Summer changes and choices

Growing up, these last days of May always took on an otherworldly, magical quality for me. Summer was coming. The end of school, the end of snow, the end of sweaters and socks; the beginning of vacation, camp, beaches, fireworks and long warm days.

But, in a land of perpetual summer (ie: Africa just shy of the equator) it feels different. I catch glimpses of other people’s joy at the onset of summer in Facebook posts and Instagram photos, but there is a different kind of anticipation here. School is still about to end, but the weather is still hot (though not as rainy), the days still begin and end right around 6 (a.m. and p.m.) and our wardrobes are static.

No, the anticipation in this new life is about transition. Summer is “transition season” in the Foreign Service. People are transitioning in and people are transitioning out. We are bidding (more about that later) and will soon find out where we are headed next summer. It’s a lot about saying goodbye in these early days, and more about saying hello as summer wanes, and less about campfires and holidays.

I knew life in the FS would involve change, but I imagined the changes to be in two year cycles  – every two years our location would change and that is about as far as I got in thinking about change. But, as it turns out, change is perpetual in the FS. First there are all the changes when you arrive at a new post – new houses or apartments (or both if you are in temporary housing first as we were) to move into, new jobs to start, new city streets and traffic to navigate and learn, new schools to start, new friends to make, new languages to hear, new food to taste, new brand names to buy and the list goes on.

You adjust to those big early changes, but you soon realize that things are always changing. I started without anyone to hang out with – I read and wrote and played with C – which I loved. Then I made some friends and C made some friends, and I read and wrote less and explored more – which I loved. Then my friends got jobs and I explored less, but got involved in other groups and clubs outside the Embassy community more  – which I loved. Soon I’ll start my own job (when/if the State Department finally gets its act together…) and things will change again – and hopefully I’ll love that too.

A few of my adventures

In the midst of all these changes the faces that make up your life in the FS are always changing too. I started noticing those changes more and more a few months ago. I was so overwhelmed when I first arrived that I could barely remember half the names of the people I met, so when some of those people moved on it wasn’t that noticeable to me.   But, suddenly it seems, people I care about are leaving. People I enjoy spending time with, who have become part of our lives here, are suddenly vanishing before our eyes. Our next door neighbors, the first people we literally met on the African continent, left a few weeks ago and with them went Papy – their driver who was always ready with answers to my many questions. He’s moved on to work with another family, so even when the faces remain in Kinshasa your day-to-day connections with them changes. Today we are losing another friend who is headed back to the U.S. for the next phase of his life.

It’s not as if we are losing these people forever. The Foreign Service is a small world, but there will be gaps in our lives as they transition on and, as new people arrive, we have to make room for them to transition into. It’s so much about the gaps of missing faces, and the making room for new ones that our lives, already, are starting to feel like a merry-go-round of changing faces.

And, while we are saying goodbye and hello, we are also looking at a list of choices for our own ultimate transition in about 13 months. After going through bidding in A-100, where there are a limited number of posts and there is no real choice, we were excited by the prospect of second tour  bidding (“STB”). As expected, the list we received has hundreds of posts on it, but most of them got eliminated quickly due to timing or language, and we started to quickly lose the feeling of having a choice.

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The first thing we had to do is get over our initial disappointment. Certain posts in the FS have what’s called a “differential.” The differential can be for danger, hardship, or difficult to fill posts. The highest differentials are for the posts that are “unaccompanied” – places where there is war usually – and spouses and children are not allowed to live. Kinshasa is obviously not in that category, but it is a post with a relatively high differential. Usually the main import of a high differential is a pay increase (ie: if a differential is 10% then FSOs serving there get an additional 10% on top of their salary), but in STB you also get to go to the front of the line in terms of assignment. The higher the differential, the more likely you are to get your first, second or third choice. So, knowing we’d be high on the list, we’ve spent months talking about the possibilities and our “dream” posts.

But, then you get the list and Montreal isn’t on it. And, although both Paris and Ottawa are there, they don’t work because of timing, so you have to start to look a new places and give up those initial dreams and get down to the business of sorting through the list, applying the almost 25 pages of rules for STB and coming up with your own top 30 to submit.

First you have to determine your “TED” – time of estimated departure. That is, 2 years after you arrived at your current post. You are not allowed to leave a post more than a month before the end of the two years or you have an “invalid” bid (and, in our case, we would likely lose one of our “R&R’s” – not something we want to do!)  Then you have to look at the new post’s “TEA” – time of estimated arrival. You can’t arrive at a new post more than a month after the TEA, or you have an invalid bid.

To determine when you might arrive you have to factor in the Congressionally mandated “Home Leave,” any time you need for “tradecraft” training, and any time you need for language training.  For every year an FS officer serves overseas, 10 days of Home Leave is required. Up to 45 days is possible, but we are legally required to take 20 working days (not including holidays or weekends) off and spend it on U.S. soil being “re-indoctrinated” into American ways. Hard to believe we could be annoyed by being forced to take a vacation, but it can really mess with your timing in bidding. Tradecraft and language training vary by post and job.

So we had to go through every one of the posts on the list and determine if the post was perfect (we leave during our TED month, arrive during the new posts TEA and get all the required training and home leave done in between), imperfect (we either leave a month early, arrive a month late, or go over the 78 week maximum of training allowed for FSOs in their first (non-tenured) five years), or invalid (everything else).

Add the various requirements related to the maximum amount of training, the requirements of mastering at least one language, serving in higher hardship posts, filling “high priority” posts first, getting experience in your “cone” (specialty) and doing a tour as a consular officer, and the list of possible choices gets shorter and shorter.

Don’t get me wrong, our list is good and, after getting over the initial disappointments, we realize how incredibly lucky we are to have the choices we do have, particularly compared with a lot of our friends whose lists are much, much smaller than ours and whose choices are much more limited. The places in our top 10 (even our top 30) are, almost universally, first world places with clean streets, fresh water, good schools and every possible “mod-con” (as my dad would say) you could want. We’re going to be excited no matter what we get because we feel good about every one of our top posts.

Until then though, we are going to focus on and enjoy our time here; enjoy the crazy, difficult, amazing in many ways, life that we have found here in Kinshasa. We’re going to enjoy our friends – as they come and go – and we’re going to continue to enjoy every change and choice in this adventure we are on.

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America IS Great.

We just returned from three weeks in Florida and D.C. for our first “R&R.” While we were there  I kept seeing and hearing the catch phrase “Make American Great Again.” So, at the risk of making a political statement, and although I know most of my friends and family (ie: most of the people reading this) will side with me on this one, I have to point out that America is great. It has no need to be made great again.

There are lots of wonderful countries in the world, but in the DRC there is only one president emblazoned on the bread bags: President Obama (even though Justin Trudeau would make a nice looking bag…).  People here believe America IS great, so why are there so many Americans who don’t?

There were times during our R&R when I wanted to jump up and down and shout at people “LOOK around you!”

Three times I walked from my in-laws’ house in North Florida to the CVS, less than a mile one way, and not once in those six trips did I encounter another pedestrian. Every time I strolled out of the house I thought about what a privilege it was to walk somewhere without fear of a random car or motorcycle driving up on the sidewalk in order to get around the traffic. I marvelled at how clean everything was, that the road was not full of potholes (or worse, made of dirt AND full of potholes), and that the majority of people had a car and were not forced to pile on top of each other in a broken down taxi (or “Esprit de Mort”/”Spirit of Death”) like they do here. How great is that?

There was no garbage burning on the street. Young children were not walking up and down leading their blind/handicapped parents or grandparents from car to car begging for enough money to buy a loaf of bread. There were no homeless children sleeping on the sidewalks. The electricity stayed on all the time. ALL THE TIME.

And I wondered how much the people driving past (usually alone) in their cars appreciated those facts. Whether they knew how great it is to live in a country where the electricity, internet, phone, and television work all the time. Our electricity goes out at least once a day, usually way more often than that, and we are much luckier than the majority of Congolese who, when the sun goes down (pretty much every day at 6 p.m.), the lights go out until 6 a.m. the next morning when the sun comes back up again.

Something else great? Produce aisles. The produce section at Publix literally brought me to tears. I was stupefied by the options. Fresh strawberries, raspberries, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and pretty much anything and everything you want – and it will be relatively fresh, free from bugs and black or moldy bits and tasty. We have lovely fresh local vegetables and fruit here, but want anything that does not grow locally and you can either forget it or offer up your first-born to pay for it.

For me the biggest and most overwhelming difference while we were in the U.S. was the choices: Need an apple – within a 2 miles area you have dozens of options. A coffee? Starbucks is on one corner and Dunkin’ Donuts is on the next. Need lunch fast? Chick-fil-a, McDonalds, Zaxby’s, Taco Bell, Popeyes, Chipotle, Pizza Hut – and even healthy choices like Subway, Panera, Au Bon Pain, Jason’s Deli, and dozens of other places are everywhere you turn. That is great people. Seriously GREAT.

There are a couple of “copycat” fast food places here – but expect to wait 10-15 minutes minimum for your food, and don’t expect it to taste (a) consistent from visit to visit; or (b) like what you are used to if it is a burger or fried chicken. Our best options – a hamburger place called “Hunga Busta” and a Lebanese place called Al Dar  – are pretty quick, not too expensive, and pretty yummy, but how many times can you eat a “Hummus Poulet” (rotisserie chicken on a bed of hummus)? (A lot if you are B; not so often if you are me.)

And the choices are not limited to food in the U.S. Want to buy a dress? There are hundreds – literally – of places to choose from. Do you need a computer? Somewhere to wash your car? A place to take your dog or child to run/walk/play? The choices almost feel endless when you are used to living with one or two options at best.

If you get in an accident in the U.S. you call 911 – it works everywhere. If you show up at a hospital in the U.S. you are entitled to emergency treatment under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act so long as the hospital accepts payments from Medicare (which most do) regardless of citizenship, legal status, or ability to pay.

Here there are no public ambulances, and you won’t be accepted into the hospital until you have proven you can pay. If you do get in, get treated and then you don’t pay, you will remain in the hospital until you pay up. It’s a bizarre system. The daughter of our neighbor’s housekeeper had an emergency c-section then couldn’t pay the bill, so she and her baby stayed at the hospital for almost 2 months until her family could collect the money to pay. The family was also responsible for feeding her while she was there.

There is no fire station in Kinshasa – a city of more than 10 million people. There are, allegedly, three fire trucks, but they don’t carry water or pumps, so they’re not overly useful. Papy told me that if your house catches on fire the “fire police” will show up after it has burned to the ground, and even then they’ll show up without water. There is a local urban legend that the fire station itself burned down.

I could go on and on. The bottom line is that I’m sure for some people it is hard to see what is all around you, but trust me when I say that America is great.

Oh, and one more thing that is great about the U.S… Disney. It is awesome.

 

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.

 

 

Money Money Money

Congo is, with very (very) few exceptions a cash society. You do occasionally see a sign for Visa or Mastercard, but I have, quite literally, not seen a single person actually use a credit card to purchase anything in a store since we got here over six months ago. For me it has been a bizarre adjustment since, in the U.S., I used a credit card for everything and almost never had any cash on hand.

B has been playing the points “game” for a couple of years now, figuring out which cards have the best bonuses, which airlines have the best programs and how we can parlay that into free flights, hotels and trips. The result is that we paid for everything in the U.S., from a cup of tea to my taxes using a credit card. Which card to use, when to use it and how much to use it was dictated primarily by the point bonuses and calculations of the various cards.

Now here we are, in a cash society, with a pile of credit cards going unused in our safe. When we pay for things (read: Amazon) over the internet in the U.S. using a credit card we only use one (and for the record that is our Chase Sapphire – no foreign transaction fees and best availability for point use of any other card we’ve found). Although I haven’t really counted precisely, I think we estimated that we have well over $250,000 in credit between us – all available if we decided to go on a crazy spending spree.

A lot of people were aghast at our “collection” of cards and warned me that it would affect my credit score – and it has. Before we started our points crusade I had a good credit score, but now, with dozens of credit cards to my name and thousands of dollars available to me, my credit score is…perfect. What? Yes. Perfect. 850.

Keep in mind here that I no longer have a job. No money is regularly coming into my bank account. I’ve been watching my score climb steadily over the last year and it has left me both amused and flabbergasted. As a society, Americans are incredibly reliant on these scores. They determine the rate at which we can get credit through the bank – for mortgages, cars, business loans etc. They also determine what additional credit you can get in the way of credit cards. So, how does it make sense that I have no job and dozens of credit cards and my score has gone from the mid-700s to 850?!

Meanwhile, when I go grocery shopping in Kinshasa I have to make sure I bring cash with me. We have to remember to cash checks at the Embassy so that we have enough money to go out to dinner, buy gas, buy groceries, and pay our staff. When we went to Zongo in September we paid for our room in cash. I paid for C’s school fees in cash. Last month I bought a TV with cash – handed over the bills and, in return, received a television.

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1800 CF = about $1.94 U.S.

It’s not just any cash either – it’s American dollars, with a few Congolese francs thrown in as change. I have no idea why the Congo is “dollarized.” As a former Belgian colony you would expect them to use Euros, but, luckily for us, they use the U.S. dollar and that is what we regularly hand over in stores. Except, oddly, they will not literally accept a dollar. The Congolese stores (for the most part) don’t accept dollar bills. I, again, have no idea why, but there it is. No dollar bills. The smallest bill they will accept is a $5.

When you hand over your American money to cashiers, they will examine it carefully and, if it has a tear (even a tiny one) or a mark any bigger than about a 1/4 inch, they will hand it back to you and refuse to accept it. Meanwhile, the Congolese francs are filthy, ragged pieces of paper that, occasionally, are so difficult to read you don’t know if you have a 500 CF bill or a 100 CF bill (which are both blue), but they will accept them no matter what condition they are in.

There are no coins here, probably because the CF is worth so little ($1 = approx. 928 CF) that the smallest bill, 50 CF, is equivalent to $0.05, so why bother with coins for amounts smaller than that. I don’t know if that is a correct assumption, but the fact is that our wallets are filled with bills – lots and lots of CF equaling a lot less US – but they remain light. This is in contrast the the UK, EU and Canada where they’ve gone the opposite direction and switched their smaller bills into coins providing everyone with a free weight workout whether they like it or not.

Money is also treated with more respect here. When I pay my staff they always take their wages with two hands and press their hands to their hearts in thanks to me as they accept it. In the store I never see Congolese shoppers just shove their change back into their purse (the way I often do), and when C leaves money from her piggy bank on her bed or dresser (because she likes to play with it…go figure), Romani, our housekeeper, always folds up the bills and puts the coins in a pile. It’s a respect and appreciation for even the smallest amounts that we can’t seem to muster for anything less than a $50 bill (and sometimes not even that).

Maybe its about the visible and the invisible in the two societies.

In the U.S., for the most part (and certainly for most people I know), money is invisible. It flows electronically – between banks, through credit card machines, on checks. We rarely, if ever, use cash in the U.S. anymore. With services like Uber and Urbansitter (basically Uber for babysitting) not only do you not pay in cash anymore, the money just automatically comes out of your linked credit card without you ever really seeing it.

Maybe that is where the respect comes from too. Cash for most Congolese is the key to acceptable food, shelter, medicine, education and work. Change is never “spare.” It is vital and necessary every day for every part of their lives. For us cash is what we get out of the ATM for “extras” – to have just in case we need it. If there is an emergency we have bank accounts, credit cards, and multiple ways and means to access funds. That is mostly unheard of and unknown here – very few people have any savings beyond a few hundred dollars, so without cash here you have nothing.

It breeds a different feeling for the money we use by making it more visible to us. We are aware what we are spending and how much things cost because we see it and feel it physically – not just as numbers on a machine which appear and disappear magically with the swipe of a card. I am much more conscious of what I’m spending because I am actually spending it – handing it over to someone else in exchange for a good or service.

My hope is that the reality of having to hand over cash at every turn will make me more conscious of what I’m buying, and what I’m spending. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect it to cure me of being a “shopper” down to my very core (yes, I can even happily spend hours browsing at the grocery store – going in and grabbing what I need and leaving seems almost criminal to me). What I hope is that, like many things in the Congo, it makes me more aware and thankful for what I have, and what others do not have.

There are so many ways in which the reality of money is brought home to us that it is hard to find just one.

The Congolese street child who asks for 500 CF – about $0.50, saying “je suis faim”(I am hungry) just before we go out to dinner and pay $150 US dollars for our food – about 140,000 CF.

The time I was helping Papy, who has three children and a wife who doesn’t work outside the home, fill out a job application and had to write down that his yearly salary is $4,200 – and he is relatively well paid here.

The guilt I feel when our staff asks for loans or advances on salary and I feel annoyed that they seem to see us as a bank.

The reality of what money means here is daily lesson and it can be devastating in ways that are hard to accept. But, in true “money can’t buy happiness” fashion, most Congolese people smile easily, they laugh and enjoy what they do have in ways I’m sure some of the people I knew in my former life cannot ever appreciate their newest car, house or other material possession.

If nothing else, I hope that C will learn to respect and appreciate every dollar that flows through her hands and to understand that she is lucky beyond any monetary measurment simply by virtue of when, where and to whom she was born.

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.

Silence is golden

I once heard that smell is the strongest sense associated with memory.

So, according to whatever I read/saw/was told, when you catch a whiff of something familiar from your past it is more likely to trigger a memory of that event or place than something you see, touch or hear.

I consider my sense of smell to be pretty good, but when I smell something familiar I know it reminds me of something, but I usually cannot put my finger on what. It drives me a bit batty actually.  I’ll smell something and then stand there wracking my brain to come up with where or when I smelled it before. Smells for me are more likely to evoke an overall “feeling” for me. The smell of flowers like those in my Grandpa’s garden, the smell of a horse or barn , the smell after a rainstorm or a snowstorm – those scents all evoke a feeling of calm and happiness in me, but they don’t necessarily bring back a specific memory.

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Not so with music.

The first few notes of a song will bring back a flood of actual, specific memories for me. B got me a wireless speaker for Christmas (hooray B!) and I put it on shuffle and got to work in the kitchen today. I made bagels – actual real bagels – as opposed to bread circles with holes which pass for bagels in Kinshasa. They don’t look beautiful, but they have the perfect crunchy/chewy outside and the soft delicious inside that I love about a bagel more than almost any other bread. After that I made pesto. My basil is out of control in the little garden I planted (well, the gardener planted with my seeds, direction and guidance), so pesto had to be made.

And while I’ve been cooking today I’ve been listening to my own music and being flooded by memories. Right now Tragically Hip is playing. It reminds me of a concert in Chapel Hill, nights on the lake with a fire burning, sitting next to their manager at a friend’s wedding (which then leads me to think of that night being the first time I tasted good port – and it was good!) The memories just keep coming. Before that was Yaz. That took me straight back to camp, to 9th grade, to dance clubs in Toronto and later in Louisiana. I can’t even imagine a smell that could bring back a waterfall of memories like that.

After my best friend died in September 2001, it took me literally months to be able to listen to music again. Any music that I was in the least bit familiar with conjured up an obscure memory of my time with Karen. And every obscure memory caused a cascade of grief that left me bawling in my car, at my desk, in the supermarket, or anywhere else I heard it. I finally just had to avoid music altogether in order to be able to proceed through my day without swollen, bloodshot eyes. I had to ease back into music. Gradually getting back to a place where it brought me more joyous memories than sad ones most of the time.

Lately though I have been desperate for silence again. Not to avoid memories, but to avoid the sensory overload that seems to be built into this city.

Ever since the start of the holidays (and keep in mind there is no Halloween or Thanksgiving here so Christmas decorations were basically up at the beginning of October) Shoprite, the supermarché  next door, has had a DJ who starts playing around 3 p.m., and keeps playing until at least 8 p.m. every day. Some days there are also birthdays or weddings in the restaurant behind Shoprite and then the music can go – quite literally – all night.

We couldn’t understand why the parties lasted so long until Papy (our neighbor’s driver who provides me with a lot of Kin/Congo information) told us that it can be dangerous to travel late at night here, so when people host a party they keep it going all night so their guests can travel home safely the next morning. This is all very well for the guests, but for those of us who live next door it is not ideal.

Today it started raining while we were outside – C and some friends playing in the pool, me picking basil and washing the dog (not at the same time), and, apparently because of the rain, all of a sudden the DJ turned off his equipment. I almost dropped to my knees in joy.

It might not be so bad if everything wasn’t so chaotic all the time. This morning I had to drive down to the embassy to get cash (we have to cash checks here – the ATMs aren’t safe to use and this is a completely cash society) and get gas for the car. You can never relax when you drive here. Sometimes it is a lot of fun, bobbing and weaving in traffic, but other times it is just too much. Today, driving down the main boulevard, called Blvd. du 30 Juin (the day of Congo independence), as I approached a light that was flashing that it was going to turn red, it seemed that I would have room to cross, but then a large bus stopped in the intersection so I stopped – about 10 inches into the crosswalk. Half a dozen other cars went around me – several well after the light had turned red (traffic signals and traffic police are just suggestions to a lot of Kinshasa drivers), but I held my ground despite the guy behind me going to town on his horn.

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Then along comes a pedestrian. He stands in front of my car and proceeds to berate me for stopping over the crosswalk. Seriously. Never mind that cars drive on sidewalks and lawns to get around traffic routinely, almost no one obeys lights or signals – half of which don’t even work – and most of the time pedestrians are jumping barriers and running across the middle of the street in front of oncoming traffic, this guy is yelling at me because he has to walk an extra two steps. It’s these little things that start to get to you living in a city like this. Would he have yelled if I’d been a Kinois? Probably not. But the privileged diplomatic-plated white lady was, apparently in his eyes, just disregarding the pedestrians because she could. Coming home after days (and drives) like this to loud thumping music day in and day out, coupled with other sensory chaos has been taking its toll on me and the silence that descended when the turntable went off was amazing.

It makes me wonder what sounds of Kinshasa will bring back memories of these two years for me in the future. Will it be the sound of car horns and angry French/Lingala being yelled at me? Or the pounding bass of the club music blasting next door? Or, maybe, if I’m lucky, it’ll be the sounds of C and her friends playing in the pool, or the sounds of petanque balls and laughing with our friends while listening to Wilco in the background, or of Stromae in B’s car singing Papaoutai, or maybe it’ll be one more memory for Yaz, playing on my wireless speaker while I write a long overdue blog post.

Game night

When I imagined life in Kinshasa I pictured the family game nights of my childhood.

On rainy and sub-sub zero temperature days at my family’s cottage (house on a lake for all the non-Canadians out there), and on many evenings, our family gathered round the dining table and played games. As we got older there was also usually a puzzle set up on a different table that two or three people would huddle over, squinting at all white tiles trying to determine whether they fit into a cloud or a snowbank. We had no cable and no internet, so the options were limited. Watch a movie on the VCR (or Beta – my Dad is an early adopter and sometimes he backed the wrong horse…), do a puzzle, or play a game. In my mind’s eye the lights are turned low, there is a fire burning and the darkness outside wraps around the house making all seem cozy and sheltered.

It’s not that I expected cozy nights around the fire in Kin – the fact that it was going to be 90 degrees in the shade many days was one of the things about the Congo that strongly appealed to me, the girl who is always cold. But, I was led to believe that internet would be spotty, or so slow it would be like returning to telephone modems, and cable would be non-existent, or full of things we didn’t want to watch, so I planned accordingly.

I packed puzzles and games and DVDs. I even bought B a beautiful wooden cribbage set for Christmas last year (with an etching of the lake where the cottage is – and where we were married). We requested puzzles for Christmas presents, we asked for recommendations on TV series and movies and we stocked up on games. I thought I’d have hours and hours to read and write and filled boxes with books accordingly.

It is all sitting, unused, in our playroom and on the bookshelves.

The reality of Kin is that most weekends are filled with so much activity that we are too exhausted to play a game or do a puzzle when we get home. Now that we are in rainy season it certainly rains – but rarely for more than an hour or two at a time, so there are no all day sit inside, noses pressed up against the glass, watching the rain and being bored moments here. Clearly there are no -22 degree days to keep us inside, and when it is 95+ we just get in the pool.

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The last month has been no exception – and has, in fact, been busier than earlier months due to the holidays.

First came Halloween. The embassy (or really the CLO (“Community Liaison Officer”)) organized a trunk-or-treat party with games and cookie decorating after the candy grabbing was over. C (and we, if truth be told) had a blast.

There was no traditional door to door trick or treating, but I realized that we have never had a “traditional” Halloween with C. In our old neighborhood in Charlotte there was a Halloween Parade with dozens of small children dressed as princesses, pirates, ghosts and Cindy Lou Who (in the case of C) trailing along behind a fire truck, getting candy from neighbors standing on the street and ending up at the community center for a pizza party.  In D.C. last year we did Halloween on the Hill and wandered around Capitol Hill with good friends. So Halloween in Kinshasa was really not that much different than in the U.S. for us.

The night of Halloween was Oktoberfest at the Symphonie Des Arts – so we left C with a babysitter and went out on the town to witness a large majority of the Kin expat community wearing dirndls and lederhosen made out of the local pagne cloth and dancing the night away to a band brought in from Germany. Schnitzel and sauerkraut – and dozens of other German dishes – were set out in a buffet and beer was flowing as it does only in October at German parties. And, to top of that night, we did the Conga in the Congo.

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The next day we headed with a large group out to see the Bonobos – apes that are only found in Congo because they don’t like to swim and won’t cross the Congo River. They are fascinating to watch – incredibly human-like – but their society, which is ruled by a female, apparently has the motto “make love, not war” and they are free to demonstrate that motto in actions rather than words. Luckily the children were more transfixed by the baby Bonobos than the “rumble in the jungle” going on at every turn and we escaped without having to answer any hard questions.

On Veterans Day the kids were in school, but the Embassy was closed, so about 40 people chartered a bus and took a tour of Kinshasa. We visited sites generally off limits, not only to us because of security, but to everyone, including the final resting place of Laurent Kabila (or “Papa Kabila” here), the father of the current president. Papa Kabila became president of the Congo in 1997 when he overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko (or just “Mobutu”), the dictator of the country for over 30 years, but Papa Kabila was assassinated only 4 years later in January 2001. His mausoleum is impressive, but is generally completely inaccessible. It was a rare insight into a city and country that is not generally a tourist destination in any sense of the word.

After that we had the Marine Corps Ball, then Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s residence – with people in the community bringing their favorite side dishes. Two days after Thanksgiving was the “Kid Power” festival featuring almost a dozen bouncy houses which almost made C faint from excitement when she first saw them. This weekend we have a “Hail & Farewell” party on Friday (when the community welcomes the newest arrivals and says goodbye to the folks headed to their next tour) then C’s “Spectacle de Danse” on Saturday. On  Sunday, as on all Sundays, we’ll have our weekly “cocktail hour” at the compound.

Through all this we have managed to have a couple of game nights with some good friends, and they have been everything I was hoping for and expecting – laughter, mingled with competition, while darkness closes in around us and the A/C glows in the background.

 

eeny, meny, miny…mangosteen

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.

On second thought…

Ok. Remember when I said I loved my stuff and I didn’t think I had too much of it?

I was wrong.

I (and let’s be honest here, it really is me and not B & C) have WAY too much stuff.

How did I discover this truth? I received the last of our shipments. Our HHE from Arlington, and our consumables. Four more crates full of sh…stuff.

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You might recall the 1,600 lbs of food I sent – it’s now here. A crate full of yumminess. I was excited about that, but I (for some unexplained reason) thought that the rest of the HHE from Arlington would be maybe one more crate. Nope – it was three. It did contain a queen sized mattress and three bikes, which obviously took up a lot of room, but how did our tiny little apartment fill three crates!?

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My living room on boxes…

I got the food side of the consumables unpacked and organized in the pantry pretty quickly, but the rest of it has been (really) slow going. I’ve been unpacking and finding places for things, but suddenly my nice uncluttered house is starting to look a lot more cluttered. I finished painting C’s room, so she has moved in and we have transferred most of her toys there,  but that hasn’t seemed to make a dent in the office/spare room. It is like an explosion of STUFF when you walk in. And the bathrooms, now that we have received two years worth of shampoo, soap, lotion etc…, look like a smaller version of CVS.

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But don’t be fooled into thinking that this means I not going to be buying anything else. Nope. I’ve got an Amazon Prime Pantry box in the works and I’ll be heading to the grocery store this morning to look for, of all things, chili powder. Seriously, how could I forget plain chili powder? I have a cupboard full of spices, about 6 different kinds of curry, and coriander, cardamom, cumin and cinnamon in all their various forms, but good old add-to-your-chili chili powder? Somehow that did not get included. So last night, as I’m making B’s top secret chili recipe for the Chili Contest on Saturday I had to go to my neighbors and beg for chili powder and now I’m headed out to buy a jar of my own. [Wait! News flash! Did you guys know that chili powder is actually a blend of spices? Of course you did, but I did not – until now – so hooray – I made my own chili powder and it has made my chili DELICIOUS!]

It is baffling that even with all this stuff I could still need more, but there it is.

C didn’t worry about there being too much stuff. She only had eyes for one thing – her bike. She has been asking us when the bike would arrive since we set foot in our house over two months ago.

She marched straight up to the supervisor and said “Did you bring me my bike?”

Catching my eye, he nodded. “Yes,” he said.  “It is in one of these boxes.”

“Can you please get it for me now?” C asked.

And bless him, he bypassed the boxes with the consumables and the mattresses and went straight to the crate with the bikes.

C is not always comfortable with strangers, but apparently the promise of delivering her bike made her fast friends with John. She walked up and put her arms out for him to pick her up, which he did.

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“How come your truck is so slow,” she said to him.

“My truck isn’t slow,” he answered, looking puzzled.

“But it took a LONG time to get from our house in Washington,” C responded. “So it must be slow.”

We, the adults, looked at each other for a minute and then I realized what C meant.

“She thinks this is the same truck that picked up our things in Arlington,” I told him, laughing. “She saw them load a truck with boxes and crates, and now a truck with boxes and crates has arrived in Kinshasa, so to her it must be the same truck.”

Leave it to a four year old to make sure everyone has a good laugh in 95 degree heat while unloading heavy boxes.

This has been an ongoing struggle for B and me – trying to explain to C that the four inches between Africa and North America on our map are not literal. As far as she is concerned we can swim to Canada from here, so why shouldn’t a truck drive from Arlington?

C didn’t think it was funny at all, and was not impressed by the delay in finding her bike while John told all the workers in Lingala what C had said in English.  But, eventually the bike was found, peddles were added and, from a four year old perspective, all was right with the world.

Our gardner asked during the unloading if he and our housekeeper could each keep a crate. “Of course,” I said. “What do you do with the crates?”

It’s an innocent enough question, right? I should have anticipated the response, but somehow I had not.

“We use it for our roofs, Madame,” my gardner told me. “They are not very strong and with the rains coming, this good wood helps keep the rain out.”

This “good” wood is plywood.

And so my stuff became to me, quite literally, an embarrassment of riches. I could feel my cheeks getting red as I stood there watching them unpack the crates. Box after box after box.  A bed that no one will sleep in 90% of the time. Pillows for decoration. Dozens of wine, martini, champagne, cocktail glasses that will sit in the china cabinet. China that will only be used at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Four boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations. And the plywood crates it all came out of that will be the roof over the heads of two people who come to my house every day to my life easier.

I was standing there watching this, feeling horrified, when our neighbor’s driver, Pappy, who I turn to with lots of questions, asked me what was wrong.

“It is just so much, when so many people have so little,” I said.

“Oui Madame,” he replied. “Mais c’est comme ça partout dans le monde. Certaines personnes ont plus, d’aucuns ont moins. Vous assurez que vous appréciez ce que vous avez.”

“It is like that that over the world. Some people have more, some people have less. You make sure that you appreciate what you have.”

This truth is not lost on me. There are plenty of people in the world who have a lot more stuff than we do. And people whose sole goal is to get more stuff. Make more money, get more stuff, on and on until they die and there is no more stuff to get. And it is as true in the U.S. in many ways as it is in Kinshasa, but somehow it is just not as obvious. Maybe because I don’t know anyone sleeping under a plywood roof – and appreciating it – in the U.S.

It doesn’t make me like my stuff less, but it certainly makes me look at it differently.

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Boxes, boxes, boxes and paper, paper, paper…

So now I have the stuff put away. It is folded, arranged and stored so that there are no more boxes in my living room. The bikes are in the garage, the china is in the cabinet, and…the plywood is keeping my gardener and my housekeeper dry.

And I appreciate having our tools back, and my desktop to write at, and the spare bedroom arranged.

The question I’m asking myself is whether I appreciate it enough.

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Contrast and Perspective

On Friday I had a shower in clean water.

Run down my face and into my mouth without worrying about bacteria, upset stomach or anything else-type clean water.

It was HEAVENLY.

The last several weeks have been all about contrast and perspective for me. Starting with our trip over Labor Day to Zongo Falls, the closest thing to a “tourist destination” near Kinshasa, and ending with my trip, with C, to the UK to visit my parents and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary – and enjoy heavenly clean water showers.

The back and forth between the “real” world (home, school, Kinshasa) and the “unreal” world (Zongo Falls resort, Brussels, London) has been eye opening. It’s no surprise that an appreciation for what you have (or don’t have) is all about perspective, but I’ve come back to that realization again and again in the last few weeks.

It started with the trip to Zongo. Approximately 30 US and UK embassy expats met in the Shoprite parking lot at 7 a.m. on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend for the 105 km drive to the falls which are southwest of Kinshasa on the Inkisi River (a tributary of the Congo River).

Unfortunately, this is a 105 km drive that takes, on average, 4 hours. The first half of the drive is marked by the hustle and bustle (and traffic) of leaving Kinshasa. Saturday is a working day here, so even at 7 a.m. there are a lot of people about, the street markets are alive with people (and a few animals) and maneuvering through it all takes talent, patience and nerves of steel.

The second half of the trip is marked by a “well maintained” dirt road. Here’s where you start needing a little perspective as “well maintained” means that it is not marred by huge pot holes, but only small ones, so you’re not crawling (as you do on some streets in Kinshasa that DO have huge pot holes) but you’re not breaking any land speed records either.

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During this drive you are also passing all manner of “real” Africa. Little villages with mud huts, chickens and children running along side the car overjoyed at being smiled and waved at by the passing Americans. An overturned truck with gas pouring out of the bottom – and nearby villagers rushing to the scene with buckets to hold – in bare hands – under the stream of gas less it be wasted. Roadside markets selling beautiful bright vegetables and jars of dark honey. Women in traditional Congolese dress, small children at their sides, all with baskets or bundles on their heads. Cars and trucks with dozens of people – or a random goat – sitting on the top. It’s what you expect of “real” Africa, but, then again, it’s hard to believe you are, really, seeing it.

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The contrast comes at the end after you cross over a dam and turn into a lovely resort with well maintained buildings, luxury accommodation (by most standards) and stunning natural waterfalls. When we arrived we were a little giddy as we walked into our “residence” with two bedrooms, two baths (complete with plush robes), a full kitchen and a living space – overlooking a beautiful pool on one side and the falls and jungle on the other.

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Congo is not a tourist destination. It is, in fact, quite the opposite as the U.S., the U.K. and Canada (and I’d venture to guess most first world nations) issue travel warnings to citizens NOT to travel here. So to find a resort (relatively) close to Kinshasa seems unlikely, if not impossible. Yet, there it is.

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And we had a wonderful weekend – enjoying the playground (which, while it didn’t exactly compare to the playgrounds C and I found on our trip to the UK, was pretty impressive compared to the playgrounds available around Kinshasa), playing Pétanque, eating, drinking, hiking to see the falls and generally enjoying the company of our traveling companions. We did have a bit of a scare when we first arrived and we were told by our server at the restaurant that he was very sorry for us because “il n’y a plus de l’eau.” Luckily, it turns out that “no more water” means something different to a man who lives near a waterfall than to those of us who do not.DSC_1748

Then, less than two weeks after returning home after Labor Day, C and I were off to England to celebrate with my parents and there the contrast of clean water, clean streets, fresh berries, and plentiful EVERYTHING was almost overwhelming.

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To walk down the street without dust in my shoes…heavenly. To shower in clean water…sublime. To take C to the most amazing playgrounds – one right behind my parents’ flat – joyous. The problem is that I started to forget to keep my perspective. I started to feel resentful that we would have to go back to dirty feet and showers instead of baths (because I cannot seem to stop my 4 year old from wanting to drink bath water!?).

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Yes that is a meat popsicle - courtesy of Jamie Oliver

Meat popsicle – YUM!

I forgot to recognize that, while a head of broccoli was 0.49 p (about $0.75) instead of $17, there were plenty of things that were more expensive in the UK (it is a VERY expensive place, after all), and, for example, while berries were plentiful, mangoes were not. I forgot to recognize that I hate the cold (and cold/wet is even worse) and I love heat. I forgot to recognize that having the luxury of household help allows me to write uninterrupted while C plays with her friends. I forgot, for a little while during that lovely clean water shower, that B is where my heart and my home is, no matter how dirty the streets that surround us.

So returning home – to B and Miller and dirty water and burning trash – was both joyous and difficult. The contrast between the London and Kinshasa is dramatic. They are almost unfathomably different. But instead of lamenting the lack of raspberries in the store, or coffee shops on every corner, in Kinshasa I’m trying, upon our return, to focus on the perspective of how lucky I was to spend 10 days with C and my parents celebrating a milestone in their lives and enjoying things which most people here will never get to experience – and relishing in the warm weather, the fresh-off-the-tree mangoes, the helping hands of two people who make my life infinitely easier every day, and having B back at my side.

And, one final note, while we were away our car was finally released from Congo customs so we now have a means to navigate this unwalkable city – a way to explore and move about with the ease and privilege afforded by a good car bearing diplomatic plates. And really, who needs raspberries when you have that?IMG_1992 IMG_1904