Thank You Malawi 

We’ve been in the US for four weeks now and I’m delighted to report we kept to my carefully prepared US itinerary, which now has us on a one-way flight to Amsterdam.

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A Malibu wedding, a Depeche Mode concert in Santa Barbara, plenty of time with our nieces and nephews, a night out in Huntington Beach in my old local (Killarneys) with all our friends and Natalia’s birthday (30+10) weekend party/family camping trip (an absolute blast and a moment of realization for me; you don’t try to plan an event with Colombian in-laws, you just provide scheduling guidelines). I even managed to sneak in a couple of (approved) rounds of golf and a return trip to Killarneys to watch Manchester United (now at 7am).

Trying to catch-up on a year of socializing in 4 weeks took some doing (and Advil) and reminded us of everything we missed. Almost like speed dating but with relatives and friends. We got a lot of questions about our time in Malawi. But I don’t think we adequately conveyed how much we enjoyed it. I realized, after telling our stories a few times, that hardships (by US standards) and challenges are more memorable for others than hearing how much fun we had on a budget.

So, for the record, the fun was worth every minor inconvenience of Malawi life 10-times over and has us now questioning the excesses of our Western consumer-driven lifestyle. CostCo and the amount of food the US culture persuades us to buy was particularly uncomfortable for me, although the chronic over-catering of our camping event was due to my lack of meal planning.

I know traveling to unconventional locations isn’t everyone’s cup-of-tea and Natalia and I are extremely lucky to be able to do so. But don’t let the media misrepresent Malawi – it is a wonderful and safe country with the most gentle and welcoming people, and a gem of national monument; the Lake. Plus the surrounding countries are filled with incredible sights and experiences. 

I dedicated my previous post (Thank You SunnyMoney) to our wonderful colleagues in Malawi – how we miss these people. But our 1-year stay in Malawi was not just a great experience because of the personalities at SunnyMoney (and their drive to make a difference in a sustainable way) but also because of those we met during our numerous social outings, on our travels and/or who stayed with us. And because of the Malawian “warm-hearted” culture (it really isn’t just a catch phrase) – their focus on happiness through family helped me understand my army of Colombian-in-laws a bit more. Not completely obviously.

But my thanks to;

  • Isa – this is how we met but Isa was the inspiration for our field trips, specifically South Africa. Our first night in Cape Town says it all. A very talented Film Director too: check this out.
  • Lorraine – the super hero CFO of SolarAid who came to visit and had a true Malawi experience. Lorraine’s Visit.
  • Paola (fascinating and fun: read this), Emma and the team at the Mayamiko Foundation. SunnyMoney’s partner and friends. A shining example of an organization that truly makes a difference vs. the large, bloated, international NGOs.
  • Adrien (the Belgium) – who took such good care of us when we arrived. So many right decisions about living in Malawi were because of him. Never a dull day with him and we missed him when he left SunnyMoney.
  • Ronnie – such a friendly chap who sold us on visiting Uganda (much like Isa did on South Africa) and who hooked us up with his fascinating friend Jan who arranged our trip to the Gorillas and the Genocide memorial in Rwanda.
  • Juliana – our resupply visitor number two. Juliana is always up for an adventure – she even arranged a trip two weeks ago to California (from Trinidad) to see us while we were back.
  • Chisomo – our amazing Afropop dancer/friend featured in so many of our stories. Here’s the how it all started; Afropop.
  • Alan and Mem – two fun characters who have done and seen it all before on the international circuit. And Mem cooked the best meals we had in Malawi – I get hungry just thinking about her cooking now. We’ll see Alan in November when he flys into Gatwick to see his father and son (who lives 5 mins from my brother).
  • Violet and Adrian – we met the Malawian Gloria (Modern Family) one Jazz night and then both on one of many hiliarious nights out. Also, Violet was the second best United fan in Malawi.
  • Jeremy – the SolarAid chairman came to visit us in Malawi and the blogger became the blogged: Jeremy’s trip to East Africa .
  • Sally – our roommate for a couple of months, and an integral part of Team-Walton and a couple of Lake trips. Also introduced us to an exciting variation of the traditional banana bread recipe (replacing sugar with salt – obviously a Canadian thing).
  • Sam the Aussie – our passenger on our first trip to Nkhatabay, who popped up like an Australian leprechaun on our second epic trip for my birthday weekend. I plan to send him pictures of the RAV4 from time to time to give him nightmares. Super lad and another person we plan to find in the world again.
  • Mark Rutherford – a truly generous gentleman who became part of the story with his gift to the office of a Microwave.  Naty will be meeting Mark for the first time in November when we thank him face-to-face in Bologna.
  • Steve and Debbie – fellow escapees from the Corporate world. We met them in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and then again in Lilongwe and hope to find them again in the world one day.  Great people!
  • Wiseman – my personal RAV4 mechanic. Too many posts (unfortunately) to link. Just search blog for “repair”.
  • Martin “the IT Guy” – his two days setting up QuickBooks for multi-user was the biggest single step SunnyMoney made during our time. Smart and funny guy.
  • Catalina and Tim – met by Natalia via her Latinos of Lilongwe towards to end of our stay. Catalina is the arty Argentinan and Tim the English accountant who have seen the world. We wished we had more time to spend with them.
  • The entire SolarAid team for their humor and energy and the team at Accounting For International Development who placed us (and kept an eye on us).

But a special thank you to two couples;

  • Stewart and Diana (my sister-in-law and husband) – our base camp and support group in Temecula, providing vital supplies ranging from iPhone cables and battery packs to underpants. We missed them and their kids the most of all during our travels.
  • Marc and Jenni for helping us get around the globe. This time we’ve flown to see them in Amsterdam to surprise Jenni on a milestone birthday after her surprise European cruise.

Here’s a video of the moment we sprung the trap; Surprising Jenni
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So signing out from Amsterdam for now.

Thank you Malawi. But, How Big Is Your Lake?

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Rwanda Part II

A delayed follow-up to my Kigali post. This week has been a social whirlwind (more of that later) so our Rwanda trip seems a long time ago. But Rwanda is so different than the other places in Africa I didn’t want to leave the impression our only memory was the memorial.

I’ve been told Rwanda is like Germany: disciplined, controlled and well organized. But the people we met had a sense of humor. We hardly scratched the surface, arriving late Saturday afternoon and leaving early Monday, especially considering on Sunday everything is closed (a crisis to those in Team Walton who needed a shopping fix). So we’ll be back one day. But it was time to say goodbye to our van;

Naty and Safari van

We did bounce around Kigali on the Sunday via motorbike taxis. Typically you’re advised to avoid motorbike taxis in Africa where there often seems to a competition to get as many people on board (with no helmets) as possible. But in Rwanda they are required by (enforced) law to be well maintained and always carry a second helmet for one-passenger only. Great fun and quite terrifying. The taxi riders even waited until we entered the memorial, waving goodbye.

Unfortunately, the Greek restaurant (Restaurant Hellénique) recommended by our buddy Ronnie was closed. We had arrived an hour before the guard told us it would be open so we found a local bar.

Naty and Phil in Kigali bar

A couple of beers on an empty stomach and we were feeling merry but when we returned to the restaurant no dice (although we did get to meet the owner Cocolio).

Ronnie had given us a backup restaurant, New Cactus, which was within walking distance of out hotel. Off we went by foot but in the wrong direction and spent the next 60 minutes wandering around Kigali streets at dusk. Not a concern at all and an opportunity to meet very stern and professional policeman on every street corner.

So a fail on Kigali restaurants (shame as we’ve been craving Greek and Mexican food) but we didn’t care. We had used my accumulated stock of Marriott points (thank you to you-know-who) to stay at the brand new Kigali Marriott. High-end gym, Sauna, steam room – and all round luxury and a fantastic view from our balcony.

Phil and Naty on Kigali Marriott Balcony

Amazingly, I still have status with Marriott and we were invited into their lounge. No honor bar or peanuts and crackers – full free bar and wide range of tasty food for breakfast and dinner. In fact, when we found this out at check-in we were on time for dinner and smuggled Ben in and we all dined like kings.

Dining like Kings

And we invited him back for breakfast the next day, with his boss Nasser who had traveled all the way from Entebbe by bus (10 hours during the night) just to confirm our trip was a success (sure beats a customer satisfaction email) before they both left to return to Uganda.

Phil, Nasser and Ben in the Lounge

Since we’ve been back we had our anniversary and then had a surprise anniversary party at Club Destiny arranged by Violet, Carys, Isabel and friends. Delicious food and a lot of fun after a long and tiring week, followed by a spontaneous trip to Harry’s Bar and then Chez Ntemba until 2.30am. All the girls (who were feeling no pain) and me, the arm candy and designated driver (Brave and Adrian – please hurry back). We’re very lucky to have friends like this here in Malawi.

Club Destiny Anniversary Party

We were joined by our latest friend, Daniel Ruiz who we were connected with after seeing his name on an AfID bulletin saying he was in Lilongwe. Daniel is Colombian and quite a character who has traveled the world (Congo, Argentina, Myanmar) on international assignments. First we went to Wednesday night to an Indian restaurant with Carys;

Meeting Daniel

And then we rolled into a new bar for us (Vision Gaming) where we bumped into an old friend (Adrien). I’ll be back at this bar as it seems we have a common interest.

Vision Gaming

Daniel joined the party Friday night and was still dancing up a storm with the remaining girls at Chez Ntemba as we left. If you’re having a party invite a Colombian and it won’t end early.

Strangely enough, Mrs W. was on the sofa all day Saturday.

Chairs and Mail

I know I’ve described the frugal budgets at SunnyMoney. I’ve not been trying to sound honorable, just we would rather spend our money funding our Sales team’s travel to the off-grid rural communities in need for solar lights. But the result is a very low-tech office. 

Even chairs. This week our friend Alan won an office auction for us and we delivered a new office chair yesterday as mentioned last post. But I don’t think many appreciated how big a deal it was for us. So we arranged our chairs today for a line-up.

We have white and green patio chairs. A old church wooden chair that I think was carved from an oak tree. And a 4-spindle office chair with 3 wheels that is the source of much falling-off amusement.  Plus our new state-of-the-art ex-NGO chair.

It is amazing how normal this has become. Who needs more than one comfortable chair anyway? But the water cuts have started again which we are not looking forward to as you can put up with a lot if you have access to flushing toilet.

The lack of a postal service has been a difficult one too as there nothing like receiving a letter or card from time to time. Also a problem for celebrating family and friend birthdays so we thought we were quite clever by buying small wooden gifts, each carved with the names of the recipients, and mailing them from Cape Town. We had shipped the first batch back with our Intrepid Head of Finance but she still has them at home (Lorraine!) so we thought we should try a more direct route.

First envelope arrived this week at Natalia’s sister (Diana) home in California. Sliced open and contents stolen. Hate to admit it but we blamed the South African mail workers. Especially when the second envelope was safely received by our friend in San Diego, with 3 items for Lori and her two girls and two envelopes to forward onto my friend’s son (for Graeson’s first birthday) and to our wedding flower girl, My Linh.

Envelopes to Graeson and My-Linh arrived opened and contents stolen. So if anyone knows a Californian postal worker with family members named Diana, Graeson and My-Linh please let me know and I’ll send them a picture of the men’s toilet at our office.

A long Easter weekend coming up and the gang is off Thursday evening to Manchogi and Palm Beach to celebrate Carys’ birthday (30th -sshhh!).

I suspect plenty of blog material to come on this.