I could not wait to get out of the car. My eyes were glued to the window. We pulled onto the sand and I hopped out, camera in hand, breathing in the salty air. I quickly took off my sandals (to the smiles of my hosts) and walked towards the shoreline, savoring the feeling of sand between my toes and the feel of ocean air on my skin. The sun was just starting to set, illuminating ships heading out to the oil platforms and casting a pink glow over the waves as they crashed gently onto the shore. Blue water, white foam, tan sand: layers of color making up the beach at Pointe Noire. I could have stayed until the sun melted into the water.
There was another ocean to see driving around the sandy streets of Pointe Noire. It too was blue, but slightly less liquid in form: a sea of blue…taxis. I had traveled away from the green-taxied streets of Brazzaville for a long weekend to discover another part of the Republic of Congo. The changing color of the taxis also brought a changing pace of life. After telling several colleagues of my plans to visit Pointe Noire, Alex and Nicole, cousins of my colleague Chancy offered to host me for the weekend. I was slightly stunned by their generosity and hospitality by offering to take in a complete stranger for several days. Not only a complete stranger, but an American girl to boot! A few days in Alex confessed to me he had been slightly worried about the language barrier before I arrived, “I didn’t think you’d be able to speak French so well!” One of my favorite things about travelling is getting to leave a different impression of Americans and break down stereotypes. Stereotypes like that none of us can speak anything but English, that we have all met Beyoncé, and are rather large (I was also asked if I had met Kim Kardashian which I have to admit made me laugh).
Alex, his uncle visiting from France, and another friend all met me at the airport, where I walked out backpack in hand and slightly nervous at the prospect of staying with a Congolese family I had never met. Warm introductions made, the French welcome of a kiss on both cheeks put me at ease as the group promptly whisked me off on a tour of the city. Sandy streets, blue taxis and the palpable presence of the ocean greeted me. Like Brazzaville, numerous small businesses, shops and market stands line the roads, but there is more variety and also the sense of more wealth. In the city center and along the beach are a series of nice hotels and restaurants (including a great Italian place which I was surprised to discover we got amazing pizza from). Maybe for me it was just the mental association of going to the beach with vacation, but everything seemed slower paced in Pointe Noire.
Upon arriving chez Alex, I met his wife Nicole and their adorable 1.5-year-old son, Rhonic (pronounced Row-nique). Alex works for one of the numerous oil companies in Pointe Noire and rotates between two weeks at sea on a platform and two weeks at home for trainings. Several other women appeared in an out of the house throughout the week, some relatives, others friends, and also their housekeeper. I also made friends with Michelle, their 11-year-old niece who lives with them and dreams of one day being a lawyer. Nicole showed me my room and asked if I needed a pagne, which I gratefully accepted to use going to and from the bathroom to wash. Like most Congolese families, bucket showers are the norm. Pouring cool water on your head after a somewhat warm and humid night’s sleep is a beautiful thing.
My hosts took amazing care of me, even and especially when I got sick on them the first day in. I was overdue for some sort of bug, and it was thankfully gone by my second full day in Pointe Noire. Life with a Congolese family was a bit of an adjustment for me especially in terms of timing. Here, people love to sit and talk. For hours. After meals, before meals, for a few hours in between errands, people like to sit and relax. I discovered I’m not quite as patient as I liked to believe. I love the feeling of being productive and busy. I thrive on constantly going and doing – so mentally I kept catching myself thinking, “Go! There must be something else to see! Something else to try!”
But upon reflection, I realized that we did plenty. We drove all the way to see the border of Angola. I saw men, women and children walking along the road to get clean water from bright green, yellow and red water containers built as government program. I saw roadside markets and the largest amount of pineapple I’ve ever seen in one placed jammed into cart attempting to cross the border from Angola. I discovered the ancient kingdom of Loango encompassing the beautiful Diosso Gorge. There is still a king around today although he has no real power now. We watched Congolese music videos and I salsa danced with baby Rhonic when he was tired of dancing around the room alone. I have never seen a kid under two move his hips like that before. And on top of all that – I got to dip my toes in the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
I love the water. Lakes, rivers, rain and the ocean. For me, there is something inherently peaceful about the beach. Walking on the sand, letting the waves wash over my feet (much to Nicole’s dismay. She’s not big on the water) was a much needed break from the urban sprawl of Brazzaville. Taking my cue from my hosts, I didn’t swim. Nicole and I introduced Rhonic to the beach for the first time, and I eventually got him to play in the sand. There were only a few crazy Westerners in the water, and the fresh ocean air and sound of waves were enough. “Communing with the ocean are we?” Alex teased me. It let me think, breath and reflect on the fact that I’ve passed my 100th day in Congo. I switch easily between French and English now and know how to greet people in Lingala (Mboté!). A mental map of Brazzaville is now in place while I continue to sketch in the details. I’ve started creating a network of friends and colleagues of all nationalities: Congolese, French, Spanish, British, and American. I have evening plans outside of work and am finding my role in the office (often as the designated photographer). For me, living alone in my apartment in Brazzaville took some adjusting to after spending the last few years living with either a roommate or various family members. So I was surprised to find that on my return to Brazzaville from Pointe Noire, my apartment had suddenly turned into a home. What appeared to be an empty apartment that first month has now become my personal space, a welcome haven to take a break from swimming in the sea of another culture and read a book or watch a movie in English. Nearly fourth months have passed in waves of ups and downs everyday. My task for the present is to make the most of my time in the Republic of Congo and the incredible opportunity I have been given to learn about another culture and country in all of its beauty and challenges and tell the stories of some of its people. There are lots of things to adjust to, yet it was nice to be reminded of one thing: the ocean is still the same from the other side of the world.
Snapshots from Pointe Noire: