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!

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...


  1. you crack me up - i hope you are printing these out and adding them to what will one day be the best hard back i will buy and cherish

  2. So with all the malaria conversations over the past week and a half, I guess the brush with incarceration was not worth talking about!?? Oh, dear, I don't know if you need to have your passport at all times, but you definitely need to have your friend along!!! Tell her that your mama says, "Thanks!"

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  4. I think your new friend is worth keeping!! I may even go as far to say ... don't stray far from your hotel without her!! Glad to hear Ava is better! Love to all of you!! xoxo

  5. Did you just explain to him that you don't keep your passport on you because half the time you can't remember where it is? ;)

    I'm glad everything turned out okay. I hope Ava is feeling better.

  6. don't sell yourself short - you totally have cleavage ;) xo

  7. i accidentally spit some of my food out at the part where you pretended to have your mouth full, you are too funny!

    I hope Ava is okay.