Life Unparalleled

Loving Life as a Foreign Service Family – Current Parallel 6° 27' North- Lagos, Nigeria

Malawi 2019

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We live such a fortunate life. One of the benefits of being sent to a post like Lagos is that we get to take some R and R (rest and relaxation) flights. A post might have an attached R and R when it is a harder place to live in or if it is a very far, expensive or complicated flight from the United States. Lagos currently has 3 R and R’s in a two year tour. The only places whith more tend to be places where the employee can’t bring any family along because of safety or war torn countries. Most of Europe and Asia don’t have R and R’s. We will not have any when we are in Spain for example. With our R and R only our flights are paid for and only to a certain amount. All living expenses once you land are on your own. Because of our large family size and so many moves in a couple of years we don’t have much of a travel fund built up but we still have been able to do some amazing trips.

Our first was to Denmark and Sweden followed by time spent in the USA, Utah,Washington, California

We economized by staying with gracious friends and family.

Our second R and R was to Germany (Lechbruch, Munich) and Austria( Vienna and Salzburg) with some of Ben’s family. His mother and step dad kindly paid for our portion of our AirB and B’s as our Christmas gift which helped to diffuse much of the cost for that adventure.

For our third R and R we wanted to explore more of Africa. Kenya is the go to place for safari and we are fortunate enough to have friends from Ben’s A-100 class posted in Nairobi. They were amazing and said they would be happy to host us. In southern Africa Ben had a cousin who lives in Mali. Jessica is Ben’s grandfathers cousins grandaughter. So a distance cousin but both the grandfathers were only children so they were raised more like brothers. Ben and Jessica spent time together at family events while growing up in California. After graduate school she traveled to Malawi to work for a NGO, fell in love and now 8 years later has a beautiful life and two amazing daughters to show for her troubles. Ben thought it would be wonderful to reconnect with Jessica and explore more of Malawi, a less known African country. After she and her husband Clayton kindly offered to host our huge clan including use of a van(AMAZING!) we booked our tickets.

Harrison got to celebrate his actual birthday in the Nairobi lounge during our stopover. Breakfast crepes with nutella hit the spot.
Play station is a genius lounge idea. We have spent so much time in airport lounges the last year. Our favorite credit card, Chase Sapphire Preferred includes lounge access so if we have any type of a layover we make ourselves at home. I estimate our family has saved $500-$800 in food costs as we never have to buy food at airports when we travel.
Just reading a book.
Almost all flights out of Lagos are red eye flights. It gets exhausting. Some lounges have reclining chairs but Dannica made do with what we had.

Lilongwe is the most adorable little airport ever. It reminded me of flying into the St.George airport. They just have a handful of flights a day and people can watch the take off and landings from a viewing deck. The population of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city is about 650,000 people. so Lagos is approximately 30 times larger.

Clayton and Jessica have a beautiful home they designed and built. The kids were so excited to spend time in the yard. Jessica kept apologizing that there wasn’t much going on and worried the kids would be bored, I explained that my kids could never be bored with nature especially since they have been denied it in Lagos.

They had three cats and two dogs which the kids very much enjoyed.
Their two daughters are just adorable. We brought a copy of one of our favorite preschool games, Raccoon Rumpus, to share.My kids have no first cousins and are always excited to play with anyone that might possibly be a “cousin”, no matter how distant.

We enjoyed a lovely lunch out at a restaurant that was also a plant nursery. Malawi is a bit cooler than Lagos so it was great enjoying some of the more temperate plants such as roses that can be grown there.

Reading

Lilongwe, and the rest of Malawi, was incredibly clean. There was little pollution and the taxis of choice were bicycles. It just added to the charm. In contrast to Nigeria using bicycle taxies meant that 1. People felt safe, I even saw some expats on the back of a bike taxi. 2. Traffic was mild and reasonable enough to accommodate bikes 3. The roads were in good enough condition for bikes to be used. I’m not hating on Nigeria just pointing out there are some serious infrastructure needs that need to be addressed.

No sidewalks but there are clean and maintained dirt walking paths along the roads. I didn’t see anyone easing themselves along the sides of the roads either. There are outhouses everywhere. Yay for sanitation!

After a couple of days in Lilongwe we started our 4 hour drive to Monkey Bay(Mangochi).

Red clay is abundant so the houses are made of clay bricks of varying quality. There were back yard firing kills along the road.
Sugar cane for sale at a road side stand. We see this in Nigeria as well but sugary soda is widely available and so cheap it is the first choice. There are not many sweet options in Malawi and the sugar care rots the front teeth as people nibble away at the stock. You could definitely tell who had a sweet tooth.

No surprises here but I am a little obsessed with baby wearing. I was gifted a baby sling when Dannica was born and later got an Ergo for her. At that time baby wearing was done in the US but strollers were still the preferred method. In my travels I like to observe how women “back their babies”. In Nigeria they wrap their wrapper tightly around their midsection and that holds the baby on their back. Morocco was the same. In Malawi and Kenya they tie their wrapper over one shoulder and carry the baby either on the back, hip, or front. It Malawi they also tended to wrap another piece of cloth around and tie it in front giving more stability and warmth to the baby. Almost all the women in Malawi wore a wrapper around their waist. Often over western style clothing. I watched as business women left an office building, pulled a wrapper from her bag and used it to cover her light colored skirt and she walked along the road. It is genius really! Keeps your clothing clean, gives you something to sit or lie on when you need a rest, can be used to carry a baby or other goods, and can be used to wrap around you for warmth. Seriously western fashion is pretty useless. Both Dannica and I want to jump on the wrapper band wagon.

Religion is a big thing in Malawi just as it is in much of Africa. The Muslim Mosques were always the nicest buildings in the village.
The staple food for most people in Malawi is maize. Here is is being dried on the side of the road.
We had to stop for gas and I asked Ben to grab a snack. He came out with this. It is always a gamble in another country reaching into a bag especially when the ingredients say things like “flavors”. These are like chicken ramen flavored Cheetos. The kids loved them.
Much of Malawi is without electricity so cooking is done over charcoal fired wood stoves or fires. Stack of charcoal are for sale along the road. Don’t let this picture fool you, those bags are about 4 feet tall.

When we began planning our trip to Malawi I was so excited to spend some time at Lake Malawi. There were many tiny resorts but the shorelines of Lake Malawi are so expansive I felt overwhelmed by the many options. Jessica recommended Madzi Kuwala on Monkey Bay, which ended up being a good option. With our family size we usually need 2-3 rooms. This was a 6 bedroom private house right on the lake. It included night guards, a gardener, and a housekeeper/chef. You had to bring your own food and plan your meals but there was someone around to help in cooking and cleaning up. I threw a little fit at the beginning saying I wanted to stay somewhere that cooked for us or we could go out to eat but that would have been a poor decision. There were very very few restaurants and grocery stores not stocked well. It was better this way. That said in Africa fashion there were some small issues with the house: they didn’t know we were coming! We pulled up and the housekeeper who lives on site was very surprised to see us. Ultimately our reservation was written on one calendar but not transferred to another, thank goodness they weren’t double booked!! Hot water only worked in half of the house so we had to share some bathrooms, not a big deal.There were six bedrooms and 4 bathrooms, we were just fine and the kids were so excited to have their own rooms for a few nights. Some things listed in the welcome book/website were not available like the TV had no power cord and there were no lifejackets for the kids. The TV wasn’t a big deal but I am a bit of a safety nut and was pretty stressed for a time about the life jackets but I got past it. The mosquito nets had holes in them, not a huge deal since we are already on anti-malarial meds but a big deal for people who are not. All said and done we are flexible travelers who are used to Africa and it was a beautiful property and we had a great time.

When we arrived local fishermen were pulling in a catch of fish right on “our beach”. We bought some fish, chambo- a type of tilapia- from them a couple of nights later that the chef prepared and they were delicious.
Chambo

With in minutes of our arrival the older two boys were in their suits and in the water. Oliver and I were playing on the beach when Dannica ran up and said the house was invaded by monkeys. She was not wrong. The whole grounds were being invaded by Vervet Monkey’s. So loud running around the metal roof, like cannon balls. Some of the toddler monkeys would even take a mango to the top and let it roll down to catch it before it fell off the edge. There were just there in the morning and the evening so it worked out.

These twins were hilarious. I didn’t think that monkey’s often had twins so if they weren’t twins a mother was feeding a baby not her own.Anyways, she was feeding them both at the same time and they kept poking each other. Finally the mother took both of their heads and banged them against each other. I could not stop laughing. Children and motherhood, it is universal.
The monkeys have bright blue balls. Yep, Ben and I couldn’t stop cracking up because we are really 14 year old boys at heart.
Our own little monkey enjoying the outdoors.
Such beautiful trees
Seeing my children play together is the best thing in the world.
My boys are obsessed with sticks anywhere they go.
Harrison reading a book on our deck under the shade of the sausage tree.
I love this photo and this moment in time so much!
Pancake syrup which tasted more like butterscotch than maple.
Baobab Trees are iconic Africa. It almost looks like the trees have been planted upside down with the roots as branches. This tree was extra special. See the photo below.
Notice not just names but all they symbols.
We had to make a run to the store to replace some soda we used from the bar at the house. It ended up being a longer drive than we imagined and the small grocery stores we passed were all very small. We finally settled on one to find it full of sugar, salt, flour, frozen fish, packages of cookies, soda and these pens. Add in a few cleaning supplies and laundry soap and that was about it. They talk about food deserts, I looked at all these people we passed just aghast with thoughts of their food supply. Maize, fish and vegetables from their gardens- very different from how most of us live now.
Our rental

We decided we wanted an adventure and go snorkeling in the lake right away, that way if we loved it we could go again the next day. We hired a private and very rickety and kind of scary boat to take us to a better place to snorkel. Our house was on a long mud way where you could walk out 400 meters and still only be knee deep. Mud flat areas surrounded by vegetation near where we were also was more likely to hide crocodiles and hippos. We needed somewhere deeper with big boulders.

We are attempting to live as frugal, low waste and low extra stuff as possible. With moving every few years and having limited weight and a big family this is a necessity. Only Ben and I had ever been snorkeling before and we weren’t sure the kids would like it that much. Harrison we knew would be a big fan, he is a water kid and used his own snorkel in the pool almost daily. Ben thought we might be able to rent them locally but I made the decision to not risk it, the likelihood that someone would have 6 sets in exactly the right sizes seemed unlikely. A friend had some fins and a snorkel we could borrow but ultimately we needed to purchase some supplies. I had been intrigued with the full face snorkel masks. When I started doing some research I discovered they were only about $10 more per set than a traditional mask. Ben was weary so we ended up purchasing two traditional masks, one that would fit Oliver, and one for himself. I purchased two full face snorkels for Harrrison and myself and I am so glad I did.We loved them, so much so that I hardly got to use mine. The whole family enjoyed themselves and were amazed by the abundance of fish swimming right in front of their faces. The water although was warm about felt cold as it was an overcast day. After an hour or so the kids were just too cold and we headed home.

This is not our video and the fish were even greater in concentration where we were but you get the idea.
This is our attempt at a video taken through a mask…hilarious! Watch to the end.
Our rickety boat.

The next day was a glorious sunny day. Ben and I decided we wanted another try at snorkeling and we were surprised when all the kids were eager to go again. It was the best day! We regret deeply not owning a Gopro. This is exactly when you need something like that. Swimming with the fish is unbelievable. I have always been a fan of African Cichlids. I had my first in college. Jonas. He lived through the last half of undergraduate school, all of our time in law school and the first year back in Southern Utah. I was then fish free for a time but after being gifted a large tank started up again about a year before we joined the foreign service which of course I gave away when we moved. I love cichlids aggressive and interactive personalities in addition to their beautiful colors.

These are fish eagles. They look a bit like bald eagles. It was fun listening to them and watching them hunt.
Monitor Lizard. Don’t be fooled it was huge.
Ben and I on a walk down the beach saw a few kayaks outside a small resort. The owner said we could borrow them. Roger and I paddled around for a while and Ben joined us on a kite-less windsurfing board he found in the garage. He and Roger tried to turn it into and upright paddle board with mixed results. I will admit I was a bit worried about crocodiles and hippos and didn’t love everyone splashing around in the shallows. There have been a couple hippo and crock attacks in the lake over time but really not that many.
The kids spent time building sand castles with some local kids.

We spent three nights there and enjoyed our time. The kids all had their own rooms, we played outside, and played board games. No internet, no tv. I would love to go back to Lake Malawi again some time, so much of the world to see, so little time. We drove home watching more beautiful scenery and amazing people. It was really fun to drive by so many bicycles. The souvenir I brought home is a little carved bicycle just like they use for the majority of their transportation.

Ox cart school bus driver by a a 9 year old?
Just a goat playing king of the mountain on a termite hill
Live goat on a bike.
Live pig on a bike covered with leaves so he won’t get sunburned.
These are thrashing baskets that they use to thrash different grains. We could see the people working along the side of the road tossing the grain into the air, allowing the wind to carry the chaff, then catching the grains back in the basket again. It takes serious skill.

We arrived back in Lilongwe in time to get ready for a combined birthday party for Jessica and some friends. It was a 1920’s murder mystery themed party and Ben and I enjoyed playing the part of the Mayor-with aspirations for Governor- and his wife. Each attendee was assigned a role with back ground information and a list of information they were supposed to discover by talking to people during the party. Part way through the party more secret information and objectives were given to each character. There were about 20+people who attended. It was a huge stretch for the introvert in me to play a role, while still introducing yourself to a few dozen people you don’t know, and keep their real and fake personas straight. Ben was in his element, hamming it up of course. We were not murdered or the murderer but Ben did have a scandalous affair. How rude! I also was one of two people who guessed who the real murderer was. I always thought I would be good at detective work, but it is so peoplely.

If these aren’t innocent looking faces I don’t know who you could trust.
Once again their house is pretty great and was a perfect set up for a big party like this. This is the bar, which also happened to be the set for the party.
Adorable Jessica and Clayton enjoying their time.

Saturday morning we decided to go on another adventure. Lilongwe really is a sleepy little city which we really enjoyed but we decided to go for a bit of a drive and explore more of what Malawi had to offer. We visited the Chongoni Rock Art . 

Google led us astray and we ended up bouncing down a dirt road that was impassable in our van so we headed back to the main road. Ben was slowing down to do a U turn when he was waved to the side by a cop. He was speeding they said. Unlikely considering he was attempting a U turn but whatever. It was just easier to pay the $13 ticket there on the spot.

Following google we wound down a dirt road where a man waved us down and said he was the local guide. Not knowing who he was, his high asking price for the tour, and not having room in our van to accommodate him we told him we were going to visit them on our own and headed on our way. A kilometer down the road(yes I now measure things in kilometers!) we came to a locked gate. A man in the gate house informed us he would have to call a guide and sure enough five minutes later our mystery guide man showed up on the back of a motorcycle taxi. He lead us about 2km up a dirt path to the first rock art. The art is estimated to be 10,000 years old and is a World Heritage Site.

Then just around the corner there was more.
Someone decided it would be a nice place to smoke a joint and spilled some seed because there was this one lone marijuana plant. It was a good educational experience for the kids.

After another perilous trip down a dirt road we decided to stop at Dedza Pottery, a pretty well known Malawian pottery store.

It says “Vehicles please hoot” In Nigeria is would say “Please Horn”
They had beautiful gardens unfortunately Harrison and Oliver walked right into a red ant nest leading to much panic and stripping down in the bathroom and they were still both bitten several times. Harrison in particular has quite an allergy to fire ants so I gave them Benedryl and they slept on the way home.

Sunday morning before our flight we visited the Lilongwe Wildlife Sanctuary which was just down the road. It a a nature reserve in the center of the city but also does a lot of work in animal rehabilitation. We didn’t have a lot of time after waiting 90 minutes for our breakfast. We ordered several things that they were out of and ultimately settled on French toast which was a single hot dog bun split and french toasted for a cost of $9 each. Really I am laughing because this is what dinning out is like in much of Africa. Jessica kept apologizing but really we were so used to it. We opted for the free tour option which was a 20 minute walk along the river. We saw more monkeys and birds. If you go deeper into the park with a guide they can show you dozens more animals.

Harrison is now a solid 5 foot 9. He has grown so much over the past year. Dannica is still about 2 cm taller than him but he passed me up. Two of my kids are taller than me!
It was hard to say good bye to cousins. My kids enjoyed having littles around.

We came home from breakfast and our little walk to get luggage loaded to take to the airport and in unfortunate Dannica fashion she slipped on a metal edged step and slashed her knee open. It was a decent gash and truly could have used a couple of stitches but with some cleaning, super glue, steri strips, and mom doctoring it held and she was ok to travel. We rushed to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

No lounge 🙁 and it was noon so finally we ordered food from a little restaurant. The restaurant assured us with grand gestures that the food would be ready before we boarded in 45 minutes. However the actual kitchen was located on the opposite side of the airport. So of course we ended up with two of our six orders about 3 minutes before we had to board. The other food was never received and we were super super hungry when we landed in Nairobi and finally got to where we were staying at 10 pm. Dinning out in Africa for the win! Farewell Malawi you treated us well!!

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