England – Holiday Pantos, from the middle ages to today!

No, sadly, we Fantastics are not in the UK. But if we were, if I suddenly had £10.000 and a few weeks off, I know exactly what we would be doing.  We would head to some random small town and take in a local amateur production of a panto.

I heard of pantos about two years ago from our homeschool theatre group co-director, Mr. Fantastic’s partner in crime.  Up to that time they had directed kids in shows that featured mainly historic monologues, the idea being that there was no lead so each child had an important part.  Two that we did were “Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village” by Baltimore children’s librarian Laura Amy Schlitz and “We Were There, Too” by Phillip Hoose about children’s roles in US history.  These were both excellent and I can’t praise them too highly.  The kids, however, were getting older and looking for something different.  They had tired of monologues and wanted comedy, slapstick, and general silliness.  Pantos fit the bill.

A panto, short for pantomime but not the same as mime theatre, is a UK holiday theatrical production roughly based on a fairy tale like Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk.  These have been extremely popular in England through the ages; even The Queen was in one.  The earliest pantos were silent due to Parliament restricting spoken theatre to limited London venues and fairy tales were chosen because everyone knew the plots.  The restriction was eventually lifted, but by then fairy tales, audience participation, and exaggerated visuals were a part of the genre.  Fine Manchester theaters and grade school auditoriums alike became panto stages for big names and locals, and the tradition continues today.  Apparently the well-known (to Brits at least – I had to look it up) tale of Dick Wittington and his cat are a popular English panto story that attracted the likes of Joan Collins.  Those crazy Brits!

One of the defining, and perhaps to the uninitiated, alarming features of panto is the shouting of audience members to the actors.  Audience members hiss the villains, warn the protagonist, and call out classic panto lines such as “it’s right behind you!!!” and “Oh, yes it is!!” to an actor’s “Oh no it isn’t!!”.  Other panto details that have become standard over time include: a female playing a male lead, a man playing an older woman’s role, an animal played by an actor, a “messy scene” of slapstick pie-in-the-face style antics, double-entendre jokes to entertain the adults, and a chorus.  It is a lot of fun once the audience gets the participation part – there are explanations and practice bits before and even during the performance.  Sometimes I explain it to people as a family-friendly Rocky Horror Picture Show live theater experience.

See Mr Fantastic and Fiercely (next to him, with blue sash) below, cross dressing as a mother and son.  The villain and animal also can be seen.  That’s Aladdin in the green sash.  The show was awesome!!  The twins and Cleverly also had small roles.  In fact, there’s Cleverly barely seen between Poppa and Fiercely.  Wish I had more pictures.

This year our production is “Robin Hood and her Merry Girls”.  It debuts next week- yikes! We still need several bow and arrow sets, an anvil, a tea set, and something called an ‘insultometer’, among other strange and interesting costumes and props.

Pantos have spread beyond the UK to the US in places like San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, heck there’s probably one near you wherever you are.  We saw this professional Aladdin panto last year after our production, which was really fun since we had produced the same one. Of course, no two Aladdin pantos are alike – there are hundreds of scripts for each fairy tale and each theater company does unique adaptations, often referring to local geography and politics.

That’s all for now, fans, until next time: happy travels and happy holidays!!

Northeast Ohio, October 2013

Oops we did it again.  Found ourselves on the grandparent’s doorstep for a random visit to that round-on-both-sides and ‘hi’-in-the-middle state, O-hi-o.  It was autumnal and gorgeous in The Buckeye State and I can report that the skies were blue and the trees were bustin’ out all over.

Bike Path Adventure

The big girls headed out with the Grandma one day so the twins and I decided to try the bike path I’d been eyeing for some time.  My Dad dropped us + bikes off in his wonderful old rusty pick-up truck and we pedaled off for a few miles on a somewhat confusing bike trail.


twins + the truck, Truly and a truly confusing sign

Depending on which sign you believe, we were either on the Maple Highlands Trail or the Metroparks Greenway Corridor.  I suppose we were on both since they seem to meet up.  However, after a couple of miles, we were abruptly on neither as we were unceremoniously bid adieu and dumped on to a rather busy street with almost no shoulder.  And no bike trail that I could see.  We biked on that road for about a mile before we came to an intersection with a major freeway (interstate Rt 90) and a hilly country road, again with a pronounced lack of shoulder or bike path or anywhere to be with your twin 7-year-olds and your 3 bikes.  So we went back the rather busy road for about a mile again to the bike path.  It is a pretty path, and apparently there are covered bridges and a bridge over the interstate at one point, but try to explain that to the younger generation who were tired of biking and would rather take a break and play in the drainage ditch.  We had a picnic and found some cool leaves.


Where’s the path?  Why does Mama keep making us bike back and forth?


Your intrepid correspondents

Well, despite much-loved rails-to-trails action all over the country, the fact remains that these projects are often non-continuous and full of detours on roads made for cars.  After some study of the trail map, it looked like we needed to go on the shoulderless, hilly, two-lane road for over a mile and risk disgruntled government employees on furlough, half-blind retirees, harried stay-at-home moms, the bitter unemployed (7.3% in Ohio as of August 2013), overambitious homeschooolers, or whoever else happened to be on these back roads on a weekday driving like they are on fire and unaware of two small pedalers on two-wheelers and their travel-happy mama.  I didn’t want to risk it so we didn’t make it to the other trail sections, maybe another day.

The Farmpark

Even though my kids are probably aging out of its target demographic, I have for years kind of wanted to check out the Lake Metroparks Farmpark, another agrotainment facility, this one Northeast Ohio-style and proud of it.  We were lucky enough to be accompanied by a genuine Lake County resident, aka my mom, which got us in for free (they have this deal about twice a month).  So, the price was right, the piglets were ready for our attention, and we even got to milk a cow.


Cleverly petting Mama pig who is nursing her piglets, Truly milking a cow

The place is big and full of reminders that we Fantastics have progressed beyond toddlerhood.  I was all smirking self-satisfaction that I needed no stroller, no diapers, no carrier for my offspring as I watched moms, some of them pregnant, struggling with the unwieldy gear of the under-5 set.  Of course I was also practically moved to tears that my brood is growing and we don’t have a toddler to chase after or an infant to carry.  No worry, my big kids were happy to wallow in nostalgia as they shamelessly played with the kid tractors.


Yes, that is Cleverly, almost 10, on the left and Fiercely, recently turned 13, being shuttled by Truly on the right.

The cool thing about older kids is that they really paid attention to the demonstrations.  Being the freewheeling homeschoolers that we are, we basked in the attention of the cheesemaking demonstrator, and again in the grain milling area.  The teachers there loved the 4 highly interested kids – it was worth their while teaching, and the kids proved to be inquisitive about the details of making cheese as well as enthusiastic millers of corn and wheat.


Cheesemaking demo and the grain area.

We were not too cool to take a tractor ride to the Plant Science Building.  This turned out to be housing for hydroponic tomato-zilla specimens alongside some educational stations about tomatoes.  Most people don’t know this- I happen to know this since I worked on a farm there around 1991 –  but the small central Ohio town Reynoldsburg is known as ‘the birthplace of the tomato’.  This fact is applied generously to the exhibits in the Plant Science Building, despite its location 167 miles northeast of the famous town, and you can read about tomato lore while gigantic plastic tomatoes watch over your shoulder the whole time.


Tractor ride, Fiercely dwarfed by hydroponic tomato plants, Big Brother Tomato watching Really at a station

Seasons of Love

Not sure what the blank CD was, we put it in the player and hoped for the best.  Randomly and without warning, we were subjected to four show tunes, the last of which was that catchy song from Rent.  There was something about hearing that song unexpectedly while watching the explosion of color in the hills of central Pennsylvania and contemplating our visits to Ohio, the grandparents, the kids getting older – and they happened to not be fighting for a few minutes-  it was just a lovely moment among the 525,600 minutes that we get this year.


Honduras March 2011 Part 3- more at the Village, then the grandparents in SPS

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Cleverly (top) and Fiercely on mules, local kids are amused we don’t know how to ride them!

Not only did people feed and house us, but they let us ride their horses!  We went on several beautiful rides around the village and surrounding hills.  We provided amusement since we don’t know much about riding, especially bareback or on minimal saddles.  I’ll wager that four-year-olds here are better riders than most US citizens.

I knew people would be generous during our visit so we had discussions beforehand on what to bring as gifts.  Gift-giving can be difficult since it can cause a frenzy if you are giving things away, and it can breed resentment, jealousy, greed and ugly crowds.  The village has good soil, hard workers and good crops, as well as income from those working in the US, so it is well off compared to many Honduran villages.  Of course, the resource inequality between the average US family and the average village family is vast.  I had seen while living there charitable giveaways that were unneeded and sometimes detrimental to the village – processed food like canned sauerkraut which confused people, candy when tooth decay was already a problem, and fertilizer which depleted the soil and caused poisonings.  We decided beforehand to give things that could be shared, also we travel light so nothing could be large.  We settled on books for their school library, since I knew that was small, some soccer balls for the kids to share (we bought those in San Pedro with Isai), and a cell phone for Marta – I bought one while there to call home since they are so inexpensive, and gave it to Marta when I left.  I also procured toothbrushes, floss and toothpaste from a dental clinic and left them at the village health clinic.

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Inside and outside the village health clinic

We were there about a week then it was time to find our way back to San Pedro Sula to the hotel there to meet my parents.  They were actually staying at a Hilton Hotel, quite the other extreme from the village!  The kids were ready for the change.  I made a mental note that the village was tiring in many ways for the kids, and me too, always being the center if attention, living in an environment very different from home, dependent for food + housing on our hosts, living in a different language + culture, etc.  I plan to keep this in mind for other trips – it is wise to schedule breaks from intensive adventure travel.

People in the village assured me that Chema’s nephew always drives to a large town down the mountain with a milk delivery on Sundays, so we planned to get a ride with him.  Hondurans are unsettlingly casual about this kind of thing, especially if you are a US citizen used to time pressure about everything, but I didn’t worry.  I figured if the milk truck didn’t work we could go Monday when the bus went down – there seemed to be a reliable bus trip once a day from what people told me and I did see it once or twice while there.  Surprisingly, the milk truck did work out for us.  We waited with Chema and some kids and our luggage and the truck eventually came.  This part was kind of rough on me since I didn’t know when I’d be back.  I hate goodbyes, but I did have something to look forward to – meeting Marta and Chema’s kids in the US – and that made things a little easier.




The milk truck stopped at a finca – a coffee farm on the way to the town.  Above is the coffee processing area with hand-cranked mill.  Coffee beans are seeds from a red fruit which are removed with the mill.  The driver and assistant loaded these huge bags into the truck bed along with the milk containers, there must have been literally a ton of cargo or more!

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A little mud brick house I liked at the finca, Cleverly on the minibus to La Entrada

The trip was 3 legs – first to the town, then a packed minibus back to La Entrada, then a  school bus to San Pedro.  Public transportation in Honduras was wonderful – so frequent, cheap, easily accessible, and they kept letting Cleverly in for free since she was under 9 years old.  Imagine considering a 7-year-old a child in the US, just unthinkable, and not charging them seems downright anti-business!?!  Many times the laid-back Honduran vibe did me right.  We got snacks from vendors at the bus station – cheap, healthy, wonderful!  We got popcorn balls held together with a sweet molasses syrup, ticucos which are corn dumplings with greens packaged in a corn husk, and datiles, fingerlike small bananas.  We got to the San Pedro Bus Station, a much newer facility and in a different part of town than I knew, and we took a taxi to the Hilton Princess.  And back to the developed world.  And grandparents!  There they were with a rental car and a sweet hotel with a pool!  The next part of the trip was to begin…

Honduras March 2011 part 1- Arriving

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Pre-dawn in Isai’s car starting out for the village

So this is how it went: I was a Peace Corps Volunteer back in the mid-90’s in Northwestern Honduras, then I came back, did a bunch of things, had 4 kids, and I looked around 14 years later and in front of my house in an East Coast city, I met the son of a Honduran farmer I had worked with all those years ago.  These places are 3400 miles apart (I google-mapped it), and most people in Honduras had never even heard of my Peace Corps site, let alone been born there and how did this guy end up on my doorstep?  Well, long story short, Mr. Fantastic had brought Bartolo to our house and needed me to translate something, which I did, then we got to talking and it turns out Bartolo and I both knew his dad.  Not only that, but Bartolo proceeded to look through my photos from that time and identify not only his father and various others from the village, but even horses! That’s right, he looked at my decade-and-a-half old photos from a village over 3000 miles away and he was like “oh, that’s Jose’s mare”.  ¡Qué miraglo!


Anyone you know here?

All this got me to thinking.  Honduras isn’t really that far…Cleverly and Fiercely were 7 and 10 respectively, old enough to travel well and remember the trip…Really and Truly were almost 5 so Mr. Fantastic might be ok without me for a little while…I was working anyway so he was used to having the kids all day…we couldn’t afford to take the whole family but me, Cleverly, and Fiercely-we could swing that…my parents always say they would like to go back to visit…I’d love to see Bartolo’s dad and the other farmers I worked with, plus my adopted ‘family’ there and see how everyone is and introduce them to my kids…

Where is Honduras?  In the elbow of Central America, in orange, about the same distance from the US east coast as California!

A few months later, we were on our way.  A Honduran neighbor in the US wouldn’t have a conversation with me about appropriate hotels in San Pedro Sula- she insisted we stay with her brother Isai.  I couldn’t communicate with anyone in the village but I figured they would be there.  I had sent letters over the years but had never received one, I found out later they never got my letters.  But no matter, I got passports for the kids and shopped for plane tickets.  My parents planned to meet us for our second week there.  We headed out.

The flight was short and before we knew it, we were in San Pedro Sula.  Wow was it hot!  And disorienting.  The airport, like all airports, was outside of the city.  I hadn’t been there for 14 years and never spent much time at the airport anyway.  We looked around, and I started thinking about how to get to the city by taxi and there was Isai.  I’m not sure how we recognized him, but we must have been pretty easy to spot.  Three confused gringitas, 2 of whom were blonde children.  He hustled us into his car in a friendly way and off we went to his place.  Isai is a bachelor and he had gone out of his way to be an accommodating host.  There was Honduran food like chicken stew and beans and tortillas, and also coca-cola, fruit, milk, cereal, everything.  We had a tour of his house including the roof from which we could view his neighborhood.  We visited with his neighbors, showered, ate, and turned in early.  He set an alarm for some ungodly hour and we slept until we were awakened in the dark.  Again we packed into his little truck, this time headed towards the western hills.

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Fiercely and Cleverly with Isai at La Entrada, the last ‘city’ before my village

I tried to tell Isai that we could take a bus but he insisted it would not be safe.  I felt safe since I had lived in the area for over two years, but it had been over a decade ago and I did have my young kids with me this time.  As it turned out, he was right, to the extent that the US Peace Corps pulled volunteers out of the entire country later that year.  But at the time I was blissfully unaware as I planned on visiting with my septuagenarian parents and my young daughters there, oh tra-la-la-la-la!


The road getting bad


Cleverly and a local in the truck bed


looking back down at the road we had come from

Isai insisted on driving us far out of San Pedro all the way to La Entrada, Copan over 2 hours away.  I felt certain that I was capable of getting to my village from there, however Isai was not so sure.  He kept driving in his little TWO wheel drive vehicle on a deteriorated rocky road that was clearly meant for 4×4 vehicles.  I winced at every turn, convinced that he was sacrificing his car for my comfort and safety, and I could never repay the favor.  Especially if his car died en route.  And we continued up the mountains.


The road in the village

The road to my village is really quite bad.  It had gotten worse over my 14-year absence, years full of rain, mudslides, and a pronounced lack of road maintenance.  Honduras is not known for road maintainance.  Isai’s car inched upwards as we passed coffee fields, rocky hillsides, mud houses, and people walking with various burdens and the ever-present machetes.  The engine whined, rocks slid under the tires, and we slowed to a crawl as we negotiated various ditches in the road.  Every now and then we would mount a hill and get a new view, and several times I thought we had arrived only to be disappointed that more hills lay ahead.  The views became more astounding as we climbed higher – clouds and blue sky, cornfields, banana trees, clusters of whitewashed homes and the road below us becoming smaller and smaller and smaller.  We had several passengers in the truck bed at this point since there are few vehicles going to the remote village and drivers generally pick up walkers if asked.  I myself have walked this road many times, as there were even fewer cars when I lived up there.  The walk takes about 2 hours.  I walked alone many times, also with my brother when he visited back in 1995, and with Mr Fantastic when we visited in 1997, about a year after I had left.  It’s a lovely hike but not such a fun walk if you are carrying things or it’s pouring down rain or if you are just tired and trying to get home.  Anyway, it was bittersweet to see the familiar vistas and curves in the road, and at last the outskirts of the village.  To be continued…

Northeast Ohio July 2013, and several times a year going back to, oh, at least 2000

So, we Fantastics go to Ohio more than your typical East Coasters and the reason is this: grandparents.  Once in awhile the Fantastic grandchildren get to hang in the Cleveland suburbs- they experience houses built in the 20th century, sample the life of lawns, driveways, and strip malls, and witness the teenage stomping grounds of their vagabond mother.  We have found excellent things to do in the area that we will now share with our loyal readers.  A-hem, loyal readers, I give you… northeast Ohio.

Lake Erie.

Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!  Its  GREAT lake, after all, right?  So, this lake is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and while it may be is famous for catching on fire due to pollution in 1969, it is much cleaner these days, it has sand and its own tide/surf report, and this guy walked across it to Canada one winter when it was frozen. 



Fairport Harbor’s historic lighthouse, the kids heading into the lake

This trip, we enjoyed swimming at Fairport Harbor.  We actually tried to go to an excellent YMCA outdoor pool nearby but balked at the entrance fee – close to $50 for me+offspring.  It’s worth mentioning here that if you are a Y member, as we used to be, you could go there for free, and you could enjoy the water slide, toddler pool, and climbing wall rather than leading your crying, disappointed children back to the parking lot, but alas we let our membership lapse so we headed to the beach.  They charge by the car at Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park Beach and that charge, my friends, was $3.00.  It is only $2.00 if you are a resident!  What can you get for $2-$3 these days I ask!


Really and Truly by some dunes, Truly flying a kite

The park has lifeguards, playgrounds, a roped-off swimming area, and nice landscaping with sand dunes and small trees.  There’s even an institution that calls itself a Yacht Club nearby.  Its not the ocean, but it is surprisingly ocean-like in atmosphere in a small-town Ohio kind of way.

Lake Metroparks System

Lake County, and Ohio in general, has a park system that is truly splendiferous.  We went to Beaty Landing which had a nice path, many birds, and some riverfront land where there are nesting eagles at times!


looking out from the viewing platform at Beaty(L), Cleverly and Truly on the path

There is also a bike trail nearby called the Greenway Corridor.  It is no Greater Allegheny Passage like we enjoyed last year on a bike-camp trip, but it is nicely re-purposed from the old Baltimore-Ohio Railway line and it is a great start.

Penitentary Glen is another nice park in the area.  It has a great name, referencing the gorge terrain which they say, like jail, is easy to get into and hard to get out of! There is a wildlife rehab and education center here, along with beautiful grounds, paths, and the lovely gorge.


Cleverly on a butterfly bench, Really as an eagle egg, Fiercely in beekeeper garb, and a resident hawk

Random events

So we were just beginning our ill-fated trip to the YMCA pool when we went past the Concord Fire Dept and Historical Society, which also happens to be the site of my first-place performance at the frog jumping contest circa 1982 (feel free to name drop me to impress your friends).  We saw a few antique cars parked in a field and strangely, we heard pipe organ music, like what you would hear on an old-fashioned carousel.  What could it be?


Well, it was the Happiest Music on Earth, of which Dr. Ron Bop is happy to explain its pleasing effects on the human nervous system.  We had stumbled on to the Mid-America Band Organ Rally at the Lake County History Center.  What luck!  So we checked out what we could from the road because again with the budget and all, but I just love that this really happens.

Skaneatles, NY December 2012

We drove through a blizzard around last Christmas to get to the adorable town of Skaneatles (pronounced “skinny-atlas” unless the locals were lying to me), New York at the northern tip of Skaneatles Lake, of course.  This beautiful part of Upstate NY is called the Finger Lakes for its 11 long skinny lakes that were created by Glacier movement or the Goddess’s fingernails, depending on where you get your information.

The Finger Lakes in winter from above.  Seneca (L center) and Cayuga (R center) are the largest, central ones.  Skaneatles is the 2nd lake East of Cayuga.  That’s Lake Ontario to the Northwest.

Skaneatles is home to the Dickens’ Festival and we just had to check it out.  We also found beautiful architecture there and the snow – and I love snow, especially around Christmas. We don’t always get much snow in the city, so sometimes we have to go find it!

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with Father Christmas (top) and A Christmas Carol

The town has actors wandering the streets dressed in Victorian-era clothing.  The actors walk around in character and interact with visitors, also there was a reading of A Christmas Carol outside with a narrator, Jacob Marley, and a Scrooge volunteer from the audience.  We heard a choir and ate roasted chestnuts.  There was a magician show in the historic library in a beautiful room with restored wood floors and cabinets, and there was an antique miniatures display in the Sherwood Inn, which was built as a stagecoach stop in 1807.

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Truly with the magician (top) and the library from outside

The town was just lovely in the snow with little shops lining the streets and costumed actors walking around.  There are stations for free warm snacks such as the chestnuts, hot chocolate, and hot cider.  The different activities are listed on a flyer, but it is more fun to ask the actors, or often they will announce when the shows are starting.

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We stayed in Ithaca, NY, about an hour south of Skaneatles.  We spent some time there seeing the waterfalls, hiking a little on the Finger Lakes Trail, and also went to a Christmas tree farm.

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Really and Truly hiking, Cleverly with an icicle

There was less snow in Ithaca, but it was cold and the kids had fun finding icicles and climbing the gorge rocks.

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a bench at the Southview Christmas tree farm, Really at the outhouse

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Hiking on the Finger Lakes Trail

Malawi, February 2013 part 3 – Lake Malawi and safari

I didn’t have my heart set on a safari, or anything really, my goals were simply to be in Africa and to see The Fabulous family, and maybe avoid illness/parasites.  Looking back, though, I will be forever grateful that Dr. Mama Fabulous did arrange for us to do some vacationing in the Warm Heart of Africa.

Lake Malawi


Lake Malawi shoreline with traditional fishing boat in foreground

We spent a couple of days in Senga Bay on the lake.  I love what Lonely Planet has to say about the place:

Senga Bay travel recommendations and tips from Lonely Planet. Discover 0 things to do & 1 places to stay with expert reviews and booking

Zero things to do – oh yeah!!

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Rental house outside and inside, path to the beach

We stayed in a rental house (Dr. Mama had a connection) and enjoyed swimming at the beach there, also we swam at a pool and private beach down the road for a small fee – it was part of a resort chain called Sunbird.  We paid a local who took us in a small boat to a nearby island in the lake.  It is called Lizard Island for its large-sized lizards, of which we saw none, unfortunately.  We did have a great boat ride, a nice hike all over the little island, and we went snorkling and saw the famous cichlids in their habitat.  We fed them crackers and they surrounded us like a dancing  underwater bouquet.

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Sunset next to Lizard Island

DSCN5438At Sunbird with Lizard Island over my left shoulder

After Senga Bay, we headed to the glorious Hippo View Lodge – this place would feel at home in New Jersey with its brightly colored hippo statues and other kitschy decorations on hand.

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The spectacular Hippo View!  Note zebra and giraffe statues on R photo!

from Hippo View, we met our connection for the Mvuu Lodge. I should mention here that Mvuu means Hippo in chichewa.  So, we signed some paperwork – sigh, it appears that litigiousness has reaches the banks of the Mvuu – and got into the riverboat.

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“Sorry – it’s our first hippo!” I blurted by means of apology after standing up in the boat minutes after we had promised to remain seated.   There were so many hippos!  Eventually, we kind of got used to them.  They lazed around in clumps, only their eyes above the water.  There were also birds, and one elephant we saw during the river ride.

Mvuu Lodge was luxurious.  There was a main eating/gathering area with a thatched roof, and paths to small tent/cabin structures on the grounds.  We had 2 of these, so Fiercely and I had our own.  Each was equipped with umbrellas and also an emergency whistle. Luckily, there was no rain or threatening wildlife while we were there so we needed neither!  The bathrooms were so beautiful with stone, wood, and bamboo, I can’t believe I took pictures of them but I did.

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That night, we went on an evening safari in Liwonde National Park, where the Lodge is located.  There were herds of impala, numerous monkeys and warthogs and kudu, and we saw one elephant.  Apparently the rainy time of year makes elephants more scarce because they have more options for drinking water.  During the dry season, they are more predictable.  So we felt lucky to see a few on this trip!  The sunset by the river was beautiful.

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Warthogs eat kneeling down!  Who knew?

Well, the night was boisterous with any number of birds, bugs, hippos and other creatures making their nightly music.  It was all so loud and unfamiliar, it woke me up more than once!  The walls of our cabin were screens so we could hear everything, I loved it.  The next morning we took a river safari and saw crocodiles, birds, and more hippos.  Then it was back on the river to Hippo View and a drive back to Lilongwe.


Oh! I almost forgot our hippo story!  When we first arrived at the Lodge, we heard a commotion and looked at the path in front of the thatched main building.  There, crashing through the riverside brush, were two hippos, one chasing the other!  They ran faster than you might imagine through the Lodge grounds and past the little cabins, making deep imprints in the packed ground with their heavy feet. The victorious/bully hippo turned back and returned to the river from the brush where they had emerged, job done.  The poor hippo being chased continued and barged through a fence across the lodge grounds and back to the river.


Hippo footprint and victorious hippo

Malawi, February 2013 part 2 – healthcare in Lilongwe

A big part of what we did was hang out with the Drs. Fabulous.  They both worked in Lilongwe with nonprofit organizations – Dr. Papa with an HIV nonprofit, and Dr. Mama with both a pediatric HIV clinic and a public hospital.   I was lucky enough to work with each of them and get a glimpse of their work.

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Scene inside (L) and outside the public hospital

The hospital was very different from anything people in the US would expect for themselves and their loved ones.  It was sweltering, malodorous, packed with people, and by US standards, unsanitary.  It consisted of large rooms with numerous metal-frame beds, packed with up to 6 children per bed in the pediatric unit. There were a few fans, but no air conditioning and the air was dank.  Outside were courtyards where family members waited, did laundry, talked with each other.  Medications and supplies were scarce and technologies such as CT scan and MRI nonexistent.  Radiology workers were on strike at that time so they were not doing x-rays that were needed, for example, to remove chest tubes on several toddlers.  It was very sad to see the malnourished babies and children, many with TB and/or HIV, and the mothers looking so tired and often sick themselves.

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Work being done by hand (L) and a map of hospital

It was a shock when Fiercely and I first went to the hospital.  We had left a cold East Coast winter, but here it was warm, humid, crowded, and smelled strongly of humanity and disease.  I had been in similar places, but my daughter, a privileged American 12-year-old had not. She began to turn pale, sweat, and to stagger a little so we sat her down and eventually left.  Dr. Mama worked a 16-hour shift there every week.  Malawians travel days to get their medical care here.  The inequities of the world are stark.  I wanted Fiercely to see how most of the world lives; I would like for all first-world denizens to experience this, work for a more equitable sharing of the world’s resources among the world’s people, and be truly grateful for our lucky circumstance of a materially privileged life.


Posters at a rural clinic (L), clinic building and crops

After working at the public hospital, I was able to go with Dr. Papa and crew (driver, translator, and community liaison) to several rural clinics.  They were collecting data and doing some education on HIV prevention among pregnant women and newborns.  Malawi actually has a progressive and successful program on reducing mother-infant HIV transmission, though the challenges are formidable.  The clinics I saw were rudimentary cement buildings, one with a startling and very pungent-smelling bat colony in the ceiling!  In one of these little clinics, 1 nurse – a man who was assigned there and basically on call at all times – aided the delivery of 1000 babies in a year including, in one especially busy recent month, a hundred births!


Typical rural home (top), children’s coffins at a roadside store (bottom)

A third experience I had, and Fiercely joined me for an afternoon here, was at an orphanage.  It was for very young children, about 3 and under, mostly infants.  It may sound cliche to be in an African orphanage but it was lovely to hold the little bundles, help to feed them and play with them in a simple building run by a religious organization.  There is a great need for such facilities in an area where so many mothers have died from HIV. As I read about the lives of these babies in a photo book at the orphanage, the same stories repeated themselves – mother died of HIV, no family members, child found on street or left at hospital or orphanage door.  Mama and Papa Fabulous’s twins had stayed at this orphanage at one time, and Dr Mama had brought at least one other child here from a difficult family situation.  It was a sweet place, full of breezes, clean, many flowers in the garden outside, and drooling babies rolling around or napping on a brightly colored padded floor.  If only there were enough places like this for all of the children in need, if only we didn’t even need such places!  But I did feel hope for these youngest Malawians and I wished them the best.

Malawi, February 2013 part 1 – Lilongwe

Wow, this trip was a doozy!  Just myself and Fiercely went on this trip, made possible by the lucky placement of a Fabulous family living and working there for 2 years.  Mama and Papa of that family have 5 children, including twins born in Malawi who joined them there, and had gone to work as MDs there.  They extended from one year to two and the wanderlust wheels of my mind started turning.  During the last few months of their stay, we joined them for about 2 weeks of adventures.  This is how it went.

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Fiercely and myself in the airplane (Left) and at the J’burg airport

Fiercely and I had never been to Africa.  How do you even start?  Well, for us it involved a bus to NYC, sleeping at a friend’s house in Brooklyn, then taking a taxi to John F Kennedy airport, then a plane to Johannesburg, and another plane to Lilongwe, Malawi.  The JFK to J’burg was pretty darn long – 16 and a half hours long.  The airline tries to help you with the jet lag by announcing that the lights will be off for about 10 hours and you should sleep, but that didn’t work so well for us.  I think Fiercely watched about 6 movies.  We ended up sleeping for 18 hours once we arrived at our friends’ house!

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our friends’ house in a walled compound in Lilongwe (left) and the view from one of their balconies 

Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, a small landlocked country just Southeast of the center of the African continent.  Malawi has a narrow, somewhat curved shape that largely mimics its defining feature, the large Lake Malawi in the Northeastern 2/3 of the country.  Due to its location (kind of where a heart would be if Africa was a person), climate, and relative peaceful vibe, it is known as ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’. The money is called ‘Kwacha’ (rhymes with ‘gotcha!’ and worth about 335 MK to the US $) and the language is Chichewa (chi-CHAY-wah).


Typical sidewalk scene (left) and a fancy shopping center downtown 

We spent about 2 weeks with the Fabulous family, and as I mentioned they both work as MDs and have 5 children so we spent a fair amount of time just hanging out in Lilongwe.  We went to an outdoor market, a nature sanctuary, and a high-end restaurant/landscaping business when our friends had free time, and joined them at work or hung out with their kids when they didn’t.  We also took a trip with them, which I’ll describe in Part 3.

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Scenes at the Lilongwe market, including Fiercely and myself on a toll bridge (bottom Right) we had to pay to cross, kind a Malawian version of the Tappen Zee!

Lilongwe had surprisingly little to do as far as organized tourist activities.  I kind of liked the lack of fast food restaurants, chain hotels and resorts, but I was surprised at the lack of museums, libraries, and cultural/environmental institutions.  We stayed a ways out from the town center and traveled by car, Mama Fabulous driving expertly on the left side of the road.  Public transportation, overpacked vans as far as I could gather, confused me and I found the language difficult.  Just saying good morning/afternoon/evening was a challenge and I am generally good with languages.  I just stuck with “muli bwanji”, which is a greeting that was not always correct but seemed to work, and plenty of enthusiastic “zicomo”s – “thank you”.  Compared to Central America, I found Malawi much more difficult to navigate and with far fewer options for things to do.  Also expensive – gas was about $12 a gallon!  A day trip I considered to a neighboring village (where they made pottery and, incongruously, cheesecake) would have set me back about US$ 170 which was out of our budget for sure!  Even if the cheesecake was included LOL.  Lilongwe is very spread out, so distances seemed long to me as we went from the house to the market or the hospital or the store.  Maybe it was my short length of stay, but I was surprised.

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Clockwise from top Left: Fiercely with our tour guide, me learning about how to avoid crocs, a porcupine resident of the Centre, and part of a play structure at the Centre.

The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre was one of the only tourist-type places in the area.  We spent maybe 4 hours here, the first hour of which was a guided tour.  The Centre houses several recovering zoo animals, such as a lion that was from Eastern European zoo who was not being cared for properly.  There was a river next to the property and a trail system with warnings about crocodiles.  I took a hike on the trail and considered the possibility of getting lost (Fiercely decided to read her book and stick closer to civilization instead).

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Fancy cafe at Four Seasons in Lilongwe.  There is a landscaping/nursery business here, several shops, a cafe and a bar/grill.  We ate vegetarian quiche, excellent salads and baked goodies here. Bottom R photo has a lizard on gate at about 12’o’clock

OK, that’s it for part 1- check back for part 2!