A (Fleeting) Moment of Zen

One day when we’re no longer living here in Congo, when we’ve long forgotten what it used to be like, fully re-immersed in the sounds of traffic and sirens and long waits at stoplights… I’d like to be able to remind myself of this little slice of our once very peaceful life.

This morning, my moment of zen began with a brisk walk around base camp just as the sun was coming up. It’s a quiet time of day, still nice and cool. Usually I go with a friend, but am doing my best to keep up the routine while she’s out on vacation. Alone, it’s an opportunity to observe the way the sky changes color. To admire the lilac- and emerald-colored patches of exposed rock in the hills towering overhead where the Green Wall used to be. To notice the purple and red and orange blossoms on all the various trees and shrubs in this bird sanctuary we live in. To listen to the sounds of the village just beyond our fences: children playing or crying, pots banging, and occasionally, drums drumming.

I swap greetings with nearly every person I cross paths with, and there are surprisingly a lot of us up and about at 6am. Most of the expats, of course, I already know. We greet each other easily, sometimes with an extra-special wink or nod reserved for those who are up early. And I see many of my English students getting ready for their shift to begin; big greetings there too. But there are plenty of Congolese workers coming through the gate who I don’t know. Here, that doesn’t matter. Greeting a stranger is the norm. Choosing not to say hello to someone you’re crossing paths with, even if you don’t know them, can be extremely rude. Usually a “bonjour” or a “jambo” is accompanied by eye contact, a smile, and a wave; sometimes, a two-handed wave—an extra-friendly Congolese gesture that I found odd at first. Now, I find myself doing it, too.

Like that time I was back home in Phoenix, sitting at a stoplight, and I saw a mama holding the hand of her young boy while crossing the street, she dressed in what I recognized immediately as vivid Congolese fabrics. Refugees, I imagined. Involuntarily, from behind my steering wheel, I gave them a big double-handed wave. They saw me and eyed me warily, like a potential child abductor. Despite her clothing, they had obviously already become pretty used to life in the big city, where strangers don’t wave.

A few weeks at home is never enough to reverse my new habits. Africa may have ruined me for good. I find it odd to share a sidewalk with a stranger without at least a glance of acknowledgement. On subways I never know what to do with my eyes; I’m more awkward than Hillary Clinton, for sure. But around here I get my revenge. You can tell when someone is a visitor or has just recently arrived, because they avert eye contact, never offer a greeting, and appear generally uncomfortable. “City slicker!” I often smirk to myself when passing them.

After power walking for 45 minutes and swapping greetings with 25 different people (one city slicker excepted), I head to the gym for a little biking. I’ve got some training to do on my thighs and, most importantly, my saddle, before our next trip, a 6-day biking trek in Tuscany in June. (Seb chose well. One down, four to go before I get to start choosing shithole destinations again!) As usual, the gym was completely empty. I’m looking around at this well-equipped, super-clean, empty gym, humming along with a pre-set soft rock music channel, when suddenly I realize how incredible it is to have a place like this all to myself. There’s no one looking or not looking; I’m completely free to do anything and didn’t have to pay a hefty monthly membership fee for the privilege. One day I will miss this and wish I’d taken more advantage. (So will my thighs, most likely.)

As soon as I round the corner to come back home, my cat, who’s been playing outside while I was gone, greets me with little leaps. He knows it’s breakfast time. Lucy the monkey wants in on the action, too; she bounces down the bamboo in a big hurry and perches on my fence with one arm lifted for a scratch, making her soft wookie call just in case I hadn’t noticed her. A quick pet and a snack for them both before I set up my yoga mat outside on the terrace. Why not? Except for a three-foot patch in the fence where our vine refused to spread, I have complete privacy in the backyard, and another hour to myself before Viviane arrives.

In between yoga instructions coming from an audio recording on my phone, I get to breathe in fresh air, listen to the birds, and enjoy a bit of sunshine before the never-ending rainy season clouds take over the sky once more. I’m surrounded by green plants, a purring kitty, and a chatty monkey, and I figure this is just about as serene as those desert or beach settings you see in most yoga DVDs. The temperature here in Congo averages 70 degrees all year long – I’ve said it many times, but the climate simply could not be more perfect. If only it weren’t for those pesky mosquitos, and other annoying things like corruption, poverty, and war, this place would be Eden.

Those of you who know me know that I’m not really that into exercise or getting up early; this is a new routine I’m doing my best to stick to because, really, what excuse do I have not to? And on mornings like this, I’m instantly rewarded with an endorphin rush and an overwhelming feeling of goodwill towards my fellow man. It also really feels good to have a lot behind me and still the whole day to look forward to. Now, it’s finally time for another reward: that cup of coffee I’ve been craving for the past two hours. Mmm. I wish it could stay 7:45 all day long.

Inevitably with my coffee I pull up my phone or computer and start checking the daily news. And that’s when my feelings of goodwill come crashing down. It is actually a pleasure to be disconnected from time to time, as I often am towards the end of the month when my internet credit runs out. I don’t mean to advocate ignorance about the goings-on in the world but dang, it’s really nice not to know sometimes. The best memories we’ve made here usually involve being on vacation in a remote wilderness somewhere, where dinner involves a fire and story-telling, and then it’s early to bed where there’s no connection, no power, and no light to distract you from seeing the stars.

One day in the future, after we come back home, I’ll have to remember how precious, and how fleeting, these moments of serenity are, and make sure to keep the TVs and the phones and the computers turned off each morning as long as possible.

And I’ll also hope for neighbors who like to say hello.

10 comments

  1. Jen, you always write from your heart and this is no exception. It’s simply beautiful! Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Another beautiful story. You are starting to sound like me (unfortunately for you, dear daughter!). Mornings are my favorite time of day. I get up early on Saturdays, excited to go outside and listen to the birds chirping while I pull weeds or rake leaves (a never-ending task in FL) before everyone else in the neighborhood start up their motorized lawn equipment. I envy your time of peace and quiet everyday. And the photo was lovely also! The sunrise there is very colorful, almost as beautiful as the AZ sunsets!

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    1. It is super strange to find that I’m becoming a morning person. It’s when I’m most cheerful. As long as I’ve had enough sleep! Glad you like the photo, I actually snapped it very casually on my iPhone while walking a few days ago.

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