Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Tourists in a strange land

January 12, 2005
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74949° E 8.76031 Elevation 122 feet. Temp: 86° F

Since many newspaper editors don’t read Internet blogs, I can let you in on a little secret here without too much worry that this will get on my permanent record: I basically took the day off today. That’s right, I took a slide. I got up this morning and felt the accumulated weariness of two weeks of living in and hiking in the wilderness. I had planned to get down to work writing the last two stories about the Arcadia University expedition to Equatorial Guinea that I’ve been accompanying. But now we are back in civilization, and when one of the expedition members suggested this morning that we go into town and check out the capital of Equatorial Guinea, the temptation undermined my work ethic. I shut down the computer for the day.

We’re staying in tents on a soccer field in the compound of ExxonMobil’s local subsidiary, the biggest oil producer in Equatorial Guinea. ExxonMobil provides free logistical support to the Arcadia project. We’re able to shower in the company’s gym facilities and eat at the company’s cafeteria and they even did some laundry for us – it’s like living amid a little part of Texas planted in Equatorial Guinea. The compound is about a mile or so outside of town, so you can walk into the city if you enjoy exerting yourself in this sticky humid climate, or you can flag down a beat-up Peugeot taxi and pay $2 for a lift. The cab fares are one of the only cheap things about Malabo.

Malabo is not a very big city – estimated population of about 100,000 – and it’s not hard to walk from one side of town to the other. I spent a week here at the beginning of December setting up the permits for this story, so that made me an experienced tourguide. As small and as provincial as Malabo seems, long-term residents say it’s much more exciting now than it was a few years ago, before oil was discovered offshore and money began flowing and immigrants from surrounding countries began to come to earn a few bucks in the boomtown. Ten years ago, there were hardly any cars in town, and even beachfront restaurants were rundown and desolate. Now the restaurants are busy, five bedroom houses rent for $6,000 a month and half the citizenry seems to be sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle without ever having taken a driving lesson.

Despite opening up to outsiders, Equatorial Guinea is still very much a closed society. Foreigners are regarded with suspicion, and I suppose with good reason – the government unraveled a coup plot here last year that was allegedly orchestrated by foreign mercenaries on behalf of exiled opposition leaders. The chaps who were arrested in Malabo claimed they were tortured into confessing. They were sentenced to long terms in a prison that no doubt does not concern itself with rehabilitation. Even though we obtained a permit to take photographs in the city, cameras still provoke so much hostility from the citizenry and hassles from authorities that it’s much easier to just walk around without trying to take pictures. Yet most people in this former Spanish colony respond well to a friendly welcome of “buenos dias.” So we walk along the streets, greeting strangers as though we’re just happy as heck to be here.

The locals are mostly indifferent to outsiders without cameras, which is a welcome change from other cities in Africa that I’ve visited. There are some benefits to a police state, and one is security and the other is the absence of beggars. Except for errant drivers, Malabo is a pretty safe city to walk around in. The architecture has a Spanish colonial charm. In recent weeks, municipal committees have visited various commercial districts and instructed building owners to paint or fix the tawdry structures – they do this by painting a “P” or and “R” on a building that requires paint or repair. Reportedly the government threatens to bulldoze the buildings whose owners fail to comply. As a consequence, the city is abuzz with reconstruction and awash in fresh paint.

As we made our way though town, stopping in the well-kept Roman Catholic cathedral and avoiding the stares of military guards outside official buildings, we made our way to the Malabo Central Market. Most of the expedition volunteers had not had an opportunity to see the bushmeat market where women vendors sell wild game, including the monkeys that the expedition has been counting in the wilderness in the hope of preventing their being hunted into extinction. Mama Anita, the chairwoman of the market vendors, was pleased to see me again after my previous two visits, and she gave me the traditional right-cheek, left-cheek kiss as I leaned across a couple of fly-infested quartered antelopes that she was selling on her table. Sometimes you have to do difficult things in this business to understand all sides of a story.

We didn’t stay long, but wandered through the rest of the market to look over the assembled fruits, vegetables, meats, clothing and hardware available in the market. Many vendors make a living buying large quantities of commodities that they divide into smaller portions to sell to individuals who have limited funds, making a small profit on the margins. One vendor was selling tiny Baggies that contained maybe a half dozen rigatoni. We wondered what somebody would do with only six little pieces of pasta, but it gives you a sense of the vastly different lives that most of the world leads compared to those of us who live in a land of plenty. Obesity is not a big public health concern in Equatorial Guinea.

After coffee at a charming café and lunch at the Spanish Cultural Center, we visited the few craft vendors here who cater to the tourist trade. This is really not a tourist-friendly place – a country where they arrest people with cameras and where a cheap hotel room goes for $90 is not exactly attracting a lot of packaged tours. Most of the African crafts sold here are imported from other countries, and they are priced high for foreign oil workers with lots of cash and little time to shop around. But for many of the expedition, this may be their only trip to Africa, so they were in a buying mood. Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer’s photographer who is accompanying me, did her best to boost the local economy.

I am back in the ExxonMobil compound for the evening, writing this in an air-conditioned recreation room while some of the younger expedition members lounge in leather sofas watching an inane Adam Sandler movie on television. The oil company’s pesticide machine has just fogged the compound in its weekly attempt to keep malaria at bay. Two nights ago we were in wild country, detached from the power grid, ankles nibbled by sand flies, far removed from these modern comforts. I am concerned that the memory is already beginning to fade.
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