Lost in Translation

I am sure I could have come up with something more clever for the title, something not already starring Bill Murray in a foreign country, but this is where I landed. So far, most of my experiences revolve around the use of very poorly spoken French, so it only seemed fitting....hopefully, I can paint the pictures more accurately in English. Enjoy!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Ricky the Thanksgiving Rooster

So, the thing about Libreville is this. When you find something at the store that you really, really need…or just really, really want, you should buy it. And not just one. You should buy every one they have on the shelves. Brand loyalty is a luxury. In the states, I was a loyal Las Palmas Enchilda Sauce buyer. I would skip the store brand potato chips for Utz even if they weren’t on sale. But here, you buy what you can. For example, the other day I bought frozen Halal (Arabic for “kosher”) meatballs. I don’t know why they were sanctioned, but they were. And they were good…which was a step up from the last frozen meatballs I bought which turned out to be chicken and potato ground together and cooked to form some strange crusty outside and soft and mushy inside. They did not improve the unknown jar of spaghetti sauce that I had purchased at the same time. I can only hope that “bolagnaise” on the label meant a meat that is, in fact, “halal”…and not, say for example, dog.

With Thanksgiving coming up, I knew I had to be on the lookout for certain things. And when I found them, I knew I had better buy them. For Thansgiving this year, a friend of mine who is half-American volunteered to host dinner for about 40 people – 12 couples and their ensuing offspring. Of the 24 adults, 5 ½ of us are American. The deal is this: we make Thanksgiving dinner to give the Frenchies (et al) a taste of America, and in a couple of weeks, they will make us a traditional French dinner. So, out of the Americans represented in this scenario, 2 are men and oddly, did not volunteer to cook. With an extra British friend thrown in for cooking purposes (and because we love her, of course!), there are 5 cooks. We all know that turkey is the centerpiece of any traditional Thanksgiving dinner. But, a whole turkey in Libreville, when you can find one, runs about $120 USD. I love my friends, but not that much. And it turns out, I’m not a $120 friend either, so we all went with Plan B. Everyone chose a few sides to make and agreed to buy a turkey breast or two and some legs. We would cook those, bring our sides and a proper Thanksgiving dinner would ensue.

Following the standards of Libreville shopping, I came across frozen turkey breasts and legs a couple of weeks ago, so I bought a breast and a couple of legs. I will devote an entire blog to this later, but we have a housekeeper named Elise. I adore her and she does amazing things like cook dinner when I am out getting the girls from school, so I come home to a surprise meal a time or two a week. And while I have adapted many of my habits to Libreville, the one place I still struggle is dinner. I am less of a weekly menu planner and more of a “what do I have in the house? Oh look, it’s cereal” kind of cook. Which means that whatever is available is what’s for dinner…and since I was so ahead of the game in buying my Thanksgiving turkey parts, I came home to a lovely roast turkey breast last week, which followed a deliciously baked turkey leg and potatoes the week before.

No problem I thought. I could just run out and get some more on Wednesday. Again, an entire blog will be written one of these days just to describe the joy that is grocery shopping here, but in the meantime, suffice it to say, that it can be a chore, especially when dragging three sweaty, and oftentimes, grumpy children along. Anyway, I get to the store where turkey should have been and there was none. Well, I shouldn’t say “none.” There were wings and feet. But somehow that didn’t seem quite as festive. But like I mentioned before, I am Plan B kinda girl. When faced with an obstacle, I have no problem going for the next best thing. So I bought a chicken. A big, juicy frozen chicken. My rationale was that I would get nearly as much meat from this particular bird, and it would look pretty all roasted up and brown.

I left the giant chicken out to thaw overnight and bright and early Thursday morning, it was ready to go. This is when I chose to actually looked at the label. “Coq a Mijoter” it read. Now, I know that to order steamed dumplings at the Chinese restaurant, we ask for Ravioli Mijoter…so this was a steaming chicken? Then I saw the little picture of a simmering pot. Didn’t take long to figure out that I did not buy a Roasting Chicken. I bought a Stewing Rooster. The only thing I could figure is that for a rooster to be this big, he must have been old. And probably went down with a fight. Which would explain the giant thighs, which were, as it turns out, well-muscled as opposed to plump. My cooking skills are limited to only those things with which I am familiar. Like pasta. Cooking old, angry rooster was a bit out of my league. So I did what cooks have been doing for generations, I googled it. Come to find out, “coq a vin” is the primary rooster dish of choice…but even then, half the recipes called for a Cornish game hen or some other more accommodating bird. But thanks to Bob in France, I got a 15 page blog entry complete with pictures and lengthy descriptions of his trip to the store, his conversation with the butcher, his various cooking implements, the color, size and types of pots used and the general weather conditions. There’s marinating and boiling and baking and stewing and pounding and chopping and finally eating, at which point one has become nearly too weak to hold the fork. What I really took away, though, is that roosters take days to cook. I only had 8 hours to make this bad boy edible.

OK, so what do you do to make meat more tender? You can boil it. By this time, the girls had finished laughing at me and we agreed to name our rooster “Ricky.” I got out my largest pot and in Ricky went. Only problem was that he was too big to fit.

So I had to boil him head down for the first hour, then flip him. In the midst of all of this rooster handling, it came to my attention that he still had feathers in various places. Now, not only was I boiling his butt, I was plucking feathers from his neck. It just went downhill from there. After a few hours, I gave up, threw him in a pan, tossed him in the oven and called it a day.

Fortunately, a friend had called in the meantime to tell me that she had found turkey breasts somewhere else. After I told her that I had bought a rooster and she could breathe again, I begged a proper turkey breast off of her and within an hour, the girls were downstairs making a streetside turkey purchase through her car window. Thanksgiving was saved!

But now it was time to make the rolls.

Fourteen cups of flour later, I thought everything was pretty well under control until I realized that I didn’t have a rolling pin. After mashing the dough around for a while, I went for the wine bottle…works just as well as a rolling pin.

It works even better if you have Emma in the background doing her best late-night infomercial voice “Introducing the all new 2-in-1 rolling pin! It’s the rolling pin you can drink! Perfect for my mom!” Darling child. Not one to disappoint, I poured a glass or two just to make sure it would still work half-full. It did.

Fast-forward to Thanksgiving dinner. I showed up 2 hours later than I planned, because everything I volunteered to cook required the oven…and I had been drinking wine since noon. My rooster was hard as a rock, my turkey breast was dry, the stuffing was soggy and the rolls had refused to rise and looked like “shoes” to quote a friend. I think that is only because she wanted to use “shoes” in the description but thought “they taste like shoes” would be offensive. Ironically, they all got eaten – mainly because my Italian friend said they tasted like gnocchi. Thanksgiving gnocchi…just like the Pilgrims ate.

But, in the end, I have to say, Ricky saved the day. Not only did he make a nice centerpiece, he could also be picked up by the leg, swung around and not fall apart (I have photographic evidence). PLUS, he supplied the gravy. When someone said, “Wow, this gravy is great!” I just smiled and left out the part about the rooster.

The next day, Elise helped by chopping Ricky up and cooking him down into a nice soup. When I gave it to the girls for lunch, I told them that this was part of Thanksgiving tradition, you always ate soup made from the leftovers. Emma’s response was, “Seriously? Rooster soup. That’s what you always ate after Thanksgiving?” She makes a good point. I just reminded her to be thankful it wasn’t monkey.

So from farmyard to freezer to a Thanksgiving table in Gabon, that, my friends, is the story of Ricky the Thanksgiving Rooster.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cat Tales

Lizards are so passé. After 2 months of chasing them when we first arrived, Nora moved on to bigger things. Specifically – cats. More specifically, cats found in the gutter. To her credit, the cat in question was actually not much bigger than a lizard, given the average size of lizards here.

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that Nora lost her interest in catching a lizard as soon as a stray kitten became the object of her desires. This would be fine as Nora is content to chase anything – pigeons, lizards, air molecules, whatever. The problem is her sisters. While lizards are quaint and amusing, a cat is no laughing matter.

Here’s how it all went down…

We were walking home one night from dinner. As we came up the drive to the hotel, we caught a glimpse of something in the drainage ditch alongside the hotel wall. It was just a shadow really. Only this shadow had eyes. Big, green, pleading eyes. No doubt it had heard us coming. And don’t think for one moment it didn’t know exactly what it was doing. There it was. Carefully positioned under a street light, just out of the drainage ditch enough to look pathetic, but just hidden enough to say, “I’m not desperate…I’m just hanging out in this drainage ditch. Without a mother. You know, it’s cool. I’m sure I’ll find some trash to eat. Or a bug. Or, you know, whatever.” It was so obvious.

Now working in the kitten’s favor was the fact that it was about the size of my palm with eyes the size of dinner plates. I don’t know how the physics of these measurements work out, I’m just telling you what I saw. Working against it was…well, there was the fact that it was a cat and then there was the whole “living in a gutter” thing…I can’t say I was completely in favor of picking anything up from the gutters of Libreville. Much less something that was still alive. The odds just aren’t in your favor on that one.

But of course, what I saw as disgusting, the girls saw as endearing and they were madly and desperately in love. And yes, I realize that this is merely preparing me for when they start dating. Suffice it to say, they had, in one simple glance, found their reason for being. And as we all know, once you’ve discovered your true purpose in life, nothing should stop you from going out there and grabbing it. Unless it is 6 inches long and lives in a gutter. Fortunately for the kitten, “seizing the day” by Team Strock involves running as fast as one can in a half-crouch while screaming “Aaaaahhhh!!! A kitten!!! Can we keep it?!!!” The kitten immediately returned the gutter from whence it came, presumably to die of fright, as any self-respecting kitten would when faced with an onslaught of three giant screaming blonde girls.

I probably don’t need to describe how the rest of the night went. But for the benefit of those of you who have never fully experienced the dedication and sheer force of will that children can lend to emotional manipulation, let me just say that Sally Struthers’ and her starving orphans have nothing on these kids. We were told that they wanted this cat. They NEEDED this cat. The absolutely had to have this cat. After all, we had made them give away the only pet they had ever known. That would be Maggie, the 13-yr old, deaf dog that they rarely played with and who ate food off their plates when they weren’t looking. Oh right, and there had also been Jack the dog and 2 former cats…also ignored. All the same, according to their argument, they have never NOT had a pet. They simply didn’t know how to live without one. They had been force to move to a new country where they didn’t speak the language and didn’t have many friends. And things smelled bad here. At this point in the conversation, I felt it was important to point out that they were straying a bit off topic…for all the good it did me.

Now it’s not as if I was telling them that they couldn’t keep their security blankets. Or forbidding them from breathing. I was simply saying that they couldn’t have a cat that lives in the gutter. I don’t think that’s such a far stretch especially since we were also living in a hotel. This last point proved fatal to my argument.

Children are truly remarkable. They cannot remember where their shoes are. They have no idea how to brush their own hair. Nora usually has her underwear on backwards…assuming she remembers to wear it. But one tiny slip on my part, and they’re all over it with the precision and skill of Harvard lawyers. In case you haven’t caught the slip, I was stupid enough to say “at the hotel” which translated to them as “Not to worry, dear children, as soon as we move into an apartment, you can have all the cats you want!”

Sensing that it was time to take the information they had and build a new strategy, the next day saw the implementation of “Operation convince Mom and Dad that we will grow up to be criminals if they don’t get us a cat.” And thus began the attack…

Stage One:
Emma and Ava, in a rare act of solidarity, came into my room and delivered the following well-rehearsed speech:

Ava: Emma and I decided that we have been saving our money for something special, and we really want a cat, so that would be special and we will use our money for it.

Emma: That’s right. We will buy food and litter and pay for a carrier. We’ll pay for everything.

Me: What about shots?

Emma: We’ll pay for those

Me: What about when we go on vacation?

Ava: We’ll take it with us.

Me: It costs money to put a cat on a plane.

Emma: How much?

Me: A lot.

Them: Ok, you pay for that and we’ll pay you back.

Me: Right.

It was impressive, if not in the soundness of their argument, then in the simple fact that they worked together. These are the same children who wait for the other one to decide which movie to watch just so they can choose a different one. And unlike most things (the fish, the former dog, music lessons) they actually remained pretty committed to the idea.

Stage Two:
This part of the operation was simple, but effective. It consisted of memorizing a speech from the movie “Despicable Me” in which they declared that their hearts had a cavity that could only be filled by a cat.

Stage Three:
Enter the big guns. They went to Chris and I watched him melt like an ice cream cone in the sun.

I understood the stakes here. Cats live to be 100. They shed and scratch the furniture. They poop in the house. They get on the counters and leave dirty little footprints in the tub. They are exactly like children and I do not want any more children. At the very least, children grow up and move out. Cats stay and often outlive you. Then they laugh and dance on your grave.

But their little faces were just so pitiful. And I’m not talking about the cat. The girls really, really wanted this kitten. They devoted every spare second to looking for it. I was forced at emotional gun point to buy cans of cat food at the store to leave out for it. The food was eaten, either by the kitten or by the giant crab that lives in a hole by the hotel wall…come to think of it, the crab may have eaten the kitten. None of which helped my argument. They named it Agnes if it was a girl, Tom if it was a boy.

And so there I was at a crossroads. What do I do? I always had a pet growing up. Pets are an important part of childhood. They listen when no one else will. They love you when it seems no one else does. They are unselfish and unconditional. If nothing else, having a pet is a chance to learn the responsibility and reward of caring for someone else.

Of course, it also means a smelly litterbox and cat hair on every available surface. All the same, I started doing a little research. First and foremost, I was told by multiple sources to never, ever, under any circumstances pick up a stray kitten. The environmental conditions of Libreville and its gutter populations have essentially bred kittens that are merely furry little balls of disease and pestilence. I don’t even know what pestilence is, but I am fairly certain I don’t want it licking itself on my living room carpet.

After asking around, I found out about a friend of a friend who had a stray that was several months old. She was from a litter of a stray mother that my friend’s friend, Ana, had been feeding. The kitten had hung around and made friendly with the guards, Ana and her pets. Apparently she was sweet and well cared for. The final stroke was the picture. One look at it was done. I named her Louise.

We were just a couple of weeks from moving into the apartment, so I went ahead and found out about a vet and arranged for the kitten to stay at Ana’s house until I could pick her up. They day I got her, the girls were at school. Ana had her waiting with a yellow bow around her neck that matched her eyes perfectly. She was solid black and fluffy. She looked so sweet and hopeful there in her little yellow bow that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that cats in my care tended to be eaten by dogs and accidentally shipped cross-country in moving boxes. But those are stories for another day…

Anyway, the vet said she was in great health. So we came home and I hid her in the bathroom until the girls got home. The rest, as they say, is history. Louise is loved dearly, desperately and often quite physically. She is carried, hugged, swaddled in blankets, dressed in princess clothes…and once, rather unfortunately, tied to a skateboard.

But she suffers it all with a patience that is admirable. She waits by the door for the girls to get home. She sleeps in Emma’s bed every night. She curls in laps and purrs when she winds around your legs. She kills cockroaches and mosquitoes. She is all that a cat should be. Most importantly, she is the friend that my girls needed when they needed one the most. I have made some mistakes in my life, but as it turns out, making my girls happy has never led me wrong.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Instant Replay: The past 3 months

There’s no question about it…I am way behind on this thing. So let’s see. When we last talked, I was living in a hotel, unsure of where to find proper groceries, clueless as to where anything in the town was located and stuttering along in French. I am now in an apartment, quite adept at finding groceries at a minimum of 5 stores, including some off-beat markets, prone to giving directions like “you know, it’s the green house -- the one next to the blue dumpster” and still stuttering along in French. Although for the latter point, I am happy to report that I no longer refer to my hair as “horses”, but now accurately refer to it as hair…at least I think that’s what I’m saying. It’s a bit close to call.

All in all, life is so good. We are immensely blessed with spectacular friends, fantastic beaches, a beautiful sunset off the balcony every night and a view, albeit distant, of the ocean. And a cat. We have a cat. I never thought I would say those words again, but she is the puppy-est of all kittens and we adore her. She wags her tail, waits by the door for the girls to come home, nibbles toes and eats cockroaches. As far as I am concerned, she can stay. Her name is Louise and she was born to be a Strock. She has been subjected to inordinate amounts of love – which has come in the form of being dressed in doll clothes, swaddled in blankets, carried around like a baby by Nora and until I caught Ava mid-act, almost tied to the top of a skateboard, because it was supposed to be, and I quote, “her royal princess carriage.” She endures it all and loves the girls tirelessly. Sometimes it’s good to have a friend when you feel far from home.

(Side note: I have a blog entry about the lead-up to Louise in my notebook…I might even type it up one day)

Our apartment is great. We sit at the top of a hill in a neighborhood called Haute de Gue Gue, just between downtown and the north end of town. We’re about 15 minutes without traffic and 45 with from the girls school. Fortunately, Declan is still my main man. He is here at 7am sharp every day to take the girls to school and drop Chris off at work. He brings Nora home every day at 12:15 and they are the best of pals. The other girls get picked up by Declan, who then switches with Idris, who then brings them home and often waits in the parking lot until I’ve stuck my head out of the 2nd story window to say that I’m all set and don’t need to go anywhere. They are wonderful, wonderful drivers and I trust them implicitly.

The dry season has just begun, which ironically, means cloudy days and cooler weather. I actually got cold (meaning I needed a short sleeve shirt instead of a tank top) the other day. But we’re doing our best to keep vitamin D levels at a max by going to the beach as much as possible. Last week alone, we did a trip to Point Denis (across the bay – 20 minutes by boat), 2 trips to Bae de Tortue (around the other side of the estuary from Point Denis and a prime place for Leatherback Turtle nests) and a final trip Sunday at to Santa Clara, a beach about 30 minutes north of Libreville. All in all, this Florida girl is happy.

The girls are in their last week of school. They have done very well…I mean seriously. They moved to a new country, started a new school mid-year, jumped into a new language, made new friends, lived in a hotel for 2 months, then moved into a new apartment. I couldn’t be prouder of them. 2 weeks ago, Ava and her friend won first place for the third grade/fourth grade group in the science fair, while Emma took third for the fifth and sixth grade solo category. This was followed by the end of the year awards ceremony where they took home math, science, social studies, language arts and P.E. awards. I think Nora was the only child that stood up on the stage and clapped for herself.

It hasn’t been easy for them. Nora excluded, they each have one other girl in their class. Don’t get me wrong, boys are great, but when you’re 11, you kind of want your girlfriends. The girls they have been friends with are sisters who are moving this summer. But we have heard that at least 20 new students are coming this fall, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed for some new BFFs. After-school activities have been limited because of 1) language 2) lack of a car and 3) having no idea what exists here in town. But just recently, they started semi-private tennis lessons once a week, thanks to a good friend of mine here in town. We are planning to get Ava and Nora into dance this fall and if everything goes my way, Ava will be playing rugby at the French Military base. I told her it would make her look really bad-ass to all of her friends back home. As for Emma, she faithfully picks out tunes on her violin (she just figured out “Yellow Submarine” by ear, how cool is she?) so we hope to find a teacher soon.

And Chris…I will devote an entire entry to him soon, but quickly put, he is doing an incredible job. He has already been promoted, shortly before being moved to the planning team. As part of this team, he was to be working on water and sanitation infrastructure for all of Gabon, but soon after the switch, he was identified to serve as the lead project manager for the “Friendship Stadium”, a stadium donated and built by the Chinese as a goodwill gesture to the government, but sadly lacking in FIFA standards. He is now overseeing final stadium construction and upon its completion, it will serve as the main stadium for the 2012 Africa Cup. He works 6 days a week, but it’s good. Really good. He likes his job and has a great team and that makes up for a lot.

As for me…well, I think I said it all above. I am happy. My people are happy. Life is good.

I will try to do better in the future with updates. I have a few things in my notebook and might get them up one day. But, I will leave you with this for now. Also, I am trying to get pictures up on Flickr. I’ll let you know.

Thanks for reading…sorry this is so long…and delayed. The girls and I are looking forward to a long visit to the East Coast this summer, with Chris in tow for part of it. But I have to admit, as excited as I am to be heading back to the States, I will miss “home.”

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ding Dong, Osama’s Dead…

This is what one sign read at a street side revelry celebrating the news that at long last, Osama bin Laden was dead. After 10 years of searching, he’s finally dead. After 20 years of organized terror, he’s finally dead. After 100’s of thousands of deaths, he’s finally dead. So why am I not ecstatic?

“Ding Dong, Osama’s Dead.” In Gregory MacGuire’s “Wicked”, he creates a sympathetic portrayal of Elphaba, the wicked witch of the West. He gives her feelings and motives and an impetus for evil. She is at the core, a well-intended but misunderstood villain. The townspeople revel and dance in the street at her death, knowing that finally, a fearsome evil has been undone and they can live in peace. But because she has been humanized for us with a back story, it is easy to feel melancholy at her death.

Far from this evil-by-accident characterization stands a real-life villain in Osama bin Laden. He has no redeeming quality. He cannot be justified or vindicated by a back story because his was an intentional, calculated path. So why do I find myself melancholy at his death?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he’s been disposed of. There was no good end that could come, so this is by far the best case scenario. But for me, it broke the dam. It brought back the last ten years and the heartbreak of 9/11. It brought back the images that flooded the nation, and the world, following the collapse of the towers. I remembered the smoke and dust, the gaping hole torn in the Pentagon and the bravery of unintentional heroes that put Flight 93 into the ground instead of another building.

I have felt overwhelmed by the numbers of empty chairs at tables, babies born without fathers, little ones forging on without a mother’s guidance, confused teenagers who can’t make sense of the absence, young men and women who will never marry or know children of their own, mothers and fathers crippled by the sight of their own child’s grave. I remembered the frantic days that followed 9/11 as we scrambled to account for everyone we knew who might be connected. It made me think of the friends and family I have that have served in this “war” on terror. I remembered spending a year and a half scouring the D.O.D. Casualty lists whenever I heard of a Blackhawk crash because of my best friend’s husband who was flying in Iraq. I remembered the memorial service that Chris went to for a fallen classmate and how he watched the young man’s two children throughout the service, while thoughts of his own girls sat like stones in his heart. I remembered the thousands of names and pictures and biographies I’ve seen and heard over the years, all gone for this great “cause.”

Like so many, I supported the invasion and subsequent occupation in Iraq. It seemed the right thing to do. I cannot say whether it was. I supported the friends and family that so readily and bravely stood in the gap to defend my nation, my family and my security.

Reality is not a game where we can play our “what if” scenarios until we find one that suits. I don’t know if the outcome of today is better than the outcome that could have been. But I do know that I am sorry for the deaths of so many men and women, for the deaths have extended far beyond the ranks of soldiers and the lives lost have caused immeasurable grief in the U.S., in Iraq, in Afghanistan and throughout the world. And I am intensely, immeasurably grateful for the sacrifices they have made for me and my children.

And now, ten years after the gauntlet was thrown down on 9/11, Saddam is dead. Osama is dead. Many of their henchmen and family have been eliminated. Many of their cells have been fractured and unmanned. And yet, what of the seeds they planted? What of the destruction that has already been done? Osama’s death does not bring to back to life those who have been lost. He cannot be humanized. His atrocities and cold-blooded calculated hatred was a corrosive force that could only end in death and bloodshed – and fortunately, the blood shed this time was his. But it is not the end. I do not feel that this gives a justification to the means…yet. Maybe I will one day. I hope I will, because it’s hard to carry the weight of so many dead without a justification, without a reason or cause.

Yes, it is good that Osama is dead. But the fight has just begun. Now it is time to look to the future and learn from the past. The lesson is not that you don’t mess with the U.S. or you’ll get yours. The message is that no good can come from hatred. The lesson is that evil is a principle that destroys and decays in and of itself -- that it is a self-destructive force that bleeds out from the heart that harbors it and destroys the beauty around it. For the fight to be won, the hatred must be undone. Until the next generation is taught that violence and retaliation against ideals that differ from their own is not the way, we remain lost.

This piece is not intended as an argument or a political tirade. This is just my heart. And I am glad that a major step has been taken. I am glad that Osama’s death undoubtedly will serve to undermine an empire of subversion and terror.

But think about it. How much power did this man wield over the lives of hundreds of thousands? Through his actions, events have been set into motion that will change the course of history. Imagine if he had been a force of good.

Who says that one man cannot change the world?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Seriously Funny: Part II, The Malaria Chronicles

Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites. The parasites are spread to people through the bites of infected Anopheles mosquitoes, called "malaria vectors", which bite mainly between dusk and dawn.

In 2008, there were 247 million cases of malaria and nearly one million deaths – mostly among children living in Africa. In Africa a child dies every 45 seconds of Malaria, the disease accounts for 20% of all childhood deaths.

- Malaria is preventable and curable.
- Malaria can decrease gross domestic product by as much as 1.3% in countries with high disease rates.
- Non-immune travelers from malaria-free areas are very vulnerable to the disease when they get infected.
-World Health Organization, 2011

Malaria is one of those things that you grow up hearing about, but in an intangible way. A missionary from your neighbor’s cousin’s best friend’s aunt’s church had it. Or you heard about it in a history or social studies class. Maybe you even took a class in college where infectious diseases were discussed. But it’s an experience isolated to people in foreign countries – like owning a pet tiger or eating crickets.

Like with so many things, malaria is a disease directly related to privilege. Without the right environmental conditions, diagnoses and medications, or if it is piled on top of other complications, malaria is a killer. But factor in access to healthcare, both prior to contraction and at the time the disease presents, and it’s a bump in the road – a mosquito bite gone bad.



After getting home Thursday night, I had just fallen asleep when I woke up to what felt like lava landing in the middle of the bed. It was, in fact, Ava getting in bed with us, burning with fever and shaking with violent chills. After some Advil and an hour or so or chattering teeth, she fell asleep – but clearly, something was wrong.

There was no question the next day that she needed to be tested for malaria. This, however, presented an entirely new set of issues. It’s one thing to go to the pharmacy and stumble my way through a diagnosis by pointing to various body parts and making faces. But going to an actual medical clinic to request blood tests and provide a medical history does not typically involve the word “cheese” and was, therefore, well beyond my French vocabulary. Fortunately, Chris has an amazing team of co-workers and they, unanimously, look out for us – especially the girls who have become mascots of sorts for the group. And so, mid-morning, Chris and Roger, our wonderful French-speaking friend, showed up to take us to the clinic.

I should explain a little something about Libreville. The Bord de Mer is the main road through the city. This is where you will find most of the government buildings, hotels, larger shops, supermarkets, major businesses, etc. It’s easy enough to imagine as you drive through Libreville via the the Bord de Mer, that you are in what was once a fairly metropolitan city circa 1980. And while not like any U.S. I’ve ever been to, it far exceeds the standards of it’s counterparts in developing countries.

But, turn off the Bord de Mer and within a block you will find a very different world. The streets become narrow, the buildings more dilapidated and the pavement questionable. Here, the real life of Libreville is lived. Houses of cinder block and corrugated tin line the streets. Stray dogs wander through dirt yards and trash-lined alleys. Rusted and faded signs advertise local bars, restaurants, tailors, shops and markets. Everywhere there are people standing, sitting, walking, talking, half-heartedly selling vegetables or energetically peddling household items. And then suddenly, there will be a break in the scenery, occupied by a large office building, a church or mosque.

It was on these winding streets off the Bord de Mer that we found ourselves. For the record, if I were dying and my only hope of survival was to relocate this clinic, I would have to trust Chris to retrieve my lifeless body and remember that I want at least one Bob Dylan played at my funeral, preferably “Sweetheart Like You.”

After approximately 112 left turns, we ended up on a narrow, unpaved, red dirt road full of potholes deeper than most swimming pools. I am going to work under the assumption that the majority of medical cases seen at this particular clinic involve head trauma received by one’s head being repeatedly smashed into the window of their car while on this road.

Add to this the fact that we were away from businesses of any sort, surrounded by trees and vegetation camouflaging small houses and sheds, and it’s only natural that I asked Chris if we were by any chance visiting a witch doctor before going to the actual clinic. But then, all of sudden, there was a paved parking lot surrounding a clean, modern-looking medical building.

All I have to say of the experience is thank God Roger was there. He is fluent in French so he first got us checked in then went with me to meet the doctor. We went through the basics of her symptoms a little medical history. She was weighed and her temperature was taken. Then we got a little surprise. The doctor said she would need a shot to bring the fever down. After pulling out a needle roughly the size of the space shuttle, it became clear, without translation, that the shot would NOT be administered in Ava’s arm. At this point, poor Roger was the only person who wanted to be in the room less than Ava. He ran madly for the door, prompted no doubt by Ava screaming, “Get Roger out of here!” Poor guy.

After a shot, 2 blood tests and an hour wait, we got a negative reading for malaria, “paludisme” or “palu” as it is called here. However, they recommended treating for malaria, a 3 day cycle of meds and antibiotics, because of the nature of her symptoms.

We went home but had to wait until the next morning to get the meds because our local pharmacy did not have the right kind. By then, her fever had not gone down, even with Advil, her chills continued and were now being followed by sweating…and she simply looked pitiful. We found out about another pharmacy that administers blood tests without a long wait and for about $100 less than the clinic. An hour after the test, Chris returned to the car where I was waiting with the girls. As soon as I saw his face, I knew the results.

Now, I know enough not to panic. I know that this was not so very serious, but forgive me, I couldn’t help a few tears. It’s not like she was in any danger at this point, but malaria. It just sounds so bad, right? No sooner had the first tear dropped and our poor driver went into a panic. “Pas grave, madame! Pas grave!” he repeated, nearly running off the road in an effort the comfort me.

Apparently, malaria is the rest of the world’s flu. Nearly one hundred years ago, my great-grandfather died of the flu (or was it pneumonia?) But now, we have a shot for it. That’s not to say that people don’t get sick and even die, but those people are the unfortunate exception. Think of how much money has been spent on research and medications to reduce the flu from epidemic to seasonal annoyance. And so what about malaria?

In so many places, it is endemic – a continuous killer for those without education on prevention or access to both preventive measures and treatment. If the flu was causing hundreds of thousands of deaths in America, would we segregate the acceptability of the disease by class? I don’t think so. But before I go too far down the path of angry diatribe, let me just say that my tears were, in one part, selfish. They were of self-pity, for both me and Ava. But they were also tears of gratefulness that I had access to medicine and care for my daughter. Gratefulness that she had been exposed to the highest level of healthcare in the world from the time of her birth – and before. She had always had healthy food and clean water in abundance.

Yet, they were also tears of sadness that a disease, so manageable in the right setting, could kill. They were for other mothers who, at that moment, were crying tears of grief and loss.

In the last week I have talked to a number of people who have had malaria. It does seem to be “pas grave.” But I have also talked to people who have known children and adults who have died right here in Libreville. One woman was allergic to the medication and threw up the treatments. Instead of getting a new medication, she grew increasingly ill and died. It’s hard to make sense of it.

It was a long week for my little one. Continuous fever and recurring chills followed by intense sweating and extreme fatigue. We spent 5 solid days lying in my bed with the curtains drawn. By the time we emerged, we were a bit weary, a bit worn, but none the worse for it.

As I finish this post, we are one week out. Ava is back to her old self, mostly. She tires easily, but for a kid that was doing handsprings on the trampoline the same day she got a cast on her arm, she seems to be doing just fine. It takes a lot to keep her down.

I know I have spent the last seven years asking people for one thing after another – for money or activism or involvement. And I know I have probably made everyone crazy with my constant soapboxing. But I have been both humbled and honored by the way so many of you have reached out and rallied behind my ever-growing “causes.” I was not going to use this blog as a tool for social activism – and I promise not to turn it into that. But I will close by asking you to consider visiting the following site: www.nothingbutnets.net For a small, one-time or ongoing donation, you can provide life-saving mosquito nets to families. And maybe, somewhere there is an 8-year old who will grow up to make a difference in her world because of it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Seriously Funny: Part I

In the last 72 hours, I have been stopped at a roadblock, bribed a police officer and visited 2 medical clinics where Ava has had 1 giant shot, 2 bloodtests and a positive diagnosis of malaria. It’s been one hell of a weekend.

I promised myself when I started blogging that I would not use this space as a personal journal, rather as an opportunity to share stories. It may seem like a fine line, but it’s an important one. So forgive me if I make any of the following sound flippant, as it is not necessarily “funny ha ha” so much as it is “funny, we’re not in Kansas anymore, are we, Toto?” The topics could be quite serious in certain lights or settings, but the reality is my life is blessed – and I don’t have the energy to do much else other than laugh right now.

The last three weeks have really been quite magical. But I have to remember that I am in a bubble. I am staying at an exclusive hotel – fruit flies on the breakfast pineapple or not, the point is that I have breakfast pineapple and lovely people serving it to me. I have food, clothes, money, air conditioning, medical care and protection. And while I fancy myself a rapidly evolving part of the local community, there are days and moments where I am reminded just how much a community is more than 1 hotel and 4 city blocks. Having 3 roadside vendors that I talk to every day on the way back and forth to school and knowing much of the hotel staff by sight and many by name isn’t quite the same as being integrated into…well, into anything other than a hotel. A community is a small microcosm of something much, much larger, encompassing a world that I cannot even begin to know. But I am learning.

It all began on Thursday. Ava woke up with a pretty high fever, so we kept her home from school and pumped her full of Tylenol. By the afternoon, she was doing ok, just a little tired.

In the meantime, Chris had called that morning to let me know that there were murmurings of potential protests and maybe some imposed curfews in town. Apparently the opposition party from the 2009 election was claiming that he finally had proof, 18 months later, that the election had been rigged and was threatening a coup. Now, I am not a political expert, but I’m going to throw this out there…18 months later? Really Opposition Leader?

Anyway, the opposing party was now ready to declare themselves the winner, a statement they made by holing up in a building downtown that provided political sanctuary and watching through the windows as armed guards milled about in the street. To the outside perspective, this may not appear to the most brilliant political strategy, but what do I know. Maybe they’re just laying early claim to campaign headquarters for the next election. It really did not seem to be a big deal, although the ratio of large men with large guns on the street compared to normal men without guns did go up noticeably.

All the same, after a day cooped up in a hotel with a sick child, an uncomfortable number of armed men at the hotel and in the streets on the way to school and nothing to listen to but local news stations that I have no way of understanding, I jumped on the chance to go to a book club with a new friend here. The book club was held at a beautiful home in Haut de Gue Gue, a neighborhood about 20 minutes away where we hope to have an apartment within the next few weeks (another story for another day).

As a brief aside, since this isn’t really about the book club, I have to say I was BY FAR the most boring person in attendance. There were 8 or 9 women there, so let’s just start with the hostess. She’s German, grew up in Tanzinia, returned to Germany briefly, then returned to Tanzinia where began her own artisan furniture company using reclaimed dhowes (a type or fishing boat). She has published a book and now lives in Gabon with her husband and 3 children (with a 4th on the way) and runs a boutique. The friend I came with is Irish/Tennessean and has lived all over the world. She and her husband met in Zaire while working with Doctors Without Borders and now have 3 amazingly cool sons who are bilingual and have lived in more countries than most people can even name. Another woman from Sweden lives here and works with UNICEF. Two others are foreign service and work at the Embassy. And so on. I pretended to have my mouth full whenever anyone asked me anything. It was one of those things where you just knew that if you said something like, “Oh, I really like wine.” Someone would have asked you what your favorite region in France was. To which I could have only responded, “Ummm, Turning Leaf?”

But, really, I am so excited to have met this group and am already looking forward to going again. I have exactly one month to come up with a really good back story and forge the appropriate supporting documents.

Anyway, after a few lovely hours, we headed home. About halfway there, we saw police cars and barriers completely blocking the road up ahead. A few cars seemed to be going through, but no such luck for 2 blonde women in an SUV. We were pulled over and asked for our IDs. I have not made a habit of carrying my passport as it had never seemed necessary. That being said, all I had to give the officer was a Virginia Driver’s License. He looked at me much the same way he might have if, say, I had put on a top hat and started tap dancing while singing “I Did It My Way” at the top of my lungs.

I was immediately asked to get out of the car.

So there I am. Standing on the Bord de Mer at a roadblock while Police Officer #1 is questioning my friend and demanding to see every piece of paperwork she has in her car (including proof that she had a fire extinguisher – a new requirement from the government which leads me to the alarming conclusion that cars are prone to spontaneous flames here?) At this point, she has explained that I am an American staying at the hotel up the road and that, at the moment, my passport is locked in a safe in my room – which, naturally, prompted the officer to insist that we go downtown with him. Fortunately, my friend has spent the better part of the last 15 years in various parts of Africa. She said absolutely not and asked to see his superior officer.

Now were we in the states, this is the guy who would have been firmly established in the patrol car with a box of Dunkin’ Donuts. He strolls over to the car, leans up against the window, grins at us and proceeds to flirt…I mean, really. Now, I have not been ogled much in my life. It’s one thing to have a beer-soaked frat boy in flannel ask you if you want to go to his room to “listen to a CD” , it’s another thing altogether to be grinned at by a police officer speaking a language that you have mastered only enough to ensure that you can find a toilet should you need one. It was the first time in my life I though I might actually have cleavage. I didn’t, of course, but I could have.

Following what I am sure is standard roadside interrogation procedure, he asks my friend if I’m married. She looks at him and says, “YES. With 3 kids.” He looks back at me, shakes his head and said, “Oh….”, with a hint of disappointment. Now, even at this moment, I had to question this. Why was he disappointed exactly? Had he hoped we would go on a date? Some dinner and dancing perhaps? One day, after many happy years, mostly spent talking about toilets for lack of other topics, a friend might ask, “So how did you two meet?” We would chuckle softly and reply, “Well, it’s a funny story actually. You see, there was this roadblock…”

But as it was, me being off the market and all, he was actually very nice. He explained that it’s illegal to be without your passport when you’re a non-resident. After a bit more back and forth, he was kind enough to suggest that if we offered Officer #1 a little something for his troubles we could be on our way. GLADLY. I was finally allowed back in the car where I grabbed the first few bills I could find, passed them through the window and before he could see whether I had either given him insultingly too little or ridiculously too much (it was really dark), we were off.

While this type of roadblock / bribe-the-officer-to-avoid-being-arrested-for-not-having-a-passport thing isn’t that much different than a roadblock in the States and being caught without proof of car insurance…it was kind of very different. It didn’t help that the day had been spent discussing a possible political coup, and honestly, it was just weird, being as that it was my first roadblock in a foreign country. But certainly, this type of thing is not all that uncommon and if handled properly, as it was by my friend, amounts to little more than a hassle.

This was, however, a reminder that such is not the case everywhere. Gabon is a relatively safe, peaceful country – not to say I’m going to run out and do anything stupid – but I have felt safe here, as much as in most cities I’ve been. Yet in all of that, I think I have taken for granted the political stability, rules and regulations of home. And while the system does not always work and is often abused, it’s still a good one and I am grateful for it. But, I’m also grateful to be here. It hasn’t always been like this for Gabon, and so many people in so many places, some of them only a day’s drive from here, live in fear right now. Fear for themselves, for their families, for their political or religious views or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And while I live with respect for my surroundings, I do not live in fear. Such is the blessing of my privileged life – I hope I never take it for granted again.

Seriously Funny: Part II - The Malaria Chronicles to follow...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Medical Maladies

Cold and flu season is upon us. Only in equatorial Africa, it also would appear to be unknown stomach ailment, raging high fever with no explanation and malaria season. Judging from what I hear, these particular ailments only occur in the winter, spring, summer and fall, so that’s good.

So far we’ve been pretty lucky, but a few of Chris’s teammates have not been so fortunate. We were warned about the introductory stomach bug that is Gabon’s equivalent of the Hawaiian lei. Some insist that it, too, is handed out at the airport as soon as you arrive. Since we’ve been here, the week usually begins with one or two people out with something – from upset stomach to full-on food poisoning. You never really know, but it’s safe to assume it was something you ate.

The food here is phenomenal, but I don’t know that “Health Inspector” is on the “Top 10 Most Promising Careers in Gabon.” I often imagine restaurant kitchens to resemble a scene from Pixar’s Ratatouille. For those of you not familiar with this particular film, it features a cooking rat. Not a rat that is being cooked, but a rat that can cook. Although, I suppose either scenario would hold its own relevance in this case. All I know is that the food is delicious. And if an occasional weekend of violent stomach pain is the price I have to pay for not cooking, then so be it.

Next, there’s the mysterious fever. Saturday night, one of Chris’s colleagues was taken to the hospital with an insanely high fever. Three days and several blood tests later, they ruled out malaria, but I’m not sure anything else has been diagnosed. Fortunately, he came home today, but I think he’s pretty wiped out.

And last but not least, malaria. Another team member was diagnosed on Monday morning after starting with fevers on Sunday. She has a milder case, but still…malaria.

It’s easy enough to think of a stomach bug as a great way to lose 5 pounds; or to imagine that three days in the hospital with a fever is just another name for “vacation from the kids”; or even that “having had malaria” will make you an exciting and exotic guest at future dinner parties; but like a $300 pair of shoes, everything sounds glamorous until you actually get it.

The fact is, it’s kind of scary to get sick in a place where you’re not familiar with the local viruses, infections or doctors. Fortunately, aside from Emma feeling a little queasy one day, Nora has been the only one source of medical drama, but even that’s been minor.

Her first problem started with a fever that I had no way of measuring because my thermometer is currently somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After she woke up feeling like a toaster oven and missed school 2 days in a row, I decided to go the pharmacy. Unlike a CVS or Rite-Aid, the pharmacies here are more like pharmaceutical dispensaries with everything behind the counter. No prescription needed. Just go in, explain your malady, the pharmacist will find the appropriate treatment and off you go. Should you also be in the market for cosmetics, face creams, baby lotions, sunscreen or a wide variety of prophylactics, not to worry, they’re all there…just behind the glass case.

So after picking the older girls up from school, we stopped off at the pharmacy just down the street. It was pretty crowded, so in order to make our presence known, we went with one of my favorite strategies – I call it the “make a scene then smile like a mental patient” technique.

Step 1: Dump an entire bottle of water on the floor, then attempt to mop it up with a non-absorbent nylon shopping bag.
Step 2: Stand quietly in the resulting puddle with a hopeful look on your face while holding a dripping shopping bag.

When it was finally my turn, I realized that while “bonjour” (hello), “ça va” (what’s up) and “je voudrais le poulet” (I would like the chicken) serve me just fine on a daily basis, describing a child’s illness was way out of my range. I started by gesturing to Nora, then proceeded to inform the pharmacists that, “Elle est mal.”, which roughly translates to “She is bad.” I then followed up with the clincher, “Elle est chaud” (She is hot). Judging from the look on the pharmacists face, I might as well have announced “We are sweaty Americans” because as I turned to look at Nora, I realized that we were all flushed red with sweat dripping down our face and hair clinging to our foreheads. She must have thought we were trying to order a Coke.

It was clear that I was going to get nowhere with my French, so I came up with Plan B and got serious. I sent the girls to sit on a bench, all but Nora as she was an important prop in my act. I then did a riveting mime interpretation of what I like to call “Fever, Runny Nose, Cough but No Vomit.”

Apparently it was outstanding as it resulted in a new thermometer that only reads Celsius and the equivalent of Children’s Tylenol. I felt like a huge success – my motherly instincts had kicked in and the need to take care of my young had triumphed mightily over a language barrier. I could practically hear Obiwan Kanobe whispering, “Yes, the force is strong with this one.” It was glorious, right up until I paid with 30,000 CFA (~ $60 US) instead of the 2,500 ($5 US) that she had asked for because I haven’t the faintest idea how to understand numbers in French and I am utterly confused by the money. She returned my money and I humbly left.

Our second trip went much better. Nora developed a ridiculous looking heat rash under her arm so I marched in, went for the obvious, announced that “Elle est tres blanc! Ha Ha Ha” (“She is very white!”) and went away with a lovely ointment that cleared it right up.

I might just become a Jedi yet…if the malaria doesn’t get me first.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Driving Miss Daisy

I’ve been hiding in my room for the last hour. Why, you ask? For the most obvious reason, of course. I just made a spectacle of myself in the lobby.

The lobby is very large – across from the main reception counters sit a collection of plush chairs, couches and chaise lounges, available for hotel guests and visitors to meet or wait for appointments. More often than not, these seats are occupied by groups of rather bored looking men, staring at their cell phones or like Chris at a dinner party gone past 8pm, asleep sitting up. Such was the case this morning.

I returned from dropping the girls off at school, feeling a bit springy from the walk. As I entered the lobby, I looked over at the collection of men on the far side and proudly shouted, “Bonjour, Declan!!” while waving happily. It only took a second of blank stares to realize my mistake. It was not, in fact, Declan who I was waving to.

The good news is that my response was spot on. I squinted, laughed loudly and for the benefit of everyone now looking me, pointed out that it was not Declan at all. “Ah! HAHAHA, non Declan!” I announced, then sprinted to the elevators as if it were all part of my morning exercise.

The bad news is that, somewhere in the city, there is a very confused man who thinks he is being stalked by a very enthusiastic American.

I suppose I should explain who Declan is. Declan is my driver. Well, not mine exclusively, but he is, essentially, available to take me wherever I need to go. He was introduced to me on the second day we got here and I was told that all I had to do was call him and he would be there.

To me, one of the greatest things about our current location is that I can walk. I can walk to the market. I can walk to restaurants. I can walk the girls to and from school. But Declan will have none of it.

One afternoon soon after we arrived, I walked the girls over to the Glass Center, our local market. As we walked back up the drive to the hotel, Declan stood on the corner. When he spotted us, he looked shocked, and yes, perhaps just a little hurt. “What are you doing?” he said. “Why don’t you call me? I am prepared for you! Where did you go? I will take you!” All in all, he was quite distraught. I felt horrible. I told him we had only gone to the market (disapproving stare) and that it was ok, we liked to walk.
At this point I had to question his viewpoint on the overall health of Americans. I don’t know if he is under the impression that we are weaker than most, because his response was, “You do not walk. It is not good for your legs. I will drive you.” Needless to say, this came as a surprise to me as I was under the impression that walking WAS good for my legs. And considering that the Glass Center is approximately 2 blocks away I figured that even in my apparent weakened state, it was not so bad.

At the same time, I must realize that this is his job and he takes it seriously. We could all learn a bit from Declan.

Declan is from Nigeria. He came here about 10 years ago with his wife because life was hard in Nigeria, he said. It was a struggle to find work. So, he came here speaking Ebu and English, but learned French on the street finding any work he could. He worked in markets doing anything – including something involving a wheelbarrow. I didn’t catch that portion of story as he tends to go back and forth between heavily accented English and French. But I did understand that he has an 11 year old daughter and a 9 year old son and that his wife is a pastor. I also know that he is a Christian and that his enthusiasm for his faith is both contagious and inspiring.

One day, he asked me if I was a Christian or Muslim and when I responded that I was a Christian, he thanked me with such excitement that it took me a minute to realize what he was thanking me for. It was as if I had done something incredibly remarkable, like win an Oscar. “Yes, I would just like to thank my parents, my third grade Sunday School teacher, my religious studies T.A., and most of all, my devoted husband and children who never gave up on me…” Needless to say, I was very pleased with myself, especially when he told me that I was his sister.

Here, in Gabon, he has worked hard. And now he appears every morning at the front of the hotel, impeccably dressed, ready for his role as primary driver for the “Bechtel Wives” as we spouses are called. But it's a steady job with a new, white 15-passenger van. And even if the van is full of privileged corporate wives, I suppose it is a good job. He refers to the wives by their husbands’ names: Madame Eric, Madame Frederic, Madame Christopher. I counteract this cultural mannerism by using my first name as frequently as possible in conversation. This means that I can often be found babbling on in the third person, while Declan just nods and smiles, chuckling to himself.

If he is, as I suspect, thinking, “Crazy American”, he does not show it. He is painfully polite and altogether lovely, and has finally progressed to calling me "Madame Ann." I don't dare correct him.

We're pals, me and Declan. We even have our own little ritual whenever we return to the hotel from a trip around town:

Me: Thank you, Declan!
Declan: Ok, ok, thank you, Madame! Ha ha ha…
Me: Oh! Yes! Thank you…ha ha ha
Declan: Oh! Ho ho ho. Thank you very much!
Me: Yes! Thank you very much!

And so it goes as I begin slowly backing away from the van, smiling and waving. “Ah! Ha ha ha..” It’s a complicated dance, but it seems to work for us.

The bottom line is that without Declan, I would be stuck. No car, no directions, no mobility. And I suppose, without this job, he would be stuck in a different way. It doesn’t seem fair or right, but then again, there is a richness to everything. After all, it is not the job that brings dignity to a man, but the man who brings dignity to the job.

I am supposed to go look at some apartments later today, and so I will call Declan to meet me out front and off we will go – Declan behind the wheel with African music playing on the radio and me with my face pressed up against the window of a nearly empty 15-passenger van.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Nora is intent on catching a lizard. Her current hunting strategy is to see the lizard, yell at the lizard, then chase the lizard at a half crouch with her hands open. I am guessing that she intends to frighten it into a state of paralysis.

I am not sure what she plans to do with her lizard once she catches it. Walk it on a leash once it comes out of its coma? I don’t suppose it matters much as I have a feeling this hunt will be going on a while. But in the meantime, I am enjoying the fascination.

As a side note, she has just assigned family status to the group of four lizards next to us on the pool patio. I am proud to report that the mother lizard has been named Anna.

My exposure to the local animal kingdom has been limited so far – well, fairly limited. Gabon promises an incredible variety of sights, not the least of which is the wildlife. This includes monkeys, gorillas, birds, elephants, hippos, deer and much more. But of course, I’ll have to wait until we make a bit farther out of the city to see most of these for myself.

So for now, I must content myself with what the city offers. Specifically: lizards, a hundred kinds of songbird (including pretty little yellow-winged birds that make clusters of nests in the trees), an alleged rat in the Chinese restaurant bathroom, an array of stray dogs, mosquitoes, flies, the winged monkeys from Wizard of Oz (the locals refer to them as “fruit bats”), snakes and …cockroaches.

I am not an overly squeamish person. I don’t catch spiders for fun, but I believe “live and let live” is a fair approach. Except for cockroaches. Cockroaches exist as the oldest and most tangible form of punishment for original sin. Their complete annihilation should be the topic of a UN Council. They are the living incarnation of evil. The snakes in Eden.

Of course I should not be surprised. Where tropical climates, palm trees and/or New York City apartment building are, cockroaches will follow. It is Murphy’s Law enacted. However, until recently, I had only suspected their existence in my little paradise. Last night it was confirmed. While at dinner on an outdoor patio, one of Chris’s colleagues gave a bit of yell and slapped at his arm, claiming that a cockroach had just been on him…at the dinner table….near my FOOD.

I didn’t actually see it myself, but it’s like the LochNess Monster or Newt Gingrich, you don’t need to see them for yourself to live in fear. The thought alone was enough to make me spend the remainder of the meal with my knees tucked under my chin, trying to negotiate a fork while swatting madly at the air.

And of course, once the subject was broached, everyone had a story. One guy had four of the Insects-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in his room the night he checked in. Things just just go downhill from here. As per the natural progression of things, these types of stories must lead to poisonous snake stories.

About a month before Christmas, a green mamba was spotted in the trees around the villa that Bechtel uses as one of its offices. (I know, right?! I said the same thing, “Holy *$(%&*…these things live in the trees?!”) Well, apparently, it was disheartened at the thought of spending the holidays alone, so it came inside. INSIDE. THE. HOUSE. Some of the drivers had to be called in to kill it with shovels. I assume they used shovels only because a hand grenade was not readily available.

Again, this should come as no surprise. When we first began talking about the move here, I naturally googled “Gabon.” The first 17 million entries were about the Gabon Viper, which is apparently one of the most deadly snakes in the world. Of course it is. I am guessing they also lurk about in trees. I am also guessing that this is why you see men selling umbrella hats (actual umbrellas with an attachment to fit on your head) up and down the Bord de Mer.

Once I had a closer-than-comfortable encounter with a cockroach, that is, close contact with someone who has had ACTUAL contact with one, it was only a matter of time before I stated seeing them everywhere. Sure enough, I went into the bathroom by one of the outdoor verandas this morning and there, on the floor, bathed in halo of light was a giant cockroach. Fortunately, it was dead. (Or just playing dead until I turned my back and he could attack?)

This one might have been harmless. But there are more out there. Lurking in the dark. Hiding in the trees, laughing it up with the green mambas and Gabon vipers. And like with every Madonna song I’ve ever heard, now that it’s in my head, it will never leave. I’ll start sleeping with the lights on and seeing fangs on the palm fronds.

I know this is a part of my life and I should get used to it eventually. But in the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be the girl in full-body mosquito netting with an umbrella hat and shovel.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Night Life

It’s 6:30pm and we’re sitting by the pool. Well. I’m sitting by the pool – the girls are in it. This would be fantastic except for the fact that, by staying at one of the nicest hotels in Libreville, we share most of our common space with a large number of business men and women and other people in important looking clothes.

These same people like to come home in the evening -- from work or wherever they’ve been -- and sit out by the pool for a drink or light dinner. And without fail, they choose chairs and tables positioned precariously close the pool. This would be fine if the only people who got in the pool this time of day were the ones who quietly put on their goggles, swim 30 methodical laps, then get out. That would not be my children.

At the moment the girls look more like a co-production of National Geographic and MTV – “Sharks Gone Wild: South Beach.”

They are splashing about madly and shouting something about a dog. I hope this is just part of their game and that they are drowning an actual dog.

In the meantime, I glance up periodically to catch a glimpse of terror on the faces of our evening-time pool companions. Is it fear of getting their expensive clothes wet? Fear that my children might actually be causing each other bodily harm? Or, and this is my guess, confirmation of their greatest fear that Americans are, in fact, the loudest people on the planet…

It’s hard to say, but as dusk falls by the pool, my kids paint a striking contrast in many ways. During the day, this place bustles and hums with people and waves and car horns. The colors are bright and vibrant -- blues, greens, pinks, reds and oranges. My girls with their bright blondes and golds seem to fit in like flowers in a garden.

But as the darkness settles, it settles like a blanket. The dark is not inky blackness but soft velvet that envelopes everything. Colors are not erased, simply muted. The sounds of people laughing, crickets singing and waves crashing mellow with the evening breeze. All the edges are rubbed soft. It is peaceful and lovely.

And then the record scratches. The Strock girls look like glowing negatives in the dark. No soft conversation or gentle movement for my shining, screaming, splashing, tornado-like children…only a feeding frenzy of happiness.

I suppose I should feel bad about disrupting dinners and sloshing water on Mr. Fancy Suit as he sips his martini. But somehow, the expressions on the faces of these blonde whirling dervishes that I call my own make it just a little bit hard.

Ava just came over to report that she’s done and would like to go back to the room. The dog must have finally given up.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Strock Time

There’s a common thought among those in the more highly developed countries that other, less developed countries operate on a different clock. Hence phrases like, “Oh, he’s operating on Hatian-time. It will be awhile.” Now granted, this idea of a different clock is not without warrant. A friend of mine tells the story of how her father’s village in Mozambique told time by the passing through of an evening train. Train came through…it was 7pm. That’s all they really needed to know. Fair enough. But what's more important to recognize is that there's no space to judge others for their concept of time. Who says we all have to be synchronized on a single, universal clock?

Anyway, let’s assume that Gabon falls into a category somewhere in between tight schedules and loose translations of time. I don’t really know yet how things work here. I’m sure there’s a large variance between the city and rural areas. But there is one thing I am certain of: no one was prepared for Strock Time.

Which bring me to the first day of school.

As a continuation of my verbal photo tour, today we’ll take a peek at the girl’s new school...so here goes.

Unlike good ol’ GLE with the bus stop on the corner, we have to get the girls to and from school every day. We wanted to make sure we allowed plenty of time to get there, especially on the first day, so before breakfast, we looked up the website to make sure we had all of our time right, and sure enough, school started at 7:30. Nora only goes for a half-day of pre-k, so I needed to pick her up at 11:45am while the older girls would stay until 2:45. And so off we went…

Fortunately, it’s less than a 10 minute walk from the hotel, just down the main street. Our walk takes us through crazy traffic, crowded sidewalks, detours around cars parked on the sidewalks, past restaurants, banks, a furniture store, a pharmacy, a few piles of trash, some larger puddles and roadside vendors selling fruit, cigarettes, sodas and phone cards.

The school compound is camouflaged into the cityscape with high concrete walls painted with flags of 20 or so countries and a large solid black metal gate, similar to the villas that line the next several city blocks. Within the gate, there’s a smaller door that we knock on to be let in by Henri, the security guard.

The school itself is an old Marine building; 2 stories with a large grassy yard in the back looking directly out on to the ocean. A metal fence surrounds the compound on the sides and across the back, inside of which there are some playground pieces on one side and a small basketball court on the other. The classrooms are small, but well-equipped.

Currently, about 50 students attend classes between pre-K and 8th grade, while an adult program serves more than 70 students every afternoon. Because of the small class sizes, pre-k and kindergarten share space, 1st and 2nd are together, 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th, and so on.

This combined class model means, that entirely without my consent, Emma is in middle school. Was not ready for that. I was even less ready for the large, adolescent boys who came thundering up the stairs when the bell rang. They were all over 6 feet with tattoos and mustaches. One of them was carrying a gun, I am certain, but I was more scared by the mustaches.

Now to their credit, when I saw these same boys the next day, the had shrunk, shaved and had their tattoos removed, all of which I appreciated. I am assuming they did it out of respect for me as a mother. But still, middle school. It just seems too soon.

Middle school aside, the girls had a wonderful day. I am supposed to provide lunch and snack, which, of course, I did not have with me. So I ran back to the hotel after dropping them off, threw some things together and got back to Nora snaking Pringles from a classmate. She wasted no time in making herself at home.

All of the teachers seem wonderful. Nora has Mr. Gerard, who, I believe, is Gabonese. Ava’s teacher, Miss Lisa, is an American Army brat who graduated from JMU in 2005 (same year as JoJo and Steve) and had a sister at VT. Emma has a Math/Science/Homeroom Teacher, Ms. Mahdi (has lived all over, originally from North Africa, I think), and a Lang. Arts/Social Studies teacher named Ms. Camille, also American. In addition to Math, English, Science and Social Studies, both girls also have French, Art, Technology and P.E.

And if you’re impressed that they get all of this done between the hours of 7:45am and 2:45pm…you should be. You should be even more impressed that they ACTUALLY get it all done by 1:45pm. I certainly was when on the first day of school I arrived at 2:45 to find that the girls were the only students on the premises and had been hanging out with the principal for an hour. A driver had just pulled up a car to bring them to the hotel, assuming I was not going to show up…ever.

Strock Time. What are you gonna do?

Overall, it’s an impressive start for the school year and I’m thinking it will only get better from here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Excuse me, monsieur, but is that your mouse?

Since I have not provided pictures yet despite a lot of requests, I will try to give you a snapshot or two in words.

Let me start by saying that everything is relative. As a colleague of Chris’s said upon returning from Franceville (to the East), “All it takes is a little hitchhiking in Franceville to realize that this is truly a 5-Star hotel.”

It’s only fitting that I begin with the pool, as that is where the girls want to spend every waking moment. The pool is fairly big with a connected kiddie pool that leads into the shallow end of the main pool. (The shallow end is right at Nora’s shoulders, so she had officially graduated from kiddie pool status and is now under the impression that she is 16.) It sits within a huge patio area, complete with a bar, an outdoor dining area and plenty of deck chairs and umbrellas – and the best part: the entire thing overlooks the ocean. Palm trees, waves, tropical breezes, this place has it all.

Likewise, there are pretty people everywhere. The Gabonese nationals are simply stunning – men and women alike. Then there are the French military men on holiday, the South African airline crew on layover and the super-skinny, chain-smoking French expat wives all lying in the sun.

I could go on...but unfortunately, that’s not where this story is headed.

As with everything, it all comes down to second glances. With a closer look, you’ll see that the tiles around the pool are a bit chipped. The umbrellas have some rust. The towels are slightly worn and the beach is full of debris, including tires and whatever else washes ashore.

The same rule applies to the people. Along with all of the pretty people, I’ve seen some interesting characters. There have been several obviously older business men with very young, very thin, very beautiful African women…it just leads me to wonder. And there are lots of speedos…that’s all that needs to be said about that. Likewise, I have yet to see a woman in a one-piece bathing suit and there are plenty who should consider it.

But who cares. I find it all to be breathtaking. Second glances aren’t so important. In fact, at times, they can be downright damaging. Let me explain…

The other day, I am lying by the pool and in my direct line of sight was a French couple on holiday. They seemed like a lovely couple as they sat sideways on their deck chairs playing backgammon. So I innocently look over, and there, staring me in the face are…balls. The guy is sitting in his short little bathing suit, legs all splayed out and the mouse had definitely escaped the house. Unfortunately, they're directly in front of me, so every time I open my eyes...more balls. It was like a trainwreck. And let me say, it was the longest game of backgammon ever played...ever…at any point in history.

However, the silver lining to this experience is that when the leathery old topless lady made an appearance later, I was actually relieved by the diversion.

And so there you have it…a snapshot, as it were, of the pool. I’ll try to get some actual photos up soon…and don’t worry, they’ll be censored for content.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Pardon my Gabonese

Ever been at the grocery store and wondered why the line was moving so slowly, only to look ahead and see someone frantically attempting to communicate in a foreign language? Yeah? Well, that girl is me.

Contrary to my current display of exceptionally horrible linguistics, I actually took 2 years of French in college. My dad insisted the Spanish was the way to go, but the only 101 classes were at 8am. I went with French at noon. For once my laziness paid off. And despite the fact that Sarah Hall does a frighteningly accurate impression of me in French 101, circa 1994, I did walk away with some basic vocabulary and a phrase or two. Enough to get me by, right? Well, as it turns out, my mastery of the words “goat” and “horse” will not be as useful as I thought.

So far I have attempted to order “salmon cheese” (nope, doesn’t exist in Gabon, either), royally annoyed a grocery store clerk by staring at her blankly for a solid 5 minutes while she repeatedly told me to move my water off the belt and today, the crowning glory, I cheerfully wished someone, “Lunch!” instead of “Have a good day!”

In my defense, “have a good day” is “bonjourneé”, which sounds remarkably like “déjeuner”, which, yes, means “lunch.” I have to say, though, everyone has been very patient. Clearly, these have all been laugh with me, not at me situations…I think.

Overall, I am surprised by how much I DO understand when people talk to me… largely based on recognizing a max of 2 words per 60 spoken. But I can get the gist at least. For example, as I was walking back from dropping the girls at school today, I am fairly certain my “Bonjour!” to a man passing by was met by an equally cheerful, “Hello white girl.” Likewise, I more than understood 3 local school girls asked if they could touch Nora’s hair. The laughing and pointing helped, but I got what they were saying.

But how do I sound to them? Chris made the wonderful comparison to Borat once when we were in Haiti. For example:

I think I’m saying:
Hello, good sir. Could you please recommend a cheese that would go nicely with this delicious smoked salmon?

What the deli man hears is:
Yiz, heelo meester. I vould be licking dah chiz uf simmon fire, pliz. Horse? Lunch.

But I’m trying. And that does seem to go a long way. Of course, it would have been nice if the deli counter man had mentioned that he spoke English before I asked for salmon cheese. And perhaps the grocery store clerk could have done a bit more sign language. But the lunch guy was great. He corrected me and we had a nice laugh…even if I did sounds like Borat.

So I will keep studying and in the meantime, a very good lunch to you…

Bienvenue á Gabon!

Remember that time I was all like “OMG, guess what?! I’m moving to Gabon, Africa.” And you were all like, “What?! That’s crazy.” And I was all like, “Whatever! It will be easy.” Just wanted you to know you were right. It has been crazy.

But I have to admit, in spite of trying to sort 12 years of life into 3 piles (to store, to ship and to pack) in 2 days, moving out of our house of 5 years in 4 days, sending our dog of almost 13 years to a new home, driving 6 hours across the state, shopping for 97% of Christmas on Christmas Eve, visiting 3 sets of family, re-sorting everything post-Christmas, getting on a plane with 10 carry-ons, 10 suitcases and 3 pillow pets, spending 19 hours traveling across 3 continents, almost missing a plane in Cameroon and finally arriving in Libreville sans aforementioned 10 suitcases, I could not be happier.

The trip was easy enough…considering. The only real adventure was in Douala, Cameroon. We got off the plane and felt like we had burst into flames thanks to our Virginia travel clothes. We had less than an hour to find our connecting flight and had no idea where to get boarding passes, so we decided that grinning, sweating and stopping people who looked as though they might know, would be the best approach. Fortunately, our collective French sucks, which really is just an easy way to keep things exciting. Hence, when we “said” we needed the South African Airlines counter, a nice gentleman whisked us away, past the long lines at the actual SAA counter, up some secret stairs, down a long hallway and into a small office. At which point a very confused woman told us we needed to go to the actual SAA counter. By then we had made enough of a scene that, as we came running down the stairs looking like really bad and unusually sweaty sherpas, a wonderful woman met us with boarding passes, got us through security and escorted us approximately 27 miles on foot to the departure gate. We raced onto the plane, got seats…and sat for another 40 minutes. A bit anticlimactic, but at least it was the last leg.

One more quick flight and we got to Libreville around 11pm local time on Tuesday night where we were met by 2 people from Chris’ team – Nicole, a fabulous French girl, and Giles, the ex-British Army veteran and former security-guard to billionaires. Now we find out that we don’t have any of our luggage, it’s just us, the carry-ons and Winter, Waddles and Gary George, the pillow pets. Fortunately, Nicole did a lot of translating and she and Chris got things sorted out.

We got to the hotel after midnight, but it is lovely. Nicole and Giles told us we had a suite, but what they meant was 2-bedroom apartment. It’s huge. I don’t think a bed has ever looked so wonderful. Nobody, and I mean nobody, woke up before 11am the next day. Thank God for black out curtains.

So the adventure begins….