Thursday, August 25, 2011

misc things about Gabon

I completely forgot I wrote this stuff down when I was on the train back to Libreville. So I guess this is Gabon part 4. At least two more coming, at some unknown distant point in the future when I get around to writing about that train trip and about the visa saga.

1. Car horns have an entirely different purpose here. Instead of being an emergency device to call attention to someone about to run into you, it serves a multitude of common practical purposes which are surprisingly fairly clearly differentiated merely by context:

1. Don’t move, I’m about to pass you.
2. Move, I’m about to merge.
3. Hi I’m a taxi; do you need one?
4. Hi little village, look at the car passing through!
5. Get out of the road.
6. Look out whoever is around this blind corner, I’m coming around full speed.
7. I accept your price, get in the taxi.
8. Which way are you trying to go?

2. I would love to live in Africa for awhile (although in a more pleasant climate…) but I would dearly miss the variety of fruits and vegetables that are always available in California. You would think that in a tropical country there would be tons of fresh produce around, but that’s definitely not the case. Avocados and African oranges (which you half-peel and squeeze for juice instead of eating like a real fruit), apples (which I can’t eat because foreigners are supposed to avoid uncooked produce unless it has a thick peel that you can peel yourself), and plantains are the only ubiquitous things. I’ve also seen some watermelons which are insanely expensive (about a dollar a pound… I don’t buy them in the U.S. until they hit around 29 cents) and a very few unripe mangoes in Libreville, but not the rest of the country where I’ve been for all but 3 days. Canned fruit is almost impossible to find and about $3.50 per can. I’ve been craving fruit since I got here.

The food is actually kinda weird more generally speaking than the produce. Most of the African food I’ve had in the U.S. is from east sub-Saharan Africa, which is mostly delicious (kinda sorta a bad approximation of Indian food… but nothing competes with Indian food so that’s still a compliment) or Ethiopian (which is it’s own very delicious thing) except for one Ghanian food festival I stumbled into in Chicago which was also very good, but obviously food festivals are a little bit of a biased take on things. But here, while some of it is very very good (chicken and beef kabobs, roasted chicken, plantains) despite the big globs of mayonnaise that they put on everything, some other stuff smells unbelievably vile, like something I would never dream was food unless I was watching it being prepared. And it’s not just unclean cooking environments – one dish at the fancy dinner I went to at Jake’s conference also seemed to be intentionally prepared with that particular vile essence. It’s really bizarre, and I really can’t figure out what it is.

Then eating with these Wildlife Conservation Society scientists at their camp in the Bateke forest, a few more strange things have popped up. For one, the salt fish, which I’ve seen everywhere but not tried (at Jake’s advice). They ship whole fish from the ocean around the country, preserved like jerky with lots of salt and by smoking it. Most of them are little perch-type fish, but you also see giant slabs of other kinds of fish preserved this way. The WCS guys cooked up some of this stuff in some other kind of sauce, and even with the sauce, it was like eating partially decomposed very fishy meat with ten times more salt than is tolerable. And also some of a local vegetable, asperge, which is so bitter my whole mouth involuntarily puckered upon tasting it. I totally understand eating these things if there’s nothing else available or affordable, but that’s definitely not the case at a fancy-pants conference.

It must be an acquired taste but even that’s hard to comprehend. I’m not particularly fond of the staple carbohydrate (‘manioc’, which is made from cassava root, is the texture of rubber, and tastes weirdly sour, kind of like raw sourdough) but I can see how you’d like it if you grew up with it, and the locals indeed love it. Same for the ubiquitous “piment” sauce, which is so hot that three drops of the oil in a whole pot of rice makes me sweat, and after I cut up a couple of the peppers it’s made of, my hands for two days felt like I’d put them on a hot frying pan and literally blistered. I suppose you could grow up liking salt fish too, I guess, but it’s obviously something people do out of necessity for preservation, so I’m not sure why you’d eat it when you’ve got a riverful of fresh fish ten yards away. But that unknown vile essence is so profoundly awful it provokes a visceral “this is not edible! Run away from the toxic waste center!” reaction.

(Then again, coffee does the same thing to me... maybe it's cappuccino salt fish :)

3. The French here sounds less awful than in France but still not a beautiful language. Better than German, though, which I’ve discovered still resides in my subconscious, in a surprisingly large vocabulary, but only peaks out when I’m trying to think of a word in French. What’s worse though is that since Spanish and French are so similar, French has completely crowded out the Spanish that I’ve been studying. Hopefully an hour of rosetta stone back at home will rectify that. I don’t WANT to learn French, grr…

Turns out grammar is highly overrated as well. I don’t know anything about French grammar and stumble along with isolated words plucked from my vocabulary of about 50, strung together in things that represent sentences well enough to be understood about three quarters of the time, correctly about half the time. The English equivalent is probably something like ‘Us comes here more late at five o’clock’ or ‘you know where possible buy what is this?’ But hey it gets the point across. Pronunciation, however, is critical, and I am not physically capable of talking with my sinus cavity in the way required to mash all these syllables together like they do. Or to grunt instead of pronouncing “un” like in Spanish.

4. The language pride is a strange carryover from French culture. Somehow despite the fact that French colonialists forced their language on the country that still speaks 500 regional tribal languages relatively recently, many Gabonese are incredibly disdainful of anyone who doesn’t speak French. We got a lot of “Why can you not speak French! Here in Gabon we speak French.” While I of course think it is important to be able to take care of yourself and not get in trouble or offend the locals when traveling, and that requires some degree of language ability or at least a good phrasebook, who in their right mind expects Americans to learn every language of every country they visit? Get off your high horses Francophones!

On the opposite extreme, since very few people in Gabon speak English, when we met someone who did they were overjoyed to be able to use it with us. We walked into a cafeteria-in-a-tent restaurant type place and met a man who pilots shipping ships between several Gabonese ports who spoke English, and he was so happy to talk to us he insisted on buying our meals. Amazingly friendly guy. The next day we went to a bookstore and met someone from Cameroon who spoke English (parts of Cameroon speak more English than French) and he told us all about his business and translation service that he was starting and got our contact information and told us to call him if we were ever in Cameroon. He emailed us later that night too to say once again that he was happy to meet us and that if I knew anyone who was visiting Cameroon, we should give them his number. Another time we met a kid from Nigeria who spoke English and he also insisted on trading contact information and telling us to call him if we were ever there. And another time in Libreville a student talked to us for about 15 minutes about his youth organization and got our facebook information, not to get money from us (which is almost always the case…) but just to practice his English.

It’s a really weird dichotomy between quite disdainful, unhelpful and unfriendly French people and exuberantly friendly English-speakers.

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