My COVID Birthday – Liwonde National Park Getaway

Liwonde’s riverside savannah at dusk

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

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

Ulongwe Village entrance to Liwonde National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monkeys, lions, and bushbuck, oh my!

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

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

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

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

Sunset from the Shire – A very happy birthday to me

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

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

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

Mini Getaways in the Time of Covid

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

Sable antelope eye us warily at Kuti Wildlife Reserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our super fabulous Superior Family Cottage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Weekend We Tried to be “Normal”

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We are not very good at being normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sci bono discovery center

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

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

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

Montecasino

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buenos Aires

Overcast Buenos Aires

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

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

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

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

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 2

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

Punta del Este 1

Punta del Este marina – the one beautiful moment there

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

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

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

Punta del Este 2

El Mano

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

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

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

Colonia 4

Scenes from Colonia

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

Colonia 3

Door knocker in Colonia

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

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

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

Colonia

Beautiful Colonia del Sacramento

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

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 1

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

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

But those realizations came later.

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

Montevideo 3

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

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

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

DSC00943

Uruguay dining equals MEAT

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

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

Montevideo 2

School kids pass by Artigas statue on Independence Square

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

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

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

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

Montevideo 1

Horse-drawn garbage cart

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

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

The Gift of Paris

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

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

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

2 Disney Paris hotel

Disneyland Paris’ Hotel Cheyenne

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

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

2 Disney Paris in Winter

Great winter weather and Christmas themes greeted us at Disneyland Paris

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

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

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

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

Paris 10

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

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

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

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

Paris 12

An exquisite view from Eiffel

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

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

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

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

Going WAY North for the Winter (Part 2)

The second and final installment of our amazing trip to northern Finland in early December 2019.2 Santa Welcome Part 2 CRovaniemi.  Fourteen months ago I had never heard of this small city located just four miles south of the Arctic Circle in Finland’s northern region of Lapland.  Yet after months of planning and expectation, the name began to roll off my tongue and also come to mean grand adventure.

A confluence of events, accidents of history, turned this Arctic village into a major tourist destination.  In the 1930s Rovaniemi was a good-sized trading town, a confluence for miners, loggers, and Sami reindeer herders.  But during World War II, the town became a pawn between Russian and German aggression and from 1940 German forces occupied the town, building the airfield that has become Rovaniemi’s airport.  As Germany’s fortunes changed, their troops’ scorched-earth tactics destroyed 90% of the city, leaving only 17 buildings standing.  But in 1950 Eleanor Roosevelt made a surprise visit to survey the reconstruction efforts and the governor and mayor had a log cabin built in her honor.  (And you can visit the Roosevelt Cabin today in Santa Claus Village).  In 1984, the Finnish Tourism Board decided to market Lapland as the home of Santa Claus, and thus began the legend of Rovaniemi as a premier Christmas themed destination.  The combination of Arctic activities and Santa Claus magic brings some 600,000 tourists a year to this city of 63,000.

2 Lauri Airbnb

The lovely Lauri guesthouse complete with unique snow characters

Initially, we dreamed of staying in one of the glass igloos, but after looking at the prices and weighing the costs against the enjoyment, we went in a different direction.  We were really lucky to find a wonderful room in a highly rated Airbnb right in the center of town.  Our room at Lauri, the only 19th-century log house in Rovaniemi (not one of the 17 remaining after 1944, but was relocated to the city in 1968), had nine beds–enough for all of us and five friends, but there were few options in the city when we reserved in August.  Most places other than some very pricey or characterless options were already fully booked.  But the manor, located in a residential neighborhood, across from a school, and only two blocks the city center, was perfect.

We — myself, my daughter C, my best friend CZ and her son Little C — first arrived in Rovaniemi at 7:15 AM after traveling on the overnight Santa Express train from Helsinki.  Traveling about ten minutes in a Santa-endorsed taxi, we were deposited at the Lauri guesthouse around eight in the morning.  The hosts had given us a code that allowed us to store our luggage until we could check in later that day, and then there we were tired and hungry and a wee bit cold with children who could not pay attention because there was SNOW everywhere.  We herded the kids to the one restaurant we knew would be open, a place in the nearby shopping mall.  The walk took probably three times longer than it should have as C and Little C had to climb up, jump in, or touch every bit of snow along the way.

2 Part 2 J

Though always cold, the temps fluctuated during our week.  Negative zero though?

Our first day would be low key as we were all a bit knackered.  Little C and I were both suffering from colds – he fell asleep in CZ’s lap and I felt as though I were still rocking to the rhythms of the train.  We stayed put til 10 AM when we could make our way over to the Pilke Science Center.  I would not have thought a museum on forestry and sustainable logging would be that intriguing, but the center is really well set up and kid-friendly.  We easily spent a few hours here.  Then we all headed back to our Airbnb to check-in and relax.  CZ and I alternated time with the kids in the room so one of us could go out, do some shopping, and be child-free.

Day two was all about Santa Claus.  Right after getting out of the taxi at the Santa Claus Village we made a beeline for Father Christmas’ office where we would have an opportunity to meet The Man himself.  Though we waited about 20 minutes, this was not nearly as long as we expected and frankly, Santa was awesome.  He is not your suburban mall Santa in a cheap red suit, but a more authentic working Santa with shirt sleeves and a traditional knitted vest and snow-covered elfish-like boots, comfy colorful socks, and a waist-length beard.  He was engaging and though many were waiting to see him, we each got a bit of personal time with him.  I love that he engaged the parents too.

Santa Claus Village 1

Left: the ice bar at Snowman’s World; Center: Arctic Circle marker & thermometer; Right: Santa Claus’ Office, the blue light also marks the Arctic Circle

We explored a bit around Santa’s office (i.e. the gift shop — don’t think for one second that I am some super-parent who is able to bypass such places), crossed and re-crossed the Arctic Circle, and then we had lunch at the Three Elves restaurant, where I was willingly tried a bit of CZ’s reindeer burger (much to C’s chagrin).  The next stop was Snowman World (which I believe is created of ice and snow every year), where we enjoyed some beverages at the ice bar, some snow tubing, and admired the ice sculptures.  Then we spent some time at the Elf’s Farm Yard petting zoo to meet a few reindeer resting after flying school, feed some very furry and ornery goats, then roast marshmallows over a fire in the Arctic version of a teepee, and C and Little C joined some other kids in sledding down a small hill.  At about 4:30 PM we called it quits.  That might seem early, but the sun had set already three hours before and we had been out and about in the cold for over six hours.  And we needed to rest up for our next adventure…

Dog-sledding! Although visiting Santa was a key focus of the trip, something very special for the kids, dogsledding was the top activity on CZ and my Rovaniemi to-do lists. Driving a sleigh pulled by adorable and excited dogs across the snow was CZ’s and my ultimate bucket list activity on this ultimate bucket list vacation. We were as excited, if not more, than the kids. Ok, I am 100% positive we were more excited, we could especially see this as we changed into the tour organization- provided sleigh gear. C and Little C were not so keen on the ski suit, hats, socks, and boots that turned them into stiff-armed and legged zombie-like marshmallows. But once outside getting our dog-sled driving instruction in front of hundreds of uber-excited huskies, the kids too perked up.

2 Dog sledding

Left: look, so easy!  Right: That blob of winter wear at the helm is me!

As the tour operator led us to our sleighs, the excitement of the dogs was palpable. The dogs were barking keenly; they were jumping, leaping, straining against their harnesses, lots of tongues lolling and tails wagging. They could hardly wait to get going. These incredible dogs – Alaskan Huskies – can four together pull 150 kilos weight, average 10-14 kilometers per hour, and often run about 150 kilometers a day. To fuel this incredible energy, the dogs consume about 10,000 calories a day!! Sitting around is not in their nature. The most important part of our dog-sled driving training was the use of the brake!

CZ and I alternated our time driving the sled, 30 minutes each. It was exhilarating. The temperature on our dog-sled day was below freezing with snow flurries. As we slid our way through the forest and then out onto an open field, small, hard snow pelted my face, the only exposed part of my body. It kinda hurt and yet I could not wipe the ridiculous grin from my face. On several occasions, I laughed out loud with joy I could not contain. My 30 minutes felt like it was up in a split second and I didn’t want to give up the driving seat. This was hands down one of the best activities I have ever done in my life.

We had already learned that being cold can be tiring. It turns out driving a dog sled is also exhausting. So the combination meant that we were not keen on doing much else. We ate at a Japanese restaurant (none of these in Malawi!) for lunch and then the kids played in the snow in the city center. That evening CZ took both kids to a baking class in a traditional Finnish home while I hung out in the room watching Finnish television.

reindeer

Reindeers sort of have toes!

The following day we joined a tour to the Ranua Wildlife Park, an Arctic Zoo (and second northernmost zoo in the world), located an hour south of Rovaniemi. There were some cool Arctic animals there from the Arctic fox to the polar bear, the wolverine to the grey wolf, and a nice wooden walkway through the exhibits.  I had never been to a wildlife park of this kind and I knew that this was something C and I would enjoy, but, to be honest, it was not quite as magical as I had hoped.  I think in part as we were on a tour, and although we hung back from the group and walked at our own pace, we still were herded on and off the bus and through the disappointing buffet lunch.  And Little C was definitely not so keen on the zoo and wanted to make sure we all felt his displeasure.

That evening C and I tried to have an evening of pseudo-normalcy, to do things we are unable to do in Malawi.  We planned to eat dinner at McDonald’s (once the northernmost franchise in the world) and then go and see a movie.  CZ and Little C do not partake of McD’s and Little C will not sit through a movie, so this was to be a mother-daughter outing.  Unfortunately, the only age-appropriate movie was a universally panned movie about a dog, but C loves dogs so I was up for it.  I had checked carefully that the film would be in English, but once there the ticket seller informed us that they had previously shown the English version but no one had come, so now it was in Finnish, and that was a no-go.  But we did get our McD fix.

2 Part 2 M

C means business

On Friday, our last full day in Rovaniemi, we returned to Santa Claus Village to get in a few more wintry activities.  We took two sleighs pulled by reindeer – the kids in one and the adults in another (fifteen minutes to ourselves, hooray!).  Although just a 1000 meter-ride through the village, the route slipping quietly along a path bounded by snow-covered silver birch trees was enchanting.  I am not sure how the kids felt — they had indicated that the reindeer were too slow to their liking — but CZ and I would have been happy to be pulled along quite a bit longer.

To satisfy the kids’ need for speed, we headed next to the snowmobile park where children could take a spin around a track on their own.  I expect for some parents it might seem crazy to let kids do this, but I expect the Finns know a thing or two about winter sports from an early age.  The man running the course asked each child if they had driven a snowmobile before (many had!) and if they did not, he gave them some quick instruction on a model nearby.  Both our kids kept their speeds moderate and reported the experience as top-notch.

After lunch we then headed over to Santa Park, a few kilometers away.  While Santa Village is mostly outdoors and free to visit (you just pay for the experiences), Santa Park is entirely indoors.  In fact, it is all underground.  Surprisingly, the place was not crowded at all (the website had indicated popular times and days with large groups, so we planned our visit outside those times), and we had good seats for Elf School (where incredibly in-character performers took us through a fun activity), almost no wait for the miniature train ride, close to the stage view for a short acrobatic play, and waited all of five minutes to see Santa.  It was not my favorite place in Rovaniemi, but it was enjoyable and a nice to be indoors for a change.

2 Fox Northern Lights

Arktikum’s interpretation of Fox’s Fire

Our final day, Saturday, was a partial day as we would return to Helsinki on the overnight train departing Rovaniemi at 6 PM. Funnily enough, friends of mine with whom I served with in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and are now in Romania had booked a trip to Rovaniemi arriving by train the day we left, and even more improbably, had reserved at the same Airbnb. So when they arrived in town SP and their two kids came to relax in our room while RP went to pick up their rental car. All the kids seemed to instantly bond and I had a chance to catch up a little. After they headed off for the day we did our final packing, stored our luggage, and then headed out for Mexican food (Another thing we really cannot get in Malawi). We then spent a few hours at the Arktikum, a museum dedicated to exploring and sharing the nature, culture, and history of northern regions. C, Little C, and I grabbed the kids activity book at the front desk and headed off into the museum while CZ checked out the Christmas market in the lobby.  I had to move a bit quicker through the exhibits with two kids keen on completing their activity than I would on my own, but the center is impressive and even displays on Arctic animals, the northern lights, and, surprisingly, northern bog biodiversity caught their attention. My favorite part was the northern light simulator. Well, it was more like sitting in a planetarium and watching a movie on the formation of the aurora borealis and legends surrounding the phenomenon. In Finnish, the name for the Northern Lights is “revontulet,” which means “fox fire” and is derived from a Sámi story of a magical fox running across the snow-covered fells whose tail would emit sparks of light. My daughter loves foxes, they are her new favorite animal, and I thought she would enjoy seeing the lights based on this tale. Unfortunately, during our visit there was only one night of even middling chance to see the lights, the night after our epic dog sledding, and all of us were just too tired. But the Artikum’s display kind of made up for it.

That night on the return train I marveled how this small city of 63,000 inhabitants, not only had risen from the ashes of war but had also ingeniously crafted a niche tourism industry. I also could not help but think how the small city had more restaurants, cultural activities, and entertainment venues than the nearly 1 million strong Malawi capital. It’s an unfair comparison, I know, given Rovaniemi’s location in developed Northern Europe, but the thought came to me nonetheless. However, I have to say once back in Helsinki for one more day, and being able to peel off a few layers of clothes (I wore three pairs of pants in Lapland – a pair of long underwear, then a pair of heavy leggings, then a pair of ski pants!!) and even more so to when I returned to the lush green warmth of Malawi in the rainy season, that I while glad for the opportunity to experience northern Finland in winter, I was also glad to be home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going WAY North for the Winter (Part 1)

Part 1 0About 14 months ago, while chatting online with one of my best friends CZ, she happened to mention her interest in taking her son Little C to Rovaniemi, the small city in northern Finland, in the region of Lapland, known as the Official Hometown of Santa Claus, around Christmas.  She had just read an article about it.  Funny thing is, I had also just read a similar article and had stayed up late researching the possibilities just the night before.  We went back and forth a few times – excitedly discussing the possibilities, sending one another links to possible activities and lodging – but then it fell out of our conversation.  Lapland seemed really far away, further away than just time and distance.  Nonetheless, the seeds of this adventure were planted.

Last July during our Home Leave, we visited CZ in North Carolina, and our conversation again turned to the topic of winter vacation in Lapland.  And this time, the planning came fast and furious.  I messaged my colleague in Malawi to ask if he were okay with my taking leave in early December.  Although likely a wee bit annoyed I was asking about it in July, he agreed.  CZ and I arranged our flights – she with points, me with miles – and then a week later, with each of us in different locations, we logged on to the Finnish railway website to simultaneously purchase our Santa Express overnight train tickets (in adjacent compartments).  In August, I happened to find a great place to stay on Airbnb; I messaged CZ while she was out shopping, and that afternoon (evening for me) we had our lodging.  Holy moly – we were heading to Lapland in December!  Nothing would stop us now (unless my new boss denied my leave – but thankfully that did not happen).

Once back in Lilongwe, with all the primary logistics worked out, I settled back into my Malawi routine.  Actually, work was really busy, nothing felt routine, and thoughts of heading north for the winter were pushed to the back of my mind.  Around October though, it began to dawn on me what I had done.  We were going to the Arctic Circle in WINTER.  What had I been thinking??  I may have grown up in the U.S state of Virginia and spent a few years working in Washington, D.C., so I had, of course, experienced some cold weather, but for much of my adult life I have largely followed what I term my “winter avoidance strategy.”  I have lived in Indonesia, Singapore, Hawaii, California, the Philippines, and now Malawi: in places where it is rarely, if ever, cold.  Even in Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai snow was rare.  In the winter, my modus operandi is to head south, to tropical climes.  I bought a condo in Florida for goodness sakes.  Yet, here I was willingly preparing to head somewhere guaranteed to be quite cold, and where literally the sun would not shine, or rather never rise above the horizon in the dead of winter.

Arrival in Helsinki

Arrival in modern developed Finland

I needed to be more prepared!  I looked up websites about what to wear in Lapland in winter and either purchased the necessary gear (thick, non-cotton socks, ski gloves, ski jackets, ski pants, long underwear, waterproof winter boots, fleece hats) or CZ, who skis, would bring to loan us.  Given our location and mail situation, I needed to purchase items by late October for guaranteed delivery before we departed on December 7.  There could be no returns. CZ and I scoured the Internet for activity ideas and, being the planners we are, started a day-by-day itinerary for our trip.  To get C excited about our overnight journey on the Santa Express, I bought the movie The Polar Express and hosted a movie-watching party for (21!) kids in our Embassy community.

And then there was nothing really more to do but wait for the day to come.

Except freak out.

Because this vacation was one in which I was putting myself WAY out of my comfort zone.  If it wasn’t the freezing temperatures then it might be the 2 1/2 hours of daylight (or rather the 21 1/2 hours of darkness) that would get to me.  I would bear all of this to take my child to see Santa Claus before Christmas, to possibly secure myself the Mother of the Year trophy.  Or die trying.

Helsinki in Winter

Right: Helsinki around 2:30 PM from the steps of the Cathedral overlooking the Christmas market; Left: Downtown Helsinki around 5 PM

On December 7 we began our journey.  Any travel from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is tricky.  From the less-visited Malawi to Helsinki trickier still.  And then throw in the random routing from my “free” ticket and you get our Lilongwe-Addis-Istanbul-Helsinki routing.  It wasn’t pretty, but we landed in Helsinki around 11 AM on December 8, excited as we could be.

We changed from our travel clothes to our Helsinki in winter clothes, then caught the train to the city center.  Along the way, C marveled at the sights from the train window.  What caught her eye first and foremost?  Orderly, pothole-free, multi-lane roads and functioning traffic lights! (“Mom, look!  Look at these roads!  Imagine if Malawi had roads like this?! Look at the lights, they are working!!”)  Even the train and the train station were delights.  We stashed our luggage in the left luggage lockers at the station, then got some lunch.  While there CZ and Little C, who had arrived in Helsinki two days before, met us.

We had a few hours to kill before our 18:49 departure on the Santa Express from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, so we headed first to the Christmas market located in the square below the city’s iconic Cathedral.  We browsed the quaint Christmas booths, bought hot Gluhwein and hot cocoa, and sipped our drinks in heated outdoor seating booths.  It was cold, but not THAT cold.  And it was after all a novelty for C and myself to be wearing winter jackets, to have our noses twitch in the chilly air.  The atmosphere was festive and lively and we were with our best friends.  Even the sun setting at 3:15 in the afternoon was novel and amusing.

From the market, we headed over a few blocks to the Children’s Town at the Helsinki City Museum to let the kids burn off some energy before the train.  With the early morning arrival in Rovaniemi, we wanted the kids to be ready for bed shortly after boarding.  The museum did its trick.  We stayed til the 5 PM closing, then walked back to CZ’s hotel, gathered up her luggage, and returned to the train station.

Part 1 E

C’s and my compartment on the Santa Express

How do I even begin to describe the Santa Express?  I used to backpack quite a bit in my 20s and early 30s and spent many a time on long train journeys in Europe and Asia.  I was nostalgic for the feel of riding the rails and excited to be sharing this experience with C and our friends.  CZ and I had each booked a two bunk sleeping compartment with en suite bathroom for the 12 1/2 hour journey.  The compartments were tiny but well equipped.  We had a small chair, table, two bunks with an alarm clock and charging stations,  and could shift one wall in the tiny bathroom to reveal a shower.  So clever!  Scandanavian efficiency at its best.

We boarded as efficiently as one can with large suitcases and small children in a foreign country (i.e. not elegant), got our things quickly into the compartments, and then headed down to the dining car so we could park ourselves at a table.  Our plan worked beautifully.  We had the first choice of tables and no line at the restaurant counter service and could keep the kids and ourselves busy until bedtime.  By 9 PM we were ready to turn in.

I so want to be able to say that I slept like a baby, lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train as it slipped north.  The berth mattress was not uncomfortable; we were not cold beneath the provided comfortor.  The train’s rhythmic swaying and muffled clickety-clack were comforting.  But I had a cold I had picked up in Addis Ababa where I had been the week before on a business trip and coughed enough to keep me awake, and I could hear poor Little C, also with a cold, coughing on his side of our thin shared wall.  C insisted she needed to sleep with me and we were wedged together in one berth.  Not terrible mind you, but I had very little space to maneuver.  And though we had few stops en route, I awoke each time with the squealing of brakes then lurching re-start with the train whistle.  Not altogether unpleasant sounds, but unfamiliar and I am not as sound a sleeper as C.

We woke around 6:30 to prepare for the 7:15 arrival at Rovaniemi.  We changed into our “really cold weather” clothes, packed up our bags, and pulled up the compartment blinds.  Outside it was dark, and yet not the sort of black night that descends upon Malawi.  Perhaps it was the 3/4 sized moon (waxing gibbous) reflecting brightly off the snow-covered ground, but certainly, there were electric lights on the train and from the stations and towns we passed that also contributed to the relative brightness.  There was definitely a lot of snow on the ground.  Ice encrusted our compartment window.  We had traveled through the night to awaken in a true winter wonderland.   We were here!

Arrival in Rovaniemi

Arrival at the snow and ice-encrusted Rovaniemi

We readied to disembark and then, well, things happened.  Things that happen to moms when traveling with kids.  In the final shuddering of the train as it braked into Rovaniemi station, Little C, sitting in the upper bunk, lost the contents of his stomach.  CZ managed a record-breaking speedy clean-up and final gathering of belongings, and we all flung ourselves gracelessly off the train.  C and Little C speeding like bullets aimed themselves directly at the biggest piles of snow.  CZ and I circled the wagons so to speak, gathering our belongings to do the necessary arrival checks.  CZ noticed Little C was in the snow sans his hat and a quick search of her bags indicated it had not made it off the train.  Back onto the train, she emerged a minute later victorious, only to find her phone was then missing.  I pulled off my gloves and fumbled to locate my phone with newly-installed European SIM card, turn it on, and then call her phone.  Back into the train she went, once again returning triumphant.  Whew!

Santa stuff

Santa, or his spies, are everywhere in Rovaniemi

C and Little C, oblivious to the whole drama, continued to frolic in the snow.  Though we were both a wee bit rattled at the close call and thanked our lucky stars the train stopped for 20 minutes at Rovaniemi before heading to its final destination, CZ and I congratulated ourselves in making it this far.  We were the last people standing on the snowy platform so we corralled the kids and began trudging towards the station to flag a taxi to our lodging.

 

Giving Thanks with Visitors

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The Pumulani staff preparing the dhow for the sunset cruise

Within inner circles of the Foreign Service, one of the much-discussed downsides of the lifestyle is the lack of friends and family willing to visit us overseas.  Even those who find themselves in a fairly fantastic post – say Paris or Hong Kong – may find that not quite as many folks from home who promise to visit do.  And for those of us serving in those not-quite-so-garden locales, our attempts to lure visitors (“look at this fabulous guest room just waiting for your arrival”) go far more ignored than grasped.

I never expected to have people knocking down my virtual door or blowing up my inbox, clamoring to visit us in Malawi.  To be honest, until I started to look at potential places to bid for my third assignment, I had never heard of the country.  And it is in Africa.  Although the continent has a rapidly growing tourism market (the second fastest-growing market in 2018), it still captures a small part of the tourism pie.  In 2018, 67 million tourists visited Africa.  Compare that to the 90 million that visited France alone.  The top visited African destinations were places like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Morocco, Tunisia, and Kenya.   And most of these tourists are not Americans who tend to stick to Western Europe and the Caribbean – of the top 39 overseas places Americans visited in 2017 only two African nations made the list – South Africa and Morocco – at place #36 and #39 respectively.

So bottom line, there are not many people who would come more than halfway around the world to visit us in a small, relatively unknown developing country.  But I do have those few.  D&D are two of those people.  They have visited me in Indonesia and Mexico (both before my blogging days), they had plans to visit me in China (until an unexpected medical evacuation caused that cancellation), and C and I visited them in San Francisco during Home Leave a few years ago.

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The downstairs in our lux Latitude 13 room.

DO1 and I went to college together many years ago; he was my big brother in our service fraternity.  He loves traveling and visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world and has no qualms about traveling WAY out of his way to see them.  His partner, DO2 (yes, they have the same first name and their last names start with the same letter), may not love traveling quite so much but is a really good sport.  It was no surprise that DO1 contacted me in the summer about visiting Malawi for Thanksgiving, in conjunction with a trip to South Africa.

On Thanksgiving Thursday I picked up D&D at the airport and we headed to the Italian restaurant around the corner from my home for lunch.  I also took them for a little spin around Lilongwe to see all the sites — that really and truly is a short drive.   Once C was home from school, we all headed out to Latitude 13, an upscale boutique hotel not far from my home.  C and I have often eaten at Latitude’s restaurant and I have long wanted to stay overnight there.  After all, when Rihanna visited Malawi, she stayed there.   So, you know, if it is good enough for Rihanna, it is definitely good enough for me.

17

Rain over Lake Malawi

Early on Friday morning, we started our three and a half-hour drive to the beautiful resort of Pumulani, located within the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Last year, we also spent Thanksgiving at Pumulani.  We had such a great time there before, it made perfect sense to return.  And D&D would have the amazing opportunity to enjoy the long stretches of Malawi road along the way.  I mean that tongue in cheek as it is really not that exciting.  It’s rather amazing for a country that is so densely populated that one can drive for miles with little signs of civilization.

views from the room

The views from our room

Our rooms at Pumulani were as stunning as the last time.  Pumulani is built up a rocky hillside along the lakeshore.  There are ten villas set from at various levels — one at the beach level, and then at various stages up the hillside — there are 150 wooden steps from the beach up to the main lodge.  Previously, C and I stayed at the upper level, with a bush view.  This time, by my request, we stayed at a villa at the mid-level, where I had heard rock hyraxes were sometimes spotted.  We also had a lake view.  D&D were in a villa a little way down the boardwalk, a level below us.

While standing on our balcony, overlooking Pumulani’s small dock on the lake, a movement in the brush caught my eye.  A good-sized monitor lizard, a little over two feet in length, skidded hurridly down an embankment.  And then, giving chase, a rock hyrax!  I could not believe it.  The hyrax lept into the branches of a tree and settled in for a little rest.  Upon looking around, I noticed not one, not two, but three hyraxes sitting in the trees.  Wow!  On our last trip, we had not seen a single one, and now here they were hanging around our villa.  Soon enough, vervet monkeys ran across the roof of our villa, then leaped into the trees.

We enjoyed lunch together on the dining patio at the main lodge overlooking the upper pool, the dock, and with a tremendous view of the lake.  It was hot.  Very, very hot.  Although the sky was clear, rain was in the air, and thus so were the lake flies.  So while Pumulani food is very good, and the view and company were perfect, the swarming flies marred the otherwise lovely meal.  The heat and insects, full stomachs and exhaustion from the road trip, drove us each to our rooms and the lake beach for some relaxation.  The storm rolled in, guaranteeing there would be no late afternoon dhow sail on the lake, but the stormy skies were nonetheless atmospheric and cooled the temperatures to something more bearable.

I kept a respectable distance from the lake waters abutting the Pumulani beach.  On our last visit, while C played by the lakeshore and I lazed in a swing chair, a Pumulani staff member approached my daughter and told her to stay away from the lake as a crocodile was nearby.  This time we asked about the crocodiles and were told, “oh, its only the one and we haven’t seen him in oh, two or three…days.”

wildlife

Some of the wildlife at Pumulani: monitor lizard, rock hyrax, samango monkey

Unfortunately that evening I came down with a stomach bug.  I could barely drag myself up the 100-some steps to the dining area, and once there, I could not stand the thought of food.  Nor the idea of still sharing my meal with the hundreds, no thousands, of bugs teeming around the few lights.  I called it an early night, leaving D&D to the mercy of the insects, and arranged for food to be delivered to our room for C.

The next morning I was good as new, thank goodness.  D&D headed out on a hike and kayak tour after breakfast, but I could not get C to agree.  With a recently busy work schedule and an upcoming training trip to Addis Ababa, I was fine with taking it easy.  It helped that we had been to Pumulani before.  C and I watched the rock hyraxes from our balcony and then headed to the pool to cool off.  I noticed another guest taking some photos with a serious lens and following the direction noticed a baboon in a tree.  I started to head down to the room to get my better camera when the trees around us began rustling and a baboon burst out next to the pool.  It eyed us, especially my daughter, and made as though it might jump in the pool with her, and then it reached down to cup a few handfuls of pool water before leaping back into the brush.

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Standoff – C vs the baboon

We all had lunch together again but then D1 headed off for a snorkeling adventure.  He was going to make sure he did Lake Malawi right – not just spending time by the lake, but also on the lake (kayaking) and in the lake (snorkeling).  I have heard a saying since coming to this country that if you haven’t been to the lake, you have not really been to Malawi.  Although D&D would have only a few days in the country they were making sure to really check the Malawi box.  The rest of us lazy, fair-skinned folks continued doing our best to enjoy the relaxing pleasures of Pumulani.

We were incredibly lucky that the rain stayed away so that we could go out on the dhow.  we piled into the wooden sailing boat along with a family of four and headed out onto the water.  I was thrilled that we once again were able to see a hippo – in fact we saw two – enjoying the waters of Lake Malawi (at a safe distance from our vessel).  More rain was on the way so we could not stay out as long as usual, but again, the impending storm turned the sky incredible colors for one of, if not the most spectacular sunset I have seen in Malawi.  Normally, sunsets here seem quick: a round red ball of flame just above the horizon that burns bright for five minutes before suddenly dropping away.  This time the sun took its time, sliding languorously down, and even after hiding away for the evening, the sky changed colors for the longest time. sunsetsWe had one last dinner and breakfast together before beginning our slightly stressful race against time to get D&D to the airport for the first flight on the way back to California.

I understand that many of my friends and family cannot make such a trip for various reasons.  And therefore I share a lot of photos of our home, our activities, and our lives in Malawi on social media, but little can compare with an in-person visit.  It was a short visit but I am so thankful that I have friends like D&D who are willing to come more than halfway around the world to see us.