Lake Malawi lit with only a few fishing canoes, the sky overhead is at its darkest and the stars at their most brilliant. Though the 19th century Scottish explorer David Livingstone reportedly named it the Lake of Stars for the way the fishing lanterns reflected on the evening water, its the incredible view of the night sky that is more arresting. I am quite sure we could clearly see the swath of the Milky Way though I am far less sure of the constellations. Regardless, we talked until we grew sleepy and then we crawled into our beds, letting down the mosquito net but leaving the doors and windows open so we could hear the waves all night.

Early the next morning C again commandeered the hammock, lazily rocking back and forth, flipping her shoe casually from her toes. Exactly as I had asked her not to. And wouldn’t you know it, but as I got up to tell her to stop, one of those shoes we had only just bought at Monkey Bay was launched from her foot, sailing over the edge of our porch to the waters below. Sigh. Luckily, we could see it floating below. I told C to put on her suit and I would put on mine and we would swim out to get it. But then realized we could take a kayak to retrieve it. And as luck would have it, one of the Mumbo Island staff was willing to make the rescue. I may have had some choice words regarding her lack of footwear care, but told C one day (in fact later the same day) we would laugh about it. She said I should call this blog post “The Shoe Incidents.”

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

It is a good thing we located that shoe as after breakfast we headed out on a hike around the island. Not that those fancy lady sandals were the best shoes for a hike, but they were far better than nothing. Our sweaty hike around Mumbo must have taken about an hour though I am not entirely sure as my watch stopped working early in the pandemic and I have not yet bothered to replace it. The hike afforded us incredible opportunities to experience nature from three to four foot monitor lizards scurrying from our paths, symbiotic trees, the high pitched cries of the African fish eagle, and a gorgeous view across the Lake from atop Pod Rock.

C gets her zen on

We spent the rest of the day alternating between reading flopped on a bed or swinging in the hammock (you can guess who got the hammock again) and lake activity. We kayaked around the small island, swam, and together steadily worked up our courage to leap off the wooden walkway into the water. Eventually, C made friends with the 9-year old daughter of a visiting French family and the two of them spent the rest of the afternoon in one another’s company swimming and giggling, heads together in deep conversation. I sat on the beach in the warm sunlight reading.

We had another nice dinner but headed to bed a bit earlier than the evening before; the hike, kayaking, and swimming surely had tired us out. I had another great sleep lulled by those lightly crashing waves on the rocks below our chalet, and dreamed of rain.

It was hard to leave the following day. I could have stayed another night, maybe two. I meditated on the boat ride back, the warm sun on my face. And before driving back to Lilongwe, we stopped at another small historic site in Cape Maclear, the grave site of 19th century Scottish missionaries.

This may not have been the Spring Break I had initially hoped for but it turned out to be exactly what C and I needed.

R&R in COVID Part 6: The Kenyan Approach to COVID

The sixth and final post in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

COVID related graffiti in Mombasa

I did not decide to take my Rest and Relaxation travel in the time of COVID lightly. And my selection of Kenya as a destination had as much to do with its close proximity to Malawi as what I perceived as a fairly robust response to COVID in order to keep the country open for tourism. I liked that only a negative PCR COVID test was required to enter, i.e. no quarantine. But once there I found myself incredibly impressed with the government was handling COVID.

I will say off the bat — this is my opinion on the Kenyan government response based on my perceptions as a tourist there for three weeks in December 2020. Others who have lived through the pandemic in Kenya may have very different thoughts on the government response. However, I looked at it through the lens not only of a traveler but also as someone who has experienced the pandemic firsthand in another sub-Saharan African country, including following the politics closely for my work.

From our first day in Kenya, we felt the effects of government measures to contain the pandemic. The hotel where we stayed first had been closed for several months but then re-opened with temperature checks, hand sanitizing stations, a plastic barrier between the guests and check-in staff, and limited items left in the room (no complimentary pads of paper and pen, no hotel directory, no room service menu). It felt alien, somewhat surreal, and yet I understood that this was part of the contract to which we agreed to travel in the time of COVID.

However, it was really once we got on the road – both out and about in Nairobi and further afield – that I really saw how Kenya was tackling the pandemic.

COVID-19 related signage in Nairobi

Signage was ubiquitous. All around us, in airports, hotels, shopping centers, restaurants, stores, museums, and parks, there were signs reminding the public of the necessity to adhere to COVID-19 mitigation measures (wearing a mask, washing your hands, maintaining social distance) and sometimes the penalties for failure to do so — usually denial of entry into whatever location but also fines. And there was serious follow-through. At every hotel we stayed we were greeted with an antiseptic wash and a thermometer and mask use in public areas was mandatory.

Our hotels in the Masai Mara, Lake Naivasha, and Mombasa were all owned by the same company and each served buffets in large dining areas. I had some concerns with how the hotels would manage this is in a pandemic but they had pretty good systems in place. In one we had a set table for the duration of our stay, at another they provided an envelope for your mask at each sitting. The key part was mask usage while in lines to get food was mandatory as was social distancing and you could not serve your own food. One breakfast at the buffet in Mombasa, some guests did not sufficiently distance themselves from one another while in line for the omelet station and a chef — who could have been a bouncer in another life — informed them they had better spread out or risk being asked to leave. I was impressed.

Billboard in Mombasa

It was maddening getting the food though. In what would normally be self-service, no guest could pick up their own plate from the plate stack or pick up any foodstuffs themselves. You had to point at each item you wanted for a masked and gloved server to provide. This made absolute sense and was no doubt required by the government, but made for some awkward (at least in my own mind) situations. Me to server: I would like some of the mozzarella, please. The server places one slice of cheese on my plate. Me: May I have some more, please. The server places another slice on the plate. Me: I would really like a few more slices, thank you. And then me feeling as if I needed to slink off and guiltily eat my bounty of cheese excess (or hummus — I asked for a lot of hummus too) away from judging eyes.

While our mask usage has been somewhat limited in Malawi (mostly because we spend so much time at home with the limited places to go; school-when it is in session, work-when I got to the office, the once a week supermarket run, and when picking up food) it became much more regular in Kenya. Except for when we were in our respective rooms, we needed our masks on. To enter any shopping center we had to pass through a combined security (metal detector, bag search) and COVID mitigation measure (handwashing, temperature check, face mask) check. Even once inside the mall, most individual stores also placed workers at the entrance to confirm face mask usage and to squirt anti-septic into the hands of every customer.

Graffiti in support of Kenyan health workers in COVID in Mombasa

In was in Mombasa that the Kenyan government and societal efforts to fight the pandemic really came to the fore. Here we stayed at our busiest and most crowded hotel, yet they had the most rigorous COVID-19 mitigation measures. And out on the town there were prominent signs – eye-catching billboards and stunning graffiti – promoting mitigation measures and celebrating health care staff. And perhaps the most extraordinary was that everyone was wearing masks. I mean everyone. As we took a taxi from the airport to the hotel, I noted the many mini buses in traffic. I asked our driver about them and he complained about their poor driving and that they didn’t really follow the rules, but as I looked over at them and saw that middle seats were empty and every passenger had on a mask. That had lasted about all of a week in Malawi. As we drove through traffic — on that trip and on our city tour — we saw lots of pedestrians on the road and they were all wearing masks. In Malawi, earlier in the pandemic there was an uptick in mask usage even with the pedestrians who walk to work along the roadside, but again, that practice only lasted a short period. And perhaps the most extraordinary sight were the beggars in traffic, also all masked up.

A tuk tuk driver in Mombasa shows off his masked stuffed companion

Transportation also seemed to take COVID seriously. In Nairobi we used Uber, and every ride we booked reminded us that we needed to wear masks in the vehicle and guaranteed that our driver would do the same. Some drivers took extra steps, providing antiseptic wipes or liquid in the back pockets of the front seats or even installed a plastic barrier between the driver and passenger. Maybe this is happening all over the world, but I have only experienced the pandemic in Malawi and Kenya. And I do not take public transportation in Lilongwe. But I was nonetheless impressed with the Kenyan approach to transport during COVID.

The final bit that impressed me was when we went to the Nairobi Hospital to get our testing for our return. Searching online for testing sites I was overwhelmed with the options and asked the very helpful hotel manager for assistance. He had a doctor on speed dial at the Nairobi Hospital and rang her for advice. She suggested that we arrive early in the morning on a Monday and sent us all the forms to complete prior to showing up. We arrived around 8 in the morning to the COVID testing center set up in the front parking lot of the hospital. We were immediately greeted by a medical assistant in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) who took our forms and asked us to sit in the outdoor waiting area where plastic chairs were set out for social distancing. Compare this to our experience in Malawi where the single person on duty for testing failed to wear even a mask as he greeted us (though changed later) and ran out of forms. And as we sat in the waiting area new patients, people we did not know, sat down *right* next to us despite many other seats available.

We waited maybe 15 minutes before being called into another tent to pay for the procedure. The cashier accepted only cashless payment — either by credit card or electronic payment. We were promptly issued a printed out receipt. While back in Malawi they were unprepared to accept payment on the day of our testing and on the day we picked up our test results we had to meander through the hospital to find the payment location, where we paid in cash and they hand wrote us receipts that were not easy to read (and no wonder that later at least one person was later arrested for providing fake certificates). After payment in Nairobi, we returned to the outdoor waiting area before being called up to the testing tent where they administered both a nose and a throat swab. And then we were done. Before 6 PM that evening I received an email from the hospital with our test results! Again compare that to Malawi where we returned to the hospital (and again entered the building) several days later and had to assist the staff to sift through the papers to find those with our names on them. The organization in Nairobi was excellent.

My absolute favorite COVID related signage found at the Karura Forest in Nairobi

There are so many misconceptions about COVID in Africa and about Africa itself. We have heard in Malawi, like in other countries, there are some that do not believe the virus is real, that it is some kind of ploy. There are also those who think that COVID is a western disease and that Africans are less susceptible (and given the African continent makes up less than 4% of total worldwide reported infections it is not so hard to see where this perception is not far from the truth). But there are also those outside the continent who I suspect think that an African country cannot manage an organized response — and they would be wrong. I thought Malawi had done OK given its limited resources, but Kenya demonstrated how a country could really respond. I know its not universal; I did not visit small towns or villages and I heard anecdotally that those places were not fairing as well. Yet the majority of cases generally happen in cities with their denser populations. I also know its not perfect — Kenya still has had relatively high numbers – with about the 9th highest numbers among 57 African countries and territories – but it is also the 7th most populous country on the continent. If it were not for the actions of the government and the population it is likely that it could have been much worse.

For us this R&R will be forever and inextricably linked to the COVID pandemic. As will my impressions of how the country made our trip generally safe in the time of COVID.