Gabon was chill and had a very comfortable vibe. It was the exact opposite of Cameroon, where people looked at me with scowls and suspicion, and finding places to eat was a challenge.
I ain’t mad at Gabon. The West African Francophone nation scored points with me simply because it wasn’t Cameroon. That place was a hole, and I worried the entire region might be similar to it, but could quickly tell by the looks of Libreville’s airport alone, Gabon would be an upgrade.
And it was. I’d arrived on Christmas day and enjoyed the drive to my hotel as we passed big palm trees and beautiful beaches, complete with seaside cafés and kids with balloons. Going from Douala to Libreville felt like going from Detroit to Paris. No offense Detroit.
Aside from the popular sites and the different cultures in foreign countries, I love taking note of the nuances and small idiosyncrasies of the places I go. Here, I couldn’t help but notice the interesting facets of a Le Meridien hotel under transition to a new owner. Weeks ago, I’d received an email from SPG informing me that the hotel I’d reserved in Libreville was no longer “their” hotel, but my reservation would still be honored by the new owners. Upon check-in, I was amused to see all of the amenities in the room had small stickers covering the Le Meridien logos—stickers with the hotel’s new name. I wondered if the stickers were fooling anybody. I was all too familiar with this trickery: I grew up with my dear Grammy trying to serve me diet soft drinks with the word “diet” on the can covered up by those gold Bullock’s department store stickers…as if I wouldn’t notice. And why the hell would Bullock’s luxury department store be selling soda anyway?! Grammy wasn’t fooling anyone. And neither was this hotel!
My trip to Gabon was anything but eventful, but served as a great resting point in my journey; a three-week, 16-country jaunt that would have me traipsing across the continent in sort of a big “U” shape: from Saudi Arabia, over to Sudan and Eritrea, on to Chad and then to West Africa, north to Niger and then to Morocco, where I’d cross the straight of Gibraltar and head home through Madrid. I’d been going, going, going—up and down on fourteen planes to far, countless hotel rooms, road trips and camel rides. The previous day’s 30,000 steps through Equatorial Guinea left me with blisters on both feet. I needed rest. So Gabon was right on time: one of the few stops where I’d actually have two nights, which meant an actual full day in between travel. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
After an hour refresher in the room, I headed out to explore. I was shortly stopped in my tracks by a restaurant called Touti Fruiti, whose menu featured pages and pages of desserts. I chose the Nutella and banana crêpe and a glass of pamplemousse juice and sat there like a spoiled child, shoveling all that sugar into my face. I was already thoroughly disgusted and disappointed in myself before I even left the table, for eating a giant dessert plate for lunch. Time to work off some calories. I headed down the road and into the center of town.
Gabon was chill and had a very comfortable vibe (besides the heat), with plenty of tourists milling about. It was the exact opposite of Cameroon, where people looked at me with scowls and suspicion, and finding places to eat was a challenge. Gabon was clean (for the most part), cosmopolitan, and modern for the region. There were lots of tall buildings, a handful of monuments, and plenty of restaurants and cafés. Once downtown I noticed that the main street was closed off. I inquired and was told a Christmas party was starting at 6PM. It wasn’t even 3pm yet, so I grabbed a cab back to the hotel to rest and come down from my Nutella sugar rush.
After my two and a half hour recharge, I mustered up enough strength to force my raw feet back into town for the festivities. I was pretty much limping by now, doing my best to avoid the sore spots on my feet. I must have looked like a cripple. I was.
Back downtown I joined a little seaside festival called Village de Noel, where the attractions included a few food and drink booths, a collection of giant inflatables (holding too many kids at once), and a DJ on stage, spinning uncensored Lil’ Jon music. It was fun for about four minutes.
Moving on, I headed uptown to see more buildings and monuments as I passed kids playing soccer, finally ending up in between the Hassane II Mosque and the Presidential Palace before hailing a taxi back to the hotel. It was getting dark and my feet felt like they were about to fall off. I sound so old! I enjoyed a hamburger and a Coke by the hotel pool before enjoying my first night of really good sleep.
The next day was my first and only day during this trip where I didn’t have a flight or tour booked. It was the first time I didn’t have to set an alarm, and where I wasn’t waking up every 20 minutes for fear I’d oversleep. It was a morning of good old lounging, watching TV, and then drifting off again. It was paradise.
I walked over to a restaurant I’d passed the previous day, called Sacramento. I had a fantastic chicken shawarma sandwich and a fabulous cappuccino. It was better food and much less expensive than the hotel’s overpriced restaurant. I found it interesting that so many restaurants (and other businesses) in West Africa were owned my the Lebanese. Touti Frouti was a Lebanese joint, as was Sacramento; so was the restaurant across the street. I headed back to the hotel for more chill time and to Google “Lebanese in West Africa.” Fascinating.
The Forest Through the Trees
I could’ve totally spent the entire day in my room, going back and forth between the three English channels on TV and my social media, but I would’ve felt guilty. I wanted to squeeze the most out of Gabon while I was here and probably wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I missed Akanda National Park, which was so close by. So 40 minutes later I found myself trekking through the forest with my guide Fabrice. The 90-minute walk through the trees was cool, and I never thought I’d learn so much about different kinds of sap: Many had different medicinal uses, and some were even flammable, as demonstrated by Fabrice. The walk was cool, though I was hoping to see some wildlife. My Google search of Akanda showed pictures of gorillas and elephants–not sure where they were hiding. I should have planned better; Akanda was huge and for some reason my cabbie just took me to this “nature trail” part of the property. I gather to see the park the right way, a certain amount of planning is involved, with pre-booked guides, etc. I still enjoyed my walk but am curious what the rest of the park looks like.
I had a nice farewell dinner back at the Sacramento restaurant before bed. I had an 11:30AM flight out the next day to Benin. Gabon was the perfect pit stop for a mid-trip recharge. Clean, bright, nice people, good food. Thumbs up, Gabon.
And now…the REST of the (Insta)Story…
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