Sunday, September 24, 2017

Libreville beginnings

We're here. We've been here for a month and a half now. I haven't hung any pictures on the walls yet (drilling a hole in concrete walls is slightly more complicated for me than hammering a nail into drywall), but all of the boxes are unpacked, and we're settled. Here's our little getting-to-know-us blurb I wrote for the embassy community.  I nailed it, right? (But seriously, Gordon pouring his own drinks is impressive because yay for independence but also so frustrating because mess.)


Let's see, let me break down our experience so far . . .

The Beach

We live in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, and it is right on the coast. So far we've explored the beaches at Sablière, Cap Esterias, and Cap Santa Clara. Sometimes we're the only people at the beach. The sand is a really nice soft sand, not rocky, but there are plenty of shells that my kids like to bring home (as pictured below). When the tide came in at Santa Clara, the waves were getting so big that it reminded me of being a kid living in Brazil. The waves at Sablière (that I've seen so far) have not gotten very big. But big enough to splash Gordon in the face when we're out to my knees. Since Libreville is a big town, there is a fair amount of trash that gets washed up to the beach, so there is a hazard of cutting one's feet, but so far we've avoided that danger, and we always wash off after getting out of the water. The beach is just beautiful. We loved our time in Juarez, but it was a desert. A dry desert. And it has been pretty awesome returning to the humidity that feels like home and leaving the static and cracked skin behind.



Those are fishing poles!

My kids were pretty excited about the polka dotted shell.

A restaurant literally right on the beach. When you read the menu and ask what kind of fish, they just point at the ocean—whatever they've caught!

Jeff was very pleased with his fish.


When we started swimming, it was low tide and very far away from the logs up higher on the beach, but as the tide came in, it reached, then started rocking, and then started rolling these logs. That was pretty scary, because they were huge and heavy and definitely could have smashed a kid. Jeff and some friends performed the arduous task of pushing them back up the shore. As you'll see in the rainforest pictures later on in this post, some tree trunks here get pretty massive.

Church

It was a little tricky finding the church building the first time. There is currently one church building in the entire country. (A second one is nearing completion.) There are two branches in Gabon, and we are part of the Brazzaville Congo Mission. Church is in French. There are three people in my branch who speak English. There are no translation services. Our kids are complete troopers for being willing to sit through three hours of church in a language they don't understand yet. As I've always told them, a smile means friendship in any language (that's true, right??), and they are already making friends, kids who are friendly and sit with them and communicate with smiles and hand gestures.

Oh, but back to finding the church building. Our map apps don't always know where there are roads here, so it was taking us a rather . . . scenic route. At one point, we turned onto a tiny street, and everyone just stared at us as we drove past. A minute later, we discovered why. The road had a barrier across it, and we definitely could not pass. Time to put the car in reverse and get stared at again. (We have since found a much simpler way to get to and from church.)

There is something very comforting about seeing the sign of our church in a foreign place. I've now attended LDS services in five countries, and even when everyone within the building is a complete stranger, it still feels like coming home.

My first Sunday here, during Relief Society (the women's worship class during the third hour of church), a woman leaned over and clasped her hand on my shoulder, and said something like, "Je suis noir, et elle est blanche, mais par l'évangile du Christ, nous savons que nous sommes soeurs." (Excuse my French—I'm still learning.) It meant something like, I'm black, and she's white, but because of the gospel of Christ, we know that we are sisters. I started to cry. There's just a lot of stress that builds up about being the only person of your skin color and not understanding 98% of what is being said because it's in a different language, and hearing her say that just really, really meant a lot to me. And that welcome has continued every Sunday. I'm trying to learn some words in Fang to say (Fang is the most common indigenous language spoken here), and the women really gave me the warmest smiles and heartiest laughs when I used it on them. (Which was the exact reaction my friend teaching me told me I would receive—that they would be delighted to hear me trying.)

Jeff and I were sustained and set apart in callings today. I am the nursery leader. There have been about  eight kids in the nursery so far. (Nursery is for the children who are 18 months to 3 years old.) Jeffrey is now the Elder's Quorum teacher. (Elder's Quorum is basically the men's worship class third hour—this branch has no high priests.)

There are usually about four to seven cars in the parking lot. Everyone else walks. There are about twenty-five children in the primary. There have been around six or eight women in Relief Society. Church reliably starts between ten to fifteen minutes late every Sunday but tends to end on time or a little early. (Except for Relief Society; they usually end ten to fifteen minutes late.) There are two rooms with air conditioning: the clerk's/branch president's office and the Relief Society room. The rest of the rooms have fans or broken fans. Electricity comes and goes, and the internet wasn't strong enough for me to download my lesson manual from the LDS app. The primary room's lights are broken, but the walls are designed to be open to the outside (as you'll see in the picture below), so lots of natural light comes in. I wonder what it is like when it is raining.





The Embassy

The Embassy here is a fairly new one. I think it is around five years old. There is still construction on the compound, because they're currently building a house for the Marines right behind the embassy. The tennis court right now is out of service, because of that construction, but we have high hopes that in a few months we'll be able to play tennis again.

Jeff is settling in to his new work, figuring out the needs of the embassy and his team. We thought he would have a smaller team to run here, since this embassy is so much smaller than the consulate in Juarez, but due to laws? difficulties? something about hiring contractors here being different than in Mexico, Jeff actually has more employees here to manage than he did in Juarez, where more work was able to be contracted out. He's stayed very busy with work.

The embassy community is friendly. There are a lot of kids for Gordon, Alice, and Jill to be friends with. Poor Daniel is a little left out, but so far he hasn't noticed enough to complain. Luckily he seems okay with age gaps and opposite genders in his friendships. All of our housing is pretty close together, at least closer than it was in Juarez and way, way closer than it was in Brasilia, so it is easy to get together. I can walk to most compounds.





School

When we ranked Libreville as our number one choice and subsequently were assigned to Libreville, there was an American School here. A few months later, it closed. I am grateful that it closed before us arriving here instead of having my children faced with attending an unsuccessful school, but it was a little disappointing to not have an obvious choice of where to attend. That pretty much left us with the option of École Ruban Vert, an international school that is somewhat following the British system but is focused on being a PYP/IB school. It's nursery all the way through secondary school, and each "year" seems to have about 15 to 25 children in it. All of the years are split into four "houses," so my kids like that Harry Potter feel to it. They were both "sorted" (ha) into House Mandela.

There have been a few bumps along the way, but I really like my children's teachers, and I am pleased with how communicative the administration has been with me through this process. My children are eager to go to school almost every morning, and they've always been happy when they've come home. They're making friends, and along with a standard education, the school also offers art, music lessons, PE, swimming, dance, drama, and library as part of the school day's curriculum, and there are even more options for after-school activities, so I can't complain about that. We very seriously contemplated home schooling for a while, but we've decided to give the school a chance.

These couches look really cool and work for sitting on, but kids think they're built for crawling and climbing, and when I want my kids to put on a good impression for admissions, that makes me feel a little crazy.


One of the uniform options.

The campus really is lovely.


There is a stream running through the campus with fish and everything. Aren't these lily pads crazy tall?

Our House

We had hoped to be in the compound with beach access, a swimming pool, a playground, a fire pit, a volleyball court, and a grill, but fortune did not smile on us. That said, our house is a great house, and our compound may not have any of the above mentioned amenities, but it is full of statues of naked ladies, so . . . there's that. Seriously. There are so many of them. A few of them are actually even lamp posts. There's something objectifying about that if I think too hard about it. Hmmmm.

Our compound also came with kittens. Apparently the mother had been hit by a car right in front of our gate. I don't know if the kittens were in the street or if the kittens were already inside of our compound, but the guards and one of our neighbors (there are three houses in my compound) started feeding them. The kittens are their own section though, so I'll save that for below.

Back to the house. It's a two-story, four bedroom, five bathroom (!) house. The only water safe to drink comes from the distiller in our laundry room. The dishwasher is also in the laundry room, so I've actually washed all of the dishes by hand so far. We have local appliances for our stove and oven rather than standard US ones. I call my oven the "Barbie oven," because it won't fit my 11x13 pan, my pizza pan, or my roasting pan. I am tempted to have my mom measure her toaster oven, so I can compare which is larger. The stove top is gas and seemingly incapable of being low enough heat to simmer. Jeff has gone outside to twist the knobs and try to change how much gas is flowing in, but all we've managed to achieve is full flame power or nothing. That said, there are worse things in life than bringing food to a boil, turning the heat off, and then bringing it back to a boil, over and over again.

The window over my kitchen sink looks out to a sort of courtyard/pavement area where I can see my kids playing, so that's a huge plus in favor of this house. An oddity (but not necessarily a negative or positive) is that every single ceiling light fixture is recessed lighting. Other than the lamps, there is only one type of bulb used for every single socket. And they are all recessed. No chandeliers or anything poking out or hanging down.

There are arches and lots of deep molding on the ceilings. It's very pretty. We received the same dark wood furniture and "pineapple" lamps we had in Juarez, but this time instead of orange/red/brown couches and chairs, all of our chairs and couches are brown and shades of green. I really like them.

I'll take more pictures of the house once I have everything where I want it and pictures on the walls.

I wasn't kidding about the naked ladies all over the yard.

Gordon's terrifying way of descending the stairs—hanging onto the railing and just barely getting his tippy toes on the steps.

Nothing says "sweet dreams" like mosquito nets. Bonus: They apparently double as monster nets. Alice decided she was afraid of monsters and that monsters are in her bedroom, but the mosquito net holes clearly are too small to let any monsters get to her.
Another comment about the mosquito nets: So far we haven't really needed them. When we first moved in and then right after our boxes were delivered, there were quite a few mosquitoes in the house, and I actually had to sleep with OFF! on unless I wanted to wake up in the middle of the night with lots of bites, but other than those two weeks, we haven't had any mosquitoes in the house. (Now ants are another story . . . but they're not biting ants, so I deal with it.)

I found this stamped on a piece of my government-owned property. 
It made me laugh—"You had one job!"

Kittens

Friends, pets were not in the plans. We successfully didn't adopt any animals in Juarez, and Jeff was adamant that we never would, and I was adamant that we definitely wouldn't until my kids were older/less physical labor requiring. Well, as stated before, our compound came with kittens. And my kids were obsessed with playing with them. After a while, it became clear that one was not well. I didn't really want my kids playing with a diseased animal, and I felt bad for the tiny sick kitten, so some new friends took me and the kitten to the vet, and I got to watch about twenty or so maggots getting squeezed out of this poor kitten's skin pores. *shudder* That is an experience I'd rather not repeat. She had wounds all over her body, and the vet gave me a prescription for it and said the kitten would heal a lot faster inside a house as opposed to back under the bush, so we let her into our house "for a week."

Well, after a day, I felt guilty for leaving her siblings outside, so then I took them to the vet as well (clean bills of health) and let them inside the house. They were living in the fourth bedroom bathroom. We called it the "cat hotel," and I was very clear to our children that the kittens were not staying.

I've tried to get them adopted, and we were successful with the runt. Some of our new friends made room in their family for the cat once-known-as-Midnight-but-forever-forth-named-Pepper. That left us with two: Marshmallow and Roasty. I've continued to offer them to every new family that has arrived, but there are no takers. Jeff gave in about two weeks ago saying that the kittens were part of our family now. I still haven't confessed to my children, but I'm weakening. I think we ended up with two cats.

Don't get me wrong, I love pets, but the logistics of pets when you move internationally every two to three years is a little daunting. Where do they live when we're on vacation back in the US? And then when we're actually moving, how much do airplane tickets for cats cost?! How many pounds of cat litter do I need to ship? Wait, there is something called a pet passport? What would happen to our cats if we're evacuated from our post?

But on the other hand, two weekends ago Jeff and I spent over an hour trying to get Jill to just add a few sentences to her book report. She wouldn't even respond in coherent words. I finally told her I was leaving until she was calm and ready to work. I went and got a kitten and put the kitten in her bed with her. About five minutes later, a smiling Jill bounced out of her room with a completed book report. That kitten achieved in five minutes what I couldn't in an hour.

But on the other hand, they keep walking through their poop somehow in the litter box, and on the nights when I let them sleep in my room, they without fail always end up sleeping on or near my head and waking me up between 4:00 and 4:30. When your alarm clock is going to go off at 5:00, this is a very annoying time to be woken up.

They're both sitting on my lap right now as I type this, which is a vast improvement to five minutes ago, when they were climbing up my legs. Those tiny claws are so painful.


Proof: They just can't help themselves.

It's like they can tell that they have to win me over.

Me at 4:30 in the morning using my cell phone to figure out what is going on. They were fighting on my head.

Here's a picture of when we had three kittens.

A picture of the kittens trying to win Jeff over.

Some mornings they wake me up by chewing on my hair or biting my ear or casually patting my eye lids. They'll grow out of this, right?? This is just a kitten thing? Or should I just never let them sleep in my bedroom if I want to wake up from my actual alarm clock?

Libreville

I'll just let the pictures do the talking. Here's the wikipedia link if you're curious for more.

These colorful lizards are everywhere. Gordon's life goal appears to be to catch one. (It's never going to happen.) I love all of their colors. I also love how they pop their heads up and down while laying flat on their bellies.

Gabon has hosted the Total African Cup of Nations twice (2012 and 2017); consequently, there are soccer ball statues all over the city. I love it.

This is how we park our cars when we want to buy fruits and vegetables. It is a little exciting getting in and out, hoping traffic doesn't hit your door.

Here is one of the stands where I can buy fruits and vegetables.

I love these patches of rain forest in the middle of the busy city.

The women here are incredibly well balanced with very strong necks. Their entire bodies are strong. I am amazed at what I see them carrying.

I'm incredibly intimidated by the meat here. I've only purchased chicken, hot dogs, chorizo, and lard bits so far. I mean—rabbit, guinea fowl, and is that a peacock?!

I'm intimidated by the fish, too. You can buy it at the store, or you can just buy it on the street still hanging from the fishing lines. Doesn't get much more fresh than that. I've yet to be brave enough to buy any at either place.

Why drive with only three lanes, when clearly it is wide enough for four cars??
Twice I've gotten lost for more than hour just wandering around. On multiple occasions, there were so many people, dogs, and parked cars that I felt like I was living in a movie, that it couldn't be reality that I had to drive my car through that tiny space. Two or three times, I've had to drive my car in reverse for a while because the road I was trying to drive down was blocked. Sometimes it took a while before I could find a place to turn around to stop having to back up. Most of the roads have really intense gutter drains next to the side of the street. I'm terrified of driving into one accidentally some day. 

Tell me that does not beat whatever record you have for the number of bird nests in one tree. That is a NOISY tree.

I got used to seeing soldiers in Juarez, because their soldiers were often out and about, but in Juarez, I would only ever just pass them in their trucks, with them standing in the bed with their big guns. But here, they're on the street. They're pulling cars over. They're standing three feet away from you while you wait for the school bus to arrive. They're helping your guard find a spot in traffic for you to pull out. They're smiling and waving when you smile and wave. They're just everywhere, and they have huge guns, but they appear to be friendly even when they're telling you that you have to sit in your car and not go anywhere for an undetermined amount of time because the president is going to drive down the street at some point. I also drive pass, pretty frequently, the army headquarters, the police headquarters, the air force headquarters, and (my personal favorite) the parachute brigade headquarters.


Where the city ends and the rain forest begins.


The Rainforest

Gabon is 80% rainforest. We've pretty much just stayed in the city and the coastline while we've been here, but there is a slice of rainforest north of the city. The public has free access to the Raponda Walker Arboretum, which has a number of well marked hiking trails. Two people in our group even got to see monkeys, but there was a dog incident, and by the time we got there, the monkeys were gone. We'll definitely go back for more hikes (how not? It's so close and free!), and maybe we'll get lucky and see monkeys some day.



See what I meant when I said the trunks can get pretty large?



That sums up our time here so far. If I'd included a more thorough description of the ants, an illness or two, and talked about how less-than-fun potty training is, then you'd pretty much know it all. Some days are hard, some days are wonderful, and life is marching on.