Saturday, July 30, 2005

Picture from Elephant Safari in Gabon

I never got a chance to write this little adventure up. Maybe I will someday. Until then, there are at least some pictures. I just liked this fruit stand.

This is a forest elephant. It is fairly little for an elephant, about the size of a minivan, but the most deadly for humans. I think this is because they look cute. They are highly aggressive though. Which we found out when taking this picture. They are also loud.Very large snake in the grass.
I actually road in this van with theh manioc after getting stranded on teh Gabon-Congo border for a couple days. It is a really long story...

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Very much not dead: a calm week in paradise

Just as the blender masters at Smoothie King are always able to get just the right amount of bananas, strawberries and yogurt to make an Angel Food the best tasting thing in the world on a hungover Sunday morning ride to Long Island, Sao Tome exists as an ideal blend of the Caribbean, Africa and Portugal to break up an at times arduous journey in Central Africa.

Sao Tome and Principe are a pair of small small islands off the West coast of Africa in the Atlantic. The second smallest country in Africa and only 30 years independent from Portugal, they couldn´t find the beaten path with a GPS. The people are completely guileless and incredibly helpful, and the scenery is beautiful. Even the Nigerians here are honest, one drove us in from the airport for free!

So we set up camp here in Sao Tome town. We rented a little house and a motorcycle (though we never did figure out the Portuguese word for "helmet"). The house came with a dog named Jimmy. Jimmy isn´t very smart and likes to bark. But other than that the house is great. It is an old colonial right on the beach. 15 foot high ceilings, two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen, porch, bathroom bigger than most of my college dorm rooms, if only it were in Boston... We have spend the days scuba diving (hanging out with sea turtles and sharks and whatnot) and running around the island on the bike. The coastal roads are incredible, jungle rising on one side, black sands beaches with crashing waves on the other, twists and turns the whole way. Little villages to stop and eat bivalve brochettes (and bananas). Climbing up the mountain to the old overgrown plantations. (Historical background: The Portuguese found these volcanic islands uninhabited and completely covered in jungle in 1480-something. They landed, looked around, said looks good, go get the slaves, and started clearing the land for plantations. They cleared about 25% of it and started growing coffee, cocoa, vanilla, sugar cane, etc. When the Sao Tomeans got there independence - in 1975 - they looked around, said looks good, high fived Karl Marx, and nationalized everything. At which time the Portuguese left and the jungle came back. Things have since swung back the capitalist direction, greatly helped by the discovery of oil.)

The scuba diving has been great. It isn´t the best in the world, but there are NO other divers. In addition to the usual assortment of little colorful things, there are big sand sharks (6 feet or so long) and sea turtles.

Other than that not too much is new. We hang out with the small expat community here (they are SO excited to have someone new to talk to here) and go to their parties. We went to the American party. Boring. I forgot how dull these things can be in countries where proselytizing isn´t punishable with something primeval. The ambassador gave some long and boring speech because the crew of the USS Bear - some Coast Guard boat we sent over here - was in town to help "preserve the Sao Tomean and Principean national integrity" - layman´s translation - keep the Nigerians´ fucking hands off the oil that rightly belongs to Chevron.

That's pretty much it. I am headed back to the mainland tomorrow to look for gorillas. I will be home in less than two weeks.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Almost Dead: Malaria and Shots Fired

Your heroine had a long couple days since the last message, but all is well now. I am in Libreville, Gabon, a majorly developed city on part with Dakar, with a belly full of speghetti carbonara, a working keyboard and soon plane tickets to a remote island nation with excellent scuba diving. Things are looking up.

We decided to head overland out of Pointe Noire up through Congo to Gabon. The first leg of the journey was a 5 hour train ride from Pointe Noire to Doulisi. The train was supposed to leave at 9 am, but as it was the maiden voyage of a new route, they didn't want it to be late and changed the departure time to noon. This decision was announced at 10:30. The train left at 1. The trip itself was comfortable enough. The train wasn't crowded and the surrounding countryside was incredible. There was a little excitement about an hour into the trip though, with a quick blast of automatic weapon fire rattling through. Matt and I ducked a little until the shooting stopped, then I went back to quietly shivering in the corner from the mild case of malaria I had picked up in Brazzaville. What happened is that the train was full of Klashnikov-armed gendarmes that were supposed to fight off any invading Ninjas or Cobras that might happen to drop by. Basically they just waved their guns around a lot and acted like big men. Anyway, there was some poor bastard kid, maybe 19 or so, that didn't have enough money for the trip, so he tried to give the guards all he had as a bribe to ride to Brazzaville. He was unsuccessful. The guard yelled at him for a while, and when he didn't seem to be getting the message they shot off a couple rounds to make their point. Happily they were shooting off the train not at it as we originally feared. An old guy on the train took up a collection among the passengers to pay the rest of the kid's ticket / bribe and that seemed to solve things. And we went on our merry way.

We spent the night in a Protestant mission in the dying town of Doulisi. It must have been important at one point in the colonial era, with more French-built buildings than a number of Africa capitals I have been in, but that time is long past and the city is quietly and sadly crumbling. Goats and chickens inhabit the ruins of the former Hotel Intercontinental, circa 1950. In the morning we went to the garage to find a ride north. We were about 250 km (150 miles) from the border and hoped to be there that afternoon. The only vehicle heading that way was a massive camion loaded to the gills with cases of beer, sacks of flour and hundreds of people. Okay, hundreds is an exaggeration, but more than 100. Matt and I watched the mad scramble to get into the back, with people kicking and puching to get the best spots on top of the beer crates and long the side wooden benches, and that included a 70 something year old man using his cane to fight people off as he climbed the side of the truck and tried to squeeze between the wooden slats. It was the most disgusting expression of human nature I have come across in all my years on the road. Matt and I paid and extra couple dollars and sat up front with the driver and a nasty little woman who kept telling us how miserable she was and how a truck had crashed on the same route last week killing 5 people.

The ride took 19 hours. The overloaded truck crawled along the road, having to offload all its passangers every couple hundred meters to get across a rough patch in the road and then load everyone back on. People would get bored and climb down off the top to stand on the running board and talk to Matt and I. Just disembodied heads trying to speak English. Then there were the police check points where drunken officials got endly pleasure out of hassling the two whities and trying to get us to pay bribes. (My favorite dealing with these idiots was the guy that demanded "proof of tourism." We offered to show him vacation photos.) Eventually they car got tired of dealing with this and would send someone in with us to brow beat the official into hurrying up. One official tried to get cute at 3 am and demand to offload the entire truck full of luggage to get to our bags and search them because we would buy him another drink. When he told this to the ensemble at the car, they ran him off in three languages.

Eventually we got to the border, and despite the fact that we wouldn't give the guy any whiskey (it was 6 am for god's sake), we crossed into Gabon. The next 12 hours were spent on three different taxi brousses making our way north and fighting with border guards. Things got a bit easier though as most people assumed we were Peace Corps volunteers. We got to Lambréné just after sunset. Matt heard the word "Sofitel" and we were on our way to hot showers and grilled gazelle for dinner.

Lambréné was a nice little tropical island town. It was where Albert Switzer had his hospital. We spent in after the previous sleepless night and spent a quiet day sightseeing. This morning we headed up to Libreville. The only thing of note was that as soon as we crossed the Equator, from winter to summer, it immediately switched from dry season to wet season, and started raining. Bizarre.

So, depite the shooting, and the malaria, which despite being mild is something I would not recommend to anyone any time soon, we are having a good time. Gabon is filled with Gabonese and Chinese people. The Gabonese living in the forest and the Chinese cutting it down. We are heading out on Sunday to Sao Tome for a week, a nice little tropical island off the African coast, so that should be less stressful.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Still in Congo, Still not Dead

I am now in the oil boom town of Pointe Noire on the Atlantic Coast of the country. Matt and I flew down from Brazzaville on Friday. That was a trial. We wanted to take the train. It is a 24 hour ride through what is supposed to be some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, but due to "rebel activity" whiteys aren't allowed to ride right now. You see there are two rival heavily armed militias that control the Pool region which surrounds Brazzaville and they support themselves by ripping off trains. Straight out of the Wild West huh? It gets better though. The names of the two groups are the Ninjas and the Cobras. So basically it is like an old episode of GI Joe without the good guys. There are soldiers, but if they don't get paid on time, they rip off trains too. Resulting in gun battles as to who gets to rip off the train. So we decided to fly. The airport if the 7th circle of hell. It took 3 hours of wringling and writhing through the unwashed masses to register for a 40 person flight. The plane was of course something old and Russian. We were a little worried about the condition after the mess that flew us from Freetown to Conakry, but the other option, as I mentioned, involved battling Ninjas. But as soon as we got on, everything was copasetic. The interior of the plane was completely covered in faux suede black and white cow print. The magazine holders were leoperd print and the curtains and head rests fire enginge red. It looked like the set of a hip kitchen show. How can you worry about crashing down in a ball of flames in the Congolese jungle when there are faux suede cow seats to pet? After our arrival we have pretty much hung around with the sister of a firend ouf ours from Nouakchott, exploring the town and surrounding countryside. Tomorrow we are heading out to the bush, so hopefully we will have more interesting stories about gorillas next time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

In Congo, Not Dead

For all those who where convinced that I would be killed upon arrival in Congo, you fears, once again, are unfounded. Matt and I left Nouakchott on Monday night, flew to Bamako, where we had a six hour layover, from 1 am to 7 am, hanging out in the airport parking lot, smoking cigarettes, eating cookies. Then we flew down to Brazzaville. The trip was one of the better ones on African airlines, Matt knows people so we got bumped up to 1st on both legs, and he got to ride in the cockpit during takeoff. The father in law of one of our friends in Nouakchott met us at the airport and took us to a hotel. All is well.