Boxes of fun

We received our HHE (make sure to pronounce that “heych, heych” if you are going to be authentically Australian) yesterday, so what better time to write a blog post, right?

It’s not that nothing has been going on here, or even that I haven’t written anything, but for some reason I just can’t find the inspiration and motivation to get pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write about – or finish when I start writing about – life on our latest adventure. In part I think it’s because Australia is so “normal” after DRC that it feels like everything I write is really booooring.

Let’s be honest, I spend my days going to the gym, Costco, Ikea, and/or the grocery store, then coming home and cooking, cleaning and – once school lets out – driving C around to her activities. Sound familiar to anyone in a first world country? Every once in a while I’ll be walking around ALDI or Costco and think “Seriously? Is that what we signed up for?” For me, leaving Charlotte and following B into the Foreign Service wasn’t about getting an “easy” post and enjoying all the comforts of home – because if I wanted to do that I’d do it at…HOME – it was about exploring different and unusual places while still serving our country. Most people probably think that everyone who joins the FS wants to serve in Paris or London, or Canberra, but, while I wouldn’t say no to Paris (or London), many FS officers actually want to explore the road (or country) less travelled.

Don’t get me wrong, Australia is beautiful and we are enjoying so many things about it, but there is nothing shockingly different about it. I think that is especially true for me because Australia often feels like a Southern Hemisphere version of Canada – lots of polite people obeying rules, enjoying universal healthcare, and spending as much time as possible outdoors barbecuing and drinking beer.  Instead of moose, we see roos here, and instead of groundhogs, we see wombats, but the differences are subtle and you have to dig a bit deeper to find them. By contrast, everything about our move to Kinshasa was different and new – I had to use my imagination and creativity at every turn in order to do the simplest things (ie: eat ice cream, a bagel or bacon) – and since my imagination and creativity were in high gear writing just seemed to come a bit easier.

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SO what have we been up to since we got here?

We visited Sydney for my milestone (never you mind which…) birthday and can’t wait to go back again – though the Sydney I first visited in 2000 was, not surprisingly given that she was hosting the Olympics, a much shiner version of what it is today. We visited the “coast” and were blown away by the virtually empty beaches with gorgeous views of mountains in the distance.

We’ve made friends with some magpies who now regularly come to our door to talk to us/beg for food, and we’ve revelled in daily seeing beautiful cockatoos, galah parrots and rosellas – in our backyard, among other places.  We’ve made friends with Eric, the half-a-bee keeper, while he helped us remove a swarm of bees from our garden (more about that in another post), and we’ve been lucky enough to make friends with other families here, which has made our transition a lot easier.

We climbed the hill behind our house (a couple of times),  had a hail storm, and B and I attended the Marine Corps Ball. C has started – and almost finished – school, or at least the last term of school. As of Friday she’ll be on summer vacation AGAIN. Never let it be said that sometimes the life of a Foreign Service child isn’t pretty awesome – altogether she’ll get 5 months of holidays this year – just don’t tell her that when we leave (if we go back to the Northern Hemisphere) she won’t get much of a summer holiday at all…

All in all it’s been a good couple of months. We are feeling pretty settled and we are looking forward to planning some trips in the new year. However, it’s pretty clear to me that this adventure will definitely be on the low key end of our Foreign Service life so far, and that’s ok, cause low key is good after chaos, and good when you don’t know what will come next…

Kangaroos and Quiet

Shhhh…do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of no one yelling “MOMMA!” It’s the sound of no one watching football. It’s the sound of no one packing, or unpacking. It’s the sound of a neighborhood far from the beep, beep, beep of walk signals, and the sirens of a busy downtown. It’s the sound of my first day alone in our new house with nothing to do but sheepishly return to my blog.

I’m going to be the first to admit that I’ve struggled over the last few months. I have grieved the loss of Kinshasa, the Congo, and the people who made up our life there. The fact that I’ve been deep-in-my-core angry at the “new” State Department and the lack of respect it has shown not only to me and the other thousands of EFMs, but also to its own officers, has not helped to get me back in a writing/blogging state of mind. I’ve wanted to come back, but I have not been able to write without ranting and that’s not what this blog is about.

But today is a new day, on a new continent, in a new hemisphere and it’s time I make my way out of my funk.

It’s hard to describe to people what it was like to live in the Congo. For those who live comfortable lives in the first world, it defies description. But it has been even harder to make anyone – even B – understand how profoundly unhappy I was to leave a place that is, in all possible descriptions, a place of hardship. Even now, sitting here in my new and lovely kitchen, with every possible convenience within 10 minutes safe and beautiful walk of my door, I am teary-eyed thinking of the life we left behind.

 

Maybe it is because, as our first post, I was determined to make Kinshasa a good experience and so my attitude from day one was designed to make me as happy as possible. Maybe it was the fun I had speaking French and reviving a long dormant skill that let me use my brain in ways that are rare once you inch toward a half-century of life. And maybe it was simply the people –American, international and Congolese – and the fact that I had not prepared myself as well as I should have to leave them behind. I miss them. A lot.

Foreign Service life is designed as a revolving door. You rotate into a place, spend a few months, and then rotate back out. Just as you are headed out the door you realize where everything is, and what everyone’s name is, and how to navigate the world and streets you live in. And then, just as suddenly, you are in a place you don’t know how and you have to start all over again. This is where I am now, though admittedly learning how to navigate Canberra – a planned city designed for ease of navigation – will not be akin to learning to manage the chaos of Kinshasa.

My first impressions of Canberra are of calm. The streets are bizarrely empty and the quiet is almost deafening. The only noise is the magpies and the parrots calling from the trees. We arrived during a school break and for the first few days I drove around and rarely shared the road with more than a couple of cars. It was eerie.

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C’s school is literally a stone’s throw from the house, and just past that are a couple of great coffee shops and a small IGA. There is even a gym, so when I get inspired I can get back to working out.

We haven’t seen too many (live) kangaroos yet, though B spotted a few while we were driving around over the weekend. Apparently they are everywhere, and they are certainly common enough to be the road kill of choice, but you must have to get accustomed to seeing their brown against the brown of the end of winter grass and brush because we have been peeling our eyes to no avail.

Since we left just as fall was gearing up in Virginia, it is also odd getting adjusted to the upside down-ness of things. The dogwoods and azaleas are blooming here. There are wisteria vines everywhere, and the cherry trees are decorating the roads with their pale pink petals. It smells like my grandparents’ garden in England – rosy and fresh and spring-like. But, it’s still chilly and I want to put on my dark sweaters ready for falling leaves, rather than light jackets ready for spring showers. Lord knows I love a good heat wave, so I am not sad to be following the sun for yet one more summer season, but I am definitely going to be ready for my boots and wooly sweaters (or jumpers if you are Australian – C has already told me she needs a jumper, not a sweater!) in April (see, weird, eh?)

The fact is, no matter how beautiful and utopian Australia is compared to the Congo, I am still going to miss the life and people we had there. But, I’m ready to accept this new reality and work toward making it as joyful an experience as the last two years were for us. And when the door revolves again in 2019, I’m sure I’ll leave with sadness and grief as well. In the meantime, there are new people to meet and make “mine,” adventures to have, and kangaroos to spot.

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All aboard!

During the two years that I attended boarding school in Toronto, my parents lived only two hours away in a small town called London, Ontario. I went home almost every weekend, either taking a Greyhound bus or the train. I had nothing against the bus, it actually arrived in almost exactly the same time as the train (about 2 hours one way), but there was nothing magical about taking the bus. I got on, I sat down, I looked out the window and, about 2 hours later, I arrived. It was not perceptibly different than driving in a car except for a (usually disgusting) toilet in the back of the bus avoiding the need for highway rest stops. Nowadays there appear (though the windows I pass by as I haven’t actually been on a bus in many, many years) to be TVs and other entertaining accoutrement, but in the 70s I took a book with me, I sat down in my seat at the bus station in Toronto and I waited until the bus stopped in London.

But there was – and is – something magical about taking the train. Something old school and other worldly and freeing. Can you imagine if Harry Potter took the bus to Hogwarts? Not the same image, right?

I loved the train when I was in boarding school. I loved being independent enough that when I was 11 years old in my first year in boarding school I was allowed to take a taxi from school to the train station all by myself. That I was allowed to buy my ticket, find the gate and get on the train by myself and start my weekly journey home to my family. As a 40-something year old adult now, the idea of sending my 5 year old to take a train by herself in only 6 years is terrifying, but to my parents’ credit, they trusted me and believed that I could manage alone after taking my first voyage to the school with my mother (which was a doozy…).

In the years since I left boarding school I have taken the train all over Europe and once or twice up and down the “Acela” corridor in the US (Boston –  New York – Philadelphia – Washington DC) and it has never lost its magic for me. On a bus or in a car what you see is highway, but a train often puts you in the middle of a completely different landscape and allows a glimpse at a world that is perceptively different than the world you see from the road.

When we first arrived in Congo there were no passenger trains running from Kinshasa. None. It’s hard to find accurate information about when the last passenger trains ran, but it is clear that in 2006 a Chinese company (likely in exchange for mineral rights…) entered an agreement with the DRC train authority (ONATRA) to renovate the track, trains, telecommunications, signal system and electric supply. In the ten years since then they have, apparently, been working on these renovations because over Labor Day weekend when we traveled to Zongo Falls we saw a passenger train. I felt like Tattoo on Fantasy Island screaming “LOOK, B, a TRAIN, a TRAIN!”

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The tail end of the first train seen in Congo by anyone in our group

It probably seems crazy to any American, Canadian or, certainly, any European, but you just do not see trains here and our whole group was abuzz. A few weeks later when we visited the very first locomotive in Congo during our Kinshasa tour, we found out that passenger trains had started running in late August meaning that the train you can just see the back of in the picture above was one of the first passenger trains to run on these tracks in almost 10 years.

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Well, not surprisingly to anyone who knows B or me, we immediately started discussing when, and whether, we could take the train in the Congo. Luckily for us, we have friends who have a similar sense of adventure as we do, and when they asked if we might be interested in joining them on a train trip we jumped at the chance.

The train goes from Kinshasa to Matadi, the chief sea port in the D.R.C., but that trip takes 7 hours, leaving early on Saturday morning from Kinshasa, and returning early the next morning from Matadi. As we were planning to drag C and our friends’ two small children along with us, two days and 14 hours of traveling – even by train – seemed like a bit much. Luckily for us, one of the train’s five stops on its 7 hour journey is Kisantu-Inkisi, the location of the D.R.C.’s largest botanical gardens AND the Mbuela Lodge, a relatively “first world” resort. Bingo – a 2 1/2 hour train ride and a night at a nice resort.

One of our friends went down to the “Gare Centrale” (or Central Station) to pick up the tickets, and then his wife and I followed along with our passports to register with the DGM (or Directeur Générale de Migration) who was sitting at a table under a tree beside the brand new train station.  You cannot buy a round trip ticket, so we had to go to the station in Kisantu before the train’s scheduled arrival on Sunday to buy our return tickets. The tickets were not overly cheap (but nothing really is here), but they also weren’t overly expensive given the novelty and fun of getting to ride on a train in the Congo.  A one-way ticket to Kisantu was $38 for the adults and $23 for the children over 4 (only C on our trip). So not too bad for a 2 1/2 hour trip which included breakfast on the way there, lunch on the way back, lots of A/C, a movie and amazing views of the Congo countryside.

While the countryside was really lovely, the train took us far closer to the enormous slums and shantytowns that are scattered through, and on the outskirts of, Kinshasa. On the way back, I filmed several and, though it was raining, the extreme poverty is obvious and devastating to see, particularly as you sit on the luxury car of a train for a price that most Congolese don’t make in a month. Despite this, the children lined the path beside the tracks waiving and smiling and jumping up and down, proving the magic of trains for children everywhere.

  

When we arrived in Kisantu we called the lodge and, in Congo time, they picked us up and ferried us back to their property. It took a little while to get our room ready (despite the “first world” appearance of the resort the booking and confirmation process leaves a little bit to be desired and a lot of people we’ve talked to have told us that “losing” reservations is commonplace), but eventually they did find us somewhere to sleep.

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Kisantu is also home to a 7,000 acres Botanical Gardens that are, somewhat surprisingly, quite lovely. Clearly the people in charge have not let the lack of money, and the myriad of other problems the D.R.C. has experienced over the years, dull their enthusiasm for keeping the Gardens in relatively good condition. There were also two crocodiles – one huge and one tiny – and a baboon as the last vestiges of a by-gone zoo.

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Mbuela Lodge is nice, and not nearly as expensive as Zongo was, so we definitely enjoyed hanging out there by the pool, playing mini-golf and having a nice meal (though it was also brought to us in “Congo time.”) There was a great indoor play area for kids, as well as four-wheelers you could rent, and a stable with quite nice horses that you could ride for a fee. C got on her first horse (v. pony) and looked like enough of a natural up there that we may have to take her to the local riding stables now that she is five.

Oh yeah, C turned five in Congo! We had a great “Princess Unicorn” party the weekend after our train trip complete with Princess bouncy house, a unicorn cake, a crown cake and a rainbow king cake, all made by me (yes, I was channelling my inner SAHM). Unfortunately, soon after the kids came inside for a lunch break the skies opened and the “Rainy Season” lived up to its name for the next six hours short circuiting the bouncing and outdoor play but, luckily, not dulling the high spirits of the birthday girl.

At the end of this week we head out on our first “R&R” – the required time we have to take to leave the D.R.C. and experience some “first world” living for a few weeks. Over our two year tour we get to take two “R&R’s” and this is our first one. We are headed to visit B’s family in Florida, including a two day trip to Disney (heaven help us – in the middle of Spring Break/Easter…), a visit from B’s grandmother from Minnesota, and a three day get-away for B and me with a bunch of our Charlotte friends. We are VERY excited, though even with three weeks we don’t have time to see and visit half of the people we’d like to see, so our excitement is tempered with some disappointments. It’s going to be a wonderful, but bizarre three weeks as we walk and drive freely wherever we want, drink Starbucks to our hearts content, and play in the wide open green spaces available to us. But as wonderful as it will be (and I know it will) I also know we will be excited to come back to Kinshasa, to our home, to Miller and to the next adventure that awaits us here.

 

 

Running to catch up

B is shaming me into a blog post. Last night as we were watching TV he looked over and said “You know, I used to read this abcdadventure blog, but I haven’t seen a post in a long time…I wonder what happened to it?”

Sigh. What happened is life in Kinshasa. I feel like I am always running to catch up these days. I actually have three half (or almost fully) written posts that glare at me accusingly when I log onto the blog, but I can’t seem to find the time (or maybe muster up the effort) to get them finished, get photos uploaded and get them posted. Or, when I sit down to get them finished it has been long enough since I started writing that the timing is all off.

This all started in the fall when I started working on Christmas presents. I finally started sewing, but I couldn’t really blog about it because everything I was sewing was going to be sent stateside as a present, so I couldn’t show any pictures without ruining the surprise. Since I was also sewing like a crazy person I was also not writing about anything else, and so it began, the slow decline into a monthly blog post instead of a weekly one.

I’ll try harder, promise. For now, I’m going to work on finishing the three pending posts so be careful what you ask for all of you who keep wondering when the next post is coming, because there may be three or four in short order! So, without further ado, the post I started two weeks ago (and finished this morning):

It’s been a week of firsts for me in the Congo: first boat trip up the Congo River to lounge on a sandbar, first trip to the “Marble Palace” to see where Laurent Kabila was assassinated, and my first car accident.

My journalistic training would tell me to start with the most important of these firsts, but I’m hard pressed to identify which one wins that title. I’m sure most readers are thinking that an accident has to top the list. And, from a strictly journalistic perspective injury and destruction usually trumps everything else, but in this case there were no injuries (thank heavens) and, relatively speaking, little destruction, and, basically it was just like an accident anywhere. Well, other than my fleeing the scene…

It really was very bland as accidents go. I was driving down the road toward the embassy and a pick up truck backed out of a roadside parking space and hit me. We’ve been taught not to stay at the scene of an accident in Kinshasa if we can help it. Instead, we make our way immediately to one of the “safe” locations for US diplomats. For me, the embassy was very close by, so I just kept moving.

A man ran up to the window and started shouting “arrête, arrête!” but I ignored him. It didn’t actually sound that bad when it happened; it certainly looked worse than it sounded when I finally laid eyes on the damage. Once I got to the embassy and got out of the car I could see that the back panel of the car had been ripped off, so maybe he was just trying to get me to stop so I could pick up the piece of my car that was apparently lying in the road, but then again, maybe not.

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Americans = rich in Kinshasa, so even when an American driver is not at fault in an accident (as in my case) a crowd can gather quickly and tensions can escalate. We even have special cards made up that explain in French and Lingala that we will not leave the car, we will be driving away and if the person needs to contact someone about the accident they should reach out to the embassy. I didn’t even bother with the card given the circumstances of my accident, I just kept on going. The embassy guards and I drove back over to the area in their truck about 20 minutes later, but the pieces were long gone.

“Wow,” I said (in French). “That piece was pretty big, I’m surprised someone took it.”

“Ah, Madame,” the guard said to me. “Pour les Chegues rien n’est impossible.”

In other words, “for the street children (called Chegues here (pronounced shay-geys)) nothing is impossible.” One of the drivers in our compound has even suggested that if we take the car somewhere local to have it fixed we may find that we get our own part back – at a price of course. I’m just glad that the damage wasn’t worse and that no one was hurt in either car. Fingers crossed that is my first AND last accident here.

The next weekend was a four-day weekend for Americans in Kinshasa as Friday was a Congolese holiday (Heroes Day) and Monday was MLK. Heroes Day is really two days. One in honor of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister after the end of colonialism in 1960 who was assassinated on January 17, 1961, and the other in honor of Laurent Kabilia, who was President of the DRC after overthrowing the military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Kabilia was the father of the current president, Joseph Kabilia, so he is often referred to here as “Papa Kabilia.” He was assassinated on January 16, 2001. Every year on January 16 the DRC government opens the so-called “Marble Palace” where Papa Kabila was assassinated to the public. The room in which he was shot has (allegedly) not been touched since that time and you can still see bullet holes in the chair he was sitting in. We decided it was worth the wait to see the palace, though it is not much of a palace and I’m not sure what (if anything) was made of marble. Either way it was interesting and I’m glad we checked it off our list, but we won’t be going back again next year, so that’ll be a first and last for me as well.

The only first that I hope gets repeated at regular intervals was the amazing trip up the Congo River. This was our first “sandbar” outing as well as our first time on the river proper. Typically (apparently) you are only on the river for 20-30 minutes before a suitable sandbar is found for lounging. However, there has been so much rain lately that it took us almost an hour and a half to find a sandbar big enough to accommodate the 25+ of us who went out on the trip. The ride was worth it – and was amazing and beautiful in and of itself. Once on the sandbar, tents and tables were set up and the boat crew set up a grill and cooked the meat and other food we brought with us. We drank beer and ate hot dogs while the children played in the sand and the shallow water. I took my first official “swim” (more like drifting in the current) in the Congo River and if I could go back again this morning I’d be on my way.

Instead, we’re enjoying another lazy Saturday morning. C is coloring, B is watching football (“soccer” to the Americans) and I am FINALLY finishing a blog post. Certainly not our first Saturday morning like this, and I have no doubt we’ll enjoy many more such mornings while we plan the next “first” in our Congo adventure.

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I know, I know, I have been a total blog slacker. But seriously, I am like a kid in a candy store here and sitting down to write a blog post has been sidetracked by a long list of adventures and outings in the last few weeks. This having a car and being able to drive thing does not suck in a city like this.

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Even better news is that I’ve found someone (several someones, in fact) to adventure and outing with me! Hooray! So since we returned from the U.K. here is what I’ve been up to:

I painted C’s room. She wanted a pink “princess-y” room and she got it! There are no Home Depots here so I asked our gardener if he could take me to find some paint. He took me to a Marché – basically hundreds of stalls selling everything from fruits and vegetables to, you guessed it, paint. I saw my first “bush” meat (though I averted my eyes so quickly from the head on the table next to the meat that it could have been just about anything and not necessarily something from the bush…), we bought a spade for the garden, and we found a paint stall where we bargained for a gallon of paint and then argued back and forth to get the color right.

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Not my photo – but a good idea of what a Marché is like

Like Home Depot every can of paint at the stall starts out white. But, unlike the HD, there is no “formula” or machine to measure the amount of color that needs to be added to the white to get the right shade of, say, pink. So I also only had one shot to get the right amount. There would be no going back and saying “Hey, could you make me another gallon of ‘C’s Room Pink'” cause you would never, ever be able to get a match.

The tin roof of the stall had hand wiped “swatches” of colors that I was able to use as a starting point. I showed them a light pink and then they started adding red paint to the white and stirring it. I have heard that when you buy a 4 gallon can they use their arms to stir, but the woman I bought from used a stick, so it wasn’t that exciting. It was $20 for a gallon. Not too bad as paint goes.

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I got to work painting and I bought a border for the room as well (though I had to order more so that part is not finished yet…) and I’m pretty pleased with the results.

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Before

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After (though still have some border to add…)

I also went with the gardner, Blanchard, to buy rocks. We have a little area in our back yard that is not paved and is too shady to grow grass, so it is, naturally, Miller’s favorite place to hang out. The result is that if it rains at all the dog tracks muddy paws all over our tile floor house. So Blanchard and I figured that if we put rocks in that area Miller will be walking on rocks, not mud, and everyone (except Miller…) will be happy.

We had to drive slightly out of Kinshasa – on the same road we took to Zongo – to buy the rocks from a family by the side of the road. They gather these rocks out of the Congo River and then sell them. There are tiny rocks all the way to giant boulders – all for sale – which they keep in neat piles. They use a bucket to measure the rocks you are buying, and they are priced by the bucket. So the small-ish rocks we bought were 3000 CF (about $3.25) for a bucket. I’ll write more about the family one day, but for today this is just about the rocks. It was fascinating and made me (again) so glad that I am able to speak French as it allowed me to talk with one of the little girls out there and ask questions about what kind of fish they get out of the river. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Lingala (the local language) and the man I asked only knew the names of the fish in Lingala, not French. But, he could tell me in French that they are delicious.

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I also discovered an art gallery called Symphonie Des Arts which doubles as a ballet/workout studio. The gallery has some works by some amazing local artists and I have had a hard time not spending a lot of money there. I signed C up for ballet and she now goes twice a week to study with Mme. Nicola. She goes back and forth between loving and hating it (mostly, I think, because Mme Nicola does not take any of C’s attitude…) but she has to keep doing it because I love how cute she looks in her ballet outfit!

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Not sure if she is loving or hating it here…

There are also all these amazing birds at Symphonie – macaws, African parrots, fancy chickens and this guy – no idea what he is, but he’s gorgeous!

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Rainy season has started, but luckily that does not mean that it rains all the time (as it does in some African countries). It means that the majority of the days are sunny and bright (and HOT) and then we have these truly wicked thunderstorms. And then we jump in the puddles, naturally.

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My adventure-mate and I have also been systematically checking out the duty free stores around town where diplomats are allowed to shop. We still have a couple of others to check out, but we have found some good bargains…

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$35…pretty sure I paid $60 in the U.S.

Finally, we have discovered a new fruit. There are rumors that these can be found in California, but we have never seen one anywhere before. They are called mangosteen, though they are nothing at all like a mango. It is not really possible to describe the taste – sweet, but not too sweet ,and delicious – but oddly I always think of crawfish when I’m eating them. Why? Because it takes a lot of effort to get into them and the joy of eating the result is way too fleeting before you have to start on another one!

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An unopened mangosteen

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A fleeting moment of deliciousness…

I can’t write more today because we’re headed out to the Embassy Trunk or Treat event, then B and I are going to Oktoberfest (apparently the party of the year and also, bizarrely, at Symphonie Des Arts) and tomorrow we’re finally going to find Curious George’s friends and relatives and visit the Bonobos (the most recently discovered great ape which is only found in Congo!)

It’s a busy weekend here in Kinshasa folks and who knows what next week will bring.

I, for one, can’t wait to find out.