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 billion 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

 

Bones, Branches, and a Lemur

Winter in the southern hemisphere gets down to the brass tacks of nature. The cold in Swaziland isn’t too harsh, but dry fields burn bright orange as wild fires blaze, scorching the earth to regenerate the soil.  Leaves are brittle and dry. Roads are dusty. Winds howl through the naked trees.

The heater in our old Landy works pretty well. It was not love at first sight, driving this old beast, but she has become a symbol of road trips and African adventure for our family. We recently journeyed to Ndlovu camp in Hlane Royal National Park. It has no electricity in its thatched huts called rondavels.  When you check in to get your key (that has no door number, just the name “Big Hut,” ) you see bones and skulls displayed of hippos, crocodiles, deer, and lions.

As we settled in, the late afternoon sun waIMG_0682s setting behind brambles, the light resembling stained glass. Encroaching darkness cast elephant-sized shadows all around, diminishing the details of our ambient room. A woman came by to light our kerosene lamps.Nightjars called, and a bright white crescent appeared with a billion sparkling stars. A bare tree, starkly silhouetted against the moon-lit  sky, had branches dotted with so many stars that they looked like snow flakes.

IMG_0759In the absence of electricity was a gorgeous quiet; no usual house hums of fridge or gadgets. It was so silent, in fact, that I heard a faint ringing in my ears.

I piled on the blankets and read a book by flashlight.

Close to midnight, there was rustling in the living room. I walked toward the noise with a lamp and saw a wild cat staring at me with big ears, a long, ringed tail, and spots. This was no kitty cat. I sort of scream-whispered, “Brad, wake up! There is a wild cat in here with spots!”…(One of those sentences in life you think you’ll never say) . “What IS IT?” Will it bite the baby?!“ is all I could squeak out.

After some harried discussion, we decided there was a lemur in our rondavel. (Techinically, this animal is called a genet, as we later learned). As my husband says, he “thought when we closed the door to our hut, we were keeping the wildlife out.”

In the end, our furry visitor was harmless and crept his way back out into the night through a hole in our thatched roof.  And the rondavel was peaceful once again.

Be Illumined this month, and may nothing dim your light,

Tracy

 

A Swaziland Season: Things to Remember

IMG_9167Our family has six months left here in Mbabane. There are so many things I want to remember. “There is such vibrancy of life here,” my husband says. I nod my head.

IMG_5972Swaziland can be so beautiful that it makes you stand still in awe. I never tire of taking in the sight of lush green mountains and big, beautiful flowering trees that surround us, or watching the way light filters through wide banana leaves.

Life here is slower, and teaches us to be more patient. I am grateful for the stillness of early morning, when I can see both the moon and the sun, and dew glistens on the flowers.

IMG_7093Sometimes, rain falls so hard it sounds like drums on the ground, blurring the lines of the mountains and landscape. It washes out roads. Fog envelops our house, its milky swirls obscuring the windows.  Then, skies clear to reveal a gorgeous rainbow, followed by bright, burning sun.

IMG_7865In Malkerns, I overheard these directions: ” Just go down Rainbow Road until you pass all of the chickens where the pineapples are.” I don’t know where that leads, but the description made me want to go there, too.

I’ve discovered how colorful (and funny-looking) birds, lizards, butterflies and grasshoppers can be, right here in our yard (and sometimes in the house). And how animals are cheeky, like the time a monkey took our toast.

And how a stick is not just a branch, but can be used to stir a pitcher of juice, to start a fire, build a home or a market stall.  A stick can become a child’s toy, assistance for walking up hills, or provide protection from wild dogs.IMG_7388I want to hold the images in my mind of:  The emanating smiles and joy of people here, who have so. very. little. Women in dresses working in the fields, babies blanketed to their backs. Hope House_MacdonaldBarefoot cyclists,truck beds crowded with workers braving the elements, children herding cows, wheelbarrows so full of logs, children and heavy loads, one wonders how it doesn’t topple over. Men wearing ski hats in very hot weather. Earth and stone houses with corrugated tin roofs. Tall, spindly Century Trees, and flat, spreading umbrella Acacias. Bone dry river beds, til the rains come.  Men sitting in the dirt by the road, wearing animal fur headbands and loin cloths.  Grilling corn and meat on the roadside- the fire even burns in the rain- not sure how they do it. Burning orange sunsets. And the popping colors of markets.

IMG_4898Hearing the clicking sounds interspersed in lilting siSwati language. Listening to our son speak Zulu. Roosters, peacocks, songbirds, crickets, people singing in the distance, horns and happy cheers at football (soccer) games.  The silence.

I love that our gardener eschewed a mole in our garden by smashing fresh ginger and garlic into a paste on a rock, mixed the paste with water, and poured it into all of the holes. ( It worked!  Who needs pesticide and chemicals)?

I also love that we can pick bananas, oranges, lemons, tomatoes, and avocados right outside. And how delicious the mangoes are here. The salty taste of biltong and the rich, melting flavor of braised oxtail.

We don’t take it for granted that we drive 15 minutes from home and see Zebras. And check the hot springs for crocs before going for a swim.IMG_9146IMG_3985

 

 

 

 

There are so many bits of magic that I hope we can remember to hold in our hearts.

“Let yourself be living poetry.”  -Rumi

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ngiyabonga,

Tracy