Fantastic Around the World Sept 2015


Papa teaching Really and Truly to ski

We have been planning for years to take a round-the-world trip in 2015. It is something we have talked about for maybe 10 years but now we are in the final 2-year countdown to The Big Trip. Roughly speaking, we are planning to take off for 2 years starting in the Autumn since we live in an area with a university and we can rent out our house at that time. (We successfully rented our house out to live in the country from Aug. 2004-Aug. 2007 and it worked well. I’ll write about that experience sometime.)


Mama and Fiercely on river safari in Africa

During the 2-year trip, we plan to live in 6-8 places, renting out houses or apartments for a month or  months at a time and taking trips from the rental as a home base to save on room and board costs. We have been impressed and influenced by Soultravelers3, a family of 3 who have been doing long-term travel since 2006, edventure project, a family of 6 who has travelled on and off for several years including a year-long bike trip along the Europe/North Africa area, and various other families traveling for extended periods of time. Meanwhile, the kids are in training for flexibility, adventure and traveling light.


Cleverly with parrot in Honduras

We have our rough outline and also an early controversy – begin by boat to Europe or car to South America?- I need to write about that one.  For now let it be known that we plan Fantastic-style world domination, well, make that world exploration – in 2015!!!

Honduras March 2011 Part 4 – Copan Ruins

It was hard for me to believe there was a Hilton in San Pedro Sula, but there it was.  I used to splurge occasionally at the Gran Hotel Sula, and we did go there later for breakfast with the grandparents, but for now here we were.  My dad had made reservations online from home so as to have a destination on arrival, and we stayed for one night before heading back west, through La Entrada and out to Copan and the Mayan ruins.  Later, we stayed another night at the Hilton before catching our flights home, and it is worth mentioning that it was much cheaper arranging for the hotel in person.  My parents were pleased with the ‘senior’ discount they received at the hotel and at other places we went, so it is worth requesting if it applies to you or anyone you are travelling with.

I can’t find any of our pictures, but this is the pool at the San Pedro Hilton where we went, and a street view of the hotel. I like this street view because you see how different the hotel is from its surroundings; also I had to cross this crazy street with my dad to change some money at a (heavily guarded) bank across the street!

My parents had visited Honduras, including the village, when I lived there and were eager to come back.  My dad especially liked the Ruins, and a hotel we had stayed at there, so off we went.  We drove through the hills, passing roadside villages that were little collections of shacks, a few stands selling roasted corn or various fruits, small piles of burning trash, and the familiar sight of farmers walking by with their bundles and machetes.  The road was no problem, paved with asphalt and curving around gentle hills.  Getting lost is not an issue since there is really only one paved road between San Pedro and Copan.  You will get there as long as you don’t go South to Santa Rosa De Copan (a popular ex-pat town, it isn’t bad at all to end up there anyway!). We drove through La Entrada and continued to the town of Copan Ruinas.


The Hotel Marina Copan is so beautiful – not only the pool which the kids adored, but there are mysterious little corners with beautiful displays of art, Mayan artifacts and plants.

The town of Copan Ruinas is well-known to backpackers and has become adapted to more sophisticated tourists as well.  There are now ‘resorts’ and bigger, newer hotels on the outskirts of town in addition to the simple varied-budget hotels on the stone streets of the picturesque central town.  The Hotel Marina is an easy walk from the central town plaza, many restaurants, and a local market.  It was built in the late 1940’s to house the growing number of archeologists and tourists coming to the ruins sites and has been lovingly maintained and modernized through the years.  From there, we walked everywhere except when we drove to the Ruins site a mile or so outside of the town.  We ate at a different low-budget, backpacker type restaurant every meal and were not disappointed.  There are many blocks of them, and walking the area is a pleasure.


Inside public area nestled in a corridor of the hotel with couches and historic photos, Fiercely in a garden in the hotel, overhead view of hotel

The Ruins, synonymous with the town, have ongoing archeological digs as well as long-established stelae (Mayan hieroglyphic towers) and the famous Mayan ball courts as well as other structures.  Copan is known for artistic details such as sculptures and hieroglyphics as opposed to Tikal, Guatemala which is known for more for its stepped Mayan pyramids.  Copan has recognizable monkeys, bats, and Mayan rulers carved into stone that have endured the centuries remarkably well.


Fiercely being a Mayan bat, Cleverly and me in front of the museum, which is painted as historians say the original sculptures were painted.

We spent a day walking around the Great Plaza at Copan and checking out the new (to us, actually opened in the late 1990’s) museum on the grounds.  This is an easy place to be with active kids because it is so big and open.  There are steps to climb, great lookouts, and also a newer tunnel area the kids liked a lot.  The museum houses sculptures, and is also large and spacious.  The kids were free, grandparents were discounted, I’m the only one who paid full price.  We had a lot of fun taking pictures at the museum.

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me and my Dad and a Mayan, Cleverly on part of the main plaza

One day we went to a bird sanctuary called Macaw Mountain in the hills above the town of Copan Ruins.  We took a tiny taxi, of which there are numerous, up to the site of a working coffee finca/rescue facility for birds confiscated from illegal trade.  We had an English-speaking tour guide as we walked the grounds and learned about the sad stories of the birds there.  Macaw Mountain is a newer facility here, and a wonderful example of eco-tourism as it is locally owned, ecologically sustainable, and provides a destination for these birds that have been mistreated.


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The taxi that took us into the hills, My mom and the girls with the guide, Cleverly with a parrot

We also found a children’s museum in the town, a bit uphill from our hotel.  Casa Kinich appears not to have its own website, which of course makes it more endearing to me.  The name means “House of the Sun” and the castle-like building housed a fun, interactive museum for kids and cost about $1 for me and was free for the kids to enter.  The exhibits covered the natural and cultural history of the area and Mayan civilization, and was geared towards children, so unlike the Ruins sculpture museum, the kids could touch and explore various parts of the exhibits.

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Kids at the Casa K’inich exhibits, and the building from the outside

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 2 – the Village

IMG_0128 Fiercely with some kids on a path, Cleverly with a friend IMG_0184

So we arrived at the village.  Unannounced.  After 14 years.  It was beautiful!  Somehow word had traveled, it had something to do with someone who rode in the truck bed getting a ride up the mountain.  I’m sure Bartolo had told people, since I later found out everyone in the village had a cell phone and was in contact with the GROUP of young men from the village that had settled near my neighborhood in the US.  That’s right, I learned on this visit that in the US I had neighbors about 20 blocks away who were from this tiny village.  We rode the same buses, shopped at the same grocery stores, and negotiated inner city life nearby each other for almost 7 years!  I had to go back to the village to find this out.  The strange thing was, I had lived in Ohio when I joined the Peace Corps, but I ended up on the East Coast.  They were from the village and ended up 20 blocks from me.  The coincidence absolutely floored me.


The village with cell phone tower!  Fiercely and Cleverly with Bartolo’s parents!

Anyway, there was a happy reunion as people ran down to the road to the truck and word spread quickly.  All of the children I had known were adults now, of course, many with children of their own.  We were surrounded by a growing crowd and shouts of “gringita!”.  Now, don’t think I get a big head about this because although we do have a lot of love for each other, I am aware that the village is a tranquil, one might say boring, place, and any entertainment is always welcome.  When I lived there, I was a constant source of entertainment as people passed by my house to see how the gringa lived.  There was one television powered by a generator.  Computers and cell phones were unheard of.  Church and soccer games on Sundays were a big deal.  And now the gringa had returned – with children!  This was front page news.  There is still no electricity there, BTW. Wires are placed, but “the government hasn’t connected them” I was told by locals.


Marta and Chema – parents of my Honduran family. They have about 12 kids, several are my neighbors in the US and some are still home with them.  They built a new house with this nice kitchen with funds sent from their kids working in the US.


Horses in front of old wooden house, laundry drying next to new house

We first went to my Honduran family’s house.  It was so good to see them.  They were doing great.  Their house was a large, tidy cement structure uphill from their house I remembered, currently used for storing grain, which was wooden with a dirt floor.  From the porch of their new house, they called their son Ever “in America” and I spoke with him.  He told me where he lived and I almost passed out!  I had travelled over 3,000 miles and Ever was talking to me from my neighborhood back in the US!  It was truly a moment I will never forget within an amazing day I will never forget.

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Fiercely playing a hand-clap game, kids in the coffee field with banana trees and Cleverly looking a little brava

We were shepherded around like royalty, or like long-lost family.  We were given “pan dulce” (sweet yeast bread, made like cake on special occasions) and lots of coca-cola until we felt sick from all the polite eating we had to do.  We were shown photos (on a laptop!) of a local wedding we had missed by a couple of weeks (darn! would have been fun!).  Fiercely ran around with village kids almost from the get-go, but Cleverly hung back and sulked a little, earning some gentle teasing with the nickname “Brava” which is what they call a rude dog.  She warmed up eventually and made a friend.


Marta and daughters making pan dulce in an outdoor wood-fired oven.

Cleverly and Fiercely spent the week running around with village kids, also helping with some chores like baking pan dulce, doing laundry, and picking avocados.  I visited and was visited by people I had worked with and general people I remembered, and some I didn’t.  I loved how I was welcome everywhere, both as entertainment and because Hondurans are genuinely excellent hosts.  I could literally walk into a stranger’s house and they would chat with me for a while, people would call to me from doorways as I walked by.

It was just lovely to see Don Berto’s farm where he was practicing natural farming that we had worked on all those years ago.  And he was as energetic and full of stories as always, giving us a tour of his medicinal plants, crops, and his hilly little farmland a short hike from the village.

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Picking avocados from the tree, walking through the center of town – church on left has new towers since I lived there, blue building used to be a school but now for meetings

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…

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!