Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tear Gas & Corruption in Gabon?

I have been out of Gabon for some time and I was just catching up on some recent news...

Police Use Tear Gas to Break up Gabon Protest
Gabon Opposition Leader Seeks UN Refuge

What?  Are you kidding me??? 

Apparently, the man who placed 3rd in the 2009 Presidential election in Gabon, Andre Mba Obame, declared himself to be the "true" president of Gabon.  He even announced a new cabinet.  He did this on January 26, 2011, a year and 1/2 after Presidential elections.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My African Spider

Are you afraid of spiders?  I am...especially big, giant is my African spider story.

I was 'cat-sitting' for a friend on the embassy compound in Libreville.  Her cat is small and fast, so it was important to enter/exit the apartment quickly in order to prevent her from running out.  On the first day, when leaving the apt and locking the door, I noticed a large black spider to the left of the front door.  I mean it was stood as large as a tennis ball...and it wasn't moving.  Maybe I surprised it?  I didn't notice it when I went in, but I was fumbling with the keys.  Eeeww.

The next morning, there it was again.  It was in the same area and I was looking around for a stick or something to poke it.  It wasn't moving and I wanted to shoo it away.  No such luck.  When I left, sure enough, it was just standing there large and still.  My friends' townhouse is not far from the front gate, so I decided to ask the local guard if he knew what kind of spider it was.

He came over to check it out with his boots on.  I mention this because I wear flip flops and there is no way I am getting too close to that thing, it's so damn big.  The guard slowly walks up to it.  He bends down for a closer look and slowly puts his finger down towards it.  He pokes at it.  I am thinking, what is the RSO's (Regional Security Officer) number?  This guard is going to get bit by some large poisonous spider and I am going to have to call for help.  The guard picks up the spider to show it to me with a big smile on his face.

The townhouse next store is actually home to the RSO and his wife.  They have two children and one of them is a four year old boy who likes plastic bugs.  I was afraid of a plastic bug for two days.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Internet Connections

As someone who grew up in New York City, a decent internet connection is something you take for granted.  If you're not paying for a high speed, broadband connection through your cable provider, you are "borrowing" one from your neighbor.  Otherwise, you can just walk up the block to the Starbuck's or the Barnes & Noble...even Central Park was outfitted with free wi-fi before the recession.  This is simply not the case in Libreville.

Internet access was achieved via two options, satellite or through the phone "system", there is no cable in Gabon.  Satellite was certainly the least expensive, but since the connection is weak and greatly affected by the weather, a better option would have been to use a box of old newspapers and magazines for search and two tins cans and some string for email.

Achieving internet access through the phone lines was the best option.  It worked 65% of the time and the connection was fast enough to bring up most websites.  Although, if you wanted to view that 3 minute video that your friends were sending around, it could take 45 minutes to download.  Of course, if you lost the connection in the middle, you would have to start the download all over again.

Electricity was another challenge.  The U.S. Embassy compound where I lived had a large generator system.  Whenever the electricity went out, which could be frequent, the generator would take less than 2 seconds to kick in.  Of course, since our internet provider did not have a generator, the fact that our lights and A/C kept running had nothing to do with maintaining an internet connection...back to the tins cans and some string.

Everyone talks about how wonderful skype is, especially when traveling.  Those people have never been to Gabon.  The one time that I was able to connect, with both voice and video, the time delay was more than 4 minutes.  Try talking to anyone back home with a 4 minute delay...not so wonderful.

Despite my complaining about the connection in Libreville, I was able to keep contact with friends at home, do research for work and maintain this blog.  I suppose it's just like anything else, it takes a little getting used to.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Advertising in Gabon

While I was teaching English to Gabonese military personnel, some of the students wanted to know what I did back home.  A discussion ensued and the subject of advertising came up.  It has been the focus of my career for almost 20 years and they didn't understand what I was talking about.  You do what, I don't understand?

Here in the US, we are overrun by messaging.  In many ways, advertising shapes our culture.

In Gabon, advertising doesn't really exist.  There are no commercials on local TV; none of the radio stations that I listened to had advertising, no magazines.  The products people use are not necessarily based on choice, but on what's available...and of course affordability.  Selection can be extremely limited.  The two categories with the largest selection by far were beer and wine.
Branding and signage was almost non existent in Gabon.  Signs for local stores, bars and restaurants were very small, insignificant by US standards and easily blocked by foliage.

During the time that I lived in Sabliere, an upscale neighborhood in Libreville, two small beach front hotels went up.  You didn't know they existed because there were no branding or advertising of any kind.  I assume one of the hotels had a name, because it appeared to be open for business and two of my friends went there for drinks.  How did they know about it?  Someone told them about it.  They said it was very nice, but they didn't know the name : )

The only "real"ads are on billboards along the boulevard.  This was the one association that the English class understood...ah you do those billboards...why?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Rubber Stamp: My "Run-in" at the Airport Part 2

Thanks for coming back…here is the 2nd half of the story. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

When I left off in Part 1, I had “run-in” to the airport in Gabon and then I was being hassled by some punks in the parking lot.

I was nervous and I was concentrating on avoiding further hassle.  There is no one around and now I’m going to have to stop and deal with the toll gate.

Part 2
I stepped on the gas as I made a quick left hand turn towards the gate…the next thing I know, I am not in control.  It is like a slow motion dream.  I can hear the rev of the engine and the squeal of tires.  There is a metal scrunching sound and I must have hit the brakes.  When I come out of the dream, the front of the car is now up on top of those metal poles that stick out of the ground, several feet in the air.  Pointing into the night sky.  I thought I was screwed before, now I am totally f*@k’d.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rubber Stamp: My "Run-in" at the Airport in Gabon

I was leaving Africa with a lot of luggage.  Similar to other 3rd world countries, the Airport in Libreville, Gabon, on the west coast of Africa, leaves a lot to be desired.  I lived close to the airport, so I figured I’d literally “run-in” early, when there weren’t any flights, check all of the luggage and then come back to the house for a quick shower and dinner before my long journey.  Nice plan.

Checking baggage, with no one else at the airport, took 2 ½ hours.  At the first security checkpoint they couldn’t understand why I was checking in so early.  They didn’t want to let me in to ticketing.  A little negotiating, a change of guards and viola I’m in.  Next was the ticket agent who was very confused trying to figure out what to charge for the extra luggage.  Then I had to go outside to an Air France office and pay the charge.  Of course they couldn’t figure out how to enter it into the computer system.  This took several conferences and a phone call.  Lastly, I had to go back through the first security check point with my receipt for the paid luggage to pick up my ticket.  They remembered me and just let me pass. Whew.

The airport in Libreville is one of the few places in Gabon where you get hassled by local punks.  I understand, its about opportunity…lots of people, luggage, some tourists…the airport is a great place to pick up “tips”.  Usually when leaving the airport, you walk straight ahead through the crowd, ignore the attempts, maybe give a stern “no” and avoid any hassle.  It works.

When the airport is empty however, it’s a very different situation.  Now there is no crowd to hide in, only me, and unfortunately, since I had to stop by the curb to pay for my parking stub, I obviously have cash in my pocket. Given that the internet is often down, and then my credit cards don’t work, I have a lot of cash in my pocket.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

As expected, here they come.  One guy is telling me that I have to come with him to see the security chief, “don’t worry” he says, “no problems, I can get you through.”  It is evening and it’s already dark.  I am ignoring them and walking briskly across the street to the small parking lot.  As I look over my shoulder, I see more of them coming.  I quickly get in the car and lock the doors.

Obviously I’m a little stressed, and although the doors are locked, I still don’t feel safe.  No one is in the parking lot other than my "friends" who are now gathering around the car.  I just want to zip out of the parking lot and get home.  The lot is small and surrounded by a fence.  There is one way out.  In order to leave, you need to make a sharp left at the exit and go through a toll gate.  At the toll, you insert your paid parking stub to open the gate.  There is no manned booth.  To prevent people from leaving without paying, the exit lane is lined with short, fat metal poles sticking out of the ground.

I was nervous and I was concentrating on avoiding further hassle. There is no one around and now I’m going to have to stop and deal with the toll gate...


This is the end of Part 1 of my story.  Please join me tomorrow to find out what happened and how I finally made my flight home.  Thanks.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Equatorial Africa, France and Oil

Gabon is the third largest provider of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Libreville, the capital, was once the capital of the French Congo, which covered the entire mid section of the African continent 100 years ago.  Although now independent, Gabon still has a long-standing relationship with France.

Due to the oil, and every other natural resource that the country has been eating through (timber, gas, manganese, iron, gold, etc.), Gabon is considered one of the wealthiest countries on the continent.  The former President, Omar Bongo, who ruled the country for 42 years, was considered one of the wealthiest men in the world before his death in 2009.  Outside of 33+ luxury properties in France, and another $100+ million in banks in the US, his wealth has never really been accounted for.  He was a genius at lining pockets, and not just his own.  More than fifty political ministries were assigned to family and friends, as well as political opponents and rival ethnic tribes; obviously all became allies.  French oil and timber companies held preferential status to development claims, in return for political and military protection from France, as well as an outlay of cash.  This connection with French political power, essentially locked in his presidency for the long term.  A purported quote from the former President reads as follows: ”Gabon without France is like a car without a driver, France without Gabon is like a car without fuel.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

Travel Safely

If you plan on traveling abroad, and you expect to take the road less traveled, then you should consider some of the following tips on traveling safely.

A group of Lonely Planet bloggers are sharing their insights on traveling safely from different points around the globe and this is my inclusion.

Instead of writing about the dangers of malaria or a run-in the local Gendarme in Gabon, the following are just some basic tips from me as a New Yorker…

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Year In Africa

This last year has been an unbelievable, life changing experience for me.  I had the chance to live in a country I’ve never heard of before, meet new people, learn new perspectives and enjoy a foreign culture in a foreign language.  It was probably one of the greatest opportunities of my life and I’m glad that I was able to take advantage.

I made some great new friends.  I traveled a bit through the country-side and saw sights that I had only imagined – wild beaches, thick tropical jungle, open savannahs - elephants, buffalo, cheetah - rhino, giraffe and zebra.  I saw immeasurable wealth and witnessed extreme poverty.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Those Beach Pictures I Promised

If you frequent my blog, you know that I absolutely love the beach.  The beaches here, can be very beautiful…depending on tides and storms.  High tide and heavy rain usually result in a flow of “stuff”, both natural and unnatural, washed up on the beach.  This time we were fortunate to have neither.

This beach is close, just outside the city, north of Libreville.  If I could count on a consistent low tide, it’s probably closer to walk along the shore rather than drive.