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!


Connecting to Source

Returning to America for a few months between country assignments abroad, we don’t take its conveniences for granted. Taxpayer money is working here, I note after returning a library book, driving by safe, clean playgrounds, delighted by the lack of trash in the streets and how well-paved the roads are, like smooth jazz, I think to myself after years of potholes.

After parking mere feet from the entrance of the grocery store (in a well-marked parking space), I enter to find it sparkly clean with well-stocked shelves. And, at self-check-out, there’s no need to convert currencies-I’m in and out in a flash. Before it’s even 9:30 in the morning, I’ve got all of my ingredients for dinner and have wrapped up errands without stress; not a feat easily achieved in developing countries.

On the other hand, because it’s so easy to pop into Target, Old Navy, Trader Joe’s, and stores with everything we need (and so much more that we don’t, but I”m a victim of marketing), I find myself in commercial spaces more frequently here. I realize, too, how much I miss having personal connections with local merchants like we do overseas.

In Cairo, I enjoyed asking Haani, the man with kind eyes who ran the street corner market if anything new had arrived. “Yes,” he would say, proudly pointing out a glass jar of rock salt collected from the flats in the Siwa valley. “There is a video about this salt- you would like to see?” He once asked, opening his phone before I could reply.

I watched his mobile screen with wonderment as it displayed a desert landscape with salt pools resembling the surface of the moon. When I handed him Egyptian pounds to buy the spice, he said, “Shoukran” (thank you.) “I don’t have change…but next time, ok?” I smiled and nodded as he handed me a tiny pack of gum as a show of faith.

Near our house in Honduras, Ramsay practiced Spanish at roadside stands as we bought produce directly from the families who grew it. And in Swaziland, with a mix of Siswati, broken English, and grins, I got updates about the infrequent (coveted) arrival of black beans and goat cheese. Those exchanges took a bit more effort but ultimately felt deeply rewarding.

Perhaps because in the states, we rarely know the story and person behind the sale, I’ve attempted to be more consciously aware of what we are buying. I admit that I still swipe my credit card at times without considering what it took for that product to end up in my hands, but I try to remember the ripple effect our purchases have; the impact it makes to support small businesses and farmers directly when we can.

“Do you know what that’s made of?” I ask our son Ramsay when he points to a Minecraft T-shirt with an expression of please, mom?

He stares at me blankly and takes a guess. “Cotton?”

We look at the tag and see it does have some cotton, (blended with synthetics I can’t pronounce) next to “Made in Vietnam.” We talk about the people and businesses involved in its manufacturing, and how much travel that T-shirt endured-perhaps in trucks, cargo ships, and planes in order to now hang where we are standing.

As a woman who grew up in Columbus, Georgia, a town known for its textile mills, I ask Ramsay to think about the T-shirt’s journey, how it may have been part of a supply chain beginning with cotton growing in a field that had to be combed, cleaned, and bleached then sent to a factory with large looms to weave it into fabric, involving many hands, countries and multiple machines. His eyes get big.

“Pretty amazing all of that work and travel went into this one T-shirt, right?” He nods, brow furrowed in thought.

On our next road trip, I make a point to stop by a cotton field to show Ramsay where the T-shirt began, to connect to its source, My lips form a smile as I see Ramsay’s mind turning, hopefully with a deeper appreciation as a future consumer who will be interacting with the wide world around him.