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.