WARNING: Images of dead animals
I type this at a crooked table drinking lukewarm lager, with stale cigarette smoke tangling on a thick ocean breeze as it sticks to my face (thanks humidity), and a round, balding white man — Irish? from his accent — sits directly in front of me, his hand fondling the exposed lower back of a Gabonese girl who sits beside him. She can’t be older than 16 or 17.
This is just another evening, I’ve realized, here in Gabon.
From the moment I stepped off the plane — and I don’t even mean that metaphorically, I mean literally when a random airport police officer grabbed my arm to take me to a back room where he demanded a bribe on behalf of me not speaking French — this country has been one of the most challenging, difficult, fascinating, and foreboding places I have ever been.
I find myself swinging like a heavy pendulum between accepting the adventure of being here and desperately, irrevocably, wishing — in the most childish sense — that I could click my heels and go home to the soft beaches of Tofo. After I got past the bribe and the soreness from where Mr Airport grabbed my arm, I assumed I was beyond the chaos. But again, to use a cliche: it was only beginning.
My assignment was clear, and as I focused on it, I knew that I was accomplishing what had been asked of me to do. But the ever-expanding periphery of Gabon threatened to swallow me at any given moment. From the canoe that took me three hours down the river to the border of the Congo, where I froze while hippos waddled past my tent in the middle of the night, to the highlands where I was coated in the red dust that poured in through the windows of my hotel as I watched soccer with the locals. From to the rainforest where I found myself sitting on a cot in an abandoned colonial nunnery overgrown by thick vines and cobwebs, my eyes fixed on the wolf spider who threatened to come into my bed for a cuddle the second I put out the oil lamp.
All the while, I kept taking notes of the strangeness of this place, trying to get it all down before it disappeared:
standing on the banks of a river when a dugout canoe careened to the shore with a pile of deceased monkeys laying in its basin, their eyelids half shut and pupils fixated on something beyond me, tongues dangling like feathered pink ropes
the edges of the dirt-track roads that strangulate the country are littered with the carcasses of baboons, wild cats, porcupines, pangolins, and boars, hanging “for sale” by their tails from the red-flowering trees
biting ants and scorpions trying to break into my tent again, as they huddle in a sphere around my tent zipper and hum until daybreak. (but they're the least of my worries when squatting at 4 a.m. to pee on the jungle floor and a forest elephant snorts behind a tree, somewhere not too faraway)
on the muddy, still river, I rinsed my face with the warm brown water, as encouraged by my local guide in order to appease the deities who were watching over us before reaching the village
two times we’ve been to this market for lunch, and both times I’ve been served manioc by a woman with a black eye
the Gabonese parrots makes the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard
the avocados here are watery and dense, without flavor at all
If it weren’t for a bag of soft, damp cashews I carried from Mozambique or the three rationed bread rolls I hoarded from the five flights it took me to get here, I would've barely eaten; even the occasional meals of rice were cooked with monkey fat; as I say this, I recognize that my beer (now second) is the sole source of calories I’ll receive for the day. But at least it goes down well.
I realize that all of this maybe sounds harsh. But Gabon is what it is. It’s interesting, intense, and lovely for what it is. But it isn’t for me. Next to Ghana — another West African country no less — I would say that Gabon is the most trying country I’ve ever been. Did I love my work? Yes - absolutely. But do I feel like when I leave here, something will be different inside of me? Also, a little bit, yes. Mostly that my notebook will be full, because even though Gabon has been exceptionally trying, it has definitely at least given me a lot of things to write about.