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

, , ,

A Process of Unfurling

There are always those first night noises in a new home that take some getting used to, such as the loud clanging as cars drive over a loose metal grate outside our front door. Standing in the garden each morning, I relish the temperate climate and beautiful bird calls. I smile at the sight of fuchsia roses blooming, but feel isolated inside high walls and loops of wire studded with unfriendly razors. I try to remember that in our apartment in Cairo, I would long for a patch of grass, which we now have in Honduras.

IMG_7697

I see a crow flying overhead with a twig in its mouth, nesting just like me. It hasn’t sunk in yet that I live in Central America. I’m not a guest here. I’m a neighbor. This is all part of the transition, acclimating to the newness of everything, and practicing gratitude to buoy myself on challenging days. Making meals from small grocery runs and figuring out what’s near our neighborhood without a car. There must be 8 sets of keys for all our doors and I never seem to get it right the first time. Our alarm didn’t work upon arrival because “someone stole the fiber optic cables a few days beforehand.” My broken Spanish fails me, and I feel defeated, until I remember I have Google Translate on my phone, but then hear in my head the repeated advice:  “don’t take your phone out in public.” Sigh. One step forward, two steps back.

It’s overwhelming trying to ascertain what are the real dangers vs. those just perceived? Can I really not walk around the city during the day at all? “Absolutely not.” and “Yes…before dark, but no jewelry, no purse, and dress down” are the different answers. So, I make the choice to venture out on foot, albeit carefully, and buy myself flowers at a tiny roadside tienda 2 blocks from my house.  I return with a sense of victory. Is this ridiculous behavior on my part? Is my reaction? I don’t know yet, frankly.

It’s always about 3 weeks into these international moves that something shifts for the better. My mind that has been racing starts to slow down, my thoughts no longer like a skittish cat. We have found good coffee, sleep comes more easily, and we are feeling more centered. My body that has been on high alert and achy from moving furniture starts to relax. I can begin planning beyond today and a process of unfurling happens incrementally.

Happiness in life really is about the little things. I get out with some great women for lunch and we explore a lovely pueblo outside of town. I make my first Honduran purchase, a pretty hand-carved lantern made of clay and green marbles. It seems fitting, this gift of illumination for our home.

IMG_7705

On a second outing,  I venture downtown with another expat who has lived here a few years. I’m elated by the pretty architecture, careful landscaping of a gorgeous courtyard, the rich history, and colorful markets. Too, though, there is peeling paint, graffiti, areas of abject poverty, too much litter in the river, and the story of a bus driver who was shot for not paying taxes to the extortionists. Like any relationship, in committing to a new country, you get to know the good, bad, and the ugly. (I usually end up falling in love with these countries, even the tough ones).

The house is settling in a bit with the arrival of our art, books, photos, carpets, pillows and blankets, pots and pans and favorite coffee mugs. Things that make me feel more like me. Organically, we have all quietly created spaces in the house that are “ours.” An office for Brad, a toy room for Ramsay, a writing space for me. And today, I got out my fountain pen and my journal, a sure sign that everything else is okay and I have time now to sit and ponder, feeling fortunate to be a part of this very interesting life in this new place. The journey continues… oxoxo, Tracy