The Smell of a Memory: My Adventures in Congo’

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Kongo and one of his crew ‘monkeying around’

They say that smells are a powerful trigger for memories. If this is the case, I can’t say I’m terribly excited about recalling my time here. This isn’t to say I won’t have good memories. I’m just not particularly fond of the smells that might encourage them- the acrid smoke of burning trash, overwhelming body odors that seem to linger even in the absence of bodies, the acidic smell of overripe fruit that makes it hurt to I breathe in.

Nothing, however, can compete with my walk to work.

Our office is located in the Natural Science Research Center- a hauntingly beautiful memory of colonization, consisting of several simplistic yet imposing buildings linked together by long corridors that cluster around small, open-air patios.

Despite the obvious state of decay, it is a huge source of pride for the locals and attracts visitors and high-level officials from all over the country. It truly is a beautiful place to walk to every morning…until you hit the hallway leading to our office.

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Being a ‘research center’ in a remote area of a developing country necessitates a certain collage of accompanying smells that seem to be as much as part of the building as its white-washed walls.

Most of the time, the doors that line the halls are locked (the government has still not agreed to pay their workers in full, thus the workers are not working). But every once in a while a door is left ajar and you get a peek at why you have opted to stop breathing out of your nose- various animal appendages and skeletons decorate the walls, piles of stuffed furry creatures cover the shelves with jars of what is most likely their former contents scattered throughout. A jolting combination of old fur, mothballs, decaying flesh and formaldehyde mock any admirable attempts of fresh air to pass through the dark, musty hallways.

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Luckily, six months of daily exposure has rendered this aromatic concoction as normal to my senses as the screams of chimps flying through my office window.

I am certain there are more pleasant scents that greet me throughout the day, but they seem to be snuffed out by the present tense.

There is, however, one final component that has proven a bit more difficult to embrace; our office is located right next to the bathroom. Under normal circumstances, this would seem like a convenient perk…except that the bathroom has no running water. To ‘flush’ one has to walk over to the neighboring office, fill up a bucket with water, walk back to the bathroom and drown out the contents.

That is the process. No one does it. I will leave the resulting odor to your imagination.

Interestingly enough, my path home is a welcomed journey back to one of my favorite adventures. I have yet to figure out the source, but there is a long stretch of my walk that is filled with the smell of orange blossoms.

I’m instantly transported to Sevilla, Spain in the Spring of 1998- Flamenco music spilling into the streets, the taste of Manzanilla wine on my tongue and the sweet scent of orange blossoms making sure I never forget.

Maybe my next trip to Spain will take me back to Lwiro, DRC in the fall of 2013.

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support and all the work that goes into protecting these amazing souls, 

 

*In case you missed it, here’s a taste of the first few days in the Congo…

“Wait, you want me to fix breakfast for 54 chimps, 74 monkeys and a turtle”?

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Walk home from work

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Kongo…so handsome, this guy.

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Our walking ritual. I walk. He follows. I stop. He sits…

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Kongo making sure we know who’s in charge

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Father’s Day. June 21, 1992. (Revisited)

I just realized I didn’t mention this is something I wrote last Father’s Day. Here’s the link if anyone missed it and is interested in reading.

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This just felt right today. It’s raining. It’s Father’s Day…and he’s been on my mind.

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Quote Challenge, day 3 of 3: Feeling… to the point that defies logic.

I’m admittedly sad this is my last day to share the words I love most. I want to thank my dear virtual friend, brandewijnwords again for the inspiration he always finds a way to elicit.

I’m of course breaking the rules, again. I couldn’t decide on one..so I picked five. There are just too many. (more of my favorites, visit @summoningmagic)

My response got a bit intense, but I guess I’m a little intense, so…

“There are no half measures in love, only all or nothing. And if it doesn’t make you tremble and go mad at the very thought of its absence, you should move on.”
~ Beau Taplin//Move on

“I understand now that I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, “For the same reason I laugh so often- because I’m paying attention.”     ~ Glennon Doyle 

“She loves deep and fast. With all of herself, or not one bit. She’ll give people all of her light, in turn struggle to understand when they don’t pay that back. She wants you to think she can’t be hurt, but truth is, she gets hurt easier than most. She is fierceness and tenderness, within the same breath. This is her beauty. In her total lack of in betweens.”
~ Carson Patrick Bowie

“I have this terrible urge to be reckless…and I am dreadfully frightened of becoming old and having no memories at all. And I know climbing forbidden fences is wrong, so I’ll stick to falling in love with the wrong people and falling off metaphorical trees. I am just dying to do something worth remembering. I suppose there is no logic, not really…only that if I bleed now, I’ll have a lifetime left to heal.”    ~ Sue Zhao

“It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply.”
David Jones


I’m not sure where to go with these, other than to address the underlying theme- feeling…to a point that defies logic. It is, in fact, a blessing and a curse.

The blessing-when I feel love or joy or see something beautiful, it fills me up completely, every part of me. You can see it my eyes and hear it in my voice. I’ve been told it’s infectious, affecting, even altering the mood of those around me.

And this is exactly why it’s also a curse. When I’m hurt or sad or angry, I wear it like a cloak. It penetrates every part of me…as it does those around me.

It doesn’t last long. I can usually find ways to avoid getting caught in it…most of the time.

I wish it was something I could manage better. But I’ve always been like this. I’ve always seemed to get hurt easier than most and take on the pain of those around me. But this never stopped me. I risked it every time. I’d feel a connection with someone and immediately love them with everything I had. And I got hurt over and over again.

I get hurt, over and over again.

Except now, it has intensified. I was too reckless. I got hurt to the point that something shattered. And it still feels like there’s a gaping wound in the depths of what is now my foundation. I can’t see it, but I feel it, always.

Now, every time I feel something, good or bad, it grazes that part of me that’s now exposed. It’s become sensitive to the touch, so much so, almost everything brings me to tears.

So it’s not just when something hurts, but also when I see or feel something beautiful…a feeling I never thought I would experience again. But when it’s something painful, it immediately takes me back to that place, that time, when something shattered, and I’m afraid it really will take a lifetime to heal.

But what’s the alternative? I play it safe, detach myself, avoid the risk of getting hurt, even if there’s the chance that it could be something beautiful, that it could be magic?

I can’t. I won’t. I’ll keep trying, risking the fall, feeling everything.

Even if it means getting hurt, over and over again.

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Quote Challenge, Day 2 of 3: Coming out of the shadows.

Here is my humble attempt at day two of a challenge offered up by one of my favorite blog gurus, brandewijnwords. The task at hand is to share my favorite quotes for three consecutive days.

This has proven to be more difficult than I anticipated. I have so many quotes swirling around my head right now. But this one is the first that came to mind, so I’m going with it. (You can visit @summoningmagic to see more of my favorites.)

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…our playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
~ Marianne Williamson

This first time I read this, I realized I had done this my entire life: played small. There were several reasons why I chose to do this, the primary one being I desperately craved love and acceptance from those I loved…most who didn’t exactly know how to reciprocate. Regardless, it became very clear to me that being the center of attention was not unacceptable.

I never understood it, really. It was next to impossible for me to believe I had any redeeming qualities…precisely because those were not to be cultivated or celebrated. They were to be stifled.

So, for survival purposes, I stayed in the shadows. And it truly was to survive. For me, being rejected by the ones I love the most was and is my worst possible fate. Being the smartest or prettiest or anything that threatened anyone else was simply not an option.

So I played small.

This meant that I constantly attracted people who demanded the spotlight, and I gladly gave it to them.

I’m not sure when the shift happened, but I know this quote fueled it. I imagine being a trainer/coach also contributed. That was my first experience having someone look to me for guidance or want my permission to shine. It changed me. On a fundamental level, it changed me.

There is nothing more beautiful than to be a part of someone realizing their worth.

So I still gladly offer up the spotlight, but it’s no longer for acceptance. It’s for the joy of seeing someone shine from the inside out.

As for the ones who feel they need to steal the light from others, I think I understand it now. They are simply doing what they think will prevent their biggest fear- their worst possible fate- to be rejected by the ones they love the most.

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Quote challenge, Day 1 of 3: Worth the risk…every time.

I was chosen for this challenge by brandewijnwords FOREVER ago. I am honored that this talented, brilliant soul is interested in what words inspire me. Anyone who follows me on Instagram (@summoningmagic) knows how obsessed I am with quotes. All to say, here is my very belated response. I hope it fulfills my intention to inspire…or just make you feel.

I wrote these a couple of weeks ago, still grappling with the sting of what feels like a perpetual string of heartbreaks.

“There are two things that define us: the love we are willing to give and the risks we are willing to take.”   ~ Brooke Breazeale

“We are the sum total of those who have broken our heart and those who have made it feel whole.”        ~ Brooke Breazeale

I do feel like our greatest heartbreaks in life eventually change us, define us, for better or worse, depending on what we choose to do with the aftermath. It’s so easy to fall prey to bitterness or self-deprecation, letting them build an impenetrable fortress around our hearts until they callous.

I actually wish I could do this at times. I assure you, I’ve tried. I simply can’t. It’s a result of muscle memory, I suppose. When we experience it- the kind of love that makes us feel whole…the kind that changes us- it becomes impossible to settle for a life void of it. That’s been my experience, anyway.

So I take the risk, over and over, incapable of moderating what’s inside, begging to be released…refusing to succumb to the aftermath.

Okay, so the rules (which I’m not exactly following, as shocking as that is):

1. Thank the person that nominated you.- check

2. Write one quote each day for three consecutive days (3 quotes total)- will do my very best!

3. Explain why the quote is meaningful to you. – check

4. Nominate three bloggers each day to participate in the challenge- probably not

I will deviate a bit on #4…the unwavering ‘rule-breaker’ in me, I suppose.

  1. I shall pass this lil’ challenge along to our incurable dreamer (who very well might kill me for this). But swapping quotes is what we do, and she always finds the good ones. (okay, I usually have already found them, but we all will benefit from hearing her insight.) ;o)

Wait, you want me to fix breakfast for 54 chimps, 74 monkeys and a turtle?

I’ve been a bit consumed of late with an article that has proven to be more painful to write than expected. (see Your Mid-life Manic Pixie Dream Girl). It’s pissing me off, actually, mainly because the truth that lies beneath is a bitter one.

All to say, I got sucked into re-reading my posts from my time in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s been interesting to revisit that fearless, free-spirited girl who was in her element…which was usually placing herself in situations completely out of her element.

She was full of life and passion, she felt loved and still believed she could change the world. I miss her, to be honest, and wish I could get her back.

But for now, tales of her adventures remain, and an adventure it was…

Fixin’ Breakfast: Dull Knives and Rusty French

I had no idea what to expect when they told me I would be helping out in the sanctuary, and I can’t say that I came away from my first day feeling excited about my second.

When I asked Christophe, who manages the staff, what time I should be there to prepare the chimps’ meals, he started listing off the hours…which pretty much spanned the entire day. I almost laughed but refrained and tried to explain that I was here to write grants and try to get money for the sanctuary.  He shook his head, looking just as confused as I was.

Herein lies the problem; I’ve lost a lot of the French I had learned in Paris. To complicate things further, Carmen, my supervisor, is Spanish. So I spend most of the day speaking Spanish, trying to remember French, and reading and researching in English.

I’m basically a linguistic hazard at this point.

With all the different languages flying around, trying to learn the very regimented procedures in the sanctuary is a bit of a disaster. We work mainly in the food prep room/kitchen area. The extent of my knowledge regarding kitchen utensils and food preparation is limited in English, so not exactly a category I mastered in French.

The animals (54 chimps, 74 monkeys, and a turtle) get fed three times a day, and each piece of fruit and vegetable (usually around 8-10 different types) has to be weighed and portioned out.

You can imagine the scenario: Christophe asks me (in French) to grab the bowl on the table filled with ‘choux’ (cabbage), cut it into 5 pieces and place each piece in the bowl corresponding to the specific animal or group of animals outlined on a piece of paper taped to the wall.

I laughed out loud and then went into a complete state of panic. Christophe was mildly patient, but my insecurities took over and I translated every encounter between him and the staff as, “Wow boys, we got a real gem this time; she can’t speak, follow directions or chop an ear of corn into 6 pieces with an extremely dull knife.

But, I wanted an adventure…

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Simon, Luc & Mama Bea

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Walk Home from Work

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Introductions: Meeting Kongo & His Crew

My first experience with the chimps was intimidating, to say the least. Despite the 6-meter electrical fence between us, when dozens of full-grown chimpanzees start dropping out of trees, jumping over bushes and hurling themselves toward you…I somehow suppressed the urge to scream and took a BIG step back.

They all stopped as close to the fence as they could get, looking me up and down for long enough to feel a bit awkward. And then the silence broke and the spectacle began: utter chaos ensued, all of them trying to solidify their position in the spotlight- beating their chests, stomping their feet, tackling each other…sheer mayhem.

But even with all this going on, I couldn’t help but notice his approach. Kongo slowly came over to sit directly in front of me with an undeniable sense of authority. The other chimps honored his arrival with screams of delight, each competing for the chance to be close to him and granted grooming privileges.

But Kongo brushed them all aside, his gaze fixated on the new visitor. He looked at me intensely, straight in the eyes, but more as a question rather than a threat. His presence was commanding to be sure, but comforting at the same time; his gentle demeanor and air of wisdom juxtaposed with his size and rank.

I was smitten. But did he like me? Did I exude whatever it was that one should in order to win the affections of an ape?

I began to walk slowly along the length of the fence. He immediately stood up, trailing behind me by a few steps until I stopped. He would catch up, taking his time, then turn to face me and sit down. I would walk, he would follow, I would stop, he would sit. This continued along the entire 5 acres of the fence. I took it as a sign…I think he likes me.

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support all the work that goes into protecting Kongo and the rest of these amazing souls.

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Mon amour, Kongo

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The boys…monkeying around.

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Namoya, the newest rescue, and her faithful protectors.