Monday, December 27, 2004

Warnings about worms and coups

December 27, 2004
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74949° E 8.76031 Elevation 122 feet. Temp: 85° F

We woke this morning to a light drizzle on our tents, which did not raise my spirits because we are staying at the dry end of Bioko island, and this is supposed to be the dry season in Equatorial Guinea. The rainforest on the southern end of Bioko, where we are traveling in two days to begin our quest to count endangered animals, gets much more rain. I’ll try not to read too much into this early precipitation – we’re on a scientific mission here, so we are motivated by facts, not superstition. I’ll just consider it a friendly reminder that we are working in a humid climate.

The Arcadia University leaders of the expedition outlined some rules of proper behavior in Equatorial Guinea, whose people seem very friendly, though slightly suspicious of outsiders. The government here is hardly unique in Africa, where most colonists departed abruptly in the ’60s, leaving nations ill-equipped to govern themselves democratically. The Equatoguinean regime has been in power for 25 years, surviving periodic coup attempts, some real and others that look suspiciously more like manufactured pretexts for cracking down on the opposition. Freedom of expression is a foreign concept – the state owns the TV station, the radio station and the monthly newspaper –newspapers are not exactly a powerful medium in this part of the world. Nevertheless, the government does appear to be investing some of its resources into upgrading its infrastructure – the national university is improving each year. T

he Arcadia visitors were told this morning that it’s best to stay quiet about the government. “We’re apolitical,” said Wayne A. Morra, an economics professor who is co-leader of the expedition. “We’re here for the animals.”

Speaking of animals, our group received some thought-provoking guidance this morning from our hosts, the local ExxonMobil subsidiary that has allowed us to camp on their soccer field. The oil company’s medic treated us to a lecture about snakes, HIV-AIDS, malaria and other parasitical ailments that we may encounter. My favorite was the mango fly, whose larvae burrow themselves beneath the skin, causing a horrible boil. They are treated with a generous coating of Vaseline, which causes the worm to gasp for air and erupt to the skin’s surface in a matter of minutes. Gail W. Hearn, the biologist leading the expedition, pointed out that it was only a maggot. A couple of the expedition members cringed after hearing that description.

At the conclusion of the medic’s lecture, there was a small stampede to his office to get new supplies of repellant and insecticides.

The ExxonMobil security chief gave us a talk about avoiding crime, and also what to do in case of a coup – namely, do everything you can to get out of the way and look unthreatening to the government. Many of the members of the expedition have never been to a country like Equatorial Guinea, so I think they already have experienced something that most tourists don’t get to tell their friends when they return home.

Meanwhile, the group is preparing the gear for our trek. It’s all laid out under an awning on the soccer field. We’re carrying quite a lot of stuff – tents, cooking utensils, stoves, lanterns, life jackets, generators, satellite telephones – enough for the 30 or so members of the expedition, plus food for everyone, including 20 porters. The Zodiac boat that the group would use to send for help in an emergency was inflated and discovered to contain a hole. But it’s better to discover that now than when a real emergency arises.

And speaking of real emergencies, I glanced at a television at the oil company compound and caught an update on the tsunamis that have devastated the Indian Ocean coast. It was a brief, shocking glimpse at the rest of the world beyond our island.

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