It’s been nearly a week. Excited countdowns like, “wow, next Tuesday we’ll be in Luanda!!!” have turned into wistful, “ohhh…. remember a week ago, we were in New Orleans at M’s beautiful little sanctuary?”
My God. What a world of difference. I imagine this will be an informative post for aspiring FSOs to read. I wish I could have read something like what I’m about to write last year around this time when we were beginning this journey. I am so painfully naive.
When our social sponsors told us that we should lower any expectation we may be coming in with, my radar should have let off a beep. Perhaps when they told us to prepare ourselves for a VERY hard life, that should’ve been the warning. I kept thinking, sure, I get it, it’s Africa, not America. I don’t expect a coffee shop on ANY corner or a Trader Joe’s in the burbs. I didn’t expect much of anything actually. I knew things would be very expensive (besides fresh fruit, veg, and dairy, the food prices seem comparable to DC, NYC, Paris). I knew the housing was not very nice. I suppose what disappoints me the most is my lack of imagination, that things really could be this “challenging”.
I should start by saying that I have been informed that I am not allowed to take any pictures. I’ve been told it’s for my own safety (getting jumped for my camera, a very real threat) and also that the local government frowns on it and have been known to confiscate cameras if the mood should strike. When we go on outings, I am allowed to snap photos inconspicuously from behind the tinted windows of the motorpool van.
We are in temporary housing. I’d happily take pictures of our place, but it’s absolutely nothing to look at. Similar in many ways to a motel 6. Tile linoleum floors, the infamous FS furniture, a mind boggling amount of boxy pine book cases, tables, dressers and armoires, generic African prints of various safari animals. If I didn’t so highly value the few lamps and their kind, diffuse lighting I’d comment about their aesthetic, shades still wrapped in crinkly plastic. As it is, they are such welcome pieces when considering the alternative, the single naked lightbulb which dangles from a long wire in the center of each room. The layout is long and thin, like a trailer. Each room has a window which is covered by one of two window treatments: filthy powder blue mini blinds or a sheet tacked over (acting as a “sheer”?) then long brown drapes. Open any window to reveal a grimy glass pane with burglar bars attached, then about 3-10 feet of “wide open space” to a 10 foot cement wall adorned with razor wire. Needless to say it’s dark in here. The paved in “yard” is actually the embassy’s motorpool lounge, so 3-7 guys are out there all day and night, washing cars and carrying on.
And what a complete jackass I am. These quarters have running water (through the walls even, when it rains), air conditioning (it’s been in the 90s and very humid) and electricity (we were only without power 4-5 times yesterday until the generator kicked on, lending power to the half of our house which did not, sadly, include our fridge…). And look! I try to be all full of gratitude for what we are so generously given, and I can’t even do it without sounding like an ingrate. This makes me so angry with myself, on top of everything else. I am so sorry, my fellow Americans.
People here (appx 6-8 million of them) live in COMPLETE squalor. It’s no wonder I’m pushing the upper bracket of their life-expectancy. The shanty towns on the perimeter of downtown stretch on further than the eye can see. The royalties from the booming oil and diamond industry don’t seem to trickle down to social programs (a republican’s dream!!) or infrastructure that I can see. We were out of town Saturday afternoon to visit the Slave Museum, it rained and washed most of the roads out.
Our “permanent” housing isn’t ready yet. We were supposed to visit this past weekend but according to our facilities guy, “it’s pretty torn up”. They told us it’d be ready in around a week or so, just requiring a fresh coat of paint and some patches to the screens. I suspect we’ll be moving in 2-3 months. On a positive note, at least we won’t have much to move since our things aren’t expected for another 6 months from now. (Right around the time I arrive with a newborn.) The guy who was living in the house before cut his tour in Luanda short preferring instead to sign on for a year long hardship tour in Iraq. He’d prefer a summer in Baghdad to living here for another year. Wow. That give you a little perspective? Did me.
okay…. Positive stuff: (fake it til you make it? I can do this!)
1. The swimming pool at the embassy.
2. We found decent lettuce (!!) at the market. I still need to soak it in bleach before eating it, but we were led to believe that it wasn’t available here for less than the price of our first born.
3. Dogs are happy and healthy. Lazy as ever but clearly very adaptable, surviving the 20+ hour journey from Houston. (would only have been 16 hours in crates but a mechanical failure while taxiing down the runway forced us back to the terminal to deplane and wait for a replacement 747.) Walking them is pretty much okay, though today I did run into a formidable pack of 6-7 scurvy street dogs. We were luckily separated by a lane of traffic. Got my heart racing, but I guess that’s good, considering there’s no where to exercise. (arg! negative again…)
3. Snakes enjoys the job so far at the embassy. He is in his obligatory consular rotation, processing visas and helping oil workers (and other Americans, of course) out of jams. He’s a little anxious, but nothing out of the ordinary. New job jitters.
4. His colleagues. Everyone we’ve met so far has been really lovely. Incredibly helpful, welcoming and kind. Invitations to do things all the time. It’s a very generous and warm group. I am hoping their positive attitudes rub off on me.
It takes a special sort of person to make it through a post like this in one piece. I only hope I’ve got what it takes.