Sunday, March 9, 2014

Letters from the Equator, 11 - Into Africa, with difficulty...

 The Great Globe Girdling Pirhana-Yellowtail-Batak Pig­-Mulligatawny Soup-Smoked Eel Protein Continuum                                                                                                               

          Libreville, GabonI came to what used to be called French Equatorial Africa primarily to ride a train through childhood dreams: dense jungle, savanna, primordial heat, and  the promise of exotic animals in the place that spawned them.
       The Chemin de Fer Transgabonais, completed in 1986 and cited as Gabon's signal achievement, ran east along the equator, toward the Congo border. The railroad had taken 12 years to complete and cost $4 billion, a lot of money for a line extending only about 400 miles. My map showed it passing through the town of Oyan, smack on the equator, and I hoped to get that far and then take the train back to Libreville or dip down, if possible, to Lamborene, on the Ogooue River, where Albert Schweitzer had established his clinic in the early years of the century.                       
      A French civil engineer I had met on the plane over the Sahara had advised against this. The train was extremely pas propre (dirty), he said, and always late. It was going to take at least a day to get there, maybe more. As things turned out, because the Transgabonais left before I got there - the Frenchmen hadn't said anything about early departures - and before a lot of Gabonese got there, too, judging by the number of people standing on the platform, in a foul mood.
             I decided to rent a car in Libreville. I found two local agencies, but they had no cars. The Avis agent had no cars. Driving in the rainy season was an arduous task, anyway, she said. Why didn't I take a "bush taxi?" It was several hard hours on a messy road to Lamborene, and several hours back the next day, or the day after. It didn't really matter; this was Gabon.
       The Gabonese drove like Frenchmen, regardless of the surface, but that wasn't the real problem. I had come to ride the jungle train and found it gone, and a squalid mess where there was supposed to be a station. The best way to travel, it turned out, was neither the train nor the highway, but the rivers, and I didn't have the time for that, Gabon not being used to sightseers. They tend to get in the way of extraction of timber and oil, its chief concerns. "I think you are the only tourist in Gabon," said another Frenchman, one of the extractors.                                                             
       Foreigners other than myself were all there on business; they and their Gabonese contacts made up a gimlet-eyed collection in the hotel lounge, drinking Castel beer and looking for opportunity. The man in the double-breasted suit with two young flankers similarly attired was either a gangster, or Gabon's chief supplier of some commodity like toothpaste. It was impossible to tell which. I had the feeling I had been set down in an equatorial, cameo Houston, the myriad commercial plays crowding other aspects of life.
      Craven financial endeavors affected the mood of the population, even when most of it wasn't prospering, judging from the looks of the place. The nightlife reflected a preoccupation with things more sybaritic than social. The clubs had names like Black Moon, Vertigo, and Midnight Express and were full of men talking loudly.                                              
      Gabon had been disappointing westerners since 1472, when the Portuguese arrived and discovered that the Komo River on which Libreville now sits led nowhere. ("Gabao" is Portuguese for hooded cloak, not reassuring.) Dutch, French, and British traders came after ivory and slaves, the latter profoundly influencing not just the interior of west Africa but also coastal settlements like this one, whose people became dependent upon slave labor and lost both their own skills and tribal cohesion.
      Today the country has about a million citizens, divided among four major tribal groups. The per capita income is twice that of most sub-Saharan African nations, despite poor management , and inflation. The argument could be made that.oil had affected the country as slavery once did, inspiring grandiose schemes like the Palace of Conferences and Libreville's other lunar public buildings like the Transgabonais railway, and the palace of the president, His Excellency El Hadj Omar Bongo, a convert to Islam who spent $800 million on such things as Corinthian columns and Italian marble facing for the totalitarian pile on the Boulevard de L'Independance.
       This palace resembled a hyperthyroid Holiday Inn. I tried to visit it, without success. The guards forbade me to photograph it, but then who would want to? Bongo doesn't care for scrutiny or political opposition; he may be the shortest maximum leader in the world. had read that the word "pigmy" was forbidden, too, but was afraid to ask.                                             
       His countrymen's basic skills languish, the roads go further to pot, but there's always oil revenue. Gabon has one of the greatest disparities between a few rich and many poor of any country on earth. The statistic that lodged in my mind was that Gabon consumes more champagne per capita than any country on earth, while the men I saw drinking in the little bars near the Marche du Mont-Bouet were consuming beer, not Moet.
      I had come to the market on Sunday to see the produce: huge bunches of bananas , bright medleys of fruits and vegetables spread on blankets, piles of big manioc leaves and bound sugarcane, displays of dried fish that surpassed those I had seen in Sumatra, with smoked eels curled and stacked, and huge skates' heads piled in baskets.
    The durables, however, were tawdry - pocket knives that threatened to fall apart when opened, "locks" that didn't. So-called native jewelry included "snakeskin" bracelets that were really contact paper on metal loops. People spoke when spoken to, but there was an edge to the greetings. I didn't see another foreigner in two hours of wandering there and decided it wasn't xenophobia I was witnessing. Thurston Clark had found the Gabonese sullen, adding, "I had never seen Africans so tightly wound."
      I watched two cab drivers involved in a minor accident scream at one another for ten minutes, not machismo, real anger. I asked permission before taking photographs, but that wasn't always enough. "A real savage, eh," shouted a woman, about me, and she wasn't joking. I put the camera away, thinking that though photography was wonderful, it could sometimes get in the way of life - in this case mine.                                           
      I was tempted to blame the French. They exploited the country at the turn of the century, taking timber and other resources and leaving precious few amenities behind. Independence didn't come until 1960. Gabon seemed to embody the worst of both France and Africa -- arrogance, inefficiency, a love of the bureaucratic. Then I heard children singing a hymn in French in a little church off the Rue Batavia, and took note of the boulangeries and epiceries, and the bakeries. Libreville had the best bread of any stop on the equator.
     Gabon produced the greatest volume of sweat in the shortest time of any equatorial country. Even my so far water-repellent money belt was breached. I had about run out of steam, having traveled in three weeks 35,604 miles by air and crossed the equator eight times. 
      Linguistically, I had moved from Portuguese to Spanish to Kiribati, to Indonesian, English, and now French. Common botanical threads ran through the cultures: papaya near the Rio Negro, corn and beans in the Andes, tomatoes and coconut toddy on Tarawa, palm oil in Sumatra, cut flowers in Singapore, bananas in Gabon. I had been privy to the great globe-girdling,   armadillo-shrimp-yellowtail-Batak    pig-Mulligatawny soup-smoked eel protein continuum. I fondly remembered Nestor, Mangauea, Frans and many others, and felt I had known them in some other life, not just days or weeks ago.
       A diminishing time line, a sentimental jet trail, stretched out behind me. The manioc of Brazil had appeared again in Gabon; the seeds of the rubber tree that provided Manaus an opera house had been smuggled out in the late nineteenth century to Malaysia, where they contributed significantly to the commercial success of Singapore. The Japanese martial triumph on Kiribati had been repeated at the tip of Malaysia, when the Japanese took Singapore in World War II, and now they were gone from both places. The absence of real democracy, I was sad to conclude, was missing from about half the equator I had seen.                                                    
      I looked west from Port Mole, in Libreville, where boats set out  daily for Pointe-Denis. Beyond it lay the Atlantic Ocean, waves rolling in under equatorial aegis. Beyond the horizon lay something known as the Romanche Fracture Zone, Big Foot tracks at the bottom of the ocean, then a trough 26,000 feet deep, and finally the Ceara Abyssal Plain before the South American continental shelf rose to meet the mouth of the Amazon. In another geological time, before that continent split off from Africa, the Amazon touched this shore and, according to theory, ran in the opposite direction. It drained not South America, but what is now west Africa.
      For weeks I had been carrying around the $10 worth of Brazilian reals that no bank, anywhere, would exchange for local currency. I put them into an envelope before I left for home, addressed it to George on the River Ariau, went to the Libreville bureau du poste and sent it, sun-wise, back into the heart of Amazonia.                            
(The first Letter was posted on Dec. 21, 2013, in the archive, right, and 2 and 3 in  Feb. The rest are in sequence.) 
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