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

 

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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Creativity & Culture- Off the Beaten Path

In a discussion with chef Luis Valesquez, a local Honduran friend, about the artisan crafts he displays in his Gastro Gallery, he mentioned a town an hour north of Tegucigalpa that had larger-than-life street art covering its walls. I was intrigued. How could this be? I’d been here three years and never heard of this nearby museum outdoors.

Research revealed that this inspirational project in the historical town of Catarranas, founded in 1667 by Spanish rulers, stemmed from artist Javier Espinal. In 2011, he proposed to transform the city’s walls with art. With government investment from the San Juan de Flores municipality, and In collaboration with artists from Honduras, Mexico, Columbia, and Argentina, more than fifty vibrant murals depicting themes of light, peace, and the roots of Honduras were created. (Artists’ signatures are painted on their talented works).

Wanderlust propelled me to take my son out of school and go exploring. I live with perpetual fernweh: a German word meaning “a longing for unseen places.” Like a racehorse stuck at the gate, every so often, I have the desire to break away from daily life and reconnect with something bigger. A friend who home-schools her son agreed, and off we went on our field trip.

We drove the tree-lined, winding RN-25 route north of Valle de Angeles until we entered the tropical cloud forest in the mountains. Thick mist blurred the the two-lane highway until twenty minutes beyond, when the sun returned, this hidden gem called Catarranas, meaning “singing frogs,” appeared.

Walking to the main square to get our bearings, we paused to admire a few sculptures near the pretty iglesia. We were awe-struck by the innovation before us as we ambled through cobblestone streets to find a stunning trompe l’oeil painting “spilling” down the stairs. Another artist used a home’s door as a book shelf, and a narrow alley was shaded by a canopy of crayon-colored umbrellas. This town was wonderfully alive with magical details, surrealism, and movement in those brush strokes.

On the way home, we made a brief detour where my friend had taken a pottery class in San Juancito, which for a tiny village, was teeming with history. It was the site of the original American Embassy in Honduras, housed the first electrical plant in all of Central America, and was one of the country’s first gold and silver mining towns.

Adjacent to an unassuming cafe was a factory, once a soda bottling plant, that now makes pottery, handmade paper, blown glass, and woven baskets.

At the end of the day, I was buzzing from the immersion of creativity and culture. Coupled with the freedom of walking outdoors, feeling safe with our cameras, and soaking up the friendly smiles of locals, it was one of my favorite days in Honduras.

Le Vaya Bien. Go Well.

Tracy