Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lazing Around Libreville

I'd been carrying around free sample single-serving sachets of Nescafe "gourmet" coffee for months. A team of sample hander-outers had shoved them at me at Penn Station. Or maybe they'd been shoved at Michael Kraiger. Either way, we were both always being confronted by free samples on the way to work, and kept each other abreast of what was being given away where. The instant oatmeal in my pack I'd purchased before leaving home, knowing I'd need it eventually.

I'd woken up in an actual house, the extremely reasonably priced Libreville Guesthouse. I was the only occupant on the floor, though I could see a dog and a security guard if I looked outside. I had a bedroom and a shared living room, dining room, porch, bathroom, and kitchen (complete with washing machine). But the other two bedrooms were empty. There was no one to share with.

The relief I felt at being in a homey, secluded situation was massive. I made my breakfast. I caught up on e-mail. I padded around in my pajamas. Heaven.

I had no idea where I was. I didn't have a Gabon guidebook. Both my Lonely Planet and Rough Guide to West Africa no longer applied. I archived them off my Kindle and laptop, stashing them onto an external hard drive with plans to burn a DVD with my Africa guidebooks and photos once I left the continent.

I opened up the slim Gabon chapter of Lonely Planet Africa. It was anemic. I couldn't even figure out where I was on the map. I found a French guidebook on the house's bookcase, which was much more comprehensive. I tediously typed passages into Google Translate.

And that's how I learned that Gabon's tourist attractions are insanely expensive. But it was online reviews that suggested to me that the money and effort were not in proportion to the rewards.

Gabon has a reputation for ecotourism, its last president having set aside ten percent of the country for preservation. And for a while, it looked like this was real. But that's only part of the story, the part that people tend to focus on without doing any more research. I can't claim to be any sort of expert, but from my brief moments of whizzing through Gabon, and from the number of places closed, I'd say that ecotourism initiatives are currently stalled.

I had wanted to see the surfing hippos in Loango ever since reading about them. Sadly, this wasn't an option at the moment. The project in Loango is closed, hoping to eventually reopen. Meanwhile, I suppose I could have gone if I'd hired a wildly expensive private plane, or gone south, then to the coast, then taken a rough overland journey and camped nearby. I didn't need to look that close to know it wasn't feasible for me, an individual financing her own trip without freebies or discounts. Gabon deliberately aims high-end, keeping out the backpacking riff-raff that it must not realize is the advance guard for the real money-spenders. In real estate terms, backpackers are the artists that inadvertently ready urban-blight for yuppies.

I wasn't avoiding freebies on purpose. Press trips can be unpleasant and taking freebies compromises your ability to really trash something awful and deserving of being trashed. But I've also had freebies that were incredible, such as the 2001 canoeing trip along the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe. That was one of my top travel experiences and that was a comp. No, the reason I don't accept freebies or discounts is that no one offered. I'd have the moral high ground if I'd rejected them out of fear of being compromised. But I don't know if I would reject them. Certainly, I didn't in 2001, but I'm a bit savvier now. But still not rich. So it's a toss-up.

In Gabon, I couldn't justify the expense of any of the national parks save one. Loango—with its surfing hippos—wasn't an option. The others had generated mostly tepid reviews. "We saw a few monkeys." It wasn't turtle or whale season. Only Mayumba, in the southwest, seemed like a good idea. I promised myself I'd consider it.

Late in the day, Alace showed up. She was one-half of the couple that runs the guesthouse, which is primarily affiliated with visitors and staff of Bongolo Hospital, a 20+-year-old Christian hospital in Gabon's south. Over the next few days, I learned that this hospital had become one of the top regional hospitals that offers high-standard care to Gabonese and Congolese people who normally would have very little access to any sort of healthcare outside their own village. Alace's husband Steve is also a pilot, and the hospital has a plane (which is in the States getting repaired), which is going to help their outreach and transportation efforts immensely. Just meeting Alace and learning about the hospital made me want to go and see it. Unfortunately, there was no room at the local guesthouse.

Which is just as well. I was antsy, nervous about Congo. I wanted to get a move-on. I even decided not to visit Mayumba, the only park that seemed plausible for an independent traveler.

I just wanted to get to the hard part already. No, I hadn't hit the hard part yet. Everything until now had been a walk-in-the-park. My apprehension was getting the better of me. Should I enter Republic of Congo from Franceville or the south? How would I get to Brazzaville? Was the ride from the border as hellish as it sounded? And what about the next Congo, the big, bad-ass DRC-Kinshasa? And the ever-looming threat of it being damn-near-impossible to get an Angolan visa?

Yeah, let's just get on with it. I'd go straight south.

As soon as I was done lounging around the comfy guesthouse, chatting with Alace who I had huge amounts in common with, visiting the hypermarket, and eating takeaway from the man's shop across the street. He'd just won second place in a televised cooking competition. He was unhappy about this, though Alace and I were both quite impressed. Second-place is pretty damn good. But we understood. It's not quite first, and he wanted to be first. Still...he had good reason to be proud. His chicken and rice was mighty tasty.

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