About Tracy MacDonald

A joyful writer, photographer, mixed-media artist, and seeker of beauty on this amazing journey.

Gabon: Our New Equatorial Home

Our three-year assignment in Libreville began with a curious incident at the airport. With six rolling suitcases in tow, we exited the customs area, where a uniformed man was inspecting a styrofoam box. “Pangolin,” he said in a defeated French accent, shaking his head. A quick search later on my phone revealed that Pangolin, an ant-eater-looking animal, is poached in the Congo Basin for its scales. On a positive note, we’ve also learned that Jeff Bezos’ Earth Fund has pledged $35 million to Gabon for conservation efforts.

During our first two weeks, jetlag morphed into temporary overwhelm, discerning the perils and promises ahead. Even now, commencing week three, my alligator brain craves creature comforts and familiarity. I miss having a car, but also the absence of seemingly insignificant things such as my own comfy pillow and bath mats. Air thick with humidity leaves a thin, damp sheen on the chilly tile inside our home, which seems ironic; cold feet in a tropical climate. Moisture clings to the dust I bring home after walking Biscuit outside, creating a trail of black footprints like a Sherlock Holmes cartoon across the white floor.

Hacking up a whole pineapple for breakfast with a dull blade, I long for my sharp kitchen knives. “Mom, I didn’t know pineapple came in octagonal shapes,” Ramsay teases. I practice yoga breathing and concentrate on finding the beauty and counting our blessings: we are safe, our condo has a screen porch, we live near the ocean, people are kind, and I’m able to converse with the locals in French. In the evenings, lovely pastel colors bleed into the sky as we watch a fiery orb slip rapidly behind the horizon.

Having grown up in the U.S. on the east coast, it seems odd to view the Atlantic from the west. Below swaying palms, corpulent trunks of driftwood lay strewn across Libreville’s beaches, their chalky branches reaching toward the ocean with knarled, thirsty fingers. Tangles of roots like wild, messy hair add to the untamed seascape. The scenery is gorgeous, but the water near our house isn’t swimmable due to sewage, old shoes, plastic bottles, and shards of the forgotten. Perhaps Ramsay and I can participate in beach clean-ups and join the Sea Turtle Patrol we’ve heard about.

There have been surprises, good and bad. After accepting an impromptu invitation for a glass of wine on the beach to bid an embassy friend farewell whom we’d only just met, my mouth hung open slightly when bats appeared with the wingspans of crows and heads nearly as big as kittens. (not kidding). But the next morning, also taking flight, were uplifting lemon-yellow weaver birds, turquoise-tinged Kingfishers, and a grey and red parrot; the yin and yang of living in an exotic locale.

Parts of the city resemble the Caribbean, full of tropical vibes, dance music, and riotous color: the brightly painted houses, cheerful Hibiscus, lizards with orange tails, and exotic flora and fauna. As in many developing nations, the stunning beauty here is juxtaposed with dilapidation and brokenness behind the scenes, especially the trash on the shores.

In contrast, further afield, on the outskirts of Libreville, (via a forty-minute 4×4 drive over bumpy dirt roads through the edge of the Congo forest), lies a stunning, rugged coastline where sea and sky meld into a nickel-colored light of other-worldliness.

 

Along with its rich biodiversity, Gabon hosts malaria and other infectious diseases. Week One, Ramsay broke out in bright red hives from an allergic reaction. My Mama-brain went into overdrive for days as I sterilized sheets, towels, and surfaces. Should we treat it as something fungal or bacterial? Did it come from the ocean? the pool? new sunscreen? sand fleas? new plants, fruit juice, insects… or maybe from the laundry detergent? The Malaria Meds? ( I stalk mosquitoes in the house with my hands open in attack position as if they are tiny armed robbers). Alas, the source of the outbreak is still unknown, but we are enormously grateful Ramsay is on the mend.

The local food we’ve tried so far is good. Oil-rich Gabon imports 90% of its food, much of it from France. Commonly offered are grilled kabobs “brochette” of gambas, fish, or chicken served with rice, fries, or potatoes au gratin. The French influence is apparent in the grocery stores and boulangeries. To my delight, there are abundant cheeses, macarons, fresh baguettes, and good quality tea. And Mohammed at the unmarked Lebanese place near the airport makes very tasty Shawarma. We sit on his patio overlooking the main road (one of the few that are paved), where traffic is occasionally blocked by President Bongo’s siren-happy motorcade.

In an artisan market, I was informed that many handicrafts here are imported, too. However, I did find local bird collages made with butterfly wings (and I’m hoping this art was not created from illicit trade because I love this creation).

Awaiting our air and sea shipments to make our house feel more like home, I clean the screens and windows and re-arrange the furniture to claim this new space as ours. We engage with our new community of friends and begin to develop rituals, like having coffee on the beach, going outside to watch the sunsets, and sometimes indulging in local ice cream before lunch just for fun.

As we create wish lists of places to see, we remind ourselves on the difficult days to anticipate the magic that always comes with exploring a new land.

Bonne Journee,  Tracy

 

Connecting to Source

Returning to America for a few months between country assignments abroad, we don’t take its conveniences for granted. Taxpayer money is working here, I note after returning a library book, driving by safe, clean playgrounds, delighted by the lack of trash in the streets and how well-paved the roads are, like smooth jazz, I think to myself after years of potholes.

After parking mere feet from the entrance of the grocery store (in a well-marked parking space), I enter to find it sparkly clean with well-stocked shelves. And, at self-check-out, there’s no need to convert currencies-I’m in and out in a flash. Before it’s even 9:30 in the morning, I’ve got all of my ingredients for dinner and have wrapped up errands without stress; not a feat easily achieved in developing countries.

On the other hand, because it’s so easy to pop into Target, Old Navy, Trader Joe’s, and stores with everything we need (and so much more that we don’t, but I”m a victim of marketing), I find myself in commercial spaces more frequently here. I realize, too, how much I miss having personal connections with local merchants like we do overseas.

In Cairo, I enjoyed asking Haani, the man with kind eyes who ran the street corner market if anything new had arrived. “Yes,” he would say, proudly pointing out a glass jar of rock salt collected from the flats in the Siwa valley. “There is a video about this salt- you would like to see?” He once asked, opening his phone before I could reply.

I watched his mobile screen with wonderment as it displayed a desert landscape with salt pools resembling the surface of the moon. When I handed him Egyptian pounds to buy the spice, he said, “Shoukran” (thank you.) “I don’t have change…but next time, ok?” I smiled and nodded as he handed me a tiny pack of gum as a show of faith.

Near our house in Honduras, Ramsay practiced Spanish at roadside stands as we bought produce directly from the families who grew it. And in Swaziland, with a mix of Siswati, broken English, and grins, I got updates about the infrequent (coveted) arrival of black beans and goat cheese. Those exchanges took a bit more effort but ultimately felt deeply rewarding.

Perhaps because in the states, we rarely know the story and person behind the sale, I’ve attempted to be more consciously aware of what we are buying. I admit that I still swipe my credit card at times without considering what it took for that product to end up in my hands, but I try to remember the ripple effect our purchases have; the impact it makes to support small businesses and farmers directly when we can.

“Do you know what that’s made of?” I ask our son Ramsay when he points to a Minecraft T-shirt with an expression of please, mom?

He stares at me blankly and takes a guess. “Cotton?”

We look at the tag and see it does have some cotton, (blended with synthetics I can’t pronounce) next to “Made in Vietnam.” We talk about the people and businesses involved in its manufacturing, and how much travel that T-shirt endured-perhaps in trucks, cargo ships, and planes in order to now hang where we are standing.

As a woman who grew up in Columbus, Georgia, a town known for its textile mills, I ask Ramsay to think about the T-shirt’s journey, how it may have been part of a supply chain beginning with cotton growing in a field that had to be combed, cleaned, and bleached then sent to a factory with large looms to weave it into fabric, involving many hands, countries and multiple machines. His eyes get big.

“Pretty amazing all of that work and travel went into this one T-shirt, right?” He nods, brow furrowed in thought.

On our next road trip, I make a point to stop by a cotton field to show Ramsay where the T-shirt began, to connect to its source, My lips form a smile as I see Ramsay’s mind turning, hopefully with a deeper appreciation as a future consumer who will be interacting with the wide world around him.

Beauty in Simplicity

The movers arrived; a band of brothers in matching red T-shirts, rustling packing paper and ripping long strands of clear tape. A city of cardboard was erected in our home as we watched the color drain from our surroundings.

Art, carpets, toys, and belongings were dismantled and packed away, stripping the house down to brass tacks. Biscuit, our Golden Retriever, and I both vacillated between moments of zen and anxiety, unsure of where to go, feeling a bit homeless inside our own house.

To foster a sense of normalcy while changing houses, schools, friends, and countries,(especially for our nine-year-old son, Ramsay), we have made it a point to set aside certain ingredients and supplies to do fun things: make s’mores, bake cookies, make art with leftover food coloring, watch Christmas movies.

Once the moving truck was loaded (protected by guards to prevent theft), our life in boxes drove away and we took deep breaths and prepared to ride this wave of transition. We have chosen this life, embracing this lifestyle in the foreign service; supporting American ideals abroad, helping developing nations while enjoying their cultural wonders, experiential travel, and interesting places and people.

The moves and farewells, though, every few years, are the tough parts. Eight months from now, we’ll be excited to resettle into a new house and community in Libreville, Gabon, after living in temporary housing for several months, (yet to be assigned in Virginia), while attending the Foreign Service Institute for French.

I feel a twinge of envy when I see cozy homes preparing for Christmas with pretty decorations as our bare space has been pared-down, like leafless branches in Winter. But then I remember, in the trunk of our car, I’ve saved our beat-up old Charlie Brown Christmas tree to enjoy until we leave.

Loved for a decade, this little tree has survived three international moves. With its warped shape and glued parts, it looks worn down like the Velveteen Rabbit. I bring it inside and plug it in, smiling at the glow and instant warmth it gives to the room.

In a few days, we will lock the doors, donate whatever we can’t carry, and anticipate our next adventure. For now, left behind here in Honduras are just our suitcases, a few pieces of Embassy furniture, a handful of Legos, the books we are reading, and this brightly shining tree, its light reminding us there is beauty in simplicity.

Have you ever moved during the holidays?

However you celebrate this time of year in your part of the world, may it be full of joy and health.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and abundant blessings to you and yours.

Sending Holiday Magic and tail wags and a kiss from Biscuit,

Tracy

A soulful explorer living an inspired life

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