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

 

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

Notable Honduran Sights and Sounds

As we near the end of our three years in Honduras, the ticking clock is a reminder to enjoy the time we have left. The following are a few thoughts and images of notable moments.

Tegucigalpa   IMG_8051

While drinking coffee in our garden, an almost imperceptible coughing sound came from the bushes. My eyes spied shadowy movement in the Hibiscus, where a magnificent, deep green and shimmering humming bird drew nectar from a salmon blossom tinged with yellow, levitating like a magical fairy.

A cacophony of sound surrounds the patio this morning: honking cars and revving engines, struggling against the ascent of steep hills, nearly drowning out the whistling of a pedestrian. Wind chimes bump in the light breeze, sending out bright notes like clinking crystal glasses while a squawking parrot interrupts the purr of the a/c unit next door.

Papery palm leaves scratch against the stucco wall. Men pushing a cart through the streets call out for broken items, ringing a bell reminiscent of childhood ice cream trucks.

Honduyate, Lago De Yajoa, and Pulhapanzak Falls

A day that includes boats and calls for binoculars and a good camera lens is a good day. Careful steps on the rickety bridge led us through yellow and lime-colored grasses that hid condors and cranes.

The metal cable emitted a high pitched whir as we zip-lined over a 43-meter, thunderous waterfall with birds dipping and diving in the spray beneath us. We fell asleep to the sounds of crickets and cicadas.

How fortunate to drink coffee in a hammock under a tree with purple flowers, next to a babbling brook.

Pico Bonito and Garifuna Island

Beans, bananas, and goaty white cheese for breakfast and fish with teeth for lunch. Unbridled dancing in the sand with locals and a group hug with a sloth. Laughter and toucans, turquoise water, and crayon-colored boats.

West Bay and Ibagari Boutique Hotel, Roatan

When the twin- prop plane broke through cumulus clouds, a glowing rainbow was revealed.

A park ranger gave Ramsay fish food and explained few shells make it to the beach in Roatan because of the “iron shore” ring of coral reefs.

Right after a shower and dressing for dinner, Ramsay unbuttoned his pressed shirt and trousers, turned on the tap and climbed quickly into the deep porcelain tub at the Ibagari  “because I just have to. Look at that tub.” Wrapped in a thick terrycloth robe afterward, he suggested, “It’s so cozy, let’s just order room service instead.”

Snorkeling before breakfast might be our favorite new beach tradition.

“Can I buy some?” Ramsay asked, referring to the well-dressed man selling banana bread out of a purple plastic cooler on the beach. We then ate the warm slices on a table with Bird of Paradise flowers, watermelon “sandia” and tamarind juices.

Visiting La Patrona, a woman-owned coffee company that is 39 years old, we learned the perfect shade of red for picking shade-grown coffee beans is called sangre de toro, and the grading process for a coffee tasting is strict.

Among many memorable things about this country, we will miss our friends here, the art, tacos and futbol, roadside vendors, picking sun-kissed blackberries at Finca La Contadora, and drinking chamomile tea made from fresh flowers.

And last, but certainly not least, Honduras brought us our beloved family dog, Biscuit, and the best companion a boy could ask for.

Gracias for these gifts, Honduras.

Nos Vemos,

Tracy