And the winner is…

It’s taken us a couple of weeks to digest the news of our next assignment. It will be hard for many people to understand, but our initial reaction to being assigned to Canberra, Australia was disappointment.

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We made a rookie Foreign Service mistake. We got our hearts set on a particular job at a particular post. It was French speaking, in Europe (so only one flight away from home and dozens of amazing traveling opportunities), with a truly international population, relatively easy pet importation regulations, and with good school options in the Northern Hemisphere system. Instead we got an English speaking post, one of the most homogeneous places anywhere, about as far from our families as you could get on the planet, with some of the most difficult and rigorous pet importation rules in the world, on the Southern Hemisphere school system (Feb-Dec).

So, while we are FULLY aware of our luck in getting assigned to an amazing, beautiful country, we’ve had to take a few weeks to grieve our dream post, and adjust to the different kinds of difficulties built into this new reality. Perhaps most difficult for us will be determining how best to handle Miller. In order to avoid a six month quarantine in Australia (and reduce it to a 10 day quarantine) we will likely have to take Miller back to the US with us in December when we go home for our second R&R. Then, for six months our home here will be empty of his sweet face and gentle presence. I cry every time I think about it. And, at the same time, we will have to rely on family, or friends, to look after him in the US and to ensure that he goes to the vet about a dozen times during those months to have a series of tests to meet the Australian import rules.

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Then there are cars. Only right hand drive in Australia, and their import rules are strict on that front too. So we’ll be in a position to have to buy at least one, and probably two, cars when we arrive. We’ll also have to decide whether C will go ahead a grade, or stay behind a grade as we get used to “summer vacation” in December.

And finally, there is community. Kinshasa is a hard place to live and work, but we are surrounded by the most fantastic people who are making our time here amazing and wonderful. This group of people buoys us when we’re down, cheers us when we’re up, supports us when we need help and have been there from us since the moment we stepped off the plane last year.

Canberra is a tourist destination. A large international capital – the safest capital in the world, apparently. We wonder whether someone will meet us at the airport, cook a meal for us when we arrive, take us shopping, show us how to get a cell phone, cable and internet service, tell us what restaurants are good (and invite us along when they go), introduce C to other kids her age, help us navigate the schools, and explore the city with us as people have done here, or will they just assume that we can figure that out on our own in an English speaking first world country?

Maybe it is best that we are still adjusting to the idea of Canberra. I promised myself that I would not “leave” Kinshasa before it was truly time to board a plane. I don’t want to spend the next year looking out the window for the beautiful hills of Canberra and missing the less beautiful, but fascinating, streets of Kinshasa right in front of me. There is so much to see and do here. I don’t want the mirage of clean water and bounteous produce aisles to distract me from seeing the smiling woman in a blindingly colorful dress, balancing a huge basket on her head and a baby on her back, saying “bonjour” to me as we pass each other on the dusty, rutted city streets.

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So this is the last you’ll hear of Canberra for a while. This blog is about now, not about a year from now. Next July, when we leave Kinshasa, I’ll turn my attention (after enjoying a wonderful 3+ months in the US and Canada) to Australia and our new life.

Congo is not finished with the adventures it has in store for us, and we are not finished with the things we are destined to see, do and learn, deep in the heart of Africa.

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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.

 

 

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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Dangerous assumptions

Yesterday a woman died on the D.C. Metro.  I have no idea who she was, or where she was going, but she was certainly just minding her own business on her way somewhere (or from somewhere) when the Metro car she was riding in filled with smoke and, ultimately, she lost her life.

As everyone knows, last week 12 people were sitting in their office, writing stories, drawing cartoons and, again, minding their own business, when terrorists charged into their offices and summarily executed them in Paris.  The next day four people were murdered while they went grocery shopping in Paris by another extremist terrorist.

Today people will die in car accidents in D.C., they will be shot in D.C., they will be mugged, robbed, or raped in D.C.

Yet, I’m pretty sure if I told everyone we were moving to Paris with the State Department no one would say “Aren’t you worried about the danger?”  And I know no one said that to me when we moved to Washington.  So why is everyone so worried about us moving to the D.R.C.?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% sure people will die in Kinshasa today as well, but the point is what is the difference?

I’ve been pondering this question as I do more in preparation for our move, and as I hear the terrible news both far away and close to home.  It strikes me as an odd juxtaposition against the slightly askance look I get from people when I talk about moving to DRC and one of their first questions is always about whether we are worried about the danger there.   The Congo is, to be sure, a place with a violent history, with political unrest, guerrilla groups and millions of poor and unemployed who make many areas dangerous by their sheer desperation. Statistically it is more dangerous than D.C. or Paris.  But statistics mean very little unless you look at them with a critical eye.

When I was much younger and afraid of flying my grandfather once told me that more people in the world die from being kicked by donkeys than die in plane crashes.  I’ve never checked on that statistic, and it turns out it may have been made up by an “expert,” but even if the donkey statistic is true, does it matter to me? I’m sure lots of people in un- and under- developed countries have donkeys.  However, I do not, on a daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly basis come in contact with donkeys (I can think of three donkeys I’ve come in contact with in my lifetime – none of them even kicked me, let alone tried to kill me). I do get on planes though, pretty often.  So, am I more likely to die by getting kicked by a donkey than in a plane crash? No, clearly not.

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Which leads me back to the dangers of the DRC.  If we were going to live in the city proper on our own without any of the support we will have, I’ll admit it would be crazeeeee.  But we’ll have 24 hour security when we live there.  We’ll be traveling on diplomatic passports and driving cars with diplomatic plates.  We will know the places to be avoided – and will be required by the Embassy to avoid those places.  We will live in the most affluent part of the city – full of other affluent people and, no doubt, policed significantly more than anywhere else.  And, perhaps most importantly, we’ll be aware.  Aware of our surroundings, aware of who, what and where to look out for, and aware of how to get out of those places and circumstances as quickly and effectively as possible.

How will know how to do all of this? We get to take FACT training.  That’s “Foreign Affairs Counter Threat” training to you and “Crash Bang” to everyone in the Foreign Service.  We’ll learn skills to better prepare us “for living and working in critical and high threat environments overseas.”  B has to take this course, and it is “highly recommended” that I take it too.  And I will, in FACT, be taking it.   FACT training teaches emergency medical care, improvised explosive device (IED)
awareness, firearms familiarization, and how to perform defensive/counterterrorist driving maneuvers, among other things.

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No one gave me any training to move to D.C. even though, statistically, I’m sure it is more dangerous than Charlotte.  So this is why I’m not freaked out about the “dangers” of Kinshasa. I know our friends and family who ask about the danger are only worried about us, and I love them for that, but we will be aware of our surroundings, we’ll wear sunscreen, we’ll avoid snakes, guerrillas and, I promise, donkeys.

The Heart of Darkness

Admit it. Heart of Darkness is what first comes to mind when you think about the Congo.  It is the first thing many people say to me when I tell them that we are moving to Congo in July.  “Yikes,” they say. “The Heart of Darkness.”

Heart of Darkness was published in 1899 and, while some things may not have changed (the Congo is still “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land”), we are not moving to the Congo of Conrad’s time, any more than D.C. is similar to its former self, or, if you moved to Charlotte you’d find a city of 7,084 people that looked like this:

Charlotte 1899

To be sure, Kinshasa is also not a first world metropolitan city, but it may not be what most people are expecting when we tell them where we are going either.  Obviously even I was not very well informed when we first learned we were going to DRC – I called it “West Africa  (home of war torn strife and ebola).”

So, first, it’s not West Africa – it’s actually Central Africa.  Second, while ebola the disease got its name from Ebola the river, which is a tributary of the Congo River and is located in the DRC, it turns out that the disease actually began miles from the Ebola River, and, in the current outbreak that dominates the news, no cases of the disease have been identified in DRC.  There have been plenty of prior outbreaks in the DRC, but most were in rural areas and, from what we’ve read, the population understands Ebola better than in many other African countries and treats preventative measures seriously.  As of today this is what the ebola outbreak looks like in Africa:

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Our new home is approximately 7 hours – by plane – from this area.  Don’t worry, a trip to Liberia is not on our “Bucket List for Africa.”

What is on the bucket list? We’re not sure yet.  But there are a lot of options.  There is even an entire blog with a list (or several) of things to do in DRC and Kinshasa.  We’ll take our time getting adjusted, but we’ll also enjoy our time in Congo – that’s part of the point of this adventure, right?

When I have travelled in the past, I have always been sad that I couldn’t really immerse myself in any culture in a week, or two, or even three.  But now I have two years.  Two years to learn more about the Democratic Republic of the Congo than I ever thought I’d know. It’s crazy, but exciting.

One other thing I’ve learned in the last few weeks is that we won’t be taking any “weekend” trips to other places in Africa (beyond Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, which is right across the Congo River from Kinshasa).  I knew Africa was big, but the sheer enormity of this continent is a little mind boggling.

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Crazy, eh? If you take out China and Japan you can add Canada to the list to the left instead (at 9.985 km squared).  That means that the entirety of North America fits into Africa, along with a good portion of Europe, as well as India and several other countries.

My parents want to meet us in Cape Town – it’s an eight hour flight.  Farther than flying from D.C. to London.  Farther than flying from D.C. to Denver AND back.   Our friends J and B are moving to Agadir, Morocco.  To visit them it would be a 10 hour flight – I could go to L.A. and back from D.C. in the same amount of time.  And that doesn’t take into account the fact that there is no such thing as a flight from Kinshasa to Agadir.  To fly there we would have to fly from Kinshasa to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (yes, for those who are familiar with a map of Africa that is on the other side of the continent from Kinshasa and Morocco), then to Cairo, then to Casablanca and then to Agadir.  That is the fastest way – it would take over 24 hours of traveling.

One of my friends wondered if we could drive instead.  It’s impossible to say – since there are no passable roads that stretch between Kinshasa and Agadir.  Of course, even if there were it would be literally days of driving.  Given this image though it may be worth it…

Agadir

The bottom line is that I’m really hoping we get to explore other places in Africa while we’re there on this tour, but I’m definitely learning that I need to manage my expectations.  Still, while the world is a big place, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?