Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Glass Justice

The other day, Roger and I went to the corner store just down from our hotel. We needed some water for the week and were checking this place out – the Glass Center. We live in a section of the city called Glass – hence the name of the store. As we entered, we noticed a bit of commotion down one of the few aisles. Being the nosy one, I went down one aisle to come back up the next where I saw the security guard (who was maybe 6’-5”, 230 lbs) lifting this guy off the ground who was maybe half his size. A couple of other guys were around him and they were all yelling at the guy whose toes were barely touching the ground.

The security guard was holding the guy by his shirt collar twisted a couple of turns in his fist. They were all asking the guys questions and getting madder as he could answer. The guy could hardly breathe and started making a husking sound as a dog does when it’s pulling too hard against its leash. It got to a point where the guy couldn't breathe, his eyes were popping out and the others were getting louder with their yelling. It was not a comfortable situation (and talk about letting culture do its thing versus knowing when to step in). Just as things were getting worse for this guy, the owner, a small Chinese man, came over, said something to the big security guard who then carried and pushed the guy through a door and into a back room. It didn’t take much French to know the guy was about to receive the beating of his life, and all for an apple.

It must be tough being poor and hungry in a place like Libreville where even the judicial system doesn’t see you or hear you crying.

Papa Sam

Yesterday, Pierre, Mohammad and I wanted to go up the coast – where we heard good beaches were – to Cap Santa Clara and Cap Esterias. (Pierre, from France, and Moe, from Lebanon, are recent additions to the table). We asked the receptionist about getting a taxi – Pierre has a great guide book on Gabon that says we should have been able to get there and back for about 4,000 CFA each (about $8). The taxi’s here are great for getting around the city, but many of them are little more than metal cages on wheels that would have a tough time on the bumpy dirt roads to the Cap, that is, if we could convince someone to take us, let alone find someone to get us back. Hilda, the receptionist, told us about cars and drivers the hotel rents for about 5,000 CFA an hour.

We went out front, talked to a greeter and in a couple of minutes this black Toyota Camry pulls up. We go to the driver and start talking about our options – he said Cap Santa Clara was maybe an hour away and Cap Esterias was about 2 hours away. He said his car couldn’t go on the road to Santa Clara and that the round trip to Cap Esterias would cost us 40,000 CFA. It was already noon and the time and money was much more than we had planned on. Then came the first piece of wisdom from the driver when he said, “Guys, this is Gabon. There is no time here. We can go, you can be there, and then we can come back.” As for the money, he was firm and looking back there’s no way a cab would have gotten us there and back for 12,000 CFA. We almost backed out, but decided what the hell. It was that or sit around the hotel and we do that enough. Plus, we each agreed that we have one life to live so we decided to live it yesterday.

Papa Sam told us about how he had worked as a driver and translator for Survivor Gabon for three months a few years ago when they filmed here. He made enough money to buy his Camry which has been his livelihood since. Like many drivers here, he’s not a native Gabonese. Papa Sam is an Igbo, originally born in the Biafra region of Nigeria. He came here for work and without knowing how to speak French. He said he learned to speak on the streets, out of survival. He said language is the first key to getting through life – if you can communicate, you can make friends and make money. He said, “If I’m in school, I’m too scared to make a mistake. But on the job I have to push and fight to speak. My job is my exam and it gives me reason to work hard at communicating. Because I speak English and French I am able to buy this car, not because I went to university and have some piece of paper.”

The drive ended up taking us about an hour and half and while it was another slow, bumpy ride, it was great to get out of the city again, into the trees and the fresh air. The beach was great and the trip was well worth the money. As we were getting back into the car to head home, Papa Sam asked we enjoyed ourselves and joked that we almost got in the way of ourselves and didn’t go. He’s right, so often, we keep ourselves from trying new things, but once we do, we can’t imagine a life not having that experience be a part of our story. Pierre then asked if he could throw his bag into the trunk, to which Papa Sam replied his thick Nigerian accent, “Sure, man, you’re as free as air.”

Thanks to you Papa Sam, I am a little bit more free.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lopé – Part II: Into the Park

Once again, I found myself way behind on posts – I actually have several in the queue, its just a matter of making the time to write, find pictures, and post them. So, accept my apologies as I’m sure you’ve been waiting on the edge of your seat to find out what happened on our safari…

After a beautiful, but bone jarring eight hour journey, we finally arrived in Lopé and to a lodge where we would spend the night. We had pre-arranged a package deal that included our rooms and one excursion (a walk the next morning through a forest deep inside the park). We wanted to take a boat ride along the Ogooué River, but the “captain” was sick. Too bad for that guy, and to be selfish, too bad for us because the river there is almost majestic, no, it is majestic. It runs a very eratic path through the valley of high, treeless hills - very fast, dark water churning past, and through, and over black outcroppings of rock resembling old lava flow, but some kind of geologic formation I’d never seen before. And, so we decided to jump on a driving safari tour. It was almost cheesy how cliché it was – the lodge had fitted out an old Toyota pick-up truck with several rows of bench seats and a canvas cover with rolled-up side flaps. Its was actually pretty cool as we journeyed to the park. If this blog is called The Table in part because that’s where my life is being played out right now, then this weekend I could have changed the title to The SUV because in the end we spent about 20 hours total bouncing in one 4x4 or another.
Mozza livin' the dream!

We passed through the small village of Lopé and into the park. Besides us, our 4x4, and the road upon which we drove, there was no sign of human existence for as far as we could see – no cell towers, no houses, no farms or fields or orchards, or airplanes, or trains, no sounds of humans. We were out in the middle of somewhere grand. We saw elephants, buffalos, monkeys, listened to the forest come to life as the sun set – frogs and birds and chimps. It was actually more driving around to find animals than actually seeing them. But my favorite part of the evening was standing a bald hill overlooking a stream meandering through as narrow valley along which a family of elephants were walking, drinking, eating. There was such a peace, a simplicity, as the cool air came in through the valley, as the sunset painted the huge sky in hues of oranges and pinks and then purples, and all along we watched the family end its day. Parks sometimes have a plastic, false atmosphere – its too bad that we need fences to keep the animals in and the people out. But the reality is we need them, to protect land and animals from ourselves. And I’m so grateful we have them, otherwise I wonder if my kids will ever get to experience the same thing.

We woke the next morning for a trek through one of the park’s forests. Yesterday, we had been hesitant about the driving safari, but I’m so glad we did it. Unfortunately, the walk did not prove so exciting in terms of animals. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to be walking in a new place and the piles of elephant dung gave us hope that we would come upon a group of elephants. But no. A couple of the guys did, maybe, see a spider monkey. Towards the end we asked our guide to tell us about the forest – the trees, the fruit, and flowers. The experience got me thinking…

The forest was not unlike one you might find in the Blue Ridge, even the mountains and valley reminded me of the Shenandoah. Mossa and the Grande Fromage said the hills reminded them of Scotland, and CBS suggested that the Ogooué reminded him of parts of south east Asia. There is a fair amount of habitat diversity around the world, but one can travel to various places and be reminded of somewhere else. In a way, the world is more homogeneous than I think it is – flora and fauna and terrain changes; the Himalaya is drastically different than Kauai which is nothing like the Saudi deserts – but again, one terrain looks like another. However, as I travel around or even see pictures or movies, it doesn’t feel so homogeneous.

To start, you can see a postcard of a Greek island and one of a Spanish village in the Mediterranean. The land is very similar, but the architecture, the boats, the colors are dead giveaways as to which place is which. We have structural differences – rich and poor, sick and healthy; we have language differences, food differences; differences in music, art, manners, ethics, laws, religions, believes, entertainments, sports, history, and culture. Landscapes may look similar around the world, but the vibe and atmosphere and smells and experiences can be so different because of the people and the way they have adapted to their environment in different ways and the ways in which they have adapted or rejected other peoples’ way of dealing with what’s around them and expressing themselves. And, yet, Globalization is making its best efforts to homogenize us.

There are some good things that come with the blending and merging of cultures. I do believe in certain universal rights and truths and the power in unity to fight for them when someone weak cannot do it on their own. It is good to know when something bad happens in the world, and those with the ability to help and respond can – we are connected and that’s a good thing. Our ability to witness evil and calamity in our world increases our responsibility to do something about it. Similarly, I think it’s a cop-out not to do something to stop an evil because of some deference to culture - its easy to blame hate and violence and racism and genocide on culture (too often we suggest that its their issue to sort out, we should stay out of it). No, globalism gives us the power of observation, we are connected, no longer do we have the excuse of “We didn’t know how bad it was until it was too late”.

But I really do hope that we can maintain some of our differences. It makes our world so much more interesting and special and unique. Our differences do matter – its means that our culture matters, our history matters, each one of us matters. I think there’s a tendency to mimic our animal friends, we tend to hide and camouflage ourselves, coupled with globalism’s ploys to make us all the same in order to make and sell more of the same products. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite dialogues from The Incredibles. Dash has been using his super speed powers in school when he’s not supposed to and his Mom (Helen aka Elasta Girl) is telling him how he can’t do that:

Helen: Right now, honey, the world just wants us to fit in, we gotta be like everyone else.
Dash: But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.
Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

So, yes, I want a place for everyone at the table, but if we lose our cultural identities in the process, we’re in for one boring dinner party.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Lopé – Part I: The Journey

Sorry that it’s been so long since I’ve posted. It’s been a busy couple of weeks and I fell out of the habit of writing. And while sometimes I feel blogging is a bit “oh, look at me” and I’d rather stay in my shell, I’m gonna try to keep this going. So I’ll start with a couple of posts about my first safari.

Last weekend, four of my colleagues (Chris, aka Mossa, Roger, aka Rogey Baby, Thierry, aka Cool Bitch Supreme, and Bill, aka Le Grand Fromage) and I went to Lopé National Park. It’s near the geographic center of the country, about 180 km east of Libreville. It took us about 8 hours to get there. The roads are either asphalt – mixed with potholes and stretches of various levels of deterioration – or single lane red dirt. Mind you, this is National Highway 1. To give this some perspective, Libreville and Lopé are about the same distance apart as Washington, D.C. to Roanoke, VA (about a 3 hour drive). People we talked with after thought we were crazy driving there. But I’m so glad we did.

The scenery was amazing and we were able to see how people outside of the Libreville live. We drove out of the city as the landscape transitioned into dense jungle, through the occasional roadside village (really nothing more than a 5 or 10 houses, maybe a school, and always a football pitch). We passed many random tables where people left various things for sale – mainly produce (citrus, tomatoes, yams, bananas, and avocados), but also dried fish and bush meat (we saw several monkeys hanging up and a small crocodile). We also drove through huge rubber plantations, through cut forests, and by several huge saw mills.

Housing was very similar to those found in Haiti – mixes between thatch houses people have probably made for thousands of years, wood frame houses with corrugated metal roofs, and every now and then a concrete and block house. Some painted in reds, and, blues, and greens. Lots of the green, yellow, and blue Gabonese flags. Children carrying water cans to or from the local hand pump well or playing in red dirt yards. We came into the lively town of Ndjolé (pronounced similar to En-julie), that with its old Catholic Church on the hill, for a second reminded me a town you’d find in northern New Mexico. We stopped to fill-up right in the middle of the town next to the market full of what I can only describe as African Reggae music blasting from some ancient box speakers across the street. It was here where we left asphalt for dirt and began climbing into hills, covered in even thicker, now virgin, rain forests.

I saw some of the most incredible bamboo I’ve ever seen – bamboo here grows in large clumps and the stalks splay out in all directions. Clumps are spaced out randomly say 30 or 40 feet apart so that they create a maze into the hills or down into valleys leading to streams. As we crested the hills and crossed the Ogooué River, we entered the plateau and into savannah region. We continued following the river all the way to Lopé where I kept thinking to myself that this is the Africa I dreamt about when I was a little boy.