Sunday, April 30, 2006

Gabon

When I cleared immigration in the airport in 10 flat minutes I thought it was sheer luck. When the taxi took me through a modern highway, I thought it was probably the only good road in the country. When I checked into the plush hotel room, with a gorgeous view of the beach, I thought it was an anomaly. I kept waiting for my conformation biases to be validated. I was convinced I would see squalor and disorder and abject poverty and all the other sterotypes that you associate with Africa. I had probably even unconsciously prepared myself to be non-chalant about it and all. Libreville turned out to be a surprise. The city is far from crowded; it's population is probably a little over Jayanagar's. The roads are wide and well-maintained and the traffic discipline is way better than Bangalore's. Despite some very african traits, like a president who has been getting "elected" term after term for the last 40 years, several things about this city are very european, like the cost of living, and the custom of saying "bon jour" to everyone you make eye-contact with and sitting around in cafes in the evening. It was not even very unsafe, by the second evening I had stopped wearing the secret money pouch. Of course, having not left the borders of the capital, I can't claim insights into the country. Besides, I was there for just four days, and I spent most of that time inside a switch room (which for some reason was cold enough to be a cryogenics laboratory). But every evening I went on guided tours with this man, Van Damme (thanks to S for the nickname. I feel stupid about not coming up with it myself, though).


Not knowing French was a huge handicap. Even with Van Damme, who has a decent grasp of written english, it was a 4 day long dumb charades. Sign language is inadequate: On friday, we went to the gabonese equivalent of a dhaba with Van Damme's friends, and most jokes were lost in translation. I was the only one with a grim face while the others were flipping over something apparently funny. Sign language can be embarassing. You don't even want to know how one of the guys explained to me that a particular local fruit was good for the libido. But I most rued not knowing french during one of the guided tours in the evening, when Van Damme pointed at a building and said "moss kay". Realising I hadn't understood, he took his hands off the wheel, bent over and said "Allah akbar", while still driving at 60kmph on a not-so-straight road.

My Gabon travelogue would be incomplete without a mention of this fascinating chair in the switch room.


Photos here
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