The overhead speakers were blaring Spanish Christmas music and my senses were overloaded and confused. I absolutely loved the fact that I was in Africa, and Spanish was the official language. The scenery looked like South Tucson, but the people didn’t.
Equatorial Guinea was one of the hand full of countries I was slightly obsessed with, and couldn’t wait to pluck. I place it in the same category as Nauru, Timor Leste, Suriname and Mauritania…just bizarre, off-the-beaten track, random, tiny nations that most Americans have never even heard of. Add in an unexpected official language (they speak Portuguese in Timor Leste and Dutch in Suriname, a South American nation!), and you’ve got me clamoring for a visit. In the case of Equatorial Guinea, this tiny slice of land is the only Spanish-speaking nation in Africa and that itself helped the country stand out among the rest. I mean, it’s so small: just this minuscule cut-out in the enormous continent that is Africa… and they speak Spanish! What happened here? Why had France, Great Britain and Portugal colonized so many African nations—and big countries, too—but Spain had only managed to grab a nibble at Mother Africa. After all, Spain was successful in taking over almost all of South and Central (and even some of North) America for so long—why had they taken such a small and inconsequential bite out of Africa? I mean, why even bother? It’s one of the reasons I love the YouTube Geography Now series—they give you a quick and concise (and fun) overview of the history of every country on earth. Check out Equatorial Guinea’s story here, it’s fascinating:
I didn’t even plan on checking off E.G. on this trip, but by chance discovered that its Malabo Island was a measly 20-minute flight from Douala, Cameroon, where I’d be anyway. The story gets better: I was disappointed that my trip’s routing had me stuck in Douala for more time than I wanted to spend there. I began searching direct flights from DLA to see if could knock out a neighboring country and found the Malabo flights; in fact they fit very nicely right into my Douala stop! It was meant to be. Also, it turned out that I would absolutely hate Douala, so being able to break it up with a day in Malabo would work out perfect. To sweeten the scenario, word is, the visa for EG can be one of the most difficult ones to get…unless you’re American. For whatever reason, Americans get in visa-free; we can just stroll right on in. Sometimes being American can hinder your travel (see my Iran blog); other times, the privilege is amazing!
Se Habla Español
I felt EG’s vibe before I even left the airport, when a young lady approached me at the gate and asked if she could plug her phone into my computer for a charge…she asked in Spanish. And without even flinching, I answered back in Spanish, “Claro que sí.” Finally, I could communicate! I’d spent the last ten days in Arabic and French speaking countries (throw in a couple Eritran and Somalian-speaking nations for good measure), and I’d felt helpless. Now I was back in my zone. My Spanish major, the many nights hosting Coco Loco nightclub in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico and my scores of Latina girlfriends since elementary school had prepared me to converse with anyone in Spanish, at anytime. Estaba listo.
I believe the 20-minute flight was the shortest plane ride I’ve ever taken, and a welcomed break; this was my twelfth flight in ten days! It was my first time flying Cronos, it was nothing special, although I did enjoy the overhead announcements in Spanish.
The Malabo airport was simple, however we rolled by this giant, futuristic, Star Trek-looking structure on the taxi to the terminal. That was Malabo’s new airport, opening soon. It looks like it’s gonna be awesome!
I thought it was weird that there was already a passenger in my cab when I got in the car, but would soon learn that’s just the way they roll in Malabo. I’d share taxis with the strangers the entire stay here. It was 8:30pm by the time I checked in at the Magno Suites (yes, Magno, not Mango), halfway between the airport and the center of town.
Ramblin’ Tip: While I liked the Magno a lot, it was a mile or two from town. If I come again, I will definitely get a spot right downtown. There’s a nice Hilton in Malabo, but it’s right next to the airport and farther from town. Then again, Malabo is probably one of the easiest cities in the world to grab a cab, so you’re okay wherever you stay.
The hotel restaurant was closed, but I was referred to Pizza Place, a block up the road. I ordered a pepperoni pizza to go and while walking back to my hotel, remembered the email alert I’d received from the State Department just four days ago: there was a salmonella outbreak in EG due to some bad pork. Shit. I was too tired and hungry to care. I popped a Unisom, scarfed down all six pieces of my pie, and said a prayer before I crashed out early for the night. I’m writing this blog now, so I lived. Thank you Jesus. I think I’ve almost used up my nine lives.
It was up and out by 7:30, no breakfast. I wanted to eat in town. I should have grabbed a cab into the city but instead chose to walk in hopes to see some cool stuff. That was a mistake, as most of the walk to town was down Airport Road; more of a highway than a street; not much to see. I passed a smashed tarantula on the sidewalk getting eaten by ants and thought, “Oh crap, there are big spiders here.” It made sense—the island was super green. This is why I stay in hotels and not Airbnbs, etc. Ain’t nobody got time for spiders! By the time I arrived in town my feet were aching, but I needed the steps, so whatever.
No Photos, Please
Like Chad and South Sudan, you need a permit to take photos in EG. I didn’t have one, so I was extra cautious about snapping pics here. The only other gringo on my flight last night warned me too: he told me the story of his wife almost getting arrested when she was caught with her camera. So when I came upon Plaza Las Mujures, I asked the custodian there if I could take a picture. He said no problem. Oh goodie!
I’d reached the center of town before the city was up and had a tough time finding food. I’d walked a couple of miles and was Starvin’ Marvin’ and really starting to get concerned at the lack of options. I didn’t want to settle for another gas station meal like I did in Cameroon (I ate a whole box of cookies, a soda and a yogurt drink, inside the gas station), so I hungrily trekked on. I enjoyed seeing all the Spanish signs and hearing people speak as the town began to wake.
I would’ve totally walked right by Delice de France restaurant, if I hadn’t spotted the man outside eating bread and sipping an orange juice. Foooooood! Thank you Jesus! This place looked fantastic—clean, bright and organized—not like the couple of questionable and dark bar/restaurants I’d passed earlier. I wasted no time and ordered a fresh OJ which was squeezed right there. It was amazing. I think I drank it in one long sip before ordering a second.
I’m happy to say I have a new item to add to my “Best Of” list: This place made me the best cappuccino I’ve ever tasted, which was a great surprise. And though I know Spanish, I was surprised when my tortilla francesa was simply a plain omelet, with no tortilla in sight. No complaints though; that juice and café made up for my missing tortilla.
By the time I left the restaurant, the city was alive. It was Christmas Eve, so I think folks were out doing their last minute shopping. I did something I love to do in far-away places: checked out their grocery store. Supermercado Martinez Hermanos was jumping and packed with shoppers. The overhead speakers were blaring Spanish Christmas music and my senses were overloaded and confused. I absolutely loved the fact that I was in Africa, and Spanish was the official language. The scenery looked like South Tucson, but the people didn’t. I remember first getting used to hearing Black folks speak Spanish in the Caribbean and Central America: places like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Panama. But we were no where near The Americas, so hearing and seeing all this Spanish in such a random, tiny, one-off geographical area was just so cool.
Someone on my flight last night mentioned “The Promenade,” but I was having trouble finding it. I finally approached a man on the street and he was kind enough to not just tell me, but walk me over to it, which was about a ten minute on foot from where we met. This was the first resident that I actually held a conversation with—all in Spanish—and it was awesome. (I still got it, Mrs. Houston! [my awesome Spanish teacher]). My new friend, who was middle aged and wore glasses, explained that it was a tough life in EG; that salaries are minuscule, even though the country brings in a ton of money with their oil. When I asked where he worked, he told me he was un funcionaro del estado (a federal worker), which I found surprising—I was surprised he worked for the state and actually shared his honest opinions with me, as EG is known to be country where you’re not allowed to freely criticize the government. Apparently there are spies everywhere.
I stay far, far away form politics on this blog, so I’ll just casually and quickly drop the fact that EG is rated as one of the countries with the worst corruption. My friend Lee Abbamonte has a great blog about his trip here, where he dives into much more of the political stuff. It’s super interesting.
The Boardwalk was a Bored Walk!
The promenade, stretched out alongside the sea, was miles long. I had nice walk along the white tile, as lizards with orange heads and tails scurried out of my way. There wasn’t much to this path. When I heard the word “promenade,” I pictured restaurants, bars, music, street performers and maybe a Ferris wheel. Oh, and maybe humans. But except for a couple guys sweeping up, I didn’t encounter one soul on the walk. It was actually kind of eerie. It looked like a multi-million dollar project, yet no one was out enjoying it. Maybe it was just too hot.
Oh, and it was hot. Stinking hot. And humid. I wondered if the sky here was always that hazy gray, or if it ever cleared up and gave way to blue. As I passed the 10,000 step mark on my FitBit, I could feel a blister on my left foot. I’d walked too much in the last two days. The upcoming road back into town on my iPhone GPS turned out not to be an actual “road,” causing me to have to walk to the very end of the promenade, as it curved into town, turning into a regular sidewalk. I was limping by now. I finally flagged down a passing cab (traffic alongside the promenade was almost nil), and was happy to finally be sitting down. I needed water.
Not a minute after jumping into the taxi–shared by strangers– did we come along a police checkpoint and the driver asked if I had my documents. Thank goodness I did, and the friendly stop was uneventful.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Many countries require you to have your passport on your person at all times. Some countries are okay with a photocopy; others aren’t, so check! I usually take my chances and take just my “passport card” with me when I leave the hotel. If you don’t have one, you should get one (a U.S. thing only I believe.) It’s essentially a passport, but not as bulky and cumbersome as a regular passport book; it’s the size of a driver’s license. I don’t like walking around with my actual passport, should I get mugged or just lose it. There might be a situation where just the passport card isn’t enough—so don’t say I didn’t warn you—but that’s all I take with me when I’m wandering in a foreign country. As always, check the local laws for yourself.
A Day in the Park
I rested for a bit back at my hotel and although I’d have to leave for the airport in two hours—and I was dead tired—I wasn’t ready to call it quits just yet. Malabo’s National Park is one of its main attractions, so I headed back out, hailed a cab (which I was an expert at by now), and headed over to the park…which was closed. Crap. Well it was Christmas Eve.
I strolled down the road and saw the Hilton up ahead so decided I’d pop in for a drink. Unlike the hotels in the some of the countries I saw earlier in the week, with steel gates, metal detectors, big guns, and roadblocks–serious security–the Hilton was wide open for anyone to stroll on in, reminding me of just how safe EG is. There may indeed be corruption, and less freedom of speech and press; but the upside was that this place was super safe. EG also has the best infrastructure in all of Africa for what it’s worth.
Locked Up Abroad
I thought it was odd that the Hilton looked exactly like a penitentiary from the outside. I would have totally mistaken it for a federal prison had the big “Hilton” sign not been displayed on the façade. It was really nice inside though, and I enjoyed another fresh OJ at the bar before heading downstairs to see the pool. As luck would have it, they were still serving Sunday brunch, so I took the liberty, before grabbing another cab back to my place to gather my things and check out.
I liked Malabo a lot. It took me a second to catch the vibe of the place, pero me gustó; I really liked it. The people were nice, the streets are safe, and the Spanish had my brain ignited! It was such a treat to be able to explore such a small and almost unheard of country, where not much made sense to me, but in a good way. Equatorial Guinea is one country I will come back to get more of. I’d like to return to visit more of the island; word is, you need a pass to travel outside of the city. I’d also like to see the mainland and the city of Bata. They are building a brand new capital to replace Malabo called Ciudad de la Paz that I’d like to visit too–will it be the Brasilia of Equatorial Guinea? I’ll let you know.
And now…the REST of the (Insta)Story:
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