R&R in COVID Part 2: The Maasai Mara

The second in my series on our R&R in the times of COVID.

Giraffes on the Mara with the hills of Tanzania in the background

Arriving at our hotel in Nairobi, the impact of COVID was immediately apparent. It was late afternoon and we were hungry, its a pandemic and we are in a new town, so I had no interest in leaving the hotel until the following morning. All I wanted to order room service, but there was no room service menu to be found. When I called down to the front desk I was informed that there was nothing in the room – no menu, no hotel information booklet, no pad of paper, no hotel pen – that could be left behind for another guest. An attendant brought a menu to the room, but I saw it was really limited, with nothing that appealed to us. Another call to the front desk revealed the hotel had been closed for three months during the early part of the pandemic and when they reopened, they pared down the menu significantly. But the hotel was so eager to please, the manager, chef, and a room attendant showed up at the door – all masked – asking what they could make us.

The next morning we headed to breakfast in the hotel. We took the wrong elevator and ended up in another part of the hotel — all the lights were off, there were no staff around. When we backtracked and got to the dining room it was also poorly lit and we were the only people there. Some food was set out but there were no staff, no other hotel guests. As we checked out, I asked the manager about this and he told me that they had closed off an entire wing of the hotel due to low occupancy; of the 200 some rooms, they had only 44 guests.

Off we headed to Wilson Airport, the domestic small aircraft terminal. We were there earlier than expected as our flight to the Maasai Mara had been moved from 10:30 AM, then to 8:30 AM, then to 8:00 AM due to limited flights (aka limited travelers) during the pandemic. So far these signs — the oddities in the hotel, the changes to our flight times — only served to remind me, rightfully, that while we were on vacation it was still during a pandemic.

But once checked in – despite socially distanced from our few fellow passengers and masked-up – we began to feel excited. We would be taking our first flight in a small plane and landing at a really small dirt landing strip just five minutes away from our accommodation. Well, let me say that I was excited; C was not (at least not about the small plane flight). But once in the air, she was good. And although we were not in a propeller plane, I did feel a wee bit like I had been transported back to the flight seen in Out of Africa as we departed Nairobi, with views toward the Ngong Hills, then across flat green plains with little settlement, and finally with a view of the winding Talek River along which our lodge, the Mara Intrepids Camp, lies. The touchdown, along a dirt landing strip, pulling up to a three shack airport — with a small covered waiting area, a Maasai Mara National Park information and ticket booth, and a restroom block — was exciting.

Despite our early arrival, the Camp staff gave us a very warm welcome. We were set up in a comfortable and rather high end “tented” room with a porch overlooking the Talek River and they ushered us to the dining room where they had prepared breakfast. This was a treat after the rather sterile and zombie apocalypse-like feeling to our quick breakfast earlier. Although my booking included three game drives a day, my intention on the trip was to have some great experiences but to also relax after the past nine months of working and distance learning in Malawi during a pandemic. Thus, we were in no hurry. We did not rush to get on a 10:30 AM game drive. Instead we lazed around our room, sipping drinks on our porch, and breathing in the sounds and smells of the Mara. Then we had lunch. And only afterwards did we head out on our first game drive.

Cheetah cubs!

Again, another sign of the pandemic, was our personal game drive. We were assigned a driver/tracker, Dennis, and had our vehicle all to ourselves. One highlight of a pandemic I suppose. Right off the bat we sighted stripped mongoose and a hyena — an animal that after three and a half years in Malawi and game drives in Majete National Park and Liwonde National Park and South Luangwa National Park (Zambia) – we had not sighted. Our previous closest hyena encounters were the on-occasion high-pitched giggle we heard on quiet nights in Lilongwe. C was thrilled and immediately named the hyena her newest favorite animal. We caught site of a pair of ostrich and some giraffe, and then soon enough were on the trail of a mother cheetah and her four cubs. After some 20 minutes of watching the cheetah and her cubs sidewind through the grass, Dennis asked if we wanted to head on to look for lions, but hey, it was just us in the vehicle, so I said no. And as luck and perseverance would have it, we got some good looks at the sleek cat and her cubs. We requested an early dinner and prepared an early bedtime with the whoops and cries of the African plains rocking us to sleep.

We had a very early morning wake up (4:00 AM) on our first full day in the Mara as I had booked us an adventure of a lifetime — a hot air balloon safari. By 5:00 AM we were being whisked through the park and adjacent lands in the dark, seeing the occasional animal — a hippo, a rabbit, a dik dik, a jackal – in the headlights. After an hour of bumping over the roads we arrived at the launch site. We checked in — mask and temperature checks in addition to the usual — and were assigned to our balloon. I meant this to be a very special occasion for C — I have been waiting until she hit the minimum age of 8 for most hot air balloon rides — but she was very nervous. As we sat crouched on our backs, legs drawn up, hands clutching rope handles, waiting for take off, I saw C was shaking. I asked her if it were the chilly morning air or fear and she confirmed the latter.

It is handy to take off with another balloon to get the best photos

However, as the balloon filled with the last bit of needed hot air, the basket righted, the aircraft lifted, and we were on our way. We first watched the sun break across the cap of a distant plateau and light spill across the plains. Unlike my only other hot air balloon experience in Cappadocia, Turkey, where we rose high above the rocky formations, this time we hovered over the savanna so that we could see the wildlife. We floated over herds of impala, Thompson gazelle, and topi. One topi in particular seemed to literally be stopped in its tracks staring up at us, its mouth agape as it watched us pass overhead. We came a family group of elephants; the largest bull blocked the baby, stood its ground, ears out and flapping, preparing to charge our threatening approach. We watched a hyena zig-zag across the grass trying to outrun us. The whole flight was extraordinary. It is hard to describe; it felt surreal, and magical. We had only an hour in the air, but it felt longer (real talk: C got a bit tired of it and at 45 minutes sat down in the basket; we also did not see as many animals as I had hoped, but we were in a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara!!).

Following the flight, there was a nice breakfast in the bush with the passengers and pilots of both balloons. Afterwards we had the hour drive back to the Mara Intrepids Camp, which also served as another game drive. Again, our lodging included three game drives a day, but with an early morning balloon safari and wildlife spotting there and back, we were content to just relax for the rest of the day. We enjoyed drinks on our porch and watched baboons treating the adjacent tent’s roof as a trampoline, and headed to the swimming pool where from its platform above the river we watched a hippo submerged in a pool, a large monitor lizard slip languidly into the water and then saunter out on the opposite bank, and mongoose scamper across the out-of-order suspension bridge.

Some birds of the Mara

On our third day, we finally had a morning game drive. Six in the morning does not seem quite so early when your wake up call was 4:00 AM the day before! Again, guided by our trusty driver, we quickly came upon giraffe strutting distantly but picturesquely across the savanna, with the early morning sun behind. A few minutes later we came across a hyena directly in our path, stumbling home from an evening of whatever hyenas get up to, along the dirt track. He walked right past our vehicle–we could have reached down to pet him had we been so inclined. This hyena, unlike the scruffy, muddy specimen of his kind we had seen our first day, was, dare I say it, cute and fluffy. We did not see many other animals — though we did come across an eland, the largest antelope, and located the cheetah and her cubs again, though she remained further from the track and largely hidden in a bush — but no matter. With another, and better, hyena sighting, C was more than satisfied. Me, too. We were on a game drive in one of the premier destinations in the world, the weather was perfect, and we were together and healthy. It would be hard to be disappointed with that.

Stunning sunset on the Mara

Our afternoon drive was far more successful in the animal sighting department. Right out of the gate — well, literally at the gate of our lodge’s grounds — we spotted a dik dik, the second smallest antelope species. We came across an extraordinary tableau: In the middle of a grassy plain stood a lone tree. Atop the tree, two large secretary birds sat upon their nest and at the base of the tree a single hyena circled, hoping for whatever scraps might fall. Gazelles grazed in the background. From there we headed on to our prize – a pride of some ten large lions napping lazily in the grass. They must have recently had a large meal as most could not bother to raise their heads or open their eyes. Except for one lioness, who did sit up and fix her eyes upon me in such as way that caused me to back up in the vehicle. On our way back to our camp we were treated to an extraordinary sighting of a lone jackal, who could have run off quickly but kept stopping to look back at us, and an incredible sunset over the Mara.

Predators of the Mara: A surprisingly cute hyena, a still-hungry lioness, and a very curious jackal

That evening in the dining hall we were one of only two families eating. The younger kids of the other family conked out and then we C and I were the only ones there except for staff. Except after a few minutes I noticed we were no longer alone. A genet had crept into the dining hall and slipped beneath the now-gone other family’s table. A genet is a similar to a civet. Its often believed to be in the feline family, but its not. It is sleek and spotted and has a very long tail — it looks a bit like a mini, skinny leopard mated with a lemur. That would have been amazing in and of itself. But then, drum roll, a black bushbaby made its way into the dining hall, expertly walking along the ceiling beams like a trapeze artist, and then sliding down the vertical pole to steal a bun from the abandoned bread basket. The evening’s entertainment was still not yet over, as a second genet joined the first and the bushbaby demonstrated interest in the crumbs beneath the other abandoned table. Naturally this led to one of those scenes generally seen in National Geographic — the bushbaby standing on two legs, arms up, attempting to look menacing and the genets looking positively puzzled. Best diner show ever.

Another COVID-related change led to our return flight to Nairobi to shift from 8:45 AM to 11:15 AM and then to 11:45 AM. Although this would complicate our afternoon plans, it did allow us one more sunrise over the Mara, another game drive. We saw a pod of 20 or more hippopotami wallowing in a stream, tracked two lion cubs through the tall grass, and then caught sight of the lioness possibly tracking us, and at the very end, with just minutes left before we had to head back to the camp and on to the airport, we were lucky to catch sight of a leopard among the foliage in a ravine.

There are just not enough superlatives to describe the Mara. I have been on game drives before but never with such beautiful endless distances across the savanna and the number of wildlife encounters. It was not easy to leave.

R&R in COVID Part 1: Decisions & Preparation

C is tested for COVID-19 at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe

How do you decide where to go on vacation during a pandemic?

Overall, for me, it was a somewhat wrenching, but ultimately easy decision.

R&R, i.e. “Rest and Recuperation,” is a “travel benefit that provides temporary relief for employees and eligible family members from posts with distinct and significant difficulties.” The State Department (and other federal agencies with presence overseas, like the military), set the number of R&Rs an employee and their family are eligible for from each location overseas. If you serve in Australia or Hong Kong or even on the Mexico border with the U.S., you are not eligible. If you live somewhere like Malawi, you are granted one R&R for every two years you serve.

But in 2020, the pandemic halted many (most?) R&Rs. Here in Malawi, international commercial flights were halted from April 1 until September 5. And even once flights resumed in September, they were limited in number. But Embassy personnel were still restricted from taking flights out of the country, unless in an emergency or with special circumstances, until late October.

I have traveled to over 100 countries and territories and been on more flights than I can count, but the idea of being on a long plane ride at this time filled me with a great amount of anxiety. I desperately wanted to travel outside of Malawi — the living room staycations and the long drives on the same pockmarked Malawian roads were just not doing it for me anymore. I needed the kind of vacation that involved stamps in my passport. Yet, I just could not stomach going somewhere really far away. If you know me or have read my blog travels, you know that in usual times, that does not concern me. It is the destination, not how long it will take us to get there. By the time she was three, my daughter would ask how many planes it would take for us to get to our destination. This time, I wanted it to be just one.

One reason that COVID-19 came to Malawi later in the game than most (it was one of the last countries in the world to record a case), is that it is not on many tourist itineraries and it is a destination point, not a transit point. And just as few flights arrive here, few depart. In non-pandemic times, we could fly direct from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe to six locations: Johannesburg (South Africa), Harare (Zimbabwe), Lusaka (Zambia), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Nairobi (Kenya). However, once commercial flights resumed we were limited to just three: Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi.

Initially, South Africa seemed the most logical choice as I still held an airline credit with Ethiopian to Johannesburg and a hotel credit at a lodge in Lesotho. Except, Ethiopian had not resumed flights to Johannesburg; only Malawian Airlines (though 49% owned by Ethiopian) was running that route and their track record was less than stellar. Although Malawian Airlines had announced daily flights to Johannesburg, on average, only two of those flights were actually taking off each week. Not the kind of odds you want to bet your vacation on. Also, to visit both South Africa and Lesotho, we would likely need negative PCR COVID test certificates a few more times to cross another border and back, and even the lodge, which had only partially re-opened (and not the more expensive rooms I had previously booked), advised me not to travel given the challenges of testing. South Africa was out.

I only briefly looked at Ethiopia. There is a lot to see in Ethiopia and I have wanted to visit for awhile, but I did not think the sights conducive to travel with an 8-year-old. And although the daily reported COVID-19 cases for Ethiopia were, in late October and early November, lower than in both South Africa and Kenya, there was also the worst locust plague in 25 years and the beginning of the government conflict with the northern state of Tigray. Ethiopia also requires arrivals, even with a negative PCR COVID test result, to self-isolate for seven days. A week of our vacation would be spent sequestered in a government-designated hotel. Ethiopia was out.

And thus our vacation destination was clear. Nairobi is just over two hours by plane from Lilongwe and there is no quarantine or self-isolation period on arrival as long as you have a negative PCR COVID test result. Bonus points: neither C or I had ever been. Well, hello Kenya.

It was great to know where we were going and there was a sense of the old fun in vacation planning, but there was still a lot of stress related to making sure I dotted all i’s and crossed all t’s in the COVID department. Kenya requires a negative PCR COVID test taken conducted within 96 hours of travel. Malawi also requires a negative COVID test to depart, the timing is less clear on this, but the test must be completed by a government approved testing facility, and there are only three of these. Though the guidelines are constantly changing. The third hospital was added about a week before our flight and the good news was they would make a house call. But just as that seemed the best option, the government announced new regulations requiring additional stamps on the test certificate that the third option did not have. We then went with Kamuzu Central Hospital, the easiest of our options.

It was not a great experience. We went with friends with kids that C knows so they would have one another to lean on. There were patients and others loitering around the hospital grounds, almost none wearing masks. We had to ask the person administering the tests to put on a mask. (He did put on the mask and PPE to conduct collections). After waiting about an hour for the slow procession of testing, he ran out of forms. Once we finally went in, it was really uncomfortable. C, holding the hand of one of her best friends, cried. I might have stopped on the ground and said “Oh, come on!” when it seemed to take a bit too long.

We then had to wait several days. The hospital — no matter when you take you test — only allows pick-up of the results the day before your flight. Talk about pins and needles, wondering if you are in the clear or not, if you can fly or not. Our bubble has been so small since this pandemic began. A very small subset of the already rather small Embassy community. Still, the what ifs sit in the back of your head.

Three of us went to the hospital to pick-up the tests for our group of 14. Pick-up was not straightforward either. I offered to help rifle through the results looking specifically for the names I recognized because it was taking forever, just the three of us standing in a small room crammed with a desk, two chairs, some shelves, and tons and tons of papers. Thank goodness we were all negative (and while you might think — if any of us had been positive then, surely, the hospital would have informed us. But, I have it on good authority that is not always the case)!

With negative COVID test results in hand, a fair amount of the anxiety seeped away. Still, for me that was just step one. Step two was surviving the Lilongwe airport gauntlet – checks, double checks, and triple checks of our negative COVID certificates and multiple temperature checks. Step three was the flight — only two hours long, but after no flights for nearly a year, it felt so much longer. Step four was the Nairobi airport gauntlet — COVID certificate checks, immigration and e-visa checks, health surveillance form checks, and temperature checks. It was not until we stepped out of the airport and were on our way to the hotel that I could really relax. We were on vacation!

Malawi Signs

A woman and her baby stroll by beautifully painted advertisements in Area 3 Lilongwe

Signs. I have a thing for them. I don’t know why. Maybe everybody does? But in my travels abroad, I have found myself photographing quite a few signs. Street signs were my thing in Indonesia. There were so many child or person crossing signs — some with very skinny stick figures, some with chunky. In China, I think it was the signs of rules translated to English that got me the most. There were so many rules and so many that were amusingly lost in translation. I have taken pictures of so many different kinds of animal crossing signs from horses, cows, and ducks to kangaroo, penguin, and warthogs. In the U.S. we have so many, many signs that tell us what to do and what not to do (park here, don’t park there, go this fast or this slow) and what to buy. I find that signs reveal much about the environment, culture, and interests of a society.

Although there has been an increase in billboards and other physical advertisement signage in the three and a half years I have lived here, Malawi still has relatively few. There just is not that much money to advertise, and not that many persons with money to buy what is advertised. The signs one sees stand out because there are so few. When driving between cities and towns, you can go for 50 miles, maybe longer without seeing a single sign. That may not sound like much given distances one can drive say in Texas, but Malawi is densely populated — the 10th most densely populated country in Africa — and the sixth poorest in the world (by one index).

If you need some assistance, these guys are here to help

The first signs to catch my eye were those posted around the neighborhood advertising various services. Most are for house services such as electrical, plumbing, lawn mowing and such. It is hard for me to pick my favorite. I am a big fan of the handwritten signs nailed on to tree trunks. But then the toilet seat attached to a dead tree trunk advertising plumbing maintenance is kind of genius. Still, Doctor Mutaka and his miraculous cures and potions has got to be an all time favorite. I am not sure how much business he would get in my neighborhood of expats and wealthy Malawians, but he has put up signs all over, so he is at least hopeful. And I sort of respect that. I might feel less respect for those that seek out his services.

Staples on sale

The next signs I really started to notice were those for staple items. Most are hand painted on wood or cement billboards. I appreciate the time and patience someone took to paint them, and there is an artistry to them, but I am less clear why the advertisements are necessary. Soap, detergent, long-life milk, sugar, cooking oil, juices, maize seeds, TNM and Airtel (the two national telecommunications networks), cement (for housing), steel (basically corrugated steel for roofs), soda, and Carlsberg beer (fun fact: the first Carlsberg brewery outside of Denmark was set up in Malawi in 1968; its sort of Malawi’s unofficial beer), these are the basics. At the store there does not really seem to be so many brands or variety and my guess is most buyers in Malawi are going to get the cheapest they can find. But the advertisements are there nonetheless.

Society “Be Better” Signs

Another popular theme of Malawian signage is to present positive societal practices. Child labor, child marriage — especially for girls — and the exclusion of women in decision making are all issues in Malawi, and therefore there are signs to promote ways to combat these issues, generally paid for by international organizations or businesses. I think there is something to be said for aggressive societal campaigns to eradicate issues through education and indoctrination. When I visited and lived in Indonesia in the early 2000s, there were still vestiges of the very successful “dua anak cukup” (two children is enough) policy campaign from the 1970s. Mostly in the form of statues of the perfect family of two parents and two children, though some written materials and billboards still existed. The thing though is that the campaign was in the local national language – Bahasa Indonesian. Most of the signs encouraging certain behaviors in Malawi are in English and though it is the official language, I would not be surprised if many of the persons for whom the signage is aimed at, struggle with English. This begs the question of who then are these signs for? I appreciate them, but then, perhaps, I am part of the target audience?

You have been warned!

Another favorite of mine — though not generally so easy to find — are the hand painted warning signs. I have only see a handful, but when I do see them, I usually pull over to the side of the road to capture them on my SD card’s memory. I came across the dangerous bridge warning on the M5 maybe 30-60 minutes north of the town of Nkhotakota. I expect the nearby villagers had become tired of speeding motorists taking the turn and then the narrow bridge too quickly. I found the “Beware the Dog” sign while on a walk near the Luwawa Forest Lodge – and though I approached the sign with caution, I had a feeling I knew the subject, and though very large, the canine in question had spent the previous afternoon in a game of fetch the ball with my daughter.

Campaign billboards

As a political officer, I cannot help but notice politically inspired signs. With national elections occurring here twice during my four year tour (May 2019 and June 2020), I have had a chance to see my fair share of political signage. Mostly it was just the parties’ political flags flying from a tree or electricity pole. Larger signs varied from those that encouraged voting eligible citizens to get out to the polls (usually sponsored by international donors), while others (though fewer), extol the virtues of a particular candidate, paid for by the campaigns or sponsors. I had to hand it to the re-election team for the former President Peter Mutharika for its optimistic billboard with the inspired hashtag #OperationLandslide. Depending on the politics, the billboards may be built to last or suffer the political tides. The Mutharika billboard on the left was ripped down by vandals even before the 2019 election. The Atupele Muluzi campaign billboard for the 2014 election was still there — at least in part — even in early 2018. And just a month ago I came across a perfectly intact 2019 campaign billboard for a third party candidate who did not run in 2020. I have seen other well worn signs — beaten by weather and age — still standing silently alongside the road months or years after the event it advertised has passed.

Nothing to see here

By far the greatest number of “signs” I see in the capital are signposts lacking in signage. There are so many of these sad skeletal frames missing their purpose in advertising scattered across the city. For at least a year, my favorite billboard had to be the forlorn Welcome to Lilongwe sign on the M12 as one would come into the city from Zambia. Cracked, peeling, greyed with age, and absolutely empty, it seemed to say, “just keep driving, nothing to see here.” Do not get me wrong, I very much like living in Lilongwe and Malawi, but there is just not a lot of externally provided activities. This is very much a make-your-own-fun kind of place. But maybe, I could look at it another way — Lilongwe is a blank space, where its up to you to decide what to make of it?

As I begin my countdown to leaving Malawi (eight months to go), I find myself thinking a lot on what this place has meant to me and what I will miss. For the most part, my life in Lilongwe is pretty small, confined to an area of approximately five square miles. Those streets have become so familiar to me, and the landmarks on those streets as well. These signs I have seen have marked the territory of our lives for the four years we have made Malawi our home. I cannot say that they have necessarily passed the message to me that was intended, but I have noticed them and thought about them and stopped on my journey to take a picture to remember them.

My COVID Birthday – Liwonde National Park Getaway

Liwonde’s riverside savannah at dusk

Earlier in the year we had a great plan for August with our friends from the U.S. Of course, the best laid travel plans have a habit of being disrupted in a pandemic and these were no different. Like many travel and tourist related companies caught in the pandemic spiral with cancellations right and left, I was issued a credit, not a refund, on our deposit.

As Embassy domestic COVID-19 restrictions eased and we could again travel outside the capital, stay overnight in lodges, and dine in limited exposure situations, I began to plan a trip. After days and weeks morphing into months (six of them) doing nearly everything — working, schooling, cleaning, reading, writing, eating, sleeping, child care — in my home, I was incredibly motivated to not spend my birthday weekend in yet another COVID staycation, if I had options to do otherwise. So, I contacted the travel company and booked two nights at the Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park using our credit to cover half the costs.

Ulongwe Village entrance to Liwonde National Park

Liwonde is an approximately 4.5 hour drive from our part of Lilongwe, despite what my map app said. First, its always surprising to me that it takes about half an hour winding through the warren of narrow, overused roads of the capital til finally breaking free at the round-about on the M1 south from the city. I had just barely emerged from the capital’s chaos when I had to take a pre-arranged call. It is early in the official bidding season, when those of us transferring the following year are taking interviews with potential future posts. The hiring manage had one day and one time available, so I had to make it work. It was hardly ideal having an interview while on speakerphone in the car, but the pandemic has turned everything upside-down, so I gave it my best. But the interview helped the first half of the drive go by quickly and once it was over, we cranked up the tunes and sung our way south for another hour.

At Balaka, where we turned off the M1 and headed east on the M8, we moved into unfamiliar territory. So often driving in Malawi requires just going along the same roads again and again and again, but as we headed down a new-to-us road — even one as pockmarked with potholes and with sides eroded significantly that in some places the two lanes became one as this one — and drew closer to the park, I could feel the stress of the past several days (weeks? months?) ebbing. We spent some 20 minutes on a new, nicely paved road named after the President who lost the landmark court-mandated new election in June, and then meandered through dusty dirt roads through small villages until we reached the end of the village of Ulongwe and the back gate to Liwonde National Park.

Our ride across the Shire River from the Ulongwe side to Mvuu Lodge arrives

Liwonde National Park is neither Malawi’s oldest or largest park (both of those honors go to Nyika National Park), but it is Malawi’s most accessible, and thus most popular. Just five years ago, Liwonde was a park in extreme decline; decades of poaching had left more wildlife snares in the park than wildlife. That year, 2015, Africa Parks, a South African non-profit conservation organization (and whose President is Prince Harry), took over the management of Liwonde. Africa Parks has turned Liwonde around, cleaning up snares, developing a top ranger force, and providing key community awareness to mitigate human and wildlife conflicts. In 2016, Liwonde was the source of one of the world’s largest elephant translocations when Africa Parks moved over 300 elephants from the park to another of its Malawi parks, Nkhotakota. And in 2017, predators were re-introduced, first with lions and later cheetahs, as Africa Parks works to restore the park and animal populations. C and I had visited Nkhotakota and Majete and had saved Liwonde for the last of Malawi’s Africa Parks’ run national parks.

To reach the park from the Ulongwe side we registered at the park ranger lodge and notified the manager of Mvuu Lodge of our arrival. We drove a short distance further to the banks of the great Shire (pronounced “sheer-eh,” not like the homeplace of the Hobbits) River, which is the only outlet of the massive Lake Malawi and flows to the Zambezi. There Chifundo, our guide, met us with a small boat to pilot us ten minutes across the river to our accommodation. The exchange from car to boat had to be made quickly, as almost as soon as we parked, we saw antelope, monkeys, and most ominous, a troupe of baboons emerged from the brush to circle the clearing. Chifundo would take my car keys and after dropping us off at Mvuu Lodge, return to drive our vehicle back to the ranger station (you do not want to know what baboons might do to your unattended vehicle).

A White Headed Black Chat captains our boat; Malawi’s national bird the Fish Eagle surveys the river

Immediately, we could spot wildlife from the boat. Hippos lurking near the river’s edge. Elephants on the shore or in a bath party in the river. Antelope grazing on the river banks. And birds swooping alongside the boat or perched on branches – from slim reeds to massive boughs — nearby. A crocodile lazily swished through the water.

We disembarked after a 20 minute ride, including a short detour to see elephants, then climbed aboard a jeep for a short drive to the lodge. We were served lunch in the main building, built above a beautiful spot with views over savanna, marsh, forest, and the river, where in a lazy woman’s safari we could already make out seven types animals without any effort — warthog, bushbuck, baboon, hippo, waterbuck, striped mongoose, and a crocodile.

After a lazy lunch and an even lazier layabout in the room for an hour, it was already time to head out on our sundowner game drive. It was just C and I, our guide Chifundo, and a park ranger. It took literally seconds to spot more wildlife. Impala, bushbuck, warthogs, and baboon were the most plentiful, but the occasional rarity such as a southern ground hornbill or a tree squirrel, would make an appearance. It is October now, the tail end of the dry season, and the daytime heat is intense. But driving in late afternoon to evening in an open safari vehicle, feeling a delicious breeze as the African sun dips and the air is suffused with a rich, golden light, is magnificent. It was hard to believe that morning I had been in the capital. We felt a world away.

The next morning – my birthday – we were up at 5 AM. C and I have not seen that time of day in a long, long time. We are natural night owls, and the COVID experience has accentuated and cultivated our late evening tendencies. Amazingly, both of us, refreshed by an undisturbed sleep beneath a large white mosquito net canopy, the lulling sound of the ceiling fan, and the sounds of nature, woke up easily.

We were on the hunt for predators — cheetahs or lions or both. Cats are naturally a big draw for game drives, but even in a well stocked park like Kruger in South Africa, catching sight of the big cats is never a guarantee. Liwonde has a total of eight lions (though ten were introduced in 2018, battles for dominance among males has already reduced the population). The cheetahs — seven of whom were introduced in 2017 — have fared better, with cubs born each year more than doubling the population.

Monkeys, lions, and bushbuck, oh my!

We spotted the usual suspects, but also hippo grazing on open savanna in the early light, a herd of sable, another of eland (the largest antelope) some hartebeest (the fastest antelope), and zebra. And as luck would have it, the eagle eyes of our ranger caught sight of a lion in the distance. We arrived at the bank of a dry riverbed where two lionesses were snoozing. It was exciting to see two of the eight, though they made sure to be as absolutely boring as possible, and C quickly asked if we could drive off. But wouldn’t you know it, a male was lurking nearby, behind a dry ridge of earth in the riverbed. He popped his head up a few times to give us a look–Who had disturbed his nap? And then he rose majestically, standing on the ridge, his head raised as if sniffing the air, and began to saunter with purpose in our direction. And that is when C lost it. She began saying in a stage whisper “Oh, my gosh, oh my gosh, its coming, its coming, let’s get out of here!”

Of course, that lion lost interest in us very quickly, and languidly stepped over to the ladies and flopped down beside them. The excitement over. We drove for another hour or so, enjoying being together away from home, with our reverie occasionally interrupted by a wildlife sighting, but there were not more cats.

We had a light breakfast and lunch, and several more hours of lazing about in our room or sitting on our balcony, which faced a marshy plain backed by tall trees and attracted all manner of wildlife. I felt more content than I had in a long while. Then in the late afternoon we headed out on a sundowner boat safari.

A safari from the water is an entirely different thing from a game drive. The pace is slower (and far less bumpier — as my very first Malawian game driver called it “The Malawian Massage”). There is just as much a sense of excitement with a lick of danger — just as C was sure the male lion intended to leap across the ravine, up the bank, and dive into our jeep to eat us, she was wary of crocodiles and hippos, sure they would upset the boat. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t) Again, an abundance of hippos, crocs, and bird life, including, unexpectedly, four wayward flamingos, on the water and elephant and antelope on the banks. And as the sun set on my birthday, we were treated to the quintessential swift but deep red African sunset; I felt as if I were in the movie the African Queen.

Sunset from the Shire – A very happy birthday to me

The following morning we opted not to take advantage of another included game drive as we had seen so much wildlife and preferred to a lazy lie-in along with the sounds of the African bush. I wanted to hang on to that languid relaxation as long as I could before making our way back to Lilongwe.

But all good things come to an end. And just as the sense of calm had increased the closer we got to the park, the stressful feelings returned the further we drove away. Liwonde was wonderful, but a short weekend away was not never going to be restful enough to reverse the past seven months of pressure, frustration, and melancholy. We were still in Malawi. And we love Malawi, but it can still be a challenging place. And as I drove home, I could feel my irritation grow with the piles of bricks lying unused by the sides of the road in villages where people work hard yet barely eke out a living, with maddening drivers (too fast or too slow or too), with the poorly maintained roads…and when I was pulled over by the police (for the first time ever in Malawi) and the traffic cop tried to extort a bribe, the weekend’s spell was completely broken.

Still, there are certainly far, far worse places to be, and Liwonde was a great birthday getaway. I have also used up one of my COVID travel casualty credits, only three more to go.

Mini Getaways in the Time of Covid

Twenty-one weeks after the Embassy went on alternative telework as a Covid-19 mitigation measure and 24 weeks since we last took a trip outside of Lilongwe, we were once again able to venture outside the capital for day trips. We still needed to limit our interactions, liberally wash our hands or apply antiseptic, and wear face masks, but for a first time in a long time we could drive further than the exciting (dripping with sarcasm) 10-20 minute drive to the supermarket. For those in developed countries this simple change in our restrictions might not seem like much. For those that have access to national, state, and city parks near your home or other venues such as skateparks, waterparks, amusement parks, cultural parks, indoor parks, cinemas, shopping malls, museums, playgrounds…or even those ubiquitous things in developed cities and suburbs where one can stroll without being in the street, you know, sidewalks. Well, just imagine if none of those were available to you. Then you might get an idea of what it might be like to hang out in Lilongwe — not just in a pandemic, but all the time.

Sable antelope eye us warily at Kuti Wildlife Reserve

And then suddenly after half a year we could leave the city, do more than work and school from home with occasional outings to the office or the grocery store. I immediately set about organizing a day getaway to Kuti Wildlife Reserve with good friends. And we were like horses chomping at the bit eager to bolt at the starting gate. We packed up our picnic items and headed out on the 90 minute drive along the M14 toward to Salima. At Kuti, we drove through the reserve looking for animals and came across a few baboon, bushbuck, and sable antelope. We didn’t see many animals but we had a lot of fun anyway. Back at the reception lodge we unpacked our coolers, bought some drinks, and sat back with each other in their open-air dining area for some lunch. We were just so happy to be somewhere other than our own homes in Lilongwe.

Just before leaving the Reserve, we popped over to the Sunset Deck (even though it was not sunset – as we are not allowed to drive outside of the capital after dark), as it overlooked a watering hole. There were a few birds but nothing else…until my friend AS looks out in the distance, and, I kid you not, spots the Reserve’s sole giraffe at least half a mile away in a treeline. We drive over, park, and after a short walk through the trees emerged onto grassland standing some 15-20 feet from a herd of zebra, sable antelope, and the giraffe. Icing on the cake.

A room with a view: Chawani Bungalow, Satemwa Tea Estate

After that weekend, the Embassy announced we would be able to take overnight trips again, though still with restrictions (only self catering or takeaway), and I knew I had to find something, somewhere for the Labor Day weekend. A little over a year before, friends and I had planned a getaway to the self-catering Chawani Bungalow at the Satemwa Tea Estates over the 2019 Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately, the lead-up to Malawi’s general elections that year made it quite clear that in my position, I would not be going anywhere at the time (indeed I ended up working nights and through the weekend). I talked with my friends and they were game, then checked with the Estate and it was available, and I began planning again.

It is a five hour drive from our part of Lilongwe to the Satemwa Tea Estate in Thyolo District, in the deep south of the country. Previously, when I made the trip with my aunt we made a few stops along the way, yet this time we made only one short stop at the Chikondi Stopover – a well known shop and bathroom break approximately halfway between Lilongwe and Blantyre. Otherwise, we were on a mission! And after only those short drives to the store or the Embassy for months on end, that five hour drive to the tea estate went by in a flash.

A brief late afternoon walk on this path behind the bungalow – restorative beauty

C and I had been to Satemwa before, but our friends had not yet been, so we were eager to share this wonderful place with them. The Chawani Bungalow, an historic tea planter’s cottage, is nestled within the heart of the Satemwa Tea Estate, between tall trees and verdant rolling hills of tea shrubs. Its expansive gardens full of flowers and its lawn a massive tree perfect for kids to climb.

We did little. We made and ate meals together. The kids ran or biked around the yard and jumped into the pool — even though a final Malawian winter cold snap had dropped the temps to not-pool-weather-chilly. We went for walks along wooded paths, along the red-dirt lanes, among the tea. We gathered in the main living space before a warm fireplace with tea and chatted. We fired up the braai (southern African for grill) for a family-style picnic. We had high tea on the lawn of Huntingdon House and took the kids on a scavenger hunt. The kids climbed trees and fed the fish at the Huntingdon House pond. We got to know one another.

Satemwa trees — kids in a climbing tree; kids dwarfed by giant Blue Gum trees

For the first time in a long time I felt “normal.” Seeing and being with other people face to face (not on Zoom or Google Meet calls), without masks, just enjoying one another’s company. And, of course, being away from Lilongwe, having a change of scenery.

Returning to work that week I did feel let down. That taste of almost pre-Covid normalcy, of a holiday, that had been so sweet on my tongue over the weekend turned a wee bit bitter. I longed for more. I had not had more than a single day off since our winter wonderland trip to Europe the previous December, and pre-Covid feels so very long ago.

Our super fabulous Superior Family Cottage

Luckily I anticipated just such a post-getaway pandemic funk and had organized yet one more mini vacation with friends for the weekend after. This time, we headed to Blue Zebra, a small lodge on Nankoma Island, part of Marelli Archipelago, within Lake Malawi National Park. Just 15 minutes by speed boat from the shore, its like a world away.

Bumping along the choppy waves — and yes, Lake Malawi has waves, its a huge lake (3rd largest in Africa and 10th largest in the world) — we laughed and felt a carefree-ness we had not felt in awhile. I had booked the largest guest chalet on the island for myself, my daughter, her tutor, and tutor’s sister (who all live at my friend’s home — the daughters of her housekeeper — thus within our Covid isolation bubble). We had been so few places this year I was fully embracing the “go big or go home” philosophy. The large cottage has two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and wrap around porch with another large dining table. With all these tables we were able to have all our meals together at our Cottage instead of in the Lodge’s dining area. The things we have to think of to travel in the time of Covid…

Blue Zebra Views — (left) the view from our Cottage porch and (right) the view from the pool to an exclusive lakeside dining area

We tried to make the most of our time — trying to find that balance between relaxation in a new setting (just listening to the lapping water) and having fun. We spent time at the pool, hung out in the game room playing billiards (well as well as one can with adult amateurs and children) and trivia, talking and game playing at meals, and kayaking. We had just over 24 hours on the island — arriving around 11:30 on one day and leaving at 2 PM the following. It was too short of time.

It was a great getaway– absolutely. Even just the two hours in the car each way singing to our CDs (yes, CDs, because I have a 2006 Japanese vehicle that picks up only one Malawian radio station, and internet data roaming is poor), was wonderful. But I will say that the Monday after that last trip, my mood dropped precipitously. To take these trips I took no time off.

A spectacled weaver (?) in the marsh grasses around Nankoma Island

Limited commercial flights returned to Malawi on Saturday, September 5, the first such flights since the borders closed to all but special charter flights or buses since April 1. But restrictions remain — limits to the number of interactions with others, mandatory mask usage, and no dining-in at restaurants domestically, and Covid testing and quarantines for international arrivals, for example. I am so grateful that we did have a chance to get out with friends, though I am desperate for more travel freedoms. Still, we may not have sidewalks or amusement parks, but what Malawi does have is pretty spectacular.

That Weekend We Tried to be “Normal”

4

We are not very good at being normal

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

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sci bono discovery center

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

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

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

Montecasino

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 3

The final part of my week-long mini sojourn to Uruguay and Buenos Aires. 

It took almost as long to get into Buenos Aires from Tigre on the bus as it took to leisurely motor along the delta from Carmelo, Uruguay.  The traffic was awful and it was growing dark.  I also felt a little sick because all I had had for lunch were nine small saltine crackers, two marshmallow chocolates, a mini candy bar I had left from United’s lounge in Chicago, and some water.

Buenos Aires 4Once let down in the center of Buenos Aires, I determined I should take the subway to the neighborhood of San Telmo to find the hostel.  I found a subway entrance and simply followed the crowd.  I grew a little nervous when I realized I had reached the platform and was without a ticket; I had seen no ticket counter, no turnstiles.  It was 80 degrees above ground in Buenos Aires that day, in early winter, yet the air conditioning (if there ever is any) in the underground was turned off, and with the crowds, the temperature was even warmer.  The platform was already full when myself and my large backpack pushed our way into a small corner near the entrance and a shop, but people just kept coming and coming and coming.  Soon it was like a sauna, and no trains arrived.  In broken Spanish I asked the woman next to me where the ticket counters were and she pointed upstairs, but you could not even see upstairs anymore with the still-arriving mobs.  She asked how I managed to get downstairs without a ticket, but I honestly had no clue.  I saw no place to buy one and simply followed the crowd.  She said it would not be a problem.  I felt trapped because I saw no easy way to force my way up through that crowd.  And still no trains arrived.  I asked the woman how much a taxi might cost to my destination and she told me four or five pesos (about $1.50-$2.00).  What?  How much is the subway?  Seventy centavos.  Well if the taxi was only a few dollars I would much prefer to take it than suffer the rising heat of the train-less underground.  But you can walk, she says, it is only 15 blocks!  How wonderful to hear that someone would think that walking 15 blocks was very doable and easy!  In many places the common response to a destination 15 blocks away would be that it was far too distant to walk.  Another young man offered to go upstairs as well and show me where I could catch a bus; he said the subway workers were on strike.  And so we shoved our way up the stalled escalator, past all the people still unknowingly descending into the tunnel.

Upstairs the air felt refreshingly cool so I decided to walk.  I made it to the hostel to check in just in time for the storm to break.  It was about 8 PM and I was starving, but when I tried to go outside I was soaked within five minutes even though I carried an umbrella.  I went back inside the hostel and took a shower.  By the time I was finished the torrential rain was over.  I walked the ten blocks to the Plaza Dorengo where I found a small, dark, smoky cafe with windows open onto the plaza and a guitarist singing traditional songs.  Though I had been reluctant at first to eat where there might be loud music, prefering to be somewhere quiet, I stayed almost two hours savoring my salad with Roquefort cheese and empañada along with the sounds of lonely, romantic ballads.  I thought, now, my holiday is turning around.

Buenos Aires 3Except the weather was not up to cooperating.  It was overcast as I stepped out the next day to head to the posh side of Buenos Aires. to visit the Cemeterio de la Recoleta – where the crème de la crème are buried in grand, ornate tombs.  It was lightly raining when I reached the gates of the cemetery but it seemed appropriate weather for the location.  The Recoleta Cemetery is like a small city for the weathly, powerful, and connected deceased.  A small park and a posh shopping center with very upscale furniture stores and chic eateries, including the Hard Rock Cafe Buenos Aires abut the high walls.  Inside there is a grand entrance with statues and wide streets leading off from a sort of central square.  Friendly cats – no wonder they have the reputation of being associated with death – leisurely stroll around the lanes, lie on the steps to the mausoleums, leap from the tomb rooftops, dart into open, un-cared for tombs, and give guided tours.  Well, for at least 20 minutes I was tailed by one particular cat until we caught sight of a rival furry tour guide, and then she took off.  I am here in a large part to see the tomb of Eva Peron.  I followed an English tour I heard was heading for her tomb, though had I wandered around by myself it would probably not have proved difficult to find as there was a large crowd standing in front of it.  Her tomb, regardless of the controversy surrounding her life and still her legacy in death, is a pilgrimage site.  I paced nearby until the crowd left and then as the rain fell steadily harder, was able to get a close up look.  I tried to peer into the tomb, but to be honest I had a small feeling that if even the slightest movement might happen anywhere near me I would probably scream.  As Evita was embalmed, a uncommon practice in Argentina, I thought perhaps the body might be more on display.  I know that sounds rather morbid, but the entire cemetery appeared to revel in grotesque, over-the-top demonstrations.

It begins to rain quite hard and I discover that the batteries on my camera have died and the spare pair I thought I had are actually dead too.  So, I decide to go and have lunch and see about buying some new batteries.  It stops raining after some time and about 1 1/2 hours later I return to the cemetery, but it starts raining again! My umbrella makes it still bearable, so I did not mind too much.  I was impressed with the excellent drainage system the cemetery seems to have – probably better than many of the neighborhoods for the living.

Buenos Aires

Overcast Buenos Aires

As I walk back towards the Subway I realize it is 3:30 PM and there are supposed to be tours in English at Casa Rosada (the Pink House), the Presidential Palace, only at 5 PM on Fridays.  I feel lucky that I just happened to think of this and head off.  I arrive at the palace around 4:20 PM.  There is a fence around the front perimeter; people are going inside but they must pass muster with the guard there.  I go up and explain I am there for the tour.  He tells me to come back Monday.  I explain that I am there for the ENGLISH tour on Fridays.  He tells me they have been suspended and waves me away.  Once again foiled.  What is it about this trip??  I walk around the Palace and it suddenly begins to rain very hard.  I pull out my umbrella and dash across the street to a government building with a large roofed entrance way.  I make my way to Avenida Florida, the shopping street, which is so much livelier than on my first day only five days before.  I find a tourist information office and go in to ask about Tango shows.  I also ask them why the English tours of the Casa Rosada have been canceled.  They look at me puzzled and say they have not been cancelled – they are every Friday at 4 PM.  I briefly imagine myself running back through the rain just to give that guard a piece of my mind – typical developing country guard/police bullshit to just tell people things are closed, cancelled, or never existed.  But I’m am no longer really that upset by these things, it just happens when you travel.  Had I more time, I would just return another day.  Its just I had only this one opportunity.

Buenos Aires 1But I lucked out at last; I found a Tango show in San Telmo.  They offered a five course meal and a 1 hour and 45 minute Tango show for US$55.  At this point during this ever-frustrating holiday, I expected the food to be overcooked, the service to be bad, and the show a disappointment.  But, it was all wonderful.  I had the next to best seat in the house, the food was delicious, and the show of Tango music, song, and dance was incredible.  It was the perfect final evening of my holiday.  The next day my flight left at 7:40 pm and so I needed to leave the hostel for the airport at 5.  I slept in, showered, and headed off once again to Avenida Florida for some shopping.  I bought two CDs of Tango music, some Patagonian chocolate, and a winter coat – just $40 for a coat that would cost at least three times that in the U.S.  I had a final meal of Argentine beef – a fast food place in the Galleria food court that did burgers, steak, sausages, and chicken to order on the grill right in front of the customer.  Not your usual fast food place!

Buenos Aires 2Just as I start heading back to the subway (to go to the hostel to catch the taxi to the airport) I notice a large crowd down one of the streets.  I notice this because as I am crossing a three lane road I notice a few people standing in the middle of the road staring.  I think at first these two guys must have a death wish or something, and then I turn and see down the Avenida toward the obelisk (which resembles the Washington Monument) a large crowd of people.  Ooooh, a protest I think!  I immediately think of my Aunt C who tells me when in a foreign country and you see a large crowd of people like that one should go AWAY from it.  So, of course, I walk towards it, and I am glad I did.  It turned out not to be a protest but a gaucho, or cowboy, festival.  The roads were roped off and sand was placed down on one of the lanes.  There were men and boys in traditional gaucho gear – ponchos, pañuelos (scarfs), flat topped, wide-brimmed felt hats, white dress shirts, bombacha trousers with matching jackets, and boots – astride their equally-decorative horses.  Stereotypically perhaps, many of them smoking.  Riders were galloping down the sand covered lane.  I had to get going, but I took 10 minutes out to watch and take some pictures before heading toward the metro.  Again, I felt lucky to have come upon this.  Although I was disappointed that I was unable to stay longer, it was enough to have seen it at all.

I then arrived at the closest metro and found it closed!  Would these unfortunate events never end?  But now used to this, I quickly pulled out my Buenos Aires map and found the next subway stop.  It was open and all was well.  I made my flight with no problem and it was with a smile that I said goodbye to South America for now.

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 2

My unexpected trip to Uruguay in May 2005 continues as I leave the capital Montevideo, which I found oddly deserted and subdued, and head toward the summer playground of Punta del Este, but in winter, and the UNESCO World Heritage town of Colonia del Sacremento. 

Punta del Este 1

Punta del Este marina – the one beautiful moment there

Punta del Este, the international jet set summer playground, was my next destination.  I figured I might at least be able to afford to stay there in winter, when in summer it would be booked out months in advance and too pricey for my wallet.  Since it is supposed to be such a popular vacation spot, I imagined beautiful white beaches and a lovely town with quaint attractive buildings.  Two and half hours away by bus and I was about to be terribly disappointed.

[From my diary:] This morning as I headed out of my Montevideo hostel to Punta del Este I could sense a change as I might be heading for adventure.  The bus terminal was modern and I had no problem buying the ticket or finding the bus.  We departed and arrived on time.  As we drove, the sun came out and I had high hopes it would remain so.  But here I am not in Punta del Este and it is overcast, the sky almost uniformly white. 

Punta del Este 3I found the hostel fairly easily (well, after many wrong turns and bad directions) and then set out have a walk around the town and some lunch.  I walked down the deserted main street, again feeling things weren’t quite right.  The town might be like any resort/beach town in the off seasons, think Ocean City, Maryland or Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in winter.  Very, very quiet.  Though Punta is supposed to be glitzy and expensive and trendy, I saw only old, worn out cars parked along the streets.  I had some less than fabulous pasta at a small cafe and then headed back to the hostel to get some guidance.  The girl in charge of the hostel was out and a man came downstairs.  He told me he didn’t work there but he’d been there for months and maybe he could help me.  My guess is that he was Uruguayan or Argentine though his English was almost accent-less.  I asked, “What is there to do here?”  “Sweetheart,” he said, “there isn’t anything to do here.”  I was amused at his “sweetheart” address to me.  It came off sounding rather cheesy and awkward, like he was just trying out its effect on foreign women.  He proceeded to tell me that I should have come with a friend or a boyfriend (thanks for making me feel alone buddy) and that he was there with “his girl” and they would be watching a video that night, maybe I might join them?  He pointed out to a beachfront from through the hostel front window.  “See that beach,” he says, “in the summer it is so crowded with people you can’t see the sand.”  I said that having a beach that crowded would not necessarily be a boon to everyone.  I asked about Cabo Polonia, where there are sand dunes and the country’s second largest sea lion colony.  Oh, don’t go there, he tells me.  Because it will be absolutely dead, there will be nothing to do.   “In the summer,” he says, “it is beautiful.  They have a naked beach and you can drink and smoke anything you want.  You can do anything you want there.”  Uh, we clearly have different ideas about what is “beautiful” and “fun.”  I wanted to see sand dunes and sea lions and enjoy stark natural beauty, not a bunch of drunk, stoned, naked people.  Such a shame to miss all that, I know.

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El Mano

I decided to just walk around the point.  It was sunny and not too cold and the walk was so much prettier than the Rambla.  Here at Punta and nearby Maldonado are where many wealthy Argentines keep large summer homes.  The walk reminded me very much of the walks along the ocean at Monterey, California for the climate and the architecture.  Each house was pretty and unique.  There was also a small port from where, in summer, boats head out to Isla Gorriti and Isla de Los Lobos, and in the winter the fishermen were selling fresh fish.  Sea lions swam around the colorful boats.  Around the point I slowly walked, with only a hopeful stalker bicyclist aiming to ruin it.  He biked past me several times.  At one point I must have made the mistake of saying “hola” while smiling.  He biked on ahead and then parked and got off to sit on the stone wall.  As I passed he smiled at me and patted the wall next to him.  Forget it buddy I said (okay I really said I don’t speak Spanish and he indicated that he didn’t care by shrugging his shoulders) and I walked on.  Around to the sculpture “El Mano” or as it is known in English, the Hand in the Sand – what appears to be five fingers of a giant hand, either reaching out of the sand or the last gesture of someone sinking away.  I thought it reminded me of the Planet of the Apes and the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand at the end.   I wanted a picture of me by one of the fingers, but there was no one else around.

Back at the hostel I have my dinner and watch a movie with Sweetheart’s girl.  I hit the sack early because I planned to leave Punta del Este as early as possible.

[From my diary:] My hope was to make the 7 AM bus to Colonia, but I slept long and woke up just five minutes to.  I had to settle for the 8:45 AM, which would get me to Colonia at 2:30 PM.  The bus ride was uneventful, I slept in shifts.  The sky cleared, then darkened, then cleared again. 

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Scenes from Colonia

I arrived at Colonia del Sacramento, the oldest town in Uruguay.  Founded in 1680 near the confluence of the Rio Uruguay and the Rio de la Plata by the Portuguese and later ceded to the Spanish, Colonia as it is known is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Though it too seemed lost it time, it seemed more appropriate for it to be so.  I am not sure which time Colonia is supposed to be lost in, but it was by far my favorite place in Uruguay.  The weather was beautiful – when I arrived I first changed into a lighter weight long-sleeved shirt and my fleece and returned almost immediately to take off the fleece.  It was sunny and warm – around 70 degrees despite the leafless sycamore trees with their fallen dried orange leaves littering the streets as evidence of the early winter season.  There were actually some other tourists in Colonia, most probably on a day tour from Buenos Aires – located just across the river, 45 minutes away by fast ferry.  I liked the no pressure strolling around the cobblestone streets – some of them of very roughly hewn stone without much attempt at placing them closely and smoothly together – looking into shops.  No one pounced on me as soon as I entered the stores.  No high-pressure salesmanship.  I was almost disappointed.  In Asia I would have been lured, even pulled, in from the street and drawn into haggling for items I had no desire to buy.  But in Uruguay, the lack of customer interest or even customers at all seemed unimportant.  There was something aggravating and yet also pleasant in this lackadaisical approach to sales and life.  Things were unhurried and in Colonia it felt so very appropriate – with the eclectic mix of Portuguese and Spanish colonial and early 20th century with hints of the 21st – there did not appear any desire to rush the town into the modern era.  There were horse drawn carriages, 1920s and 1930s vintage cars, along with what I would guess to be early 50s vehicles.  A 2005 model would have been the outlier, not the norm.

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Door knocker in Colonia

I strolled for several hours through the streets, climbing up the lighthouse and along the ruined walls of an old fort, to finally stopping for an early dinner at a small restaurant with a view of the sunset over the Rio.  I was the only diner and I sat outside in the warm air enjoying the view and a steak.  The only disturbances were a dog that wished to share in my meal who was shooed away by the two waitresses who sat glumly across the street on the curb watching over me, and a poorly dressed old man who sold me two band-aids for five pesos.

It seemed almost too calm and relaxing.  Why wasn’t I more pleased that the dogs were not attacking me? That the band-aid seller was not more persistent and aggressive?  This holiday seemed unlike so many I have taken.

Back at the hostel I was savoring the last few pages of the book I had brought.  I had tried to ration the pages – I had not expected to have much time to read, and certainly not to finish the book.  I should have brought two or three books with all the time I had on hand.  Mostly I had spent the time I could have been reading in another favorite hobby of mine – sleeping.  I slept on the plane, on the boat to Montevideo, on the buses to Punta del Este and Colonia.  And still I could go to sleep early at night.  It was as if I was making up for all the less than adequate sleep for the past few months – and still with all that sleeping, I could not stave off the end of the book.  Three days left and a long flight back and I was finished.  But just then the woman sharing the dormitory came in.  I explained that I was leaving Colonia the next day but was debating between the 9:15 am ferry to Buenos Aires or to spend another quiet day in the town and take the 5:15 pm; however, having just finished off my only reading material I was inclined to leave in the morning.  She told me I should take the way back via Carmelo and Tigre.  I had no idea to what she was referring, and she told me there is a slower boat leaving from a town about an hour’s bus ride north of Colonia.  The boat would wind its way through the Parana River Delta and arrive in the suburban town of Tigre, from where I could then take a bus or train into Buenos Aires.  The idea of a more adventurous and less conventional way to return to Argentina appealed to me.

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Beautiful Colonia del Sacramento

And so the next day at 11:30 I took the bus north to the small river town of Carmelo.  I had about an hour to walk the town and buy provisions for the boat.  Again it was beautiful weather, so although I circled the same 10 blocks at least twice and I did not find anything of particular interest in Carmelo, I felt rather excited to be there.  The boat ride was again uneventful and relaxing, but this time I felt content because I could look out the windows at the brown river and the life along the delta.  I could step out onto the back of the boat and feel the sun and wind on my face.  It felt delicious, almost undeserved.  Within two hours we pulled up at the dock in Tigre and those heading onto Buenos Aires boarded the company bus.

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 1

In 2005 I was working in Washington, D.C. in my first post-graduate school job.  I had only been working for a few months and really wanted a holiday, but had not banked a lot of money or time off.  I also love me a random, new, out of the way destination, but somewhere I could cover a fair amount within a short period of time.  And for some reason, I honed in on Uruguay.  I do not remember why only I had not been there before, I had found a flight, and there was enough, but not too much, for me to see in a week.  This trip was most certainly something out of the ordinary.  Yet this was 15 years ago and I am surprised by how little I recall of the trip, not the beauty of Colonia del Sacramento or the travel challenges I ran into that led me to originally call this email story “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

MontevideoWhy would I want to go to Uruguay?  This was the question posed to me by just about everyone to whom I mentioned my trip.  Why not go to Argentina? they asked.  Well as just about everyone knows I like to take holidays that are a little different.  I do not necessarily want to go to someplace that everyone else is going.  However, looking up some statistics, I came across a website that said that Uruguay receives more international tourists than Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.  This actually left me rather puzzled.  Really?  Where were they hiding?  But I think I may know how this happens, if you count every Argentine that goes over for a weekend of shopping, then Uruguay may indeed have more “tourists.”  I’d be willing to bet that 80-90% of tourists to Uruguay are Argentine or Brazilian, another 10% are the international jet set and celebrities a la Naomi Campbell, Leonardo di Caprio, and Claudia Schiffer that descend on glitzy Punta del Este in the summer.

But those realizations came later.

On a Friday afternoon, I began my unexpected holiday to Uruguay.  I had little expectations really, I just wanted to get away, but the excitement was building.  And quickly it was dashed.  Despite the existence of a direct flight, I had found a cheaper option through Chicago.  Unfortunately, this did not work out in my favor.  The flight was delayed out of Reagan National and, due to storms, also delayed landing in Chicago.  As we circled Chicago O’Hare, my overnight flight to Buenos Aires took off.   There was chaos in Chicago, many stranded passengers, and it took time to finally speak with customer service only to learn the next flight was 24 hours later.  I spent the first day of my vacation holed up in an airport voucher hotel dining at various O’Hare airport restaurants.

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Montevideo shopping street with a view of the old city gate leading to Plaza Independencia

I have to revise my plan.  I am dejected.  I think maybe I do not even bother going to Uruguay, because I am flying into Buenos Aires my plan is to take the boat to Montevideo.  I have no idea when the boats to Montevideo depart.  We touch down a little early at 10 am.  I think noon would be a good time to have a boat and I figure I might be able to race across town on a bus and get to the boat in time.  But I figured wrong.  The boat leaves at 11:30 in the morning.  I find this out around 10:45 in the morning when airport information informs me they tell me it will take 40 minutes to get into the city…  The next boat is at 3:30 pm.  I am momentarily stunned that my “plan” ( i.e. that was to have no plan) is not working.  Usually, I am very lucky when I travel.  This does not feel particularly lucky.  I concede defeat and book the bus.  I arrive at the port around noon.

My “plan” also included not acquiring any Argentine money; I figured I would just purchase the bus and boat tickets with a credit card and speed ahead to Uruguay.  But unfortunately, now I had three hours to kill in Buenos Aires.  In the boat terminal, there were neither open money changers nor left luggage facilities.  Very traveler-unfriendly.  I buy my ticket and ask if I can leave my bag at the travel office.  They say no but tell me to try at the information desk.  They also say no and tell me to try at the check-in counter.  He also says no.  But I am tired of hearing no, so I go back to the travel office and put on my sad traveler face and one of the guys goes over and bullies the check-in guy to let me leave my bag.  One little triumph.  A minor fortunate event.  I have two hours before I have to come back for boarding.  It is overcast and a Sunday.  It was as if I had flown into a Stalinist state during the Cold War.  There are not many people out and they are huddled in their coats, the shops seem half-empty on Avenida Florida, supposedly Buenos Aires’ main shopping street.  I change US$10 so I can pay for lunch.  I sit reading my book until it is almost time to return to the boat.  It has started to rain.  I am not in a particularly good mood, but then I think I am in for some adventure with the 2 1/2 hour boat ride ahead of me.

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Uruguay dining equals MEAT

Instead, the boat journey takes 3 1/2 hours and it is completely uneventful.  It is so overcast outside all we see is white from the windows.  No view.  It grows dark while the boat putters on.  I fall asleep for two hours.  When we finally arrive in Montevideo it is dark, around 7 pm, and it is raining.  I am one of the first ones off the boat only to have to wait for what seems a ridiculous amount of time for the luggage to come out and for everyone to file through the bottleneck through the x-ray machine.  There is no money changing places.  I am puzzled by this seemingly key tourist service lacking.  If it had been daylight – when I thought I would arrive – I would have walked some way from the port, but the guidebook says to definitely NOT walk in the port area after dark.  Suddenly, I am standing with two German guys who are going to a hostel.  I become one of their group.  I don’t know how it happened, I think a woman offering tourist information lumps us together.  That is fine because they seem to know where they are going.  There is a huge line waiting for taxis and no taxis to be seen.  The German guys suggest we walk away from the crowd and we hail a taxi just entering the port.  We pile in together and our driver proclaims we are lucky to hail his taxi because he says not so many Uruguayans speak English.  The Germans have an address.  We arrive at a building with no sign and buzz the doorbell.  It turns out to be a little retro hostel called Red Hostel.  Walls painted red, a small living room of sorts in front of the service counter.  Sofas, bean bags, a lit fireplace, low lights, and three computer terminals.  I get a dorm bed; there are only two other girls in the room and they are not there at the moment.  I never do meet them.

The next day I decide to head out into Montevideo, heading first for the Ciudad Viejo or Old Town.  I’m looking forward to the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture.  I decide to walk the whole way, a few dozen blocks is not too much for marathon-walking me!  But first I must finally get some money and pay for the hostel.  Walking down the main street, I think Avenida 7 Julio, I notice that nothing particularly stands out.  The stores are nondescript and actually many are not even open although it is by now 9 or 10 am on a Monday morning.  This is the capital of the country, where at least half of the 3.5 million Uruguayans reside, and yet there is very little bustle.  There are people on the sidewalks, there are cars and buses, but it just does not feel right to me.  I come across the main square,  Plaza de Independencia.  There is a large statue of Artigas, the Uruguayan independence hero, upon a horse.  The Plaza is almost empty.  A line of colorfully dressed school children is having a tour.  Two other tourists stop to take a picture.  I decide to follow the kids.  We pass through the old gate to the city.  I take a picture.  We are then on the main pedestrian shopping street but again it seems oddly deserted.  I feel as if I am transported back to Tallin in Estonia where years ago I also stepped off a boat from Helsinki to arrive in a town with a pretty central old town but surrounded by depressing Soviet-era buildings and boulevards and although the weather is nice, the people seem braced, huddled, unfriendly.  Except, this time I am in the Old Town of Montevideo and this one is not nearly as nice at Tallin.  There is a lot of construction, but it does not feel industrious.  Does this make sense?  I have the feeling that I am in a town that was long ago abandoned and people are now only beginning to return and rebuild their lives.

Montevideo 2

School kids pass by Artigas statue on Independence Square

At the port, I decided that although it is just before noon, I might as well have lunch to give myself something to do.  And this is supposed to be the place to have lunch and not dinner because it is not safe here after dark.  It is not particularly cold, but the warm fire in the restaurant feels nice.  [From my diary:] So far my impression of Montevideo is not too favorable.  Thre are plenty of people living on the street, in doorways, in parks.  There is a dejected feel here.  Actually, the restaurant where I am eating is quite nice – a roaring fire to grill meats and vegetables.  Lots of wood and brick, warm, dark colors.  It feels very nice in here.  If only the music were not U.S. eighties hits.  That seems off, but again hardly surprising that the soundtrack to this trip (in the taxi, in the hostel, in the restaurant, in the shops) is American music.  I order Lomo or filet mignon.  I am in Uruguay after all and beef is the national dish.  Both Uruguay and Argentina are known for their beef, the ranches, and gaucho (cowboy) culture.  The steak is wonderful and I begin to cheer up.  This was all I needed, a good meal and now I can sightsee happily.  I go into the old market which is full of small restaurants with bar stools around large grills.  Meat, meat, meat hanging everywhere, cooking.  It smells wonderful.  I imagine the heat from the grills might be too much in summer, but it is just right now.  I head out and decide to go to the National Museum.

After a few confusing turns, I find one of the four buildings of the National Museum and go inside.  It seems nice enough but seems a strange collection.  There are no English explanations, but really there seem to be few explanations at all, even in Spanish.  There is a room of what I guess is of early man in South America.  Maps of the migration across the Bering Strait and through North and Central and South American.  A life-size version of an early indigenous man.  Some pottery and bones.  Another set of rooms have paintings from the colonial periods and early independence.  One room is dedicated to Artigas the hero.  But a “room” might be misleading as it was really a small alcove with a bust, a painting, and a mural with his words.  And strangely there was also another room with modern black and white photographs pasted onto three-sided cards on a table in the center of the room with a CD of new age music which seemed to alternate baby cries with erotic moans and heavy bass.  I have no idea what that room was supposed to signify.

I went in search of another of the four buildings only to find it padlocked shut with no sign indicating anything whatsoever about the reason for this.  Okay, fine.  I decide to take a walk along the Rambla, the road along the other side of the peninsula.  The guidebook said that this was a pleasant walk and one traveler had described it as the highlight of their trip to Montevideo.  That person was clearly drunk, drugged or had had an even rougher start to holiday than I had.  As I crossed the four-lane highway I had to be extra careful of the Monday afternoon traffic, barely making it across when the one car came barreling down the road towards me. Again I wondered if there had been an evacuation of the city and me and only a few other souls were unaware of this.  It was sunny and the sea/river was a bit rough.  It usually cheers me to see the water but the ugly high rises in the distance just did not do much to lift my mood.  I was beginning to feel sleepy and decided to just return to the hostel for a nap.

That evening I went out for a free performance of tango being offered at the Montevideo Cultural Center.  I found the building just in time and found a seat in a small crowded room.  It was like a small chapel in an old school, narrow, with pew-like seating.  Again even though I was in a room full of people, I felt as if we were lost in time, in a forgotten era.  I sat and waited for the singing and dancing to begin.  I sat there for 30 minutes and it never did start.  There was an announcer who brought two guys onto the small stage and they sat behind an old grand piano and chatted.  Occasionally the audience clapped and I joined in.  It was like watching a radio talk show.  I started to wonder if I had, in fact, wandered in on a town hall meeting and the tango was going on somewhere else in the building.  I thought to ask the guy next to me, but then the game would be up – I would be found out to be a phony, having just sat through 30 minutes of dialogue I could not understand.  I just got up and left.

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Horse-drawn garbage cart

Back at the hostel, I watched a movie with other guests while I planned my escape from Montevideo the following day.  My favorite part of Montevideo was NOT the Rambla, but instead two other things – my first exposure to the children’s school uniforms, which seem a cross between a lab coat and a painter’s smock: knee-length white lightweight polyester coats with large pockets, buttoned in front, with pleats on the girls’ uniform, topped by a large blue bow at the neck.  Add a black French beret on their heads and they would have looked the part of the quintessential French painter.

The second thing I liked was the horse-drawn garbage carts.  Throughout my walk around Montevideo, I distinctly heard the clop clop clop of horse hooves on cobblestone.  At night, on the wet pavement and in the semi-deserted streets, the sound romantically echoed of the past.  Finally, on the second evening while heading back to the hostel I caught sight of one of them, the driver leaping off the cart to grab bags of garbage and hoist them onto the back of the cart or tie them to the sides.  Even though the site of large plastic bags tied all around and piled high is not the most attractive sight, I could not help but feel a little delighted to find the source of the sounds to be something so every day as the garbage man, in the most un-everyday kind of way.

The Gift of Paris

Paris 13Following our epic adventure to Lapland (here and here) with our friends CZ and Little C, I surprised my daughter C with a trip to Paris as an early Christmas gift.  C loves Paris.  Even before I took her on her first trip to the City of Lights, C was already enamored with France and its capital thanks to several of her favorite Disney movies set there (Aristocats, Beauty and the Beast, Ratatouille) and several episodes of the Little Einsteins. 

In the Helsinki airport, I sat C down and told her I would be revealing her early Christmas present.  I had made hints for days and she was giddy with excitement though confused how I had managed to hide a gift from her and why I had checked our luggage without handing over the present.  I turned on my phone’s video camera and proceeded to tell her we would not actually be flying back to Malawi that day but were instead going to Paris and Disneyland!  Instead of the shouts of excitement I had expected, C sat there confused and stunned.  Hmmm…looked like the Mom of the Year trophy I had thought I would clinch had slipped from my fingers.

Lucky for me, as we flew across Europe C decided to forgive me for taking her to Paris and by the time we were landing she was thoroughly thrilled to be heading to Disneyland.

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Disneyland Paris’ Hotel Cheyenne

The previous time we had headed to Paris in the Spring of 2018 we had also stayed a few days at Disneyland Paris.  This time I opted for another one of Disneyland Paris’ hotels, the Cheyenne.  Although it seemed to be the final drop off location for the Disneyland Paris Magic Shuttle from the airport, we very much liked the whimsical, Disney-touch to a wild west theme.  The whole hotel complex was laid out like a western frontier town.

And we did what most people do when they go to Disney–we rode the rides, we watched the parades, we had our pictures taken with people dressed up as our favorite characters.  We also do what you might expect of people in our situation — Americans who spend the majority of their time in the developed world and have just come from the frozen north — we reveled in the Christmas-y and American-ness of it all.  We took full advantage of our hotel benefits, arriving early for the Extra Magic Hours and staying until closing.  We got to do everything we wanted and more except for riding Crush’s Coaster, which either had lines of over an hour wait or was not running.  But we just shrugged it off — we can give that a try next time we are in Paris, along with the other new attractions expected in the next few years.

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Great winter weather and Christmas themes greeted us at Disneyland Paris

After our 2.5 days at Disney it was time to head into Paris proper, and immediately we came face to face with the France outside of the Disney bubble.  Like during our last visit there was yet again another transportation strike affecting the metro and RER trains.  There then went my plan to take public transportation into the city so we called an Uber and enjoyed the roads with everyone else.

Once squared away in our lovely hotel near the Paris Opera, we grabbed some lunch and then took a leisurely stroll down to and through the Tuileries Garden to the Louvre.  C absolutely loves to draw and had recently had a brief course in some European artists at school, so I thought she might enjoy a visit to the largest art museum in the world.  I had read the best time to take younger children to the Louvre was during the evenings hours the museum offers twice a week, so Wednesday worked for us.  The weather was perfect, a little cold, but not nearly as cold as Finland, and the light of late afternoon just beautiful.  This was my fourth time in Paris, but I never tire of the majesty of the historic heart of this city.  C loved spending time in the Louvre; we caught the highlights — the Mona Lisa, the Coronation of Napolean, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, and Egyptian antiquities — and C found a few favorite paintings of her own.  I really loved seeing her make careful selections in the gift shop based on the art she most enjoyed.4 Beautiful Paris evening

On our second day in the city, dawn broke beautifully.  With the metro schedule up in the air due to the strikes, we would spend the day walking.  Our first stop would be the Arc de Triomphe, a 45-minute walk from our hotel.  There were no lines, something that seems almost unheard of in Paris, so we headed right up to the roof.  Despite the overcast skies and some rain, the view was still spectacular, even dramatic.  I felt really happy to be in Paris with my girl.

We walked on to the right bank of the Seine at the Pont de l’Alma where we got some lunch in a lovely corner restaurant.  My initial plan was for us to continue on to the Eiffel Tower, but we had already done quite a lot of walking, so instead, we headed to the Bateaux Mouches for a guided river tour.  This was something we had planned for last time but had been nixed due to floods rising the Seine water level too high to get under some of the bridges.  It was nice to get out of the cold and sit back, relax, and enjoy floating past the beauty of historic Paris.  C liked the sweets I bought her, sitting down with her toys, and occasionally looking out the windows.

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The T-Rex art installation at the Bateaux-Mouches pier

The weather had cleared by the time the boat returned; it was lovely for a walk.  But as we headed up Rue Royale, just off of the Place de la Concorde, I caught a couple trying to steal my wallet.  The sidewalk was narrow and I could sense the people behind us were walking very, very closely.  I figured they wanted to pass, so I pulled C over to the building wall to let them by, and in so doing pulled my handbag, which was over my shoulder, back to my side.  And it was then I noticed that the zipper on my bag was undone and my wallet half-way out.  The couple–a very tall man and a petite woman, both dressed very well–immediately began to play out a ridiculous drama, pointing at shop signs in an exaggerated manner and then they ducked into the nearest store.  But I walked only a little ahead of that shop and sure enough, they popped back out within 30 seconds.

There were no police around.  They had not succeeded.  There was little I could think to do.  I rooted around in my bag and could not see anything was missing.  But I felt violated nonetheless.   The whole rest of the walk back I could not stop obsessing about what had just happened, what could have just happened.  And trying to explain this to C – why people would do this and about my reaction.  I have been many, many places in the world, at least 90 countries, and only once did someone succeed in pick-pocketing me – in China.  On two other occasions, in Jakarta and Rome, someone tried but I caught them.  I feel as if this is a good thing, and yet the whole situation only left a bad taste in my mouth.

Once back in the hotel room, I did not feel like going out again.  But we did not like the room service menu, so I opted to head out to the supermarket around the corner.  I felt irrationally fearful; I clutched my bag to my body.  But just before the supermarket, I saw a family–a man, woman, and their two children–sitting on a blanket preparing to sleep for the night, and something possessed me to ask if I could buy them something.  They did not speak more than a few words of English, so could not ask, but through hand signals, we worked out that the mother and the older daughter would accompany me.  They moved quickly through the store, I expect fearful that if they took too long I would change my mind.  When I found them in the back of the store, they had two full baskets.  I could see they also were worried I would make them put something back, but I just motioned them to follow me.  I paid for everything and we stepped outside.  The girl thanked me and then threw her arms around my waist and hugged me fiercely.  In broken English, I learned she was nine years old and they are from Syria.  I had a lot of conflicting feelings, so much sadness, anger at the pickpockets and the circumstances that brought this young family to the street.  These were different sides of Paris.

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An exquisite view from Eiffel

The next day, our last full one in Paris, we were going to try to get to the Eiffel Tower.  The day started out overcast again, but the temperature was comfortable and we had a pleasant walk.  About 20 minutes out I logged on to the Eiffel Tower website to buy our tickets and saw they were all sold out!  Oh no!  I felt bummed– the second time to the city with C and both times we did not go up the Tower.  But once we arrived there, the line to buy tickets at the cashier was not long.  I guess so many people now opt for the skip-the-line-admission option that it can actually be possible to sometimes just walk up, wait ten minutes, buy your tickets, and ascend.

We opted for the lift up, walk down option.  Perhaps one day when C and I return we will go to the top, but I had heard the best views were really from the second level.  And once again we were rewarded with a change in the weather and stunning views across Paris.  I could feel the bad feelings of the day before evaporating with the sun.  C was a champ, she took the 674 steps back down in stride, even after all the walking we had already done.  We headed back across the river and dined in the very same establishment we had the day before, and it was just as wonderful.  Then we strolled back towards the Tuileries to visit the Christmas market.  I was happy to see the Roue de Paris (the Paris Ferris Wheel) that had been removed from its semi-permanent location at the Place de la Concord soon after our last visit had made a comeback in the Christmas market.

Paris 17The market was fun, festive, and chock full of many, many goodies.  C wanted to play fairground games as I have only once before let her do so.  After many, many tries she finally won – a cellphone holder.  Ha!  And then we hopped aboard the Roue for a few spins with a different view.  This time we could look over the Tuileries, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the Louvre, and the grand buildings along the Rue de Rivoli, again also with spectacular afternoon sunlight.  And as we left the market to head back to our hotel a double rainbow appeared.  It was a glorious end to an overall wonderful trip.

The following day we slept late and then caught a taxi to the airport (the hotel informed us that the Roissy bus to the airport would likely not run given it was a Yellow Vest protest day).  It was okay.  I did not want to run into anything else that might taint the memories of this trip.  Because I was pretty sure C had by then much forgiven me for giving her the gift of Paris.