A Big Birthday in Lisbon: Part Two

At Cabo de Roca, the end of Europe

This is the second of two posts about my birthday trip from Guinea to Portugal.

Thankfully, the day after my action-packed, wee bit frustrating birthday my daughter recovered from her stomach bug. We were leaving beach town Cascais for the heart of Lisbon. Before doing so, we caught another Uber (the message here is that Uber is very, very convenient in and around Lisbon) to Cabo de Roca, the windswept rocky coast that is the westernmost point of the European continent. A few years ago, C and I had visited the southern most point-ish place in Africa (because many brochures say the Cape of Good Hope is it, when its actually Cape Agulhas; we were close), so it seemed fitting. I was not quite prepared for the height of the cliffs and the cold air sweeping off the Atlantic, but the glimpses we were afforded when the clouds shifted were breathtaking.

We headed back to our hotel then to grab our luggage and then went straight to our central Lisbon hotel. I did not have big plans as I thought we should keep things more low key after all the sights from the day before. We simply walked from our hotel near the Edward VII Park to Commerce Square, about 30 minutes direct. But we meandered and took photos, passing Restauradores Square and Rossio Square, along the pedestrian shopping street through the Augusta Street archway, crossing Commerce Square, and ending at the Cais de Colonas, the stone pillars that mark a historic pier where arrivals on the Tagus River would alight in old Lisbon (Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Lisbon this way in 1957).

Fountain and theater on Rossio Square

We headed back to our hotel then to grab our luggage and then went straight to our central Lisbon hotel. I did not have big plans as I thought we should keep things more low key after all the sights from the day before. We simply walked from our hotel near the Edward VII Park to Commerce Square, about 30 minutes direct. But we meandered and took photos, passing Restauradores Square and Rossio Square, along the pedestrian shopping street through the Augusta Street archway, crossing Commerce Square, and ending at the Cais de Colonas, the stone pillars that mark a historic pier where arrivals on the Tagus River would alight in old Lisbon (Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Lisbon this way in 1957). We purchased a 48-hour Lisbon card at the Tourist Information center on Commerce Square and then retraced our steps back to the hotel for an early evening in.

Belem Tower

The next day we were to be up bright and early so we could use our Lisbon Card for free transportation to and included entry to the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Belem. Although both sites do not open until 10 AM, as many sites in Lisbon have a later start than most Americans are used to, I still was unsuccessful in my plan. We just got started a bit late, then got on the bus going in the wrong direction, and the bus took longer to wind its way to Belem. By the time we arrived it was 10:30 AM and there was already a significant line outside the Jeronimos Monastery. The Lisbon Card advertised a “fast track” entrance to the monastery but the two guys manning the ticket purchase area had themselves a hearty laugh at my expense when I asked about it. Thinking back to that line at Pena Palace, I just could not bring myself to join the queue.

Monument to the Discoveries

I made the executive decision to skip it for the day and instead head over to Belem Tower. I figured that there might be a similar line there as well, and then I would have to do some hard thinking about what we were going to do that day. Imagine my surprise when we approached the iconic 16th century fortification, that there was no line at all. None. I began to wonder if it were closed given it was a public holiday (Republic Day). But it was open. I could not believe out luck. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly last as the stairwell to the tower’s top terrace, hailed online as the crown of any visit, was closed for no discernible reason. I found no explanation at the site itself or online. Still, it was another beautiful day and we were visiting one of Portugal’s most recognizable historic buildings.

As it was close by, we then walked over to the Monument to the Discoveries, a massive sculpture commemorating the Portuguese Age of Discovery with figures of Henry the Navigator and Vasca de Gama and 32 other Portuguese explorers along the river where many of their vessels set out on their journeys.

The Madre de Deus Convent at the National Tile Museum

We hopped on the 15E tram to head back down to Commerce Square where we did the 20-minute Virtual Reality experience at the Lisbon Story Center. With that it feels like you are flying over the key locations of Lisbon, Sintra, and Cascais, which was pretty fun since we had just visited nearly all of those sites recently. We got lunch and then rounded out our day with a visit to the National Tile Museum. The glazed ceramic tiles, or azulejos, can be found all over Portugal, in and on public buildings and private homes. The National Tile Museum incorporates the 16th century Madre de Deus Convent. It’s church is an extravagant display of carved exotic wood, golden framed paintings, and exquisite tile work. It is overwhelming and stunning. When we lucky the chapel was open during our visit.

The following day we headed first to the monastery. This time leaving earlier, on the correct bus, and arriving thirty minutes before the 10 AM opening. It was a completely different scene — we were one of the first in line and though there were a good number of people milling around, there was not the two long lines to get into the monastery’s cloister and the adjacent Church of Santa Maria. Instead of two guys laughing at my asking about the Lisbon Card’s “fast” line, we were actually let in to the cloisters at 9:45. I do not know if this happens regularly or not, but it wonderful to be some of the first people inside for the day.

The cloisters of the Jeronimos Monastery

The cloisters are breathtaking. There is zero doubt as to why UNESCO declared the monastery and the Tower of Belem as world heritage sites. The stone craftsmanship, the attention to detail, the architecture… I have run out of superlatives for this post. We saw so many beautiful sites on our trip but the cloisters were hands down my favorite. We also visited the Church of Santa Maria, which includes the tomb of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

We once again headed back to Commerce Square, stopping briefly to check out the Pasteis de Belem, which has been making Lisbon’s famous pastel de nata, an egg custard tart, since 1837. I had planned for us to give this Portuguese dessert delicacy a try there at the shop, but the lines out the door and down the block had made me change my mind. The tart was ubiquitous in and around Lisbon. Each of our hotels had them out for breakfast. Many restaurants had them on the menu. Pastry shops around town sold them. So we did have one and it was flaky and creamy and so, so good. But it was probably not the original, and that’s okay.

Back at Commerce Square we went into the Lisbon Story Center, an interactive museum where visitors follow a set route through the museum with a headset that told the history of the city. Though some displays were a little campy, overall it was really well done.

Some views from our walks including the Santa Justa Lift (center)

Then we walked. And walked. And walked. Lisbon is a city built on hills and walking can be challenging but also rewarding with something beautiful on every block. We walked a lot during our trip in Portugal and it felt wonderful. I have always loved walking and it really hits me how much so when we are at a Post where we are unable to walk much. Conakry is one of those places. With few to no sidewalks, few shoulders and often deep ditches next to the road, and high vehicle traffic that will take as much road space as possible, we do not walk. I am grateful my 10-year old is usually up for walking during our holidays as I am.

Because of the hills, Lisbon has also built quite a few public transportation options to include the metro, trams (or trolleys), tram-like funiculars, and even one elevator – the Santa Justa Lift, inaugurated in 1901. With a strong desire to get around on our own two feet we did not use much of the transport — the bus and trolley a few times, and the lift, which is also a tourist attraction.

I had debated about taking a day trip from Lisbon to Obidos or Evora, both of which I had visited 20 years before and unlike Lisbon I actually remember some of. However, every time I looked at the train or tour options, I did not feel strongly about going. Honestly, the move and settling phase of Guinea has been challenging and tiring and I did not want my vacation to be more of the same. There was plenty to keep us happy and occupied right in Lisbon.

With that in mind I booked us a two hour tuk-tuk tour of the city’s street art. We had already seen (or planned to still see) most of the historic sights on foot or by Uber, so I wanted to do something a little different. And after we had seen the comic art murals of Brussels, I loved the idea of seeing something similar in Lisbon.

Some of my favorite Lisbon murals

It was a great tour on yet another beautiful, warm day. We saw mostly painted murals but there were also tiles, stenciled art, and stylized graffiti. The tour included getting us to some neighborhoods and viewpoints that we would not have likely gotten to on foot. I also loved that our guide was a former investment banker who after some 25 years of the grind retired and now motors tourists around in eco-friendly tuk-tuks. If it were not for Lisbon’s narrow streets and tricky parking situations, I might have put in an application.

After some lunch we then headed up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a mid-11th century Moorish fortification that overlooks Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods. In the park, that affords gorgeous views toward the sea, peacocks roam. C and I were flagging some. We were gung-ho about walking, but we had done quite a lot and we might have also been getting a wee bit tired of castles (it is possible!). But we enjoyed the visit and the ice cream that helped give us strength to walk back down the hill and back to our hotel.

Our final day in Lisbon, we visited yet one more palace, the 18th century Queluz National Palace, which took us briefly back into the Sintra district. C and I had been looking online at the top castles and palaces in the world and one listed Queluz. It did not seem wrong to miss out it when it was so close. To my untrained eye it seemed similarly decorated as the Pena Palace but with larger rooms, less furnishings, and far fewer tourists. The highlights for me were the extraordinarily tiled canal, the Don Quixote room where a former Portuguese king had both been born and died, and the fountain of Neptune.

Queluz Palace

There was no use denying though that we had exceeded our palace viewing threshold. In fact, as incredulous at it seemed, I was beginning to miss our Conakry apartment, our cats, the joy of a quiet weekend with no pressure to get out and sightsee.

We made one last stop at the 18th century Aqueducto des Aguas Livres, part of the Museum of Water that showcases the fascinating efforts to bring drinking water to the city. We walked along the top of the aqueduct about a kilometer out and back and then once again walked back to our hotel with a stop for lunch.

C enjoyed seeing another part of Europe and declared that she liked Lisbon even more than Brussels. She even said that perhaps she would like to retire there. Though at 10, it might be a wee bit premature for her to be contemplating retirement. I am so glad I chose to spend my special birthday in and around Lisbon. As a backpacker 20 years ago I had not given nearly enough time to the city, and I feel this trip rectified that mistake.

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A Big Birthday in Lisbon: Part One

It isn’t every day one turns a certain venerable age. Months before arriving in Conakry, I thought I could maybe make do with a three-day weekend but I was not sure there would be a place in Guinea that could really fit the bill. When I saw my daughter’s school schedule for the year included two holidays that same week, meaning she would miss only three days of school, I knew I wanted to take a week off. I initially zeroed in on Senegal, as one of my goals was to visit a new country. But after our trip to Belgium in August I realized that travel from Guinea is tricker than from other places I have lived and I wanted a bit more of Europe to celebrate such an important milestone. Lisbon is the easiest from Conakry, a direct, four and a half hour flight. Though I had been to Portugal before, it was twenty years ago, and I hardly remember the Lisbon part at all.

It may be a short, direct flight, but the schedule, like most flights from Guinea, kind of sucks. The TAP Portugal flight takes off from Ahmed Sekou Toure International Airport at 11:45 PM and lands at Lisbon’s Herberto Delgado Airport at 5:15 AM. That does not give one a whole lot of time to sleep and be able to do much of anything the next day. With that in mind, I reserved us a hotel quite close to the airport. After we touched down on time, went through immigration, and found ourselves in arrivals, it was 7 AM. But the sun was not yet up. We grabbed some breakfast, took a little break, and then we decided to walk to the hotel. By the time we arrived it was 7:30 AM and they were nice enough to check us in. We took a long nap and by noon we could head out.

An unbelievably gorgeous day in Lisbon

My daughter and I jumped into an Uber to head down to the Parque das Nações for a quick lunch. We then visited the Oceanarium, Lisbon’s top-notch aquarium. I love aquariums; I have visited some thirty of them worldwide. We had a great visit except that one of its stars, Stella the Sunfish, had passed away just a few weeks before. And my daughter’s second favorite fish (yes, she has favorite fish) is the sunfish. (Her first is the pufferfish) Afterwards, we rode the cable car for a fantastic view. The weather was absolutely perfect. Then we had an early, low-key evening with Uber Eats back in our hotel. Delivery is few and far between in Conakry (at least to my knowledge) so something so simple can be a treat.

The following morning we took another Uber out to our hotel in Cascais, the once fishing village turned royal retreat and reportedly playground of the rich and beautiful. Someone told me that it was like the Portuguese Hamptons. I did not know this when I made the reservation. I also did not know when I booked my hotel, the Grande Real Villa Italia, that it had once been the home of Humberto II, the last king of Italy. I just wanted to be somewhere lovely by the water.

The chapel and initiation well at Quinta de Regaleira

The Grand Real Villa Italia Hotel (quite a name, don’t you think?) could not accommodate an early check-in, so we placed our luggage with the concierge and then took another Uber to the Quinta de Regaleira in Sintra. I had only just read about this destination the day before; it had, for some reason, not been on my radar. However, I am very glad we were able to visit this gorgeous estate. There is a 19th century Manueline villa (late Gothic) where guests can see some of the rooms, but the highlight of the visit are the extensive extraordinary gardens full of surprises like towers and grottoes, benches, underground passageways, and water features. The most popular is the Initiation Well, a 27-meter deep spiral passageway to subterranean tunnels that immediately reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Like many pre-teens C had zero interest in the well when I explained it to her. I thought she might find it cool that there are few, if any, other places in the world where one can descend into a well. My enthusiastic description immediately had the opposite effect on C who declared she would not go down in the well. Until we got that there, that is. Funnily enough, once she saw it she suddenly became keen to give it a try. After our visit to the Quinta, we walked down to the historic center of Sintra town for a late lunch and then an Uber back to the hotel.

That evening we had the pleasure of visiting my friend SMK, who had been a coordinator for my entry level class for the Foreign Service 11 years before. SMK is currently at the Embassy in Lisbon and invited us for a casual dinner with her family. She surprised me with a cake, ice cream, and a card. It seemed so apropos the Foreign Service to meet after 11 years, multiple countries, and several children in a coastal Portuguese town on my birthday.

C leaps for joy in front of the Sintra National Palace with the Castle of the Moors overlooking the historic town

On our second day in Cascais, my birthday, I wanted us up and out early so we could arrive at the famous Pena Palace ahead of the crowds. Though in Portugal one never needs to get up too early to visit the sites as many of them open on the later side; Pena Palace opens at 9:30 AM. We arrived at the ticket area for Pena Palace later than I would have liked, at 10 AM, but I had thought things would not be so bad on a random Monday in October. I had thought very, very wrong.

After purchasing our tickets, that included a timed entry to the palace interior at 11 AM, we walked up the steep hill. According to the information provided, it would take as much as 30 minutes to walk from the ticket area to the palace entrance, so I figured we would have a little time to walk around the park, also included in our entry. Wrong again. It actually only took us 15 minutes to get to the palace, but when we did so, we then saw a really long line outside. What could that be for given the timed entries? I found out it was the line for the 10:30 entry and up ahead some 50 people were already in line for the 11 AM entry. There was nearly 45 minutes to go, but we got in line. And we waited. And waited. The 10:30 AM entry did not begin to move until 11; we did not begin to move until 11:30. The only positive part to waiting was the woman behind us had purchased the famous travesseiros pastry from Sintra’s popular bakery Piriquita, which has been making the puff pastry dusted with powdered sugar since the 1940s.

Tourists crawling all over the stunning Pena Palace; the ruins of the Castle of the Moors (not pictured: stony faced preteen and her sweaty, exasperated mother)

Those pastries and our one bottle of water between us could only get us so far though. Even after we were finally let through the castle gates, we only ended up in yet another line to get into the palace itself. That line moved only inches per minute. It took us nearly another hour. It is hard to say because it seemed time had stood still. At least we had. Once again I made the mistake of thinking THAT would finally get us moving. But no, once inside we continued to shuffle slowly room to room. It was maddening. While online I see it is recommended to take no less than 40 minutes for the palace, we did probably take that long but not because we were admiring the rooms, reading descriptions, soaking up the atmosphere. We took longer because we could not move. I, who normally love history and palace tours (you may recall I have willingly taken tours in languages I do not speak just to get into a palace), but I grew irritated. Imagine dragging along a 10 year old? Once we finally broke out from the glacial pace of the palace on to the terrace, I very much regretted getting in that line at all and I wanted to run from person to person still waiting to tell them to save themselves and not bother, especially when I saw families with small children.

We were a bit hungry but could not stand the sight of the line at the palace restaurant. I had bought a combined ticket to see the palace and grounds, but also a ticket to the nearby Castle of the Moors. What I had thought would be maybe a two hour visit to the palace and grounds had turned into a 3 hour palace crawl (except that sounds fun, and it wasn’t fun). I was hot and thirsty and annoyed. It was my birthday. The palace is beautiful but the experience was not. I had not wanted to miss out on the surrounding park but I wanted to get away.

View of the Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel

We grabbed some water and chugged it down and then bought some more for our walk over to the ruins of the Castle of the Moors, or what C dubbed “The Great Wall of Portugal.” Though there were a good many people there it was nothing like what we had seen at Pena. It was a relief to be in the open air and be able to move, unimpeded, at our own pace. The views down to Sintra town and across the valley, all the way to the coast and also over to Pena Palace on an adjacent hilltop, were amazing.

As we had already tasted Sintra’s most famous pastry, we opted to just Uber back to Cascais, stopping in the town for some lunch and then meandering our way through the historic area, the art district around the old fortress, and then back to our hotel.

Reinvorgated by lunch we decided to enjoy some time in the hotel pool. Though it was October, the temperatures had been in the lower 80s all day. This was our only hotel with a pool on the trip and we wanted to take advantage. The sun though had not warmed the pool which felt almost as cold as an ice bath. We slowly lowered ourselves in laughing at our faces as we braved the water then swam a few laps. We cut the swim short though because we could not get used to the chill.

Perhaps Cascais’ most famous view of the Santa Maria House Museum and Lighthouse

Unfortunately, soon after the pool C got sick. I do not know what was the cause, but the long wait in hot weather and then in the warm, confined rooms of the palace, with little water, then a late lunch and a dip in an icy pool certainly did not win me any Mom of the Year points. What it did get me was a birthday evening spent taking care of my sick girl. It wasn’t great, C was miserable, but honestly, I knew she would be okay and I welcomed a quiet evening in a nice place after an action-packed day. I was still glad to be in Portugal with my daughter on my birthday.

To Belgium and Beyond: Part Three

I awoke on my last full day without my kiddo in Vianden, Luxembourg. I took one final walk along the river and one last look at the castle on the hill, before I headed back into Belgium.

The casino at Spa

With that one last solo day I figured it was best to head to where the name had become synonymous the world over with relaxation: Spa, Belgium.

Spa is an old, old town with lots of historic firsts and a UNESCO World Heritage designation to boot. Discovered by and used for mineral bathing by the Romans, Spa reportedly truly became a stopping of point for its curative waters from the 14th century. The world’s first casino opened in Spa in 1763 and the world’s first recorded beauty pageant was held there in 1888, won by an 18-year old Creole woman from Guadeloupe. In 2021, UNESCO recognized Spa and 10 other European towns for their historic value as Great Spa Towns of Europe.

Part of the designation centered on the other industries that built up around European spa towns like hotels, casinos, and beauty contests. In Spa, a postal system was set up in 1699 that allowed those lucky enough to be able to afford to travel and “take the waters” could then send letters and postcards to friends and family boasting of such.

Spa — well known for its bottled water and for the leap frogging guy on the Spa water bottles

At the Museum of the City of Waters, I learned that collectible items made in Spa became all the rage for visiting tourists. Hand hewn and painted decorative boxes or colorful delicate painted glassware sporting the name of the spa town were what 18th and 19th century tourists loved to bring home after being enticed by colorful tourist brochures.

My joint ticket also gave me entry to the Museum of Laundry. I had honestly expected little from this place but was pleasantly surprised at the amount of information and fascinating displays. An oft-ignored by-product of tourists and hotels is a proliferation in items needing laundered, from clothes to bed sheets to towels, and the people, usually women, who washed those items. The museum gives a history of laundering and the advances in technology that made washing and drying at least easier on the laundress (from washing machines and detergent to dryers and irons) if not more interesting. I ended up spending more than an hour there.

The big thing I was in town to do though was of course to soak in the waters of the Thermes de Spa, the facility for bathing in Spa’s thermal waters built in 1868 on a hill overlooking the town. My hotel helped me to make a booking to arrive at the spa at 6 PM where I would then have three hours to enjoy until closing. Unfortunately, right after I made my reservation and went to put on my suit I realized I had not packed it. Luckily though the bathing house sells inexpensive suits to silly tourists who forget theirs. Had I still been a backpacker watching my money carefully, this might have been a real dilemma, but I came to take the waters and I would do so even if it meant forking over more money.

I stayed about an hour and a half enjoying the large heated indoor pool, the heated outdoor pool, the sauna, and the Hammam. Just enough time to give those waters time to do some wonders.

The Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel and narrow streets of the medieval town

The following morning I had one last hour-long stroll around Spa before saying goodbye. I needed to be at the Euro Space Center by 3 PM for a camper presentation, so I thought I would break up the hour and a half drive with a stop in Durbuy, Belgium’s smallest incorporated town.

Durbuy was once a thriving medieval village on the Ourthe River at the crossroads of commerce. Today it is a very small, very walkable historic town chock full of character. It is dominated by the Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel (unfortunately closed to the public), which stands alongside the river and bridge. Though the current castle is 18th century design, records indicate a castle stood there since at least the 11th century. The little warren of cobblestone streets adjacent to the castle are full of restaurants, bars, stores, and homes of stone and timber. I was kicking myself for not having more time here. Durbuy warranted an overnight stay so I had the time to slowly explore, especially after most of the tourists departed. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the time. I had lunch and then headed to pick up C from space camp.

Fun in central Brussels

After five nights apart, I felt absolutely giddy to arrive at the Euro Space Center auditorium to see my daughter at the presentation of graduation certificates. She was sitting front row right next to the doors as I came in, huddled together with the other American girl with whom she shared a dorm. C did not want to leave. I had wondered how she might handle five nights away at an unfamiliar place; five nights is the longest we have ever been apart but previously she was at her dad’s or my sister’s. I need not have worried; she told me she could have done another week.

We drove back to Brussels, returning the car at the airport and then taking the train to our city center hotel. C did not understand why I gave up the car, but, as I tried to explain, we had no use for it in the capital. I had very much enjoyed the freedom the car had given me to drive from town to town, but there had also been challenges on narrow old town streets, with parking, and when the GPS failed as I drove from Vianden to Spa.

We had three additional days in Brussels before our return to Guinea. On our first day, we walked from our hotel near the Brussels North train station to the Royal Palace. Like the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg, the Belgium Royal Palace is open to the public just once a year, six days a week for six weeks between mid July and September. Unlike the Grand Ducal Palace no guided tour is required and photographs are allowed. We did need to buy timed tickets but after arriving and going through security we were able to walk through at our own pace. That certainly worked better for C and I; I am pretty sure my daughter would not have enjoyed the German guided tour one bit.

After the palace visit we walked, meandering through Brussels Park, past the St. Michel and St. Gudula Cathedral, and back to the Great Square. We had lucked out to be in town and get tickets to see the Royal Palace but also it turned out that weekend was the festival for the Flower Carpet, held only the the three days on the weekend around Assumption Day, every other year. I do not know what the crowds are normally like, but I was surprised that as many people as there were on the Great Square, we could still easily walk get to the cordoned rope to have a view. We also easily bought tickets to the Brussels City Museum (which is very interesting in its own right!) with a balcony surcharge so that we could view the flower carpet from the third floor.

On our second to last day we visited the Magritte Museum, again putting in the steps on foot. I am a fan of surrealism and the museum was top notch. What surprised me though was how much C enjoyed it. I had paid to get audio tours and selected the one for teens for C but she wanted more information than that was giving her and she asked to take mine. I didn’t get it back. From the museum we walked a little ways to have Thai for lunch and then rode “The View” an observation wheel near the Palace of Justice. Our route back to our hotel took us past key comic murals around the center of town.

C finds a friend at the Comics Art Museum

Belgium has embraced comics as a so it was perhaps little surprise that we found more than a few stores catering to Japanese anime fans. My daughter C is one! This added to the high marks that C gave Brussels as the trifecta of waffles, fries, and anime was too much to ignore. We spent our last morning at the Comics Art Museum where we learned about the art of comics and animation. The most famous Belgian comics characters are probably the Smurfs and Tintin, that have a worldwide audience, but there is an incredibly rich culture of Belgian comics beyond these.

That afternoon we headed back to the area around the Magritte Museum and the Royal Palace to meet friends of ours from our Shanghai days. RG and BG are a Foreign Commercial Service family and their daughter OG had been in C’s preschool class in China. Though the girls only vaguely remembered each other when we first met for drinks, several hours later they were playing together as if no time had passed. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip — a reminder of the amazing connections we can make in this lifestyle despite our nomadic lives.

As we headed back to Guinea the following day, it was with a renewed sense of excitement for our new post. The first six weeks had been a rather challenging whirlwind and I am not going to lie that it was more than a little hard to leave behind the order and conveniences of Europe, but when our plane touched down in Conakry that evening I felt glad to be there. We were home.

To Belgium and Beyond: Part Two

I sat in the Euro Space Center parking lot for a few beats after dropping C off at space camp. It reminded me of when I took her to her first drop-off-and-depart birthday party. At first I did not know what to do with myself. This time, however, that period of confusion lasted much less time. I did know what I was doing. I set my GPS directions, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed to Luxembourg City. I was on a mission.

View of old Luxembourg from the Pont du Grund

In 1998, when I was living in the western part of Japan, I took a vacation to visit my aunt and uncle in Frankfurt, Germany. We decided to take a multi-day driving trip to Luxembourg City along the Moselle River. My uncle was behind the wheel as we meandered along with the river, through small riverside towns. We stopped frequently for castles and wineries (for my aunt and uncle, not me) and other beautiful vistas. We made a lot of private family jokes along the way that my aunt and I still rehash again and again. Like when we left the fried camembert from lunch in the car overnight outside the B&B and the car stunk to high heaven the next day. Or when we visited Trier and my uncle and I lay in wait from my aunt as she came out of McDonald’s so we could cluck our disapproval. You really had to be there. On the third day we drove into Luxembourg. I had long been awaiting this, to walk the 1000 year old streets of the old town. But what did we do? We had dinner, went to bed, and the next day we went to the Villeroy and Boch Outlet Factory to get some replacement porcelain pieces for my aunt’s dinnerware set. Then drove back to Frankfurt. That never sat well with me (though my aunt and I laugh about it), so here I was, 24 years later, to right that wrong.

Luxembourg graffiti

I was a bit nervous as I approached the capital. I had been okay driving out of the Brussels airport and on to highways and to small towns, but here I was about to enter a major European City. On Google Maps it seems simple and straightforward enough, but I could see the one way streets here and there and anticipated there could be a problem. There was. Google Maps kept directing me down a pedestrian street. I drove past it the first time, but on my second go turned in thinking, maybe it isn’t actually pedestrian only? Except it ended in a sidewalk café. My three point turn in front of diners felt more like a ten point turn in slow motion with everyone staring at me. I pulled over in front of a shop shuttered for the evening, as if I were just there to conduct some business that I had every right to be parked on a pedestrian street in Luxembourg to do, so that I could call the hotel. As I drove around, the friendly hotel receptionist Yves gave me directions. I was still required to drive up that pedestrian-only street, just from the opposite direction, and then park briefly in front of the hotel for check-in. After check-in Yves told me, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “And now we will park, which is an adventure in and of itself.”

The lovely Hotel Beaux Parc Arts – I briefly parked right there, on the pedestrian street, in front of those chairs, so I could check-in

He was not kidding. I got back in my car and made another 3-5 point turn on the pedestrian street, trying to avoid the low pillars blocking the area in front of the adjacent museum, the couple on the park bench, and people just strolling by, and then followed Yves, who was on foot, about 50 meters away. There he put in the code on a key pad on the side of a building and he motioned me to drive into an elevator. Yes, an elevator for cars. One floor down I drove out and met Yves who directed me to park the car into a grooved walkway on a circular panel in the floor. I did so and then exited the vehicle. “You have the parking brake on, right?” Yves asked. “I think so,” I answered, “It’s a rental and rather a new model, so I think that is what this symbol means.” “Ah, yes,” Yves replied, “these new cars make the parking automatic. We need the brake on or it will be catastrophic.” And with that ominous prediction, he had me fold in the side mirrors, and leave the car. Yves then pushed some more codes into another wall panel. Glass doors sealed around the circle and then the car spun around, lifted up slowly, and then the floor dropped out and the car disappeared. Underground apparently it is sorted into small car slots by a robot. I imagine its a bit the vinyl Matchbox car container I had as a kid, just on a really grand scale. And there my rental sat for three days, nice and safe. I had dropped C off only two hours before and I had already had these adventures in driving and parking!

I stayed at the beautiful Hotel Parc Beaux Arts, located smack dab in the middle of the old city, not even 600 feet from the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace. The building dates back to the 15th century and some parts of the stone work are original. I lucked out with the only room to have a loft, with the king bed located on a partial second floor. I loved it.

In Luxembourg, even the statues are having a good time

After getting settled in, I set out to explore the city on foot. Here I was walking in the UNESCO World Heritage town, parts of which are more than 1000 years old. I meandered past the Grand Ducal Palace and over to the Place d’Armes. I decided to find a place for dinner and headed over to a Mexican place I found online. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and already closing in on 9 PM, so the kitchen was closed. I had forgotten how late the sun goes down during a northern European summer. I Googled “best burger in Luxembourg” and found another place just about five minutes walk away. I had a nice, very late dinner, there, at a little table on the sidewalk, having the best burger in town, reveling in the fact that I was on my own in Europe for the first time in a very, very long time.

The next day, I went to the tourist information center to find out about tours of the palace and the casements. The casements, a network of subterranean tunnels built into the promontory rock of the old town, are one of the main tourist activities in the city. Unfortunately for me, the Bock Casements were closed for renovations and tours of the Petrusse casements were sold out until a week after I would depart. The Grand Ducal Palace, the official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, is only open for tours one month each year, excluding weekends. All the English tours were sold out. I thought, maybe I can muddle through with French? But no, I did not even get a chance to try as those tours too were sold out. There were only a few slots available in German. I had to take it or not get to go.

View of the Bock Casements (denied to me!) from the Alzette River in the lower town

With my tour set up, I decided to just sightsee on my own. I signed up for a little tourist train to give me an overview of the historic town. The train was a little silly, I did not get too much from the commentary, but it did take me from the upper town to the lower, across the river, up the Rham Plateau, and back. The tourist train gave me the lay of the land and as soon as I returned to the start I then began exploring on foot. I walked and walked and walked. I absolutely love to walk and I miss taking long ones. My daughter is less keen. It was easy enough when she was still in a stroller; I walked a lot in Shanghai that way. But now she is older and she complains a lot. “Where are we going?” “How much longer?” “Are we there yet?” “Why do we have to walk?” I could walk just for walking sake in Luxembourg, without a real destination in mind, not knowing when I might stop and rest or turn back. It sure felt good.

At a quarter to 10 AM on my second full day, my last in Luxembourg City, I headed to the Place Guillaume II, the central square, to meet my tour group for the Grand Ducal Palace. My German tour. I speak a total of maybe 25 words of German, a combination of very basic greetings, numbers, foods, WWII war battle vocabulary, and cursing. Yet, the only way I was going to get a tour of the palace during this trip was to sign up for the German tour. I was not the only person with this idea as there was also a group of six Brazilians who appeared as clueless as I.

Funny faces groaning at spitting out water for eternity at the fountain outside Luxembourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral

This was not the first time I had signed up for a tour in a language I did not speak in order to get in to some place. I recalled when I signed up for a tour in Polish in Malbork castle or the two day French and German tour in Tunisia or the Serbian tour of the Royal Compound in Belgrade (I have yet to put this story onto the blog). At one point I asked another tourist if they spoke English and she clucked her tongue in disappointment as she noted, “Do you really speak no German? That is a pity. This is a really good tour and she is giving lots of information.”

Perhaps it was a pity. But my choices were a tour in German, a tour in Luxembourgish, or no tour at all. I figured German was my best bet. And I still had my eyes. I could drink in the ornate furnishings and decor, gawk at the luxurious though overstuffed rooms, and wonder at the Grand Duke’s family’s passion for very large chandeliers. No photographs were allowed so I had to pay extra attention.

After my tour I opted for a Thai lunch (as I was trying to eat all the foods while I was able), and then resumed my walking until I could not walk anymore style of touring. I headed to the Pfaffenthal Panoramic Elevator that would take me, for free, from the High City to the Pfaffenthal quarter in the valley below, then walked to the 17th century Vauban Towers, up to Fort Obergrunewald (also built by Vauban), then through the gates beneath the Bock Casements, across the Alzette River, to Neumunster Abbey, then beneath La Passerelle, a 19th century vaulted aqueduct bridge, along the Petrusse River, til I climbed back up the High City at the Petrusse casements and Gelle Fra War Memorial, crossed the Adolphe Bridge and back, on to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, then back to my hotel. The weather was perfect and the walk was glorious. I finished up with a sampling of chocolates from The Chocolate House, located by the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace.

The following day I checked out of the hotel and retrieved my rental car from the depths of the mechanical parking garage and headed out of the city.

The beauty of Echternach – the Orangerie, the town square, and Abbey’s Basilica of St. Willibrord

It was only a 30 minute drive northeast from the bustling center of old Luxembourg the oldest town in the country on the border with Germany. Echternach grew up around the Benedictine abbey founded in the year 698. The current abbey has been built and rebuilt many times over the centuries, though parts of the original remain and the tomb of the abbey’s founder, Saint Willibrord, is inside. The Orangerie, part of the Abbey’s gardens, was established in 1736. It is currently used as a school and not open to the public. It turned out I was there during the monthly Wednesday market, so the town’s historic square was full of modern-day merchants. Initially, I found myself somewhat annoyed — I had wanted to really see the square and the buildings surrounding it, and instead I saw food trucks and white tents. I thought though, that there had probably been markets on that square or nearby for near on 1000 years. So, I walked around the town and had lunch, basically waited the market out, so I could catch a glimpse of it less crowded before I left.

From Echternach I drove another 30 minutes north to the town of Vianden. I had wanted to drive entirely in Luxembourg but eventually gave in to the GPS and I ended up crossing the Saeur River into Germany for at least half the trip.

I pulled into Vianden around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and after working out the parking (which just doesn’t seem straightforward in any European town) and getting into my room, I headed out soon to see Vianden Castle.

Vianden’s castle stands high on a steep hillside overlooking the Our River and the town. Once considered by UNESCO for inscription (but for some reason denied in 2013 – though the UNESCO plaque at the entrance tells nothing of its denial) it is still an outstanding fortress. The famous French writer Victor Hugo stayed four times in Vianden during his exile and reportedly found the castle “magnificent.” In 2019, CNN listed the castle as one of the 21 most beautiful castles in the world.

View of Vianden (the castle and town) from the upper chairlift station; Bust of Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin at Vianden’s bridge

To get there, I walked. It was not far from the hotel where I stayed across the river, but to get there one has to head up a steep incline making it take longer than Google Maps would have you believe. Plus, I found lots to stop and admire along the way. I had little doubt that my daughter would not have been a fan. I am 100% sure she would have asked why we didn’t just drive up (which you can certainly do). But I was grateful for the opportunity to work my legs.

I spent probably an hour and a half in the castle. It was going on 5:15 when I looked out from the castle ramparts to see what looked like folks on an adjacent hill in the distance. I discovered there was a chairlift where I could probably have an amazing view of the castle. I checked online and found it was open until 6:30, with the last ride up at 6 PM, and if I walked quickly I could get there in about 15 minutes from the castle parking lot. I was going to go for it!

Had I been with my daughter I am not sure I would have made it. I had already been walking for hours that day — around Echternach, through Vianden, up to the castle, around the castle, and now I was going to speed walk my way to the chairlift station down the hill and across the river. I did make it though. The chairlift was a wee bit scary, but the views were worth it. I only stayed up top for the 15 minutes I had to make the last trip down. Then I could meander slowly back to my hotel where I savored a delicious meal finished off with a popular Belgian dessert — La Dame Blanche (vanilla ice cream topped off with dark chocolate syrup). A fitting reminder that the following day I would return to Belgium.

To Belgium and Beyond: Part One

First, before I get into the trip itself, I want to explain how it is I found myself on nearly two weeks of leave not yet six weeks after arriving in Conakry. It is not my usual modus operandi to arrive at a new post and then take off so soon after. Then again, this is a new year, a new arrival time, at a new point in our lives. Earlier in the year, I looked ahead at our arrival in Conakry, and thought how it would be for my daughter C. We would arrive in Conakry just two weeks after the school year ended and still have seven long weeks before the new one would begin. We would be new people in the community, one in which there were not a whole lot of kids and many would be away for the summer. I needed something for C.

Poking around online I discovered that the Euro Space Center in Belgium has an overnight summer space camp and beginning in June, Brussels Airlines would be reinstating its three times a week flights between Conakry. Given that C had been expressing interest in more science-based classes, this seemed to be a sign from above. I checked in with the space camp organizers to find out if there was space available and which weeks were in English and then with my leadership at Post, who quickly approved my time off to get C to and from the camp. We were all set to go.

Belgium is waffle paradise. These looked way too sweet, but it was a pleasure just seeing them and knowing they were there, just in case

Then a week before our departure on the first Thursday in August, there were protests in Conakry. Demonstrations had been scheduled and cancelled before, or scheduled but not amounted to much. But these protests turned out to be more than expected. They lasted longer and were more violent and they spilled over into the following day. Though they did not block access to the airport, they did make the most direct route difficult, changing a 30 minute drive into a possible multi-hour journey. When protest organizers announced that there would be more scheduled the following Thursday, I asked my bosses if they would approve my leaving a day earlier; they approved wholeheartedly.

I spent several hours on the phone and online the Sunday before departure, working to change our flights. Brussels Airlines only flies Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; the Tuesday flight was full and the Saturday flight did not give me a comfortable margin to get C to space camp should it be delayed or cancelled. The agent tried to route me using miles as that was how I purchased my original flight, but the only routing was to Lisbon, through Munich with an overnight, and then on to Brussels. Unfortunately, the Munich flight on Lufthansa could not be confirmed due to a potential airline strike. We were contending with not only protests at our origin, but labor disputes in Europe that was part of the chaotic travel summer. That was not going to work. The United agent, however, could not directly book me on the Lisbon to Brussels flight, so I needed to book that one online myself, while keeping the agent on the line. I did not want to cancel my flight and return the miles until I had another flight secured. Finally, success.

If you do not want Belgium waffles, then you gotta have Belgian fries.

All of this gave me a solid glimpse into how challenging it may be to take leave away from Conakry. There are limited flights, challenging schedules, usually with late evening or early morning departures, frequent delays, and higher price tags. Toss in a demonstration day and airline snafus and it just gets more interesting.

Our trip started on Wednesday at midnight on a four-hour flight to Lisbon. The flight left late and there was not enough time to really sleep. We had two hours on the ground and then another three hours to Brussels. It turned out the extra day was very helpful as we had little energy to do much of anything. Luckily, I had booked a hotel close to the airport and they let us check in early. After napping and relaxing, our only activity was to walk in the cute little neighborhood near the airport to the grocery store and back.

On our second day in country, we took an Uber to Laeken, the northern part of Brussels, to visit mini Europe and the 1958 World’s Fair landmark, the Atomium. Though these sites are listed as two of top ones to visit in Brussels, I did not visit them during my first trip to Belgium in 1998. I have no memory of even knowing they existed. Nonetheless, C and enjoyed hours there visiting the top sites of Europe in miniature and exploring inside the giant sculpture that marries science fiction and modern art. Afterwards, we took an Uber down to the stunning Grand Place. C and I were started to tire, but I wanted to give her just a glimpse of the majesty and beauty of probably the most stunning of European central squares. At first C complained she wanted to just go back to the hotel, but for a moment or two she completely forgot about that as we stood in that square. After we turned in wonder around at the architecture and fed our sweet tooth with some decadent ice cream from the Godiva chocolate shop and took a short stroll down to the Mannekin Pis, C told me that she no longer wanted to return to Paris very soon. “Mom,” she said, “we have been to Paris twice now, but I think I like Brussels more. I want to see more of Europe.” Mission accomplished.

The following morning, Saturday, we returned to the airport to pick up a rental car. I am usually a wee bit nervous starting out driving in a new country, but after the chaos of Conakry, the roads of Belgium were welcoming. We drove just an hour south to the Wallonian town of Dinant. In planning for our trip, I looked for the best places for us to visit south of Brussels on our way to the Euro Space Center. Other than Brussels, the biggest tourist draws tend to be Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, all to the north and northwest of the capital. The photos of Dinant kept pulling me back again and again and I knew if nowhere else, we needed to visit this town. It did not disappoint.

Dinant’s location, squeezed between a rocky promontory and the river Meuse, has guaranteed human interest for millennia. It’s 13th century Gothic cathedral is built into the rock face just below the 11th century citadel and alongside townhouses that range from 16th century to 20th. The oldest house in town is a 16th century townhome built by a Spaniard.

C and I walked up the steps to the Citadel, where we spent at least 90 minutes enjoying the historic displays and panoramas. We took the cable car down and had lunch alongside the river and later an hour long tourist boat cruise on the Meuse. This little town is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, so we also were on the hunt to find as many of the painted saxophone sculptures around town, as well as a golden saxophone, and a saxophone shaped water clock, and the statue of Adolpe Sax sitting in front of his former home.

Sites of Dinant

In the afternoon we drove six kilometers south to the 19th century manor home turned hotel where we would spend the evening. After a long day of walking and sightseeing, C crashed immediately in the room. I took a short stroll around the grounds, drinking in the quiet, the nature surrounding the manicured lawns. We are still getting used to Conakry and I have no doubt that the vibrant, chaotic city will grow on us, but its difference from the grand historic cities and laid back countryside of Europe suddenly felt quite stark.

In the morning, before heading to our next destination, I drove a short way up the road to try to catch a glimpse of the Walzin Chateau, an imposing gothic-revival castle that stands on a cliff overlooking the Lesse River. I had quite by accident seen it on Google Maps as I was planning out our drive. Unfortunately, the best few of the castle is across the river and on some private land, which we quickly found we could not cross (the barbed wire fence and the “do not trespass” signs were pretty clear). So, we could see it only in profile before we gave up, returned to the car, and then drove on to Han-sur-Lesse.

I had had this idea. C loves animals and has a particular fondness for wolves and foxes. When working out what to do before dropping her off at space camp on Sunday evening, I found a wild animal park only 20 minutes north of the Euro Space Center. The Parc Animalier du Domaine des Grottoes de Han looked like it had some nice walking trails where we could see wolves. I planned for an hour or so walking and then lunch and perhaps time at the caves. I am afraid I did not do much more research than that.

It turns out the park is huge. Set on 620 acres of land, the park has both forested areas and wide lawns. At the ticket counter, I learned we should have a minimum of THREE hours to walk all the trails. A quick look at the map and I calculated we would likely have to cut short the expedition and return to the tourist center after the first trail.

Right away we got off on the wrong foot. We waited for the historic trolley train to take us to the first trailhead, but there seemed to be no train coming for at least 15 minutes. I insisted that we just go ahead and take the walking trail to the walking trail. This did not go over well with C who angrily stomped alongside. It went over even less after 20 minutes when we heard the trolley pass us by. We made it to the start of the trail after nearly 30 minutes and the first animals were just large highland cows and wild boars, both of which were far back in the enclosures and frankly not something we had a hankering to see. I got the full force of C’s pre-teen silent treatment (which isn’t all that silent because it involves random stomping, some small rock kicking, and the occasional heavy sigh).

This is not at all how I had hoped this would go. I told C this. I got some deep heat seeking laser eye flashes in return. I said we could turn back at the first opportunity, but C noted that in doing so we would skip the wolf and lynx enclosures. These were now her sole raison d’être. I had dragged her here and so we *would* see these animals. I agreed. And then things got better. The walking trail really is nicely maintained and includes a small sky bridge course with a view over the valley. We saw animals, including the wolves. We had some ice cream. We rode a open bus for the last section and returned to the park entrance by trolley. On the pedestrian street of Han-sur-Lesse we found one place still open for a late lunch at nearly 4 PM. The Belgian fries were restorative. Then off we were to space camp!

At the Euro Space Center solar system yard

At the Euro Space Center, C and I completed check-in procedures and then together we were shown to her dorm room where she would sleep and hang out for the next five nights. We picked out her bed, a bottom bunk, collected the bedding and got her set up. Other kids, including another American, were arriving. Then suddenly it was time for me to go; I did not quite what to do with myself. My daughter’s first overnight camp and I decide it should be in a foreign country?! Of course I did…we spend most of our lives living and traveling in foreign countries. But what did I do now? C noted that some of the other campers had their favorite stuffies with them so she asked if I would return to the car and bring her hers. I happily did so, grateful for something to do. But once I handed it over C gave me a very meaningful look, telling me it was time for me to go.

I headed to the parking lot and off on my own adventure.

Guinea Or Bust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On approach to our new home in Guinea

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

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

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

2022 Home Leave: Out West Adventure Part 2

Old Faithful does not disappoint; Neither does the weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Grand Prismatic Spring boardwalk view

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

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

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

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

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

A pronghorn deer in the Lamar Valley

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

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

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

Petrified / Bleached trees at Mammoth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pine Creek Road Bridge on the afternoon of June 13

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

2022 Home Leave: Out West Adventure Part 1

C jumps for joy with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Colter Bay Village’s Swim Beach

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

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

Some wildlife in the Grand Tetons

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

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

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

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

The Failed Conquest of Kinabalu: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Failed Conquest of Kinabalu (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG and our guide Januel

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

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

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

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