Sunday, June 12, 2011

perils of international travel

So Jake and I have been traveling in Gabon for the last month. He went to a biology conference for a week in Franceville and then did field work in the Bateke plateau region, and since I am always looking for an excuse for an adventure, I went along just for fun and to be his 'field assistant' (in order to get on the field work permit..:) So now we're back in Libreville for two days before flying back to the states and I've been writing some stuff down, but not in chronological order, hence the introductory explanation.

So here's the first chunk, which I wrote on the train and is too long to bother editing, so pardon any resulting nonsense:

This is probably a familiar story to anyone who has travelled in the developing world. But I’m going to tell it anyway because if I can’t at least turn it into an amusing story, there’s no upside at all…

Jake and I were in Franceville, the 2nd or 3rd largest city in Gabon with about 30,000 people in the southeast corner of the country. That’s a far cry from the half million in Libreville 12 hours away by train (if running smoothly, which is frankly never the case), but since the president of the country is from Franceville, it enjoys a great deal of special treatment that makes it seem at least as modernized and wealthy as the capitol. One detail in particular is that the Universite des Sciences et Techniques de Masuku, the premeire technical institution of Gabon, is located there, which is how we came to visit for Jake’s conference on fostering international collaboration in research on Central African biodiversity.

The conference has just ended and we moved to a slightly cheaper hotel to stay for a couple of nights while arranging the final details of the field work trip we were taking to the Batek√© plateau. This basically entailed four days of running around like chickens with our heads cut off assembling expedition equipment, finalizing permits and paperwork, working with several undergraduate students from USTM (Jake wanted to teach them as much as possible about field work while he’s here, since they don’t get that kind of practical research experience as part of their education) to build a fish photography aquarium and do some collecting in a river in Moanda about 20 km away.

On Friday I spent the day packing up all of our stuff and doing laundry by hand and lugging it to another hotel, because the list of people staying to do field work and staying in the hotel an extra day got lost in transaction somewhere between the organizer in Libreville and the reception desk of Hotel Poubara. Hotel Poubara claimed they had a big foreign delegation coming in that night and that we absolutely had to leave, so I had to deal with the fallout. (That afternoon they said they actually did have rooms but by then we were all so frustrated by their disorganized anti-service that we left out of spite anyway…) I went to Potos (the downtown market area) to get food but couldn’t find any street vendors selling sandwiches made out of anything but liver so I ate an ice cream cone and figured we get a big dinner anyway.

Unfortunately, by the time we got everything together and spent the evening with another woman who was leaving to do field work the next day, trading tissue tubes and currency and logistical information, there was nowhere with food open near the new hotel and we didn’t want to take a taxi all the way into downtown so we just shared some overpriced hotel French fries and went to sleep.

By lunchtime the next day I was so ravenously hungry we went to our favorite little restaurant in town, a local establishment that was a little too cheap and fast and delicious for the conference to ever have deigned to go there, and inhaled a plate of roasted chicken and French fries and baguette all drowned in oil and fried onions (and of course topped with a big glop of mayonnaise, which seems to be the source of about a third of Gabonese people’s calories). Every artery in my body was instantly slogged down in oily muck but it was oh so worth it.

That night we worked with three of the undergraduates building the fish photography aquarium and then all watched the soccer final championship game between Barcelona and Manchester United. It was a whole lot of fun hanging out with these super-friendly guys (who despite being undergraduates were my age or older – the education system is a little different here) who were extremely excited about this game. Enthusiasm is contagious and makes any activity enjoyable.

We were a little stranger to them than they were to us though, I think: girls in Gabon don’t drink alcohol so they were endlessly amused and not quite sure what to think when I drank a Castel while Jake and the three students ordered cokes. Then the subject of religion came up and it took them a few minutes to regroup and decide they could still associate with us… so long as they spent the rest of the week praying for our souls of course. If I’d been wearing shorts at the time it might’ve been a little to much to handle at once. Judging by the dresses and bathing suits and skirts the girls wear, it’s definitely not a matter of modesty, but there’s a much clearer gender divide here, and shorts on a girl is about the equivalent of a guy in a dress in the U.S.

There’s something to be said for the cultural diversity of the U.S. Other countries are still vastly different of course, but no one from America goes abroad and has their worldview, and their assumption of absolute correctness of their own cultural practices, shattered.

Anyway, it was a very fun evening. We went to bed happy, feeling like we’d accomplished something useful with the aquarium, and on track to have everything in place for the expedition in two days.

That didn’t last long. I feel asleep very puzzled as to how two beers could make me feel so nauseous, and when I woke up an hour later and vomited, my only thought was good grief is my liver on vacation? 24 ounces of 4.5% beer should only act as a mild sleeping aid. When I woke up again half an hour later, and then spent the next five hours laying on the bathroom tile in a delirious half-asleep state for three minutes at a time between intestinal mutinies, I kinda figured something else was going on.

All the next day I groaned in bed with a fever and aches that kept me from staying in one position for more than a few minutes. Jake kindly brought me ginger juice and sherbet, which was the only thing I could think of that didn’t immediately make me nauseous at the mental image, and while he went to collect fish with the students most of the day my great triumph was successfully consuming two ibuprofen and about three bites of sherbet.

By the next day I could at least move around normally, and by stopping to whimper pathetically and regather some strength for a few minutes after ringing out each item of clothing, I even managed to do some laundry while Jake ran errands. But eating was still not really an option. To make matters worse (injuring my dignity more than anything else, but still…) while Jake was working on the aquarium more with one of the students, I walked up to the gazebo where they were stationed two times in a row and smashed my head on the rim that was exactly at my height and exactly above the peripheral vision of my glasses. This was after the night before when all three students had been there when I stood up from a low brick wall where I’d been photographing the oncoming thunderstorm, and somehow managed to trip backwards and land back on the wall at a rather awkward and painful angle. Based on their hour of interaction with me, they must think I belong performing these clumsy feats in a more professional, circus setting.

Then I walked out a third time without my flashlight, carefully stepping down the stairs to the lawn, but couldn’t tell that the last ‘step’ was actually a two-feet-deep stone-lined hole. They weren’t aware that I was there until the crash and yell, and found me holding onto my hand in agony while blood slowly oozed from a deep hole punctured in my knee-cap. After the initial shock, though, I realized I was incredibly lucky, and only had a jammed finger and dented knee. I limped around for a day and then the knee was fine, and while 12 days later the finger is still sore and swollen up so that I can’t get my class ring off, functional ring fingers apparently aren’t necessary for any everyday tasks so I’ve barely even noticed.

Having established that no bones were fractured, I limped to the gazebo to lick my wounds, and promptly smashed my head on the roof.

I insisted I was fine, but Lionel insisted on guiding me up each step with a flashlight and thereafter yelling ‘attention!’ and pointing wildly at the roof anytime I approached the gazebo. Now I know what being a character in a bad sit-com must feel like.

Jake and I then had dinner with the director of the conference at a wonderful restaurant, and I slowly chewed about half a cup of plain rice, and then immediately collapsed in bed back at the hotel. We were finally definitely scheduled to leave for the field at 10:30 the next morning, and Jake was planning to get up at the crack of dawn to buy 10 days worth of food for three people and run around town with one of the students buying some additional supplies like material to make hand nets, several kinds of bait, and some things for our guide which we had just found out we needed to feed and house as well. I mumbled to Jake to wake me up in time to send a couple important emails and thanked my lucky stars that he would be able to take care of all that craziness while I got a much needed solid nine hours of sleep.

Two hours later, Jake was on the bathroom tiles and I was typing a pleading email to the Wildlife Conservation Society woman asking if we could possibly leave a day later. For the next five hours or so, I half-dozed in between being woken up by the chaos of gastrointestinal turmoil and trying to be comforting, and just as I had finally gotten into a REM state at around 6:30 a.m., after telling Jake that there was no possible way we could make it by 10:30 and that he needed to be more assertive about the need to reschedule our ride into the wilderness, the WCS woman woke up and answered his email and yanked me back into harsh reality saying ‘it’s today or never.’

I’m still not quite sure how I managed to get into town and find a long list of obscure items in a foreign city in a foreign language in about eight separate shops and then buy about 70 pounds of groceries, stuff them into my backpacking backpack, sit down on the floor to stick my arms through the straps, roll onto my front, get my legs under my center of gravity, stumble very very carefully so as not to lose my balance out to the roundabout where all the taxis are, squeeze the backpack into the front seat of the car with myself still attached, squeeze myself into the footwell of the front seat with the remaining handheld bags on the dashboard, roll out of the car in the hotel parking lot, retrieve the cab fare from my pocket, and stumble back to the room where I nearly passed out from doing all that without eating for the last three days and consuming approximately negative net calories over the last five. And still feeling pretty darn queezy and not quite in touch with the ground.

I’m even less sure how Jake managed to drag himself out of bed, at 8 in the morning on zero sleep and just past the peak of illness, go to the university with the conference director to pick up a fish net, vomit in the university bathroom, drag himself back to the hotel room, and deliriously roll around in bed in between groaning at me on the phone “I don’t know I can’t talk about it I have to go back to bed bye *click*” when I tried to find out how many pairs of latex gloves and syringes he needed for processing fish specimens. And even less sure how he managed to get out of bed, stuff the last things that I couldn’t pack myself into his luggage, carry it out to a taxi, and drag it all into the yard of the WCS office.

If we hadn’t had the miraculous help of Lionel, who was originally going to take Jake into town to find all that random collecting gear that there’s no possible way either of us could have located or communicated in French, but who ended it up doing it by himself as our hired help and bringing a taxi to pick us up and directing it to the WCS office, we would never have even made it 90 minutes late like we did.

We stumbled into the yard of the office like the living dead. Jake immediately laid down on the ground to sleep until the truck, mercifully running late, arrived to pick us up, and I miraculously was able to use their wireless internet (first and only wifi we’ve seen anywhere in Gabon) to send a couple emails that absolutely had to go out before disappearing into the field and which I had originally planned on spending the whole morning on.

Jake says when he saw me fall in the brick hole, he was sure I’d broken some fingers or an arm, and said a fast plea to whatever god might be hiding out in the universe that he wouldn’t have to evacuate me instead of going into the field. And that whoever was listening said “Ok, but then you have to get sick instead. Heh heh heh.” Luckily the universe’s cynical sense of humor ended with the WCS office where we had two crucial hours of napping and internet in a fan-cooled hallway before the landrover arrived.

The slow drive to the village of Kessala was so beautiful that it was actually enjoyable despite my lightheaded vertigo combined with carsickness and Jake’s huddling in the backseat half conscious and the fact that the ~30 km drive took about 90 minutes since the ‘road’ is contoured more similarly to a dry creek bed. In Kessala, we luckily had no obstacle to changing plans from hiking into the camp that afternoon to camping in the village and hiking the next day, since the truck was so late we wouldn’t have been able to make it before dusk anyway. And also luckily, Jake bounced back from the worst of the illness fairly quickly, was able to eat that night (as was I, finally), and didn’t collapse during the circus that ensued when we arrived and the villagers decided what to do with us.

But that’s the beginning of a different story for a different time.

1 comment:

JohnRaymond said...

Holy *#@ etc. Sure glad I didn't know all the details. You've been through some incredible adversity, more than anything I've experienced. What you described in the brief emails in the middle of the sickness was enough to keep me on edge - and probably Mom more than me. You two are apparently very tough! You should be proud of yourself, your mental stamina, Vera, for not succumbing to the pain, work load, and sleep deprivation. I can't imagine what you've been through. We'll have to talk about it when you get stateside.
Hope your trip over the Atlantic and back to Berkeley is completely smooth!!