The Somewhat Reluctant Spring Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of our eco-chalet from the cove entrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C gets her zen on

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID related graffiti in Mombasa

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 related signage in Nairobi

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

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

Billboard in Mombasa

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

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

Graffiti in support of Kenyan health workers in COVID in Mombasa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R&R in COVID Part 5: Nairobi Time

The fifth in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

Following our adventures in the Mara, at Lake Naivasha, and Mombasa, it was time to wrap up our trip with a final week in Nairobi. In normal times, I would not be keen to spend this many days in one place; we could have visited two, maybe three, places. But COVID has rendered travel to nothing but normal. In order to return to Malawi we needed to get another negative COVID test certificate and thus we had to spend the last part of our vacation in Nairobi and given the pandemic and the holidays it made sense to spend more time there just in case anything might delay our ability to get testing.

This factored into my calculus for planning my trip. Not only did I want to visit a country with plenty for us to see and do, but to stay in a capital city that would also offer us the same during an overly long stopover. Nairobi offered that over our other choices.

We returned from Mombasa in the early afternoon, headed back to the same business hotel we had stayed on our first night, left our luggage, and immediately headed out to Westgate Shopping Mall. There we strolled the walkways, rode the escalators, and shopped. We also had a late lunch. This might not seem like much, but Malawi does not have shopping malls. Well, there is one, Gateway, that tries to pass itself off as the one and only mall in Lilongwe, but while it is an enclosed shopping complex, its two meh supermarkets, a bank, a Poundstretcher (like a Dollar Store), a salon, a shoe store, a children’s clothing store, and a few restaurants, do not, in my opinion, a mall make. Nairobi though has malls. It is rich in them. And while there is security (armed guards, metal detectors, pat downs) and COVID requirements (masks, hand washing, social distancing as much as possible), we were keen to live it up just as much as watching a cheetah on the plains of the Mara.

That is all we did — our late lunch and some groceries sustained us for the rest of the day. Our following day we had a late start — not something we had done much of on our trip thus far — and then head out again to the Junction Mall. It was nice enough with a different layout though many of the same stores as Westgate. Two malls in two days and I could already feel a sense of malaise fall over me. Though I doubt it had much to do with the mall. We had been away from home already for nearly two weeks after having not been on a vacation longer than four days in a year. We had been home, literally isolated in and around our house, for half a year. I know I had desperately wanted not just time away from home, but time traveling in another country. But the fatigue of traveling had set in. Good thing I had a little something up my sleeve to combat at least some of it while in Nairobi.

The Karen Blixen home, estate, and museum in Karen District, Nairobi

On the morning of December 24, C and I checked out of our hotel and head to The Hub Karen. Yes, another mall, but that’s okay. It had a few things that the others had not, including a Dominos Pizza. And it was open at 9 AM. And we ate breakfast there. Go ahead and judge if you want. Though Dominos is not my thing while in the U.S. its pizza was the best pizza ever on that drizzly Christmas Eve morning. We then hailed an Uber (yes, they have Uber in Nairobi! Yet, in Malawi there isn’t even a regular taxi service) and headed to the Karen Blixen museum.

I could not visit Nairobi without a pilgrimage to the Out of Africa author’s home. It had been probably two decades since I had watched the film, but I had never forgotten the story. A love story, not only of a strong woman in the early decades of the 20th century but of the affection she developed for a country and a people not her own. Of course its not so straight forward and my thoughts on it have changed as I have grown older and with my own experience in Africa, but C and I enjoyed a one hour tour of the home and grounds (perhaps I enjoyed it quite a bit more than C). We then headed to the parking lot where our transport to our next destination awaited.

Scenes from day one at Giraffe Manor. Left: Christmas Combined with Giraffes – part of the beautiful spread at our Christmas Eve high tea with giraffes. Center: I have her eating out of my hand. Right: A view of our stunning room, the Betty

Giraffe Manor, the beautiful 1930s colonial manor house set in the Karen suburbs of Nairobi that houses a dozen-strong herd of Rothschild’s giraffe on its expansive grounds, is one of the most well known hotel properties in the world. I have long wanted to stay here but years ago a search that revealed its nightly rate and a rumored 18-month wait list made it seem a bucket list item that would always remain unchecked. Yet with Kenya looking like a best choice for an R&R, I revisited this particular dream.

I’ll be honest off the bat: this place is not inexpensive. I spent many years traveling on a shoestring budget and though today I travel differently I still cannot help but try to stretch my vacation dollar. Yet after a year of no travel, of canceling multiple domestic and international trips in 2020, I had money to burn and a desire to “go big or go home.” I wanted to make Christmas special for both C and I after a very challenging nine months. And amazingly enough, this much sought after property had space available two months out from Christmas. I might have planned almost the entirety of our trip to Kenya on being able to stay at Giraffe Manor.

There is a large animal outside!

On arrival we were greeted as VIP guests. We started off with a welcome drink and then shown to our room — the Betty room in the main Manor House. I cannot imagine there is a single room that isn’t gorgeous at this property, but we scored big with the Betty. As a corner room on the upper front of the manor we were afforded views south across the 12 acres of land that house the resident giraffes and to the west, from our patio, we could see out to the Ngong hills of Out of Africa fame.

Unlike other places we had stayed, Giraffe Manor was nearly at capacity — though there are only 12 rooms in total. Besides us there was a couple from Colorado, a newlywed couple from Mexico City, a family of 12 from New York, a family of four (I think from India), two couples and a child from Eastern Europe, and one more couple who stayed very much to themselves (which is totally natural, especially in the time of COVID). We were served a lovely two course lunch and then C and I requested a trip to the adjacent Giraffe Center.

The Giraffe Center was established in 1979, directly adjacent to Giraffe Manor. I knew we could walk there from the manor but had not realized exactly how close the two were and that walking would require an escort given that we were off the manor’s immediate lawn and into the giraffe’s grazing area. At the center we could learn all about giraffes, the conservation programs to protect, rehabilitate, and breed the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes, a subspecies found only in East Africa. We also got our first up and personal experience with the giraffes of the manor, in particular which ones were more tame than others.

C feeds a giraffe — the patio of our room is visible just behind

We returned to the manor for an hour wait before high tea and our first manor experience with the resident giraffes. Out our window we could see the giraffes, especially the more eager, slowly move their grazing closer and closer to the manor lawn. The food set up was beautiful (though the gorgeous cake turned out to be fruit cake! Not a big favorite of mine — or anyone I know!). Once we dug into our tea the giraffe pellets were brought out by the bucketful. And the giraffes who had not already arrived made their way to the feeding area. The resident warthogs joined as well, as they know what the giraffes miss, they get.

Nothing is quite like feeding a wild animal from your hand, especially a 14 foot tall, 1500 pound animal who will hoover the pellets from your hand in seconds with a lick of their 20 inch long tongues. And if you want one of those cool pictures of you facing the camera with giraffes on both sides literally eating out of your hands, then you better hope the photographer is quick, because if you run out of pellets too quickly some of these hungry giraffes with little patience might just butt you with their massive heads to urge you to get some more. It might be a love pat, a little reminder to hold up your end of the deal, but it feels like anything but. After an amazing hour of snacking and giraffe feeding the guests retired to their rooms to prepare for dinner, which was served by candlelight on the moonlit patio under the stars.

We waited up to hear Santa given the Giraffe Manor managers had told her that in Africa Santa lands at Giraffe Manor to hitch up the giraffe for the continent’s deliveries, giving the reindeer a much needed break. As we watched NORAD’s Santa tracker near Nairobi we quickly switched off the lights and lay still and C is one hundred percent sure she heard the sleigh land. We were up at 6 AM on Christmas day with the sounds of shuffling and snorting of giraffes on the hunt for more pellets.

Feed us now! Left: Giraffes get a breakfast snack; Center: Giraffe looking up to our patio; Right: Giraffe bursts into the breakfast nook

It was extraordinary to look off the patio balcony to find giraffes on the lower patio, making their way a little clumsily across the brickwork to snarf up snacks from robed guests. But we had a bucket of pellets too and it did not take long for at least one giraffe to notice us and shuffle over. I never thought we would have the opportunity to look down on a giraffe. We headed down to breakfast where first the humans eat and then after the human plates are cleared, plates are placed on the tables with more giraffe pellets and the large windows are opened for the giraffes to poke their heads in, butting the humans out of the way as they gobble up those pellets!

Check out was at 10 AM. Lots of people have asked me — was it worth it for the price? And I will say that yes, one hundred percent, for my daughter and I it was worth it. It is a one of a kind, unique experience that at any time would be amazing. At this time, with us really craving something wonderful, it was perfect. The only issue is how to top it for future Christmases?

Well, actually, within hours, once back into the same business hotel we had been in before, another issue popped up. Most times with Christmas with kids there is so much build up to the event. Months of planning, of carefully reviewing Christmas lists and other signs, and shopping — especially when overseas and one needs to order by early November to guarantee a by-Christmas delivery, then Christmas Eve traditions, and the frenzy of gift opening on Christmas morning. By Christmas afternoon there is this sudden lull, a sense of emptiness. After our visit to Giraffe Manor, this felt even more pronounced.

C rides the Eye of Kenya

Over the next few days we continued to keep busy. We visited the Nairobi National Museum, which though huge, was one of the best I have visited in a developing country and the building itself and the sculpture out front were worth seeing. Even more exciting though was the co-located Snake Park. It was not much extra and seemed a good enough thing to do to while away some time, but as we turned a corner in the area we came face to face with an Egyptian cobra out of its enclosure! No worries, there was a snake handler complete with one of those snake catching things you can on National Geographic’s Snakes in the City. After that unexpected excitement we met up with a friend of mine working with USAID in Kenya whom I had met in book club in Jakarta. She took us to eat good Mexican food (shut the front door!) and then to the Two Rivers Mall. The mall was not all we had hoped as several entertainment venues were closed due to COVID and yet the place was really crowded, which made me uncomfortable. We rode the ‘Eye of Kenya’ the observation wheel outside the mall — not as fabulous as wheels I have ridden in London, Singapore, or Paris, but still a fun little ride that gives a glimpse of the mall and how urbanization of Nairobi has — or will soon — reach these suburbs.

On our next to last full day we headed to the Nairobi hospital to get our return to Malawi COVID tests and then joined a very small tour (us and one other guy — and Economist from Sudan who lives in France) to the Nairobi National Park. The park itself is quite extraordinary – established in 1946 as Kenya’s first game reserve and the only such park in the world that sits so close to a capital city. Just five miles from Nairobi’s Central Business District, the park is fenced on three sides, but open to the south for migratory animals. Its variety of bird and animal species, including big cats and rhino, is extraordinary for a park its size. However, we had just been to the Maasai Mara just two weeks before and while a great place that should be supported, it could not compared. On our final day, we spent the morning on the walking trails of Karura Forest, another excellent urban park. Its well marked trails and sporting facilities another reminder of how something simple like this can transform a location. How I wished Lilongwe had a place like this; it would have made getting through the pandemic that much better.

Left: Zebra in Nairobi National Park with a plane coming in for a landing at Wilson Airport in the background; Right: C on the trail at Karura Forest

After nearly three wonderful weeks in Kenya, it was time to return to Malawi. While we were glad to be going home – because Malawi after three and a half years is very much our home and we missed it, pandemic and all. There still remained uncertainty of when we might be able to travel again, but I am glad we jumped at the chance to spend our R&R in Kenya.

R&R in COVID Part 4: Relaxing on the Swahili Coast

The fourth in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

I had had some reservations about making an additional domestic flight in Kenya. When I planned our trip, Kenya Airways flew between Lilongwe and Nairobi only every Wednesday and Friday. If we flew to Kenya on Friday, December 11, we could fly back two weeks later on Friday, December 25, but flying on Christmas was not my cup of tea. Returning on the 23rd was not either. My next option was the 30th, which would give us nearly three weeks in Kenya. With that kind of time, we had an opportunity to see more of the country.

Domestic flights do not require a negative COVID-19 tests. Travel to and from Kenya would require every passenger to produce a negative test to board. Our small six person aircraft with two pilots to and from the Mara did not particularly concern me. I had hoped our flight to Mombasa would be largely empty, like I had seen in more than a few online photos of persons traveling on planes almost to themselves — or if fuller, middle seats would be blocked out by the airline. I had heard of some airlines doing that. Yet the plane was full. Old school, pre-COVID kind of full. I was not super worried, but I did take notice and it did give me pause.

A camel on the beach — my palm-fronded view of the beach on the Indian Ocean

An hour later we were landing at Mombasa. We quickly found a taxi and headed to our hotel, the Voyager Beach Resort, thirty minutes from the airport. The traffic was heavy heading north from the city, away from Mombasa Island, to where our hotel was located in a leafy and apparently somewhat well-to-do neighborhood along Nyali Beach. But as we drove to the resort gates, it was immediately apparent that this was not a tourism location — there were no restaurants or souvenir shops lining the road. The resort was stand alone – so there would be no options to walk to eat or shop anywhere other than the resort.

View of one the Voyager Beach Resort’s three pools

The resort was nice. We had a nice third floor room facing the slim beachfront. The room was small and the bathroom outdated, but the balcony, lovely grounds, swimming pools, and kids’ club made up for it. But it was crowded. This was the most people we had been around in some time, in both Malawi and Kenya. The manager told me that the hotel was required to have 20% of their rooms blocked out due to government COVID mitigation strategies, but that left still some 180 rooms filled with holiday making couples and families. I recalled that the hotel had only recently re-opened and clearly many Kenyans (and some expatriates and tourists) were eager for some fun in the sun after over half a year of pandemic imposed travel restrictions. Part of me was pleased to see so many happy people on vacation, it gave a sense of pre-COVID normalcy, but another part of me initially felt uncomfortable with the unexpected crowds. Still, the hotel had a 100% mask in public spaces (except when eating and swimming) policy, daily random temperature checks, and C and I kept largely to ourselves.

We did not do much. We swam. We ate. We strolled. We relaxed. Although December is part of Kenya’s “short rains” season, we had no rain. Each day bright, sunny, with startlingly blue skies, and very warm. The beach was not much to write home about. In retrospect, perhaps a hotel at the more lauded Diani beach south of Mombasa would have been the place to go. At Nyali Beach, white sand, yes, but often covered in washed up seaweed. The low tide was dramatic, with the shoreline exposed for at least a hundred yards. Yet while it tempted me for a shoreline stroll, during the hottest part of the day the beach was haunted by touts. We went down once for a short walk and were immediately accosted. Did I want to buy some souvenirs? (Mostly the basic cheap stuff you see everywhere in African tourist spots) Perhaps a massage? I would have loved a massage — all the hotel services at every hotel were closed due to COVID — but not enough to have one by a random person on the beach behind a rock face during a pandemic. Did we want a tour? (I actually did, and booked one, although I had my doubts I would see the guy again). C and tried to walk into the tidal pools to see what we could see, but it was impossible to do so without a “helpful” guide. I said multiple times we were good and did not need, but it was like shouting into a wind tunnel — pointless. C was very uncomfortable with the people surrounding us to push their various pitches; I was not thrilled because, well, COVID.

Colorful sarongs for sale on the dried seaweed covered beach (Nope, I don’t need any!)

I went down to the beach during high tout time only once more — without C because she refused. I really just wanted some alone walking time, but the beach was not really all that pleasant and there were too many people who wanted to sell me something I did not want or need.

The following day our beach-comber tour tout was right on time in front of the hotel with our very own personal van with pop-up top — which would allow us to socially distance from our driver and take in the city sights with a clear view even when stuck in traffic (and in traffic, there was a camel!). We headed first to a park on the southwest side of Mombasa Island, the crowded coral outcrop that anchors an inlet of the Indian Ocean. From our vantage point, we could watch the Likoni car and passenger ferry disgorge its cargo onto the island and a line of vehicles and people waiting on the other side to also join us. Mombasa Island is the place to be. But we were ultimately heading to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Fort Jesus and Old Town.

I am a bit of a history buff and a fan of UNESCO sites. It was in a large part that these sites had drawn me to this area rather than other more beachy parts of the coast. I have been to a good number of UNESCO sites around the world and the majority of them are jaw-dropping, mind-blowing amazing. Though I will admit that for a small number you really have to have your imagination cap on to see through the dirt and dust and grime of centuries or the modern kitsch tourism display (for example the Sanigran Early Man site in central Java, Indonesia, was rather sad in a rundown sort of way and amusing for its odd life-sized dioramas). Unfortunately, and maybe I was just not in the right frame of mind (it was hot and humid and I had an 8-year-old already determined to be mildly bored from the beginning in tow), but I found both of the sites, though interesting, did not live up to my expectations.

We visited Fort Jesus first. Its huge imposing presence stands sentinel on the southeastern face of Mombasa Island at the mouth of Tudor Creek. It might be far better to have approached the fort from the water to really see its size and imagine how this edifice has withstood the test of time — but the hotel (and my beach tourist touts) did not have such a tour. Thus we had to make do with touring the fort from the inside. It was first built by the Portuguese in the late 1500s and it stood as a fort until 1895, when it was last captured and then converted into a prison. An extraordinarily diverse group of people held control of the fort and lived within and outside its walls, from the Portuguese to the Swahili traders, from local sultans to Omani sultans, from the British to everyone in-between. The stylized Omani doors and the Oman House, the residence of the governing East Africa coast sultan, were my favorite parts. As were the cannons and their embrasures, opening out to the view of azure waters and cerulean sky.

My snapshots of Fort Jesus

C though was not a huge fan.

No problem. We headed next for a walking tour of Old Town – a warren of narrow streets and a mixture of African, Arab, and European architecture. We had loved our trip to Zanzibar two years ago and were hoping to see some of the same sense of history and splendor we had experienced there. Sadly, though, for us at least, Mombasa Old Town was the very poor cousin to the magnificence of Zanzibar’s Stone Town. Underneath the neglect, the overabundance of exposed wires, the peeling paint, and crumbling exteriors, you can still make out some of the architectural beauty, the exquisitely carved balconies or wrap-around porches of Indian teak, the elaborately carved exterior window frames, and the ubiquitous decorated Zanzibari doors. It’s all there but in dire need of some TLC. Ever the diplomat, I was pretty excited to come across a plaque marking the location of the first U.S. Consulate in Kenya 1915-1918.

Photos around Mombasa Old Town

Maybe if we had had more time? If we had stayed in or near Old Town? Or if it weren’t so hot and in the time of COVID? Then perhaps we might have enjoyed the historic area a little better. A 45-minute walk through the area sufficed and we headed back to our hotel. I had thought I would also book a tour to take us to the UNESCO World Heritage site the Gedi Ruins, located about two hours north of Mombasa, on another day, but I no longer had the energy. I just could not wrap my head around a four-hour round trip to see a site that might not float my boat. If it had been just me, perhaps, but I also had C to think about. So, I took a deep breath and accepted that it would not be in the cards for this trip.

Back at the hotel, C and I had a nice lunch and then headed for the pool. C quickly made some friends and after some time the girls invited C to the Kids’ Club — and then the magic really happened. I had been a bit worried about the Kids’ Club during the time of COVID, but they had the protocols — handwashing and masks — though social distancing was limited; I get that though, it’s kids. But as mentioned previously, daily temperature checks were conducted randomly at the resort. And C was SO happy. She had already spent over a week just hanging out with me and had slogged through “mom’s history tour morning” with minimal complaint. She just wanted to spend time with kids her age. For the next day and a half, she spent most of her time at the Kids’ Club – they played on the beach, in the pool, had kids meal dinners, and watched movies. And I read and took walks and dined by myself. Our last full day though was a Monday and most of the other children had left, so she and I spent our last day together. And it was Turkish Night at the buffet; C did not want to miss it and she declared it the best of the buffet nights (vs. Indian, Japanese, and Kenyan).

Good morning Mombasa

On our last morning, I woke early to head down to the beach to watch the sunrise. Mombasa was not all I had expected but it was everything we needed. It had been so long since we had seen the ocean. Lake Malawi is an extraordinary place and it is so large it can feel like the sea, but it’s not. And I had just needed to be somewhere other than Malawi and somewhere different than safari. There are few things in life that will soothe the soul like watching waves on the sea and seeing your child happy. Mombasa delivered.

R&R in COVID Part 3: Lake Naivasha

The third in my series on our R&R in the time of COVID.

Sign ahead of the Lake Naivasha “marina” with boats to Crescent Island

Next stop after the Maasai Mara was Lake Navaisha. While I was ultimately glad for extra time our COVID-related flight change would afford us in the Mara, I was less thrilled with the loss of time at Lake Naivasha. My former backpacker self would be ashamed at my impatience. When I backpacked, a bus might not show up, or it would break down, or take five hours longer than scheduled, and while sometimes annoying, it could also be somewhat amusing and even at time exciting; I did not expect to get places on time. But while I had built in rest time on our Kenya R&R, I wanted very much to be the decider of down time, not a transportation glitch. Yet, there was nothing to be done for it but accept the schedule change.

To reach Lake Naivasha, we returned to Nairobi via small aircraft and then a driver, arranged by the same travel agent as our flights and Mara accommodation, would meet us to make the trip to our Lake hotel. But our 8:30 AM departure was changed to 11:45 AM and this time we would make one other airstrip stop before returning to Nairobi, thus returning us famished to Wilson Airport at nearly 1 PM. I had already notified our driver in advance we would need to stop at an ATM (so I could pay him in cash) and then on somewhere we could grab food. With those stops it was 2 PM before we were on our way to the Great Rift Valley Lodge (GRVL). My initial plan had to be there by noon for lunch. (Deep breaths. It’s okay T. Let it go. Let it go.)

View of the valley from our balcony at the Great Rift Valley Lodge; Steve the zebra wanders the GRVL golf course

The GRVL is situated on a cliff of Eburru Mountain, which the Maasai call Ol Donyo Opurru or “Mountain of Smoke,” has gorgeous views over the Great Rift Valley. I decided to stay at the GRVL largely because of a single photo I had seen online of the Lodge perched on the escarpment edge, dwarfed by the forest, hills, and sky around it. But the photo did not do it justice (and neither does mine) of the sheer grandeur and beauty of that view.

A sampling of flora at the Great Rift Valley Lodge

Unfortunately, our late afternoon meant we did not time for any activities, so we took a walk around the property, starting with following Steve the resident zebra. We don’t know the zebra’s real name, but I thought he looked like a Steve (I don’t even know if Steve is a he) and it stuck. Even our assigned personal concierge William told us that he liked the name Steve and perhaps the hotel will call the zebra that from now on (oh, I hope so!). C had spotted Steve from our balcony, and thus we found him there, grazing beneath the thorny acacia trees. He led us along a pathway through a thicket, up past the Lodge pool, through the parking lot, to the golf course, where he interrupted a few guests practicing their drives. While golfers might forgive an errant zebra on the golf course, they were not going to put up with two humans in pursuit of said zebra, so we then left Steve and spent the rest of our daylight meandering along the Lodge’s pathways flanked by its wild and unusual flora, with an emphasis on succulents. It grew dark and chilly quickly; we had dinner and went to bed.

On Lake Naivasha

Early on our second day we met William who had arranged transportation and a tour to Crescent Island. The island is a private sanctuary where one can take a walking safari, passing close by zebra, giraffe, impala, waterbuck, warthogs, and other such non-predator species and a dizzying array of birdlife. Unlike most walking safaris I have seen elsewhere, such as “walks with lions” or “walks with cheetahs” that often come with a 16 years of age and older label due to the predilection of big cats to find small humans more appetizing, C could participate.

Before getting to the island, we would first experience a boat safari on Lake Naivasha. We were really backing in the safaris this trip – safari by jeep, hot air balloon, boat, and our own two legs.

There is still room for a few more – cormorants at Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha is one of Kenya’s major rift valley lakes. It is the home to an abundance of bird species like African fish eagles, giant kingfishers, herons, cranes, pelicans, ospreys, and more. Especially cormorants. So many, many cormorants. The Lake is a popular breeding site of cormorants and it must have been the height of the season as there were thousands of birds perched on nearly every available branch. A water safari offers an up close and personal view of many of these birds and even some hippos. As seems a prerequisite to any lake visit in Africa where African fish eagles roam (at least Malawi and Kenya), our boat driver acquired some fish, positioned the boat within sight of an eagle and whistled. But I am not sure I could tire of the sight of one of these eagles taking flight and then swooping in, talons first, to grab the proffered bait off the surface of the water. It is pretty magnificent.

After about 20 minutes on the Crescent Island is a private sanctuary located on the eastern side of the Lake. Many sites online, including Lonely Planet, note that the island is actually a peninsula and you can reach the island either by boat or across a causeway. Not any more. Rising water levels at the Lake (and other rift valley lakes) have swallowed up the bridge, tourism facilities, and more. The makeshift marina had been relocated from its previous, but now underwater, location. As we motored out, we saw concrete buildings with just barely noticeable words (“ladies”, “gents,”store”) and signs (“car park”) just under water, as if they were desperately treading water. As we closed in on Crescent Island, a line of electricity poles, half submerged, marked the location where the causeway should have been. I was glad to hear the government had turned off the electricity. If we had not seen a few other boats out on the lake, I could well have believed this was some sort of post-apocalyptic world, which in a global health pandemic really does not seem so farfetched.

Crescent Island

We landed at Crescent Island and our GRVL guide paid for our entrance fees, then we set out, up through the bush to the highest point on the island, which was not all that high but did provide a nice vantage point to see much of the wildlife and then the shimmering blue lake and the darker blue hills beyond. Our guide, and many online resources indicate scenes from Out of Africa were filmed on the island, that the animals were brought there for the film and then left to enjoy the island in safety from predators afterwards. That may or may not be true as I could not find information on websites dedicated to the film of Crescent Island being among its filming locations. Still, the ability to walk so close to these wild African animals, to a herd of zebra or impala, to startle a waterbuck munching away in the bush next to you, or to stand five feet away from a grazing giraffe still captures the essence and awe of the movie. However the animals got there, I enjoyed our 90 minutes walk and hope C will always remember it.

Once back to the Lodge, although I really wanted to see more in the area, I made good on my promise to include rest and fun time. C and I headed to the pool for where C quickly made friends with the other children; I swam some and read.

The next morning we had some more time to look around the grounds — to see the resident peacocks and tortoises — before our driver would pick us up for our return trip to Nairobi and our flight to Mombasa. Though I had hoped for more time in the area, what we got was pretty darn good. Initially, I had considered a day tour from Nairobi, though because of COVID I could not imagine being on a tour bus with a bunch of strangers for a full day. So COVID giveth a two night plan at the GRVL, but taketh some of that time due to flight rescheduling. C’ est la vie. Or rather, hakuna matata.

R&R in COVID Part 2: The Maasai Mara

The second in my series on our R&R in the time 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.