Sunday, June 28, 2009

Goat or Sheep

Liz came with me on a PMI trip week before last, and I invented two new games to pass all the time we spent crammed in the front seat of the hospital van trying not to get thrown around every time we hit a bump.

The first game is called "Goat or Sheep". Oddly, the goats and the sheep in Gabon look almost exactly the same. Liz inquired about this one weekend while we were visiting a nearby lake, and a villager explained that the sheep have tails that hang down, while the goats have tails that stick up in the air. Now, as we pass by villages and the animals scurry to get out of road, we yell "Goat!" or "Sheep!" It's more challenging than you would think.

The second game doesn't have a name, but it goes something like this: We survey the scene for things which, at one time, would have seemed completely bizarre to us, but which are now perfectly normal, mundane, even. I describe the situation, and I then add the word, "Check" to the end. For example: "Dude walking down road holding giant machete? Check." Or perhaps "Little kid holding pole on his shoulders with bunch of fish hanging off the end? Check." Or even, "Giant python, antelope and monkey displayed on roadside stand? Check."

These games mark what the passage of time has done to us here in Gabon, how even the strangest situations now seem commonplace, and how yet, somewhere in our consciousness we know that at one time we might as well have been on another planet while witnessing these scenes. At the same time, just when I begin to think I have seen everything I can see that would ever shock me, something new comes out of the clear blue sky to remind me that I am not living in the same world in which I was raised.

Just last week, for instance, I was on morning rounds in the Pediatrie, lulled into the monotony of the daily routine, halfway listening to one of the physicians talking to a patient about something, when I heard a thwacking noise coming from the corner of the room. Now, keep in mind that there are three beds to a room, and that everyone was sitting quietly on their beds, within my sight. Within seconds, I registered that the thwacking noise was coming from a plastic bag on the bookshelf in the corner. As there are certain situations in which I don't feel the need to hide my surprise here, I felt that a live animal in the plastic bag of an inpatient's room was indeed in such a category, and I exclaimed "What IS that?!?!" Everyone started laughing, and I learned that it was a fish that had just been purchased, and which, evidently, had not quite yet finished dying. Several minutes went by, and as the physician worked his way around the room examining the other patients, I ended up right in front of that same bookshelf. And then, nearly five minutes after the initial thrashing of the fish, it suddenly came to life again, right behind my head, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. These, my friends, are the kinds of things that will never happen on rounds-as-usual in the U.S. Live fish trying to escape from bag in corner of hospital room? Check.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Current Events

For those of you who are not well-versed in Gabonese political history (or who are wishing that I had already posted a map of Africa on this blog so you could figure out where the country is actually located), Gabon has had the same president for the past 40 years now: Omar Bongo surpassed Fidel Castro last year to become the longest ruling president of any country. Bongo has actually been around since Lyndon Johnson was in office, which is kind of trippy when you think about it.

President Bongo has been sick in a hospital in Barcelona, Spain, for the past few weeks, and this morning it was widely reported that he died last night. For some reason, however, the Gabonese press and those who control it felt the need to cover this up; As if we don't have the internet, people! In fact, a Gabonese minister reported that he personally, along with 5 other ministers, saw the president alive this morning. (Insert Liz picturing, out loud, all these ministers standing around Bongo's hospital bed poking him to see if they could ilicit a response.) Other reports said he was planning to come back to the capital tomorrow. Finally, some time this afternoon, the Gabonese press admitted what we all already knew: Bongo is, in fact, deceased. I am mildly relieved that they didn't attempt to keep up this charade for much longer, but I think the attempted cover-up reflects how much fear there is here about the potential consequences of a power vacuum.

There seems to be some debate about who will succeed Bongo. Evidently the military favors one of his sons to take his place, but there is some chatter that France doesn't agree. Clearly there are many puppets on many strings in this whole charade. In the meantime, however, the country has just closed its borders, and as of tonight there is an 8PM curfew. This means that my wild nightlife here is clearly going to be stifled for awhile.

I would just like to take a moment to point out the extreme unlikeliness that I would choose one of the most peaceful, stable countries in Africa to go live in for three months, right at the moment when its president of 40 years passes away with no clear successor.....But wait, I beat the odds and I DID do that!

I actually feel very safe here at the Schweitzer Hospital. Furthermore, someone told us today that if anything were to happen (i.e., if the country were to descend into some kind of civil unrest) that the French military would send some troops down here from the capital to protect us. (Prompting Liz to comment that the French have never been known for their military prowess....) Seriously, though, the chickens and the roosters here don't seem to have noticed the curfew, nor the border lockdown, and neither have I.

I usually cut straight to the worst case scenario, because I figure that once you have gone there in your mind, nothing can phase you. In my worst case scenario today, we get stuck on the hospital compound, and when our food supply runs out, we get to eat the roosters that won't stop crowing outside our window. It turns out, the worst case scenario is REALLY not that bad....

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

All-Star Bev

A word on the morning commute....But first, I should mention that Liz and I started taking Snake Alley a mere 4 or 5 days after arriving here. Yes, Snake Alley is, in fact, the shortcut across the hospital grounds that is allegedly home to small, deadly, green snakes just waiting to eat American medical students. We were eventually informed by multiple Gabonese people that this path is frequented by enough humans to be snake-free. It is hard to tell whether that whole story about the path being snake-infested was simply the Europeans here freaking out a bit, but ultimately I was very tired one afternoon after a trip with the PMI and Maman Sophie insisted that this path was safe. From that time on, Liz and I have been using it regularly, and we have informally dubbed it as mentioned above. We do have some limitations, however, and we avoid Snake Alley at night. To paint a picture of how routine our lives are here, one morning Liz and I stepped outside to walk to the cafeteria and both exclaimed, basically at the same time, "They mowed Snake Alley!" The less foliage on that path the better because we haven't totally let our guard down about the snakes and it is therefore good to be able to see where you are putting your feet.

Getting back to the commute....It never gets old how much stuff I see while walking the paths around the hospital. Not long ago, I paused on Snake Alley to allow a hen and her little brood (?) of chicks to cross the path in front of me. I keep at least one eye trained on the ground at all times, not only to look out for snakes, but also because one has to be very careful to step over the parades of ants crossing the path. They really do follow one another, in an unbelievably organized fashion, and you do NOT want to be the person to cause them to become lost and confused; This results in ants, ants, everywhere.

One morning during my third week here, I was sitting in the PMI office with Marie-Benoitte when she suddenly exclaimed "A millipede!" I looked at the sidewalk just outside and saw a giant black THING moving along the ledge. I hopped up to go take a closer look, but didn't get very far before she screamed "Don't touch it!!!" Now, do not ask me what made her think I was even contemplating touching a millipede, but when I asked her why not, she told me that they are extremely deadly when they bite you and that there is no cure. Naturally, this made me even more curious, so I went to the doorway to watch this thing, which actually looked like a train with rolling wheels for feet. Even more exciting than the mere presence of a bug so enormous it might as well have been an animal was the reaction of all the passersby. Gabonese natives on their own morning commutes exclaimed "Millepatte!" and swerved to avoid it. Better yet, it wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. It wove in and out of the brush next to the sidewalk and crossed the dirt path twice before deciding to come back again. We finally hopped into the van to head out into a village and Hortense cried "Oh! It's still there!" I turned around and noted that it was actually still visible 10 feet away through the back window of the van. I then asked Hortense in a low, dramatic voice if she knew anyone who had been killed tragically by a millipede and she responded that no, they were not really that dangerous. I said, "Really, not even if they bite you like this?" I gave her a little pinch on the leg, and she screamed. To this day, I don't really know why Marie-Benoitte thinks the millipedes here can kill you, but I am finding that it's hard to get the real skinny on a lot of the dangers here (Case in Point: Snake Alley.)

Just when I start to think the ant trails are getting commonplace, something new pops up. Several days ago, I was on a jog and a CHIMPANZEE walked in front of me. I teetered between wanting to pet it and wondering if it had rabies, because it was sort of just meandering aimlessly across the road. I suddenly had this flashback to high school, when my dad drove me to school in the mornings on his way to work. We had a pretty spectacular commute, driving through the hills of Marin, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and into the city of San Francisco. The only thing we ever saw that came close to an animal, however, was this lady with HUGE hair and giant sunglasses, driving a red convertible (always with the top down), with a vanity plate that read "All (STAR) Bev". She was there nearly every morning, passing us at the same spot on the bridge, and just like with the millipede, I felt compelled to look at her until she was gone from sight. There are some things on my morning commute that I will just never get used to, no matter how many times they appear.....