A Peackock and an Elephant

The rainy season arrived in Gabon with hypnotic, heavy drops that drummed on the tin roof. Downpours saturated the earth, forming reflecting pools in the garden. Leaves faced skyward, unfurling on their branches to catch the water like outstretched hands.

Afternoon clouds parted, so we walked to the beach behind our compound. The air smelled freshly washed. Kingfishers fanned their wings to dry.

“Elephants live over there,” I told Ramsay, pointing to the isthmus across the estuary.

“Really? Right there?” he gestured to the thin, blurry line of trees on the horizon.

I understood his confusion. Although the strip of land across the water looks fairly close, our house is nestled in a congested, urban area inhabited by a few bats and birds, but not by pachyderms.

“Yes, it’s Pongara National Park, accessible by boat. We’ll go there.”

I’d made the half-hour crossing across the Gabon Estuary only once before. It was a day trip with friends to the lovely Baie de Tortues resort, where a woman greeted us with a welcome drink and then gave us a tour of the property.

On the boardwalk, she stopped abruptly. “Une paonne,” she said, pointing. Rolling the word around in my mouth, whispering it slowly, pa-onne, I flipped through my mental Rolodex of French vocabulary and came up blank. Then I saw what she meant; a live peacock on the porch of a thatched-roof bungalow.

The vastly different landscape felt further away than the thirty-minute journey from home. Here, the sun danced across clean water that spilled onto unpolluted, powdery beaches. Palm fronds arched over the sand, casting long shadows like the arms of a ballerina.

We soaked in the salty sea until the scent of grilling meat and fish lured us to lunch.

Two months later, I crossed the estuary once more; this time with Brad and Ramsay. Cresting silvery-jade waves, our roofless motorboat rose and fell beneath an encroaching storm.

Maybe we should’ve wrapped our overnight satchels in a clean trash bag, I considered as I envisioned drenched clothes from the threatening skies hovering above. But the weather held, and minutes later, we sighed a breath of relief when the woolen wall receded.

The hosts of Pongara welcomed us into their spacious lodge, decorated with carved animals and tribal masks. Looking like a watercolor painting, the open-air, wooden structure blended into a backdrop of savanna grass, forest, and sea.

We were offered a late breakfast of croissants, mango, passion fruit, and Gouda cheese. The coffee was good and strong. When I commented on this, the chef brought out the bag from the kitchen, proud to show me the beans were African, from Cameroon.

The boys played mancala, a strategic game not unlike backgammon, that involves taking your opponent’s seed pods.

At the nearby lagoon where we were told, “There are crocodiles, but they are small and not offensive,” we kept vigilant just in case, stepping gingerly through the shade.

Inside our bungalow, the air conditioning unit fogged the nearby window. Beads of evaporation made slow trickles, like veins on the glass. An optical illusion formed; one window reflected in another, creating a nature collage.

On the sunny porch, it was hot. Ants were plentiful- on the ground, on the wall, on the lounge chairs. I gently brushed them in another direction and focused on the lovely bird calls and rhythmic waves.

On a beach walk, the birds were elusive to photograph, so I focused the lens instead on patterns of bark, designs in the sand, and watery reflections.

Beneath an abandoned, overturned barge, water lapped and clanged eerily against the rusty metal.

On an afternoon hike, birds, locusts, frogs, and crickets chattered simultaneously, adding to the mystique of trekking deeper into the shadowy wilderness. I swatted away a thick swarm of mosquitoes, grateful for anti-malarial meds.

A bird in the forest made the exact two-tone squeak of a rusty swing, momentarily transporting me to childhood.

Movement in the bushes on the far side of a field caught our eye. A baby elephant! The guide, Abdul, explained it wasn’t young; rather, forest elephants are smaller than the ones that roam across East Africa.

Abdul paused to show us tree sap from an Okome tree. The sap is flammable and can be used in villages as a torch. Its smoke is a natural mosquito repellent.

“It has a soul,” he said, patting the tree. “It takes our carbon dioxide and turns it into the oxygen we breathe. Nature gives us much.”

A monkey flung itself from a branch, its mischievous face changing from intently curious into a comical grin. I got a blurry shot from the camera lens, steamy from humidity. Chimpanzees screamed to one another in a faraway canopy.

We stopped to examine an elephant print and Ramsay found an iridescent beetle exoskeleton in the leaves.

After lunch, we kayaked through the mangroves to the mouth of the river where it touches the sea. Gnarly brown roots bent like fingers and clawed at the brackish water, creating mirror-like reflections. As a “goliath” heron glided over the river, it’s silhouette chased behind.

The next day, toting binoculars and cameras, we clamored into an ATV for a safari. The small truck chugged through muddy trails and over rough terrain. A breath caught in my throat as our tires crossed a rickety, wooden-plank bridge over a rushing river. We ducked to avoid vines dangling like thick, twisted ropes.

A clearing appeared. In the bright green grasses of the savanna, buffaloes stood with birds on their backs. A vulture lorded over the field from a barren tree, keeping a watchful eye on a leaping antelope.

Our overnight adventure ended too soon. As an unexpected gift before leaving Pongara, Ramsay found a discarded pinwheel. Under fair skies, it spun wildly in the wind like a celebration.

Moments of Merriment and Where I’ve Been Lately

A Heartfelt and Happy (quite belated) New Year!

You haven’t heard from me lately because not only did we receive our international shipment of household goods, (hundreds of boxes, now unpacked), but a Christmas miracle happened! After five months in our new country without transport- our car arrived by boat to Central Africa from Japan! Freedom! Hooray!! I’ve been exploring… stories to come.

After settling in those first months, we took a break from tropical Gabon during the holidays in search of a change of seasons, Christmas lights, and festive spirit. Here are a few moments that charmed us on our trip to Paris and Munich.

As darkness blanketed Paris, trees lining the Champs-Elysee came alive, illuminating the avenue with enchanting champagne glass shapes with moving, silver twinkling lights simulating bubbles.

The upscale patisserie Laduree had special holiday macarons in flavors of pine and rosemary, and even one coated in gold-leaf like pirate treasure.

Ramsay, age ten, wanted to go into Rolex. “There aren’t toys in there- just very expensive watches,” I said.

Undaunted, he passed through security and entered the crowded shop with confidence. His intuition served him well. After a quick tour inside, he exited smiling. He had gotten a photo with Santa and was given a cup of hot cocoa along with a cola-flavored candy cane. (Well done, Rolex! Kudos to their brand manager in Paris).

We were enticed by the gorgeous window displays and festive Christmas music in the shops. For my own stocking, I was delighted to find Damman Freres loose tea and good quality stationery. Chef Brad was bewitched by a single fried egg-sized, gleaming copper pan.

Rams used Christmas money to purchase an instant Polaroid camera. In the cold, when it took a long time for his first photograph to develop, we thought perhaps it wasn’t working, but once inside the warm lounge of the Crillon Hotel, to the sound of live piano, the picture emerged.

Through the train window in Germany, I was moved by the silhouette of black birds flying across snow-covered fields.

In Marienplatz, there was a contagious joyful spirit with live Mozart bands, carolers, an enormous Christmas tree, and happy dogs with their owners strolling about. We were impressed when a knight in shining armor slayed a horseman in the moving Glockenspiel.

And oh, the winsome wooden huts strung with lights at night in the Christmas Markets! Frosted gingerbread cookies, wooden ornaments, and artisan crafts. We found a darling ceramic house with candlelight glowing through its windows.

Our nightly ritual for our few days in Munich was to browse Christmas markets in the evening and hold warm, stocking-shaped mugs of marshmallows floating in hot chocolate and clove and cinnamon-spiced gluhwein. The delicious scent of doughnuts, crepes, and grilled sausages wafted from the stalls with steam rising into the cold air.

At the Hofbrauhaus, a Bavarian oompah band played, men wore lederhosen, and we ate oversized pretzels, bratwurst, and sauerkraut and drank from and steins. There was also a game or two of gin rummy with Batman cards. (Ramsay is practicing so he can beat Gran when we visit the U.S. this summer).

We had a gorgeous day trip driving through the snow-capped mountains to the opulent Neuschwanstein Castle. We took a horse-drawn carriage and enjoyed learning there were mysterious circumstances around King Ludwig the 2nd’s death.

On our return to Munich, we made a detour to see a stunning, cobalt lake, have a snowball fight, and giggle our way down a hill while tobogganing.

And to complete our trip, a yodeling Lego lady.

Wishing you joy and merriment in 2023, with experiences that make you feel alive!


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