Saturday, May 2, 2009

You are very, very white....

I realized how little of this world I have actually seen with my own eyes the first (and second, and third) time I saw the Sahara Desert. Liz, the other American medical fellow who will be here in Gabon with me, tapped my shoulder and told me to look out the window of the airplane, and there it was: The vastest expanse of desert I have ever seen looming below, with mile upon mile of what I could only imagine was just sand, punctuated by tiny mountain ranges or perhaps large dunes. It was right then that I understood why reading about something and seeing it in person are two very different things. I can only say that the same has been true about everything I have encountered thus far in Gabon.

Liz and I arrived in Libreville, the Gabonese capital, on Thursday evening. Miraculously, Nils, a Swissman on his way to Lambarene to repair the hospital lab equipment, had found us in the airport in Paris. He arrived at our gate shortly after our realization that between the two of us, neither one really knew exactly how we were to get from the airport to the hotel or when the driver was coming from Lambarene to pick us up the next day. To be honest, we didn't even know that there would be anyone else on our flight headed to the hospital. Fortunately, Nils seemed to know all about us, "les deux filles americaines" and he undoubtedly had no trouble identifying us when he overheard us speaking our mashed potato English. (For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, it is often said in Europe that Americans speak as if they had mashed potatoes in their mouths.)

From that moment on, Nils has pretty much saved our lives on numerous occasions. To be certain, we would have gotten by without him, but he is constantly offering us information about the culture and customs here which we would have otherwise learned more painfully.
Furthermore, Nils is incredibly cool, with a very California surfer appearance and attitude. He comes to Lambarene once a year to make sure all the blood testing equipment is working, but he has already also managed to get my mosquito net up (okay, it wasn't that complicated, but I was tired) and he plans to repair the toaster in the cafeteria, too. Just a few minutes before writing this, I watched him rig some crazy homemade adapter to his computer cord, as he had apparently forgotten his.

We spent Thursday night at the Hotel Tropicana, a place whose name seems to suit it perfectly, as it possesses what can only be described as a kind of tacky charm. Situated right by the airport but on the beach, the hotel exterior looks rather dilapitated and quite uninviting, but then opens into a large, airy lobby constructed of dark, rich wood, separated from the adjacent beach by nothing more than tiles and its roof. The actual guest rooms adjoin each other motel-style, and I tried to forget what I had heard about prostitutes frequenting this hotel with their clients when I first sank into my dippy mattress. That evening, the group of us European-Americans sipped cocktails and Gabonese beer at blue tiled tables under thatched roofs while just beyond the palm trees, waves lapped against the shore. The scene was marred only by the occasional plane taking off overhead. While trying to fall asleep in the sweltering heat of tropical Africa later on that night, I found myself longing for an East Coast winter. I then chastised myself with a reminder that just a month prior I had wished for the exact opposite.

We spent nearly an hour on Friday morning trying to extract ourselves from the city via a very slow road, 10 of us packed into a rather vintage van with the Schweitzer logo printed on the front. The drive out of the capital yesterday was like something out of a bizarre dream that is nothing but a series of illogical events. The only thing missing was that feeling of relief you experience upon awakening with the realization that it didn't need to make sense because it was only a dream. Everything in Libreville seemed to be for sale. At one major intersection, men and women milled past our van trying to sell us Kleenex, hairbands, some of the most random assortments of goods I had ever seen. We passed shops of every kind, with an overwhelming number of them selling furniture, pristine leather sofas sitting out in dirt driveways as if they were being sold at a garage sale. Statuesque women with enormous loads of vegetables and bottled water on their heads sashayed past our car. I wondered why we don't ever carry things on our heads.

There was such a panoply of people and shops and things in Libreville that it was impossible for me to delineate any meaning, and though I saw many things for sale, I never actually witnessed a purchase. Furthermore, the heat in the van began to take its toll; When we were finally bouncing down a seemingly endless, paved road through the jungle, Liz and I both nearly got whiplash trying not to fall asleep.

On the 4-hour drive to the hospital, we stopped several times in small villages to stretch and to buy something to drink, and it was during one of these stops that I saw the most adorable little Gabonese boy. He was holding his father's hand, and though he couldn't have been more than two or three years old, he clutched a bag of something fried in his other hand as if grocery shopping were just an old habit of his. I smiled and gave a little wave, but instead of acknowledging my greeting, he stared at me in shameless wonder, never averting his gaze. I'm almost certain that if he had spoken, it would have been to ask his father, "What IS that?" Ah, my first experience as, not simply a minority, but a tried and true alien species.

Arriving at the Schweitzer hospital compound in Lambarene 4 hours after our departure from Libreville was something of a relief, not only because it meant a reprieve from being jostled around in a sweltering van, but also because the hospital grounds are decidedly more tranquil than the streets of Libreville. We were greeted almost immediately by Le Directeur, Mark and La Directrice, Valerie, both of whom are French. Mark instantly commented on how pale Liz and I were, "Vous etes tres, tres blanches!" Here in Gabon, it seems that there are only black people, and tanned, leathery-skinned white people. Liz and I are neither. We are just pale, pale Americans, though Liz definitely cheated by vacationing in Florida several weeks prior to coming here. That leaves me as the one truly pale American.

On Saturday, Nils, Liz and I walked an hour and fifteen minutes outside the hospital compound to go to a decidedly murky hotel swimming pool, the one body of water here in which we are safely permitted to swim. It was so hot that day that I thought my sunglasses were going to slide right off my face. On our long walk, we passed a number of children playing, but by far my favorite scene was that of a little girl who looked to be about five raising her hand to greet us while calling out "Salut, les blancs!"....Translated as, "Hey there, White People!" Even in that insufferable heat, I could not stop laughing.

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