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.