Last night, I was trying to explain what bagels are… and I felt SO AMERICAN.
“You know… hard bread with the hole in the center. It’s not a donut… but it’s like the shape of a donut… It’s a … (searching for the words) a…a… a bagel.”
“OH! I think maybe I have seen! One time!”
“No, never seen…”
“Yes, yes I have seen one time… I think!”
So, one person at this table thinks they have seen a bagel, one time… I was trying REALLY hard to not laugh but I couldn’t help it. It struck me as funny and I was giggling out loud. We come from such different worlds, quite obviously, but a bagel was really what was separating us at that point.
“You take eggs in the morning?!” (I think it’s really cute when they use the word “take” instead of the proper verb.)
“Yes eggs… with bacon or sausage or ham… and some toast.”
“QUE?!?! That is crazy! … We don’t eat breakfast in Spain… Only some coffee, maybe take some milk, maybe a little snack. Then around noon we take a break from work, have wine in the square with some tapas, and then… we go to lunch.”
I was sitting at dinner last night with my friends who work for the Spanish embassy, Adriano and Dianis, and we were on the subject of breakfast, clearly. We were waiting for quite some time for our pollo y pescado at a local African-style restaurant in the center of the city. Sitting outside with a make-shift roof over our heads and wooden carvings adorned on the walls, we talked freely, and in English. I’m usually struggling to keep up with their Spanish, especially when they talk very fast in their Southern dialects. But last night, they played nice and tried hard to speak in English. I appreciated it.
They couldn’t believe that Americans eat such a large breakfast, at least in comparison to their customary first meal. I described French toast with fruit and whipped cream on top, omelets with vegetable fillings, breakfast meats, juices, smoothies, breakfast sandwiches, and everything that you can imagine on a breakfast menu. Their minds were BLOWN!!!! They could not comprehend it. I on the other hand had experienced this polar vortex in the breakfast world, as I was deprived from bacon and eggs for quite a few months while living in Italy. I told them that one morning when we are hung-over again I will make them an American-style breakfast. They were really happy to hear that!
Finally, our food arrived accompanied by french fries and grilled plantains, and there wasn’t much talking after that… at least until it was all gone. I was given a half of a giant chicken that we joked was probably beheaded in the kitchen right then and there, and they were given a full, giant cooked fish. For such large meals, sides, and drinks, we only paid about $8 each! And it was delicious!
I haven’t written in about a week and I’ve been neglecting catching up on here… I keep putting it off because I know I have SO much to say and writing is tedious, especially when you’re busy. Yes, busy! Since I have friends now, I am always out doing things. I’ve been very independent in my endeavors and my days are always filled with something new… even if it’s just walking around the city and popping in and out of the African shops or checking the fruit stands.
Last week, I played tennis with Jean-Michelle from France and Hisham from Morocco a few times. The last time we played, Hisham and I beat Jean-Michelle and the other trainer in a game of 7 matches! We just barely won, but I was prided in the fact that I came to another country able to play a sport enough to hang with three grown men, two of which are trainers, let alone beat them! Let’s hear it for the girls!! After tennis, Hisham always cooks for us and he made me try ponga, a type of Asian catfish from Thailand. I don’t usually eat fish, but I wasn’t going to turn down his gracious cooking. I actually really liked it… but even more so, I loved the rich salad of avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, carrots, and more that he tossed together. He is an extremely talented cook!
On Tuesday, I went to a drum circle led by my friend Gaafar, the drummer from Egypt. He picked me up and I helped him collect various sets of bongo drums from his friends’ houses and the pub where he plays on Friday nights, and then we set them up at Pepe’s house. (Pepe is a famous basketball player in Spain.) In the circle, I sat next to a girl named Rosa, who could barely speak English… but we made an attempt to communicate through her English and my broken Spanish, and despite our lack of ability to communicate we both ended of giggling together as we repeatedly beat our drums out of tune together. There were about 15 of us—half Spanish-speaking ranging from Spain, South-America, and Africa, and the other half Americans. There were a variety of cultures and backgrounds in the circle, but no matter all of our differences, we came together for a common beat. I sat in the corner with the bongo wedged between my knees, beating the center and then the corners and then the edges, keeping up with Gaafar’s lead. It was difficult to follow the complex patterns that he taught us with the pauses and remembering the different areas of the drum, alternating hands in a certain way, while my hands were blistering red from the repetitive beating. Eventually, we all had different instruments and parts in coming together on a song. I held a hollowed gord with shells strung around the outside, which I rotated to make a “chh- chh- chh” sound, while another girl hit a “gong- gong- gong” every opposite beat. Everybody had all different types of instruments that were out of the ordinary, and very African in nature. We all sang together—“Ma-ma-ja-nu-ayna, ma-ma-ja-nu-ay-ay-ayna, o ma-ma, ma-ja-nu-ayna- oo ma!” …or something like that.
Valentine’s day was just another day, a Friday to be exact, but of course didn’t feel like anything special… People don’t really celebrate San Valentin here. I went to get a local sandwich from down the street for lunch with Autumn’s husband Scott. These bocadillas are DELICIOUS– made of shaved, juicy kebab meat, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, french fries IN the sandwich, picante (which is VERY spicy) and something like mayonnaise. While we were getting kebabs, we started talking to a friend of Autumn and Scott who has a fruit stand in the center of town, next to the stand. I introduced myself, and she welcomed me to Equatorial Guinea. To my surprise, she gave me one of her fresh cacaos, explaining, “Crack it open and lick it!” The taste is much more bitter than chocolate, but with a little milk and sugar I would have my own chocolate bar. This was a far better Valentine’s Day gift than I could have hoped for… Here I was in Africa, given a cacao, the derivative of chocolate, by a woman who doesn’t have much to give.
For dinner, I went to Hisham’s apartment where he had a dinner party for us along with four French girls and a girl from Madrid who were his colleagues. He made ponga again, this time covered in giant shrimps, onions, and mushrooms. They had decorated the table in party hats and favors, candles, and little goofy presents for me and all the other girls! After dinner, we toasted champagne and drank wine while lighting sparklers off the balcony. It definitely didn’t feel like I was in Africa!
Afterwards, we went to the Irish pub and met up with some of my other friends. Later in the night, we broke off to Bahia, a discoteca where many expats go because it is similar in it’s feel to a European club. Hisham and Jean-Michelle eventually went home, but I stayed as I was having way too much fun my Spanish friends dancing salsas and chatting on the balcony overlooking the sea. Around 5am, I grabbed Autumn from the dance floor and said goodbye to our friends. Dianis said he would walk us home, and it’s a blessing that we did. As we were walking home, three large men started to follow us, cat-calling all along the way. This is a pretty typical scenario, especially at night, but they were becoming aggressive and getting closer. Autumn was very drunk and after living here for 9 months, she was sick of the disrespect… So she turned around and screamed at them in Spanish, waving her arms all around and yelling to the point where no one even knew what she was saying. I think when you’re drinking and you’ve been here for awhile, maybe you forget that you’re not in America… and you just can’t do that. We should have just walked away, but now these men were angry and also unpredictable—they were clearly Fong. Africans from the Fong tribe are very aggressive and violent, and they are known as the dominant tribe as they have taken over West Africa through brutality and force. For some reason, she wanted to stay there and fight with them, asking us to leave her alone, but clearly we couldn’t do such a thing. Dianis kept an eye on the situation while I ran and got her sleeping husband from our apartment to try to calm her down and rationalize the situation with her, while a few other men on the street (who were clearly of the Boobi tribe) calmed down the very aggressive men who had a gun and were not going to be put up with being talked to like that by a white woman. A local guy even called the police, which would have only made the situation worse as they would have just asked for bribes or fined everyone. The entire scenario was largely unnecessary, but it goes to show you can’t forget where you are, and you can’t forget that a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g can happen here. There are no rules… and sometimes no rationality.
The next day, I was exhausted from not just drinking but the entire ordeal that had lasted until about 6:30am. Dianis texted me and asked if I wanted to go the pool around 2pm, and so I groggily got myself together and met him, Adriano, and Maria near my house. As we were walking towards the Presidential pool, we noticed there was a massive brigade of police with machine guns on cars and officers in shields patrolling the street. As we got closer to the palace, we realized it was only for a wedding! We knew it must have been for someone extremely important, as the President was definitely in attendance. (We later found out it was for the President’s son.) All along the red carpet leading to the church next to the palace, Guineans in white robes sang while police guarded and patrolled the surroundings. We quickly scurried through, making our way to the pool. We swam for a little, and then afterwards went to a café for some cappuccinos and ice cream. By then, it was time for a rest. I do love siesta.
That night we went to a BBQ that a friend, José, had invited us too. He is from Spain but has lived here for 5 years and owns a company here. The BBQ was at a compound and hosted by the company—in the employers’ contracts, they are promised a BBQ twice a month… of course along with the other amenities on the compound, such as complimentary apartments and cars. The compound itself was beautiful, granite walls and a large pool, and a dozen shiny cars lining the border of the gated community on the outskirts of the town. It’s like somebody planted a mini-resort in the middle of Africa, because once you walk back outside the gates, you’re reminded of the filth and poverty of the country. We had some beers and some Spanish sausages, and I sat with Rosa, whom I had met from the drum circle. Rosa is quiet, and I am now too– at least more than I am with my friends at home… especially this night because I couldn’t understand much as the conversations were incomprehensible at the speed of their tongues. Rosa and I sat together for the most of the night practicing my Spanish and her English. It really forced me to use my Spanish knowledge and try to speak, since we couldn’t communicate much else. I felt comforted in knowing I’ve made a girl friend– she even texted me later and called me her American best friend! So charming. We then went to Bahia to dance at the club on the edge of the coast. My boss was there with his Portuguese friends and we all hung out for the rest of the night. When we got in the car to go home, Adriano and Jose actually tried to kidnap me to go swimming! They are too much fun.
On Sunday, Jean-Michelle and Hisham brought me to Sipopo beach in the afternoon. It was breath-taking and so necessary to get out of the city for awhile. As we drove alongside the coast, I was entranced by the nature we were surrounded by– so much greenery, birds circling tree tops against the backdrop of a foggy mountain, turquoise waters, piglets and wild cows, and cliffs upon cliffs. We went exploring along the coast, stopping in various places to take pictures and check out the area. The beach was enjoyable, and Hisham had brought tons of fresh fruit for the day. The water is warm, the air is cool, and the beach is crowded with tons of local Africans who are playfully enjoying their Sunday afternoons.
This week hasn’t been too exciting, yet… at least besides for my work. I played tennis with Hisham and Jean-Michelle on Monday, and yesterday Dianis and I got coffee, and then ice cream while walking around the city to practice my Spanish. He’s a real down to earth guy from the Canary Islands who loves The Beatles and the Simpsons, and he’s helped my Spanish improve drastically by simply forcing me to try. He’s totally my type of friend– well-traveled and intellectual and super mellow yet kind, although I wish I had met him in his Spanish hippie glory days when he had rastas (dreadlocks). I really appreciate his friendship!
I started my job at the UNDP (United Nations Development Project) last week! My dream job has always been to work for the UN. Since it’s such a small office, I actually get to handle important things, whereas if I were to intern somewhere else, I would probably be making copies and delivering coffee. Here I’m working directly with the UN Representative, Leo Heileman, and other members of the office as a Coordinator. I’ve already created a Code of Conduct for the Country Team (the head representatives of all organizations such as UNICEF, UNDEP, FAO, etc. I’m in the middle of working on UNDAF results reports and organizing them into documents for the government organizations to complete, translating them into Spanish and such, to check on the progress of programs working towards the MDGs (Millenium Development Goals). I also attend UNCT Meetings with all the head representatives from the organizations. I’ve also created charts of statistics for working conditions in the surrounding countries such as Gabon, Cameroon, and Congo to compare them to EG’s status. They were then used in a presentation by the Chief Economist in front of the government officials!!! The most exciting part??? I have an official email: firstname.lastname@example.org 🙂
I haven’t been able to take pictures much, and it kills me a little bit inside every time I see a perfect set up for a photo and can’t take one. I’m really trying to figure out the boundaries of taking photos here, but the risks don’t seem worth the rewards. The government is SO strict about photos, and I really don’t feel like being fined or having my camera taken or thrown in a jail for a shot, or even just being approach by the intense, hard-faced, machine-gun carrying police. It’s pretty serious and intimidating… And even more so the people in general are very apprehensive of photos because they live in fear and are unaccustomed to modern technology. There aren’t even newspapers or magazines of any sort here, and if there face were to be associated with the wrong thing…… I understand their dilemma completely so I haven’t pushed it. But it’s definitely strange not being able to do what comes natural to me as freely as I have before. It’s another liberty I’ve taken for granted. But it’s also giving me more time to focus on other things, like my job at the UNDP, making friends, and speaking Spanish!
Quiero hablar en español perfectos despues de dos meses aquí… Espero que si practico todos los días pienso que puedo hablarlo perfectamente y con fluidez!
[I want to speak Spanish perfectly after two months here… I hope that if I practice every day, I think that I will be ably to speak perfectly and fluidly!]
I’m really trying to practice my spanish. Every night I read a little of a Spanish text book, my entire phone is switched to spanish, I text every day in Spanish, in the office I have to speak in Spanish, and I try to think in Spanish in my head. He tratando mucho!!! (I’m trying a lot!!!)
Tomorrow’s my birthday and I’m excited to have made friends to spend it with. Hisham is cooking a big dinner at his house for all my friends and even ordered a chocolate cake! I’m telling you, these guys are above and beyond sweet to me!! I’m really excited… It will be a good birthday, especially because I had absolutely no expectations for even acknowledging it.
I’ll leave you with this before I fall asleep. — Dianis sent me this video after learning about my love for Radiohead and my project with the homeless… So relevant and beautiful. And again, I was brought together in connection with others through sharing this project. Despite our cultures and backgrounds and differences, there’s always something beautiful and mutual to connect upon, for everyone, which is the most basic lesson of that project and most important thing I’ve learned in life. We all have something in common… Even if it’s not a bagel.
Fun Experience of the Day: There’s a tarantula in the shower!