Home Sweet Home

So you will know from my post about arriving, that Randy thought all along we’d be living in a mud hut, and you also know from that post, that we are not! So I thought a little glimpse into where we actually are living would be fun for all. I’ll try to paint a picture (OK, I won’t use paint; I’ll actually use photos that Randy took) of where we live, as well as dispel some myths about embassy housing in general. And while I’m dispelling myths, we’ll talk about the nitty-gritty of having a housekeeper and a gardener and a cook and some guards. Some things aren’t always as rosy as they seem! 🙂

So when you ask a question in the state department about what the rules are that govern this or that or what should be the expectations of x,y, or z, (in addition to referring to the appropriate section in the FAM [Foreign Affairs Manual, which varies in degrees of usefulness and ability to comprehend]), the answer is always the same: “It depends on the post.”

And housing–government sponsored housing–certainly falls into that category and varies greatly from post to post, city to city, country to country, continent to continent. In some places, for example, embassy workers might live in a compound or a “diplomatic quarter”, a walled, gated community, protected by guards, where only diplomats live; in other places, the housing is scattered in and amongst the community. In some places the housing is provided by the embassy from a pool of either government owned or government leased properties; in others you are left to find your own. In some places you live in tiny cramped apartments; in others you have large, luxurious estate-like homes with swimming pools and sprawling gardens.

Here in lovely Bujumbura, we’re somewhere in the middle of all that.

Our home, provided by the embassy from a pool of mostly government leased (and a few government owned) properties, is in the community, about a ten minute drive from the embassy and a ten minute drive from most of the other embassy homes, which are scattered about a few neighborhoods. It’s also in walking distance to a little city park which has a dirt path around the perimeter for running (which I did for the first time this weekend) and walking Quandary. And in walking distance to a couple of small stores. But shopping requires a post all of its own. 🙂

Our house, like all the houses in this neighborhood and most of the neighborhoods in the city, is surrounded by tall solid cement fencing. And like all the diplomatic houses, the fencing is topped by razor wire. We have a guard who mans the gate all day, and two at night, provided for by the embassy.

In addition to providing security, the guards are a great source of knowledge and connections, as are the motor pool drivers. Need a gardener? The guards probably know someone. Need some manure? Call Jesus. Need a satellite dish installed for AFN (Armed Forces Network–free English speaking TV)? Call Prosper. Despite the lack of modern Western ways of communication, these guys are well connected.

My son, Adam, asked if I felt unsafe and like I really needed a guard, and the question caused me to stop and ponder. And here’s the deal: No, in fact, I do not feel unsafe. At all. But I’m sure that is because of having the guards. It wouldn’t take anyone very long to figure out that Mzungus live here, and all the connotations that come with that, and we’d quickly be a target without the guards. As Randy loves to say, the guards are just helping to keep honest people honest. And besides, they’re cute. See below. (He saw me with the camera so he posed. 🙂 )

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Looking at the gate from the street. I’m not a great photographer, but if you look closely, you can see the razor wire on top.

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View from our front door looking out.

And the grounds are beautiful, and hopefully, one day soon, they’ll be bountiful, too! We have lemon trees (although the lemons are green, not yellow, and no, they’re not limes), and jack fruit trees, and avocado trees, and mango trees, and guava trees (although I admit I still confuse those two), and a few unidentified species.And flowers galore!

House 1

House 2

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The side yard already had a garden and we had the gardener plow up half the back yard, too, so we’re going to grow all manner of herbs and veggies. I’m not too sure of the “growing season” since the climate doesn’t change much all year round, so I’m hoping these seeds we’ve planted (really, no “we” about it at all; these seeds he planted) along with the load of manure he had delivered, are going to be dinner on the table soon.

And the house is quite adequate in every way, albeit not without its quirks and frustrations. And frustration Number One is definitely Electricity, with Internet coming in as a close second. The system is set up with a back up generator that is supposed to automatically kick in when the city electricity goes out. But here’s the reality: the microwave turns on and makes all the proper sounds; it just doesn’t actually heat anything. Likewise the vacuum cleaner: sounds but no suck without the generator. Which, to be honest, you have to really be paying attention to figure these things out, what with the misleading noises and all. And it fries things. See Exhibit A, below.

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

And while I’m forever thankful for internet, it would be splendid if it worked consistently. But maybe I’m just asking too much. 🙂 This Is Africa, after all.

And as for quirks, those who lived in or visited Wayside (our beloved home in Scotland from 1994-1998) will remember the lime green, bright blue and hideous pink bathroom fixtures? Yea, well, they’re back in style. We have the bluest bathroom you’ll ever want to see, complete with competing shades of blue between the fixtures, the tiles and the tub. And the other bathroom is brown. Not awful, really, just odd. The decor brings back A LOT of memories.

Competing blues can give you the blues

Competing blues can give you the blues

And the furniture, while quite adequate in every way, is exactly like all the other embassy houses, so it’s just weird to walk in everyone else’s house and go, oh, yeah. Nice sofa. Nice dining room table. Nice china cabinet. Nice end tables. Nice lamp. But I’m not complaining. Without it, we’d be camping out.

And to round out the Home Sweet Home picture painting, I wanted to talk about The Help. But when I started downloading all those thoughts into words on the screen, I realized that subject warrants a post all its own. So here’s to getting this one published and enticing you to come back for more when that one’s ready.

 

A Day in the Life

Or Did Things Improve after the Disastrous Week One?

Or Will the McQueens Survive East Africa, the Sanitized Version?

Or What’s It Really Like, the Non-Blog Version?

You can chose the title you think best applies, (although admittedly, you can’t call this the non-blog version), but here’s the latest:

I’m happy to report Week Two was a solid improvement over Week One. I re-read my blog entry about that first week, and agree, it was the sanitized, prettied-up, blog-version. I left out a bunch of stuff (like getting on the wrong side of my boss–never a good way to start)  because I just couldn’t bear to detail it any more. But things are beginning to fall into a bit of order (some things, but not the top of my desk), and I’m beginning to get my feet on the ground. Here are some Week Two Observations and a little about How Reality Stacks up to Expectations.

WEEK TWO OBSERVATIONS

  • Bujumbura is beautiful. The lake really is breathtakingly beautiful. And the city is mainly built on a hillside rising up from the lake. And it’s very green and lush, with all sorts of things growing–both flower and fruit. And the sunsets can be lovely.
  • Sunset from the Belvedere Restaurant
  • The sunsets are…well…consistently consistent. And after the sunset, which occurs right on time at 6 PM, 365 days a year, it’s dark. Really dark. And there are no street lights. Light fixtures, but no lights, for whatever reason. We aren’t allowed to be out walking about after dark, which is just as well, because that would be scary.
  • Africans can carry anything on the back of a bicycle or on top of their heads. It’s not just in the National Geographic magazines; it’s for real. I pledge to you, faithful blog followers, that I will augment this post with some better pictures, because they are definitely there for the taking, but for now, here’s a few I’ve managed to snap.

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I was fine with the ones I snapped from the side or the back, but when I tried to get this one from in front, I definitely got an earful. The motor pool driver started laughing, so I asked him what the cyclist was yelling. He said “Mzungu (their word for white people), if you’re going to take my picture, you need to give me some money.” Fair enough. I would gladly pay some of the ladies to pose with their incredible loads on their heads. Randy says he’ll go out with a camera for the next few days and try to capture some of the more amazing loads for the next blog post.

  • Driving is not even funny. It’s scary enough being a passenger with really good motor pool drivers; I can’t even imagine driving myself. There are no rules. None. There are no lanes on roads. In this city of half a million people, there is not one stop light and no one even slows down around the two or three stops signs I’ve noticed scattered about the city. Roundabouts are life-threatening endeavors as are potholes. And scattered in amongst the cars, vans and busses are dozens of walkers (many carrying loads on their heads), bicyclists, motorcyclists, tuk tuks (three wheeled taxis), and even people herding goats or a very large cow with huge horns (Texas ain’t got nothin’ on Bujumbura) right down the main boulevard in town. (I was so disappointed I didn’t get my camera out in time for that one.) The place is teeming with activity during the morning commute, and it’s lively and colorful!
  • There are a lot of Mzungus here. And NGO workers. And missionaries. And foreigners doing good things to help. It’s hard to get my mind around all that is going on here. I’m hoping in the days, weeks, and months to come, I can figure out this scene, where I fit in, and what I can do to add value outside of my job and the 45-50 hours I spend inside the embassy each week.
  • Adjusting and getting settled is hard work. Almost two weeks without internet at home and Randy still without a phone has not been easy. Being without ‘our stuff’ and not being able to grocery shop well yet makes eating at home difficult. And that’s a great segue into my next topic:

HOW REALITY STACKS UP TO EXPECTATIONS

  • The restaurant choices are INCREDIBLE. Before arriving, my expectation was that there would be no good restaurants and very few choices to eat out at all. I’m happy to report I was wrong, wrong, wrong. We’ve eaten out just about every night since we finished the delicious food provided by our wonderful sponsors and other embassy folks, and I’ve had as good a meal here as anywhere. I can’t begin to tell you what a difference that makes. I mean, I could do with some more beer choices, but at least the food is plentiful and varied.
  • The hippos aren’t as close up and personal as I thought. Purportedly there is a family that lives near the Hippo Hole, but other than a quick glimpse once from far away, I haven’t had any close encounters. I guess I still have some time for that. 🙂
  • The weather is better than I’d hoped for but the bugs are worse. It’s not as hot as I expected (now mind you, we live in an air-conditioned house, I ride to work in an air-conditioned car and work in an air-conditioned embassy, so what do I know?). But the bugs are worse. All kinds of bugs, but the worse are the ants that get into anything left out, even for a few minutes, no matter where it is, including the top of the stove. Good thing we have lots of zip lock baggies of all sizes. And at least they don’t carry diseases or even bite. But they’re a nuisance.

Next post I’ll resurrect my job expectations and see how they measure up to reality. But for now, I’ll just stick with being glad I’m able to report that things are improving there and I expect them to continue to get better as I get a little more settled each day. So I’ll sign off for now promising better pictures next time and wondering if I could learn to balance things like that on my head…???