Sunday, January 9, 2011

What Does it Say About Me?

We are 6 months into a 3 year assignment and I am already compiling a list of where I would like to go next, and by default where I don't want to go. Exactly what does that say about me? It's no secret that I wasn't thrilled about Frankfurt and now we are in Malawi and I am counting the days until R&R this summer. It's not that Malawi is awful, aside from the giant hairy spiders, mostly it is just boring. And expensive. Very expensive. Which means that we have very little money left to get out of here and go do something.

How expensive can it be you ask? Well milk is currently running about around 9 dollars a gallon, butter is around 10 dollars a pound, don't even bother to ask about cheese or meat. A bottle of Johnson's tear free baby shampoo is around 8 dollars, and that's the little bottle. Diesel is around 4.30 a gallon and gasoline (petrol) is just over 5 dollars a gallon. But wait, don't you embassy types get a COLA (cost of living allowance) to help deal with this kind of stuff. Why yes we do, thank you for asking, but sadly the COLA here is considerable less than it was in Frankfurt and yet we spend a whole lot more on daily living expenses than we ever did in Frankfurt. It makes no sense what so ever. I don't get it.

On top of the expense there is really nothing to do here. Nothing at all. This is truly a post that the can be nice if you get along well with the other people at post (we do thank goodness!) and are into socializing with your co-workers at each other's houses. If you are looking to go out to eat once in a while, or have a drink at a club, Malawi isn't the place for you. If you are into hosting frequent dinner parties maybe you can make it work.

The only houses with a pool or tennis court are assigned to the DCM and the Ambassador. Thankfully the DCM allows regular hours for the embassy community to use the pool, and there is a sign up for the tennis courts at the ambassadors. The British High Commission has a club and Americans diplomats are allowed to join for a fee. We spend at least one day every weekend when it isn't raining sitting by the club pool hanging out while the kids play. It is too cold to swim during dry season so I am not sure what we will do then. Other than the British club there are no places to go hang out with the family. No kids sports teams other than the ones associated with the school, no swimming pools, no playgrounds, no gyms, no music lessons, no stables (there used to be one but she closed up shop and left town), no movie theater, no bowling alley, not much of anything really. There are only about 10 restaurants in town and they are pretty pricey. Seriously we ate out at a Thai place in Frankfurt on a regular basis for far less than a basic meal out here. There is a really good Indian place just down the road from us but dinner for just me and Dave will run about $60. We don't eat out much.

Most people try to get out of town on a regular basis for sanity reasons. There are lots of lodges along the lake of varying quality. Some are reasonably nice, some are real dumps, none are really up to to American or European standards no matter what they advertise. Almost all of them charge per person. That very quickly puts them out of our price range with a family of five. Lake Malawi is close enough for a day trip and has some nice snorkeling and diving. But you do risk contracting bilharzia and we are not allowed to drive outside of Lilongwe after dark so that really limits day trips. You have to always be aware of the time and make sure to allow enough time for traffic accidents blocking the road, changing weather conditions and detours so that you arrive back in Lilongwe before dark. The one saving grace is many of the lodges have campgrounds but you need to make sure that you bring all important camping gear with you in your HHE. We didn't, but you can be sure that we will be loading up this summer when we are home in the states.

Do I regret coming here? No, I really don't. This is the perfect time to be in Africa for my family. The kids are still young high school isn't an issue yet, all the embassy high schoolers I know of go to boarding school, and the boys don't mind hanging out with their parents. Malawi doesn't have many of the security issues that plague other African posts. We are still managing to fit in some great trips, just not as often as I would like. We have already gone to Zambia on safari and will most certainly go again. We are going to Victoria Falls and Botswana during spring break, and next year sometime we will head to Cape Town, South Africa. All of these trips set us back a great deal of money and take a good deal of planning so that we don't blow the budget, and are able to continue building our savings. I simply wish there had been a bit more honesty in advertising regarding Malawi.


Connie said...

I had no idea it could be so pricey there. You have a big yard, perhaps you can get your own buffalo for milk and homemade cheese? Teach it to stomp on spiders? Maybe you need goats for that? :p I understand the want for honesty about the post... it's best to know, positive and negative, before you get there because finding out the bad stuff (and every place has cons) only after you hit the dirt is simply rude, and doesn't help adjustment. You're doing future residents a big favor by posting!

A said...

Are you sure your not writing about Canada? Just kidding, I think I need to suck it up more about Canada. A lot of things are easy - Michaels 3 miles away, any grocery item I could want except normal tasting Oreos - no problem. Milk does cost $11 for 4 liters, cheese about $8. We also have the boarding school allowance and have had to use it this year. I find this shocking because we are in CANADA, not someplace like Malawi!
Then of course there is medical care but that is another story....

A Daring Adventure said...

Shannon, thank you SO MUCH for this amazingly honest post. I had no idea that a post like Malawi could mean that expenses are that incredibly high. I mean, one always thinks that a post like Malawi would mean LESS expenses. So it's wonderful and so, so helpful to hear the truth. Thanks for saying it out loud. I adore you and your blog.

Shannon said...

I think a number of posts, not just Canada (boarding school, really??) and Malawi suffer from a case of false advertising. It is not that I am not OK with serving a tour here, I actually think in many ways it is idyllic for the kids, its that I want to know what I am getting into ahead of time. The picture painted of the school by both the school and CLO was extremely misleading and one of the reasons we bid on this post, so I am still dealing with that issue and as soon as all my kids are out of BMIS I will have a whole lot more to say on that subject.

The housing was advertised as "the best housing in Africa" ... ummm NO! That will be a different blog post, soon I promise.

I don't like being lied to or mislead and it causes a lot of problems with morale at post that could be avoided by simple up front honesty.

Kate Husband said...

Shannon -- I am so sorry! I had imagined Malawi to be more like Lusaka. We didn't have a whole lot of options there, but I had a LOT more than you do! I think homeschooling/ school issues really makes the rest of it even harder. It did for me anyway, and we had good options for activities off our premises. Plus, we had a pool! Lots of love heading your way from me -

Jae said...

Wow, I didn't realize how expensive food is! I know Germany wasn't cheap but $9 bucks for milk is a bit steep! Sounds like living WAY out in the country, sorta ... it's just you and the neighbors, and well, that's that. A quiet life. Yup, I'd be looking into the next post too!

Shannon said...

It was represented as being a whole lot like Lusaka. I had specifically asked about riding and was told there was a stable. Should have looked into it more. There is a stables for boarding your horse only. No lessons. I am NOT buying a horse.

I specifically asked about music/dance lessons and was told yes. In fact there were even adds in the newsletter for piano and ballet. Got to post and found that the numbers listed were disconnected and the lessons no longer existed, the I think providers had been attached to another mission and have left post. A lot of that type of stuff has been/is being rectified. The new newsletter editor calls every add and verifies that the service is still available on a regular basis. So it looks like there is a lot less going on when you read the newsletter but at least the info given is now accurate.

pillarofpeace said...

I'm shocked to hear how expensive it is there and now feel like a big crybaby because I was complaining about $20 pasta dishes at restaurants around town. Thanks for the honest post.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you whine a lot. I travel to Malawi at least 2-3 times each year for work for a nonprofit, and rarely have trouble filling my evenings and weekends with activities.

Try making some friends with locals (not just other expats), and you'll be invited to parties, weddings, concerts and all kinds of other activities, for next to no cost. Yes, food and petrol are expensive there, but you can definitely offset some activities very cheaply--the Crossroads Hotel has a gym and pool that are cheap for day use, the Four Seasons has free Sunday evening jazz concerts under the stars, there are several pickup soccer clubs in town, and there are even groups offering yoga.

With a little creativity and a willingness to step outside of your compound, you'll find it's a very pleasant, friendly country, that while quiet, is not without entertainment! If I can do it only being there 6 weeks of the year, you surely can do it living there year round! Good luck.

Shannon said...

Dear Annoymous,

I am glad you like Malawi, I do as well. I think you missed the point. There are indeed some things for adults to do. You forgot to mention the hash, the quilting club, the walking group, the book club, and the volleyball tournaments at the shack.

However there is little for a child to do outside of school. The most of the things you mentioned are not child friendly events, nor are most of the above.

I was told there were music lessons, horse riding lessons and plentiful, affordable day trips. I was also told that groceries were about the same price as DC. We spend 2 to 3 times what we did on groceries in the states or even Europe.

You visit for 6 weeks a year, without children. We will live here for three years with a family of 5. As I said I am glad we came here, I simply wish had I given had a more realistic picture of Lilongwe ahead of time.

Jill said...

Shannon - you are absolutely right. The realities of living in a country vs traveling there for 2 - 3 weeks at a time are vastly different. You are dealing with an entirely different set of circumstances that someone merely visiting wouldn't... despite them knowing activities that could potentially be available.

I think you are extremely brave to write about this. People DO need to know about this if they're bidding there.