Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Safe Arrival in Libreville

I blinked my eyes and woke up in another continent. It seems that everything, from receiving my acceptance email to landing in Libreville, all happened in the span of that blink. There was so much to prepare and arrange that I didn't have time to absorb it all.

    Holiday Break: I received 6 vaccinations. Two one day (yellow fever and Hep A) and four the second (typhoid, tetanus booster, and two other I can't remember). I spent two days aching, convinced I had overdone it. Then I called the travel agency and booked my tickets. My next big task was to secure a visa from the Gabonese Embassy in Washington. It took some fancy footwork, two passport photos, a hundred dollars and clever mailing, but I received it three weeks later. Then my mother insisted I arrange some checkups  and a quick visit to the dentist. I didn't get around to visiting the dentist until I made it back to Winston Salem. (Note to self: going to the dentist during your week on inpatient nights = very long  and painful night). Lastly I bought my malaria prophylaxis: 135 giant blue doxycycline pills: one for a few days before, after and everyday of my trip.

    Friday Jan 27th: Internal Medicine Shelf! I stopped all planning for the entire month and just focused on my test. No passing medicine grade = no Africa. Or at least that is how I saw it. My parents came via train (dad) and plane (mom) to help me pack.

    Saturday Jan 28th and Sunday Jan 29th: Whirlwind shopping frenzy. Thank goodness for thoughtful, kind and patient parents. We went to Walmart (three times), Lowes, Target, Dick's, the mall, the post office, two banks (for traveler's checks), my landlord's home, and the supermarket. Some of the highlights of our shopping: 120 granola bars (one for every day), rain boots (Feb1-May1 in Gabon is rainy season), mosquito netting, bug repellent, flashlights, batteries, mac and cheese (essential) and extra scrubs. On Sunday, I made my fourth year schedule and had a few friends over. I ate dinner with my parents and enjoyed a few last moments with them.

    Monday Jan 30th: Departure day! My parents and I spent a hectic morning attempting to track down euros at a good exchange rate. Then we drove to Charlotte so I could catch the first of many flights. On the way to Charlotte, we called everyone in my family. I said bye to my grandmother who reminded me to be careful, said bye to my uncles and aunts, brothers and sister, cousins, niece and nephew. My journey to Lambarene looked like this:

    Flight 1: Charlotte to Boston ( to meet up with Ayesha Rabbani, the other fellow)

    Flight 2: Boston to Paris (overnight flight)

    Flight 3: Paris to Libreville, Gabon (afternoon flight on the 31st)

    Three hour car ride from Libreville to Lambarene

     Monday Jan 31st: It didn't hit me until this exact moment, when I looked out of my airplane window and saw mountains. I checked the plane GPS map and saw we were over North Africa. The next time I looked out of the window we were over the Sahara. For the first time since I started this journey, almost three months ago when I completed my application, I was terrified.

    As we prepared to land, fear filled me. What was I doing? I had never been this far from home.  When we landed and the doors opened, I braced myself and entered the airport. I found Ayesha and we filed into the security line. Of all things that could go wrong, what worried me the most was something being wrong with our visa. I already knew that someone from the hospital was here to pick us up (my second most pressing concern). A kind Gabonese woman had lent me her phone to call the hospital, and they notified us that a driver was already waiting for us.  Thankfully we had no problems with our visas and found our bags and a woman from the hospital quickly. It was fun to see our names written on a piece of cardboard.

    Our driver tossed our bags in the bed of the truck, and we zipped around to do a few hospital errands before leaving town. All around me I saw activity, people driving, walking, colorful materials everywhere. We arrived on a very busy day in Libreville, one of the semifinals of the African World Cup. Gabon was playing when we arrived and everywhere we looked we saw groups of people huddled around televisions, following the game.
     We stopped at a gas station to fill up and to throw a tarp over our suitcases (to protect them from the certain downpour). As soon as the driver stopped and jumped out, I hopped out of the back seat. I leaned against the door and took a deep breath. I told my father before I left that as long as Gabon smelled like Haiti I would be ok.  For anyone who has ever traveled to the Caribbean or to a developing nation with a warm climate, you know there is a smell, a unique group of smells actually, that these places have. For me those smells are tied to so many wonderful memories I had as a child in Haiti, memories full of excitement, happiness and discovery.
    I took in a deep breath and crossed my fingers: Gabon smelled like Haiti.  I started to smile because all around me people were talking in super fast french, carrying baskets, children hanging from the backs of their mothers and cars horns honking frantically: Yes, everything was going to be ok.

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