I was right in not having expectations.
It’s been a weird transition.
I was traveling for about 24 hours over 3 flights through 4 cities with no sleep.
When I got to a Madrid, I had the travel bug jitters. I was so excited to be back in Europe, with the cappuccinos and accents, and I had 7 hours to kill. I checked my luggage and took the bus to the center of town. Checking my map, I wandered around the famous museum and took some time to sit on a church’s steps to get some sun. It was freeeeezing– warmer than the home I left but I only wore a light sweater while most had on heavy coats. I pretended I wasn’t cold and checked out the gardens, fountains, and parks surrounding the museums lining the main street. I decided to wander down some back alleys, checking out the small shops and cafés full of locals. I entered one and Spanish tongues filled my ears. I was a little rusty but the cafe I stopped in was run by a sweet man who gave me an egg and potato breakfast pie and cappuccino… And then a complimentary orange juice. I sat for awhile reading my book while I watched the light rain run through the alleys of Spain. Eventually it was time to go back to the airport and catch my flight to Morocco.
I almost missed my plane from Morocco to Malabo, but luckily the friend I had made in Madrid, a Gambian man who had the same flight from me and took me under his wing, recognized my name on the loudspeaker in the airport in the language I couldn’t understand. I rushed to the desk and they whisked me onto the plane and I never got to say goodbye.
24 hours from my departure, I ended up in Malabo. It was 2:30am when I arrived and I was exhausted but my eyes were wide open and alert, cautiously observing the people around me as I had been warned about the things being taken from my luggage or being asked for bribes. But I passed through customs just fine. The customs officer told me I was “guapa” and let me go without much trouble. This was the first of many times that my fair skin would get me privileges and easier passing in Africa but also the reason for stares and doubt.
I picked up my luggage and everything was in its proper place as I had left it. I said goodbye to the lady whom I had sat next to on the plane, even though I didn’t really care for her. It’s not often that I don’t like people, but I was in a bad mood to begin with. The plane reeked of BO and everyone kept coughing, I hadn’t slept in almost two days, and she was taking up half of my seat. She kept pushing me into my arm rest suffocating me with her large bottom and I kept inching away from her sweat and stench that oozed out of her.
I easily passed through security, the only one to not have my luggage checked unfairly due to my white skin and a slight wink. I walked out of the airport and into a gust of hot, and I meant hot, stench air. It was like walking into an oven. Autumn and Scott, the couple I am living with for two months who run the non-profit organization, were right there waiting for me. Such a relief!
Since they don’t have a car, we had to take a taxi back to their house. The first taxi driver tried to charge us 10,000xfa ($20) and Autumn said no, that is not a fair price. He insisted and she replied, you are only charging us that because we are white, to which he replied, “Yes, so you have money.. What’s it to you?” We moved on to the next taxi driver, and he only charged us 7,000xfa. It really should have only been 3,000xfa ($6) but we took it since it was 3am and we all wanted to get home. The drive was short, and we passed palm trees, dirty peach colored buildings, and oil compounds. I couldn’t see much in the dark, but I knew it was like no where I had been before.
When we got back, we talked for a little while. They explained many things to me such as the African tribes and the difference between them such as the Fongs and the Boobis. I also learned about some weird disease to be cautious of in which tiny, tiny eggs are transferred onto your skin by the wild street animals (here there are many dogs, cats, chickens and roosters roaming) or by the legs of a fly that lands upon your skin or planted on your hanging laundry. Apparently, giant maggots develop under your skin and pop their heads out, tunneling giant sores into your flesh and then retracting back into your body. They’re also about 4 times the size of a normal bug and just keep growing and multiplying. Yup.
I went to bed eventually around 4am, exhausted from no sleep and with a minor cough/ sore throat. I woke up the next afternoon around 3pm.
In the afternoon, we went grocery shopping at a few places, and I of course received many stares as one of the few white girls on the whole island. We passed markets where some were selling shoes while others gave pedicures under an umbrella in the dirt field for a few thousand cefas.
We delivered everything back home after a few trips and I was still exhausted. As Autumn and Scott went to teach their English classes in the town, I read my internship orientation packets and fell into another sleep.
When I awoke, Autumn was decked in a red sparkly dress and it was 9:20pm, almost time to head out again. We were going to a bar called “Sisters” which is run by a few Asian relatives. It was outside with a shack overhead and lights decking the place. “Merry Christmas” was even graffitied on the walls. We met a few oil men from Venezuela, France, Great Britain, and two from the states (Texas and Alabama). We talked until the bar closed about the peculiarities of Africa as they blew on their modern breathalizers. Apparently the oil companies aren’t as bad as they are made out to be in America– they fund many of the environmental groups here in Malabo and give locals jobs or get involved in the community. Stray dogs wandered in and out, and I continuously sprayed bug repellant as the Mosquitos attacked me. They picked up our tab and I thanked them, but they brushed it off. Money is nothing to them– they are extremely wealthy by any global standard as they are financial or mathematical engineers on the oil rigs making hundreds of thousands while all expenses are paid. They are kind though, knowing that money is not everything, but it’d still extremely interesting to see such a stark contrast even here in Africa. The wealth gap seems to be a growing global epidemic, furthering through globalization. Especially here, alongside the dirt poor of a third world country where children run barefoot down the dirt roads and women sit in plastic chairs selling a chicken skewer for 40 cents, these men found a bar to get drunk in and played with their breathalizer, escapiping from the world right outside.
I learned another interesting thing tonight which I may take on to photograph. My photography project is going to be difficult as they are resistant to cameras, but in this situation it may never work… There is an illegal meat market. Apparently, there are baby monkeys, baby armadillos, the local giant lizard, and many other endangered or protected species hanging for sale. Sometimes even bigger game such as orangutans that are killed in the rainforest in the south of the island… But the worst part? They torch them to death in the market. They break their legs and step on their tales so they can’t escape and actually torch them to death right in front of you for a “fresher” meat. The Venezuelan expat described the baby monkey hands and baby monkeys explaining that they looked exactly like human hands– “the same, they are perfecto” as he shook his head in shame.
I’m horrified and not sure how I will react when I see this myself. Autumn said the stench of burning flesh turned her vegetarian for awhile. I hope that I can suck it up enough to document this and even bribe them with a little money to let me take photos of their illegal trade. The monkeys go for about $80– a delicacy here in Africa for the rich, and a job for the poor to keep them hunting. There is no law enforcement. Maybe if more awareness was brought, the rich would feel shamed in being a part of this act and the demand for the illegal meat, and hence torture, would cease. Wishful thinking but I’ll begin an attempt soon in documenting.
Tomorrow I will be having a meeting with Autumn to discuses my plans for my stay, but basically my job is to become assimilated with the culture, blend in as best I can, and photograph. I may try to work in the UN office here or at a school, which would give more to this experience. It’s nice not to have so much to do in my busy life. Everything is so simple here. The wifi barely works so I will probably leave this loading over night for it to upload, if it even does. Water only comes during daylight hours and it is only cold water, so at night you have to scoop water from a basin and wash your face/ teeth with a cup of water. People shower maybe once a week at most. It’s kind of a grungy/roughin it/ camping lifestyle for the next three months. Needless to say, laundry is hand washed and hung. Being barefoot is common 80% of the time. Socializing is not through media but rather talking to passerbys in the street or market. And you get your clean drinking water from a pump on a gallon of water. It’s definitely different, but at least it’s one of the safer African countries.
I’ve learned that a smile is universal and can get you a long way.